After Nyne Issue 13 Q&A: Clive Wilkins / Nicola Clayton

The Captured Thought (Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins) were recently invited to discuss art/science collaborations and their work together.

Clive, you’re the artist in residence at Cambridge University’s Psychology department. We’re intrigued – what does the role of artist in residence entail?

It’s about creating dialogue. Art if you choose to analyse it, is the process of memory[1] and the planning of futures. Is there a better place for an inquisitive artist to be than a Psychology Department, like the one at the University of Cambridge, where close analysis of human and animal motivations and the meaning and purpose of discerned intentions can be explored? The popular assumption that artists are free spirits and that scientists are disciplined by comparison is just not true. Both artists and scientists are fascinated by the world around them and are keen to understand what is actually going on at every level, not just within their own domains. All knowledge is transferrable between disciplines and provides insight into areas outside of our normal compass. Is there a difference in the ways that artists and scientists think about what they do? The answer I think is essentially no~ we simply access different tools and methods~ the sharing of which brings all of us closer to a unique understanding and insight into the many and varied worlds around us.

Similarly, Nicky – you’re Ballet Rambert’s resident scientist – what does this involve?

Memory is often thought of as a static repository of the past, but in truth, just like the body memory moves. The exploration of memory allows us to see things from different points of view. It is about playing and exploring ideas in order to open oneself to discovery. Play is good for the brain and good for the body. Interdisciplinary connections between science and the arts are so inspiring; they generate energy and have the potential to inspire new ways of thinking. Artists traditionally appear to have the monopoly on inspiration and intuition~ we feel the process involved in generating new thought are common to both disciplines, and better still, when combined, allow us to see so much further.

Why do the two of you call yourselves “The Captured Thought”?

Clive: Thinking is so ephemeral, it’s a transient breeze that can so easily be lost, and without memory would be. We think of memory in terms of the past but in truth memories are made for the future. It’s the capturing of thoughts that allows us to manage our expectations and plan for what lies ahead.

Nicky: So much of our understanding of the architecture of the brain, requires we make analysis of our processes to investigate the mind, its perception~ and even wonder what it is that enables us to assume consciousness. We need to ‘Capture Thought’ if we are to slow the mind down enough to see what is going on~ that’s the idea.

What drew you to work together, other than your mutual love of tango?

Clive: The art of conversation was the clincher~ we discuss ideas and excite and inspire each other. After two years of dancing together we decided to talk. We were already connected. Then the journey began.

Nicky: The conversation started with Clive sharing, what was then, his unpublished manuscript for The Moustachio Quartet[2]. It is a series of novels about perception, memory and mental time travel. The themes are explored in the structure of the work as well as the unfolding narrative. Most interestingly, the four books can be read in any order! I thought it very clever. It made me realize that artists have intrinsically and indirectly understood the psychology of seeing and memory, recording their observations through the artifacts they produce, for millennia, and long before psychologists were even thought of. Artifacts provide evidence of how people think and have thought about themselves and the worlds through which they pass. This is a rich and under utilized resource in our determination to understand more of the changing complexion of memory.

Much of your collaborative work centres on the idiosyncrasy, subjectivity and fallibility of human perception and memory. Do either (or both) of you feel that there are any fundamental differences in the ways in which artists and scientists see the world?

Clive: Not really, only the tools and methods differ. Using ‘The Captured Thought’ we have turned this into strength, the arts and sciences inspiring each other. When you think about it brains and the concepts and patterns making they are capable of, of which the line is the simplest and most common, are the same and very similar in every human being, no matter what their specialism. We make sense of the world using capacities for problem solving and processing that we share in common. In our work on ‘The Captured Thought’ we offer ourselves the opportunity to do unique perspective taking by viewing and observing the universe through the eyes of our co-collaborator and the skills they have honed within their valued discipline. We compare outcomes. The collaboration is truly equal, and moves great distances. It is all very simple; two heads wanting to think about the same important questions are better than one.

Do you ever fall victim to “artistic” (or scientific) differences whilst working together?

Clive and Nicky: No, is the easy answer. Of course we notice historical prejudice and aspects of short sightedness in the literature and the world around us in both our areas of expertise~ it is important to see past the myopia in order to see further. We cross check our realities in the hope of discovering more and have greater confidence in those things on which we agree.

