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On the Same Wavelength

We all have some idea of what it feels like to be on the same wavelength as someone—to feel charged by some tangible, electric connection with another human being. Psychobiologist Suzanne Dikker has ventured to delve deeper into this feeling to understand the neurological underpinnings of human social interaction.

Brainwaves + associated cognitive states.

Our brains are made up of billions of neurons, which communicate with one another through bursts of electrical activity. The sum of all those electrical impulses can actually be recorded on the surface of our scalps with an electroencephalogram [EEG], allowing researchers to trace and analyze patterns of electrical activity, or brainwaves. To peer into the minds of individuals engaged in paired interaction, Suzanne uses portable EEG headsets to analyze how their brainwaves behave as they communicate and how those patterns track with moments of meaningful social interaction. When we’re on the same wavelength, are our brainwaves actually moving more in sync? And what does that actually mean?

To investigate the neuroscience underlying the art of communication, Suzanne has married the tools and methods of cognitive neuroscience with those of neurofeedback art, collaborating with the likes of performance artist Marina Abramović and interactive media designer Matthias Oostrik to artfully weave aesthetics into each experimental design. These collaborative efforts have culminated in a series of interactive works that actually mirror the fun and frustration that go hand-in-hand with social interaction. These projects creatively crowd-source neuroscience through audience participation, inviting participants to become a part of the research as they engage with the art and with each other.

Below, enjoy ArtLab’s Q+A with Suzanne as she shares the details of her research and her insights into working at the intersection between science and art.

Your work with Marina Abramović was really the jumping off point for your current work, both in terms of investigating brainwave synchronicity and working at art-science intersection. So how did “Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze” and your collaboration with Marina come about in the first place?

The Sackler Family Foundation organizes this annual Art and Science: Insights into Consciousness workshop at The Watermill Center. So right after Marina Abramović did her “The Artist Is Present,” they had a meeting in the summer of 2010 and everyone was really intrigued by how connected the audience members felt to her—there were a lot of emotional reactions both from Marina and from the participants’ perspectives. So they thought maybe we could investigate this.

What Marina initially wanted was to take an fMRI machine and have her brain scanned and then do this reverse classification so we could infer from the brain scan how she felt at a certain moment. But that really isn’t really possible in the current state of affairs. So instead, we thought what may be interesting is to look at whether we can see correlated activity between people’s brains, and we can do this using EEG, which is portable.

So I set out to do this project—”Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze“—where we took portable EEG headsets and had people sit together making eye contact. I brought in a close friend, Matthias Oostrik, who’s an interactive media artist to help develop the visuals so that the audience could also see something in the background. That first project was called “Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze.” We took the EEG signal and split it into different frequency bands so you could see which frequency is dominant in each person’s brain by the frequency of the flickering. You can then compare the brainwaves from one person to the brainwaves of the other by which frequency is dominant in each brain. Whenever the frequencies overlap past a certain threshold, then we see these waves that connect between the two brains. So that’s when there’s strong correlation or synchronization in activity.

Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze, 2011. Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. Photo by Maxim Lubimov

So you actually collected a bunch of data from “Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze.” What were some of your initial findings and can they actually give any hints into what’s happening in the brain when we intensely engage in eye contact with another person?

That’s actually the best data we’ve gotten because people sat still for 30 minutes and did nothing except look into each other’s eyes. We found the most synchronicty in alpha waves at right posterior sensors, which are the ones that best pick up brain activity associated with visual processes. Alpha frequency waves are associated with concentration and focus. What was interesting was that Marina’s brain had much more alpha activity across the board compared to the other participants’ brains.

So you have your two brains connecting, but there has to be something that mediates that connection in the real world too, at least if you ask me. Marina might say: “Well, that’s some sort of telepathic transfer of energy.” Or she might not even think that that’s necessarily the most interesting question to ask. But we as scientists are trained to ask: What in the physical world mediates that connectivity? What actually drives this? So with the alpha synchronization, for example, maybe you’re better in tune with each other’s blinking rate and that resets alpha so you’re on the same wavelength. Is there another explanation that’s more feasible or plausible? So it’s maybe not so mystical, but it’s still interesting.

It’s kind of a new field to compare brain activity directly between people. But at the same time, in any experimental study, you’re never just looking at one brain. You have a group of subjects, and it’s the average correlated activity between all those people that we use to determine if a result is significant. So it’s not such a drastically new theoretical thing, but people very often present it as such in the literature.

