by GORDANA NOVAKOVIC
We do not need to go into space, or to the ocean depths, to study cognition in extreme and hostile environments. The digital revolution has changed the nature of our perceptual processes, and this in turn has changed our conscious experience of the physical world, inducing changes in cognition on a scale that is still unknown. The contemporary metropolis is now dominated by aggressive and emissive digital technologies, and has itself become an environment that is both extreme and hostile. This paper will use some recent findings in neuroscience both to examine the mechanisms by which our brains and minds are being affected by this new environment, and also to propose an artistic response.
We already understand many ways in which advanced technologies have changed the city (Castells, 2000; Sassen, 2001). Spatially, a contemporary Metropolis in constant expansion swallows nearby villages and towns, losing its boundaries. Through a virtual stream of data, digital technologies now interconnect metropolises into a Global City, merging time and space, reframing communication and perception. It is a commonplace that yesterday’s themes of science fiction are today’s reality. Citizens united into virtual communities, regardless of their geographical location, work with distant collaborators, communicate with distant friends, make love with distant lovers, work at home for distant companies, socialise by engaging with massive online interfaces. Impersonal digital communication, even between people physically close to each other, produces a different perception of being and time, and new forms of alienation: a virtual world with telepresent persons. A non-linear stream consisting of snap-shots of reality alternating with virtuality produces a vertiginous dual-presence, a paradox of simultaneous presence and absence.
More fundamentally, as inhabitants of the modern city we are in constant interaction, both active and passive, with digital technology. At home, we are surrounded by screens and displays: television, home video, computer, digital phone, cell phone, cooker, clock… Television is telling us what we are supposed to know, how to live, love and think; politics, world catastrophes and advertisements are all fused into a cacophony. When we physically move around the city, we are followed by ghostly images of ourselves on CCTV systems in vehicles and shops. Through RFID smartcards and touch-screens, we communicate with a colossal impersonal network of interlinked data-bases, facilitating dehumanised services, but at the same time collecting our personal data, putting together digital jigsaws to form our virtual portrait behind the captured images. Our access to reality – or rather to a hyperreality as defined by Baudrillard (1995) – is always the screen.
Some of the most radical insights into the essence of the problems arising from the digital revolution come from the controversial media critic Paul Virilio (1995, 2005). Virilio describes the economical and political origins and aspects of the digital revolution, and its socio-political effects, particularly globalisation and global militarization, mediated perception and the new forms of alienation. He paints a dark and accurate picture of the current world, with an even darker vision of the potential future: ‘One day the day will come when the day won’t come’. His disturbing, dramatic warnings about the potential remodelling of humans by means of technology carry a strong message and call for a revolt against the tyranny of real time interactivity and media, questioning the ethics of both the arts and the sciences. But of course, issues similar to these have been explored across all art disciplines, from Fritz Lang’s prophetic Metropolis onwards. An increasing number of artists working with technology, often in close collaboration with scientists, are investigating and experimenting with the phenomena arising directly from the interplay between our senses and technology – for example, Stelarc through his concepts of obsolete bodies and exoskeletons (Marquard Smith, 2007), Char Davis with her pioneering bio-feedback VR (McRobert, 2007), Rainer Linz analysing the physiological aspects of electronic music (Linz, nd), and Margaret Dolinsky using digital art to study cognitive recognition and perceptual shifts (Dolinsky, nd).
Advanced technologies have also contributed to the emergence of an entirely new ecology both within and beyond the visual and auditory spectra. For instance, our bodies are now bathed in and constantly absorbing the emissions from an ocean of invisible waves of different kinds produced by new wireless technologies – mobile phones, Bluetooth, WiFi, WiMax, etc. We know a lot about the potentially damaging effects of urban noise, and perpetual artificial light, but we are still ignorant of the possible effects of so-called electrosmog (Electrosensitivity UK, nd; but see Eltiti et al., 2007). We can put blinds on the windows to stop light pollution, or wear ear plugs to protect ourselves from noise, but our buildings, our bodies, and our brains are still open to constantly increasing levels of non-ionising radiation. We know neither the nature nor the effects of these changes, which are happening on a scale and at a speed that have never before occurred, and we do not yet know for sure whether, and how, they might influence our cognition.
