Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why has science failed?

"Why has science failed to banish belief in the supernatural?" That's the opening sentence of Dr Adam Hamlin's article, The Neurobiology of Religious Experience, in the new Australian Book of Atheism, edited by Warren Bonett (Scribe Publications, 2010).

The book is available from Warren's online bookstore, Embiggen Books, from the publisher Scribe Publications, or from selected bookstores around Australia. As well as Adam's contribution to the section on neuroscience, the book has chapters from noted public figures including Dr Leslie Cannold, Jane Caro, radio's Robyn Williams, Dr Philip Nitschke, Lyn Allison, Lee Rhiannon and many more, covering atheism and its effect on life, politics, education, society and philosophy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A quiet week, or quite a week

Lots happening in my life this week, so not a lot happening on Kingdom of the Blind. This morning, however, I made the discovery of a blog I haven't read before: Neuroskeptic. If you're interested in neuroscience, this blog is well-written and quite accessible to a layperson.

I especially like the recent post about why mice are the kings of the lab these days. Having heard all about their nasty habits from Dr Adam Hamlin, I've come to realise that the intelligent little critter in Flowers for Algernon is much more realistic when he bites Charlie than when he cuddles him.

The sentiments expressed by Daniel Keyes in his book are echoed by Jim Endersby, in the final chapter of the book that inspired the title of this blog:
Now that we have the knowledge to intervene so effectively in the engineering of living things, we need to ask whether we have the wisdom to use such power wisely.*
*A Guinea Pig's History of Biology (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lost? You may have Alzheimer's

The latest news release from the Queensland Brain Institute reveals new research into the part of the brain that controls our sense of direction (shown in red in the image). This part of the brain is often damaged in Alzheimer's disease, so the researchers hypothesise that an impaired sense of direction could be an early warning sign that could help with diagnosis of this slippery condition.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Music and science

I discovered the Symphony of Science project a while ago, and I can't think why I haven't shared it with you before. Musician John Boswell uses autotune software to set sound and video clips of well-known scientists and philosophers to music. Pearls of wisdom from Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking feature in this composition:

The latest in the series, A Wave of Reason begins with Bertrand Russell and includes several modern thinkers including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Cell birth

I had a couple of hours to spare in the Culture at Work studio this week, so I began another embroidery I've had in mind for a while, based on an image of cell birth that appears on a Queensland Brain Institute bookmark.

The neurons, with their tendrils stretching out to make new connections, look rather sperm-like, which is appropriate when we're talking about the birth of brain cells. What will they develop into as they grow and age? What thoughts will pass along those tendrils?

The beautiful blue and green fluorescent markers used to reveal the cell structures are a lovely colour combination. The thread I'm using is hand-dyed stranded cotton, and the whole work will be in padded satin stitch when it's done; at the moment I'm just working the outlines in outline stitch (I've satin stitched one tendril at the top of the image below).

Friday, December 3, 2010

QBI newsletter

Click here to download a PDF of the latest newsletter from the Queensland Brain Institute.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bizarre bioscapes

I'm pleased to present this amazing image of a rat's hippocampus by Thomas Deerinck. It's a widefield multiphoton fluorescence image stained to reveal the distribution of glia (cyan), neurofilaments (green) and cell nuclei (yellow). Thomas Deerinck works at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego, USA. This image won second prize in the 2010 Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition®.

Each year for the past seven, Olympus (the camera manufacturer) has run a digital imaging competition for those working in life sciences. Any human, animal or plant subject is allowed, and the images are selected and judged on the science they represent, the aesthetics of the picture and the technical proficiency of the photographer. All of the ten winning images are stunning: you can see them and many highly commended images at the Olympus BioScapes website.

Can you pick out the shape of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus (as in my Neurogenesis embroidery below) in Deerinck's prizewinning image? Looking at all those gorgeous colours, my fingers are itching to start a new embroidery!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Flowers for Algernon sequence

Eight purple flowers.

Five pink flowers.

Three yellow flowers, two orange flowers and a red flower.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fibonacci flowers 2

Thirty-four pale green flowers cover the background maze, interspersed with 21 dark green flowers. The next colour to be added will be cyan (13 flowers).

