Cognitive Sensations

As our primary information source, our discovery of the world often starts with the screen, and it is beginning to affect the way that we think and behave.

Cognitive Sensations is a project and online platform, exploring the intersection between art, science and digital culture. How do our cultural digital influences transform our relationship with the physical world, and what does this mean for our future? Contributors to the blog span scientists, educators, cultural theorists, artists and creative practitioners, reflecting the relevance of these issues across different disciplines.

The blog was originally set up to capture the research emerging from the Cognitive Sensations public programme, which investigated the physiological and psychological changes occurring in humans, in response to an increase in digital technology engagement. The programme was curated by Gabriella Warren-Smith, and supported by the Arts Council England. Key delivery partners included THECUBE in London, and FACT in Liverpool.

During November 2018 – May 2019, a collaborative discussion took place between artists, architects, curators and neuroscientists. Taking place at FACT, THECUBE, and a range of organisations dedicated to art, science and technology, the programme consisted of a events and exhibitions exploring the neurological effects of the digital age. Please see below for a full list of events and their corresponding essays.

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Event Programme

Fields of Perception 20th November 2018, THECUBE
Speakers – Fiona Zisch, Vik Kaushal, Pablo Fernandez, Maritina Keleri, Daphne Economou

Perception is the organisation, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the presented information or environment. With highly adaptable brains to the experiences and environments that we place ourselves in, it is no surprise that our behaviour and perception of the world is influenced by our engagement within the digital realm.

By drawing on different disciplines – architecture, neuroscience, philosophy and art, Fields of Perception examined the role that digital technology plays in shaping the brain and our perception of the physical world.

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Attention and Memory in the Digital Age – 22nd January 2019, THECUBE
Speakers – Vanessa Bartlett, Nilli Lavie, Btihaj Ajana, Ben Koslowski

In his book ‘The Shallows’, author Nicholas Carr describes a new kind of mind that is emerging as a result of our engagement with digital technology:

“Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.”  (Carr, N, 2011, p10)

This reference is illustrative of the time we have found ourselves within, where there is a compulsion within parts of our society to acquire and produce information at such a rapid rate, that it is affecting the way that we expect to process information. The ability to manage outgoing and incoming information at such a fast rate, allows us to move between numerous tasks and forms of media. The argument at hand questions how efficient and beneficial this is for us. Does spreading our attention across a number of tasks split our focus? If so, does this decrease our ability to focus on a singular task? To what extent can we we control these changes and is there any point in fighting it?

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Cognitive Conversations – 20th February 2019, FACT
Speakers – Richard Cytowic, Sarah Cook, Zara Worth, Julius Colwyn

This event examined the effects of digital technology on the way humans think and behave, and its impact on the experience of art. The evening consisted of two participatory artworks and a panel discussion, led by a neuroscientist, artist, designer and curator.

The audience experienced two artworks via an augmented reality and sensory experience, exploring the contrasting approaches both artists have taken in connecting with their audience in the digital age. Cognitive Conversations featured as part of FACT’s Broken Symmetries programme investigating the relationship between art and science. The purpose of this event was to increase understanding of how people are affected by digital technology use, and its impact on their interactions with art and exhibitions.

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Biometrics – 19th March 2019 – THECUBE
Speakers – Rachael Kent, Carey Jewitt, Feng Zhu, Zara Worth

As our lives become increasingly intertwined with digital technology, we are gradually transforming in its presence and application: biologically, mentally and socially. This event sought to define and analyse this relationship, through themes of embodiment and identity.

Cyber-cultural theory emerged in the early 1990s, commenting on the dynamics of human and computer relationships. In the introduction of Cybercultures: A Reader, editor David Bell questions:

‘if we rely so totally on technology to locate ourselves, to even be ourselves, does that mean we are still ‘human’- and is it still possible (or even desirable) to define the boundary between human and machine?’

Almost twenty years later this statement is even more relevant, as smartphones have become almost a fifth limb for many individuals. Ingrained in our behaviour, digital devices are transforming into extensions of our identity, providing us with a platform to explore the inner-self and new ways of presenting ourselves. In addition to this strong social bond between humans and their digital devices, their ability to capture data about biological and physical activity is growing alongside the rise of medical apps. Sarah Wilkinson, chief executive of NHS Digital, announced in 2018 that ‘we are entering the era of self service and mobility of data’ . With the launch of the NHS app, and the lean towards self-knowledge and the monitoring of everyday activities, our devices are taking an integral role in health and wellbeing.

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