Abstract


Emotional States and 'Dreamachines'

Ellen K. Levy

Consider how technology has created new approaches to the medication, assessment, and simulation of emotional states. Chemicals act on neurotransmitter systems and influence behavior, obscuring the differences between what is innate to the body and what is extrinsic; imaging technology seeks to identify emotional 'truth' through indications related to blood flow; and emotion-recognition software is being perfected. In contrast to these goals, I consider how art can offer access to the rich cultural questions surrounding affect that are posed by our increasing abilities to erode boundaries through technology.

The desire for altered states of mind whether through plants, fungi, 'dreamachines' with flickering lights, or drugs has existed in many societies. One manifestation was Bryon Gysin's psychedelic 'dreamachine' of the 1960s. Gysin's machine was meant to induce trance, produce hypnagogic images, and alter brain wave activity. It may have been prompted by his experiences with LSD, which is structurally-related to a lethal fungus identified as ergot (Saint Anthony's Fire). Like LSD, exotic myths attend ergot, ranging from Eleusyian rites to the Salem Witch trials. In a sense, one culture's bane (the ergot fungus during the Middle Ages) became the counter culture's 'dreamachine' (ergot's related drug, LSD).

Artists, still intrigued by the emotionally-laden tribulations of Saint Anthony, continue this theme, blending the real with the virtual. Bill Viola, for example, forges a connection with Hieronymus Bosch's visions of Saint Anthony, using technology to intimate a heightened state of being. I will also explore how artists (including myself) explore emotion, creating new 'dreamachines' which raise wide-ranging questions. These questions include whether emotion is universal as Darwin maintained, whether facial expressions by people from different cultures convey the same meaning, whether technology can be sensitive to how language differences inflect emotion, and whether imaging technology can offer insight into the brain's emotional cues.

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