Did you figure out the Fibonacci sequence? (Or did you look it up on Wikipedia?) Each new number is the result of adding the previous two numbers together, starting with zero and one. Simple, but effective.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fibonacci flowers

The Flowers for Algernon embroidery is back on the worktable. As illustrated in yesterday's blog post, I plan to stitch a profusion of coloured flowers over the maze background, symbolising both the literal flowers that Charlie left on Algernon's grave in the story, and the way those flowers stand as a signifier of the idea of memory and loss in the book. The flowers will be worked in lazy daisy stitch with French knot centres, using the same coloured threads as I used in the Axonal connections embroidery.

Usually when I start to fill a space with stitches, I don't plan too far ahead, but simply apply the needle and thread and see where the embroidery takes me. This time, I decided in advance how many flowers of each colour I would stitch (although I left the placement of the flowers to the whim of the moment). I used the Fibonacci sequence, in reverse, to calculate progressively fewer flowers of each colour, starting with light green (34 flowers) and working back to red (1 flower). There's no real reason why I chose the Fibonacci sequence, except that it represents a natural looking progression. The sequence is 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and so on.

If you don't know it, can you work out the mathematical basis of the progression? (Answer tomorrow, or on Wikipedia.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Art and mathematics

Yesterday I visited Sydney's Powerhouse Museum where two books linking mathematics and art were launched. A Maths Odyssey, beautifully illustrated by Matt Huynh, traces the history of mathematics from Euclid to quantum mechanics. The other is a collection of works from students of the Thinking Hyperbolically! course at International Grammar School in Sydney. The students used mathematical concepts such as data mapping, ciphers and parabolas to create visual masterpieces such as those pictured here.

You'll have to forgive me for a little parental pride in this post, since my 15-year-old son is a member of the class.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

On my reading list

This book, to be published in Australia next year by Text Publishing, is so going onto my to-read pile. Just underneath Swann's Way.

In the meantime, I'll keep reading the author's blog, The Frontal Cortex.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The end of the path

I spent yesterday in the Culture at Work studio, making the last few lines of stitching on the Paths of Dreams embroidery, shown above beside Dr Adam Hamlin's image of neuronal pathways in a dreaming rat's brain. A detail of the stitching is below: the thread I used is Gumnut Yarns Stars (hand-dyed variegated stranded silk). The lines of stitching are running stitch, stem stitch, outline stitch, chain stitch and padded satin stitch, as well as some whipped back stitch and running stitch. I varied between using one or two strands of silk, so the "pathways" have different textures and tones.

The first thing people ask when I tell them what this work is based on is, "What do rats dream about?" Mazes, I reply, and cocaine.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Beyond/In WNY

More inspiration for restarting work on my Flowers for Algernon embroidery came from a great exhibition I saw in Buffalo, NY, called Beyond/In WNY.

The works of more than 100 artists in various media were on display, and they are well worth seeing if you're in the area. At University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, I loved Rodney Taylor's slowly disintegrating paintings of trees and landscapes, and getting back to the wilderness with Elinor Whidden's broken-up macho cars. Kurt von Voetsch's exploration of his concept of self through his brain cancer treatment was very moving.

The three artists exhibiting at the WNY Book Arts Center made me laugh and cry at the same time with their subtle and not-so-subtle digs at modern culture and life.

At Buffalo Arts Studio, as well as viewing the exhibited works we were invited to walk through the studio spaces of several other artists. None were at work at the time, but it was interesting to see where art is created, and how other artists organise their studio space (or not). Which reminds me to say, that anyone in the Sydney area is welcome to visit me in the Culture at Work studio at 6 Scott Street, Pyrmont. You'll need to make an appointment -- I'm usually there on Tuesdays but other days can be arranged -- and I'd be happy to show my embroideries and generally chat about creativity, science and Culture at Work. If you'd like to arrange a visit, email me by clicking on my name in the column at right.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A-maize-ing inspiration

I recently visited my sister and her family in the northern hemisphere where it is autumn (fall), and we visited Ressler's Maize Maze near Arcade, NY. Here's my gorgeous nephew heading off to explore the corn maze.We had lots of fun getting lost among the cornstalks. The family who open this maze each year make it more enjoyable by including question clues that give you a brain workout as well. A signpost at one junction asked, "Which is larger, 400 square inches or four square feet?" which was quite difficult for my sister and me, who think in centimetres most of the time; another queried, "Is the tongue an organ?" We argued about that one for several minutes until my brother-in-law resorted to googling it on his Blackberry. He was correct, and I had to admit defeat.

