What is Somaesthetics?

The work of  Olafur Eliasson and Carsten Höller are prime examples of artists working with perceptual systems in which the viewers become active participants. This could be called ‘Perceptual Art’ but this term is not widely used, and it has been in a limited sense referring to artwork using optical illusion. In light of this, searching for an umbrella term for artwork that uses experiential and multisensory elements, I stumbled across the term ‘Somaesthetics’ “a new interdisciplinary field whose roots are in philosophical theory, somaesthetics offers an integrative conceptual framework and a menu of methodologies not only for better understanding our somatic experience but also for improving the quality of our bodily perception, performance, and presentation ” [1]  first coined by Richard Shusterman in 1996

There is also a journal dedicated to research that “advances the interdisciplinary field of somaesthetics, understood as the critical study and meliorative cultivation of the experience and performance of the living body (or soma) as a site of sensory appreciation (aesthesis) and creative self-stylization” https://journals.aau.dk/index.php/JOS/index

[1] The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/somaesthetics#heading_Genealogy_and_Emergence_page_107797%5D

More reading…

‘Art and Embodiment: Biological and Phenomenological Contributions to Understanding Beauty and the Aesthetic’
“In recent years this attitude to the relation between art, the senses, and the body has undergone significant changes. Many of those changes have been informed by recent developments in cognitive science and evolutionary  psychology” http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=291

Some interesting reflections on Somaesthetics…


God Helmet

Neurologist Michael Persinger created the God Helmet, an actual helmet modified with electrical coils that can create electromagnetic fields in the wearer’s temporal lobes that induces “religious” experiences in the people who put it on. “This is a device to investigate whether religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences had a natural rather than a supernatural source. He speculates that we are somehow programmed so that they can generate religious experiences via our brain’s internal processes.” I was interested in this experiment because of its use of sensory deprivation and the fact it would be relatively easy to recreate [see my DIY neurostimulation attempt 2009] for my Enki project. My plan was to drive it with frequencies generated by my electric fish [a low voltage species].

Persinger noted ‘that there were many points of similarity between seizures experienced by some individuals who suffered from epilepsy, and the types of mental and spiritual experiences that St. Paul, Moses, and many religious mystics had reported. 3 Persinger wondered if visions, a sense of the immediate presence of God, and other mystical experiences could be artificially created in the laboratory by magnetically inducing changes in the temporal lobes of a person’s brain.”

Persinger vs Dawkins: The God Helmet from Tommy Decentralized on Vimeo.


Auditory illusion

Diana Deutsch developed some fascinating auditory illusions. These include the phenomenon of ‘speech to song’ whereby repeating loops of spoken word suddenly begin to sound like a song. In another illusion, ‘phantom words’ new words emerge from repeating fragments of words. To experience these all you need are headphones as the a stereo effect is essential, here is the link to her work.…

Speech to song http://deutsch.ucsd.edu/psychology/pages.php?i=212
Phantom Words http://deutsch.ucsd.edu/psychology/pages.php?i=211

“The McGurk effect” is a perceptual illusion that mixes a sound with the visual cue of a different sound, We see the mouth move and hear/see a mismatched sound, check out what happens… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFPtc8BVdJk

This page has some great interactive examples of optical and sonic illusions

Acupuncture, brainwaves, and electric fish

Some documentation from a day working with Greg Byatt developing a system to work with the IBVA [Brainwave visulisation] interface.  Such as attaching the Electric signal discharge output from the Electric Fish to acupuncture pads placed on our arms, to see if we could perceive the signal and also seeing how the fish behaved.

No conclusive results. More time needed!

Black Ghost Knife fish interacting in tank
Black Ghost Knife fish interacting in tank
Black Ghost Knife fish interacting in tank
Measuring levels of EOD

In preparation for the next Enki event, we spent the day testing the neuro-graphic interface; as an experiment, we patched a strong frequency via MIDI to a MAX patch so our brains were modulating all kinds of strange sounds. Later this will combine with the Enki interface as a form of feedback.  In this image you can see the graphics of the brain activity and the receiver boxes – the sensors are wireless and stuck to our foreheads.


Enki Manchester Science Museum

Some of the early experiments for the Enki project at Museum of Science and Technology Manchester 2006…

We recorded brainwave data and monitored the behaviour of the electric fish during the experiment. The electrical activity of the fish is experienced as sound and light via ENKI (a stroboscopic high frequency led placed close to eyelid) and the natural binaural frequencies produced by the interaction and communication between Black Ghost Knife fish. The participant’s bio-electric field was connected to the aquarium allowing the fish to sense a human (bio)electric image or presence.


Museum of Science and Industry Manchester, 7th October 2006

Miniature rubber hand experiment

I bought this miniature rubber hand from the welcome trust shop and tried a quick experiment with my 8-year-old son on the train home. I was amazed it seemed to work almost instantaneously.  I wonder if it’s his extremely tactile nature makes him susceptible to the illusion?

In relating to my ideas around experimenting with a clay hand in place of the traditional rubber hand, I went to see the ‘Votive offerings’ display. The objects are of Roman origin and are made from terracotta, It is believed that there were created in order to cure elements ranging from badness to more serious decreases relating to the body part [intestines, sexual organs, limbs, hair]. these were them thought to have been thrown into a pool. I wondered if these were commissioned by the patient or created through any kind of ritual, or was important that the object had any kind of realistic resemblance to the affected body part. Did they believe there was an ongoing connection between the object and them selves.