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Dissolution in Sleep and Death
Outer Space and Inner Self are core themes in the current work of Daniela de Paulis. The artist engages with scientific research and technologies, from radio astronomy to neuroscience, for a creative exploration of our human relation to the cosmos, and to ourselves. This double focus is exemplified in her ongoing project ‘COGITO into Space’, a collaboration with the Dwingeloo Radio Telescope in the Netherlands, where she allows participants to send their inner thoughts into space as radio waves, while they are watching views of Earth from outer space. It’s a symbolic action for shifting awareness, by creating a direct connection between the embodied mind and the universe of which we are a part. More recently, the human sense of self has gained more prominence in Daniela’s artistic research. Anke Bangma speaks to her about her fascination with human consciousness, and with the moment the conscious self dissolves.
Anke Bangma: How did you become interested in consciousness?
Daniela de Paulis: The question of consciousness has been an underlying interest throughout my practice as an artist. Over the years it has become increasingly relevant and personal. More than as an academic topic, I have come to approach it as an existential question. I became interested in the concept of the inner voice for example.
Thought and consciousness might not be unique to humans. We assume our human thinking is more advanced than that of nonhuman species, because we use verbal language, but anyone who has been close to animals, realises how they evidently also ‘think’, associate and remember. Biologist Frans de Waal speaks about this in his book ‘Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?’(1) He describes cognition as an evolutionary process, in which every species has perfected itself to survive in its environment. While we may think the human brain is unique, De Waal would say it is simply adapted to survive in its environment. The reason why certain species haven’t evolved to speak, suggests they may not have a need for that kind of skill. But they do create other forms of social interaction. Scientists increasingly agree they also have ‘cultural traditions’ in the form of behaviours that groups adopt and transmit across generations.(2) It makes me wonder whether other living beings also have some sense of self, a perception of themselves throughout life.
Yet the constant narrative of verbal thinking appears specific to human thought, and this led me to the question: What is this inner voice, this voice we carry in ourselves as our main companion in life up to the very last moment? It is our alter ego, the other we have an ongoing relation with. Of course this is not a new idea. Psychoanalysis, as well as literature and theatre, have described in multiple ways how the ego is fragmented – like the unfinished characters in Pirandello’s play ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’, who struggle with their erratic self-identity. But I am more interested in the question of the inner voice from the point of view of contemporary neuroscience and how this relates to our everyday experience of the self.
AB: Can you tell more about the neuroscientific insights that interest you? We all will recognise from our own experience that we as humans have an inner voice. But this phenomenon seems paradoxically associated with an older conception from the philosophy of mind, captured in the figure of the ‘homunculus’—a tiny man that would reside inside the brain to make sense of our sensations and perceptions and steer our actions.
This image of a conscious entity inside a nonconscious human body is a symbol of the old idea that the mind and body would be somehow separate. This is the opposite of how neurologists today understand the conscious mind and our sense of self. They recognise multiple levels of conscious as well as nonconscious cognition, which all arise from the body in its ongoing interaction with its environment.
DDP: I have been inspired by several studies in neuroscience, and in my work I delve into aspects of these theories, approaching them with an artistic mind rather than specialist knowledge. I am, for example, interested in the Extended Mind Thesis, conceived by Andy Clark and David Chalmers.(3) They propose that the mind does not reside only in the brain or even the body, but extends into its physical surroundings, where the objects it interacts with become part of its cognitive process. The mind thus embodies space in a continuity of mutual interaction. This concept links very fittingly with my background as a contemporary dancer. For the dancer, space and the body compenetrate each other.
I have also been looking at the concept of spontaneous cognition or raw thinking process. Around 1900, philosopher and psychologist William James coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ for this phenomenon, which has been explored in neuroscience as well as literature since. I think it is this flow of thoughts and intuitions, whether more or less verbalised or visualised, that makes us perceive the continuity of our life experience.
Considering how intricate the workings of the brain are, it is intriguing that neuroscientists have been attempting to quantify the activity of the brain. But what are they really measuring? Often the quantitative approach leaves consciousness completely out of the picture. Without first answering the question what consciousness is, it is hard to appreciate how reliable neural measurements can be. Yet vice versa, it’s a valid question whether we can ever understand consciousness without conducting such quantitative measurements. Here philosophers of mind point at how very complex the question is. But what interests me most is that, despite new findings and discussions in neuroscience, our lived experience of consciousness and subjectivity has not really changed through time. We humans still experience our individual lives as a relation with oneself, with an inner voice trying to make sense of it.