It wasn't really anything particular about the corn maze that led to me being inspired to work on my Flowers for Algernon embroidery again, but it's amazing how exercising your brain and body leads to increased creativity!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Flowers for Algernon revisited

This work was begun very early in the Kingdom of the Blind project, when I reread the book Flowers for Algernon and was thinking about the application of experiments on mice to help us understand human brains. I showed the work, unfinished, at the Culture at Work exhibition in May, but it's been hanging in the studio ever since, waiting for me to be inspired to complete it.

The inspiration for making art is an unknown quantity: sometimes creativity strikes and a work is completed easily and with little effort. This is what happened with most of the other works I've created as part of this residency, even the ones that took many hours of stitching. This maze, on the other hand, started with a burst of inspiration, but then I lost my way through it (pun intended).

I made some effort to finish the work for the exhibition, but I wasn't happy with the result, and recently I unpicked those stitches because they were really just cluttering up the image. I've given it some thought over the past couple of months while I was busy working on other things, but I just couldn't come up with any inspiration to make the next stitch.

The corner, however, has been turned and I can now see my way ahead. I'll post some images over the next few days to share the journey, and I hope to find time to make some progress on the work itself this week too!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Identifying Alzheimer's

This morning's Sydney Morning Herald ran an article from the New York Times on several studies that are trying to discover the earliest signs of Alzheimer's disease. One study is on a family group in Colombia whose members often carry a genetic mutation that guarantees that they will develop Alzheimer's, usually in their 40s. The leaders of this project are trying to identify the very earliest brain changes so that they can develop more effective treatments and possibly preventions. The question that must be asked, however, is whether successful identification and treatment in this population can be applied to sufferers of other forms of Alzhiemer's disease.

Several months ago I listened to an interview with Dr Peter Whitehouse, co-author of the book The Myth of Alzheimer's, on Dr Ginger Cambell's Brain Science podcast #68. Dr Whitehouse takes issue with the use of Alzheimer's disease as a blanket name for many different types of dementia, and wonders whether the widespread use of the term obscures the truth about the range of brain changes that it covers.

All well-conducted scientific research adds to our overall understanding, there's no question about that. The results of the Colombian study will be interesting, and it will be great if they are more widely applicable. At the very least, I hope they will allow for a better quality of life for those carrying the specific genetic mutation that casts such a gloomy shadow over this particular family group.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I know my fear of large hairy spiders is somewhat irrational. The huntsman spiders that I really dislike are mostly harmless and often more scared of me than I am of them, while I'm quite content to be within a few inches of a deadly redback spider (they can't move very fast on those little spindly legs, can they?) But the big, hairy, eight-legged beasts really give me the creeps -- possibly because of occasionally sharing a bedroom with a massive specimen or two when I was growing up on our farm.

Therefore, I will not be volunteering for an experiment like this one, because I really don't need an MRI to tell me that the panic centres in my brain would light up if I saw a tarantula crawling towards my feet.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hiatus in the path

Paths of Dreams has been sitting on the shelf in the Culture at Work studio for several weeks now, waiting for me to return my attention to creating art rather than making money to pay the bills. I only had a short time to work on it today, just adding a few more neural pathways to the growing forest of dream trails. I feel that this work will be finished soon; you can see the last few white pencil lines I've marked in to stitch next time I'm in the studio.

