Placing Practice – Meeting in Blackrock Castle Observatory
Friday, 22nd April 2016
This was an initial meet and greet meeting to discuss the possibilities of a collaboration. I sat down with Clair McSweeney (centre manager), Alan Giltinan (Systems Manager) and Denis Walsh (astronomy outreach worker). Clair premised the conversation by saying that she is very happy to have a collaboration of some sort as Blackrock Castle Observatory would gain from reaching a wider audience. This reciprocity could be achieved by my showcasing either my results to date, or some form of workshop or an exhibition in or around Science week, which is the 3rd – 8th October. I explained briefly that what I would hope to gain from them is a better understanding of the phenomenon of light, from an astrophysics point of view. I also explained that I am interested in perception and cognition and that I have, or soon will be, in contact with professionals in the field of psychology, photonics and neuroscience. I talked briefly about wanting to find a way to link these various strands and broached the idea of a group meeting/workshop/event with these various professionals. Clair mentioned that this could possibly happen during Science Week.
Clair mentioned that last year was International Year of Light and that I could find research online
Alan Giltinan and Niall Smith (director of research) will be the people to talk to about instrumentation and optics
Caoimhin and Padraig are PHD researchers at the observatory and will also help me with research
Frances McCarthy (astronomer) has been earmarked for future interviews
Clair mentioned that BCO is currently collaborating with Pauline Gibbons, Trish Brennan, Lynn Marie Dennehy and Catherine Hehir – I need to follow up on this and see if there is a way of participating in a joint collaboration, or if indeed this would be a feasible option for me.
Clair mentioned the possibilities of a joint exhibition with the above
I mentioned that I had a preliminary set of questions drawn up and Clair asked that I email this to herself and Alan. By so doing, they could get an idea of who would be best suited to answer my inquiries.
At this point Clair had to leave the meeting but Alan showed me around the research lab and onto the observation deck. As it was raining, we could not open up the dome for the telescope but this can be arranged for a future date. I took some documentation in the form of photographs, videos and sound recordings. I continued to talk informally with Alan about my concept and optics in general.
Padraig and Caoimhin
I came away from this meeting feeling very excited about the possibilities of this collaboration. I then travelled to CIT with Denis Walsh to attend a talk in CIT about gravitational waves and the recent observations at LIGO (The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) in America. This talk was relative to my work in the sense that it approaches exploration of the cosmos in a way other than the visual and this use of other senses and ways of knowing interests me as a contrast to my explorations about light, sight and perception/cognition.
We serendipitously meet Niall Smith who could not make the morning meeting in BCO. We had an informal chat about the meeting outcomes and I explained to him about the general gist of work. Niall proved to be very interested in this line of inquiry and the way that the conversation in scientific/astrophysics fields has changed in the topic surrounding the nature of Being.
He mentioned that there is an interesting interplay about what makes beings sentient and the quantum idea of existing simultaneously in parallel universes.
He talked about Kevin Knowles who is a physicist who discusses the concept of the consciousness flitting between planes of existence and interestingly, how this makes some mathematical equations fit better.
Niall talked about his article which is published in an upcoming publication of IFAS (Irish Federation of Astronomy Societies) in which he muses about how our perception of the universe has changed drastically in our lifetime.
Transcript of interview with Dr Marcin Szczerbinski
April 14th 2016
Dr MarcinSzczerbinski is a lecturer of Applied Psychology in UCC
Lynda – Hello Dr Szczerbinski. Thank you very much for agreeing to agreeing to chat with me today. So, I sent you a list of questions that you had a look through. Maybe the first thing we’ll do is go through those questions and if anything else comes up we can stop and branch away from that
Marcin – Absolutely
Lynda – Ok, so the first question I have for you is basically… What is your area of expertise? Can you talk to me a little bit about that..
