What are your earliest memories? Are they clear to you, are they singular, or are they hazy, more of a feeling than a vivid image? Are some of your memories based on photographs from an event you knew you attended, like snapshots of your fourth birthday party? How much can you separate the photograph and the memory? After all these years, how are the details –the flavor of the cake, a cherished gift, the people crowded around in celebration– bound together? Have those details in fact changed with the passage of time, altering upon each recollection? How much is malleable and how do some persistent memories seem to have an organic stamp in time?
One of the greatest mysteries of the mind is our memory, the ability to time-travel and use recollections, whether conscious or not, to shape our future choices. At our core, when we think about who we are, we rely on a narrative we remember, the treasured memories we hold dear: grandparents, a summer adventure or the electricity of first romance. Depending on your age, you might have held onto these memories for just a few years or for several decades. Instinctively we know our memories are only a shadowy artifact of our original lived experience, and one distorted over time. In some ways memories have a life of their own, their own trajectory, their own constant shape-shifting, their ebbing and flowing in time. Many have no narrative, just influence over fears and feelings. As Eric Kandel, a remarkable memory pioneer in brain science, stated, “Has it ever struck you… that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going? It’s really all memory… except for each passing moment.”
With books, photographs and artwork, we create touchstones in our lives by committing a thought to paper or etching an image in time, creating a physical substrate that will lock in connections, fleeting thoughts or a visual representation of a person, place or encounter. But how does our brain maintain the web of the interconnected details of our life decades after those connections were made, bound together, and consolidated by the hippocampus? What molecular machine locks in our long-term memories, these neural echoes of our experience? How flexible are they and how might they change?
My work explores the intersection between the ‘two cultures’ of science and art which share a common wonder at the creative possibilities of the material and natural worlds. I am fascinated by the human brain–our complex machine–which can fathom the beginning of time and the nature of its own thought. However, even after centuries of study, scientists are only now starting to chart the mysterious biological map of our cognition.
During the fall of 2015, I was paired with Dr. John Harkness as part of a collaboration through the Portland-based non-profit NW Noggin due to our shared interest in the molecular mechanism of memory. NW Noggin is a neuroscience outreach group that seeks to spark a lifelong interest in science and art. Founded by neuroscience educator Dr. Bill Griesar and Portland-based artist Jeff Leake, NW Noggin regularly brings together students, scientists, educators, and artists to enthuse and inform the public about neuroscience and art. At the time, Dr. Harkness had just begun a postdoc fellowship in Dr. Barbara Sorg’s lab at Washington State University, investigating the role of perineuronal nets in cocaine-relapse behavior and memory.
Although these perineuronal net structures were documented over a century ago by Italian scientist Camillo Golgi, their role in the workings of our memories is only now beginning to be understood. Golgi described these structures that resided outside the neuron as “kind of corset of neurokeratin which impeded the spread of current from cell to cell.”
For our NW Noggin collaboration, I created an installation piece, using over 1000 feet of hand-woven copper wiring and netted fabric to illuminate these net-like structures that cradle the neurons in our brain. Over eight feet high, Your Joys, Sorrow, Memory and Ambition, is lit by a glow of blue LEDs illuminating a trio of neurons suspended from the ceiling. To echo Golgi, each neuron is corseted in netted fabric that shimmers in its delicate embrace of scraps of memory held within each synaptic connection. Dendritic arms made of fabric-wrapped wire reach out and create an amplified experience of neuroplasticity and illuminate the extra-neuronal machinery of these perineuronal nets.
My grandfather, the scientist Francis Crick, was a reductionist who believed that “Almost all aspects of life are engineered at the molecular level, and without understanding molecules we can only have a very sketchy understanding of life itself.”
In magnifying and reimagining the hidden molecular structures of the mind through art, I want to evoke the wonder of discovery and offer an imagined vision of the spectacular biological machinery which comprises the very core of our memories and our essential sense of self.
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