Installation, 2012

Karolina Sobecka (PL)

A neural mechanism has recently been discovered that goes some way to explaining how we get experiential insight into other minds. Mirror neurons activate when we perform an action as well as when we watch someone perform an action, and thus have been implicated in imitation learning. In addition to acting on the motor centers, mirror neurons have been theorised to play a role in ‘theory of mind’ concepts such as emotional recognition or contagion. Emotional contagion is based on interpreting the emotional state of another being expressed through physical features. Emotions (such as fear or sadness) have typical facial characteristics, and mirror neuron theory would consider the neurons as ‘mapping’ the facial features of another being onto the respective areas in our own brain. Evolutionary theory tells us that such direct mapping would be beneficial as it could help us perceive danger or threat more directly and quickly. More complex evolutionary theories link mirror neurons to the appearance of cooperative behaviour or emotions such as empathy and compassion. In this interactive mirror, the viewer’s movement and expressions are mimicked by an animal head which is overlaid on the viewer’s reflection. The resulting effect invites the viewer into questioning issues of self-awareness, empathy and non-verbal communication. A different animal appears every time a person walks in front of the mirror. The animals represent species from across the spectrum of domestication. The animal mimics the viewer’s facial expressions, interspersing them with its own independent ones. The viewer feels compelled, in turn, to enact those animal expressions, fully inhabiting the role; following while being followed. The as-yet unanswered question is to what extent mirror neurons might function between humans and animals, and do they function for more complex behaviours and emotions. We do know that there is reciprocal behaviour between different animal species, and a certain amount of mind modeling. Studies of predator-prey relationships tell us that survival in those roles depends on successful insertion of oneself into the mind of the hunter or the hunted, even to the point of mimicking its behaviour. Communication with animals relies on a non-linguistic, body-based, instinctive, and emotional aspect of expression. Social psychology studies have demonstrated that imitation and mimicry are pervasive, automatic, and facilitate empathy. Neural mirroring suggests that those mimicry exchanges are a bridge to inhabiting the other’s mind—and to in-depth understanding of each other.

Artist's Statement

Part of my interest in this project lies in the combination of the virtual and physical world—inserting a layer of imagination into a physical world we know. The chain of cause and effect remains in place, although slightly augmented. The familiar is transformed into the uncanny, prompting us to see the mechanics of perception, interaction, and relationships with others anew. This installation gives us a chance to interact with a symbolic image of an animal ‘in communication’ with the viewer.