Featuring over 150 artefacts including real brains, artworks, manuscripts, artefacts, videos and photography,Brains: The Mind as Matter follows the long quest to manipulate and decipher the most unique and mysterious of human organs, whose secrets continue to confound and inspire.
As the intro to the exhibition says, the works displayed include real brains. Complete brains, bits of brains, brains that have been freeze-dried, dessicated or galvanized. The slices of Albert Einstein's brain seem to gather much attention from the press and visitors alike. I doubt the fascination would have filled its original owner with euphoria. He had indeed expressed the wish to be cremated intact.
The remains of the physicist are in awkward company. They are shown next to a phial of tissue allegedly coming from William Burke's brain. With his accomplice William Hare, Burke made a living from murdering poor people and selling their bodies to Dr Knox's anatomy school. He was hung on 28 January 1829. Ironically, Burke's body was dissected, exhibited to the public in the Edinburgh University Museum and souvenirs were made and sold from his skin.
Other brains on show includes the one of suffragette Helen H Gardener, the left hemisphere of mathematician Charles Babbage's brain, and the segment of a suicide victim, with a bullet lodged in it. This one came with a text explaining that bullet wasn't "the fatal one".
Unlike previous exhibitions such as Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life,High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture or War and Medicine, Brains: The Mind as Matter has a seemingly very specific, very narrow focus: the brain. Not even the mind, just the physical organ. Yet, the exhibition branches out into issues of ethics, history, and reminds us that while some of the moments in the history of neuroscience are glorious, others are downright disgraceful. The exhibition displays a number of instruments designed to measure the brain. The one below was developed by Sir Francis Galton, the 'father of eugenics'. Using a variety of 'anthropometric' devices, Galton sought evidence of links between physical appearance and the supposed evolutionary progress of different population groups.
This kind of discourse was particularly well received during the Nazi period. A series of photos and letters document the case of 3 brothers, Alfred, Gunther and Herbert K. aged 3, 7 years old and 15 months. They suffered from a rare hereditary neural disease and were likely murdered in 1942 and 1944. Their mother was told that they had died of pneumonia. Like many other people suffering from neural disease, they have probably been gassed or drugged, their brains harvested and examined by neuropathologists who went on to continue eminent careers long after the war. As for the specimens taken from the victims, they were used by researchers until recent decades.
The quest to understand the functioning of the brain is as grandiose and challenging as the one to send men in outer space. Brains: The Mind as Matter can keep you in the rooms of the Wellcome Collection for hours on end. It's an absorbing, educational and at times disturbing exhibition.
Many of the patients in these photographs presented with much more advanced tumours than would normally go unchecked today. The 15-year-old subject of this photograph suffered years of headaches, nausea, convulsions, restricted development and impaired vision before being referred to American neurosurgeon and pioneer of brain surgery Dr Harvey Cushing. She was in and out of hospital for the next 12 years, although the final letter in her file, from her father in 1931, strikes an optimistic note and thanks Cushing for his care.
An excess of growth hormone caused by a tumour of the pituitary gland in the brain can result in acromegaly and gigantism, where the person grows very tall and suffers a coarsening of the facial features, enlarged hands and feet, and thickening and wrinkling of the scalp. Unfortunately, this patient died after his second operation; his skeleton was preserved and photographed in comparison with a normal specimen.
More images from the show:
Spanish Nobel Prize-winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal, whose pioneering research at the turn of the 20th century gave us an understanding of the microscopic structure of the brain. Cajal had aspired to be an artist, but his father had insisted he follow the family tradition into medicine. He nevertheless made hundreds of drawing to illustrate brain structure.
English mathematician Charles Babbage donated his brain to be analyzed. He is regarded as a "father of the computer", having invented in 1822 the 'Difference Engine', a mechanical computer complete with printer. One of his assistants was Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace.
Trephines are the surgical devices used for trephination, or trepanning. The basic practices and tools have remained largely unchanged for centuries. Among the trephines themselves, with their cylindrical blades, are a large brace to hold the trephines during drilling, two rugines to remove connective tissue from bones, two lenticulars to depress brain material during surgery and a brush to remove fine fragments of bone.
Brains: The Mind as Matter remains on show at Wellcome Collection in London until 17 June.
