Wednesday, October 8, 2014

commentary on Nobel Prize in Physiology | I Walk, Therefore I Remember

‘A’ Figure, from Ramon Llull's memory wheel “Ars Brevis” (1617)
We learned yesterday that 2014 Nobel Prize in  Physiology or Medicine  (8 million Swedish kronor equivalent to $1.1 million) has been awarded to three neuroscientists "for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain". John O'Keefe, who receives one half of the prize, is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London; he discovered in 1971  the first component of a spatial positioning system. Quoting from "He found that a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus that was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was at other places. O'Keefe concluded that these 'place cells' formed a map of the room." The other half of the prize will be shared by the married couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. In 2005 the couple "discovered another key component of the brain's positioning system. They identified another type of nerve cell, which they called 'grid cells', that generate a coordinate system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding. Their subsequent research showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate."
Hugo Spiers, director of the spatial cognition group at University College London, gives a summary of the relevance of these discoveries “Grid cells and place cells offer one of the few bridges neuroscientists have linking the cellular level to the cognitive level, as they help explain how individual brain cells help us navigate, remember the past and imagine the future.”
The Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo from "The Art of Memory" (France Yates, 1966)

J. Publicius. Oratoriae artis epitome (1482)

The media announced this identification of the neural cells responsible for our spatial orientation as the discovery of an  "internal GPS". I was quite intrigued by learning how scientific discoveries are proving concepts which have present in humanistic approaches to knowledge for thousand years. Frances Yates in "The Art of Memory" (1966) recounts how the mental process of remembering has been augmented by several techniques for thousand years, back to the ancient Greek and Rome. This tradition/body of knowledge developed further in the Middle Ages and Renaissance with memory theatres and "memory wheels". Related iconography includes diagrams from treatises by Giulio Camillo, Giordano Bruno and Ramon Llull —only to mention a few names from a longstanding tradition. In all this examples, brought to attention by Yates scholarly work, there is a clear connection between space, representation and the process of memory. Spatial orientation — defined by the media defines as internal GPS— relates to cognitive process and memory, and finally scientific evidence proofs with neuroimaging. Is this another example of how intuition and art methods are essential to progress knowledge, even before scientific evidence proofs it? Or perhaps artists and scientists —although I have a hard time separating the terms— should collaborate? Paraphrasing once more Mahatma Gandhi's  "Truth is one, paths are many",  a quote used in so many different context, I would add, even if it does not sound catchy:

Knowledge is one, methodologies are many

As a research artist I have been involved for years with movement, space and memory; one of my latest work "My Geospatial Self" the awareness of where we are in space and time, mapping places to thoughts of emotion. I constantly use my phone GPS as tool to record my presence in space and time in the ephemeral footprints of the encounter between myself and the surface of planet earth. I relentlessly take photos of trying to find beauty or whatever aesthetic commentary in everyday life encounters of places and people, in the social or natural environment. I am sure that something happens to the neurons and synaptic connections of my brain, even if I cannot document it. My walks creates memories and promote healing from emotional pain and stress. And I am satisfied with it, even if will not bring a Nobel prize.
My "mind walk" wearing a EEG headset, on October 3, 2014, Hudson Waterfront, New York