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Brain waves at Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche, the international sunset-to-sunrise arts festival that first came to Toronto a few years ago, celebrates art and the ways it can interact with a city's streets, buildings, and public spaces. At its best moments, it transforms the way we experience the world around us. This year, one installation in particular aimed to do something a bit different: change the way we experience the world within.

That exhibit was called My Virtual Dream, and its primary creators weren't traditional artists but rather scientists from Baycrest Health Science and the University of Toronto's faculty of medicine. Their aim: gather data for an ongoing research project, while simultaneously giving participants the chance to engage in a dialogue with their own brains, by monitoring and displaying own brain wave activity, and then helping them play around with the visualizations that resulted.

If you walked by Queen's Park Crescent and College during Nuit Blanche on October 5, you might have seen a large geodesic dome that had been put up on the street, emitting a changing array of pastel lights. Inside: a semicircle of 20 participants, each with a wireless brain-computer interface on their heads. That interface allowed participants to watch their own brain wave activity on monitors in front of them, and see how it changed over time.

Participants were asked to alternately relax or concentrate, and as they did they could see how that affected the visualizations on the screen. It also affected what was happening in the entire dome: an animated projection light up the interior of the dome, and changed based on whether the group of participants tended to relax more or concentrate more. At the same time, a band played improvised music based on how those visuals changed.

The entire thing was beautiful, but it also served a purpose: the team of researchers gathered 550 data sets that night to help them refine the computer software that drove this whole process, called The Virtual Brain. Still in development, the Virtual Brain is a system for modelling the human brain. It can be used to simulate either an individual person's brain, if a researcher has readings from a specific subject, or create a generalized model based on a population.

Dr. Randy McIntosh is VP of research at Baycrest Health Sciences and the project lead for the Virtual Brain. He explains one way the simulator will be able to help in clinical settings, by providing individualized health care: "If you have someone who, for instance, has a stroke and you're considering various therapies, you can test the therapies in the virtual brain first to see which is likely to be most effective."

The data his team gathered at Nuit Blanche was especially significant, McIntosh says, in part because it was collected in such an unusual setting: "The idea is to make [the Virtual Brain] adaptable to any environment. it was really trying to push the technology in directions it can't currently go…If it works in that environment, it can work anywhere."

But it wasn't all about the data, McIntosh added. "This intersection of art and science is really cool because it really does capture the heart of what it is to be a scientist and what it is to be an artist," he went on. "The artists really needed to understand the science and the scientists really needed to understand the art" in order to make the project work. It was a deep collaboration that those who passed through the dome this past weekend certainly appreciated.

Writer: Hamutal Dotan
Source: Dr. Randy McIntosh, VP of research, Baycrest Health Sciences
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