Reviews Performance Published 19 June 2012

Objects of Emotion

Wellcome Collection ⋄ 16th June 2012

Puppetry and science.

Carmel Doohan

This weekend I learned what happens if you give a monkey a rake: something strange occurs in the parietal cortex of its brain. Experiments were carried out in which monkeys were trained to use a rake to reach for food pellets and mapped their neuron activity; the results showed that the task caused the area of sensory input in the brain to enlarge. A merging of somatosensory, visual and spatial information changes the monkey’s proprioception so that it encompasses the entire reach and radius of the rake; in essence: the tool becomes part of its body.

This was explained as part of a talk given by Patrick Haggard (leader of a research group at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) at the Wellcome Collection as part of their symposium Objects of Emotion; how our mind brings things to life. Using science, the event was also meant as a way of discovering new perspectives on puppetry.

The day began with Blind Summit and their cloth and cardboard puppet, Moses (discussed in greater length here). Last seen at Soho Theatre performing The Table, Moses’ existential, self referential exploration of the condition of being a puppet is just as funny and all the better for a looser style of improvisation. Next up was a screening of the new Brothers Quay stop-motion animation. This is made using objects from Sir Henry Wellcome’s hidden store and looks at the secret lives we project onto artifacts.

Then Melissa Trimingham (Co-founder of the University of Kent Research Centre for cognition, kinesthetics and performance) talked about how we think through objects. She feels that one of the reasons puppets are so affecting is that they display a ‘physical thinking’ we have forgotten about. As pre-linguistic children we interact with the world via primary metaphors: bad=stinky, big=important, happy=up, and affection=warmth. These and specific activities – such as playing with building blocks or organising objects into containers – turn into abstract thought as we get older, allowing us to build concepts and order things into categories. The power of puppets is that they somehow remind us of the method we once had of navigating the world, returning us to the deep embodiedness our mental processes were built on.

Penny Francis – co-founder of the Puppet Centre Trust and holder of an MBE for services to puppetry – admits to having had an absolute terror of puppets as a child. The dark unease that they can inspire is also touched on by Trimingham – in being nothing but movement and illusion, they draw attention to our physical situation, exposing the horror of our predicament. Mark Down, Blind Summit’s co director (and one of Moses’ co-operators) talked about Bunraku,  the ancient Japanese puppetry where the puppeteers and their actions remain visible throughout the performance. The discussion then turned towards ballet, and the codes and typology built into certain art forms and how these conventions of gesture can be played with.

The conversation brought up interesting failures of communication between the scientists and artists, both on the panel and in the audience. Issues such as muscle memory and the body’s response to imagined movement are met with refusal by the scientists; when an audience member speaks about physical thinking by saying he sometimes feels like he has a “brain in his stomach” there is a polite rolling of the eyes followed by a remarkably concise if reductive explanation.

We move onto the graph of the Uncanny Valley. This is a hypothesis in the field of robotics positing that when a robot looks and acts almost, but not quite, like a human, it inspires revulsion in the observer. CGI game designers have carried out research into avatar effectiveness and found a similar curve; if an object has something like a face or responds contingently to us, we like it more and more- until our reaction suddenly turns and we recoil in horror.

This need to read one another and the anxiety inspired by an inability to do so, was explored further by Francesca Happe, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College. She speaks of “humans as born mind readers” and explains that this automatic state cannot be switched off. We constantly assume mental states behind behaviours and actions and this is evidenced by the ease by which we believe in a puppet’s aliveness, despite clear evidence to the contrary. She has carried out research with autistic children who respond very differently to objects; rather than anthropomorphising, they form fierce attachments to saucepans and twigs. Happe wonders whether this could be seen as evidence of their functioning at a different grain or scale of detail; the children are not obsessively collecting identical things, they are simply more attuned to the infinite variety around them. Their “mind-blindness” allows them to see things as they are, rather than always searching for a representation of themselves.

Steven Connor, Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birbeck, was both funny and illuminating, moving from Winnicott’s ideas about what we need objects for to our modern outsourcing of memory via technology. He tells us that the job of the object is to keep inner and outer reality oscillating and inter-related; it is not that we are attached to things, it is that things are what attach us to the world – and the possibility that there is a world out there beyond ourselves at all.

The Wellcome Collection have a knack for picking out what is both fascinating and under -explored in a topic; with this conference – part of the Brains: Mind as Matter exhibition- their tangential, multidisciplinary approach creates a perfectly pitched discussion, one that happily offers far more questions than it does answers. As Vincent Walsh, Royal society fellow and professor of human brain research, puts it in the closing remarks: “We have picked up many new twigs today.” I, for one am looking forward to spending some time arranging, counting and studying them all.

Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.