NNMC Professor & Students Brain Waves Project: Art And Science In Dialogue

by Staff Reporter / Jun 05, 2017 / comments
Shel Neymark demonstrates a specially designed helmet that detects brainwaves. Courtesy photo

NNMC Professor & Students Brain Waves Project: Art And Science In Dialogue

A mind reading device that translates thoughts into drops of water. It might sound like the plot to a sci-fi movie, but it’s in fact a real-life collaborative project between an artist, a professor and four Northern New Mexico College engineering students.

The project started as the brainchild of Embudo-based ceramicist and glassmaker Shel Neymark, who has been fascinated by the power of the human brain and attempting to reflect its mysteries in his work.

“One thing about the brain that’s so interesting is that it’s electrical and it sends out brain waves,” says Neymark in awe. “Nobody really knows what these brain waves are doing, yet we can affect the physical world with them, as has been proven by people who are using brain waves to do various things.”

Neymark decided to create an art piece that demonstrates the brain’s marvelous abilities and inspires contemplation about the “miracle” of this organ, while also feeding some of his own curiosity along the way.

Neymark’s other passion – staring at the intricate patterns and ripples created on the surface of the water as he regularly canoes across the Rio Grande – also influenced his idea for the piece.

“There’s also the correlation between the waves on the water and the waves coming from your brain, that’s another thing that to me is mysterious,” he says as he attempts to retrace the mental steps that led him to his idea.

However, Neymark lacked the scientific and technical expertise to bring his artistic vision into life, but as luck would have it, he knew Dr. Steven Cox, a mathematician, engineer and neuroscientist who is well versed in harnessing the power of the brain.

“In the late 1990s I got involved in science outreach programs in schools and found that as a mathematician, getting kids excited about math was not easy, but getting them excited about the brain? Super easy,” says Cox, who is currently an Assistant Professor of Engineering at Northern New Mexico College.

“No matter how old the kids are, they want to know how long the body will live when the head is cut off and all that kind of stuff,” says Cox while sitting behind a desk strewn with transistors, diodes and multi-colored wires.

During his time as a professor at Rice University, Cox worked with medical students and engineers to build devices “that would allow you to control things with your mind” to foster a better understanding of the brain among the schoolchildren he was working with.

One of those students was Christian Henry, who designed a machine that detects electrical activity in the brain and uses it to move a bar up and down a screen in a “primitive game of pong”. That device was to be used as the blueprint for the Brain Wave machine.

While teaching an advanced level electronic circuits class this spring and finding students less than enchanted with the dry textbook, Cox decided to turn the class into a project-based course working on Neymark’s idea.

The students were now able to use all the math, technology and computing they had learned thus far to bring an artist’s vision to life, and before they knew it, they were brainstorming with Neymark about what the device would look like and what it could do.

“It was a great partnership where he [Shel Neymark] came in each week and spoke to the students and they got to show what they had done the previous week, and he got to challenge us with what it [the device] might be doing the next week,” Cox said. “It was art and science in dialogue.”

“It was a thing that students often don’t get to see and artists rarely get to work with engineering students,” Cox adds.

The finished piece, which is loosely based on Christian Henry’s design, is a bike helmet containing electrodes that connect to the skin at the back of the head, with a glass case housing the electronics, including a computer and remote transmitter.

Cox and Neymark. Courtesy photo

The viewer of the piece wears the helmet and relaxes in front of a dark sink of water with multiple faucets. Once in a relaxed state, the electrodes pick up the tens of millions of electrical charges fired by the brain’s neurons, amplifies them through the circuit board, and then sends them to the computer.

The computer analyses the signal created by the brain and decides how much of that activity is generated by the relaxation as opposed to other mental states.

A signal is then sent to a receiver on the faucets to turn on depending the level of relaxation.

In addition to being an extraordinary piece of interactive art, the science behind the Brain Waves machine also has some very practical applications, especially in the world of prosthetic and robotics 

This technology for example can enable an amputee to clench the fist of his prosthetic arm by simply thinking about it, or allow first responders to enter dangerous environments with a robot that they control with their minds.

However, the most surprising aspect of this project has been the short time in which it was completed. Cox with his full teaching schedule and the four students who work full-time in addition to their studies, designed and built the Brain Waves machine in three months.

Imagine the possibilities if they had the resources to dedicate their time and energy to such projects?

“We would probably be able to build something like this every week,” say Cox.

The Brain Waves machine will be on display at the Axel Contemporary Mobile Galley in the Santa Fe Railyard on Friday, June 2, 5-8 p.m., and will also be featured at the Currents New Media Festival in Santa Fe from June 9-18.

For more information on the Brain Wave machine and engineering courses and degrees at Northern New Mexico College, contact Dr. Steve Cox at steve.cox@nnmc.edu.

The Brain Waves machine was created in collaboration between Shel Neymark, Steve Cox, Kenneth Passmore, Elizabeth Browne, Luis Gonzalez Munoz and Roman Romero.