AB: For a long time, introspection—thinking about the thinking self—was the only way to develop knowledge about consciousness. Today, cognitive biology can probe the wealth of neural activity and information processing that goes on in our bodies without us even being aware of it. It provides insights we could never gain access to through introspection. But you are observing that though this may have revolutionised how scientists think about the mind, we nonetheless still experience ourselves as beings in the world through constant introspection.
DDP: Exactly. That is why it is so difficult to come to one, unified science about consciousness. It has been impossible to describe the experience of consciousness objectively. There is always this existential dimension, that somehow escapes science. I think scientific findings can help us understand the relation we have with our surroundings and identify the possible triggers for certain feelings and behaviours, yet this acquired knowledge doesn’t change how our daily inner narrative unfolds, whether visualised or verbalised.
AB: Currently you are looking into sleep. It’s as if you are approaching the topics of consciousness and the inner voice through a detour. What interests you about sleep? Is it the moment where the ongoing internal monologue of higher consciousness comes to a halt?
DDP: I’m especially interested in the moment when we lose our self-awareness—the moment, as you are about to fall to sleep, when your thoughts start shredding away and become deformed. Following on from ‘COGITO in Space’ I’m working towards a performance piece called ‘Mare Incognito’, where my brainwaves will be sent into space while I fall to sleep. One of the researchers I collaborate with on this project told me that in the process of falling asleep some people perceive their bodies as becoming very small, shrunk to the tiny size of a pea, or very large, inflated to the size of a planet. So, as we fall asleep, the brain enters a new stage. It is active, but in a different way. During sleep the neurons also shrink, fluids cleanse the space between them, and in this process the brain lets go of information and experiences that are not important or better forgotten, while during the dream phase new associations are made. Afterwards, we wake up to a self that is connected to yesterday’s self, but also different. I would say that what we experience when we fall asleep is a form of death.
I’m fascinated by the idea that the death of the self is a daily event. Sending this process into space is perhaps a form of validation. It is a way to materialise a journey into the unknown—which is what death ultimately is. I like the poetic resonance between the loss of awareness as we fall asleep, entering emptiness and darkness, and the unfathomable emptiness and darkness of outer space: inner space and outer space as a continuum.
When we sleep we dissolve/devolve back into the inorganic depths of outer space and its infinite obsidian repose.Dr. Thomas Moynihan
AB: Was that the same in your earlier project, ‘COGITO in Space’, where you first sent brainwaves, of yourself and of others, into space?
DDP: ‘COGITO in Space’ was conceptually and philosophically very different. It was more about creating an existential awareness of the unfathomable size of the cosmos. By sending your thoughts into space, you confront yourself with something that is much greater than oneself. It was a way to experience that in a poetic form. But this project around sleep is more about exploring the idea of letting go of our first-person perspective on life. This makes some people, including myself, actually afraid of falling asleep. It is related to the fear of letting go, of facing death.
DDP: Sleep is such a vulnerable place to be. I’m collaborating with sleep researchers at the Donders Centre for Neuroscience in Nijmegen, and I have seen how they work with test subjects, asleep in the lab while wearing an EEG device connected to computers and surveyed by cameras, monitored by the scientists in the next room. It’s quite invasive to have someone study how you fall asleep.
But also evolutionary speaking, sleep is a vulnerable phase in the daily life cycle. Sleep experts have observed how humans have evolved into early birds as well as night owls to deal with this. It’s evolution’s response to the increased risks associated with sleep. A third of the population is actually attuned to the night. In this way, evolution ensured there would always be enough people awake to protect the others, and the group would never be exposed to long hours of vulnerability.
AB: Has there been a lot of research into sleep? Some of the key neurologists investigating consciousness mention how sleep and dreaming present them with paradoxes in our understanding of consciousness, but they don’t explore it further.
DDP: There are several scientific labs currently working on sleep, and there is a growing interest in why we sleep. Culturally, at least in the West, sleep has mostly been portrayed negatively, in terms of economic loss, a wasting of time. But sleep is as crucial as our waking life. Researchers have found that even unborn babies have a cycle of waking and sleeping, including REM sleep, which means they too dream. One wonders what dreams they might have.
