Thursday, March 7, 2013

Live Neurons in Art: Components or Collaborators?

In his opening chapter of the biological art compendium “Signs of Life,” Eduardo Kac makes a particularly suggestive comment about the biological sciences in general.  I think this quote has even more significance to neuroscience specifically:

“The extreme difficulty in dealing with very complex biological interactions leads to the simplified treatment of life processes as quantified data that exhibit statistical patterns.  In turn, this can lead to an objectification of life and a disregard for the subjects and their rights.”[1]
From Zachary Weinersmith's
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
This claim seems to echo Tom Wolfe's sentiment that scientific progress will lead to the death of the soul [2]: by reducing biological systems down to so many quantities and equations (all accurate within some statistical bounds), have we lost an important intuition about their intrinsic worth?  Is biology really just physical laws, with the same degree of moral importance as the law of gravity?  This reduction of the universe down to scientific law is called “naturalism,” and usually gets brought up during the discussion of free will or in religious contexts.  Here, though, I'd like to discuss naturalism in the context of what it means for the notion of “interests” in general- and consequentially, for ethical systems that are based on “interests.”

Fortunately, my favorite new-media artwork works as a stellar example of this issue.  In the Silent Barrage, a culture of rat neurons is used as part of an interactive robotic art installation.  Audience members walk among the robotic components (which are constantly drawing on sheets of paper), and are observed by overhead cameras.  The video feed from the cameras is translated into a pattern of electrical pulses which stimulate the culture, and the neurons within the culture respond by creating their own electrical activity.  This usually consists of bursts of activity that recruit the entire neural network (similar to epileptic seizures) which can be quieted through certain types of electrical stimulation.  Through the construction of this hybrid mixture of robotics and living neural tissue, the artists and scientists behind Silent Barrage give the audience the impression of walking through the mind of an artist suffering from epileptic seizures, in such a way that the interaction between the audience and the piece itself has the potential to silence these barrages of electrical activity.

The interaction between the artists and the biological tissue in Silent Barrage could potentially be evaluated as a sort of co-authorship: the human artists design the bulk of the piece, and the culture 'designs' (or perhaps 'performs' would be more appropriate) some of the details [3].  However, there are several differences between Silent Barrage and a traditional artistic collaboration.  First, the neural culture is without any sort of (forgive me) “cultural” understanding of the goals of the piece, lacking both the experience and capacity to understand the effect of it's actions in the hearts and minds of the audience.  Secondly, the neural component of Silent Barrage has no existence outside of the piece to pursue it's own interests - it is trapped inside the artwork, more similar to a raw material than a collaborator.

Left: Culture of rat neurons growing on top of a microelectrode array. Photo by Guy Ben-Ary.  Middle: Robotic drawing carriage used by Silent Barrage. Photo by Soyo Lee. Right: Drawing created by Silent Barrage- should the culture itself receive credit for this work?  Photo by Phil Gamblen.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, any interests that the neurons of Silent Barrage have are being engineered to fill a particular need of the piece.  The electrical stimulation protocols used in the first showings of Silent Barrage were designed based on a simple relationship that had been previously observed [4]- the faster stimulation is applied, the less network wide bursting occurs. While living tissue (and the interests that such tissue might be said to have [5]) has been manipulated in several biological artworks [6] that preceded and followed Silent Barrage, unlike bacteria or osteoblasts, neurons are believed to make up the machinery that underlie the interests of morally (or at least legally) important beings- the rats who we aren't allowed to torture, the dogs we aren't allowed to neglect, and the humans that we aren't allowed to deny equality to.

The real issue here is that a system that looks suspiciously like your brain is being engineered to act as part of an artwork.  If we can engineer the interests of a neural system to match our own, does that mean that those interests can be considered our own tools?  And if a neural systems' interests are not just coincidentally equivalent to our own, but designed to be equivalent to our own, are they anything more than tools?  Does it still make sense to call them separate interests, or just extensions of our own? And lastly, if we can somehow convince ourselves that the 'interests' of a biological system are simply extensions of our own interests, what possible moral repercussions could come of our using biological systems in any way we please?

