When most of us admire a piece of art, it triggers a cascade of complex neural activity; a wash of emotion and meaning that fills our brains and prompts deep thought. But does that happen for people with neurological conditions, too?
Forthcoming Oxford-based exhibition Affecting Perception seeks to explore that very question, through a combination of art, seminars and school workshops. Organised by Martha Crawford, Cosima Gretton and Rachel Stratton, who together form the AXNS collective, the aim is to understand how artists and their work are affected by neurological conditions.
The team is working with the University's Department of Experimental Psychology and artists who suffer from conditions ranging from dementia to brain damage, in order to help the public understand how art and neuroscience are intertwined. “We're trying to engage the community with the kind of learning usually kept in the University,” explains Martha Crawford.
Helping them achieve that are Prof. Glyn Humphreys and Prof. Charles Spence, both from the University's Department of Experimental Psychology. Individually, they’ll be leading seminars during the exhibition which explore the overlap between academia and art. “There’s a coarse level of understanding of neuropsychology outside of academia, which means people are sometimes scared of neurological conditions,” explains Professor Glyn Humphreys. “I think anything we can do to raise awareness has to be a good thing.”
During the course of the four-week exhibition, Prof. Humprheys will talk about visual agnosia: a condition where patients can’t associate visual stimulus with meaning. It’s a rare condition, but it’s of interest to artists and scientists alike. Separating meaning and aesthetic is a trick used by artists to explore the two more thoughtfully; Humphreys’ patients still have little choice but to face the world that way.
Elsewhere, Prof. Spence will talk about subtle forms of synesthesia, called cross-modal correspondences, which affect us all. Synesthesia is that odd condition where stimulating one sense leads to automatic experiences in a second; cross-modal correspondences are more subtle, like the way red stars make many of us think of bitter flavours. Plenty of famous creatives have used the phenomenon to great effect — and during his talk, Spence will explain how it can help amplify our enjoyment of art.
There’s no denying that these are weighty subject indeed. But by understanding them just a little better we can achieve a better grasp on the neurological conditions that many suffer — and break down the stigma attached to them, too.
Affecting Perception runs from 4th-31st March 2013 at venues across Oxford. Admission is free. For more information, visit http://axnscollective.org.
Images by Jon Adams and William Utermohlen