AB: Sleep seems to pose quite a few challenges for thinking about consciousness. Cognitive scientists like Antonio Damasio or Katherine Hayles agree that sleep must be some form of consciousness, not its opposite.(5) During sleep, the mind is still processing sensory experiences, whether from the outside (sensing our surroundings are warm or cold, for example) or from the inside (processing memories or mental representations). During dreams there still is a sense of self-awareness, a sense of a me that is experiencing the dream, sometimes even steering it, although the borders of what constitute this “me” may seem fluid or distorted. So below the level of consciousness is not sleep, but nonsconscious-cognition: everything our body and mind deal with, day and night, without requiring any self-awareness or thought. Perhaps looking at sleep tells us, even more than looking at waking life, that consciousness is not one thing, but a fluctuating process, with varying levels of focus, intensity and awareness? That it is not a simple matter of ‘on’ or ‘off’?
DDP: Absolutely. In the different stages of sleep, there is a lot going on that neuroscientists also do not yet understand completely. In fact, they are just scratching the surface. Lucid dreaming, for example, where you are aware that you are dreaming, is a form of consciousness that still escapes science. I also wonder how consciousness is thought in other cultures. It’s a question science should probably also address. The focus on the internal verbal monologue has been central to thinking about consciousness in western traditions, but it may not be given the same relevance in other cultures. Philosopher and neuroscientist Francisco Varela discussed with Tibetan monks how they achieve a state of being that is very similar to the state of death we experience in deep sleep.(6)
AB: How is death defined in these meditative practices?
DDP: In the western tradition death, like sleep, is often described in negative terms, but it doesn’t have to be defined in that way. In the practices of these monks, it’s a state of complete clarity and transparency, where the inner voice and narrative of consciousness are silent. A state where the mind is completely still—without falling asleep. Of course, this requires a lot of training; only the most experienced monks can reach this state. They report that they experience an inner light and sense of oneness, which Varela compares to accounts of near-death-experience in the western tradition.
It is interesting how through meditation one can overcome the fear of death as losing oneself, allowing oneself to imagine the threshold of death by gradually dissolving the narrative produced by the inner voice—this imaginary string of subjective experience that holds one’s life together. In my project this experience of oneness is perhaps achieved intellectually, by metaphorically and physically surrendering one’s mind into the vastness of the cosmos, using some of the technologies available to us. Obviously, I employ these technologies for a completely different purpose than science.
AB: Self-experimentation seems crucial to your practice: you do not look at your topics from a distance but set up conditions that allow you to undergo what you are researching.
DDP: Perhaps more than before, my work since ‘COGITO’ is informed by my background as a dancer. My body is my first interface, more than the mind. In the work of a dancer, the idea of the inner voice also plays an important role. You really have to exercise this inner voice, because you direct your body, with every finger you move, from the inside out, to the point where the voice becomes assimilated into the body. There is a movement technique, called body-mind-centering, where you are guided to imagine the internal body. This embodied approach to movement, body and consciousness has been quite influential on my work.
AB: How does this personal, embodied involvement translate into the experiences you create for your audience?
DDP: I like to create narratives that can be experienced differently by each person, as that is where our awareness can expand. But even when there is a larger audience, I also like to create a sharing of the here and now of that moment. For the ‘COGITO in Space’ event in 2018, I not only wanted to create an embodied experience for the person whose brainwaves were sent into space that day, but I wanted to evoke a situated experience for the audience as well: a physical connection to the landscape around the radio telescope and its interior.
I thought of it as a durational experience, which people could carry with them in their memory. I conceived of the event as a theatre director would, with a precise scenography and temporal structure, and carefully planned transitions from one moment to the next—starting with a walk in the open space of the Dwingeloo heather fields guided by a planetary scientist, then a demonstration of the telescope, leading up to the prepping of the test subject/performer and eventually the event of her brain activity being sent into space.
My thinking about the unfolding of this event was very much inspired by a piece by Tino Seghal I experienced at the ICA in London in 2006, called ‘This Progress’, which I really loved. The performance was essentially a walk through the empty ICA building, guided by three people: first a child, then a middle-aged person, and finally an elderly person. It was incredible, as it was all about the subjective experience of the event through time and space. So, with that experience still in mind after many years, every detail of the ‘COGITO in Space’ event was thought through. Even finding the exactly right, reclining chair for the test subject. I wanted the person to be able to lay back and see the sky above the radio telescope; but I also wanted the setting in the cabin to be suggestive of some arcane, off-the-record science charting uncharted territory—like the underground time travel experiments in Chris Marker’s movie ‘La Jetée’.