Marcin – I would like to call myself a developmental psychologist. So I am interested in issues of child development, especially with how children learn language. But also I am interested in special educational needs. I have done some work on children learning to read and write and having some problems with it, a condition called dyslexia
Lynda – Ok, great. So your main area of focus is in language and special needs
Lynda – The next question I had for you was ‘From a psychologist’s point of view, how do you think cognition affects the senses or indeed how stimulating the senses in a deliberate way affects cognition and perception. Thinking of it from your point of view and your expertise, I think it’s a more a case of in the process of learning, especially special needs learning, do you find that there is any apparatus that could help, for example, like a certain shade of light in a room…Do you find that helps the child learn or is there any sound that can help the child learn. Any thoughts on that?
Marcin – That’s actually quite a controversial issue but there is a bit of evidence suggesting that some individuals when reading find it actually rather hard to precise the contrast between the white page and the black ink. Actually ‘hard’ is not quite the right word. They find it disturbing and tiring for their eyes to have this contrast. For those individuals it might help to read on a background that is not white. What particular colour it is that is optimal can be person specific. There was a devise invented and patented called ‘Intuitive Chromometer which allows you to find the optimal contrast by playing with various permutations of colour. It is controversial. There are some researchers who rubbish this line of enquiry saying that it’s all nonsense, that there is no evidence for that. There are individuals who claim that it helps them to read when the contrast is not between black and white but instead between black and the other colour.
Lynda – What are your personal views on that?
Marcin – I think it’s plausible that it is helpful for some individuals. But it should not be confused with dyslexia and some people who are doing research into this topic say that it is somewhat different from dyslexia. The core problem with dyslexia is probably quite different. For a start there are many kinds and causes of dyslexia but probably the most common one would be to do with the processing of speech sounds. Individuals who find it hard to learn to read have subtle difficulties in processing speech signal which then might make it hard for them to map visual symbols which is letters onto speech sounds which is the essence of efficient reading. It’s not the only factor but it is probably the most prominent one in what we call dyslexia.
Lynda – That is very interesting as it is touching off one of the questions that I had further on which was ‘Do you have any experience of dealing with people with synaesthesia. When you say that the visual patterns of the word cause problems with the ‘Speech Sound’. Is that a cognitive thing, do you think?
Marcin – Yes. The technical term for what I am talking about is called phonological processing. phonology is basically our capacity to process speech sounds – not just any sounds, not just music generally or environmental sounds like noises car horns but just speech sounds. There is something quite specific about that in our mind and in our brain. There seems to be areas in our brain or circuits within our brain that are devoted to just language. Some individuals have problems specifically with the processing of phonology, with receiving, remembering and then retrieving speech sounds in order to speak. And it is not that they are deaf, they don’t receive the signal but because centrally within the cognitive system the information is not processed precisely enough or fast enough so that the final information that was extracted and stored isn’t of high enough quality for certain tasks.
Lynda – Do you think it is a problem with the synapses?
Marcin – With synapses, with connections between neurons; – it might be… every aspect of learning is to do with synapses because that is the nature of learning. We have neurons; cells, each synapse cell in our central system is connected to, on average, another 5,000 neurons. That’s how dense this network of connection is and our long term memory is effectively having a vast elaborate network of connections between neurons and connections mean synapses. Two neurons don’t really touch. There is a little gap or cleft between them and how electrical chemicals are sent between them is that certain chemicals get from one neuron and travel onto the next which then sends an electrical impulse further down the line. That’s how it works. So any long term memory or long term learning is effectively about neurons connecting to each other through synapses. Problems with learning could be to do with those connections being too few or too many or not being specific enough. Or indeed, it might be to do with the mechanics of those so called neuro-transmitters on the synapses and not travelling the way they should.
Lynda – I’m veering a little bit now off my own topic, but just as a matter of interest; People who would be on the autistic spectrum. Is it a case of there is too much information being transmitted?