The Compatibility Racer, Berlin 2013: “a competitive, interactive brain-robotics installation.” Photo by Kate Moxham

Once I realized this, I asked myself: “What is actually interesting to ask? Are there actually interesting questions where you do need two people in the same room doing something at the same time where you record brain activity from both of them?” And it’s actually kind of difficult. There’s one study that I investigates face-to-face versus back-to-back communication. That’s one that sort of does it, but even that you could do having different people watch somebody front and back and see if there are differences.

But what is really nice about this line of work, both from an outreach and educational perspective and artistic perspective, is that it’s something that people find very intuitive–this question of what it means to be on the same wavelength. Framing it like that, you can go into things like what brainwaves actually are and how we can trace them to see if they are actually in sync.

Could you talk more about your most recent projects? 

For our most recent installation, “The Mutual Wave Machine,” we’re again measuring brainwave synchrony. So people sit inside this capsule and this visualization grows and shrinks as synchrony increases and you can actually see the neurofeedback. Then we gave the participants a questionnaire about their empathetic predisposition to see if there was a relationship with synchrony.

With this project, we wanted to get to at the dissociation between wanting to connect with someone and actually being able to connect with them. And then of feeling this loneliness that you can feel sometimes when you’re in the presence of another human being that’s much worse than if you’re alone. But sometimes you do connect, and it’s exhilarating! So that’s what we wanted to try to amplify here. We wanted people to feel a sense of frustration.

So you see these light patterns growing as you’re more synchronized, and there’s also this real-time video image of yourself embedded in the noise. So you’re looking at this weird white noise pattern, and you start engaging in eye contact with this noisy projection of yourself as you become more connected with this person. So that adds another layer in mirror imaging.

Mutual Wave Machine

Mutual Wave Machine, 2014. Photo by Sandra Kaas

How has working with artists affected your approach to or appreciation of your research in particular and science in general?

Right now I’m more of a person who wants to grab things from around me and try to see how that can be translated into questions that can be relevant in the lab and for the field. So you start to get these ideas for your own projects and inspiration for the kinds of questions that you want to ask in your own research. I really enjoy that part, and I think that is true of any interdisciplinary interaction, or even just talking to friends who aren’t in your field.

I also find it really interesting and really challenging to make these projects into really hybrid projects. Yes, I’m a scientist, but I’m also the artist on these projects in the sense that I have an idea of what I want them to be visually. So I need to work with people who have more experience in those fields to try to help me and my collaborators answer those scientific questions. And in those projects, it’s not entirely clear who’s what. We’re making projects that can be placed into either category, which is ultimately something that I think is really great.

What I’ve found about the art-science interface and working with artists is that the quest is ultimately the same: how do you ask a question in an original way where people are still interested in finding the answer to that question. But then in art projects, you can often leave it at that question, whereas in a science project you’re asked to provide an answer. Once I was on the radio and I said something like: “This is an ongoing investigation. We don’t know the answer and that’s actually really exciting!” And my friend said, that’s not the message you want to convey; that’s not exciting because people just want to know the answer to a scientific question. But that’s not science. The questions can often be just as exciting as the answers, and that’s not at all portrayed in the media.

There are also some very basic questions that lie at the heart of science that you’re not asking anymore because they’ve become so engrained in your way of thinking. The things that are very basic for us are not necessarily so for others. So sometimes people from outside of the sciences ask those questions or they challenge those questions. And it’s very hard, but it’s very important. Sometimes I’ve even noticed that there’s a gap in my own scientific thinking when I try to explain things to people who aren’t in my field. So they’ll ask these questions and I’ll realize actually maybe I should go back to my little diagram because there’s maybe a step that I skipped, or maybe it’s not actually working the way I thought it was. And that’s just by translating it into these terms for a layperson. So I think it’s really important for the advancement of science to keep yourself rooted in the outside world.

The research and works presented above have been made possible through the collaborative efforts of an incredible team of scientists and artists, credited below.

Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze

Marina Abramovic, Suzanne Dikker & Matthias Oostrik, and participants of the Annual Watermill Art & Science: Insights into Consciousness Workshop

Compatibility Racer

Lauren Silbert, Jennifer Silbert, Suzanne Dikker & Matthias Oostrik, Oliver Hess, Amanda Parkes

Mutual Brainwaves Lab

Suzanne Dikker & Matthias Oostrik // Special thanks to Michael Caruso, Katia Tsvetkova, and Jennifer Silbert

Mutual Wave Machine

Suzanne Dikker & Matthias Oostrik, Peter Burr, Diederik Schoorl, Matthew Patterson Curry, Oliver Hess

danceroom Spectroscopy: Waltzing through the Invisible World

At its most basic, science is a quest to understand the invisible forces that underlie everything from our emotions to our planet’s inevitable orbit around the sun. These forces are fundamentally dictated by the dynamics of an invisible world—of atoms and molecules vibrating, of tiny bonds breaking and forming. But given that human perception is restricted to the observable world, all we can know are the consequences of these forces at work—that an apple loosed from a tree will fall downwards or that a single fertilized egg will reliably divide and morph into a little human being over nine months.

Scientists go through years of training in order to imagine the world that stretches beyond the realm of our five senses, developing techniques, formulas, and models to give us insights into this world. But scientific ways of knowing, while deeply embedded in empiricism, are still to a large extent a translation of these invisible forces into the observable world of experimentation and data collection. The best we can do is to develop an intuition for these unseeable forces and rigorously test that intuition against our scientific method.

But what if you could actually inhabit the invisible world? What would it be like to witness and engage with the collection of atoms that form the molecules that form the complex structures that make your macro self and surroundings?


danceroom Spectroscopy dome installed in Brunel’s Passenger Shed. Photo by Paul Blakemore

danceroom Spectroscopy [dS] is an interactive simulation of what it could be like to wander the nano-quantum world. Recruiting the power of a supercomputer and the rigor of quantum mechanics, dS uses data collected from 3D motion capture to solve the equations of motion for up to 40,000 atoms, transforming humans into dynamic energy fields. The result is captivating: an immersive sonic + visual environment sculpted by users’ individual movements and their interaction with surrounding fields of energy.

The language of science is laden with the language of aesthetics—the beauty of a question, the elegance of a theory, the symmetry of a structure. But this particular brand of beauty typically takes years of scientific training to appreciate, which is what makes danceroom Spectroscopy so incredibly powerful and exciting. By experimenting + engaging with their energy fields, participants can gain an intuitive sense for complex molecular physics principles as they witness themselves immediately influencing them. In so doing, dS effectively brings to life the equations and theories that populate the pages of our often dull + dry 2D textbooks.

Conceived by chemical physicist David Glowacki, danceroom Spectroscopy launched in Spring 2011 with a large-scale exhibition at Bristol’s Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts. Since then, dS has been implemented in educating the general public, furthering advanced research projects, and has even woven its way into dance with Hidden Fields—a multi-award winning performance using the beauty of dance to illuminate the invisible dynamic world.

Above, take a peek into Hidden Fields 2013 performance, which was most recently performed at ZKM Centre for Arts and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. And below, enjoy ArtLab’s Q+A with Dr. Glowacki as he shares his insights into artistry + the invisible and what science can gain from art.

Over the last few years, danceroom Spectroscopy has found applications in everything from education to research to dance performance. But where did the original seed of the idea to create dS come from?

The real reason I started dS is that I just never knew what to tell people about my research. And also, a lot of the problems I work on are just so abstract. So while in principle if we could crack these problems, we could solve anything, I just have no idea whether or not it’s actually feasible to imagine that we’ll crack them in my lifetime. But still, I had always been overwhelmed by the beauty of what I was doing. So I thought if I could just show it to people, and if they thought it was beautiful too, that would at least be some validation for all the stuff that I’m working on. Even if I can’t solve all the problems I claim I’ll be able to solve in my research, the validation would lie in the fact that people would think, “Oh, that’s really beautiful and cool.”

But the fact was, I didn’t have anything tangible or nice to show anybody about the last six years I’d spent doing research—just papers that no one was going to understand. I thought, well I better make something so that I would at least have pictures to show people that they might find compelling. And ultimately, the content that you can learn with something like what we’ve made—and so quickly—is amazing! I can condense a whole semester’s worth of material into one hour with dS and you’ll have an intuitive feel for so many different physical principles.

Just watching Hidden Fields, I’m amazed at how much faster—and actually better—I can grasp those physical principles than when I was learning about them in textbooks and lectures. There’s something really intuitive and immediate about translating these concepts into a more artistic language.

One of the most fun things about the process was sitting down with these artists and just figuring out a shared vocabulary we could use to talk about the project. Because this is a physics simulation, the code has all these equations that don’t mean anything to the dancers or the artists. At the same time, they have their own dance vocabulary for how they talk about motion. So we spent a lot of time talking about the interconnections between the vocabulary of physics and the vocabulary of dance. Lots and lots of talking. I’ve become so much better at communicating what I’m doing as a result of being forced to talk about it to all these people all the time.

