The Camera of the Mind

Third Eye
Wayne Martin Belger

This is one of the most strangely compelling artworks I’ve encountered recently: a pinhole camera made from a 150-year-old skull.

Wayne Martin Belger’s Third Eye is a human skull with a tiny hole drilled in the traditional location of the mystical “third eye.” The pinhole allows light to enter the cranium and expose photographic film.

The cranium is opened and the film accessed through an elaborate, gothic set of findings crafted from jewelled aluminum, titanium, brass and silver. The effect is steampunky, but also reminiscent of the decorative metalwork used in saints’ reliquaries.

Even more striking are the gelatin silver prints Belger creates using this camera. Ghostly and distorted, they could almost represent the visions of the skull’s disembodied spirit – the spirit, according to Belger, of an adolescent girl:

Two Hearts

I wish Belger supplied more examples of the photos on his website, because they are the most evocative part of this concept – the idea that the skull continues to “see” after death, perhaps in an even more enlightened state, and that those visions could be captured in an imperfect way.

San Francisco

In Belger’s camera, “vision” is reduced to an extremely basic interaction of light with photographic film, an interaction based purely on physics, with no connection to the biology of the living brain. The association with the ghost of the child who “donated” the skull is romance, fiction, not science.

Yet at the same time, this artwork evokes a profound dilemma we have in neuroscience – the question of how to image the active human mind. An fMRI or PET scan is about as close as we can get, but when we use blood flow and glucose metabolism as a proxy for thought, are we capturing “the mind” in any meaningful sense? Can the wet chemistry of glia and neurons really yield an accurate understanding of the abstract nuances of the imagination?

Obviously, as a neurobiologist, I think basic neuroscience has given us an unprecedented window into the immaterial “mind.” The neural correlates of fMRI and PET are meaningful and useful. Yet it’s essential to respect the difference between the cellular processes registered on a PET, and the thoughts or emotions that make us who we are. They’re not equivalent. While we may eventually be able to use physics, chemistry, and modeled neural networks to explain and predict thought, at this point, our grasp on neuroscience is more rudimentary than a pinhole camera. A PET image is indirect evidence of thought, not thought itself.

Photographs, like Polaroid pied pipers, often lead us into the fallacy of believing we understand a phenomenon completely. But anyone who has actually been a thirteen-year-old girl knows full well that Belger’s pinhole camera doesn’t even begin to capture a child’s subjective, portentous view of her world. All of which makes Third Eye a really intriguing piece of art.

See more of Belger’s provocative pinhole cameras at his website. (Belger has also created a camera that pumps HIV+ blood to photograph victims of AIDS, and a camera containing an infant heart in formaldehyde to “take photos of soon-to-be mothers who are at least 8 months pregnant, and explore my relationship with my twin brother who died at birth.”)

via Art Diabolique


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    August 18, 2008

    Totally fucking awesome!

  2. #2 Stephanie Chasteen
    August 18, 2008

    I love this! Another neat use of pinhole cameras is this guy’s mouth camera. The one of his young son’s wide-eyed face, framed by his dad’s teeth, is priceless:

  3. #3 Doubting Foo
    August 18, 2008

    Is it legal to own human body parts?

    I like the Tibetan “Yama”:

  4. #4 Der Bruno Stroszek
    August 18, 2008

    As a child I sometimes used to stop dead and stare at somebody I was talking to, just to try and imagine what it would be like to try and see the world through their eyes. I feel like I might finally have achieved that…

  5. #5 Brian
    August 18, 2008

    Wow, that stuff is pretty great. It’s like a sort of meta-art wherein the medium becomes the message. Brilliant.

  6. #6 Thomas M.
    August 18, 2008

    Holy shit. That is the coolest thing I’ve seen in months, and the pictures are amazing. Alas, all I get is a blank, white page when I try to open up his website.

  7. #7 John Ohab
    August 18, 2008

    Very BOLD of you, Dr. Palmer.

  8. #8 Jessica Palmer
    August 18, 2008

    thanks for the heads up on the links, Thomas. they worked earlier today, so i have no idea what’s up, but i changed them to a specific page that loads consistently. They should work now.

    John, I strive to be BOLD in all things, but not even I would drill a hole in the skull of an adolescent from 1850 and put a polaroid film in it. That takes crazy guts.

  9. #9 Bjoern Brembs
    August 20, 2008

    Totally awesome! Über-cool! Thanks!

  10. #10 Bjoern Brembs
    August 20, 2008

    A PET image is indirect evidence of thought, not thought itself.

    I just realized how deeply philosophical that sentence was. Isn’t that also true of everything we perceive (think Immanuel Kant)? See also Magritte: “ceci n’est pas une pipe.
    As such, a pinhole camera is a very good allegory of our constructivist mind. To me, this is what art is all about…

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