It is clear that we should look to science for the answer to these questions, but with very few exceptions, mainstream science has ignored the possible cognitive consequences of these dramatic environmental changes. For example, the majority of scientists investigating perception, particularly within the discipline of neuroscience, still refer to the ‘real world’ as a constant, an axiom, unchanged through time; however, the present-day real world, saturated by digital technology, differs fundamentally from that of even a decade ago. But there is a further problem within neuroscience itself: the dominant doctrine, recognising slow evolutionary processes as the only way for qualitative changes to happen in a species, has combined with the established view that the brain is a closed and static system with fixed locations for particular functions, leaving no space to consider changes occurring within periods of ten years – or even less. It is thought that we come into this world with a genetically predetermined design for the brain, with exact locations for different functions, and that this structure remains constant throughout our lives. If someone happens to lose the function of one or more of the locations due to illness or injury, this damage and the consequences, quite often devastating, can be expected to remain for the rest of his life.
But there is hope. Over many years, a small number of scientists have been breaking out of this rigid context to show that the brain is not a closed, unchangeable system. We are now seeing the recognition of growing scientific evidence that the brain is in fact almost nakedly open to external influences, and is capable of rapid and radical change by remodelling itself through learning and interaction with the environment. The field of neuroscience is now yielding evidence that may revolutionise not only the science of cognition, but also the wider view of the relationship between humans and the environment, and ultimately the role and nature of culture. The brain can no longer be regarded as a fixed, closed, passive receiver of information from the senses – a mere processor for the information that is controlling our body through a kind of one-way communication. Rather, it is intrinsically plastic, in a process of constant change and growth through its interaction with the environment, and through a variety of learning processes.
The history of this new strand in neuroscience has its origins in examples of initially tragic personal cases ending with what appear almost as miraculous recoveries, mainly due to combinations of inspired clinical insight and individual determination. It is certainly too extensive and complicated a matter to be reviewed adequately in this brief paper, but we can pick out one or two of the pioneers. The late Dr. Paul Bach-Y-Rita was one of the first neuroscientists to work on what is now called neuroplasticity. His approach was not just theoretical, but practical: he worked closely with technical experts to construct electronic devices that would enable the brain of a patient with severe neurological problems to recover the lost functions. His key method was to provide the patient’s brain with the missing information through a different sensory channel. His earliest work (Bach-Y-Rita et al., 1969) provided blind people with ‘visual’ information by transferring a camera image to the patients’ skin using an array of vibrating needles, and his success led to his widely-quoted concept of ‘seeing with the brain’ (Bach-Y-Rita et al., 2003).
One of his most spectacular recent cases (in Doidge, 2007) was a young, dynamic and successful woman who, because of the side effects of a clinical drug, lost 95% of her vestibular system – the brain area that normally controls balance. This meant that she constantly experienced the sensation of falling – even after she had actually fallen down. This unbearable condition had led her to the edge of suicide when she heard of Bach-Y-Rita and his strange electronic devices. To help her, Bach-Y-Rita constructed a miniature electronic device that provided her brain with replacement balance signals (from an accelerometer) via a thin plastic strip on her tongue. Within minutes, she managed to stand upright. Even more remarkably, the recovery of function persisted for a while after the device was removed! Bach-Y-Rita’s explanation is that the device had also enabled new connections to form in previously unused pathways between the surviving parts of her vestibular system. Of course, the time to fully develop the lost sense without the constant help of the device took many months, but it happened, and the device is no longer needed. What is astonishing here is not only the nature of the ‘implant’, which essentially encourages and enables the brain to rewire itself, but also the speed with which the change occurs.
We also now have a wealth of scientific evidence that shows that the way in which we use and exercise our brains really does matter. Another neuroplasticity pioneer, the neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, argues that learning and practising certain skills can rapidly change hundred of millions of connections in our brain, improving and speeding up a wide variety of cognitive abilities (Merzenich, nd; also in Doidge, 2007). His experiments over the years have delivered strong arguments against the idea of fixed functions in fixed locations in the brain. He has been particularly active in discovering how new learning can stimulate the brain to counteract age-related deterioration, or the effects of serious brain injury, or language impairment in children. Perhaps importantly, he has found that the most powerful way of delivering the learning tasks is through the use of digital technology: the speed and flexibility of his interactive computer-based training scheme enable the delivery of more effective rewards, in turn speeding up the rate of learning.
