The real you?

Curator at the Wellcome Collection Emily Sargent traces the boundaries of the body, technology and consciousness

The question of the authenticity of human experience in the face of technological advancement shows no sign of retreat. More than 30 years after Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner brought Philip K. Dick’s replicants into the mainstream, we are still engaging in dystopian “What if…” scenarios of the threat technology poses to humanity. Now more than ever, the sanctity of our biology seems threatened by technology’s relentless march, the boundary between them becoming increasingly blurred. Think bionic limbs and implantable devices. Trans-humanism, a cultural movement that has gained popularity over the past 20 years, celebrates this intimate relationship. It anticipates a future in which technology makes us more than human, using technology to surpass our physical and cognitive limitations. But anxiety remains around this interaction – will essential human experiences be lost as a result?

Yet humans have long sought to use whatever lies within their means to improve their lives, performance and appearance. Indeed, the search for an authentic experience untainted by technology’s distorting influence has always proved difficult.

Far from being the preserve of science fiction, people now and throughout history have capitalised on their ingenuity to take control of their biology, to enhance some aspect of their “natural” lives. Initial fears soon subside as society quickly adapts to new forms of technology. Tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 idea of “technological Singularity” now seems less a dystopian threat and more an inevitable reality for a Fitbit-wearing population.

So where does this leave our authentic human experience? Science – and science fiction – is increasingly looking at what happens inside our heads in an attempt to understand our conscious experience of the world. Neuroscience, psychology and philosophy battle for ownership of the elusive question of how the subjective experience of consciousness arises out of the prosaic tissue of a human brain.

At once fundamental and mysterious, it is this experience of perceptual awareness, as well as a sense of self, body, opinion and identity, which allow us to construct our place in a world. Here, surely, lies the key to reality? Instead, the notion of authenticity feels increasingly illusionary. Rather than navigating through a true landscape of reality, we each build our own version of the world inside our skulls: our sense of body and self described by some as nothing more than a fantasy that coincides with reality. Perhaps, then, it is time to give up on the search for authenticity and accept there is no one truthful encounter with a perfect reality.

In October, a year-long project exploring consciousness launches at the Wellcome Collection with an installation by the artist Ann Veronica Janssens. The exhibition States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness opens in February 2016. 
Tankaut 15_47View of brain showing pineal gland, De HomineRené Descartes, 1662 (Wellcome Library)

The conversation around the nature of consciousness has long been a subject of philosophical enquiry. Many theories contradict each other and no established truth has yet been established. One of the most pervasive theories suggests there are two separate realms: the real physical world and the internal private one. This is called dualism and is embraced by most major religions across the world. Descartes outlined his version of dualism in the 17th century. He believed the physical and non-physical worlds connected via the pineal gland, a tiny structure in the centre of the brain.  

Tankaut 15_48 Artificial limbs and amputation stumps: a practical handbook, E. Muirhead Little, 1922 (Wellcome Library)
E. Muirhead Little was a well-known orthopedic surgeon of his day, key in the development of surgically directed limb-making and fitting.

Tankaut 15_49Human neonatal astrocitesSantiago Ramón y Cajal (© Cajal Legacy, Instituto Cajal, Madrid)

Cajal is known as the founder of modern neuroscience: it was his work that established the “neuron doctrine” as the accepted model for the structure and function of the nervous system. Studying the structure of the brain helps neuroscientists understand the functions of its different areas, but how this results in the sensation of conscious experience remains unclear.

Tankaut 15_50Installation photo by Pascual Mercé, courtesy EACC, Castellò

The artist Ann Veronica Janssens works with light, colour and perception. From October 14-January 3 2016, she will present an installation of coloured mist at the Wellcome Collection. Confronting us with the power of perception, while obscuring any detail beyond the experience of colour, Janssens’s work reminds us of the possibilities and limits of our conscious experience of the world. §

  • Emily Sargent