The idea of making art with nothing but your brain-waves sounds like the plot of a bad 80s sci-fi movie, but last Friday night, in the middle of Aldrich Park, I became the protagonist of that futuristic dream.
I had the privilege of entering the strange geodesic dome in the middle of Aldrich Park to participate in “My Virtual Dream,” an educational entertainment experience put on by the UCI Department of Neurology as part of the Festival of Discovery. The project teaches audience members about brain health while merging science, art and music.
Inside the surrealistic dome were several musicians preparing for the show while technicians actively read the EEGs (a graph that records electrical activity in the brain) of four “dreamers.” The dreamers had wireless headsets transmitting EEGs to technicians, who analyzed them and projected images onto the walls of the dome based on their readings.
We watched as the dreamers’ interactions changed the images on the screen: stars faded into nebulas that then formed into an ethereal dinner table replete with food, drink and flashes of hand-drawn women and suns. As the images flashed across the inside of the dome, musicians played a dark rhapsody which soprano Adria McCulloch complimented with a loud, haunting voice.
The artistic element of My Virtual Dream is all about the interplay between relaxation and concentration. The Virtual Brain, the engine that drives My Virtual Dream, reads the dreamers’ levels of relaxation and concentration which then directly affects the art projected on screen and the music being played.
For the second dream, I was one of the four lucky dreamers chosen to take part in the mystical production. A Canadian consulate worker who specializes in medical technology and researcher Petra Ritter first explained to us the basics of The Virtual Brain.
The Virtual Brain is a computerized model of a brain that captures the unique structure and function of a person’s brain. Clinicians then get to run simulations of various therapies through the brain and determine the best course of treatment for their patients. It allows researchers to understand disorders that affect brain function like epilepsy, strokes, multiple sclerosis, dementia and schizophrenia.
When it was time to begin the dream, an assistant put a wireless headset on me. As she pulled back my luscious locks I could feel the cold prongs — wet with a saline solution — poke into my head; it was as if a metallic skeleton had its hands wrapped around my skull. Ignoring the slime factor, I was focused on when I would be able to control my avatar and make an actual impact on the show.
There I sat, in my khaki shorts and olive green peace sign shirt, next to a suited-up Canadian consulate worker in front of a small audience of potential donors. I decided at that moment to put on the best show I possibly could; after all, this was about helping the research project and not at all about struggling not to embarrass myself.
As it turns out, I had the easy part. I relaxed in my chair while my little green avatar (named Atlas) grew in size and moved toward the center of the art projection. If I concentrated then Atlas would shrink and move away from the center and all the other dreamers’ avatars. The project is designed to use only signals from the brain, so if I moved any part of my body too much, then Atlas would shrink to his smallest size, turn grey, and stop moving.
The back and forth between the other dreamers and I was a symphony in its own right. As we grew larger and bounced around each other, shifting images of a Roman-style world appeared. Then, as our avatars distanced themselves from each other, an otherworldly landscape appeared. Imagine the moon, but everything is purple and there are large bulbous trees. The musicians evolved with us the entire way. They began to play more vibrantly; everything was quickly-paced and loud. The scene was stunning — odd, but stunning.
Art isn’t even what The Virtual Brain was originally supposed to do, but look what it helped create. The possibilities of this technology for medical care are even more exciting.
Somehow, I got the privilege to be part of an amazingly-crafted experience; something visionary, both artistically and technologically. It might even be possible that I or someone I love will be healed one day because of what those researchers are working on. My Virtual Dream is more than an elaborate art display; it could be the future of medicine.
I’m reminded even now of what was said at the end of the performance I helped create. “Dream well,” said singer Adria McCulloch. “Remember, you can’t dream forever.”