Category Archives: brain

The Living Dead. A project to recreate what it feels like to suffer from Cotard’s syndrome

The Cotard delusion was first described by French neurologist Jules Cotard in the late 19th century. One of his patients, whom he called Mademoiselle X, believed that she had “no brain, nerves, chest or entrails, and was just skin and bone.” She was also convinced that she did not need food for “she was eternal and would live for ever.” The lady, Dr. Cotard claimed, was suffering from a neurological condition he called le délire de negation (negation delirium).

The disorder -sometimes also called ‘Walking Corpse syndrome’- is so rare that it largely remains a mystery today. People affected by the syndrome believe that they or part of their body parts are dead, dying or don’t exist at all. It is usually accompanied by severe depression and some psychotic disorders. But what intrigues neuroscientists and neurologists is not just the uncommonness of the syndrome, it is that the brain of the patients may hold the key to understanding the mysteries of human consciousness.

Research at Radboud University. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

Marleine van der Werf, a filmmaker and visual artist whose work explores ideas about reality and the perception of reality, is currently researching how she could use immersive cinema to visualise this type (dis)embodiment.

The Living Dead will be an ‘out-of-body experience’, a multi sensory installation that allows you to feel what it is like to have Cotard’s syndrome. Using wearables, sound, smell and virtual reality, the experience is inspired by the true stories of people who suffer from the Cotard syndrome.

I discovered the project at the STRP festival in Eindhoven where Marleine van der Werf was showing the trailer of the installation she is still developing. I’m really looking forward to (hopefully) experience the work one day. In the meantime, i had a little chat with the artist about the project:

Screening of the teaser during the STRP festival. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

Hi Marleine! What drove you to explore the Cotard syndrome. Was there any particular event, person or discovery that inspired you to develop the installation?

When I was a child I saw from up close how it is to loose your mind and I always thought that ‘owning a body’ is one of the few certainties we have as humans. But when I read The Disembodied Lady by neurologist Oliver Sacks combined with ideas about exoskeletons and uploading consciousness I started to question this. This sparked my artistic research in the domains of body ownership and the sense of our self the last few years.

Still from the teaser featuring Dr. Jesús Ramirez-Bermudez. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

How do you gather information about what it feels to suffer from this very rare condition? By speaking with doctors? Patients?

Both. I met patients who suffer from cotard and studied different cases. I also visited physicians like Jesús Ramírez-Bermúdez, who is Head of the Neuropsychiatry Unit of the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Mexico City. He is an expert in his field and has seen the most patients who suffer from Cotard syndrome and could provide very important insights.

I obviously have no idea of what it feels to believe i am dead. Or that parts of my body are dead. Do all people who suffer from Cotard have similar experiences and ways of describing them?

It is difficult to say yes or no to this question. But what I gather from the patients experience and Dr. Ramirez-Bermudez is that there are definitely similarities. For example, that certain organs are missing or dead and that they feel detached from their environment. But of course experiences are very subjective and influenced by their background. For example, the patient I met experienced it as if she was between heaven and hell. Since she had a very religious background this seems like a logical explanation. Someone with a non-religious background could explain this feeling in a different way.

Research at We make VR. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

Filming in hospital during surgery. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

Will the final installation reflect what one person in particular feels or will it give a general impression of the syndromes?

To create the experience we research and collect as many different stories as we can. Since it is a rare syndrome this is a difficult task, because it has not been documented as well as other syndromes. After that process, we filter and structure it in a narrative that reflects all the stories, but is still an intimate experience.

Collage in the artist’s notebook of Manos Tsakiris and his research on the body. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

The installation looks very ambitious. It will use wearables, sound, smell and virtual reality to immerse the public in the story of the people who experience Cotard. Apart from doctors who work with Cotard patients, are you collaborating with other scientists or research institutes?

