Shravanti Shankar visits the States of Mind exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on the complexities of consciousness.
As someone who had recently completed a module on the topic of consciousness, the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on the subject was a wonderful refresher, highlighting some of the key features of this area of research. For the uninitiated, consciousness is most simply defined as a state of awareness and sentience or a collection of various states of mind as observed from the moment of awakening until the act of falling sleep.
However, many argue that consciousness is more than just the awareness that accompanies wakefulness. One of the many debates in the area of consciousness is the one concerning the ‘hard problem’ in consciousness. Tackled over the ages by philosophers and scientists alike, the hard problem attempts to bridge the gap between subjective experiences and the current limits of science in explaining why or how an entity is conscious. The problem has been tackled in a variety of ways, one of the earliest being Cartesian Dualism, proposed by Rene Descartes. The States of Mind exhibition at the Wellcome Collection held a display of notes by the 16th century philosopher along with many other prominent works that debated the nature of consciousness – whether it could be explained by physical structures in the brain or whether it was beyond the scope of physical sciences. The exhibition then moved onto slides from nearly a century ago, carefully preserved, highlighting the search for a physical seat of consciousness in the brain, one that continues to this day.
There was also a display on another peculiar conscious experience, synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is most easily understood as a ‘crossing of the senses’, where individuals often report seeing colours associated with alphabets or numbers or seeing colours when listening to different musical tones. The display offered individuals a chance to learn how to associate different colours with a predetermined set of alphabets, eventually replacing those alphabets with their associated colours in a paragraph that the viewer had to read. It was an interesting experience, one that also emphasised the plasticity of the brain, and its ability to teach itself to assign colours to alphabets in only a short period of time.
One exhibit focused on notable accounts of somnambulism (sleep-walking) and the question of whether individuals could be held accountable for their actions during an episode of sleepwalking. This theme of consciousness and sleep would later be revisited when considering the effects of anaesthesia on the subjective experience of consciousness. One of the main installations of the exhibition was ‘Time Present’ by Shona Illingworth which considered the case of an individual who experiences amnesia, effectively becoming dislodged in time. Many of our conscious experiences take their roots from prior experiences – something that becomes difficult in the case of amnesia. The installation was in the form of a short film that focused on a person’s subjective experiences and their changes in lifestyle. A case of amnesia necessitates, as well as certain coping mechanisms, in order to help ameliorate some of the problems associated with memory loss and facilitate an improved grasp on time and memories for the individual.
The exhibition ended with a series of displays on disruptions of consciousness; cases where individuals lose the ability to communicate their thoughts via paralysis or other causes, leaving the medical field unable to discern whether they are experiencing consciousness or not. This is viewed from the perspective of patients, their families and those who act as their regular caretakers.
As a whole, the Wellcome Collection’s ‘States of Mind’ was a wholesome introduction to some of the key features of the area of consciousness. It allowed the viewer to participate in activities that showcased some of the peculiarities of consciousness, that tackled some of the issues in the field and that looked at the problems associated with a disruption in consciousness.
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