So what are the implications of all this for our concerns about the digitally-enabled metropolis? As it turns out, the neuroscientists themselves are well aware of some of the potential issues. In his recent book on neuroplasticity, The Brain that Changes Itself, the Canadian author Norman Doidge seems to offer a roadmap for future connections between disciplines grounded in neuroplasticity. In his chapter ‘The Culturally Modified Brain’ he writes:
“As we use an electronic medium, our nervous system extends outwards, and the medium extends inwards. […] Because our nervous system is plastic, it can take the advantage of this compatibility and merge with the electronic media, making a single, larger system. Indeed, it is the nature of such systems to merge whether they are biological or man-made.” (Doidge, 2007, p 311)
In the case of an electronic device playing the role of a substitute for a lost capacity, or as an assistant in its regeneration, our body’s response can take a dramatic form, because the way in which electronic and digital devices transmit information is in essence quite similar to the basic function of our nervous system – the almost instantaneous transmission of electrical impulses. Due to its capacity for plastic changes, our nervous system easily re-wires itself and makes use of this alternative nervous system. In a passage that could have come from Peter Watkins (Watkins, nd; see also Novakovic, 2003), Doidge (2007) notes that it is actually the form of electronic media, and not so much the content, that affects our cognitive processes:
“It is the form of the television medium – cuts, edits, zooms, pans and sudden noises – that alters the brain, by activating what Pavlov called the ‘orienting response’, which occurs whenever we sense a sudden change in the world around us, especially a sudden movement. […] The response is physiological […]” (p309, italics in original))
Elsewhere, Merzenich emphasises the unprecedented opportunities that now exist for digital technologies to affect our brains:
“The internet is just one of those things that contemporary humans can spend millions of ‘practice’ events at, that the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to. Our brains are massively remodelled by this exposure – but so, too, by reading, by television, by modern electronics, by contemporary music, by contemporary ‘tools’, etc” [Merzenich, in Olsen (2005)].
Because we now have this scientific evidence that interaction with electronic media not only affects our perception and cognition, but can produce rapid and irreversible changes in our brains, the extreme and hostile nature of the technology-saturated metropolis confronts and challenges humanity with a set of serious problems. However, as far as I am aware, the true nature and extent of the influence of the modern urban environment, whether private, public, or workspace, has not yet been the subject of an in-depth scientific analysis. We can, of course, exercise choice even in the face of the onslaught of the city – but neuroplasticity also tells us that the extent to which we shape our own lives through the ways we choose to use our brains is far larger than we once thought it was. Both the creation of the city and the creation of our own behaviour patterns within the city means that we bear the responsibility for introducing changes that could lead to the creation of a new kind of human that has never existed before.
It is clear that as artists we must continue to engage with this theme, although we know that this is a difficult task in this age of immaturity, kindergarten states and the hyperreality of the profit-driven post-digital revolution. For artists, however, there may be problems closer to home. This new understanding of cognitive processes is warning us that experiencing art, and especially electronic art, or technology-enabled art, is far from being an innocently entertaining or aesthetically pleasing experience extending for a limited period of time. The disturbing evidence of neuroplasticity raises the possibility that experiencing particular forms of art may itself affect and mark our cognition – perhaps with irreversible and unknown changes. But of course we cannot abandon technology: we must instead seek a deeper understanding of its effects on humanity by looking at all its aspects, positive, negative, and unknown. And here, the dramatic shift in neuroscience brings with it a fascinating opportunity to explore and analyse the effects of electronic media through scientifically informed art, which could give rise to an entirely new art form: neuroplastic art. The concept of neuroplastic art opens a future for scientifically articulate artists and artistically articulate scientists to work closely together, with a full awareness of both the potential and the danger that emerges from the parallels between the nature of our nervous system and the characteristics of digital technology and electronic media. It may be possible to structure art works according to new scientific evidence, and to fuse scientific knowledge with imagination to exploit the nature of electronic media to create platforms for experiences that have never existed before. Bringing together the scientists’ knowledge about the brain, and our knowledge of the properties of electronic media, we can envisage art works that will become in a way tuneable complex instruments, serving both art and science. Only then will imagination and creativity transcend today’s mere fascination with state-of-the-art technology, and use both technology and brain science as a means to express ideas. Perhaps this will even uncover new and benign ways of linking our brains with, and through, technology…
Whatever we do as artists, the ever-developing Metropolis will continue to represent an extreme and hostile environment for humans. We cannot reverse or stop the process, but we can certainly contribute to an informed awareness of the issues, and we may be able to develop techniques for reducing at least some of the damaging effects. Finally, as a last comment on our responsibility and opportunity to engage in this issue, we should perhaps recall the prophetic words of one of the most frequently analysed philosophical texts on technology (Heidegger, 1954):
“…essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art.”
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Owen Holland for his help with the scientific literature, and for many discussions of these ideas.
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