Activity Story: Vision as Contemplation

This event and two others—The Garden of the Lights and the Cross-Modal Perception Workshop—emerged from a popular MIT class, Vision in Art and Neuroscience. The course is co-taught by three MIT instructors: Seth Riskin, the manager of the MIT Museum Studio and a light artist; Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience; and Sarah Schwettmann, a research Scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and MIT’s IBM Watson AI Lab. During the course, students are exposed to the complete absence of light, and to manipulated experiences of light; these moments are the bedrock for lessons about how the brain perceives and constructs the worldand also serve as inspiration when the students are asked to make works of art that rely on light for effect. Now in its seventh year, Vision in Art and Neuroscience makes neurosciences accessible to all MIT students.

The public often becomes part of an experiment at the MIT Museum, as they did on February 16. That night, a sold-out group participated in a particularly unusual trial—an exploration of how visual images and sounds can be conduits to mindfulness. Two neuroscientists, one Buddhist monk, and a light artist led the audience, encouraging them to let go of their analytical minds so they could engage in a more immediate encounter with six artworks presented. At the same time, during a period of discussion following each artistic presentation, the evening’s hosts explained the neuroscientific phenomenon behind some of the sensations and responses that audience members reported. 

As the hosts prepared to begin, one of them looked up at the crowd, and was struck by the full house. “The excellent turnout suggested the public at large wants to be part of the conversation between art, neuroscience, and contemplative practice,” said Pawan Sinha, Professor of Vision and Computational Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. In his experience, it’s rare that people in these domains have an opportunity to come together for a discussion. 

In his opening remarks, another host, The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, Director of MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, explained that there is a long tradition of using visual images as part of contemplative practice. “Tonight, we’re trying to look at how certain visual cues might act as a catalyst in changing states,” he said. Then he advised the audience to try to experience the art like a good Buddhist meditator might: “It is useful not to have a running commentary.” 

The first visual experience showed a hand using a calligraphy brush to create an image that initially looked like a worm coming out of the ground, or a shepherd’s hook. Then it swirled into something more fluid, suggestive of a potter’s wheel or water moving in a conch-like spiral, cutting a groove into a space reminiscent of the sand of a beach. When the audience was asked for its reaction, participants used words like helix, river, conception, and creation. Such descriptions seemed to touch on “an experience of depth as being produced by your own brain,” as host Seth Riskin, Artist and Manager of the MIT Museum Studio and Compton Gallery, pointed out. “There is an experience of something being constructed”—something with depth, even though the imagery itself was two-dimensional. A number of the descriptions were fairly elaborate; one audience member mentioned ouroboros, the ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its tail. Sinha suggested that such remarks might represent “constructions after the fact,” because, as he noted, “the brain can’t help but assign meaning to what it is observing.” After reminding the audience about Priyadarshi’s advice, he encouraged them to stay more in the moment going forward: “Do not let your basic sensory perceptions be affected by the narrative or the meaning that you might ascribe to it.” 

A challenge erupted from the audience: “If we want to express a thing, it has to come from a thought. We cannot express what we’re thinking in a blank state [except by] using our language.” Sinha addressed this concern, saying, “This is the challenge that I have struggled with, to not assign meaning to what I am experiencing.” He went on: “The brain is wired to interpret. It is always trying to fill in the missing pieces, whether that is a missing piece in an image—” for instance, an empty area in a jigsaw puzzle—” or when someone’s hand is occluding part of an image, like someone’s face. We are trying to figure out what might have been there; to figure out a backstory.” Like the audience member, Sinha had had trouble, when meditating, “with getting into a space where I can experience an image just as a collection of pixels, like artists do when they are asked to deconstruct an image.” Another host had some further advice. “You can also watch your mind as you watch the art,” said Sarah Lazar, Associate Researcher in Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital and Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Notice both.” When the participant insisted, asking if the human mind was really capable of achieving a blank state, Lazar suggested he join a meditation group at MIT’s Dalai Lama Center to check it out.

In another piece of art, similar to a bulls-eye on a white background, the central black eye remained constant throughout, but concentric bands of color radiating out around the eye vanished, appeared, faded, or returned. This sometimes created a sensation of what one audience member referred to as seeing “tendrils”—or extremely thin squiggly kinetic lines—moving or darting across some of the white spaces created or left behind after the color bands disappeared. Sinha explained why this happened: “Even though we think we’re keeping our eyes perfectly still, we aren’t. There is this movement, this optical tremor, where our eyes are essentially doing this little shivery dance about 60 or 70 times a second. And if you were to completely stabilize the eye, you would lose awareness of any structure in your visual field in a matter of a couple of seconds.” 

Another participant said: “I wasn’t sure which changes were interior to me, and which were exterior, in the projected image.” That uncertainty came about because the visual experience evoked in the brain a sense of imbalance between different kinds of photoreceptors, according to Sinha; the brain couldn’t tell if the disparity was caused externally, by the stimuli in the field of vision, or caused internally, by the fading of some of the stimuli. When a different audience member brought up the works of Mark Rothko, Riskin commented, “Color sits between the brain, the mind, and the physical world.”

