The journey of a neuroscientist at Terra Comunal - MAI
Quotes by Adam Horowitz
Photographs by Hick Duarte
Wednesday, May 13 - 2015
Adam Haar Horowitz is a young neuroscientist who has studied at the Cognition and Aging Lab at Pomona College and the Gabrieli Lab at MIT. The blue-eyed, enthusiastic researcher doesn't quite fit the picture of a MIT scientist that we had envisioned: he wears a jean jacket and talks with a willful, accessible, and unskeptical approach. Horowitz has also studied religion, spirituality, and performance art. He was invited as a speaker for FLAGCX's workshop on intersections between art, science, and technology which took place Friday, May 1, at the “In Between” space at Terra Comunal- MAI.
Horowitz arrived at SESC Pompeia around 1:30pm to experience the Abramovic Method. Two hours later, he left the Method area through its white corridors feeling, as he would explain later, like everything around him was moving slightly slower. It was as if the slowdown enhanced his awareness of the environment, the energy, details of his surroundings. So we took some time to relax before undertaking a journey we had planned together. For the entire afternoon, we wandered around the exhibition while talking about the experience itself, correlating it to subjects like art, neuroscience, and society: the presence, the senses, neurons, consciousness, mindfulness, spirituality, education, politics, and more. What follows is a synthesis of hours of our conversation:
1. Immediately after exiting the Abramovic Method
“After the Abramovic Method I feel slow. I feel like taking in a lot more than I would take in normally, way more contemplative. A slight slowness compared to normal. And it makes me wonder: why is slow better than fast? Why does slowing down move people emotionally? For me, it's because slowness makes you really want to take action with more purpose, with more attention. If I'm just going to take 10 steps in 10 minutes, I'll really want to take every step the best I can, dissect each moment of my journey, experience it in intense detail.
When you leave all of your responsibilities at the door at the Abramovic Method, it makes you realize how little time you actually get to spend without feeling responsible for a thousand things and focusing just in yourself. In terms of neuroscience, when talking about spending time with yourself, what researchers I’ve worked with are interested now is in the Default Mode Network -- what it is: when you lie down in bed alone before falling asleep or lie down without a task, for example, people always tend to do the same thing: they always reflect on themselves. They think about what's happening in their life, what's annoying them, what's making them happy, their past, their memories, their plans for the future. All of that self-referential thought seems to be in one brain network, the Default Mode Network. And it looks like there is an interesting anti-correlation: whenever this network is turned on, other networks that control attention are turned off. So when you are not focusing on a task, you are focusing on yourself. What's really cool about things such as the Abramovic Method, and meditation does it also, is that they make these two opposite networks correlated. Instead of focusing on yourself when distracted, you start paying attention to focusing on yourself, which is a really different experience. It means you can pay attention to this self-reflection, be more aware of it like you’re more aware of your 10 minute footsteps in the Method. If you practice something like this daily, there’s good evidence from researchers, like Judson Brewer, that it can really change how your brain works.
People talk a lot about how this change in active self-reflection brings about a change in presence. I relate being present to being conscious. The simplest way to approach subjective questions of consciousness is thinking about how we experience ourselves as conscious. This is through qualia, meaning the redness of red, the sharpness of sound - it's the perception of something, the experience of redness more than perceptual. Studying qualia is a direct road to studying consciousness, which is why for me it's really cool that methods like these begin with exercises to wake up your senses. Wake up your [sense of] smell, wake up your mouth, wake up your eyes. In the same way that you can correlate attention to the Default Mode Network, you can correlate attention with all of your sensory networks. What people say is, after a long time concentrating on each of these senses, they feel more aware of everything around them. I did research for my thesis with people that spent 10 days performing these kind of exercises 10 minutes a day, and in the end they could take in way more information from a rapid visual stimulus than a control group."
2. Walking around the Marina Abramovic retrospective
A) THE ARTIST IS PRESENT exhibit
“Gustavo asked me ‘what do you think when you look at these faces?’ [pointing to a wall inside the room dedicated to The Artist is Present exhibit. The wall is covered with projections of faces engaged in a mutual gaze with Marina Abramovic]
Eye-gazing really excites me because often, the eyes are the first thing to look at to understand how a brain works non-invasively. If you are injured by a car accident, for example, the first thing a doctor will do is examine how your eyes are behaving to get some clues about specific brain damage—precise deficits, drooping or pupil changes for example, are tied to specific parts of the brain malfunctioning.
This eye-gazing experience provides an almost automatic way to engage empathetically. It's just not hard to imagine how each one of these people is feeling. You look at them and you see who is tired, who is sad, who is determined to sit another 3 hours. You can really connect with these people's eyes.