Previously at the Wellcome Collection: Mind Over Matter, Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life, Art, bricks, domestic dust, High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, Exquisite Bodies at the Wellcome Collection, War and Medicine exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.
The Wellcome Collection in London has recently opened Brains: The Mind as Matter, a fascinating and informative show that explores what humans have done to brains in the name of medical intervention, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning and technological change.
The result is a series of rooms filled with representations of brains, as well as real brains in all their possible states and guises: measured, galvanized, dessicated, modelled, sliced, freeze-dried, diced, scanned, pickled. I'll be sure to share the gore with you in a future post.
Exhibitions at the Wellcome Collections often incorporate a few artworks among the historical facts, stories, videos and objects. The latter are usually so compelling that i hardly pay any attention to the art pieces. That would have happened this time too were it not for Mind Over Matter, a collaboration for which artist Ania Dabrowska and social scientist Dr Bronwyn Parry have given a visibility to the medical research on dementia.
Finding a cure for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's entails undertaking research on human brain tissue drawn from people who were affected by dementia and people who were not. Mind Over Matter demystifies what happens behind the doors of brain bank laboratories, and in so doing actively seeks to rehabilitate, even celebrate, the practice of bodily donation in the public imagination.
The exhibition at Wellcome only features a segment of the whole project. Namely, a the portraits and stories of people who contribute to the research against dementia by choosing to donate their brain as well as a series of photos taken at the Brain Bank Laboratory, The Cambridge University Hospital. Hygienic and crude, the lab images unveil what happens to the brain after the donors' death.
Brains: The Mind as Matter remains on show at Wellcome Collection in London until 17 June.
Spontaneous Human Combustion occurs when a human body bursts into flame and is reduced to ashes without any apparent external source of ignition. Moreover, while the body is almost completely incinerated, which requires temperatures of about 3,000 degrees, the rest of the room, the furniture remain almost undamaged by the fire. SHC takes place in Charles Dickens' novels but also in contemporary police investigations. A few months ago, the badly burned body of a pensioner was found in his living room in Galway, Ireland. Apart from his body, investigators could only find minor damage on the ceiling above him and the floor beneath him. "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation," said the coroner.
Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon is accompanied by much speculation and controversy.
Sebastian Thielke, a first year student of Design Interactions, looked closely at the phenomenon for a project he showed at the RCA's Work in Progress exhibition which closed a few weeks ago.
While investigating the paranormal phenomenon, the designer found about long forgotten military experiments that were carried out in the 1960s USA. Thielke's finding tells a fragmented story of how science, in the name of war, is willing to push the boundaries of what is ethically and morally acceptable, and how far the institutions of national defense are willing to go beyond what is rational. His work looks also at the way information technology contributes to the intertwining of science and occult beliefs.In the age of information technology these ideas and philosophies have won new territories on the internet where they can grow and multiply on websites and social networks, and tie into ever growing theories of science and spiritualism, conspiracy and mass deception, Thielke explains on his project page.
So far, it seems that the project is more about investigating than designing. What i found most interesting though is that the designer is ready to explore and comment on a mysterious, paranormal, pseudoscientific phenomenon. As far as i know, this is very unusual area of research for a designer.
Extracts from the email exchange i had with Sebastian:
Why this interest in spontaneous human combustion? It is such a spooky phenomenon.
Yes, that's a good question. This project was initially a response to a brief. It was a two-three week project and we had very short time to chose a topic we wanted to work on.
I didn't know much about spontaneous human combustion (SHC). I just remember reading about it many years ago in a Paul Auster novel, which I've now forgotten the name of. But SHC has stuck in my head since. I really like these kinds of phenomenons that are so mystical they seem to be fictional and yet they have occurred several times in history.
I had a look on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_human_combustion and it doesn't appear to be a phenomenon one should take very seriously. The causes of SHC are mostly either paranormal or unknown/unobserved. What is the consensus among scientists about the phenomenon?
There are some scientific or causal explanations, but they all fall short of explaining every detail of the events. One of the main topics of discussion is the source of ignition: how people actually start to combust. The rational explanations all claims that the source of ignition is external, they suggest things such as static electricity from a carpet, a dropped cigarette or a malfunctioning power socket sparking a flame. While these might be valid explanations they don't seem to have been confirmed in any of the reported cases, only suggested. And it still doesn't explain how a person sitting in a chair can burn to ashes without the fire spreading to the rest of the house. When a body is cremated it is burned at almost 900 degrees Celsius for about two hours. Investigators have tried to explain this with what they call the 'wick effect', which is also mentioned on wikipedia. It describes how a body can burn for several hours; the melted body fat becoming a flamable liquid, saturating the clothes of the victim and thus acting as a wick that can burn for hours.