When you’re imagining the invisible world of molecules or atoms, you don’t have a clue what they look like. No one knows what an atom looks like and no one knows what a molecule looks like. So your invention of what they look like is purely an artistic leap—and it has to be good artistry if it’s going to be effective for communication. To be able to construct visual representations for our eyes of something that is way beyond our human sensory domain, that’s an artistic and imaginative endeavor.


Hidden Fields. Photo by Paul Blakemore

People make a divide between science and art, but the future is going to show us very rapidly that there is no divide. This word—scientist—is a really new word in intellectual history that only came into existence around 100 years ago. If you even go back to the late 1800s, people that did what you and I call science called themselves natural philosophers. And the idea of a natural philosopher is that you’re a philosopher, so you’re interested in different forms of knowledge, but there’s this systematic method of gaining information about nature that you tend to adopt because it’s pretty good. Calling yourself a philosopher, a ‘lover of knowledge’, is way less limiting than what we now think of as a modern scientist. Immanuel Kant would call himself a natural philosopher. Newton. Faraday. So the word is part of the problem because it forces you to think about yourself in a way that’s tied to modern institutional structures.

How has this project affected your own research, in terms of the scientific questions you’re interested in asking and your approach to actually answering them?

My research has taken some new directions that I never expected. Now we’re working with dancers to use their motion to manipulate proteins, which has been really exciting and a real, serious research project. So we’re working with the idea that now we can use all these algorithms and technologies we’ve developed to get people to manipulate proteins in a way that’s a lot faster than a computer would be able to manipulate them just using iterative blind search algorithms. In fact, I just wrote a paper showing that human users can accelerate a protein dynamics simulation by a factor of almost 10,000!

Before this project I was more of a pure theorist in that I would worry about equations and methods. I was less concerned with the computer science side, even though I would simulate everything on a computer. This project has really forced me to get up to speed with the state-of-the-art in computer science, which has actually driven things massively forward in my science research. And that just came from worrying about how to make a really good art piece! It’s definitely got me thinking about how it might be possible to have a more holistic relationship between the different disciplines—producing work on the cutting edge of research science and also the cutting edge of arts practice.

Major hat tip to Columbia University’s CUrioisty3 series, where I first heard Dr. Glowacki speak about his incredible project. To learn more about danceroom Spectroscopy, be sure to peruse the official website. To stay up-to-date on the latest + greatest from this project, Like on Facebook // follow on Twitter!

Of Brain Games + Space Jams: Jan 24th Weekly Roundup

Highlight of the Week: Dolphin Dance Project

“When you approach dolphins with dance, they recognize it as intelligence.”

Conceived by dance educator + musculoskeletal research scientist Chisa Hidaka, the Dolphin Dance Project brings humans and wild dolphins together in a collaborative + improvised underwater dance for film. Incredibly, the dolphins dance of their own free will, engaging in a cross-species movement-based conversation, without the temptation of a treat or reward, inspiring respect for the intelligence and beauty of underwater life. As someone who has become increasingly concerned about the state of our oceans + our impact on life underwater, this project has really resonated with me since I first learned about it at Cursiosity3’s Dance in Art + Science event last week. For more video and information, visit the Dolphin Dance Project online here!

Tweeter’s Digest

sweet selections brought to you by my twitter feed

The sound of space: Voyager provides music from solar system and beyond by Samuel Gibbs [@guardiantech]

Data visualization is all the rage this day, but Domenico Vicinanza, project manager at Géant—Europe’s high-speed data network powering Cern + the Large Hadron Collider—has translated data from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 into music that’s out of this world!

Science Goes to the Movies: ‘Her’ [@SciFri]

On this edition of Science Friday, scientist film critics weigh on on Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her: the story of a man who falls hard for his operating system, adding a new dimension to *technophilia*!

Dreamcasters: how video games alter our subconscious by Katie Drummond [@verge]

Intrigued by her son’s video-gaming hobby, psychologist Jayne Gackenbach investigates the effects of hardcore gaming on dreaming + the unconscious: “The major parallel between gaming and dreaming is that, in both instances, you’re in an alternate reality… It’s interesting to think about how these alternate realities translate to waking consciousness, when you are actually reacting to inputs from the real world.”

Review: Auditory Hallucinations, Composed by Ajai Raj [@TheScientistLLC]

The music in your head. Stanford music professor Jonathan Berger transports audiences into the world of imagined sound with Visitations—a pair of one-act chamber operas inspired by the science + sensation of auditory hallucinations.