In neuroscience, there's a lot of research and excitement (and contention) around mirror neurons that are tied to empathy. These neurons ‘mirror’ the behavior of somebody else as in our own brains, as if their bodies were our own. I see you grasp a cookie, and mirror neurons tied to grasping in my brain begin firing. So if I cut you, if I watch you recoil in pain, these neurons would give me an understanding of the pain I'd feel if the cut were my own. They'd make me empathize with the pain. Amazingly, you can lose this ability depending on the context: surgeons, for example, after cutting people for a long time, must stop thinking about the pain inflicted by a cut—and they lose the mirror neurons as they lose this form of physical empathy. But maybe if they cut someone awake, looking into their eyes, they would recover the ability to empathize with the situation again. Maybe if Marina engaged a surgeon in eye-gazing as she cut herself, those mirror neurons would spring back to life and that empathy would re-emerge."
B) THE HOUSE WITH THE OCEAN VIEW exhibit
"I do feel a sort of religiosity as I walk through the space, because Abrahamic religions (specifically Judaism, which has formed my religious experience) aren’t interested in making idols of a god. They are interested in some god-like emerging force, some immaterial action that surrounds and connects us, that can be accessed to change something material.
Of course, some religions also stake a claim on the immaterial, stake a claim on their method of altering the intangible, stake a claim on truth. As people, we have the tendency to enjoy the Law of the Excluded Middle, the black and white worldview that this is right and this is wrong. Some people can definitely take this experience as a truth that's so strong they start presuming that other people who don't believe in it are wrong. But in the same way, you can take all of these tools and methods and reframe them, connect them with other truths inside you, maybe eat your cereal for hours and see how your experience changes. Marina Abramovic recreates her work and others works all the time, and I think this gives people authority to recreate things too and question certainties about right and wrong. She also stands as a guiding force and simultaneously actively denies her role as a guru, which shakes up definitions of truth and educator for the audience."
C) Inside 512 HOURS exhibit
"This welcome connection between artist and audience resonates in a lot of different disciplines for me. One of the most interesting things about Marina's work for me is that she wants the public to engage and identify with her. It relinquishes authorship in serious ways, it's something that depends on an evolving a relationship. The process of creation of this kind of immaterial art is totally different. First, because it's not an object, a piece of art: it's an experience that leaves with the audience rather than staying in an art space. Second, because it's not predictable anymore - it's a dialogue. Dialogue is tied intimately to self-reflection and empathy, two themes brought up by slowing down and eye-gazing. Paulo Freire says a very similar thing about education: it has to be dialogical. If it's just me giving you something one-way, it's not productive, not representative, fails democratically and fails to produce significant changes as it preserves lines between Educator and Educated. Saul Alinsky says a similar thing about political action, about dialogue in democratic movements. It's not about controlling the citizens, but being them, blurring the lines between citizen and politician, allowing the citizens to be represented and share space. Back to art: here at SESC it's the same thing. It's not about the artist being special, but creating a special place for everybody to participate [with] their uniqueness and exploration of one another."
3. Walking through the Transitory Objects exhibit
"There are similar issues of exclusionary truths in neuroscience that I have heard mentioned here. I've heard audience members saying effects felt in the Method or with the crystals here are placebo, and I have a bit of a bone to pick with these folks.
I think there's a tendency among people interested in science: they like to reduce things to smaller and smaller parts until they understand how they work. In this scenario, if you can't reduce something down to a mechanism, it looks like it doesn’t work. Personally, I don't have a desire for mechanistic explanations of all of my experiences, or to participate in reductionism. I think it ends up destroying things in a lot of ways, especially if they're significant to people—that like Steinbeck said in gazing down at atoms we become atom-sized in our souls, that experience is bigger than the mechanisms that support it. For me, saying that something doesn't work because you can't understand how it works in a rigid way denies so much about qualia and experience. A placebo is essentially something we can't explain, but it often has the same power as an effect of something we could explain. Just an example: you can go into a coma, full fledged coma, based purely on psychogenic effects. You can cure diseases, change sleep cycles, create amnesia with a placebo. Saying something isn't real because it's a placebo doesn’t make sense to me, it's just a pure experience, an emergence from the brain that we can’t understand. And that’s true of the majority of psychological disorders we diagnose—they’re somewhere in the brain, and we can see their effects on people’s experience, but we have no idea how to pinpoint their mechanics. Saying something isn’t real, isn’t true, because it’s only an experience denies so much of the dialogue that is necessary in science, politics, education, and art—and Marina’s art accepts experience as primary and truth as dialogical, which I’ve loved."
Terra Comunal - MAI is free and open to the public until May 10, 2015 @SESC Pompeia, São Paulo - Brazil.