Not all Those who Wander are Lost


Today I graduate for the 4th time. As of today, I have qualifications in Neuroscience, Neurobiology, Education, and now ‘Art, Philosophy and Contemporary Practice’.

Some may say that I’m over qualified, but over qualified for what exactly? There’s no job description I’m trying to match myself to. No pre-existing role I’m trying to fill. So have I been wandering aimlessly or searching for something, for some kind of meaning? Or have I meandered down a path of my own choosing, finding interesting companions along the way?

I went to a talk earlier this week which reignited my passion for Neuroscience, not that I think it ever truly went away. It was interesting to return to thoughts of experimental protocols, data analysis and the interpretation of results, in light of my recent forays into Phenomenology. It was as though seeing it all again through fresh eyes. I found myself challenging the assumptions of that third person view of the world, in favour of a more direct access to the world. I found myself wanting to put myself into the body of a rat, to imagine the being of the rat.

Curiously enough, I remember attending a lecture on the whisker barrels in cats at Sussex University back in my late teens, so Dr Pearson’s account of whisker barrels in rats seemed all too familiar but what was different this time was my reaction to it. I’m no longer that teenager who dreamt of one-day building robots, now I’m a woman that ‘makes stuff that makes people think’. I make immersive virtual experiences.

One new insight from the talk I had never considered before was the notion of a foveated sense of touch. Rats, unlike cats, have an area of intense micro-vibrissae in addition to their macro-vibrissae which are attenuated (and have underlying musculature so they can move). Of course, it makes sense now I come to think of it. A great evolutionary response to the problem of accessing the world around them. Rats, unlike cats, are predominantly driven by their sense of touch. They feel their way around, navigating objects in the world. It is believed that they build-up a kind of spatial map in the hippocampus. I find myself pondering what the rat equivalent to ‘closing your eyes and trying to imagine the route between A and B’, would be like. Are rats really building up a picture of the world around them? And what would that look like? Note the prevailing visual dominance; picture and look. Is our own visual dominance every escapable in our comprehension of other species?

This is by no means a new question. In 1974, Thomas Nagel published his widely cited paper What is it like to be a bat? He begins from the assumption that bats have experience and “that there is something that it is like to be a bat”. Then I found out about the Nagel/Dennet Debate, and so the more I research, the more I realise that I want to be a part of that conversation and so many others like it, but not in the way I thought I would the first time I graduated way back in 1998. I don’t want to write, I want to make. I want to make stuff that makes people think. I want to make art. There is a clarity to an object, an experience or an image. An artwork can convey so much that is unspoken but as I have learned over the past three years, an artwork is also the site of that dialogue, through its making and through its being made available to the public.

I came to Art College to train my hands, to use physical means to express what was inside, to let my emotions. Instead, I opened my mind, found new ways to question. Now with the HTC Vive, I think I’ve found the tool that will form the basis of my practice around. Virtual Reality has been hailed as this great tool of empathy. We can literally put ourselves in the shoes of others. It can be a new way of story-telling, of being in a scenario that we might not otherwise be able to experience, and it can be used to teach new skills, to practice-before-we-practice, so to speak; and a new way to convey and exhibit, to show and to share.

There are so many more questions to be explored and I want to be part of that conversation, but it took almost 20 years of wandering to get to this point… what will the next 20 years bring…