During our most recent Skype conversation, my SciArt collaborator, Michael, Kate, and I discussed the power of immersive experiences. That is, what if you could bring the audience “inside” of a MRI scanner in an effort to minimize fear? These tube-shaped machines are relatively dark, and because of their narrow tunnels, it is not surprising that many would feel claustrophobic. It’s a concern many first-time participants share, and as someone who is usually on the other side assisting with the image acquisition, I often forget this, unfortunately.
While brainstorming ways to simulate this experience, we initially considered manipulating the lighting, but if you are having a structural brain MRI, it’s completely dark. Though, if you are asked to partake in a task and respond, then you’ll likely see images flash across the during a portion of the scan, in which case you’d be having a functional brain MRI (fMRI). However, “darkness” and “lightness” are merely terms used to describe human perception - simply put, it’s an experience that we all perceive.
So, what if we explored sound? Certain sequences are known to be louder and may slightly shake the patient’s table. As one example, diffusion tensor imaging provides valuable information regarding the location and orientation of the brain’s white matter tracts. Prior to administering these sequences, patients are reminded that these ones are going to be particularly loud and to not be alarmed if the table underneath them moves a bit.
But, what does it really mean to have a MRI scan? Our bodies are primarily water, and so, we are comprised of several hydrogen nuclei, which have a positive charge and normally spin in random directions. When we’re inside a scanner, though, these hydrogen nuclei will pause and align either parallel (pointing up) or anti-parallel (pointing down) due to the scanner’s magnetic field. Yet, they will continue to move - more precisely, they will precess (or rotate) around the magnetic field lines.
Hence, should we selectively choose aspects of sound, like pitch and intensity, to manipulate, and which features of light and color can we modify? Do we restrict ourselves to what we’d expected: black and white? Or can we incoporate other colors, and where do our emotions fit in all of this?
My thoughts have been mostly about Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as of late, and how I can bring this mysterious neurodegenerative disease to its unfortunate place in the center of the self-care, brain-health conversation - really, to the forefront of societal consciousness. I had some great conversations with my SciArt partner Devika and Kate a few days ago, and it compounded in my mind with an inspiring chat I had with Lisa Cox, a PD research advocate in South Carolina. I’ve come to the realization, or maybe we all did(!), that many people with mostly able bodies and minds actually suffer from the spirit of Parkinson’s, if not the letter of the disease. The symptomatic realities that affect many a working folk day in and day out are synonymous with the realities that PD brings as well.
The often silent symptoms that affect the mental, emotional, and spiritual states of being can be found in distinct iterations within people who don’t have PD. Stress and fear can immobilize; one’s voice can be taken away; and, as a result besides accessibility issues being common, isolation and immobility become part of everyday life - even if not manifested physically, then emotionally and spiritually. Though it may be more heavily pronounced in PD, it is no less apparent in most everyone’s lives at some time or another.
How many times have we felt powerless? Voiceless? Or tired, even useless? And how many times has a stressful or traumatic event left us immobile, or paralyzed, stuck inside our own racing mind? In chronic states of pain and stress, how often are we found stagnant, both mentally and emotionally?
As a theater maker, in order to find a solid narrative for an audience to latch on to, I have come to realize the story being shared onstage should be as specific as possible. It’s an ironic but solid truth. By shining a light on one person’s problems, and the subsequent quagmire through which they trudge, we are actually able to highlight commonalities between more persons and families with any given stress. When we combine technical elements, like lighting, sound (binaural audio with the aid of earphones or in the space), projections, and set design, we can transform worlds and transport people to our liking. When we combine, or selectively curate other sensory elements (by either aggrandizing or subtracting) we can push the boundaries of reality - placing an audience inside the story for a more experiential awakening.
As a socially engaged artist, I believe there is a larger domain at play in the context of intimate art making within a community, and that every artist has a responsibility as a citizen to practice art through the paradigm of education, beneficence, and justice. We need to be cognizant; therefore, of how we might empower people with PD as well, to allow them to break free and explore their own creativity and prowess as performers. We aren’t simply depicting their story onstage, for I believe such stories necessitate the real heroes (who fight every day against an incurable disease) to voice their own stories. It is vital to devise a cast of professional actors, dancers, and musicians, with PD and without to speak their truth.
Throughout my own acting, clown, and dance training, as well as from direct observation and research, I realized that, onstage, there are emotional states of being that are more accessible than others. And especially with those who have PD, I have seen fear, anger, and sadness, beneath the surface of frustration, but I have come to realize it is only through a sense of joyous wonder, curiosity and playfulness that certain emotional states of being can be unlocked. It is in the pursuit of fun and self expression, through creative explorations and exercises, theatre games, and the like, that we can empower ourselves, and find our greatest tool: our imagination. And in doing so, I think we can utilize the arts to build community and creativity as means of advocacy and empowerment.