Science as Art in the Theatre of the Brain


Session Title:

  • Long Papers Presentations

Presentation Title:

  • Science as Art in the Theatre of the Brain



  • A multi-million dollar National Science Foundation is in progress at Carnegie Mellon University. The project links aspects of basic brain biology to cognitive psychology and conscious experience. Headed by an interdisciplinary team of artists, neuroscientists and computer technologists the project will exploit of an educational strategy in which audience members control aspects of the display. Using the brain as the overriding metaphor, interactive segments will be designed in which audience members, cast as neurons, participate collectively by responding to stimuli presented on the screen. In effect the audience will emulate simple models of brain function such as cognitive processes. These interactive exercises will teach the audience about cooperative and emergent properties of the brain. The audience will learn by doing, by becoming a brain. There will be an emphasis on the evaluation process and the creation of a new research facility, the Interactive Studio/Lab, for the purpose of studying the educational effectiveness of group interactive technology. It will provide an opportunity to monitor and evaluate the reaction of pilot audiences to prototype segments, comparing artistic and pedagogical communication modes. Interactive technology will be employed for on-line gathering and evaluation of data about audience participation to reveal features like emergent behaviour, group dynamics, nearest neighbour effects, and changes in response time.

    As the artist/technologist at the helm of this project it seems that there are many among us who are raising the issue of whether the final product will or should be science or if it can be both. On the one side are a number of artists who insist that we should abandon efforts at making this a work of science education and produce instead a work of art that is what it is. In their minds the constraints that “science education” place on form and format confound the possibilities of creating art. Others suggest that we should devote a portion of the program to expostulating upon the science and then leapfrog into more experiential sections that have the freedom of character possessed by an artwork.

    It appears that most visitors to science centres mistake terminology for conceptual understanding. Because they can repeat the vocabulary, they believe they have grasped the essence of the experience. Many mistake the acquisition of facts for the understanding of concepts. Conceptual understanding of the phenomena underlying the exhibitions is abysmally low. If both facts and vocabulary are a source of misconception about science concepts and one chooses to eliminate both of these from consideration as the main tools of communication, then one is left with the direct experience of concepts as an alternative. The good news is that sounds a lot like art. The alternative approach is to create “art OF science”, “science AS art” rather than separating the two agendas. The idea is to see if Cognition can be presented to the public in a manner that doesn’t look like education in the traditional sense but possesses characteristics of art conveyed through body movement, temporal passage as in music or film, colour and composition, spatial perception, juxtaposition, metaphor and context.

    We plan comparative analysis of different modes of presentation, from the most traditional pedagogy to the embodiment of the concept in an artwork that conveys the essence of the concept through direct unmitigated experience. Using on-line realtime output of audience response and summative interviews with audience members after the program, the efficacy of these alternative approaches will become known. These varying modes will be presented to a variety of audiences to study the impact of learning strategies on individuals with varying personalities and backgrounds. Comparative evaluation of audience behaviour and conceptual understanding across cultures, disciplines, and ages will reveal much about the structure of information that reaches the widest audience. As the concepts are complex it will be extremely exciting to see whether Art holds the key to the sharing of these fundamental scientific concepts.