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Brain art

16 January 2008

UCL neuroscientist Dr Hugo Spiers has teamed up with an artist and architect to create a groundbreaking installation which examines how patterns of brain cell activity allow us to perceive and remember space.

The film installation, ‘Neurotopographics’, is the end result of a year-long project funded by the Wellcome Trust inspired by the discovery of three distinct types of cell found deep in the recesses of our brains which provide us with a mental map of space and direction. ‘Place cells’ provide a ‘you are here’ signal; ‘grid cells’ signal information about distances travelled; and ‘head direction cells’ provide an internal compass.

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‘The discovery of these three types of cells has provided a fundamental insight into our relationship to space across science, architecture and art. If you were to record from each of these cells as a person walked around a building you would get the sense of an integrated map and compass system representing the space surrounding that person. The basis of this discovery has inspired this collaboration,” explains Dr Spiers.

The resulting artwork – which will be on show at the Gimpel Fils Gallery from 18–21 January – follows the journey of a person through space, in this case the gallery itself. The actor is filmed from two camera viewpoints: a static wide angle position, which records movement and spatial position, similar to a surveillance camera; and from a dynamic point of view, filmed out of the perspective of the actor’s eyes, recording the subjective impressions of the space and his journey through it. The films will be simultaneously projected onto the gallery walls and combined with a two-dimensional animation displayed on the floor representing assumed brain cell activity patterns.

The experience of working with an artist and architect has provided Dr Spiers with a new perspective on his research and enabled him to explore concepts in novel and different ways. The same is true of Antoni Malinowski and Bettina Visman, the artist and architect with whom he collaborated. Visman comments: “Working with a neuroscientist for the last year has provided me with a more profound understanding of the scientific bases of spatial perception. This can not only inspire but also inform the design process, and help formulate ways of organising space in architectural projects.”

On Saturday 19 January Dr Spiers will give talk about his involvement in the project and explain how new scientific discoveries of how the brain works have helped us to develop our understanding of how we perceive and remember space. To find out more about this and the project, use the links at the top of this article.

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Neurotopographics concept