Asad J. Malik wanted a way to express what he was feeling and thinking without actually saying anything out loud. Art, of course, has long been a favored form of such expression, but he also wanted scientific fidelity.
Malik, a 20-year-old Pakistani technologist who makes art under the pseudonym 1RIC, tracked his own brain activity using the Emotiv EPOC, a wireless brain scanning device that records and analyzes EEG data from the wearer's brain. The $800 headset records brainwave activity from different parts of the brain, and then translates that information into easy to understand data, like whether a user is focused or stressed. It can also track facial movements, detecting things like a smile.
Malik took that data and turned it into art. He designed an algorithm to translate all the raw data coming from his Emotiv into visual representations. Certain colors and patterns represent different emotions and patterns of thought. Malik wanted to design a kind of visual language for his brain—a way to, through abstractions of color and form, represent what he thought and felt.
The resulting art is part algorithmic creation, part artistic intent. Take a piece titled "Sleep," which, you guessed it, is based on readings taken while Malik was sleeping. Parts of the work are purely data-driven in origin. The lines along the lower-half of the piece on the side, for example, are fuzzy, soft lines instead of hard, well-defined ones. This, Malik told me, is how he represents his level of focus. While he was in dreamland, his brain wasn't focused at all, so the algorithm created a blurred line. But in another work, "Sitting on Our Asses," those same lines are sharp, indicating that while Malik may have been sitting around on the couch, his brain's focus was laser-sharp.
Different aspects of the work represent different kinds of data, like short- and long-term excitement levels and facial expressions like smiling or blinking. Malik, though, didn't want to reveal all of the ways in which the algorithm works—part of his hope, he said, is that people will examine the work and try to figure out for themselves what was going on in his brain.
"All the images represent important events during my time here," said Malik, a student at Bennington College in Vermont from Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Another image is a portrait of his brain created after the death of Abdul Sattar Edhi, a philanthropist who set up the world's largest network of ambulances and was a household name in Pakistan. Edhi provided "a helping hand to everyone marginalised regardless of religion, caste or creed," Malik wrote on his website about his need to reflect on the man's life, and to capture that reflection in his brain art.The scan, he says, represents the questions Edhi's death made him contemplate. "How does one come to the point that they give up on any worldly pleasures and dedicate their lives to purely helping others?" he asked.
The technology he used, Malik believes, is just a precursor to technology we will eventually have: telepathy. (He's not the only one: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the same thing.) Malik's work is a step towards achieving it, with software that can translate data points into expressive portraits of his own brain to tell the world what's on his mind.
"For me, what I want is for over time to be able to express things with less and less room for mistake," he told me.
Personally, I am not quite sure I want people knowing exactly what's going on in my brain. But if one day people really can peer inside of it, I hope the results are as abstract as Malik's art.