Marcin – Ya, that’s an interesting one. Just like with dyslexia, with autism you have several different competing theories and we don’t know for sure. It is possible that with autism, just as with dyslexia there are many different sub types. So you may have autism for a variety of different reasons, just like you could have dyslexia for a variety of different reasons. The symptoms may be the same but the causes could be different, so yes, one of the dominant theories of autism which is quite well tested by evidence is called the Central Coherence theory. It says that in the brains and in the minds of typically developed healthy individuals we have this drive for coherence meaning that we try to extract the meaning from the information that comes to us. We put things that we receive into meaningful Gestalts that is entities, wholes, and discard information that doesn’t fit; that is surplus to requirements; that doesn’t fit the broader picture. Whereas people with autism don’t have this drive or have this drive much attenuated, much weaker and as a consequence it is harder for them to make coherent wholes out of experiences that they have, putting information into meaningful entities; interpret information if you like. But there may be also, in some contexts, advantages to this. In that those individuals are better at picking up some peripheral details within a particular pattern. Details that generally don’t matter but in some contexts they might. There is a task that measures that. It is called an ’embedded figure test’. It basically shows a complex geometric pattern, or sometimes it can be a meaningful pattern like toys, or silhouettes or trees and so on and so forth. The task is to find that figure embedded in a broader pattern. What is interesting is that for typically developed individuals it is quite hard to pick out the figure. For example if a triangle is embedded in the leaf of a tree, we [as typically developed individuals] see the leaf of the tree, first of all, not the triangle. It actually takes an awful lot of mental effort to extract that little element out of the whole because we see the whole, we don’t see the elements. But individuals with autism are better at this task. They see these embedded patterns much faster because they have less of a drive to interpret things holistically.
Lynda – That is interesting in terms of my research in terms of visual perception and it ties in with a further question that I sent you. How one’s views on the world affects what they see and how what they see affects their view of the world – That cross over and I think you hit on it there when you said that people with autism can see details rather than the gestalt. I find that fascinating. I am sitting here with you talking here today but how do I know that you are actually the way I perceive you to be sitting on this particular chair. How do I know that it is actually real because my gestalt; my way of putting together the image/information and removing what is unnecessary to the main image could be getting rid of vital information. I find that absolutely fascinating
Marcin – If you really drill down to this, it’s ok to acknowledge that you will never know if I am a real person sitting in front of you. It’s just an interpretation. I think the main thing to understand about perception generally, not just the visual, but also the tactile and all the senses is that it is interpretation. And that is what people normally get wrong. When people think about perception, they think about it in terms of photography; our eyes receive information and somewhere up in our brain it is passively registered as if on a photographic image. Or often when they think about how they hear things they think about this being passively registered on a rolling tape in our mind. It doesn’t work like that. The main thing about perception is interpretation. We discard certain information, extract that information, attenuate some signal, foreground some other signal depending on what our needs are. This happens automatically. It’s a natural process. It may sound like a sad thing because there is so much coming to us and we discard most of it. Yes, this is true, but without this ability we wouldn’t be able to make sense of the world around us. We would end up as being severely autistic; being overwhelmed by stimuli which might be interesting but would ultimately make no sense. Discarding information is the price we pay for making sense of the world. Thinking about the world and perceiving the world are intimately connected. You can’t really separate them at all.
Lynda – What I am trying to do with my art work is get people to stop for a moment and step out of their sometimes severally routine day; there’s drills in the road where people walk every day, it’s so routine – and make them pause, and think about – Hang on, did I just really see that or making them realise there is another way of seeing or of thinking.
This next question ties into what we are talking about – but it is quite specific – maybe too specific – I asked – Do people with neurological disorders such as schizophrenia ‘see’ the world differently. What I mean by this, in the case of sight, does the visual cortex behave differently, especially with hallucinations. What I was trying to get at there was basically what we were just discussing about the discarding of unnecessary information
Marcin – People with schizophrenia may experience so called ‘Productive symptoms’ which is hallucinations – they see and hear things which are not there so they have perceptual experiences that would not correspond to reality as seen by other people. They don’t just ‘believe’ that they hear or see something. They have the experience of seeing and hearing
Lynda – In a way – why is that less real?
