In Conversation: Seth Riskin and Sarah Schwettmann, MIT Museum Studio

Seth Riskin, the manager of the MIT Museum Studio, and Sarah Schwettmann, a research Scientist with MIT’s IBM Watson AI Lab, co-teach a popular MIT class, Vision in Art and Neuroscience, with Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience at MIT. Three Dana Center planning stage events emerged out of that class: Vision as Contemplation, The Garden of the Lights, and the Cross-Modal Perception Workshop.

Q: Can you briefly describe the ideas behind the events you worked on?

Sarah Schwettmann: Neuroscience teaches us that our fundamental relationship to the world is a creative one. At a very low perceptual level, we construct the world we see. This has been the focus of our Vision in Art and Neuroscience class since we began teaching it six years ago. It suggests that by attending to the act of creation, with an emphasis on perception, we can understand something quite deep about the human relationship to the world. Art plays a critical role in that understanding. It reveals the building blocks that the brain uses to create experience, by externalizing them—on a canvas, in a soundscape, with light—for others, too, to see and discuss. 

As we pursue inquiry through experience about how the brain constructs the world, we should be casting a wide net.  And since Seth and I began developing this class together eight years ago, it’s been a dream to share the experience with a broader group, beyond the twenty MIT students who join us every year. We wanted to invite as many people into the conversation as we can, because science shouldn't just capture the experiences of a limited set of people.

Seth Riskin: Art is a method of cultivating awareness of sensory perception that can be shared. Our class, and the events we did, are a way for people who experience the world differently to experience it together. We developed experiences of touch and sight that were coincident for the groups we worked with. Those experiences have the same elemental structure to it as the beginning of perceptual experience. 

Q. The goal of the project is to develop activities that benefit from the contributions of neuroscientists, ELSI scholars, and public engagement, while providing value to people from all three domains. Did participating in the Vision & Neuroscience activities show you ways that these domains might influence each other? Did you take away unique value from working on an activity where these domains intersect?

Sarah Schwettman: The human connection or public engagement element of events like these is not something people at MIT think about a lot. But [MIT Museum Manager] Ben [Wiehe] pushes on it in a very useful way, always putting the genuine human sharing, connect-making, and mutual enrichment first. 

One way that emphasis made a big difference was in shaping the Perkins School event. The original plan was to do it in a lecture space in the museum. But that felt stagnant, and eventually we came around to the idea of doing a workshop, with everyone gathered around small tables and on equal footing. That set-up made the difference. Doing it in the lecture space would’ve been so strange—how could we have learned anything from the Perkins people like that? Architecturally, it would have been set up like Us and Them, and [agenda-wise], ‘Now is the  discussion time, now is the time when we hear from you,’ a separate little moment at the end—rather than all of us being at the table together.

But also—this is not a direct answer, but a longer, more poetic arc about what I got from this experience: Throughout the planning process, Ben would always say, ‘What will you learn from the public? Is this going to be a lecture where the people who attend are going to be expected to download information from MIT, or is it a conversation where they are learning from us, and we are learning from them?’ And now, I always hear his voice in my head, saying that.

[She describes how that voice has influenced a research project she’s doing with a student assistant:] I’ve ended up learning more from this freshman at MIT than, I think, I’ve taught him. But it’s really been a super even-at-the-table collaboration, so to speak. And I can’t help but feel that’s all very connected [to the Dana Center planning stage and Ben’s influence]. It’s grown into a way of thinking and working … and I appreciate that a lot.

Q: One vision for a potential Center for Neuroscience and Society at MIT is to break the work of the Center up into two-year project cycles. How has the planning you've done, and the events you've done, informed what you'd like to do if you had two years to focus on it?

Seth Riskin: We welcome the opportunity to advance the Vision in Art and Neuroscience model into a two-year cycle, with robust and interacting dimensions of neuroscience, ELSI scholarship and public engagement. These mutually-informing interests were tested and extended through the pilots we did during the planning stage. Course alumni engaged in public outreach projects of greater scope. The Sinha Lab’s Project Prakash found new application through a collaboration with the Perkins School for the Blind, promising mutually-productive exchange between research and visually-impaired communities. In collaboration with the MIT Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, the methods we have developed to help students perceive their own perceptions were extended to the realm of contemplation techniques--which opened the way for a discussion of neuroscience and social values that connected wellness communities in an around MIT. Our “cycle team” was made up of VAN course alumni, graduate students and a research scientist from different fields of study who led the interdisciplinary design of the pilot projects, working with members of the steering committee and public engagement specialists. 

Q: Jessie Cronan from the Perkins School for the Blind made a suggestion that I thought was really cool, about developing virtual reality booths at the museum, so that visitors could experience the sixteen different manifestations of CVI, a group of related visual impairments. Does something along those lines interest you or inspire you? 

Sarah Schwettman: I really like that idea. It’s taking what we learned through the activity with the Perkins School—where we learned something about blind and visually impaired people experience the world—and making it more broad. It’s a way to bring the broader public into the practice we have developed of learning about the brain and mind through direct experience. 

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