People as puppets

The Rubin Museum is nearing the end of its fourth Brainwave series, and one of the final discussions paired neuroscientist and Dana Alliance member, Rodolfo Llinás, New York University, with puppeteer Roman Paska. Llinás actually requested to be paired with a puppeteer, so that the two could dissect sense of self.

Llinás did not waste any time letting the audience know that he, in fact, views people as puppet-like, explaining that “reality is ultimately a dreamlike state.” This theory stems from the idea that our brains, responsible for our consciousness, control our bodies in much the same way a puppeteer controls the movements of his/her puppet.

When asked how he views his puppets in relation to himself, Paska said that puppeteers view their puppets as extensions of themselves, almost as an amputee might feel about a prosthetic limb. Performers become so in tuned to the movements of the puppets through rigorous practice that it feels natural.

The ease of movements learned through training is because of action patterns formed in the brain, Llinás said. These action patterns are responsible for our being able to move our faces while talking without having to think about it. Or, for me, how I can walk to work in almost a dream state because I’ve done it so many times; I just know the route without having to concentrate on it. For Paska, this learned and repeated movement allows him to become “devoid of self-consciousness of producing the movement.”

Much of the evening’s discussion revolved around the art of puppetry, such as how people in Western cultures view and use puppets as compared with people in Eastern cultures and how Paska takes care of his puppets. At the end, the audience was treated to an amateur performance by Dr. Llinás, in which, with the help of strobe lights and a “scary” skeleton Halloween mask with glowing red eyes, he showed us the illusion of detached eyes from the mask.

Brainwave continues through April 20. And, calling all chocolate lovers, on April 17 chocolate master Jacques Torres will be speaking with Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David J. Linden about pleasure. Samples will be distributed to the audience. Yum.

–Ann Whitman

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