The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.
Albert Einstein (The World As I See It).
Infant fingers are inclined to pick at the tightest philosophical knots. As matters of social identity are settled (Who am I?) so more obstinate questions arise (the Whats and the Whys). I remember, when I was about seven years old, staring transfixed at my fingers. Clearly these objects were a part of my body but did it make any sense to imagine that they were a part of me? I could control them, but then I could control a bicycle or a fishing rod and if I lost the bike or the rod I would still be me; likewise if I lost the fingers, or a foot. So what exactly was the relationship between my body and me? Where in the machinery was that thinking, observing “I”? Susan Aldworth’s work is about the mystery of consciousness. It shares the same innocence.
If you are not tantalized by the problem of consciousness then either you have solved it or you have not understood it in the first place. Our bodies are mostly invisible. We never see internal organs in the living flesh and regions not hidden are, moment by moment, largely absent to awareness. Eyes closed, you can conjure a spectral image of the body (of “yourself”), locating limbs, torso and head, tuning in to warmth and cold, aches, itches and muscular tensions, the rise and fall of the rib cage. But the spectre you invoke flickers and fades. The bodily sensorium is an unstable medium, part objective observation, part imaginative construction. Mostly the machinery takes care of itself. A cracked fingernail or infected tooth will bellow for attention but the body’s default position is silence. We prefer to think of ourselves as ghosts. Now here’s the paradox: the zone of deepest silence is the brain. Three pounds or so of jellified fats, proteins and sugars packed into the bony box of the skull, numb and dark as a tomb. But look at the spirits summoned up from the sludge. Look at the carnival of consciousness that flows from the void. How is this possible?
A distinguished philosopher of mind once told me that to contemplate the great problems of philosophy was almost to engage in a physical confrontation. Deep thought was visceral, and to say that one was “wrestling”, or “grappling” with a problem was more than empty metaphor. Aldworth’s art springs from a visceral contemplation of this, the deepest problem of all: How does matter become mind? Her concern, as an artist, is to embrace the emotional and aesthetic dimensions of the question itself, recapturing the voltage surge of awe and bewilderment felt when, during a medical procedure, she was faced with radiological images of the interior of her own head, real time. You are thinking about what you are seeing with what you are seeing on the screen. This is the mind/body problem stripped to the bone. The mission of science and philosophy is to dispel the paradox; Aldworth celebrates it. Her work brings another twist to the spiral. If one function of art is to intensify consciousness – of feelings, images, ideas – then, with consciousness itself under scrutiny, the relationship of form and content comes close to collapse. The fusion of image and idea sends us tumbling to the brink of an infinite regress, chasing consciousness of consciousness of consciousness of consciousness…
This is the Century of Neuroscience. Images of the brain have become commonplace. Textbooks and websites show us photographs of real brains extracted from the cranium, cling-wrapped in slimy membranes, arteries squirming like earthworms through the ruts and ridges below. We see half-brains precision-sliced to display pristine structures within, neat as fossils. Then there’s the anatomical art: skulls opened like hatches to reveal brains in situ(the face below usually passive, not even mildly surprised); three-dimensional cutaways are colour-coded and signposted to guide us through the vaults and chambers, the pathways, canals and aqueducts of the labyrinthine city of the soul. Modern neuroimaging methods – PET, fMRI, MEG – bring the metropolis to life. Trails of colour trace the circuitries of memory and emotion. We see thought turning to intention, intention to action with the changing of the cerebral lights. We can even distinguish the signatures of truth and deceit, written in blood, or rather patterns of blood flow, across the cortical mantle. Do we need more pictures of the brain? For Aldworth, such images, the real and the hyper real, the photographic and the digital, are deeply provocative but serve only to intensify the core ambiguities that drive her work. The harder one stares into the machinery of the brain, the starker the realisation that there is no one in there. There is no inner sanctum of the self. Neural networks have a life and logic of their own. There is no one running the show. The self is a shadow-puppet shaped by the firings of a hundred billion brain cells. These are conceptual conundrums. Intractable to current science, they call for an artistic response.
Drawing and painting in operating theatres and angiography suites, Aldworth derives inspiration from the dynamics of medical procedure as much as from the components of the visual scene. But if her work is representative of an ancient tradition of artists working alongside anatomists and physicians, it also reflects contemporary trends. Neuroscience is emerging as one of the grand belief systems informing the imagination of artists and writers in the 21st century, just as Marxism and the psychodynamic theories of Freud and Jung stamped their mark on the art of the 20th century. Conversely, science has become interested in art. The grand mission of neuroscience is to chart the neural infrastructure of the human mind and there is no reason to exempt artistic experience. Through the new discipline of “neuroaesthetics” the cognitive apparatus of art will be “reverse-engineered” as surely as the machineries of memory, language and emotion are being dismantled. Or perhaps not. It may turn out that by setting out to explain art, science will do no more than to mark its own limits. To engage with a work of art is to absorb its meanings at a personal level and so, like consciousness itself, the experience has elements that are irreducibly subjective. Science doesn’t go there. I have made a career in neuropsychology, studying the structures and functions of the brain. I stand in awe at the vertiginous progress of modern neuroscience, but still I’m staring at my fingers.
Paul Broks is an English neuropsychologist and science writer . His books include Into the Silent Land and The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars.