Synthetic is More Sensuous

Andrea Ackerman   March 31, 2007

The sensorium. Our interface with the world. No longer simply the five senses, vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell. Add proprioception, pain, temperature. No longer simply the senses, the notion of metasenses expands the sensorium to the greater sensorium, the higher order intermediate connections made by the mind to create a whole universe of  psychological (emotional and cognitive) experiences.  These relatively fragmentary meanings and memories, then further processed and integrated, become the stable (but fluid) thing we call the self.

As the greater sensorium is extended prosthetically, so our minds, ourselves, are distributed across hybrid platforms, the distributed cognition of N. Katherine Hayles, the "evocative objects- objects to think with",  of Sherry Turkle. What is extended is not only how we perceive/process/transform information but what we in turn create with our distributed cognition to perceive. As we discovered early in the last century how to create x-rays so we now perceive the record of their travels; as we have learned to create virtual reality so we now play with its form, shape, sound, touch....but as we play with it we are also transforming ourselves.

The direction of this transformation is clear and relentlessly progressing toward a self which is fluid, a self which is comfortably distributed and prosthetically extended across technological platforms; and a self whose orientation and interest is turning away from the natural and turning preferentially toward synthetic experience.

Some evidence

1. A recent study appearing in Science showed that the smell of roses delivered to subjects nostrils as they memorized card pairs while awake, followed by the administration of the same smell of roses during deep sleep, improved the subjects memory of the card pairs by about 13 percent. Hypothesized is that the areas of the cortex originally stimulated by the rose smell and again stimulated by another rose smell puff during deep sleep, reactivate the areas in hippocampus that recorded the days memories thereby consolidating the memory of the card pairs (1).
2. The prefrontal cortex has long been known to be an area in the human brain that is involved with abstract  thought,  planning and working memory, while newer studies have shown that it also plays an important role in flavor perception. Anatomical studies in monkeys reveal that adjacent to the primary neocortical olfactory area there are various subareas differentiated to receive connections from the other sensory neocortical areas, including those of taste, hearing, touch and vision. Reciprocal connections also exist between these prefrontal subregions and  limbic subcortical regions such as the amygdala and the hypothalamus, the latter both known to be centers of emotional experience. Single cell recordings from these regions in monkeys has shown that responses to taste are significantly dependent upon context, especially those involving learning and reward (2).
3. Mirror Neurons: Studies show  that the same brain cells fire when a monkey watches a human (or another monkey) bring an ice cream cone to his mouth, as when the monkey brings the cone to his mouth himself. The mirror neurons fire in the same way whether an animal sees or hears an action or if  she is carrying out that action on her own. The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems which are stimulated not only by the actions of others but also by the social meaning of their behaviors and by their emotional expressions. These mirror neuron systems form the basis of empathic understanding and the meaningful experience of art. "Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking...When you see the Baroque sculptor Bernini's hand of divinity grasping marble, you see the hand as if it were grasping flesh. Experiments show that when you read a novel, you memorize positions of objects from the narrator's point of view." (3).
4.Neural macrosensing describes an aspect of medical in vivo nanorobotics specialized for the detection of  internal somatic states as well as extrasomatic states (the sensory data originating from outside the body). In vivo nanorobots could potentially travel along the bloodstream to distal parts of the body and offer the possiblility of  "listening in" on otherwise inaccessible sensory data.  This data could then be  transmitted to the brain or to receivers outside the body. "The brain would be in constant contact with the senses, allowing for super-senses or a more in tune ability to sense yourselves and your environment "(4).

 A conclusion
There are no simple perceptions. There are no primary sensory experiences. Sensory experience and associated meanings are transformed by higher order cortical processing which is context dependent.  Both our sensory capacities and the context in which they are perceived are being synthetically transformed (in tandem with each other) by technology. What is culturally relevant to us on a daily basis is increasingly synthetic. The mirror neuron systems, able to respond as meaningfully to indicators and images of  experience -  if those indicators and images are sufficiently rich - as to the experience itself  are poised to faciltate our preferential attachment to and interest in virtual/synthetic experiences over "real" experiences.

New media art: the entropic and crystalline poles
Among the synthetic experiences which are aestheticized or rich enough to stimulate mirror neuron systems are certain works of new media art.

I propose two major poles to new media art which constitute two very different ways of interacting with the greater sensorium and the mirror neuron system. They are the entropic and the crystalline poles. These two poles occur approximately in inverse proportions in any new media work.

The entropic pole grows out of :
-the values created by the connectivity and speed of the internet, especially as processors get faster and bandwidth get wider
-the fluidity of virtual form
-the recursive processing power of computers which is used to create evolutionary and interactive models in real time.