Apologies for the poor quality image, I took this on my mobile phone camera.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Yipping Tiger

Yesterday I finished reading The Yipping Tiger, a book I bought after seeing the author, Dr Perminder Sachdev, in a session at Sydney Writers' Festival. The final chapter discusses cognitive decline and dementia related to ageing, and gives this useful summary:
Unfortunately, age does lead to brain changes. Many older brains have changes that resemble those seen in Alzheimer's disease but do not show the full picture of the disorder. It can be debated whether this is simply very early disease that will eventually show up in the clinic, but even in the presence of these changes, the neuronal numbers are not reduced. It seems that nerve cells do not die with age. What seems most likely is that their networks become less efficient.... A typical neuron has one large fibre called the axon and a number of smaller branches called dendrites, which further branch and subbranch into a dendritic tree. These dendrites link the neuron to other neurons, forming a vastly complex network. The dendrites carry small protrusions like mushroom heads that are smaller than a micrometre and can be seen only by special microscopes. All principal neurons in the brain carry these spines on their dendrites and, for some nerve cells, these can number in the tens of thousands. They form links with spines of other neurons in junctions called synapses through which information flows from one neuron to another.... It has been shown that with ageing, the dendritic spines become less dense. There are other changes as well, especially in relation to the synapses.

Sculpture of a neuron by Roxy Paine,
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, May 2010.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Forensic science and art

As an artist exploring the world through the eyes of a scientist, I'm interested in others who take a different approach to their exploration. At the moment, I wish I could get to Ealing in the UK to see an exhibition called Revealing Evidence.
Textile artist Shelly Goldsmith and Photographer Sarah Pickering explore the working methods and thought processes of forensic scientists, to fill their work with stories and imagined scenarios. Together, the work illustrates the extent to which both scientists and artists, working in very different practices, build pictures, construct scenarios and make assumptions.
Welcome to the kingdom of the blind, Shelly and Sarah!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cognitive decline linked to famine in utero

In the Netherlands at the end of World War II, a five-month famine was the result of blockades by the German army. Rations dropped as low as 1600 kJ (400 calories) per day! This has enabled researchers to conduct long-term studies into the health effects of reduced nutrition, particularly in babies who were in utero during this period. A study at age 19 showed no cognitive differences, but a more recent study now that the people are in their fifties showed that those who suffered famine, particularly in the early stages of gestation, do show more decline than their non-famine-affected peers.

See Discover's 80 beats blog for a more in-depth analysis of the study.

Monday, September 13, 2010

This is handmade

The most often asked question about my embroidery works is, "How long did it take you to stitch that?". Penny Nickels is also a stitcher (along with her husband, Johnny Murder, aka the Manbroiderer) who has been asked this question a lot. She was also tired of people who baulked at the prices of her incredibly intricate and beautiful works, such as Haeckel's Siphonophorae (in progress, below).

Siphonophorae in progress, 140 hours so far...

So Penny created a website in which artists are invited to share five-minute videos of themselves doing their work: not talking, or giving a tutorial, but simply sitting and stitching, or sawing, painting, cutting out, etc. The theory behind the site is,
"If you can't sit through 5 minutes of mind-numbingly boring ass handwork, then you don't get to whine about how much it costs. It's just as tedious for us as it is for the viewer. It really is.
And we don't get health insurance."

Click on the link to watch some of the videos. They are mind-numbingly boring, but also educational.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Today's Sydney Morning Herald newspaper ran an article from The Observer which attempts to debunk the myth that differences between the sexes is hard-wired into the human brain. Associate Professor Lise Eliot, interviewed for the article, says that too much emphasis is placed on very minor developmental differences (three per cent or less) between male and female brains, when we should be focussing on the overwhelming similarities. Drawing too much attention to the differences leads to enlarging them by socialising girls and boys differently, in the manner of the Venus/Mars dichotomy popularised by John Gray. "Pernicious pinkification of little girls" is the way the article describes it.

"There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired. Every skill, attribute and personality trait is moulded by experience," Lise Eliot says.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Right brain, left brain II

I recently discussed the issue of duality of the brain and our ever-increasing knowledge of the way the two hemispheres work, separately and together. The traditional understanding of right brain for art and left brain for science is beautifully illustrated in the works above by artist Don Stewart. Stewart trained as a medical doctor before quitting a surgical internship to devote his time to art and writing. His drawings, made using a ballpoint pen, reveal a deep understanding of anatomy and physiology combined with a quirky sense of humour.