Do you have any thoughts about phenomenon such as mass hallucinations and the power of suggestion in manipulating a person or group into ‘seeing’ an event or object
Marcin – Group hallucinations are ‘group’ hallucinations – they are a phenomenon that happen within a group. It seems to me plausible that some minor perceptual distortion gets enforced by other people agreeing to that. It becomes contagious in a sense. Social psychology has researched this quite a bit. There are two strands to that – peer pressure and peer conformity. Peer pressure is when someone imposes a pressure on you to behave or feel or experience things in a certain way. Peer conformity is different and in a sense more interesting – It’s about wanting to belong to a certain group. And when those dynamics operate, you may actually agree to things that you would never otherwise agree to and you actually ‘see’ and ‘experience’ then.
Lynda– Do people with depression physically ‘see’ the world in darker tones
Marcin – There appears to be some evidence that that might be the case. Some experimental work has been done showing that people with depression may find it harder at perceiving contrasts between colours. They need more information to perceive contrast between black and white. The experiment involved a checker board like pattern of black and white which flickered and the contrast between black and white was gradually diminished up to a point where nobody could see any distinction. People with depression required far more of the contrast to be see if there was anything moving there at all in contrast to people without depression which would indicate that there is some perceptual contrast issues there – very subtle – we are not talking about obvious apparent black and white contrast. There is also another study that I came across that would suggest that in depression that the perception of colour is more shifted towards the grey. So all the colours that they receive are saturated with grey. It seems to me that it is at least plausible that there are subtle shifts in colours and contrast perception
Lynda – Which is nothing to do with the physically make up of the cones and rods in the eye. Is this something that is happening cognitively?
Marcin – That I don’t know. I don’t know if there has been any work done on the rods and cones in the eye and whether that would link with depression. But I would be surprised if that was the case – probably more on the cortical level
Lynda – What are your thoughts on light therapy in its various facets, for example using light to mediate mood
Marcin – I think this area is murky in that it mixes up some approaches which may have good scientific grounding and other approaches which from a scientific point of view are completely bogus, at least theoretically. People who suffer from SAD syndrome suffer depression based on the seasons and specifically tied to the amount of light arriving at their eyes. The mechanism is that the lack of light messes up the production of melatonin which is a hormone in your body responsible for sleep and wakefulness cycle. The treatment for this condition is exposing people to the frequencies of the spectrum of sunlight, so not an ordinary table lamp which would have a different spectrum but a broader spectrum which includes ultraviolet. This makes sense scientifically. Then there is alternative medicine and approaches and crystalology and what not, which clearly from a scientific point of view have no grounding in how we understand the world, how we understand the physiology, psychology and the mind. I suppose it might work on the placebo effect on a certain level. You would have to take each and every therapy one at a time, because each and every therapy may have boni fide medical grounding in them whereas others are nonsense.
Lynda – Do you have any experience of dealing with synaesthesia
Marcin – Not directly. It is something that gets mentioned very often in psychology lectures. It’s the type of topic that gets people interested. It has been most explored in the context of mathematics in that some people (quite a few people it turns out) perceive numbers in terms of colours or sometimes in terms of smells. So now numbers are not just abstract entities for them. Their processing of numbers is tied with a subjective experience of a colour or a smell and some people claim that they solve mathematical problems that way. If they carry out a calculation, they perceive it as colours shifting or changing which is quite interesting. (Lynda – quite poetic). Many people perceive numbers in terms of a number line. When they think about a number they imagine some kind of line along which those numbers are aligned. Sometimes it’s a horizontal line, sometimes it can be a vertical line like a well. Sometimes it can even be a twisted line. This is quite common for many people to think of numbers in these terms. I do or at least I did when I was a child and was learning numbers from 1 – 10. I recall learning in that way. My perception of numbers were tied to a particular spot in my home town, on the outskirts. Numbers from 1 – 8 I think lived in a well, so 1 was on the bottom and 8 was half way through it and numbers 10 – 12 lived on a field just outside of that well, 12 was living by the edge of a forest. I didn’t have an image for numbers beyond that. I am not sure if it helped or hampered me, it was just the way I felt about numbers and many people have similar perceptions. Now when I carry out calculations that image doesn’t come back but I can still recall it. So when entities which can seem quite abstract to us may in our mind correspond to concrete perceptual experiences.