Yes, at the moment we are in the process of forming the whole team and are talking with leading neuroscientist that research body ownership, perception and empathy. For example Professor Floris de Lange of the Predictive brain lab of the Radboud University in Nijmegen (NL) and Professor Manos Tsakiris who established the Lab of Action & Body in Royal Holloway University in London (UK). Of course tools like wearables and virtual reality can contribute to create this immersive stories, but analogue tools are very important as well. That is the reason why we not only collaborate with artists, neuroscientist and engineers, but also with dancers. They use their body as instruments to convey stories and are vital in our process of creating the installation.

What are the biggest challenges you are encountering when trying to convey this out-of-body experience?

Having Cotard syndrome is very distressing and questions the most basic assumptions we have about our self.

The fact that the syndrome, as scientist say, could give an answer to where consciousness lies intrigues me on this journey. It is my aim to create an experience that is not a horror show, but an invitation for a wide audience to think about the relation with our body and where we as a society are heading.

I only saw the trailer during STRP and now i’m intrigued about what the final installation will be like. Could you already describe what it will look and feel like?

Creating a new work and going on a quest is always an adventure. Part of that journey is that the answer might not be the one you are looking for, but the one you actually find. But when I think about the encounters I had with the patients until now, I feel that it will be a haunting experience for sure. In which you will be challenged to rediscover the relationship with your body.

Thanks Marleine!

Previously: STRP, the festival that’s not afraid of the future .

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded, by writer, filmmaker and architect Madeline Schwartzman.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Black Dog Press writes: See Yourself X focuses on the fundamental domain of our perception—the human head. The publication presents an array of conceptual and constructed ideas of how we might physically extend the head, the mind, the brain or our consciousness into space. What is the future of the human head? What will happen to our sensory apparatus in 50 years, when the mechanisms for how we communicate and sense our surroundings become obsolete, prompted by the advancement of sensors that will enable brain-to-brain communication? Everyone with a head should be interested in this book.

See Yourself X had inauspicious origins. In March 2012, while she was on the way to a talk for See Yourself Sensing, Schwartzman’s aeroplane crashed into a bus. As it landed in Detroit, the wing of the Delta MD-80 knocked over a shuttle bus at over 120 miles per hour. Luckily, no one was hurt. But it did spark an investigation: do pilots feel the width of their wings? If so, this would mean that the human head could effectively become 150 feet wide. This was the catalyst for See Yourself X: to look across art practices and contemporary culture, at all ways of extending the head into space, and to move headlong into the future.

Joanne Petit-Frère, Redressing the Crown series

Shai Langen, Liquid Body, 2014

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded is the second volume of a series that looks at human perception and the sensory apparatus. The first one, See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception, looked at fifty years of futuristic proposals for the body and the senses. It was published in 2011 but is still as seducing and pertinent as ever. The new book, See Yourself X, focuses in on the human head.

Drawing on current works of fashion, design and science and looking back at ideas and artifacts from the past, the publication sets to explore how our heads, faces and brains can allow us to extend ourselves physically into space.

Some of the projects selected seem far-fetched and whimsical. Some are slightly sinister, others are poetical or just playful. Although their creators don’t necessarily have the ambition to predict the future, the works selected in the book often trigger sparks inside our minds, push back the limits of what we think is possible and thus suggest what might happen 10, 20, even 50 years from now.

Studio Peripetie, Pugh-atory, Chimney sweeper, 2009

Matthias Darly, Ridiculous Taste, or the Ladies Absurdity, C.1776

In her essays and descriptions, Madeline Schwartzman makes spectacular images of design, art and fashion enter into an inspiring dialogue with the latest advances in neurology, robotics, psychology or nanotechnology. There is plenty of speculation at work, of course but without speculation, there would only be very little science and very uninspiring art.

Chrystl Rijkeboer, Twins Brown, 2007

Trick photograph of man with two heads, 1901

I just finished reading See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded. It’s been an energizing journey that took me from hair extensions to phrenology; from sophisticated algorithms for face detection to cyborg antenna; from knitted heads to The Thatcher illusion and from human hybridized with plant or machine to sensitive e-skin.

