The NeuroARTifact initiative

The mind

The study of the ancient mind is emerging as one of the most challenging and fascinating research activities pertaining to the biological, cultural, and social anthropology of Homo sapiens. This can be possible through new archeological study of traces and cultural inscriptions of brain processing, and, in particular, connecting the study of art, architecture and material culture with cultural models, cultural patterns and the evolution of human cognition.

To understand “mind” (let alone “theory of mind”) in the humanities and social sciences, partnership with specifically “cognitive” specializations in the university landscape are essential for a thoroughly contemporary conversation. Examples of the porous disciplinary field for questions of “mind” include the problem of the brain’s “letterbox” in evolutionary anthropology. Partnership at the limits of humanities and interpretive social sciences recognize that literature and arts, even in an archeological framework, are too recent a manifestation to allow full exploration of what we might metaphorically describe as “fossilizations of mind”. These academic disciplines and those derived from the natural sciences, including contemporary neuroscience, must be deeply engaged if we are to construct a new understanding of the inner workings of ancient minds and the societies they created.

This proposal aims to break new ground in the study of the past and in the interpretation of the ancient and modern mind by approaching research questions at the intersection of the brain sciences, humanities, archaeology, art, philosophy, aesthetics and visual studies.

The main goal is to investigate and evaluate the cognitive impact of archaeological data (empirical and digitally reconstructed) in different scales (site and landscape) and through different technologies. Thus, portable EEG devices (computer-based) and (web-cam) eye tracking systems will be used to acquire biometric data and virtual headsets, holographic screens, and digital desktop simulations will be used to engender embodied simulation. All these devices will be provided by Duke University-Dig@lab for all the research period.

We will employ psychophysical and psychological means to empirically measure perceptual judgments of scale, distance, symbols, colors, specific architectural features, and particular objects in virtual context. We will use Likert scale questionnaires to probe user experiences of the virtual scenarios, focusing on the visual and auditory dimensions of episodic memory and the topography of buildings, the spatial relations among architectural features, the location of key objects, the symbolic imagery embedded in the scenarios, and the sounds generated to simulate performative experience of the virtual spaces. It will be possible to verify whether the use of a methodology such as the Visual Thinking Strategies that promotes a better ability to observe, problem solving and critical thinking can be useful for a better psycho-cognitive response to objects and spaces offered to perception. We will track volitional omnidirectional locomotion in the virtual scenarios and assess proprioception, sensorimotor integration, and motor control, as evident in the forces generated and bodily movements expressed. Thus, we will investigate cognitive, perceptual, proprioceptive, and motor aspects of spatial embodiment in relation to the experience of virtual simulations of ancient spaces and objects. The experience of digital and virtual reconstruction/simulation of ancient cities, landscapes, and artifacts will generate new research questions on spatial embodiment and its relation to cognitive, metacognitive, and sensorimotor processing.

The visual inspection of a confined space, like an altar, a burial site, a “plaza” or a Roman basilica, also implies the activation of a performative level of experience through the triggering of embodied simulation. Thus, the perception of space can be deeply influenced by social status, aesthetic impact, cultural awareness. Embodied simulation is also triggered during the experience of spatiality around our body and in the contemplation of objects. The functional architecture of embodied simulation seems to constitute a fundamental capacity of our brain, making possible our rich, diversified, and even empathic experiences of space and the other individuals and objects therein. The project will use several virtual applications the PI developed for Oculus Quest, HTC Vive (VR headsets) and for desktop computers (Forte, 2010, 2014, 2014a, 2015). All the results of neuroscientific tests (based on the above-mentioned digital products) will be used for analyzing different virtual simulations and related digital design.

Research/Training Design & Methods

All the virtual simulations will involve 3D elaborations of existing constructs, adapted for accommodation of omnidirectional locomotion, with biomechanical and electroencephalographic recording. After that, it will be possible to assess the user experience of the scenarios created in VR. For instance, I will directly measure neural activity by means of electroencephalography (EEG) and portable eye tracking systems, which is already instrumented to test neural makers of visual-motor engagement in virtual reality (Appelbaum et al., 2017; Appelbaum et al., 2018; Clements et al., 2018; Rao et al., 2018). By EEG tests it is possible to gain a more sensitive assay of neural and perceptual engagement in the immersive environment and to acutely test for attentional and adaptation effects as users explore the archaeological models.

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