Last night I went to Mind & Body NightLife at Cal Academy. I’ve been to NightLife maybe a dozen times, and it doesn’t get old. I like to take visitors there, as the museum is a stunning space with a great variety of exhibits, friendly docents, and interactive learning opportunities for a rainbow of levels of attentional deficit. NightLife is a great time to visit, mostly because you can drink in the aquarium. In fact, no matter the theme of a given NightLife, I usually just end up gawking at the marine life. This time my first stop, as usual, was to see how my boy Claude is doing. I realized that for any given visit, Claude represents roughly 30% of the thrill, for me. It’s got to be healthy for our minds to see things that we cannot believe are real, and yet are.
My capricious and admittedly childlike fascinations are the main reason why I won’t pretend I’m going to tell you about this particular edition of NightLife in any comprehensive sort of way. I hadn’t planned on it. So, true to form, I missed the excellent-sounding planetarium show (a guided meditation by Dr. Philippe Goldin, which experience I hope to recreate at home through the magic of the internet), DJ Qbert (retro-FOMO levels: extreme), and the rainforest closing time, all because fish are so stupidly fun to watch. But in our haphazard wanderings we did have the accidental pleasure of becoming transfixed as one of the more passionate and gregarious and resplendently ponytailed botanists I’ve ever seen ranted about misnomered medicinal plants, popular misconceptions re: caffeine levels in native species, and the ecological injustices perpetrated on Indian reservations.
There was one thing, though, that we were not going to miss, and that is NeuroDisco. Our awesome dream team of friends Erica (who also happens to be the creator of Ned the Neuron, my love, pictured in my Gravatar), Richard, and Chung-Hay have been working on this project for a while now and it’s been lots of fun to see the project evolve. Using an EEG headset, brain waves are “converted” into sounds and colors. The “EEGJ” first practices producing excitement, frustration, and meditation, and the team can use the EEGJ’s subsequent emotional states, as recorded by EEG, to drive audio in the form of beats that match the titration of their three emotions. Because it can be difficult to reproduce a previously experienced brain state and even more difficult to do this when noisy EEG signals are the arbiter of the sameness of those brain states, EEGJ often fluctuated between one emotion and another, for instance excitement and frustration.
The beats themselves are pre-selected to represent one emotion or another, but the combination of beats is controlled by the EEGJ’s emotional states. This time around, instead of the giant neuron pictured in the video above, they had set up a gigantic screen that allowed the colors associated with the EEGJ’s emotional state to fill the African Hall with a moody glow to match the beats, while a trio of dancers (led by our awesome Altered States founder & facilitator, Gautam) interpreted the emotional state with their movements. I watched a spontaneous piece that seemed driven primarily by a very meditative EEGJ, but Erica told me, “There was a guy earlier who kept it on excitement the whole time–the dancers needed a break after that one!”
The addition of dancers was particularly interesting to me, as it seemed to close the loop that begins with the EEGJ’s brain, projects out into the world, and reaches yet other brains whose bodies now have rich audiovisual signals for understanding and interpreting the mind of the stationary EEGJ, in a way that is anything but stationary. The EEGJ can then watch the dancers, who can in turn affect their emotions, and round and round we go. How we understand the minds of others is something I’m keenly interested in, from the Theory of Mind explanations offered at a low level by the existence and preferences of mirror neurons to my own experiences trying to anticipate and respond the intentions of others using bodily cues in capoeira. In my opinion, the ways in which we use mirror neurons to describe behavioral phenomena are one piece of the puzzle, but certainly don’t constitute an explanation. Their sexy name has conferred a durability to the hype which has, in turn, caused people to hang on the explanatory power of mirror neurons in completely weird ways, like when fMRI, an imaging technology with a spatial resolution far beneath the level of single neurons, provides “evidence for the existence of mirror neurons in humans” that seems to grow wings and leap across the explanatory gap. Even if we could image single cells with this technique, it’s unlikely that the mere existence of mirror neurons would explain, say, empathy, in a satisfactory way.
But that is another discussion for another time. What’s interesting to focus on, as far as NeuroDisco is concerned, is what is so appealing to people about “directly” controlling something with their brain. Why is it compelling to feel an emotion, and see it played out in colors, sounds, and dance right in front of you? Is it the thrill of control? Are we seeking confirmation or denial that such a thing could actually work? Does it tap into our need to be understood in some deeper way? NeuroDisco fascinates for the same reasons mirror neurons fascinated when they were first discovered–because it makes us think about how information can be shared across the gaps between brains. Whether you’re using EEG to convert emotions to music, fMRI to predict a person’s viewing experience, or dance to interpret music interpreting brain waves interpreting emotions, two things are certain: that we as humans have a real hunger to know the minds of others, and that we are capable of being infinitely creative in the ways in which we attempt to encode and decode the contents of minds. While it’s unclear whether converting brain waves into sights and sounds will ever be used to drive things like video games and communication devices, NeuroDisco represents, to me, a shift in the way we think about the relationship between brain activity and the phenomena it causes. Sparking an interest in this relationship at events like NightLife can only foster a culture where we attract fresh new perspectives from scientists, artists, dancers and gawkers alike.