by Rashmi Nemade
Have you ever wondered what your thoughts look like? I mean, really look like—to your eyes. I don’t mean how neural connections look in the brain, but what it would look like if your thoughts were translated into something physical. What shapes, sizes, formats, colors and patterns would your thoughts take? And could anyone else make sense of it?
This type of inquiry can be called physical thinking. It’s what the intercultural and interdisciplinary team of Norah Zuniga Shaw, William Forsythe and Maria Palazzi has been working on for almost a decade. In 2009, this team published a screen-based work titled Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced. Using dance as a starting point for visualizing thought, the team data-mined the choreography of William Forsythe. The deep dive unearthed alignments, cues and themes that are repeated and fragmented and recombined.
Zuniga Shaw shared this work in her 2009 TEDxColumbus talk “Animating Choreography.” As she explains: “It’s like an ecosystem. There are patterns and agency: there are animals and plants that abide by a day-night cycle and those that do the opposite; there are elements of the ecosystem that are synchronized by seasons and temperatures, while other parts are unaffected; and there is simultaneous complexity in parts of this ecosystem as well. They all coexist together and, yet, separately. It’s a complex structure.”
In Forsythe’s dance, One Flat Thing, reproduced, there are multiple performers dancing around and interacting with multiple tables (the flat thing, reproduced several times) and each other. To capture data of the dance, the team used video of a performance and interviews with the dancers. The interviews capture data about cues given and received during the dance and the flow of interactions that result. The video shows visual patterns, for instance an arc created by arms and then by a head, then again by feet, emerges as one motion at different times in different directions by different bodies. The similarity is the arc, the complexity brought by changing times, body parts, directions, etc. This teasing out of a complex structure is how a simple aesthetically pleasing movement becomes a complex ecosystem that can be examined for deeper understanding of relationships and visual counterpoint.
The results—the ecosystem of this dance, so to speak—are shown in a fluid, discovery-based website which can be explored by both novice and expert. The data are showcased as alignment annotations, cue visualization, concept threads, movement densities, 3D alignment forms, motion volumes and performance architectures, among other visualizations. Artworks in their own right, they are absolutely beautiful and captivating interpretations of the dance. Essentially, the data flows from dance to data to visual objects also in motion.
In 2014, Zuniga Shaw published a companion book Synchronous Objects: Degrees of Unison. In it, she writes, “This just happens to be dance, it could be mathematics, it could be architecture, it could be the movement of pedestrians on the city streets or the patterns in the tree canopies above our heads. What else might this dance look like? A storm of themes, a cacophony of difference, a polyphony of relationships, systems of organization, degrees of unison, patterns emerging and receding, isometries, fleeting forms of agreement.”
Since its 2009 launch at the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Synchronous Objects project has toured as a hybrid exhibition/workshop/lecture event to numerous sites in Europe and Asia with producing support from the Goethe Institute.
Zuniga Shaw is currently collaborating with Maria Palazzi and choreographers Bebe Miller and Thomas Hauert on a project called Motion Bank: TWO. The two choreographers work separately, yet both use improvisation and engage directly with the nature of human consciousness and how the dancers work with their habits, tendencies, impulses and memories in action. In isolating their working strategies, Zuniga Shaw and her collaborators bring the viewer into a direct encounter with the dancing mind and the thinking body—hence, the term “physical thinking.”
So, it’s possible to do more than just wonder what your thoughts look like. Simply develop a physical manifestation of whatever you’re thinking of and then tease out the visual counterpoint. Simple…or complicated. Either way, it’s an extraordinary exercise that can take you into much deeper thinking and awareness.
Rashmi Nemade is principal at BioMedText, Inc.
Photo credits for Synchronous Objects and Motion Bank:Two: The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company
by Rashmi Nemade
Scientific discovery goes in spurts. There is a period of time when progress is slow and incremental, and then, in a sudden burst, an innovation or revelation changes everything. Which then sets the stage for the next cycle of slow and incremental progress.
The slow and incremental is critical for progress in general. For example, many were working on the invention of artificial light, making progress bit-by-bit, day-by-day, when all of the sudden, Thomas Edison’s light bulb changed humanity forever. We’ve since been making more incremental progress in artificial light, but nothing yet as transformative as the light bulb.