But I didn't really do that much research on the scientific side, and it doesn't seem like there has been that much research done to explain this phenomenon. Since it is such a rare occurrence, I guess it is mostly dismissed as random coincidences. But that is what is so intriguing about it - that it is such a weird phenomenon. The circumstances when it happens, the bizarre visual sceneries it leaves behind of ashes, burned limbs and melted TVs. It has occurred so few times that it cannot be perfectly explained by science, yet it has occurred enough times to have earned its definition as a phenomenon. It leaves so much space for speculations into the mystical and paranornal, and that was the part I was most interested in.
So I did a lot of research into Kundalini, which is one of the more mystical explanations of SHC. Kundalini is a term used in Eastern philosophies. It is a bodily energy that can be awakened through yoga and meditation. Some people believe that this energy might be able to cause a human being to combust - that it causes a subatomic chain reaction that heats up the body. I'm not going to go into detail about Kundalini, there is plenty of stuff to read about it online, but what you discover when you start researching Kundalini is that it opens up a huge world of New Age interpretations that mixes it with (pseudo) scientific theories. It is amazing to see how different New Age, spiritual/religious cultures appropriate science and piece together their own explanations of how the world works. And I believe the internet plays a key role in this. There is so much information available out there for anyone to study, and since there are no academic institutions governing and validating this knowledge it becomes an entangling jungle of pocket-philosophy and pseudo-science, which mutates into various unimaginable forms on blogs and forums. I guess you can say that this has been my material in this project.
How is SHC related to the military experiments carried out in the 1960s in the USA your research refers to?
The thing that lead me to find the items that I presented in the exhibition, was a video I stumbled upon during my research. As I was reading through several odd blogs and forums about SHC and kundalini, there was a few places where a 'video of a burning mouse' was mentioned. When I finally found the video on YouTube, it was this weird short clip of an actual burning mouse, which didn't really tell me much. But as I read through the comments, I could see that people were discussing and speculating what the weird shadow that is seen in the beginning of the clip might be. There was all sorts of stupid suggestions, but one that was particularly interesting was a woman (the name LPK19 didn't actually reveal any gender) who wrote that she had seen the clip before when she was working at the Pennsylvania Military Museum. I ended up emailing the museum about the clip and they told me that it had been a part of the remnants of a military lab in the Alpena Air National Guard Base in Alpena, Michigan, which burned to the ground in 1964.
What were these experiments about? Where can we find more information about them?
There are no detailed descriptions of what exactly the experiments were about, but from looking at the photos and papers it seems like they were dealing with sound frequencies. There is a photo of an oscilloscope, a spreadsheet where different frequencies are noted, plus some technical drawings of what seems to be directional speakers. From my research I've learned about something called the Solfeggio Frequencies, which is believed by many spirituals to have healing powers (or potentially destructive if used in the wrong way). Solfeggio, or Solfège, is an old music system that were used in gregorian chants to associate different note-intervals, with specific syllables: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti. It seems that they were using those frequencies in their experiments.
Some of the other photos shows men dissecting black, burned corpses of pigs and there is also an illustration of the anatomy of a pig brain, which of course shows that they have been testing on animals.
A third photo shows a person that seems to be meditating. This along with a drawing that illustrates the seven chakras of kundalini, suggests that they have somehow used these ideas and philosophies in their experiments.
Nowhere is there any mentioning of SHC.
And what is that helmet you were exhibiting at the work in progress show?
It seems like it is meant to project sound into the forehead of the person wearing it. In Kundalini it is believed that the body has seven energy centres called chakras. The Ajna Chakra, also known as the third eye, is situated just behind the center between the eyebrows. It is also associated with the pineal gland inside the brain. I suspect that they have been trying to somehow stimulate this part, the 'third eye', to affect the kundalini of the test person or animal.
Your project page talks about 'how far the institutions of national defense are willing to go beyond what is rational.' What do you mean by that? That they are pulling hoaxes on us?
