For my senior thesis at Elon university I created an elaborate installation which sought to explore and understand the human soul and our individual sense of self perception. The piece, entitled: The Sense of Self was the culmination of a year of research, creation, experimentation and self development.
Below I have revisited some key themes from my thesis work. I have taken my pages and pages of notes and ideas and condensed them. For the full scope of my thesis work visit: The Sense of Self
Awareness of oneself as both separate yet connected to everything is a fundamental experience. Individuals of varied faiths and backgrounds all strive to understand the feelings they have and search for meaning and purpose in their lives.
There is something that motivates us to express ourselves and offers us a unique perspective not shared by anyone. This individual outlook, while different from any other, still retains a vague familiarity allowing us to empathize.
Perhaps a specific structure in the brain delicately controls a precise chemical balance creating self awareness. Or perhaps we posses a soul, a metaphysical essence which transcends time. Our inner-being has been labeled by a myriad terms since the origin of mankind yet invariably retains its mysterious nature. Despite our inability to adequately describe this awareness, man never ceases the attempt.
Current scientific research is just beginning to unravel the mysteries that connect the mind and body to this metaphysical human component. What we know is that a direct correlation exists between specific structures in the brain and electromagnetic fields, which can alter our perceptions and in some may even induce spiritually significant experiences.
The soul, being a mirror of ourselves must be dynamic and constantly shifting. It is subject to outside influence. An aqueous magnetite known as ferrofluid best demonstrates the flexibility in form because of its animate interactions with magnetic fields.
This body of work explores the soul, imaging it through a narrative pseudo-reality. In this world the soul is extracted and examined. Its characteristics are described in a constructed scene.
Understanding our human need to search for meaning begins by imagining our self essence. I believe understanding the soul is hope for unity. We are divided by so many things in our world from gender to skin color but there always exists the potential reconnect with others.
Humankind possesses an innate ability to retain self identity transcending time.
We look back at photo albums of our youth and even though we may not even remember the specific moment when the picture was taken, we still create a story between who we are now and the person in the photograph. They look at the child in the photo and still say “that’s me.”
“I know who I was this morning, but I think I’ve changed several times since then…” ~Alice in Wonderland
Our bodies replace cells as we grow and develop. By the age of 21 we have thrice completely replaced every original cell in our bodies.
If the physical composition has been completely altered, are we still the same person?
Some say the notion of the “I” or the “self” is an illusion or some evolutionary quirk designed to give our lives purpose, benefiting the survival of our genetic lineage.
“We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything.” ~Buddhist Quote
We exist in the space of our own thoughts, simultaneously perceiving, interpreting and acting. In this way we are both a part of the Universe as a whole and also a separate entity, completely unique from everything around us. We cannot exist as one or the other but in a delicate balance somewhere between both.
Each perspective is totally unique and indescribable, yet, human beings have striven throughout history to empathize with one another, sharing our unique perspectives on the world around us. This vast effort of generations gave rise to art, science, culture and language.
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” ~Douglas Adams
Perspective is everything. Where we stand, what we observe and the people and things we interact with define, in a sense, who we are.
Matthew Ritchie is an artist who exploring this sense of perspective in his work. He says we are trapped in our own universe, locked into a point of view, and his piece Universal Cell encapsulates this feeling.
His sculptures are a digital drawing taken out of the computer and cut into metal shapes, arranged and painted to cage the one place of perspective.
Ritchie also talks about the “noise” of daily life. We are constantly bombarded by information: sound, light, smell, taste, touch, emotions. Everything we experience coalesces into our worldview. We all experienced this sensory overload in our infancy. We simply weren’t able to process the staggering amount of information we recieved in our early years and most cannot remember this far back. We retain certain memories and feelings and others fade yet one sense remains unchanged. We are aware of our self.
Some people are acutely aware of their shifting perspective; the fluctuating unique path of their life flowing through the continuum of time. Even though we constantly reevaluate and reinterpret our identity, we know who we are.
Religion & Belief
How do we label this experience, this sense, of the self?
Religion has been trying to explain it since the dawn of man. Yet it is only in recent years have we been able to understand how this process of self identity works. Current scientific research is just beginning to unravel the mysteries that connect the mind and body to this metaphysical human component.
What we know is that a direct correlation exists between specific structures in the brain and electromagnetic fields. This construct of the brain can alter our perceptions and in some may even induce spiritually significant experiences. Some who experience this influence describe a loss of sense of space and time. Many equate these feelings to god or the afterlife.
