Through the dark

My niece is showing me her room, she lifts up a little bear and with a press, he lights up. “He chases away the monsters,” she tells me. From a young age we fear the monsters in the dark, and although I’m no longer afraid of the monsters, I have been afraid of a permanent darkness, of losing my vision. I’m not alone, in a Vision 2020 Australian national study it was found that nearly two-thirds of Australians fear going blind over losing a limb or having a heart attack. 

It’s an unlikely fear with 75 per cent of vision loss or blindness being preventable or treatable. And yet at times, I think how I would live without sight. I was able to experience it for an hour at Dialogue in the Dark. With the help of a blind or partially sighted guide, I am going to explore a completely dark space created to mimic Melbourne.

I’m given a cane and we enter. The light dissipates more quickly than I expected, a few turns and we’re in utter darkness. All I know is the cold, smooth rail under my hand, and then it ends. I am nowhere. Adrift in the dark. But no, there is a click of a cane behind me. I am not the only one here to experience a Dialogue in the Dark. The kind voice of our guide helps us through. We’re in her world now. She lost the majority of her sight when she was three, a tumour that can’t be removed. Her world is one of touch and sound. Even before we enter we’re told that our voice will be important. For someone who often has problems finding their voice this resonated with me. Our voices were essential in making our presence known and in helping each other navigate the darkness.

It was all we knew of our guide – her confident, patient and kind voice – just a presence in the dark – but that doesn’t mean we knew her any less. She said that she’s not interested in what people look like, and why would she be when she has their voice, their presence.

We’re taken through a market and with touch and smell we decipher what’s in front of us. An onion, it’s skin flaking off. A pineapple, rough under my fingers.  An apple. The image of a red apple pops into mind as I feel it’s smooth round surface. What comes first into the mind of those you have never seen an apple? Is it the shape, the feeling of the texture, the smell, the crunch as you bite through the skin?

We’re in a forest, the texture beneath our feet changes, a breeze on our faces, the sounds of birds in the distance. A leaf brushes against my face and it’s the most frightful experience of the day. I realise how intrusive a touch could be, to someone who can not see it coming. Someone is having trouble finding an object and our guide asks, ‘Can I touch your hand?’. He answers, ‘Yes, of course.’ His tone suggests it’s an unnecessary question. But it seems a very important question to me. If you can not see the touch coming, the sudden fingers on yours, it would be an invasion.

With the help of our guide, we navigate through the constructed recreation of Melbourne, past the MCG, through the Queen Vic markets, a laneway, onto a tram and finishing up in a living room. Much more confident now I found my way around the space with more ease. Now I’m intrigued to see the space in the light. How different would it be? The only impression I have is what I managed to touch. Perhaps it would be different for someone with more experience navigating in the dark. Our guide says that although she’s never been taught to use echoes to ‘see’ a space, she’s still able to tell where walls and large objects are, it seems to me like an almost subconscious rendering of echoing sounds. It’s a difference world to the one I’m used to, but that doesn’t make it a lesser one. Our guide’s independence and strength is proof of that.

Unseen Spaces in Highlight

A little while ago I went to the exhibition and talk by Shaun Tan at Tinning Street Presents, “Every Place is the Same”. And as I read Murakami now, those images are coming back to me. They both share an interest in the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Tan’s landscapes, often those urban spaces you see every day, become a place of whimsy and beauty – showing their potential to be extraordinary.

Murakami’s work is no less whimsical or beautiful, but almost a direct opposite. As he shows us the ordinary in the extraordinary. The easy acceptance of the impossible, makes it seem almost every day.

Can we constantly be in these two states? Schrödinger’s thought experiment was to disprove using the Quantum mechanical superposition state on everyday objects, but perhaps we can – in a more metaphysical sense. We are both ordinary and extraordinary, until observing the system forces the system to collapse and forces the object into just one of those possible states.

Or perhaps there is just two type of people as Murakami writes in “A Wild Sheep Chase”“Now people can generally be classified into two groups: the mediocre realist and the mediocre dreamers.” (page 180)

But then what would I know, “It’s an illusion that we know anything at all.” (page 125)

I love to read a Murakami novel in those in-between places, clinical by nature, like airports and hotel bars – where time is meaningless. Those sort of places I can see Tan painting into something extraordinary.

Even better if I have something warm to sip when I read lines like “In which there is nothing” (page 85). There’s truth in a lot of what he says, especially, “The second whisky is always my favourite.” (page 100).

I may be buying a bottle of Nikka Whisky From the Barrel when I finish this book.

Head in the Clouds

A look into Neuroaesthetics

I was looking up at the clouds the other day, finding pictures where I could. It’s something I haven’t done for a while. Flooding me with memories of childhood, summer days, itchy grass and laughter. I noticed that in trying to interpret obscure images within the clouds I found myself remembering moments and images I had thought long forgotten. This is one of the reasons art holds such an appeal to me – it’s ability to trigger memories and emotions.
Our whole lives are filtered and interpreted by our brains. Just looking at one picture is a complicated journey, containing twists and turns all completed in half a second. From photoreceptors absorbing light, electrical signals traveling along neuronal pathways, through the thalamus and relayed to different processing areas of the brain. One of the pathways visual information can take is known as the ‘What?’ pathway. It is here that long-term memories can be activated by visual input. The potential memories are only brought to mind if the neurons are activated. So if an image is unknown, but has certain visual tags, it can spark up the correlating memories.
I’m getting a little into Neuroaesthetics here, the study of the brain in relation to aesthetics. Can we look into the brain to explore and understand our relationship with art? It’s a question that has gained popularity but not without some criticism. Including from neuroscientist Bevil Conway and musicologist Alexander Rehding. They have said “it is an open question whether an analysis of artworks, no matter how celebrated, will yield universal principles of beauty” and that “rational reductionist approaches to the neural basis for beauty … may well distill out the very thing one wants to understand.” (Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty) Both of these criticisms seem to have assumed that the aim is beauty. When I tend to agree with Brown and Dissanayake:
“Aesthetic emotions are unquestionably an integral part of the arts, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to characterize them. Thus, a narrow focus on aesthetic responses is ultimately a distraction from the larger picture of what the arts are about.”
I’m not interested in hearing a right/wrong manual for art and beauty – not that it would even be possible. I am interested in furthering a discourse on art. Perhaps as Brown and Dissanayake suggest the term should be Neuroartsology.

Another criticism  findings as Matthew Rampley writes in ‘The Seduction of Darwin’. “…at best it merely adds an additional discursive layer; familiar aesthetic concepts are redescribed using the vocabulary of neurology.”
The idea that impressionism triggers a more emotional response is a familiar concept, however it is further explained with neuroscience. Patrick Cavanagh discusses it in “The artist as neuroscientist”:
“Brain imaging of subjects presented with faces expressing fear show that the amygdala (a centre of emotion) responds strongly to a blurry version of the faces. In contrast, areas responsible for conscious face recognition respond weakly to blurry faces and best to faces presented in sharp detail. Impressionist works may connect more directly to emotional centres than to conscious image-recognition areas because the unrealistic patchwork of brush strokes and mottled colouring distract conscious vision.”
That could be seen as a new description of an old concept, but knowing the why is a necessary step in understanding human behaviors and exploring art’s potential. With technology improving and more study there’s a lot of potential to find.

I’m just beginning my journey into Neuroaesthetics. I have a lot more reading ahead.