Goshka Macuga, ‘Somnambulist’ (2006), courtesy the artist and Kate MacGarry. Source

I went to see ‘States of Mind’ at the Wellcome Collection in October, and I left feeling amazed, educated and inspired. The exhibition brought together works of artists, psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists, exploring phenomena such as somnambulism (sleepwalking), synaesthesia (a sensation in one of the senses, such as hearing, triggering a sensation in another, such as taste) and memory disorders, interrogating our understanding of the conscious experience.

In room one I immediately found myself immersed in the world of neuroscience and its history (Science & Soul). I was introduced to René Descartes’s theory of dualism, first introduced in the 17th century. The theory separated two realms: the objective, physical world, and an internal world of private experience. Luigi Schiavonetti, in his print after William Blake (1808) ‘The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life’, extended the idea of dualism as a religious belief by imagining a heavenly female soul leaving an earthly male body.


Luigi Schiavonetti, ‘The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life’ After: William Blake, 1808 Source

Descartes defined separate parts of the brain that were, in his opinion, responsible for the physical and the non-physical, connected via the pineal gland. Other scientists and philosophers, however, failed to define how two such different worlds could interact with each other and hence reject the dualism theory.

From drawings of brains and souls I moved onto the 20th-century exploration of neurons – the keys to understanding the mechanisms of the human brain. Santiago Ramón y Cajal is a Spanish scientist considered to be the founder of modern neuroscience. His detailed ink drawings of microscopic brain cells not only served as the long sought-for answers to questions about how neurons functioned, but they also represented simple artistic beauty.

I then found myself standing in front of Jean Holabird’ illustration of ‘Vladimir Nabokov’s Alphabet in Color’ (2005) – an exploration of Nabokov’s letter-color synaesthesia. Was my mind tricked into thinking that I could relate to some of Nabokov’s descriptions despite having never experienced the condition? Perhaps. And yet research shows that letter-color synaesthesia can actually be learned through training, demonstrating that our brain and consciousness may be much more flexible than we think.

Sleep & Awake was the next section. The theory is that while our brain activity may increase during sleep, our bodies remain inactive and unresponsive. However, sleepwalkers (somnambulists) become physically active while remaining in deep sleep. Goshka Macuga’s ‘Somnambulist’(2006), a life-size body figure lying in the middle of the exhibition room looking physically ready to rise and act at any moment (see photograph above), illustrated this possibility very effectively.

Sleep paralysis is another condition explored in the exhibition. This phenomenon occurs at the fringes of sleep and takes place when the natural paralysis designed to stop the body from acting out its dreams isn’t released at the right time. Apart from the inability to move and the crushing sensations in the chest, sleep paralysis may be accompanied by auditory and visual hallucinations. Folklore around the world has taken many attempts at defining and explaining these alarming experiences. Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ (1781) shows an apparently paralyzed sleeping woman lying on her back with a crouching incubus sitting on her chest, personifying the sensation of nightmare.


Henry Fuseli, ‘The Nightmare’, 1781. Source

Memory & Language are the two crucial tools that facilitate the relationship between our internal and external worlds. Both were explored in Mary Kelly’s ‘Post-Partum Document’ – a detailed account of her son’s mastery of language and his transformation from the mother-bound infant to a grown child.

Next my attention turned to A.R. Hopwood’s ‘False Memory Archive’. This work referenced the research of Elizabeth Loftus, who managed to falsely convince volunteers of remembering getting lost in a mall. I was then able to read other selected submissions from the False Memory Archive. This collection of half-formed unrealistic memories, such as ‘I clearly recall being able to breathe under water as a child’, resonated with me and made me re-think of all those childhood memories that, although they couldn’t possibly be true, seemed impossibly vivid in my mind.

Finally, ‘Being & Not Being’ opposed the state of coma to the ‘wakeful but unaware’ state, when sleep-wake cycles are present but consciousness is still assumed to be absent. Aya Ben Ron’s 29-minute film ‘Shift’(2009-2011) explores the care, personal stories and ethics of caring for people who have such disorders of consciousness. This was presented alongside Professor Adrian Owen’s research, where fMRI scanners were used to maintain a kind of conversation with people who were believed to be beyond any kind of conscious experience.

Simple anaesthetic is the closest survivable state to brain stem death (coma). Richard Tennant Cooper explored the metaphorical effects of chloroform on the human body (see below).


‘An unconscious naked man lying on a table being attacked by little demons armed with surgical instruments; symbolizing the effects of chloroform n the human body’, Richard Tennant Cooper, c. 1992

Interviews played in the background really submerged me in this dimly lit world of consciousness and stretched my understanding of it through the parallels made between art, science and philosophy. And even though most of the exhibition only demonstrated phenomena rather than explaining them fully, I still learnt a lot and shared the exhibitors’ fascination with this subject.

By: Elizaveta Karmannaya (Bugle Team)