This experience is not only seen under lab conditions, but in meditation and prayer in countless religions around the globe. Monks and nuns from opposite sides of the world have exemplified nearly identical patterns in blood flow and electrical activity in the brain during meditation. These patterns are most noticeable in the Temporal lobe of the brain; the area which controls our sense of space and time.
Could altering brain patterns artificially have the same impact as self induced meditations? By measuring the activity in the brain as it is subjected to electromagnetic interference Dr. Michael Persinger provided evidence of the impact of these fields on our perceptions.
He conducted a series of experiments using a wired-up helmet designed to concentrate magnetic fields on the temporal lobes of the wearer. He has also disproved ghostly apparitions and noises by detecting electromagnetic fields in places where the apparitions occur. In one case simply unplugging the clock radio responsible for the electromagnetic interference solved the “ghost” problem.
The research of people like Dr Persinger is opening a new field called neurotheology which crosses the traditional boundaries of science and religion.
Our sense of self is a fragile and precious awareness. We experience it everyday, in every decision we make.
We all have a sense of self which first emerges around age two. A free will, conscience or soul. Our very notion of self. It guides and directs our actions, shaping the world around us. This metaphysical component is one of the great mysteries of humanity.
So just what is this inner self? A metaphysical presence? A soul? Does it reside in our bodies? How does it exert influence over them?
In order to answer these and many more questions about the metaphysical component of humanity I turned to man’s greatest gift…
“I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” ~ Albert Einstein
I came across a video of an interactive, organic form made entirely by magnetic force on this fascinating material called ferrofluid by Sachiko Kodama called Protrude, Flow. Ferrofluid’s abilty to flow both with and against gravity as it interacts with magnetic forces emulated the lifelike qualities I desired.
The shape changing liquid creates a form which seems both alive yet unearthly, not meant to be viewed in our world. Illustrations and other objects provided me with more details in my pseudo-reality, furthering my imagined souls, allowing me to give them more specific characteristics.
In order to make the ‘souls’ able to ebb and flow as the audience interacted with them I introduced magnets. They create an invisible force which can defy our senses seeming unreal, even magical.
This sense of mysterious natural forces is captured in Thomas Shannon’s works which are large magnets suspended floating in midair resting solely on the invisible force.
In my installation I wanted to produce a similar effect. I chose N42 Grade Rare Earth Magnets which proved surprisingly strong for their size. As they were prone to pinch fingers and shoot across the room at any metals smashing all in their path I embedded them in a wooden ‘soul stasis plinth’ which both hid them from the audience and still allowed the feilds they produced to manipulate the motion of the ferrofluid.
The ferrofluid itself proved tricky and I experimented with various fluids from household cleaning products to honey finally selecting four for my primary specimens because of their varied interactions with the fluid. Some mixed with it partially while others slowed its motion drasitcally.
Final Installation and Presentation
As I settled on a final scene to construct in the gallery I talked alot with my mentors about how to approach the space. Engaging the space I was given and incorporating elements to attract and capture the attention of an audience. I decided to attempt to arouse curiosity by engaging as many varied senses as I could. Scented candles, liquids and powders created an aroma to entice the viewer. Notes, diagrams and various glass containers, liquid suspensions and wood with burn etching stimulated the audience visually.
I found that in the process of creating a body of work the individual elements influenced each other greatly. As I created stories and gathered other objects such as glass bottles and metal instruments they recurred in some way in other portions of the final installation. Sketches of the objects appeared in the copious notes and files. Symbols, calculations and terminology were repeated, reinterpreted, scratched out and rewritten. I became the figure in my story. I was the “mad” scientist, piecing the soul together. Only without all the slicing open, dissection and massive electromagnetic abuse.
In an attempt to capture how I have changed (along with my thesis work) throughout the year I even incorporated my own writing from the past two semesters as my perspective evolved. I was reflecting on my own change. I am not the same as I was in the beginning of the year. My physical composition has changed, my mental outlook is vastly different but you look at me and I am still the same person. I am still James. You all have your own mental dossier on me and have created it out of interpretations of my actions. It is my being’s imprint on you. I change things as I am changed by them but I am always myself because beneath this physical shell there is more to me.
Understanding the soul is perhaps the most difficult and mysterious subject known to us. man has sought to explain the phenomena for generations, and for good reason. Understanding ourselves allows us to relate to others and that is truly the most difficult task. We are individual minds floating alone in a sea of other such individual beings. I want to reach out to another person and truly understand them. Connect with them. I need to understand how it all fits together in order to make changes which can benefit myself and the species as a whole.
Understanding that the others around us are just as unique as we are and respecting them as such is the key to the future. We can overcome differences and make great strides by seeking to understand the thread which connects all life on a deeper level.