A third piece somewhat mimicked a visual trip into a tunnel, repeated again and again: A circular gray funnel, framed by black, narrowed into a point of light that grew bigger and brighter before the loop reset and began again. The imagery was accompanied by a soundtrack that sounded like a howling wind or an amplified exhalation and inhalation. As one audience member put it, he felt that the reel was, “gently instructing me to synchronize my breath with it, kind of like the last one was encouraging me to focus dead center [on the bulls-eye].” Another participant said she felt like she was being pulled forward and pushed back, with her breathing moving likewise. Nodding, Riskin said: “A linkage between what is going on outside the self and what is going on inside, with regards to breath, is to me kind of the touch-point of a thoughtless experience.”

Another leader of the event, Sarah Lazar—Associate Researcher in Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, whose focus is elucidated the neural mechanisms underlying the benefits of yoga and meditation—mentioned that she felt jumpy during the reel. She thought she was having a “threat detection reaction” to the art. “The classic example is, you’re walking in the forest and you see something out of the corner of your eye and you jump before you quite recognize that something is moving in the periphery of your vision,” she explained. “Light hasn’t traveled as it usually does, from brain stem to visual cortex and so on, but rather it went right from the eye to amygdala.” She theorized that something similar had happened to her as she was watching the artwork, creating her feel of uneasiness.

At a different moment in the evening, the group listened to an amplification of a single voice humming; next, they joined in a group hum alongside the recorded sound. A number of audience members spoke about losing their sense of time during the experience. Lazar explained what goes on in the brain when that happens: “Your brain is a bunch of micro-processes, and with meditation, one by one, those microprocessors start shutting off. As they do, the sense of time, of space, and eventually of self gets shut.” As such, she added, through meditation, “You get to see how much your mind is constructing itself.” As Sinha noted after the fact, “Several of the questions that emerged from the audience members made seamless contact with the kinds of fundamental neuroscience research we are pursuing, and hinted at many other interesting ones yet to be pursued.”

The penultimate piece of art—a visually complex work that brought to mind, among other things, the movement of sunlight, the glitter of diamonds, and the night sky—led to a discussion of the differences and similarities between stargazing and dark meditation, which involves light deprivation, which in turn led to talk of Sinha’s research into so-called dark immersion, and how it affects neuroplasticity as it relates to vision. “If you immerse an animal, even an adult animal, in darkness for about five days, the animal can recover from lazy eye,” due to increased neuroplasticity, as he explained. As for why this happens, it may be that the stillness created in the primary visual cortex when it is deprived of external stimulation provides an opportunity for the brain synapses to reorganize themselves. Sinha and his team are studying whether they can do something similar for young people who have their sight restored, by way of cataract-removal surgery, after spending most of their lives blind; even once their cataracts are gone, their vision rarely improves beyond 20/100. “Some factor seems to limit total recovery,” Sinha noted. “The most likely culprit is age-related limitations in plasticity.” Lazar pointed out that not just dark meditation but “meditation in general is associated with neural growth factors, which promotes plasticity.” 

The event ended with little groups of audience members gathered around the hosts, particularly the neuroscientists. Sinha was pleased by the level of engagement and curiosity the public showed. “The fact that we had to truncate the discussion after each of the six pieces, never running out of questions and observations from the audience, indicates that there is much more to talk about in the future,” he says. “A telling image I was left with was of an audience member, his hand raised, crestfallen when we ran out of time at the end of the event. Many introspections were left unarticulated, many questions left unasked, and many ideas left ungerminated. We will need more time and more such events to capture all of these!”

Two Questions for the Neuroscientists Behind Vision As Contemplation

Q: If you had a chance to do another similar event in the future, is there anything you’d do differently? 

Sarah Lazar: More time after the first experience to go deeper into the neuroscience of what the brain is actually doing when it encounters something novel would have been great; more time, too, to get some more instruction from Venerable on being mindful. Another topic that we hinted at but didn’t get into was prediction error. It might have been cool to explain this more explicitly. 

Pawan Sinha: At the end of the event, it would be useful to point the audience to a digital repository with germane scientific literature. That could also serve as a post-event discussion forum.

Q: What do you wish the public understood better about your work? Is that something you would try to incorporate into a similar future event?

Pawan Sinha: There are two points that I’d like to be able to better convey to the public. First, the excitement of scientific research. Several of my non-scientist friends tell me that hearing me (and other researchers) talk about all of the natural mysteries that still have no resolution is not only engaging in the moment, but also strangely reassuring and positive. The quest for larger questions expands one's horizons beyond the basic and monotonous errands of day to day life. To the extent that we scientists have the privilege to pursue curiosity-driven research, we ought to return the favor and share the joy of this pursuit with society at large.

Second, I would like to convey that many aspects of our work make contact with tangible real-world problems. Our research is not separate from the mainstream of society, but very much a part of it. Only with such realization would society see it fit to continue advocating for, and supporting, scientists’ work.

A project of:
With funding from: