The Networks of Thought

Catalogue essay for Reassembling the Self

Professor Anya Hurlbert

Reassembling the Self
Hatton Gallery and Vane
20 September – 24 November 2012

The brain is a network of individual units, each tuned to its own speciality, but dependent on the others to make meaning from its existence. One brain cell does not make a man. But flexibly welded together, brain cells form microcircuits, which link into larger circuits, which form a network whose myriad connections and activities are so complexly orchestrated that nothing less than the human mind emerges. And from the human mind comes human identity, a constant subject of Susan Aldworth’s work. Understanding how the human mind arises from the brain is also the goal of scientists at the Institute of Neuroscience. It was thus a natural fit to appoint Aldworth Resident Artist at the Institute.

The orchestration in neural networks often relies on a simple rhythm to synchronise activity – for example, when the seeing and hearing parts of the brain join forces to locate a friend in a noisy crowded room, the individual cells of the two senses pulse to the same beat of about 40 times per second. In many tasks of perception, memory or attention, the more cells that join in the beat, the more focussed the performance: there is a collaborative buzz, and the solution falls into place.[i] The brain’s ability to generate and control these rhythms is fundamental to making sense of the world and holding on to one’s identity while doing so. In people with schizophrenia, the brain rhythms go awry, perceptions disintegrate, and so – it is thought – does the sense of self.

Institute scientists probe human identity by probing the origins and control of brain rhythms. They and other brain scientists have amassed a wealth of knowledge about schizophrenia.[ii] People with the condition are relatively lacking in a particular type of brain cell that controls inhibition, the same inhibition that is necessary to synchronise brain rhythms. Dopamine – a chemical that transmits excitation from one brain cell to the next –is overactive. Auditory hallucinations are accompanied by characteristic signatures on EEG recordings. A contributing factor to schizophrenia may be depletion of the fatty acids that cloak brain cells and the consequent disruption of their electrical properties.

Neurobiological evidence is not the full story.[iii] Epidemiological studies conclude that first-degree relatives of people with schizophrenia are more likely than others to be in the creative professions. One-fifth of young adolescents experience psychotic symptoms, such as hearing voices, without having schizophrenia. Psychosocial studies find that the symptoms are often triggered by toxic life events, and therefore, in one sense, are as natural as the large red welts of allergic hypersensitivity. But has all this scientific knowledge prevented the social stigma and individual sorrow of experiencing schizophrenia? The diagnosis of schizophrenia often still elicits fear and condemnation at the worst, pity and protectiveness at best.

Even these days, when film stars and professors feel able to go public with their depression or bipolar disorder, schizophrenia is not generally acknowledged in the same way. It might be because schizophrenia is less common and thought to be less curable than other mental illness, its symptoms more severe. But it is as prevalent as bulimia, and it is treatable. The more likely cause for the reticence is that its symptoms are misunderstood and thought to be dangerous. Everyone knows what it feels like to be depressed. But what does it feel like to be ‘schizophrenic’?

Aldworth’s project aimed to illuminate the answer and thereby diminish the stigma of the illness.

The genius of her work is that it simultaneously answers the question while proving it the wrong question to ask. At the outset, she thought to make portraits of people with schizophrenia. She also thought to portray what people with schizophrenia felt, by giving external form to their internal visions and voices. Aldworth studied the basic science practiced by Institute scientists – electrophysiology, histology, visual psychophysics, and more. She discussed clinical theories and treatments with Institute psychiatrists. She interviewed people with schizophrenia. Aldworth drew skeins of insight from these activities and wove them into an understanding of schizophrenia that went beyond artistic depictions or factual statements. But it was her collaboration with Camille Ormston and Kevin Mitchinson that changed the question.

The right question, of course, was ‘what does it feel like to be human?’ Being human is not lost in schizophrenia any more than it is lost in depression or diabetes. To think of schizophrenia as a fragmented mind and then to focus on isolated fragments – the altered visual perceptions, heard voices, paranoid delusions – is to miss the whole experience. The whole is manifest in the people themselves. Aldworth met regularly with Camille and Kevin to talk about, look at and make art, and she came to know them as whole people. Just as adjacent points coalesce into an image under the gaze of a viewer, so the self becomes whole when perceived: the perceived and the perceiver make each other manifest. In this sense, every portrait is a self-portrait. Aldworth’s work portrays herself as much as it does Camille and Kevin; Kevin’s portraits of his psychiatrist are also portraits of himself. All of the work is at heart about human identity, the sense of self and how it holds itself together.

Reassembling the Self shows that the act of assembling the self for display counteracts its disintegration, and this is not an abnormal response, but one in which every human participates. This is not to say that Camille and Kevin have not been ill and have not suffered from having schizophrenia, but their illness makes them no less human, and the way they have survived their illness is an act of supreme humanness, a supreme act of assembling the self.

Aldworth’s intense creativity, her own works and her curatorial work have surpassed the original aim of the project. She constructed a network of individuals each with his or her own speciality, and the resonance that emerged is long-lasting, not just in permanent artworks, but also in the connections formed between Camille, Kevin and the other selves. They are not alone in reassembling the self.


[i] Whittington, M.A., et al. Current Opinion in Pharmacology, 2011, 11 (5): pp. 508–14.

[ii] Whittington, M.A., Biological Psychiatry, 2008, 63 (8): pp. 728–29; Spencer, K.M., et al. BMC Neuroscience, 2009, 10; Akter, K., et al., Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 2012, 37 (2): pp. 132–39.

[iii] Jamison, K.R., British Journal of Psychiatry, 2011, 199 (5): pp. 351–52; Kelleher, I., et al., Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2012, 38 (2): pp. 239–46; Corrigan, P.W. and A.C. Watson, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2004, 30 (3): pp. 477–79.

Anya Hurlbert is Professor of Visual Neuroscience and Director of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. She is Scientific Trustee of the National Gallery.