Want to cite this post?

 Zeller-Townson, RT. (2013). Live Neurons in Art: Components or Collaborators? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
-->, from

[1] Kac, Eduardo. "Art that Looks You in the Eye: Hybrids, Clones, Mutants, Synthetics, and Transgenics." Signs of Life. Bio Art and beyond (2007): 275-286.
[2]Wolfe, Tom. "Sorry, but your soul just died." Hooking up (1996): 89-109.
[3] Hughes, R. "The semi-living author: post-human creative agency." Architecture and Authorship, T. Anstey, K. Grillner, and R. Hughes, eds.(London, Black Dog Publishing) (2007).
[4] Wagenaar, Daniel A., et al. "Controlling bursting in cortical cultures with closed-loop multi-electrode stimulation." The Journal of neuroscience 25.3 (2005): 680-688.
[5] Varner, Gary E. In nature's interests?: interests, animal rights, and environmental ethics. Oxford University Press, USA, 2002.
[6] Catts, Oron and Zurr, Ionat. Tissue Culture and Art Project. Web 27 Feb 2013  <>


BubbaRich said...

This sounds too much like magical, vitalist thinking.

A brush is (in some ways) capable of generating more complex pictures than finger painting. Is the person with the hand generating the painting, or the brush?

These neural networks are more complex than a brush, but massively less complex than a human brain.

If this were, indeed, an intact human brain (or an intact mammalian brain), this would be more of an issue. I would tend to give a "sufficiently complex" artificial neural network moral priority over a simple network of mammalian neurons in an MEA.

Riley Zeller-Townson said...

I'm glad you brought up the relative complexity of the entities involved, Rich! I am curious what you mean by 'complexity' in this case, though. For instance, on a very qualitative level, these neural cultures are incredibly simple- by modulating the frequency of electrical stimulation, you modulate the probability of a population burst. This functional simplicity is what allowed the cultures to be used as tools or materials in the piece. On the other hand, one could describe neural cultures as practically infinitely complex compared to an ANN, as we can (probably) know the state (in the precise, dynamical systems sense) of the ANN, but current technology doesn't allow us to have that same level of understanding for the living neural network.
In both those senses I've equated the qualitative notion of complexity with 'how easy it is to understand/predict' (which I think is a huge part of how humans tend to attribute authorship/agency, with less predictable entities generally getting the larger share of the credit for how things turn out). However, that is certainly not the only factor involved in attributing authorship- for instance, while we might attribute events to the weather (another highly complicated system) it would be difficult to be tempted to think that the weather had 'intended' for something to occur (though I'm sure someone has created an artwork that was supposed to make you question that). I think it is much easier to think of living tissue rather than the weather as having 'intention,' if only because the living tissue has been part of a very obviously goal-directed system (the rat 'wants' to pass it's genes on-though how that translates to what a neuron 'wants' is another question all together. Maybe the neuron 'wants' to fire at approximately 1 hz?), while it is difficult to think of the weather as having anything resembling a goal. I'm curious how my intuition lines up with yours on that last point.

Kat said...

I find the notion of using live animal tissue in a project for human entertainment - morally wrong. I agree with RZT that these neurons were once a part of a highly complex goal directed system whose intentions included the passing of DNA to future generations. I feel humans are crossing an ethical line with this project
and am appalled that such "art" is supported or allowed.

Riley Zeller-Townson said...

You raise a very important point, Kat. I'm curious what it is about using live neurons as a functional part of an art piece that crosses a line. For instance, dried up bones were just as much once part of a living creature, and important for passing it's genes on, as the neurons were. Do you think that neural tissue should have a special degree of moral worth (or should all tissue, living or dead, be regarded as equally 'worthy')? Does the fact that the neurons very well might've formed the intentions (if they had the chance to, the neurons in question were removed from an embryonic rat that probably didn't do to much 'intending,' at least in the usual sense), or at least had a very intimate relationship with the intentions, mean that they are more 'worthy?'
Thanks for your input!