And so we plug along, recognizing that there are all kinds of problems in the world, but not always able to solve them to the point of having a massive impact on humanity. However, there is a sudden burst of discovery happening right now. It’s called Neurobridge Technology, and it’s the ‘light bulb’ of neuroprosthetics.
A fusing of neuroscience and biomedical engineering, the field of neuroprosthetics interfaces the brain and a computer rather than a prosthetic and a limb. To explain: a standard prosthetic connects onto, say, an arm to give function to a hand. In neuroprosthetics, the brain is connected to a computer, which then is used to give function to, say, a wheelchair.
But Neurobridge technology does not just give function to a wheelchair, it gives function to a person’s own body. It empowers paralyzed patients to regain conscious control of their fingers, hands, wrists and arms. Those of us attending TEDxColumbus witnessed this process as we watched 23-year-old Ian Burkhart, paralyzed as a teenager, grasp a mug with his own hand and take a sip.
Maybe like you, I was amazed to see a quadriplegic man pick up a mug, not with a prosthetic or a machine, but with his own hand controlled by his own thoughts. I needed to know more, so I reached out to Chad Bouton. He is the inventor of Neurobridge. He works at the Battelle Memorial Institute and is the speaker who shared his innovation at TEDxColumbus. He is also just about as modest as they come. As he talks about his revolutionary Neurobridge work, in the same breath, he cites the work of others before him, appreciates the privilege of working with experts, and is grateful for the tremendous resources at Battelle.
He is also grateful, appreciative and privileged to work with Ian Burkhart, who volunteered to help develop this technology and willingly endured hours of testing, surgery, and even more testing. Burkhart is now the first person ever to move a paralyzed limb with his own thoughts. “Ian is an incredibly hard-working, committed and persistent young man. He has a positive outlook and is excited to be a part of developing a technology that can help others,” says Bouton.
So how does this technology work? Neurobridge bypasses damaged areas of the spinal cord so the brain can communicate directly with muscles. The system combines a computer chip implanted in the brain, a brain-computer interface, and a sleeve that transmits electrical signals to the patient’s forearm and hand. You’ve heard of a heart bypass, well this is a neural “bypass,” taking signals from the brain, rerouting them around the damaged spinal cord and sending them directly to the muscles.
That’s the basic idea. But to actually make this happen, it takes an extraordinary and collaborative effort. Bouton had good reason to believe that his inventive idea would work, but proving that this technology could actually help people was essential. Bouton and a team within Battelle, along with doctors at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, worked on decoding thoughts of movement, the implantation of a microchip by neurosurgery, the electronic sleeve, and the rehabilitation it would take to make this system workable. At the same time, Burkhart began using electrical stimulation to activate and build-up his atrophied forearm muscles, getting them ready to move again—at his command.
Burkhart also underwent tests with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Shown images of hand motions, he was asked to think about each motion. His thoughts were, in a sense, ‘read’ by the fMRI and translated into computer code. This is the code that would allow an implanted computer to read his thoughts and tell the sleeve on his arm what to do.
During a delicate three-hour surgery, neurosurgeons placed a pea-sized Neurobridge computer chip in Burkhart’s motor cortex. A port was created on his skull, so that a cable could be connected to interface with a computer. The Neurobridge chip reads his electrical brain signals, then sends them to the computer that recodes them and sends them to the sleeve he wears on his arm. The sleeve, with 200 electrodes that stimulate various muscle nerves and fibers, then signals his hand to move. All of this happens in less than a 10th of a second.
“It still takes Ian a remarkable amount of concentration to move, but he’s getting better at it every day,” says Bouton. In addition, when we move, we also have feedback from our moving body parts. But for Burkhart, the communication is one-way. His hand cannot tell his brain that the glass is grasped or say anything about its temperature. Burkhart must use his eyes to confirm that his arm is doing what he has told his arm to do.