Nicola, you’re an expert in pre-verbal and non-verbal communication in infants and animals – do you believe that art exists in the animal kingdom?

Nicky. It is hard to know. It can be difficult for our species not to see some of the exquisite beauty in the natural world as art. The exquisite architecture of the puffer fish, the astonishing theatres of the bower birds, the elaborate opera of the nightingale, the extraordinary soundscape of the mocking bird~ all these things service the needs of courtship in the animal kingdom. It is interesting that Geoffrey Miller in his work on ‘The Mating Mind’, suggested that creativity evolved through sexual selection and that this aspect of the human brain is the consequence of sexual ornamentation.

Is mental time travel the key element that separates us from other animals?

Nicky and Clive. No, however there is little question that out MTT abilities are more complex than those of any other non-linguistic species that we know of. We argue that the line and pattern of thinking that constitutes story telling is uniquely human and probably the driving force behind the evolution of language, and our remarkable social abilities. Its all well and good having a story, however, we also have a need for someone to share it with.

Clive, you’ve said that our environment affects our imagination system, and that, “What we surround ourselves by, we can become in danger of becoming.” Do you think exposure to – and participation in – the arts is key if we want our minds to function optimally?

Clive. Yes, creative thought is the key, as we have said before~ imagination is the door to identity[3]. There’s something deliciously infectious about inspiring ideas. The disciplined mind, looks beyond itself in order to make associations and collect memories from the worlds it travels through. We look for the signs and markers we need in the environments in which we find ourselves, quite literally. In this sense we use souvenirs and mementoes as extensions of our thinking processes. It is as if important aspects of who we are and the complexion of our thinking exists outside of ourselves. We even purposefully lay trails to represent the ideas that are important to us. Why? Because we have a deep and profound need to be part of the perceived worlds through which we pass~ as much as a story is a line, so is our journey through the world. And without memory there would be no line or anticipation of where it may go next.

You recently led a series of workshops at the Tate Modern, including a dance workshop called The Tango of Repair. How has “what once was progress” become “the dream of repair”, and how did you explore this through art and dance?

Nicky: Ideas like memory move.

Clive: A prevailing idea in the 20c was the notion that ‘progress’ would improve every aspect of life on the planet. As the century developed the concept became increasingly discredited for a variety of reasons. With the death of modernism came the death of ‘progress’, and in its place the notion of ‘repair’ came into being. That ‘repair’ could be a way to move life and society forward is an interesting thought experiment and currently a work in progress amongst conceptual artists. In our ‘Tango of Repair’ and ‘The City as Metaphor’ workshops at the Tate we explored ways in which existing forms and structures might be reinvented or redeveloped to become invested with new and contemporary meaning~ as much as anything else, we used the concept of repair as an aid or stepping stone to move closer to innovative thinking.

Parallels between science and the arts have been drawn in terms of their respective roles in “revealing” aspects of human behaviour. Can you give us an example of something that dance has revealed about the human condition?

Nicky: Dance illuminates the processes involved in thinking without words. You can learn more about a person in a tanda of tango than in an entire evening of linguistic conversation. As the psychologist Abercrombie once said ‘we speak with our vocal organs but converse with our whole body’.

How about the visual arts?

Clive: Through art and the history of art we have a unique opportunity to explore time and the manner in which it passes. Art describes aspects of the human spirit that can be accessed no other way. If we wish to know who we are, we must understand the forces that drive and have driven the human spirit. This not only applies to the visual arts, it is also true of dance, music, literature and film. Art proves to us that the nature of consciousness and the things in which we are most interested have not changed over millennia. We are the same people we were then as we are now.

Does dance – and art more generally – act as a medium by which we can “see further” by thinking beyond words?

Nicky: Both allow us to use non linguistic methods of investigation and are foils to our more common methods for appraising our experiences and developing knowledge.

Neuroscientific research seems to indicate that our brain “decides” to move before we are aware of consciously making a decision. Is movement – and dance, in its purest form – automatic?

Nicky: There is an aspect of movement that is procedural, we often call such things muscle memory or reflex actions. Dancers use this to stay on the beat, if you have to think before you move you’ll be late. That said much of dance requires complex cognition.