No, what I meant with the word rational was that sometimes military research pursues ideas that has no scientific foundation or that goes beyond what is ethical.
Most of the technology that surrounds us was originally developed for military purposes and warfare has always been one of the major drivers of science and technological development. In this race to be technologically ahead, military labs have sometimes gone too far in their research and experiments. The Nazi experiments or those of the Unit 731 in Japan are horrible examples of military funded science turning a blind eye on ethics and human rights. In more recent time the CIA Stargate project has shown that occult, paranormal and mystic beliefs still have a place in military research. My findings seems to be from one such program.
Thank you Sebastian!
Related: Delusions of Self-Immolation.
Japanese love hotels go out of their way to satisfy the most outlandish fetish: some rooms offer the feeling of being inside a subway carriage, a class room, or a Hello Kitty SM room, others locks you into an alien abduction nightmare (/dream).
Ai Hasegawa, second year student in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London, proposes to close loving couples into an even more extraordinary fantasy.
Her Extreme Environment Love Hotel simulates impossible places to go such as the Earth of three hundred million years ago (during the Carboniferous period), or the surface of Jupiter by manipulating invisible but ever-present environmental factors, for example atmospheric conditions and gravity.
Our bodies would survive if we were propelled back to the Carboniferous period but they would need to adapt if we'd stay over long periods of time. It is estimated that during that time, the peak oxygen content of the atmosphere was as high as 35%, compared to 21% today. This oxygen level resulted in insect and amphibian gigantism--creatures whose size is constrained by respiratory systems that are limited in their ability to diffuse oxygen. For example, the ancestor of the dragonfly, the Meganeura, grew up to seventy-five centimeters due to the huge concentration of oxygen in the air.
Life on Jupiter doesn't sound very pleasant for us either. The atmospheric environment of the largest planet within the Solar System is one of strong gravity, high pressure, strong winds, and extremely cold temperatures.
How might our bodies change, struggle or even adapt with varying conditions around us?
The first of Ai Hasegawa's Extreme Environment Love Hotel room, the carboniferous one, is currently on view at the work in progress show of the Royal College of Art. The prototypes show how couples would have to carry a suitcase containing higher levels of oxygen that recreate the atmosphere of the Carboniferous period, they would also be surrounded by plants similar to the ones that proliferated in the warm and humid climate: large trees covered with bark and huge ferns growing in swamps.
The designer's work is of course a bit eccentric but it also propose to reflect on how making love inside an Extreme Environments Love Hotel room might give rise to new evolutions and mutations of the human body and sex and give it a brand new role away from our biologically-programmed needs and inclinations.
Why did you decide to explore new frontiers in Love Hotels?
Love hotel is a utopia to serve the people's dream and fantasy.
We are able to go to space or have a hyper gravity experience at NASA , but that is only for chosen people, the rich or some elites.
A love hotel, however, is opened to all adults. I could have worked on a 'Fun fair/ amusement park' type of attraction, but these gives us only short time experiences that don't last more than 5 minutes.
I wanted to have an experience longer than a funfair ride, an experience that would last until our body could feel slight changes and adapt to them. You can stay at the hotel for one hour, for a week or a year. Also sex is a hard form of exercise, and a "love" hotel is the perfect place to challenge the limit of our body in extreme environmental conditions.
Also from critical point of view, Love hotel is designed for sexual urge. It is a place for desire and pleasure, probably not for love nor reproduction.
I feel sex isn't motivated solely by life instinct, by the need to reproduce and make our species survive. Sexual urge can make us take some life-risking actions such as HIV infection.
I wonder if our DNA might need to be modified in order to redesign the strategy of reproduction... In other words, why not have some evolutions?
To trigger evolutions, we might want to use a technology to modify our DNA, of course. But before that, we need to study our body potentials with basic elements, invisible factors, such as atmosphere, gravity, temperature, electromagnetic waves, etc. We need new environments, new frontiers.
I chose places where 'we are not able to go to' for a romantic or melancholic reason. We don't have any strong reason to go to Jupiter. Moreover, we are able to have a time-trip to the future (possible in theory, but it's only a one-way trip), but not to the past (the theory hasn't been proved yet, i think). The love hotel would be the ideal place to serve such dreams and fantasies.