Bouton envisions a future where mobile devices will allow patients to be connected to a much smaller computer, so that they will be more mobile. For now, Ian is helping to fine tune the Neurobridge system. He works with the sleeve, challenging his muscles and the machinery. Together, he and the team figure out if the system needs more electrodes and where in order to get better movement. The Neurobridge team is now looking forward to helping four more patients in this way. A clinical trial is underway. The expectation is that this technology can help people who suffer from any number of neurodegenerative diseases that affect nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, whether paralysis, stroke injuries, or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Other technology has used computers or robotics to move muscles. Neurobridge technology uses a computer as a conveyer of information, but it is the mind that is controlling and instigating the muscle movement. This is groundbreaking. It is game changing. It has never been done before and should be a springboard in the field of neuroprosthetics, launching the next set of advances.
Rashmi Nemade is principal at BioMedText, Inc.
by Rashmi Nemade
This was my first time attending a TEDx event. Sure, I have watched TED Talks online, but being at an event is a wholly different experience. It was electric; the buzz and anticipation were palpable. People meeting for the first time, seeing others after a long time, and many asking if this was their first TEDx. An impressive 900 people were in attendance—a sold out event.
The day began at noon with lunch, after which we were welcomed into the theater, music booming. I found a seat, introduced myself to the people around me, chitchatted. Honestly, I hardly felt like I was there to watch ‘talks’; It felt like a show, and once the organizers took the stage that’s exactly what they called it—a show. This one with talks, dance and music, all interesting and engaging. There were three sessions and between each a break, with the hosts encouraging us to change seats to meet more new people. It’s a fantastic way to get different vantage points in the theater as well, but if you’re a note-taker like me, avoid the last row at the Riffe. It can get surprisingly dark up there.
The first session inspired action. It was bursting with the energy of opening the event and included talks on education, art and math, and a performance by Transit Arts of poetry, dance and music. Feet were moving and hands clapping.
And fingers were tapping out tweets. Here’s a few from the first session:
Then came the first break: snacks and, for many of us women, a long bathroom line (and a little bit of worry that we’d make it back in time). The second session focused on what’s percolating beneath the surface with talks on fracking, nanotechnology, psychology and racism. I’m a science person, so it was a nice lesson for me to see two speakers, Jessica Winter (nanotechnology) and James White (bias/racism), actually enlarge and deepen their topics by including their own personal stories.
Another break brought out irresistible pastries and sweet treats. Some, I recognized from a local high-end bakery. As I reflected on the lunch and two breaks, I have to say, I was pleasantly impressed at the quality of food at this event. The lunch had great options for any dietary preferences and the snacks were ample and filling.
The third session ignited the flame and started with music from Damn the Witch Siren. It was hip. It was cool. It was as if they had titled their piece “Sensory Overload,” and it reminded me that I am old. It was also, I suppose, a good segue into the first talk which compared the Columbus punk rock startup of the 90s that fizzled with the Columbus tech startup of today that the speaker Jay Donovan argues (based on a 4-part model) will soar. This session also included three so-called “passion” talks that are short and more personal. The passions are trains, teen parents, and thrift store photography (I’m being brief, but at 5 minutes long, why not just watch them?) The most memorable, for me, was the last talk by Chad Bouton whose visionary research has given the freedom and independence of movement to a paraplegic student. The talk was personal, touching, grounded in science, and when the student came out on stage—emotional.
Whew! After three sessions, I found myself in a strange paradoxical space—both invigorated and exhausted! I’m an extrovert, so being in the TEDx environment is energizing for me, but at the end of this day, I couldn’t possibly mingle and meet more people during the happy hour. There was so much to think about, process and explore, that I just wanted to get back to some place quiet with my own thoughts. Luckily, for an extrovert it doesn’t take that long. The walk to my car and drive home was all I needed. I walked in the door and was off processing all that I had learned by sharing the day with my family!
Rashmi Nemade is principal at BioMedText, Inc.
Editor’s Note: The logic behind tweet selection is there’s no real logic. Searching by #tedxcbus and tedxcolumbus, we tried to cover the variety of talks and performances, and include a variety of voices on twitter. We did not avoid negative tweets. We didn’t find any. Perhaps Columbus critics were just nice enough to leave off the hashtag.