Lynda – That’s very interesting. Would you use that experience in your dealings of working with people with learning difficulties/disabilities?
Marcin – Not directly. It would be an interesting thing to do, perhaps. One connection, but it’s an oblique one really, would be mnemonics – helping people remember tricky things by conjuring up consciously in their mind some vivid association with that information that they already remember very well . My students have done some work on this in the context of children and adults trying to learn tricky spellings. It seems to be a sensible strategy that if you have learnt to spell most words correctly but there is a dozen or so which by and large you can’t remember, is to imagine a sequence of letters of that word and then conjure up that sequence with some kind of image that would anchor those letters in your memory. This is not specific to spellings. Also when you try to memorise pronunciation of some tricky words, you can try to play tricks like that. The way I remember the name of the pub Hensheys is that I came up with this image of two henchmen dripping blood having a french kiss. That kind of glued it in my memory, so it now sits there and I can remember that. So, that’s slightly different yet related in that you can use your associations which your mind has already formed, and most of those associations will be perceptual ones to do with images or sounds and then connect it with a meaning for something that you find difficult to acquire. The more crazy and vivid this association, the better as some kind of crutch that helps you remember until such time when it is so committed to memory that you no longer need that. It is a bit unclear as to why this works because it does work to some extent. One possibility is that those vivid or already well established crazy connections actually support the memory for the new stuff. The other possibility is slightly more trivial is that by coming up with this connection you simply think about this word that you need to process more times
Lynda – Do you think that it is done on a sub-conscious level? While you are thinking of an image to associate with a particular word, that the word is being processed through that time space unconsciously?
Marcin – Usually it’s conscious. This conscious processing involves rehearsal and it ultimately becomes subconscious or cognitive psychology prefers the word ‘Automatic’. – something just happens without the need for conscious awareness/ processing. This is different from synaesthesia but it is also an example of trying to use your perception to harness something that is new or that is perhaps abstract.
Lynda – The final question that is on this list is – What are your thought on the creative process and how the creative process affects the behaviour of a person. Do you think the act of being engaged in a creative process change the way a person sees their reality.
Marcin – Do you mean making art or perceiving art?
Lynda – Lets break that down a little bit or unpack that a bit. Let’s think about the act of interacting with art in an audience capacity
Does their concept of reality change from an expose to a creative process
Marcin – I don’t know. I guess it depends largely on how deeply you engage with that artistic process or product which you are exposed to. It can be superficial and then it is probably going to be transient. Or you might interact with it on a deeper level which might change the way in which you perceive the world at least occasionally. I can think of one example myself. I think I was a teen when I first came across Impressionists and impressionistic art and how these guys approached and were interested in the business of perception. How they dealt with the process of producing a piece of visual art different from the generations of art before them. That intrigued me. I remember some years later travelling on the way to university from my home town on the train. It was a lovely bright morning but it was raining too. We travelled by the road which was covered with rainwater and the sun shining on it and there were clouds in the sky – all that. And it struck me that this very moment that this piece of asphalt; of tarmac is actually never black. That we think of tarmac as being black and that’s the kind of semantic information encoded in our memory – tarmac is black, but actually, from travelling by this road for quite some time on that train, not for a single second was the asphalt black because it reflected blue sky, it reflected white clouds, it reflected the glitters of the sun. None of it was black. I remember being struck by this and connecting it what I had learnt or seen earlier on in the work of the Impressionists. Sometimes when you put aside your presuppositions about what things ought to look like you start to realise that they are quite different.
Lynda – That is what I am trying to do with my art!