Quick selection of works i discovered in the book:

Lauren Kalman, But if the Crime is Beautiful… Hood, 2014

Silver prosthetic nose, mounted on a spectacle frame, allegedly worn by a nineteenth- century woman who had lost her own to syphilis. Hunterian Museum at the Royal college of Surgeons

Rebecca Drolen, Drainage (from the series Hair Pieces), 2011

Sterling Crispin, Data-Mask, 2013-2015

Sterling Crispin reverse-engineered facial recognition algorithms to create 3-D printed masks and photographs, revealing the way in which the machines might visually “understand” our faces.

Portrait parle class, France. From the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), 1910 to 1915

Fantich & Young, Apex Predator Female, 2014

Bertjan Pot, Masks, 2010-ongoing

Bertjan Pot, Masks, 2018

Katharine Dowson, Brain Bricks, 2005

Brain Bricks are life-size representations of Katharine Dowson’s own brain.

Jennifer B. Thoreson, Cancer, from the series Testament, 2014

Kahn & Selesnick, The Face Behind the Face, 2014

Previously: See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception.

The artist with a super-computing mind

Sunday’s Crash, 2005

George Widener, Friday Disasters

George Widener, Titanic, 2007. Image Henry Boxer Gallery

The Art et Marges museum in Brussels has spent the past 25 years showing the work of “outsider” artists. The ones who are self-taught, or work either in isolation, or in workshops for mentally disabled and psychologically fragile people. Do have a look when you’re in the Belgian capital. It’s a cheerful and friendly place and right now their exhibition is called Save the World. That’s where i rediscovered the work of George Widener.

Like most outsider artists, Widener’s life receives as much scrutiny as his work. He has savant syndrome, a condition in which a person diagnosed as autistic demonstrates prodigious capacities or abilities that surpass by far what is considered normal.

Widener’s super talent is numerical computation. He processes complex arithmetical calculations at great speed and has a prodigious proficiency in calculating dates. He can memorize dates, days and events dating back to 180 A.D. and he can do the same for the upcoming 80.000 years.

His super-calculator power drives him to obsessively compute complex sequences of numbers, extract patterns from dates and scrutinize historical events (he is particularly keen on catastrophes). He turns them into large-scale calendars, mazes and date grids that visualize his idea of how the world is organized.

George Widener. Ricco Maresca Gallery

Doomsday Device, 2013,)
George Widener, Doomsday Device, 2013. Image Outsider Art Fair

Out of his analysis of patterns and dates, Widener also attempts to extract informed prophecies about future events. Could patterns of dates of events or phenomena make it possible to predict future plane crashes and other disasters?

This might sound a bit batty but it seems that Widener also applies his arithmetical genius to gambling. I’m going to quote an article from The Guardian: He has learned how to count cards, a system of winning at blackjack by memorising cards and calculating their values. He describes himself as a semi-professional gambler. “I have taken the casinos for thousands of dollars.”

George Widener, Renewable, 2016. Ricco/Maresca Gallery

George Widener, King of the World, 2010. Image Outsider Art Fair

Furthermore, Widener’s super computing mind leads him to use his own algorithms to elaborate numerical puzzles and games that only intelligent and independently-thinking machines of the Singularity age will be able to fully enjoy and understand.

George Widener, Robot Puzzle, 2011

Untitled (Games for Robots No. 1), 2014

George Widener, Megalopolis, 2005

George Widener, No Rain Five Days, 2012

George Widener, Untitled (Calendrical Geometry 007), 2015. Image artsy

George Widener, Magic Circle 12-21-2012, 2012

George Widener, Birthday ma (Weekends), 2012. Image Galerie Zander

George Widener, I Was Born, 2012. Image Galerie Zander

The exhibition Save the World remains open at Art et Marges in Brussels until 29 January 2017.