Thus art works of the entropic pole change and evolve interactively, sprawl democratically over time, space and copyright and over a multiplicity of user/creators. As Carolyn Jones has recently pointed out, with some skepticism,  there is a heady mix of hope and hype associated with entropic art. "Today we now enjoy our liberated diffusion: industrial-Fordist modernity wilts away allowing authors to become producers, (media) consumers to become editors, and hierarchical aesthetic and social edifices give way to new rhizomatic patterns of endless, meandering multiplicity. True democracy arrives as everything formerly passive becomes active and we play out our existence as newly realised rhizomatic citizens-all courtesy of the wonders of new technology" (5).  A classic simple example of the entropic pole found on the internet is Mark Napier's net.flag (7) which presents a flag (flags) whose components have predetermined meanings.  The site invites the visitor to transform the presented flag.  More complex and recent examples of entropic art are videos my children laughed their way through on You Tube . The videos by vega f  were made by dubbing the same scatalogical sound track from SouthPark into - first a scene from a Harry Potter  movie, then into scenes from Naruto and Pokemon (both Japanese anime). These videos gave the sense of a quickly evolving, interactive, cross cultural art form which seems to have evolved spontaneously and anonymously on the internet. These works seemed destined to have only have a brief existence,themselves waiting to be grabbed,  to be used as elements in some other new creation. These appropriated and dubbed videos rival carefully planned and singularly created high art experiments with dubbing namely those of Gillian Wearing.

The crystalline pole of new media art on the other hand is characterized by more familiar aesthetic values incorporated into the new forms made possible by new technologies. In this pole works have a relatively stable enduring existence and they are changed only by the original creator. Their aim is to create an experience that is deep and subtle- an object both for immediate experience and later contemplation. Their form has been hewned over time by the creator to a state of relative perfection (reduced to an essence)  so that if something is changed, the work will be diminished or transformed to something else that was not intended by the creator. Unlike traditional art forms, though, these new media works, being digitally rooted, have a quality of lightness, openness and fluidity that they would not have if physically based. They are often multisensory experiences, but the locus of interactivity is within the viewer's mind rather than in the artwork itself  (as in the entropic spectrum of works). A well known example of this type of work is "Walks" by Janet Cardiff.  In these works the audience, while listening to a CD walkman or watching the screen of a camcorder, follows the artist’s directions through a specific physical landscape all the while experiencing Cardiff's instructions and suggestions and her narration of fictional stories.  These works subtly explore the new complexity of  the self and its relationships as they are mediated by technology. Saskia Olde Wolbers work has a similar theme. The artist creates a fictional narrative based on her imaginings of inner lives inspired by real characters whose own lives blur the boundary of reality and fantasy. The accompanying 3D animations create beautiful dreamlike worlds of indeterminately inner/outer space- spaces that seem to be inexorably transforming. My own work is crystalline- sculptural non narrative 3D computer animations which create a sense of seamless transformation digital to human. In Rose Breathing a synthetic rose whose petals are reminiscent of flesh rhythmically opens and closes to the sound of technologically tinged human like breathing. In another work Yawn, a virtual monochrome gray woman, mysteriously natural yet obviously artificial, undergoes a series of ambiguously but deeply emotionally expressive transformations inducing the viewer to irresistibly wonder "What is she thinking?", "What is she feeling?". 

In Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  real animals are prized over their electric imitations. It's a bit frightening to wake up one day noticing a change in this attitude- the synthetic things have their lives too, and maybe they are just as, if not more interesting.


1. See  "Study Uncovers Memory Aid: A Scent During Sleep" (Carey, 2007).
2. See  "Smell images and the flavour system in the human brain" (Shepherd, 2006).
3. See  "Cells that Read Minds" (Blakeslee, 2006).
4. See  "4.9.5 Neural Macrosensing" (Freitas, 1999).
5. See  "Sensorium: new media complexities for embodied experience" (Jones, 2006).


Blakeslee, Sandra, January 10, 2006. "Cells that Read Minds", New York Times, Science section.

Carey, Benedict, March 9, 2007. "Study Uncovers Memory Aid: A Scent During Sleep"
New York Times, 0A&em&en=ab5f8ca56edc1d15&ex=1173675600 .

Dick , Philip K. (1968) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Del Rey/ Random House, New York.

Freitas, Robert A. Jr., 1999. "4.9.5 Neural Macrosensing", Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, Landes Bioscience,  Georgetown, TX, .

Jones, Caroline A., Fall 2006.  "Sensorium: new media complexities for embodied experience" Art in the Age of Technological Seduction, media-N, v.02, n.03 .

Hayles,  N. Katherine, 1999. How We Became Posthuman, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.   

Shepherd,  Gordon M., 15 November 2006.  Review Article: "Smell images and the flavour system in the human brain", Nature 444, 316-321 doi:10.1038/nature05405; .

Turkle,  Sherry, as accessed on March 31, 2007 .

Websites: on Mark Napier as accessed on March 31, 2007. vegaf videos as accessed on March 31, 2007.  on Janet Cardiff as accessed on March 31, 2007. on Saskia Olde Wolbers as accessed on March 31, 2007. on Andrea Ackerman as accessed on March 31, 2007.

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