Do you think that artists and scientists should work more collaboratively? Are the boundaries between the disciplines becoming more permeable?]

Nicky and Clive: Artists and scientists should only work together if the dialogue is meaningful~ many arts/science collaborations fail by not engaging in real communication. The integrity of the intellectual endeavour is important, you cannot force a connection, such things germinate and grow organically.

What could science learn from art?

Nicky: Intuition is a springboard for ideas that can be used to generate hypotheses and tested empirically.

What could art learn from science?

Clive: The processes involved in thinking and psychological insight into the architecture of the brain allows for greater sense, or insight at least, to be made about what is going on all around us.

Can you tell us what you are currently working on, or hoping to explore next?

Nicky and Clive: So much of what we have achieved as a species has been attributed to our capacity to use language and our social abilities, hence the importance of story telling in the evolution of our cognitive capacities. But can we go further, what is the next port of call? The Captured Thought is exploring alternative ways of thinking, in the recognition that it may be possible to develop the ability to think beyond words.


[1] Clayton, N. S. & Wilkins, C. A. P. (2016). Big Picture: Art is the process of memory. The Psychologist, 29, 15-16.

[2] Wilkins, C. A. P. (2015a). The Moustachio Quartet~ Mannikin. Wind on the Wire Publishing, Rutland, UK.

Wilkins, C. A. P. (2015b). The Moustachio Quartet~ Count Zapik. Wind on the Wire Publishing, Rutland, UK.

Wilkins, C. A. P. (2015c). The Moustachio Quartet~ Caruso. Wind on the Wire Publishing, Rutland, UK.

Wilkins, C. A. P. (2017). The Moustachio Quartet~ Eissenstrom. Wind on the Wire Publishing, Rutland, UK.

[3] Clayton, N. S. & Wilkins, C. A. P. (2012). Imagination: The Secret Landscape. Being Human.


The Artist and the Scientist.

The opportunity for an artist to collaborate uniquely with a scientist arose out of a chance encounter on one of life’s dancefloors. A tango dance floor in fact.

How often life seems to operate on the level of serendipity.

Quickly two accomplished individuals set to work to compare notes on their professional experiences of the esoteric world’s they inhabited~ they soon came to the realisation that despite their apparent differences they were uniquely describing the same world, but from very specialist and different viewpoints. Perspectives which illuminated fascinating details both had perhaps missed or not fully taken account of in their individual schemes.

It was this opportunity to question and compare the world from differing perspectives that has led to the development of a method of working and  thinking that could be used to explore the arts and sciences in new ways. Some of the resulting thinking is interesting and maybe groundbreaking. The resultant attitude is either new or a reinvention of something many of us may have forgotten.

Professor Nicky Clayton FRS, a behavioural scientist from Cambridge University and the writer, artist, performer and teacher Clive Wilkins, are working together to research and present a series of lectures entitled ‘The Captured Thought’. The object of the exercise is to illuminate how we think and analyse ourselves and our place in the world using the evidence we can draw from disparate sources.

By way of introduction to the bigger issues informing this approach the following extract from their discourse at the Royal Institution on the 26th October 2012 is included.

Welcome to this space. There’s a time connotation to this too. We all find ourselves here from wherever we have come from. This is an important moment. In the space of the next hour we hope to alter your next future. I am Nicky Clayton~ a behavioural scientist interested in how humans and animals think and perceive the world and this is Clive Wilkins~ an artist and writer whose prime interest is in the nature of imagination. We are both intrigued by the way in which our lives are shaped by our awareness of space and time, our ability to mentally move backwards and forwards through it, and the consequences and opportunities it allows us to make for ourselves. We have been sharing our knowledge; testing our differing perspectives. Perhaps the most stunning revelation is that despite differences in past experience we think in the same kind of way, So we have been pooling our understanding of imagination and consciousness to see if it might goad us into new ways of seeing and thinking, in the hope of discovering new ideas. The collaboration has been exciting, inspiring, and genuinely thought provoking. It has been an experimental way of working and made us reassess our own understanding of what we think we know. It has been a very healthy symbiosis. It may be a worthy way forward in a world where new thinking is becoming increasingly hard to come by. We would like to share the process with you….’

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