Wunderkammer of the mind

Photo by Gerhard Lang

I met Gerhard Lang in the course of a Wellcome SciArt project that aims to get scientists and artists to work together on a project. Our project was an exhibit for the Head-On exhibition at the Science Museum in London in 2002.

I was very excited when I heard of Gerhard’s plan to construct an exhibit he wanted to call Imago cerebri, because it would include a purpose made display cabinet full of objects. I had been intrigued by the idea of a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, for a long time. As far as I had understood, the Wunderkammer is a collection of anything and everything interesting, and it can serve different purposes: education, reflection, knowledge expansion, possession, memory and fantasy.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="604"] Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities (1655) from Smithsonian Institution Libraries[/caption]

Some of the objects in Gerhard’s cabinet were selected by him from our own house, and it was thrilling to see them nestling together with objects he had obtained on loan from different London museums.

To me the Wunderkammer is one of the best metaphors for psychology, that is, the study of the mind.  It highlights wonder and surprise.  It suggests paradoxes, in mysterious of juxtapositions, and effortlessly evokes emotions through the images and their juxtapositions.

What is the mind? Of course it is not just a collection of memory images and things. The mind is also a machine that enables us to fit into our ecological niche and moreover constantly create slightly different niches. The mind is created by the brain, but we have no idea at what level the equivalence of mind and brain will eventually be established. At this stage we are talking about a very global level: mental components and extensive brain regions; mental operations and connections and networks between brain regions. At this global level it is probably okay to use the words brain and mind to stand for each other.

Photo by Gerhard Lang

What are social minds? Two heads are better than one and this blog is curated jointly by Chris Frith and Uta Frith.

Much of our brain is dedicated to our complex social lives. Getting old and older with the 70th Birthday milestone already in the distant past, Chris and I are becoming only more intrigued with our social abilities and disabilities. We have both studied conditions, which are marked by deep social failure.  I have studied autism over a lifetime and Chris has studied schizophrenia for just as long. We have gained insights that has given us cause to has given us the impetus to look for a biological basis of social interactions, which we first wrote about in 1999.

There were some more papers since then, which we will summarise and reflect on in later posts.

We hope we are now ready to go a step further and write a book on this topic. This blog is a way of telling the backstory of this book – as yet unwritten.