Visit his website and choose your favourite. (I like the one called "Quack".)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Of mice and men and worms

Wilberforce (supposedly) asked Huxley, in their famous debate on The Origin of Species, "Is it on your grandfather's or grandmother's side that you claim descent from a monkey?" Wonder how he would have felt if he read this report about a study of gene expression in the brain that points to the existence of a common ancestor of both mammals and worms about 580 million years ago?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Imagining the brain

I stumbled across this brain art exhibition from high school students in Cambridge, UK. The organisers of the annual competition say:
Imagining the Brain is:
A dialogue about science, especially neuroscience
An artistic expression of science and its wider implications.
The themes for works submitted in 2010 were "Diversity or Disorder" and "[St]Ages of the Brain". Click on the link above to see the gallery of submissions from local teenagers, along with some of the judges' comments: there's a lot of food for thought.

Friday, September 3, 2010

SAX on the brain

If you're in Sydney, please check out my friend Ian Saxby's science-inspired artworks at his show on Saturday, September 11th. The show is at 2pm, at Derivan, Unit 4/23 Leeds Street, Rhodes. One of the works on display will be his brainy painting, Beelzebub, that I've featured in this blog before.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dream on, daydreamers

An article from the New York Times reports that electronic multitasking is making us dumber. By filling every idle moment with mental input and sensory stimuli of all kinds, we're reducing our brains' downtime. (I recently wrote about a similar article extolling the virtues of daydreaming.) It is becoming apparent that we need the occasional zoning-out zone to absorb information and lay down long-term memories. Nature walks, apparently, are much better for you than a stroll down a city street.

Bushwalk, anyone?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Left brain, right brain

The latest neuroscience book on my reading list is The Yipping Tiger, by Perminder Sachdev. (You may recall that he was on a panel with Lone Frank that I attended during this year's Writers' Festival.) In chapter two, discussing a man who chooses to have the two halves of his brain disconnected to combat debilitating epilepsy, Dr Sachdev writes:
The strange behaviour of Robert's left hand takes one on a long journey of the concept of the double-brain that began in its rudimentary form with the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and reached its zenith in the debates of the classical neurologists of the nineteenth century.... The double-brain theory was a potent source of psychological theorising in the nineteenth century, some of which was the consequence of over-enthusiastic leaps of logic.

....Was there indeed a double consciousness or a duality of mind after all? Or was it more fruitful to conceptualise it in terms of specialisation in the brain, with the coordinated activity in these regions laying the foundation for an individual's personality and consciousness? Was the right/left difference the basis for the two dichotomies of existence: rational and emotive–intuitive, propositional and appositional, yin and yang, science and art? The debates that followed were fertile ground for a range of ideas on politics, culture, society, arts and philosophy, which I will not discuss here.
Many people express surprise when I talk about the Kingdom of the Blind project combining my interests in art and science, because the received wisdom is that those subjects are located on different sides of the brain and one must be dominant over the other, or possibly even preclude the other. I hope that one of the results of my work on this project is that it makes people reassess their assumptions about the human brain and how it works.

On a related note, you can listen to this week's Skeptoid podcast, in which Brian Dunning discusses the commonly used Myers-Briggs personality test and its attempts to divide people into two opposing categories (extrovert/introvert, rational/intuitive, etc). Food for thought!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dreams VI

This picture shows the Paths of Dreams work after today's stitching. I've had to mark the gap between the two lobes of the images to remind me not to get carried away and fill it with stitches! The images below show the progress of the work since I began it. I estimate it has taken about 12 hours so far.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Coming soon to a venue near you...

This morning I dismantled the exhibition of my embroideries at Ultimo TAFE during the Science Festival. Next stop, Queensland Brain Institute... then possibly to Embiggen Books on the Sunshine Coast.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dreams V

I only had a couple of hours to spare today for a little more work on the Paths of Dreams embroidery, while listening to the latest (23 Aug) episode of the Are We Alone podcast. This episode features an interview with Dr Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics researcher at the University of Reading, England. Dr Warwick has recently succeeded in growing rat brain cells in a laboratory, then using these brain cells to control a simple robot.

