Professor Manos Tsakiris, a world expert on psychology and cognitive neurosciences, introduces the interdisciplinary ‘Body and Image in Arts and Sciences (BIAS)’ project. Based at the Warburg Institute, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, it was launched in September 2016, thanks to a generous award from the NOMIS Foundation.

Before introducing BIAS itself, it would be only right to first establish the links between the project and Aby Warburg’s legacy. Aby Warburg insisted that he was an ‘image or picture historian’ whose aim was to the transmission of thought through images, and the ways in which these were embodied in pictorial expression. Throughout his work, Warburg insisted on the use of the body and its biological expressive power to shed light on human art and culture.

Warburg’s work has inspired humanities scholars from around the world, and the library he created is still considered as among the very first attempts to cross disciplinary boundaries. More importantly, the questions he asked and the answers he proposed remain relevant today, for understanding the culture that we live in, as well as for the present and future of humanities and sciences insofar as they share the common goal of understanding human condition and culture. Warburg anticipated the need for a genuine interdisciplinary study of the history and power of images.

The BIAS project intends to forge new collaborations between scientists and humanities scholars that can materialise this need for studying our ways of seeing images, across disciplines. The visual system is without doubt the most-studied part of the brain. But, if we were to simply focus on the nature of representations, or purely on the brain’s visual system, we would be unable to understand the power of images across and throughout cultures.

The brain’s visual system may in fact be the wrong place to look for what really matters when it comes to the power of images. This because the defining feature of this power is another, often overlooked dimension: our responses to them. In other words, why and how images move us.

In his seminal book, The Power of Images, Professor David Freedberg, Warburg’s outgoing director, described what is at stake. ‘When we see an image of the king – to put it in the classical imperial terms – we respond, or are inclined to respond, as if the king himself were present. This is both theory and reality…The obstacle [in accepting this fact] is our reluctance to reinstate emotion as part of cognition.’

So what we actually have to account for is not simply the perceptual processing of an image or its mental reconstruction, but instead it is the power that an image has to elicit such responses. In psychological sciences, at the heart of this motivation to understand the power of images beyond vision is the embodied cognition approach that attempted to reinstate the primacy of the body and emotion. The basic premise here is that cognition is first and foremost embodied. In other words, cognition is shaped by aspects of the body beyond the brain.

Based on such theoretical foundations, BIAS will seek to develop new interdisciplinary methods to study the relation between self and others and their images, between the subject and the image.

Taking a moment to look at Las Meninas by Diego Velásquez illustrates this problem. The spectator is the subject and the object of image and, at the same time, the organiser of the spectacle in which he appears. He is now the ‘observed spectator’. The importance of this painting lies in the fact that it introduces uncertainties in the very nature of visual representations as well as uncertainties in our relation with ourselves and with the image.

Therefore, to disambiguate this uncertainty, we may indeed have to learn something about the spectator that stands in front of Diego Velásquez, the spectator that may or may not be reflected in the mirror at the far end of the room. In other words, understanding our relations to images requires an understanding of something fundamental about the boundaries between ourselves and others, the borders between reality and image, if there are indeed any. How fixed or flexible are these boundaries and how do we navigate them.

This is precisely the question that the BIAS project will seek to answer: How do we relate to and respond to each other in a culture powered by images? To answer this interdisciplinary question, BIAS will draw upon important insights from psychological and neuroscientific research, engage with longstanding debates in humanities and collaborate with scholars and experts from within the Warburg Institute and the School of Advanced Study as well as associated researchers from across Europe.

On 4 November 2016, the BIAS psychophysiology lab at Warburg was ready to welcome the first participant to take part in a scientific experiment. Our first project extended work my lab has been doing on the role that peripheral signals from the heart, that are sent on every single heartbeat to the brain, have on the perception of racial stereotypes and the expression of racial bias. You can read more about this work here.

Currently, in partnership with colleagues at the institute and external collaborators from the fields of photojournalism, computer science and political sciences, we investigate how changes in our physiological arousal influence the judgments we make about the authenticity of aversive photographs we see in the media. We hope to present our first findings on 11 May at a Warburg symposium entitled, ‘Ways of seeing across disciplines’.

Professor Manos Tsakiris leads the BIAS project at the Warburg Institute, which aims to address the biological mechanisms and cultural factors that shape our relations to other people in a culture powered by images. His research has focused on the neurocognitve mechanisms that shape the experience of embodiment and self-identity using a wide range of research methods, from psychometrics and psychophysics to neuroimaging. He has published widely in neuroscientific and psychology journals, and was awarded the 22nd EPS Prize Lecture from the Experimental Psychology Society, UK, and the 2014 Young Mind and Brain Investigator Prize from the Center for Cognitive Science of Turin, Italy.