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Why are we fascinated by brains?

So, Landscapes of the Mind may have closed on May 2, but as you can see we still have the brain on our mind.  Below are some thoughts from our Coordinator of Education Programs, Joann Harnden.

Brains are cool, no question. This holds true for visitors of all ages. It’s true for hesitant high school students who find themselves asking earnest questions about the brain despite their best intentions to remain aloof, and true for the seven and eight-year olds who come bounding in the front door, propelled forward by the promise of touching an actual brain on family day.

So why are we so fascinated by brains? Why do we have such strong reactions, both positive and negative?

Recent technology offers an unprecedented opportunity to see what millions of humans before us have not been able to see—a living brain and its activity. This phenomenon is at once discomforting, exciting, and provocative. We are seeing something that perhaps we feel we shouldn’t. The brain is vital to our existence, and yet, in an exposed state, it is so vulnerable. It is ironic that we use our brains to figure out how the world around us works, and yet the workings of our own brains remain unseen and unknown without the aid of technological equipment. It is no wonder that we crave the clues that scientific images can provide about the brain and its inner workings.

Provocative as the scientific images are, and as great as our curiosity is to see such images, in the end we are left with the question, does this really capture what the mind is, what the mind does, what the mind feels like? An MRI falls flat in comparison with the experience of actually having a thought. Scientific imaging of the brain reminds me of the traces of elusive animal life sought by the natural scientist. Animal tracks, scat, or even fossilized remains may provide valuable information to the scientist, and yet these bits of evidence cannot compare with witnessing a live animal in its habitat. The same is true for the brain. We have a deep-seated feeling that the mind is more than the sum of its parts, and I think the richness of intuitive and internally-driven artistic exploration in Landscapes of the Mind feeds our desire to understand the living brain.

Visitors sometimes ask “But what does it mean?” Perhaps they are interested in the artist’s intention. Or perhaps they are looking for a scientific key to decode the meaning of the artwork. Or maybe they don’t know exactly what they are looking for, but they desire a single, definitive narrative that tells us what the artwork means.

As a museum educator, what consistently inspires and energizes me is, in fact, the opposite of this desire for a single story of meaning. Everyday I am reminded of the amazing ability of the human mind to entertain and construct many different meaningful connections to a single piece of art. This is not something that only sophisticated museum-goers can do. It is not something that only complex or enigmatic works of art evoke. It is something that every human mind does every single day in response to all types of stimuli.

In The Artful Mind (Ed: Mark Turner, Oxford University Press, 2002), cognitive and semiotic theorist Per Aage Brandt describes the incredible ability of the human mind to “pay attention” or to hold multiple thoughts about an object or experience in our minds simultaneously, from the most concrete to the most abstract. This is a habit of mind that we try to encourage through our education programs at WCMA. In our tours, we encourage students to engage with art on multiple levels: describing concrete sensory observations, making comparisons, and articulating feelings and inferences. We emphasize group conversations as a way to develop a richer and more nuanced relationship with a work of art than any one of us could achieve alone. We hope that students come away from the experience feeling more at ease with the idea that there is no answer key to artwork, and to see that as exciting rather than intimidating. For me, that is what is so stimulating about the exhibition Landscapes of the Mind. It resists reducing the life of the mind to a single story. It celebrates the ability of our “multi-attentional” brains to develop richly layered and diverse interpretations of the life of the mind.

In this same spirit of conversation and multiple voices of interpretation, I would really love to hear from all of you who have visited the exhibition:

What kinds of experiences have you had in Landscapes of the Mind?

What interests you about the mind?

Did anything in the exhibition surprise you?

Did the exhibition make you think about the mind in a new way? Raise questions?

Has the exhibition inspired you to make artwork of your own?

Please post your thoughts!

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