Dr Warwick told Are We Alone that he hoped knowing more about learning and memory in this simple synthetic brain would eventually lead to new understanding about human brain diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dostoyevsky's brain

I'm rereading Crime and Punishment for my philosophy class, and just beginning The Idiot. The latter book was written by Dostoyevsky during a period of exile, when he frequently suffered from epileptic fits. The introduction to the book says:
"How can it be good when my faculties are utterly shattered by my illness? I have still my imagination, and it isn't a bad one at that; I tested it on my novel the other day. But my memory seems to have gone!" ... he was also overwhelmed by "a feeling of terrible guilt" just as though he had committed "some dreadful crime". But his feeling before the onset of the fit... seemed to compensate him for its terrible aftermath. "For a few moments before the fit," he wrote to the critic Nikolai Strakhov, "I experience a feeling of happiness such as it is quite impossible to imagine in a normal state and which other people have no idea of. I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up ten years of one's life, if not one's whole life."*
This description aligns with the findings of the researchers using the God helmet, that feelings of bliss and religious transcendence seem to be linked to electrical activity in the frontal lobes of the brain. I am looking forward to seeing what insights Dostoyevsky, by making his main character in The Idiot an epileptic too, gives into the workings of the human brain from his nineteenth-century perspective.

* Quote is taken from the Translator's Introduction to the 1955 Penguin Classics edition of The Idiot.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Being part of the future

Last night I read the concluding chapter of Mindfield, a book which has taken me on a fascinating journey through the latest developments in neuroscience. The author, Lone Frank, asks a series of questions about how our growing understanding of the brain raises questions about the mind, about the idea of "myself". She asks:
What will define the neurorevolution? As I see it, we are looking at a liberation. The general message wrapped up in the countless research results is a message of freedom. That might sound overblown, but it becomes obvious when you think about what all this brain research is fundamentally doing. It is providing us with unprecedented insight into ourselves. The scanners and artful experiments are pushing us past guesswork, assumptions and vague notions in order to reveal exactly what is hiding deep within this formidable creature Homo sapiens. By exposing human nature, neuroscience makes us able to transcend and rise above it.
In my philosophy class last week, we were discussing Freud's concept of the self and how the modern understanding of psychology and physiology has altered our thinking. A discussion arose between the materialists in the class, who believe that our selves are the products of our physiology interacting with our environment (what Lone Frank calls the habitus of the human mind), and those with a more metaphysical bent, who believe that the self is transcendent: that the sum of our genetic, physiological and psychological parts is less than the whole.

These latter-day transcendentalists believe that studies in neuroscience will never uncover the basic explanation for how we think and why we think the way we do. Yet when you consider the leaps and bounds that neuroscience has made in the past 20 or 30 years, the future possibilities seem almost unlimited. When Crick and Watson first revealed the structure of DNA in the mid-twentieth century, the mapping of the human genome that was completed some fifty years later would have seemed an impossible task. Who is to say that, in fifty or a hundred years time, we won't have a similar map of the human mindfield?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Treading the path gently

I'm still reading Lone Frank's book, Mindfield: the penultimate chapter is about that almost uniquely human ability – lying. Why we lie, how we lie, how we justify the need to lie, and whether there's any foolproof way of catching someone lying, are all questions that neuroscientists are currently trying to answer. It occurs to me that dreams have such an important place in our culture because we generally believe that they are a window into our unconscious mind, a place where we cannot tell a lie, even to ourselves.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dream work

Work is moving right along on my embroidery based on Dr Adam Hamlin's image of neural pathways of dreams (you can see a print of the original image in my visual journal in the top left corner of this photograph). Once again, the repetitive work of stitching the patterns gives me the perfect opportunity to enjoy the winter sunshine, indulge in a few daydreams and listen to music or podcasts like Professor Todd Daniels' Great Ideas in Psychology series, on Sleep, Dreaming and Hypnosis.

I've never been hypnotised, and I don't particularly want to try it, but I've occasionally wondered whether I'd be one of those people who are susceptible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Paths of Dreams IV

The early stages of my work "Paths of Dreams", showing the first strands of stitched pathways.

