Exploring the bounds of our sensory realities through art and neuroscience
By Aleksandra Sherman, PhD (Occidental College)
Few art experiences have resonated with me as strongly as James Turrell’s light installations. I visit Turrell’s Breathing Light at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art several times a year, and always find myself as immersed, inquisitive, inspired, and excited as the first time I experienced it several years ago. Breathing Light, an installation so large-scale that an entire building is needed to house it, engulfs the body and the mind. It is at once intensely physical and perceptual, disorienting and playful, imposing and intimate. Whenever I visit, I prepare to be swallowed by light. Purple, blue, then yellow light fills the vast, seemingly edge-less room. The light is hazy, its source unknown, and as I walk around to find it, I lose my sense of depth. The experience is total. In her review of Turrell’s 2013 retrospective at the LACMA, Dahlia Schweitzer writes of Breathing Light, “There is nothing to grasp. There is only light. And we are inside it.”
Last year, I also had the opportunity to experience Light Reignfall at LACMA, another of Turrell’s environments that is even more intimate, with a maximum occupancy of 1. Donning headphones and a lanyard with an emergency exit button around my neck, I slid on a makeshift bed into a large spherical “perceptual cell,” reminding me, non-coincidentally, of being in an MRI scanner. For ten minutes, the diffuse light stripped away my depth perception, creating infinite space and enticing my body to temporarily forget its grounding, its weight. The lights morphed from blues to reds to greens, but more quickly and intensely than in Breathing Light. The accompanying cacophony of sounds coming through my headphones enhanced and amplified my visual experience: at times, I even experienced vivid visual hallucinations – grid-like shapes pulsing in my periphery, dancing to the beat of the sounds.
As a cognitive neuroscientist trained in multisensory perception – particularly, in how auditory and visual information combine in the brain to yield a rich and seamless percept – Turrell’s art intrigues me. His immersive environments explore how our brains construct our external sensory realities, and raise fundamental questions about human perception of light, color, perspective, space, and time. Though I use different methodologies, my scientific work also explores the ways that visual perception is contextual, relative, and experience-dependent. Experiencing Turrell’s light installations provides a complementary but distinct understanding of perception: one that is embodied, corporeal, felt. Put another way, Turrell’s art allows us to feel and test the ways in which our physical bodies shape spatial and temporal awareness.
A famous philosophical thought experiment originally conceived of by Frank Jackson takes a similar stance, aiming to show that perceptual experiences teach us things we cannot learn any other way. Jackson imagines a world in which Mary, a brilliant neurophysiologist, knows everything there is to know about visual perception. While Mary understands how wavelengths combine to stimulate the retina, none of her neuroscientific knowledge is experiential because all of her scientific investigations happened in a black-and-white room. One day, Mary steps into a world of color. She sees red for the first time. Jackson shows that this experience teaches Mary something new about color vision: what it is like to see red. And, just like Mary sees a new world when she experiences color for the first time, visitors may discover a world with new perceptual possibilities when they experience the world through Turrell’s eyes.
Like Mary, even with my background in the cognitive sciences, I find Turell’s installations to be an unending source of new insights into perception and consciousness. During one of my recent visits, for instance, I noticed a seemingly paradoxical correspondence between my experience of Turell’s art and my experience floating in a sensory deprivation tank. Both Turrell’s works and sensory deprivation tanks play on light, or on its absence. In fact, the human brain tends to respond to vast lightness and vast darkness similarly, highlighting changes in space and time but adapting to visual monotony (sometimes leading to vivid hallucinations). So perhaps it is not surprising that the spatial, visual, and bodily disorientation I feel in Breathing Light and Light Reignfall are strikingly similar to my sensations and perceptions in a sensory deprivation tank. During both sets of experiences, losing the sense of my physical self underscores the importance of my embodiment in constructing my perceptual world.
Notably, Turrell’s art also communicates beyond these lessons about perception and reality. Through their size and scale, and the length of time required to experience them, Turrell’s spaces challenge you to stay and wait, to carefully observe. They encourage you to consider space and time, to ask questions of yourself and your surroundings, to face your confusion. The installations compel me to look inward and look at myself looking, to reflect on how my mind makes sense of the influx of incoming sensory data, to wonder about the similarity of my perceptual experiences to those of others, and to contemplate how my own prior knowledge informs my perceptions. Thus, Turrell’s art (and visual art in general) provides a venue ostensibly outside of my scientific discipline to practice and sharpen skills crucial for doing excellent science – curiosity and creativity, attentiveness and patience, comfort with uncertainty, ambiguity, and confusion, and self-reflection. And, it is these skills, along with my scientific observations, that I bring back to the lab with me.
Of course, while I’ve focused here on Turrell because his works appeal to my aesthetic and scientific sensibilities, all visual art can have value and the power to change our scientific perspectives. If we dare ourselves to engage deeply, not to just superficially glance or attempt to confirm our prior biases, art can foster unique scientific dialogues, challenge our preconceptions and schemas, encourage us to see and feel details about the world that were once invisible, and help us to achieve personal growth by enabling us to deeply reflect and act on the world with changed eyes. As Jeanette Winterson poignantly describes in her 2006 essay Liza Lou, “Art is not part of the machine. Art asks us to think differently, see differently, hear differently, and ultimately to act differently.” Turrell’s works do exactly this for me; they help me consider the importance of my embodiment to my learning and they provide me with a new lens for understanding multisensory perception.