What does their body risk if the lovers keeps the breathing mask for a long time?
There is no risk. If healthy people breath 100% oxygen for long time, they would have lungs problem, but this Carboniferous portable room portable supplies only 35% oxygen under usual atmospheric pressure. A real chamber, thus not the "portable" version will be higher atmosphere, but still it will be fine. This real chamber will be similar to Hyperbaric medicine. It would probably be slightly easier to breathe and recovering energy would be faster than usual in this room.
You're also working on a Jupiter room. What will it be like? And feel like?
Customer might need to wear a harness to support the weight, they might also need to wear a bone protector, just in case. You have to be careful with the position you chose. If you want to adopt a 'woman on top' position, then your body might be too heavy to climb up. Besides, the man's hipbone might break under the weight. But if you stay for a week or a month, maybe after a while your body will adapt and become more masculine.
In a Hotel room, you also need to have a toilet and a shower. The water in the Jupiter room would fall 2.35 times faster than usual. One day lasts only 9 hours and 55 min in this room.
If you want, you might probably be able to make a baby under the hyper gravity...
Check out The Extreme Environment Love Hotel: Carboniferous Room at the Student Work-in-Progress Show, Royal College of Art, London. The exhibition end on Monday afternoon.
A week ago i was in Eindhoven for an of the STRP festival that surpassed all my expectations. The curators and directors of the event had the brilliant (and timely) idea of dedicating the whole exhibition to the history of new media art in The Netherlands. I'll come back with a report or two about the show as soon as i've collected all the pictures and texts i need. But i found that one of the pieces exhibited, Delusions of Self-Immolation, is so powerful and disturbing it deserved its own post.
Delusions of Self-Immolation, aka 'the suicide machine', was a built by Erik Hobijn in the 1990s to set members of the public on fire. Literally.
The person would stand on a platform covered in a flame-resistant gel. A flame-thrower would then burn their body for less then half a second. The platform then turns on itself so that the extinguisher situated on the opposite side of the machine can extinguish the person immediately.
In an interview with Derek Holzer, Hobijn explained: There are three states on the machine which I call "rare", "medium", and "well done". "Rare" means you survive without any wounds. "Medium" is more for, say, the SM session or for people who like pain to understand parts of life, or to have this experience of pain. The third possibility is death. It is possible to die in this machine; I just have to change the liquid, and I have to change the timing.
Some 30 people have tested it at the time, many of whom were women.
Obviously, there is something physical in the Self-Immolation experience but what goes on inside the mind of the people before, during and after the burning alive experience must be even more intense and fascinating.
If you speak dutch, i would recommend the book SKG: kunst, muziek & terreur 1978-1981 by Martijn Haas that reconstruct the 'night of terrorism' orchestrated by Hobijn in the Summer of 1980 in Amsterdam.
Last Wednesday, as i walked by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, i saw a small sign that said "Hunterian Museum" with an arrow pointing to the top of stairs. I dutifully followed the arrow.
I wasn't fully prepared for what i encountered there: animal foetuses in jars, the skull of a little boy born with a second skull attached to the top of his head, a transverse section of a leg and foot of a man suffering from elephantiasis, skeletons of animals born with extra legs or heads, pickled deformed animals, a prosthetic nose attached to eyeglasses, organs attacked by almost any kind of disease you could think of, and various bits and pieces of human and non-human animals preserved in glass jars.
Reading through the online reviews of the museum makes me realize how much i've missed (namely the skeleton of 'Irish giant' Charles Byrne, the tooth of an extinct giant sloth donated by Charles Darwin, the brain of computer pioneer Charles Babbage and Winston Churchill's dentures) during my short and shocked visit. Be sure that i'll be walking around the place before the end of the week.
The museum is mostly based on the collection amassed by John Hunter, an 18th century Scottish surgeon and anatomist whom wikipedia defines as an early advocate of careful observation and scientific method in medicine. And indeed once you've recovered from the surprise, there is much to learn about the history of medicine and anatomy in the permanent collection as well as from the temporary exhibition that the museum presents in a couple of rooms on the top floor. The current one is dedicated to the outcome of artist Ju Gosling aka ju90's inquest into the cultural construction of disability via society's (mis)interpretation of science and medicine.
Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the museum so obviously, none of the uncredited picture above is mine.
The Hunterian Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free.