Marcin – What your senses are receiving is actually quite different from what your conscious mind is believing. I don’t think an accomplished artist would do this kind of suspension of belief for much of the time. It is something we can do occasionally when we are at leisure because I think the daily business of going about our lives, we default to our assumptions. Probably not really possible to get away from it for any length of time. Occasionally we can stop and step back or step aside and look at things differently
Lynda – Unless you become an artist and you immerse yourself in that mind frame!
Have you engaged in a creative process
Marcin – No, not really
Lynda – Would you like to?
Marcin – maybe.
Lynda – That could be my reciprocity to you is to have some sort of a drawing class with you.
Marcin – My problem is that I am not a very disciplined person and I could never put aside time to engage systematically in those activities. Always immediate business of work and family encroaching on that.
Lynda – I know a few art activities that only take a minute or two and can be great fun.
Marcin – I would be quite intrigued in exploring visual medium and I would also be quite intrigued in exploring sculpture, especially clay – some amenable matter, something that would yield
Lynda – We don’t have to create masterpieces to engage in the creative process and find it cathartic.
Marcin – Maybe a psychiatrist would be interesting to talk to about hallucinations.
Lynda – It would be great to chat again. I need to pinpoint what it is exactly what I am trying to say from an artistic point of view. Where is the artistic in all these scientific and maybe alternative therapy investigations.
Marcin – One thing that occurs to me now is that we haven’t touched off Art Therapy, which is obviously a huge field. It has bearings on depression and on other conditions. There has been a systematic use of music and visual art in making people better and indeed poetry – verbal medium. This whole field of art therapy is showing that engaging in art can change you emotionally. It shows the connection between the two.
Lynda – Thank you Dr Szczerbinski for your time. I look forward to future ventures together!
Meeting with John Justice, staff researcher in photonic sources with Tyndall National Institute – 10/04/16
John called up to my studio and I gave him a brief over view of my work, before concentrating our conversation on the preliminary experimental work that I have conducted with lasers. We then went on to have a discussion around light, both from a scientific point of view and from a creative standpoint. Below are bullet points from this informal meeting. John is willing to be part of a more formal exchange in the future, as well as continual informal exchange of ideas and information.
Look into fluorescent paper with lasers. The laser gives a brief ‘echo’ on the florescent paper. This could then be videoed or be part of a performative piece. THINGS TO BE MINDFUL OF: Check the wavelength of the laser I am using. Certain wavelengths will not work on the paper/phosphorescent surfaces. BE AWARE THAT CERTAIN LASERS, ESPECIALLY GREEN, CAN BE DAMAGING TO PEOPLE’S EYES.
Research Ultraviolet excitation using black light. – for installation work
Look into glow in the dark pens and paper – again for installation work/interactive light based display work
John knows a woman who works with crystal healing and transference healing. I need to follow up on this in a few weeks when she is back from holidays. Her name is Sinead O’Sullivan
There is a scientific based light therapy called photodynamic therapy. This involves using directed laser lights in conjunction with chemicals to give localised treatment to cancer patients.
There is on-going scientific research into the healing properties of light. This is done by making the cells more energised by flooded it with light of certain wavelengths, usually near infra-red, and thus increasing the healing process
NASA has been involved in photodynamic therapy studies
We talked about the feasibility of collaborating on a project involving holograms. John is interested but this needs more research and it might be the summer before all parties are available to work on this project. I need to research the process involved with the photosensitive paper and what are the requirements of development. For example, can I use black and white?
John was interested in the sculptural aspect of my work and had some interesting ideas of how to translate the machete idea into a instillation/sculpture. I need to sketch up a few of these ideas and suggestions
John has expressed an interest in calling up to the studio some evening after dark and when there are no other students around so that we can play with laser effects through lenses etc
John is going to try to borrow a pair of protective eyeglasses for my laser work.
There is a possibility that John will be able to cut a miniature led 2D shape that I could then use for LED experimentation. He is getting back to me on this. I will draw up the shape required