‘La Jetée’, 1962
AB: I wonder how you looked at the relationship between inner body, outer space and technology. If we see the human body as a multi-sensory organism immersed in and constantly responding to the world, what happens when you hook this body up to a radio-telescope which has its own sensors?
DDP: Actually, I don’t look at radio transmissions in terms of a new technology, but I see them more as energetic strings—a kind of energetic extension of our human sensorium. So even if it requires large antennas to send human brainwaves into space, I never perceived a dichotomy. Philosophically, this could be linked to the Extended Mind Thesis I mentioned earlier. The specific site of the Dwingeloo radio-telescope also made it possible to evoke this connection. The radio-telescope has this enclosed room which feels like an extension of the body, a space suit, with the antenna above it positioned to string our thoughts directly into space.
For me, this philosophical performance was about confronting myself with a space that is so large that it is difficult to fathom, and the radio waves made the connection between the human individual and this infinite space very concrete, because radio waves are physical. But other people may have had different associations. Some saw it as a way to connect with loved ones who are not here anymore. Others said for them it was a way of sending a part of themselves into space forever, and that this related to overcoming the fear of transitory life.
AB: My immediate association with the situation you created was that of a human body trying to grasp its own intelligence while connected to a machine designed to try to grasp the possible presence of other intelligence.
DDP: I love this association. This connection is also to do with the mirroring effect between ourselves and outer space. As Thomas Nagel puts it: “Isn’t it sufficient to try to understand ourselves from within—which is hard enough? Yet the ambition appears to be irresistible—as if we cannot legitimately proceed in life just from the point of view that we naturally occupy in the world, but must encompass ourselves in a larger world view. And to succeed, that larger world view must encompass itself.”(7)
Stanislav Lem’s science fiction novel ‘Solaris’ was also a source of inspiration for this work. Central to the book is the idea of communication with the unknown, represented by a planet, Solaris, that behaves as a sentient being. The scientists hovering above the planet are struggling to understand how this planet thinks and responds to their presence. But they can’t understand anything about the planet’s behaviour. In the end they give up their experiments and as a last, desperate attempt they send their brain activity to the surface of the planet by means of X-rays. At that point, they also stop fighting each other, and find a moment of solace. I found this poetically resonating with what I wanted to do with my project: to look at the cosmos not only as an entity to study or an intelligence to grasp in a scientific way, but also as a sort of ultimate existential escape.
My project is an opportunity to ask anything out there: Do you experience life as we do? Maybe, by receiving our brainwaves, other species out there might understand that we are not the rational, linear-thinking species we sometimes think we are, but that we are actually ourselves very puzzled by our own existence. This is what compels me about connecting with outer space. There is a yearning for an understanding of ourselves in relation to this larger space, yet in our efforts to get to know more about this space it also remains an enigma.
In COGITO in Space the body streams beyond its protective skin into the infinite space beyond it, poetically drifting towards the unknown.Daniela de Paulis
AB: We seem to be on a threshold of recognising forms of cognition, even on our own planet, in completely different ways than before—as cognitive biologists and neuroscientists are exploring forms of awareness in biological lifeforms from the animals we spoke about earlier, to trees or plants, even micro-organisms. It’s a re-envisioning of traditional conceptions of intelligence, letting go of the hierarchies between humans and other species we have stuck to for such a long time.
DDP: Yes, it is an effort to escape anthropocentrism and to ask in a new way what life is, and what intelligence is. For me, more than breaking out from the anthropocentric perspective, it is about the effort to let go of its central place, but also about an awareness of our own limitations. Because the more we try to question anthropocentrism, the more we get entangled into it. I think that ultimately it is impossible to escape it, no matter how we look at other species, because it forms the limit of how our human nervous system and mind work. Fundamentally, it will remain impossible to know how another species feels and thinks—‘what it is like to be a bat’, as once again Thomas Nagel puts it.(8)
As part of my research I also engage with this, by attempting to explore the life and possible awareness of insects. Just recently I collaborated with the Bochum radio observatory in Germany to transmit the neural recording of a Periplaneta Americana (a common cockroach) into space. I received a neural recording from the University of Tel Aviv and had a very interesting conversation with the scientist who examines and dissects these insects about their possible sentience. I could not help but associate the awakening of a cockroach suddenly finding itself split into different parts with the unexpected metamorphosis of Franz Kafka’s character into an insect, so I titled my project ‘The Metamorphosis’.(8)
In this experiment the question raised by Nagel becomes central: Will we ever be able to know what it means to be another being, especially a being that is so different from us? We can study their behaviour. And we can empathise. But we will never know how another species experiences their life. This is why I think it is inevitable to be anthropocentric when it comes to interpreting any other life form.
Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, and our specific neurophysiology is per definition a limited resource.Thomas Nagel
AB: You do not only engage with science through reading, but also work with various scientists on your projects. Can you tell me more about these collaborations?
DDP: Around each of my projects, I form a specialist group. They feed the project with their research and advice, and sometimes actively collaborate with me. I work with radio operators, astronomers, philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists, who all share their knowledge and skills. Through these collaborations, I try to prevent being too self-referential in my research. And for the scientists our collaboration allows them to do things they could not do within their specialist field or the confines of scientific labs. Together, we can explore a more speculative terrain. The important aspect is that all team members share enthusiasm for the artistic idea I propose. This way we can all collaborate, each person bringing the best of their knowledge into the work. Having a shared vision also helps overcoming inevitable challenges. For example, for ‘COGITO in Space’ the neuroscientists went way beyond their initial expectations of their role and even developed the code that made it possible to translate brainwaves, recorded as electroencephalogram signals, into radio waves and send them into space.
Currently, I am mainly collaborating with neuroscientists. Like Tristan Bekinschtein from the University of Cambridge, who happens to study the instance of falling asleep and the shift in brain activity during that moment. He is very interested in the collaboration I proposed, exploring the poetic and philosophical implications of this ‘fall’. I’m also having conversations about sleep and death with Thomas Moynihan, based at the University of Oxford, who has been writing extensively about the intoxicating attraction we have as humans for emptiness, in the broadest sense.(10) He explores how humans have internalised the perception of being completely isolated in the vastness of space in order to cope with this most fundamental form of loneliness. This connects with my interest in the Big Unknowns—both in terms of what is out there, and in terms of what is inside ourselves. Some scientists say the brain is much more complex than the universe. To me these research fields have much in common.
AB: So, with your sleep project, you are putting yourself on a journey to explore such a Big Unknown?
DDP: One of the performers I worked with years ago said she really wanted to be present at the moment of dying. I never forgot this remark and was very inspired by it. The moment of falling asleep can be an opportunity to explore death on a daily basis—to come to terms with this Great Unknown, or at least familiarise ourselves with it as an inevitable part of who we are.
Daniela de Paulis is a former contemporary dancer, a transdisciplinary artist, licensed radio operator and radio telescope operator. From 2009 to 2019 she has been artist in residence at the Dwingeloo radio telescope, where she has developed the Visual Moonbounce technology and a series of innovative projects combining radio technologies with live performance art and neuroscience. Since 2010 she has been collaborating with a number of international organisations, including Astronomers Without Borders, for which she is the founder and director of the arts programme. She is a member of the IAA SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) permanent committee, the only worldwide forum for SETI scientists, and member of the METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) advisory panel. She is a regular host for the Wow! Signal Podcast. She has published her work with the Leonardo MIT Journal, Inderscience, Springer, Cambridge University Press and RIXC amongst others. More information: www.danieladepaulis.com, www.cogitoinspace.org, www.opticks.info
1. Frans de Waal, ‘Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?’, W. W. Norton & Company (2017).
3. The Extended Mind Thesis (EMT) was first developed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their article ‘The Extended Mind’ (1998), and developed further in Clark’s book ‘Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension’, Oxford University Press (2010).
4. William James developed his theory of the stream of consciousness in ‘The Principles of Psychology’ (1890).
5. See Antonio Damasio, ‘Self Comes To Mind’, Pantheon Books (2010); and the pyramid graph of human cognition in N. Katherine Hayles, ‘Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious’, University of Chicago Press (2017).
6. Francisco J. Varela, ‘Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama’, audiobook (2016).
7. Thomas Nagel, ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Perception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False’, Oxford University Press (2012).
8. Thomas Nagel’s famous essay ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’, was first published in ‘The Philosophical Review’ (1974), online available via http://warwick.ac.uk
9. Franz Kafka, ‘The Metamorphosis’ (‘Die Verwandlung’, 1915).
10. See Thomas Moynihan, ‘Spinal Catastrophism. A Secret History’, MIT Press (2019).