Recent notes on memory, navigation, and embodiment.
I love thinking about embodied cognition (how our mental life is shaped by the physical roots of experience). Recently, a spate of articles has me thinking about where memory lives in the brain, and how the body moving through space is tied to recollection. It’s interesting to consider what impressions you’re embedding physically or mentally. Maybe you’re an art viewer noticing how your eye “moves” through a picture. Or, you’re an art handler “walking through” an exhibition design in SketchUp. Perhaps, you’re an artist envisioning how people interact with an installation or your participatory artworks. I wonder about the many ways in which aesthetic experience is one of navigation, envisioning, recording, and recall.
Kim Tingley’s “The Secret of the Wave Pilots” (NY Times, March 17, 2016) is a fascinating look at a Marshallese form of seafaring using knowledge of waves only. She writes beautifully about the neurological and social ties between memory and navigation, as well as the fascinating history of the Marshall Islands. I highly recommend the entire article. My favorite passages to think about for art practice follow.
On how we know where we are in space, and how that shapes who we are and our social relationships:
“[Psychologist Edward] Tolman hypothesized that humans have cognitive maps…, and that they are not just spatial but social. ‘Broad cognitive maps,’ he posited, lead to empathy, while narrow ones lead to ‘‘dangerous hates of outsiders,’ ranging from ‘discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.’ Indeed, anthropologists today, especially those working in the Western Pacific, are increasingly aware of the potential ways in which people’s physical environment — and how they habitually move through it — may shape their social relationships and how those ties may in turn influence their orienteering.”
“…our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future.”
Though journey and destination can be clichéd metaphors (not to mention signposts, road maps, off the beaten track, forge your own path), what Tingley seems to suggest is that these are fundamentally human concepts. It’s part of our evolutionary legacy to think and understand in terms of physical journeys, because we each have this kind of brain in this kind of bipedal body.
On the connections between mapping and memory:
The cognitive map is now understood to have its own physical location, … in the limbic system, an evolutionarily primitive region largely responsible for our emotional lives — specifically, within the hippocampus, an area where memories form. … [neuroscientists] found that our brains overlay our surroundings with a pattern of triangles. Any time we reach an apex of one, a ‘grid cell’ … delineates our position relative to the rest of the matrix… [an] ‘inner GPS’ that constantly and subconsciously computes location….”
“…a new unified theory of the hippocampus [imagines] it not as a repository for disparate memories and directions but as a constructor of scenes that incorporate both. (Try to recall a moment from your past or picture a future one without visualizing yourself in the physical space where that moment happens.)”
I’m always amazed by the peculiar concreteness of dreamed environments: the fully rendered qualities of light, the verisimilitude of prioperception. How awesome that this takes dozens of AI specialists and servers to re-create, and yet our brains achieve this when we’re literally not even thinking about it.
Exploring the world through our bodies is the root of imagination and creativity:
“[Others] hypothesized that our ability to time-travel mentally evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, and that the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story. ‘In the same way that an infinite number of paths can connect the origin and endpoint of a journey,’ Edvard Moser and another co-author wrote in a 2013 paper, ‘a recalled story can be told in many ways, connecting the beginning and the end through innumerable variations.’”
“…people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost … has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective.”
That’s a good reminder: Be where you are. Don’t worry about the fastest route. Learn about your environment and build up your mental map.
The same can be said about the creative process. I need reminders to stop over-valuing productivity, and to experiment in the studio. This is partly my nature, and partly not—as Barnaby Drabble points out, “the increasing application of time and resource management methods to our personal lives”* is symptomatic of larger forces like neoliberalism, and the conditions of immaterial labor, etc.
Furthering the connection between exploring space and imagination:
“All maps are but representations of reality: They render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships … that are invisible to the naked eye. If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, arose from navigating, so, too, is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity.”**
Maps are subjective, and could be more transparently so.
“Many of our [mapping studios] students began the semester enamored with the sublime, totalizing visions afforded by exhaustive data-sets and sleek visualizations. Yet by the end, nearly everyone’s mission and values shifted – from a pursuit of ‘accuracy’ and ‘exhaustiveness,’ to an interest in the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative. They sought to find ways to express ambiguity, to insert cartographic ‘buts,’ ‘ifs,’ ‘howevers,’ and other qualifying statements to convey the ‘interpretative nature of the mapping process.'”
—from Shannon Mattern’s excellent slide lecture at Maps as Metaphor at the Center for Book Arts. It’s posted online on her equally excellent blog, Words in Space.
These subjectivities can work for us. Memory palaces, for example, exploit the connection between memory and environments. It’s a memorization technique of:
“associating the ideas or objects to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined to be at well-known locations (‘loci’), like one’s house (‘palace’)”
—Austin Frakt’s “An Ancient and Proven Way to Improve Memorization; Go Ahead and Try it,” (NY Times, March 24, 2016).
I’m most fascinated by how the physical and conceptual interact and influence each other. How we walk the earth shapes our cognitive metaphors, and they imbue the memories that inform our identities. At the same time, we use mental powers to traverse real and imagined spaces, even constructing new spaces to expand our abilities. These interactions blur the boundaries of what is permanent and real:
“[Es Devlin, set designer,] is an architect of temporary space, making images that can survive only in the minds of the people who see her shows. ‘I do all this work and nothing physical remains,’ she told me. ‘So what I’m really designing are mental structures, as opposed to physical ones. Memories are solid, and that’s what I’m trying to build.’”
—Andrew O’Hagan, “Imaginary Spaces: Es Devlin and the psychology of the stage,”New Yorker Magazine, March 28, 2016
This resonants with the core of why I’m an artist. I make objects and exhibit them for a few weeks at a time. While a small portion exists in people’s homes, most are squirreled away or no longer exist. I continue to make objects because I believe that art experiences “live” on as viewers’ memories of firsthand, physical experiences (and secondhand, virtual images on the Web). This speaks to my immense faith in the power of aesthetic experience—a process of viewing, thinking, and feeling—to enrich human experience.
*Barnaby Drabble, “On De-Organisation” in Self-Organized, edited by Stine Hebert & Ann Szefer Karlsen, London: Open Editions / Bergen: Hordaland Art Centre, 2013
**Digression: Here’s an example of how much place and memory are tied. Brandon Brown’s “Limited Access: Art and Gentrification in the Mission” (Art in America, March 30, 2015) mentions Artist’s Television Access and The Lab, two venerable alternative art organizations a few blocks apart in San Francisco. Reading his descriptions of places—even on a small screen, in a noisy gym—flooded me with memories: my first visit to ATA, as a high school student at a Sick ‘n Twisted shorts fest; trading sketchbooks with Erik Drooker at Muddy Waters, where he drew speech bubbles making fun of my slang; as a young art student, viewing Barry McGee’s mural in the labor building; the time I was on a panel with Boots Riley at ATA (and I think Chicken John?) that got hijacked; the doc on Humboldt County tree-sitters; the palpable discomfort of a friend from out-of-town when we met him at 16th and Mission to eat at Taqueria Cancún; Intersection, and how often I’d run into Kevin Chen right in front of the building, day or night, wearing yellow glasses and having a smoke… What makes a space a place are the meanings assigned to it. Personal experiences—pleasant or not, juvenile or formative—are part of what makes San Francisco’s transformation potent.