I wanted to do a bit of related reading, and found this old article (from 2001) on studies of dreaming in rats. The article refers to research by Dr Matthew Wilson of MIT, who believes that dreaming may be related to learning and memory, which made me wonder about dreams in people affected by Alzheimer's disease. This led me to reports of a new study (published in the journal Neurology in July 2010) that links dream disorders to later development of dementia. It will be interesting to see whether this research leads to better methods of early diagnosis in the future.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

In the news

Hope you can all go along and see it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I spent several hours in the sun-drenched studio at Culture at Work yesterday, testing out thread and stitch combinations for Paths of Dreams. Here's a combination of the Rajmahal silks (on the right) and the Gumnut silks (on the left) in running stitch, stem stitch, chain stitch and padded satin stitch.

I like the vibrancy of the colour in the Rajmahal silks, while the Gumnut threads seem to hold the stitch shapes better. The variegation in the Gumnut threads is also appealing, as it seems to mimic the light and shade of events in dreams and the cyclical nature of sleep.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dreamy threads

I had some Rajmahal Art Silk threads picked out to stitch the Paths of Dreams work, then I found these hand-dyed raw silk threads from Gumnut Yarns. What a dilemma! Which ones should I use, or should I use both? The Rajmahal ones are more vibrant in colour, but these are the same kind of threads as I used to stitch the Neurogenesis series, which would make a nice continuity.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hanging by a wire

The exhibition of the Kingdom of the Blind works, part of Ultimo Science Festival, is hung and open to the public. In these pictures, Dani and Brett from Ultimo TAFE help me hang the works in the MUSE.

I'm very pleased with the framing, which was done by Art Scene at West Ryde (I've been getting my work framed there for years now.)

It all looks very professional from the outside.

But it's amazing what you can do with gaffer tape!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Paths of dreams III

This week I sketched out the initial design for the Paths of Dreams embroidery. I like the fact that Dr Adam Hamlin's original image is roughly in the shape of a footprint, giving a double meaning to the word "paths" in the title. It's as though the neural pathways of the dream are also a figurative path into the unconscious. Is that a bit Freudian for a Friday?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tests for Alzheimer's disease?

According to this article in the New York Times, a test of spinal fluid that looks for certain markers of Alzheimer's disease may be able to aid an early diagnosis in people with memory loss.

Alzheimer’s, medical experts now agree, starts a decade or more before people have symptoms. And by the time there are symptoms, it may be too late to save the brain. So the hope is to find good ways to identify people who are getting the disease, and use those people as subjects in studies to see how long it takes for symptoms to occur and in studies of drugs that may slow or stop the disease.

However, the article goes on to raise the question: since we don't have any reliable treatment for the disease, what's the point of undergoing a possibly painful or at least uncomfortable test to confirm that you've got it?

Thanks to Derek Colanduno of Skepticality for directing my attention to this article.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Paths of dreams II

This is a selection of magenta and hot pink Rajmahal Art Silk threads I've chosen to stitch the Paths of Dreams. At this stage I plan a combination of chain stitch variations, stem stitch and padded satin stitch to create the interlinked neural pathways on a black silk shantung background.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Paths of dreams

This is another of Dr Adam Hamlin's images, showing the neural pathways of dreams. It reminds me of a poem by e.e. cummings:

Now i lay(with everywhere around)
me(the great dim deep sound
of rain;and of always and of nowhere)and
what a gently welcoming darkestness--

now i lay me down(in a most steep
more than music)feeling that sunlight is
(life and day are)only loaned:whereas
night is given(night and death and the rain

are given;and given is how beautifully snow)

now i lay me down to dream of(nothing
i or any somebody or you
can begin to begin to imagine)

something which nobody may keep.
now i lay me down to dream of Spring

Monday, August 9, 2010

Carpe diem

This image popped up as the screen saver on my computer and I wondered why I hadn't shared it with you. You've seen the finished embroidery, but I love the way this shot pulls all the elements of the work in progress together, and the way they all sparkle in the winter sunshine!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Addiction part three

This is the finished bead work based on cocaine addiction in a rat's brain. The sparkling beads represent the neurons' response to the stimulus of cocaine, showing how the drug gives pleasure and satisfaction. That's very similar to the way the stitching of these beads was like an addiction to me: once I started, I couldn't stop!

Because I am sure I will be asked, I will tell you now that the stitching of this piece took about 32 hours. It was a little faster to complete than the mouse brain in French knots, because the beads are larger and easier to stitch.