Brain Games: Move Objects With Your Mind To Find Inner Calm? by Amy Standen [@NPRAllTech]

Playing with brainwaves: the rise of commercially available EEG headsets a la Emotiv + NeuroSky’s MindWav Mobile has made for some pretty awesome projects—from Orbit brain-controlled helicopter to funky//fresh NeuroDisco.

The Art of Science: Hiroshi Sugimoto Gets Right to the (Infinity) Point by Michelle Banks [@finchandpea]

Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto sculpts his way to the infinity point, artfully modeling equation for a surface containing a single point extended to infinity in his piece Mathematical Model 009 [below].

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Mathematical Model 009 [2006]

Dance, Factors, Dance: A Variation On Yorgey’s Factorization Diagrams by Stephen Von Worley [@DataPointed]

Inspired by Yorgey’s factorization diagrams, DataPointed artist + scientist Stephen Von Worley crafted the Factor Conga: “a promenade of primes, composites, and their constituents” breaking numbers down into their prime factors.

Talk Piece: Modes Of Perception And Communication Discussed At NYC Leonardo LASER by Ashley P. Taylor [@SciArtinAmerica]

How can we take advantage of all our senses? SciArt in America thoughtfully recaps the work and discussion presented at last week’s NYC Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous [LASER]—featuring artist-activist Eve Mosher, installation artist Nina Yankowitz, communication + perception researcher Mark Paterson, and New York-based artist Sherry Mayo.

Beauty and the Brain [@BBCRadio4]

What can the brain tell us about art? Can there ever be a recipe for beauty? Or are the great works beyond the powers of neuroscience? BBC Radio 4 explores the world of neuroesthetics.

SciArt in the City

01.27.2014 – SciArt Speed Date // Collaborate // 7:30pm @ The West

Beer, Brooklyn, breaking boundaries. ArtLab + SciArt in America have joined forces to co-opt the speed date format as artists + scientists pair off in a series of conversations geared towards creating cross-disciplinary collaborative connections. If you’re interested in participating as a “dater,” be sure to email me. Or if you’re just curious, stop by and say hello!

01.29.2014 + 01.30.2014 – CULTUREMART 2014: Science Fair // 7pm @ HERE

Science Fair is an opera-singer’s love-song to the scientific worldview. Conceived and performed by mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, and featuring pianist Mila Henry, Science Fair melds Science and Opera into a witty evening of songs, slides, and live experiments.

Through 03.02.2014 – Science Inspires Art: The Cosmos @ New York Hall of Science

View images from ASCI’s 15th Annual international competition and exhibition. These stunning images relate to astronomy, space exploration, extra-terrestrials and the nature of matter or time in relation to universal laws.

My Pic of the Week

metastasis of music
The Metastasis of Music. These cancerous vinyls by artist Jasmine Murrell were inspired by cancer researcher Dr. Scott Lowe’s work. The piece was showcased at the Ligo Project’s Art of Science Gallery Night as one of four works to come out of six-month long collaborations between artists and scientists. For more information, be sure to check out Ligo’s Facebook page!

Got an article or event at the interfaces of art and science? Care to share? Just tweet @thisisartlab or email me!

09.11.2013 // On Repeat

On September 11, 2013, ArtLab presented On Repeat: a unique look at the insight, perspective, and even pain that is borne out of repetition in the practice of art + science. The evening’s discussion featured Emily Dennis, a mosquito neurobiologist in Leslie Vosshall’s Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at The Rockefeller University, and Lauren Schleider, a Brooklyn-based visual artist whose work illustrates “the imagined landscapes of the inside of the body.”

To learn more about Lauren + her exploration of the body through her intricately + organically composed work, be sure to visit her webpage + Like on Facebook. And for more of Emily’s scientific musings, check out her pretty//cool articles on The Incubator // listen to The Incubator’s exciting podcast on engineering the first mutant mosquito // watch mosquitos in action on her YouTube channel.

On Repeat marked ArtLab’s first ever public event, which was made possible in large part by the much-appreciated support of BkSciArt–a Brooklyn-based organization working to provide a community space that celebrates the inter-relatedness of science + art, advancing the case for their reunion. Many thanks to the wonderful Rachel Broderick, co-founder // creative director of Brooklyn-based arts company Our Ladies, who co-moderated the evening’s discussion, and to our host: Over the Eight in Williamsburg.