The Eye’s Mind: visual imagination, neuroscience and the humanities
– an international conference at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK 21st-22nd May 2016
Our Arts and Humanities Research Council project, The Eye’s Mind – a study of the neural basis of the visual imagination and its place in culture, culminated recently in a major conference. The project involved three strands – a review of the history of thought about the visual imagination, from Plato and Aristotle to Kosslyn and Pylyshyn; a metanalysis of brain imaging studies of visual imagery; a study of individuals at the extremes of the imagery vividness spectrum which extends from superabundance – ‘hyperphantasia’ – to absence, ‘aphantasia’.
The conference included talks by every member of the project team (Susan Aldworth, artist; Matthew MacKisack, historian of ideas – and the project’s full-time Fellow; Fiona Macpherson, philosopher; John Onians, art historian; Crawford Winlove, neuroscientist; Adam Zeman, neurologist) together with a distinguished and lively group of contributors from a wide variety of disciplines. Over the course of the weekend, 24 speakers and 6 poster presenters explored the full range of the elusive but captivating topic of visual imagery in its historical, philosophical, artistic, literary, psychological, neurobiological and personal dimensions. Keynotes were given by Dr Paul Broks, a clinical psychologist turned creative writer, who engagingly introduced the concept of ‘imaginal reality’ by way of reflections on a set of cultural creations – the Greek gods – and a biological phenomenon – ‘sleep paralysis’ – that predisposes to vivid hallucinations; Prof Michael Tye (University of Austin, Texas), who discussed the nature of visual imagery in the light of philosophical debate and psychological experiment and Prof Joel Pearson (University of New South Wales, Sydney) who has developed path-breaking methods by which to measure the vividness, and even decode the contents, of imagery in the human brain.
Submitted papers considered imagery as a force in artistic and scientific creativity; its role in the reading of literature; its importance in education and therapy; its significance in memory; its heightening in synaesthesia, the merging of the senses; its potential value in computer science. One of the most remarkable features of the meeting was that, probably for the first time in human history, it gathered together a sizeable group of individuals with ‘aphantasia’, a focus of the Eye’s Mind project, and, to date, a strangely neglected psychological phenomenon: there was strong enthusiasm for a future meeting devoted to this subject.
We greatly valued the support received from the AHRC and from the journal Brain. The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, with its unique collection of art works from around the world, drawn from the full extent of human cultural history, was a wonderfully appropriate setting for our meeting. We hope that within a few weeks the pdfs of the slides used by our speakers will be available on the project website (http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind/). We are extremely grateful to the speakers and members of the audience who travelled from around the world to join us. During the conference we grew into an exceptionally integrated community of specialists in the sciences and the humanities. Encouraged by an unprecedented sharing of knowledge and of methods of enquiry across our disciplines, we look forward to productive exchanges and collaborations in the future.