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.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Addiction part two

Dr Adam Hamlin's image of cocaine addiction in a rat's brain inspired me to search out the vibrant beads I'm using for my latest embroidery work. The selection of beads in three basic colour ways (green, red and orange) comprises bugle beads, seed beads, larger round beads and the occasional faceted bead, in clear, translucent, opalescent and opaque finishes. I've jumbled them all together and am choosing the beads at random to stitch onto the fabric. More pics soon!

Comments about my addiction (to beads, threads and fabric rather than cocaine) will be accepted with as much grace as I can muster.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Addicted to stitching

A few days ago, I was speaking to a publicist about the Ultimo Science Festival exhibition and she asked how the Kingdom of the Blind project got started. I've explained before how Adam and I met through a common interest in astronomy, and discovered another common interest in the beautiful imagery of science.

The image above is the first one that Adam showed me, of his work studying addiction in rats. Although it's been a long time coming to fruition, I've finally started the embroidery based on this image: the first step has been to hand-dye some stranded embroidery cotton, then start covering the background in feather stitch to mimic the feathery tendrils of the neurons in this image.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ultimo Science Festival

One of my favourite activities every year in August is to attend the Ultimo Science Festival, which is part of National Science Week. There are always interesting lectures, activities and exhibitions, and this year is even more exciting because Culture at Work has been asked to exhibit the Kingdom of the Blind works.

When: Monday 16 – Sunday 29 August: 10am – 4pm
Where: The Muse, Ultimo TAFE Building C, Harris St
More info: Click here

Monday, August 2, 2010

Daydreaming for the future

An article in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald argues its case with the old chestnut that I am hereby calling the reductio ad Einsteinium. Einstein was a daydreamer, the author claims, therefore daydreaming must make you smart. To give credit where it is due, the article does go on to say that only some kinds of daydreams make you smart, or is it that smart children tend to daydream to relieve their boredom in class?

Dr Marcus Raichle, of Washington University, postulates that the human brain has a default network that operates when the brain is not receiving outside stimuli, and thinks that activity in this network is related to daydreaming. "It has since been established that this network is impaired in people with autism or Alzheimer's," the article says.

So go ahead and daydream...