Can Casey Jenkins change her brain? Scans aim to unlock a colourful secret - Sydney Morning Herald

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Casey Jenkins' Casting Off My Womb project attracted headlines around the world.

Casey Jenkins' Casting Off My Womb project attracted headlines around the world.Credit:Justin McManus

The first task is based on research that suggests language influences the way we perceive colour, she says. Based on this research, Jenkins has devised two made-up colour categories which she has called melli and vrampa. Jenkins will attempt to learn them using flash-cards, as children are taught red and blue, and in doing so increase her ability to see subtle differences in hues on either side of the invented melli/vrampa divide.

For the second task, Jenkins will spend several hours daily staring at a large screen bathed in a particular hue as a letter is intoned (A through to Z for the 26 hues) and perform a repetitive action, such as pulling her hair, poking a fork into her leg, or sipping lemon juice: something slightly startling but not dangerous.

If, through the force of repetition, these actions are bound tightly enough in Jenkin's mind, the hope is that at the end of the exhibition just the sight of a particular hue will induce a sensation of having her hair pulled or evoke the taste of coffee beans or whatever sensation was associated, and that these linked sensory associations will be powerful enough to be detectable by MRI.

For this ambitious project, Jenkins has been collaborating with Dr Marc Seal, a University of Melbourne senior research fellow at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, affiliated with the Royal Children's Hospital, and with colour researcher/designer Francis J. Wild.

Jenkins' work is certainly challenging. An artist with a lot of performance-based and activist work behind her, she sat in a gallery for 28 days in 2013 for Casting Off My Womb. The YouTube of the performance has garnered close to eight million views.

"The response to my Casting Off My Womb piece was 'next level'. After SBS2 posted the report on it titled 'Vaginal Knitting' it was swept up into the internet vortex and wound up in all corners of the globe with millions of views and hundreds of articles," she says. "The original performance was so introspective, I just knitted for 28 days with yarn placed daily in my vagina and on some days only a few people would pass through the gallery and quietly witness, whether I was bleeding onto the yarn that day or not. It's a surreal experience and discombobulating to have people stop me on the street in other countries, even now five years later, to ask if I'm the one 'who did the knitting'."

Now, with melli, vrampa and colour associations on her mind, she is continuing to extend her overarching interests in ideas about perception and prejudice. She's always been fascinated by the way people profess to be not racist, sexist or prejudiced in some way, but how their real biases are expressed in their words or actions.

"I wanted to do a project around illustrating my perceptions of the world and how malleable they are, whether I like it or not." While some aspect of body modification appealed, she thought it might be more interesting and unique to tackle modifying her own brain and perceptual nuances.

During that time, she saw Seal giving a lecture and began to consider how she might alter her perceptions through brain training, investigating what might be measurable.

Seal says the work with Jenkins has sparked conversations about how to communicate science in a different way. While he knows the MRI scans will only be able to convey information about Jenkins' brain and its changes rather than indicate information about brains generally, he says one of the big benefits is in how Jenkins' enthusiasm and sense of wonder are helping him to see MRI scans in a different light.

"She is helping us see the beauty of the work," he says. "It is an opportunity to talk with someone about learning and experience. I quantify and measure things and think about clinical outcomes. She is helping me think about how the two worlds meet."

Seal says current thinking about brain plasticity has changed. While the brain was once considered to be relatively inflexible, later research indicated it was immensely plastic, with much potential for retraining. This has been tempered and now "the reality is somewhere in between". Even so, he thinks the scans of Jenkins' brain post-training ought to "capture something" about the structure and connections being stimulated.

Wild, the colour researcher/designer who has also been working with Jenkins, says her own investigations have explored how to measure people's colour perception, and how it differs between sub-groups, such as across gender, age, employment, education and cultural categories. In the gallery, where Jenkins will be doing her performance/brain training, Wild will concurrently run a computer-based experiment collecting colour-perception data from both the artist and visitors.

Wild says some of her research shows that people can perceive between 100 and 300 hues on a high colour-gamut computer screen, when averaged across all lightness and saturation levels. "Surprisingly, working in the creative arts is not associated with enhanced discrimination, but working at an international colour research institute is," she says. "It is presently not clear if working in colour research enhances colour discrimination, or people with superior discrimination are drawn to such work – answering such questions is the focus of my present work, and collecting relevant data is what my colour discrimination test alongside Casey's efforts is intended to achieve."

True Colours | True Colors is at Dark Horse Experiment Gallery, 33 Dudley Street, West Melbourne, April 5-18.

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