Digital thought imaging

Kellyann Geurts

digital_thinking 1Kellyann Geurts, Digital thinking #1, 2010, digital image

Science and art have both attempted to capture thought in the form of images. Over a century ago, early photographic plates and film were used to record thoughts. In his experimental research, French psychiatrist Dr Hippolyte Baraduc (1850-1909) captured subtle forms of mental activity on light-sensitive materials. He believed that the substance of thoughts could materialize on photographic plates. Along with Louis Darget and Jules-Bernard Luys, Baraduc pursued photographing his own mental energy or ‘vital sources’ (thoughts, feelings and dreams) by making physical contact with fingers or foreheads on light-sensitive plates. The three men believed the intensity of their thought determined the clarity and strength of images created. With the discovery of X-ray photography around the same time, photography played a role in validating claims about the possibility of revealing the invisible. The changes in the nature of recording devices enable us to see what was previously hidden and also allow us to believe what we can see.

The elusive ‘thought image’ has also been documented and visualized in art – by means of line, form, shape and colour. One example can be seen in the drawings and studies of Annie Besant (a theosophist and writer) and C. W. Leadbeater (a clairvoyant). Both were prominent members of the Theosophical Society from 1890s. Their experimentation and research resulted in a different kind of thought pictures. The collection of their hand-drawn images was published in a book titled Thought Forms (1901). According to Besant and Leadbeater, there were three types of ‘thought forms’: those which capture the image of the thinker; those which capture the image of some material object, and, those which capture a form entirely on its own, expressing its inherent qualities in the matter which it draws around it (1901: 20). Unlike the process of waiting for the thought to materialize on the photographic plates, these forms were believed to appear clearly and represent a specific emotion, problem or concept.

It is interesting to note that Dr Baraduc is referenced in the introduction to Thought Forms as the most successful practitioner to have obtained more ‘scientifically legitimate’ and subtle forms of mental activity, as opposed to the work of clairvoyants and spirit photography of the time (9). According to Baraduc, the instruments captured the vibrations of the grey matter in the brain as a result of a thought, the etheric matter and vital force: not the thought itself therefore but rather the effects it produced. Yet Besant and Leadbeater claimed they could see the details of the thought and not the effects of it. It was in fact the aim of their little book to show thoughts as things.

The link between science and the otherworldly in thought imaging was embodied in the work of Japanese psychologist Tomobichi Fukurai (1910). He coined the term ‘thoughtography’ to describe experiments with photographic processes and mental impressions made onto film. Thoughtography was made most popular half a century later by the psychiatrist Dr Jule Eisenbud’s book The World of Ted Serios: Thoughtographic Studies of an Extraordinary Mind (1966). Fukurai’s experiments were ‘practiced’ by Serios, who claimed he could project thoughts onto Polaroid film just by concentrating on an image. Serios was part of a larger culture in the 1960s that was fascinated by the paranormal. Serios used his camera to record what he recognized as telepathic moments.

The development of electroencephalography (EEG) in 1924 allowed some new possibilities for the study of neuronal activities, for identifying patterns of thinking and for determining how we picture thought in the 21st century. Contemporary scientific and medical research into brain-computer interface technology such as positron emission tomography (PET scans) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has advanced brain mapping activity and continues to push boundaries in thought-imaging techniques. The research involves showing real time videos of thoughts that have been digitally reconstructed from a person’s mind onto a computer display. Brain-computer interface devices such as Emotiv EPOC – which is a consumer wireless headset for interactive game play – also make recordings of raw brainwave data accessible to consumers.

Thought recording devices

My own research explores non-invasive mind-machine interfaces (thought-recording devices) to examine how neuroimaging techniques have influenced science fiction and impacted upon the way thought is now documented. Digital recordings and neuroscientific imaging devices (such as EEGs) assist me in recording and reconstructing digital thought images with references to early experimental practices, medical discourse and its representation in popular science fiction cinema. I extend the visual expression of these themes using photography and digital imaging technologies.

rush_devotionKellyann Geurts, Digital thinking #2: Sudden Rush of Devotion, 2009, digital print, 105cm x 105cm

Digital thinking #2: The still images of EEG wires symbolise the scientific quest to reveal a picture of thought. The focus is on the action and purpose of the wires, their connections and how the line and colour are entangled. In the long process of being ‘wired up’, I re-imagine the complex configuration of the machinery as networks and the conductors of thinking.

Capturing the elusive thought image has lured science fiction writers and filmmakers such as Phillip K. Dick (The Minority Report, 1956), Chris Marker (La Jetée, 1962), Douglas Trumbull (Brainstorm, 1983) and the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix, 1999). I gather film stills from selected popular science fiction films, depicting dystopia in mind control, brain implants and brain computer interfaces to expose thoughts, where thoughts are recorded, devices used, brain implants inserted. The focus here is not on the thought image as such but rather on thought recording devices and the processes involved in capturing thoughts. Toying with the analogue medium in photography and film, I explore the effects of the screen imaging patterns. The selected stills act to interrupt the immediacy of the film and return to a medium that still holds a notion of truth for many. My thought images are thus ‘validated’ through this medium.

In the project presented here I draw specific visual references from The Matrix. My camera records the intense expression related to the insertion of a cybernetic implant that will keep the mind controlled and monitored in a simulated brain-computer interface. What is important here is not so much the depiction of the thought form but rather the device and the effect of the thought.

digital_thinking 3

digital_thinking 4Kellyann Geurts, Digital thinking #3: I know where you’ve been, 2009
Kellyann Geurts, Digital thinking #4: Where are you going?, 2009, digital print with perspex box, 45cm x 45cm

Digital thinking #3&4: In the images above, the image titled ‘I know where you’ve been’ is a response to the second image ‘Where are you going?’. I explore the relationship between the two images and the psychological space created between the image of a thought recording device and the film stills.

 vis_pleasureKellyann Geurts, Digital thinking #5: Vague intellectual pleasure, 2009, digital print, 105cm x 105cm

Digital thinking #5: Thoughts are captured via a mind-machine interface in the film La Jetée. Marker’s futuristic science fiction film is 30 minutes long and is made almost entirely from black and white photographs. The sequencing and duration of each frame modulates the potential shifts in mood. The scene is set in a dark underground room, the captive is wired to a thought recording machine that searches the past to confiscate memories. There is a sense of vulnerability in these underground scenes and a loss of privacy and power as each of the memories are revealed. At the most intimate moment in the sequence of the stills, the black and white change to a soft colour and, for an instant, the still image comes to life. I am reminded here of Dr Baraduc’s early experiments, where the intensity of the thought to be captured was believed to determine the clarity and strength of the images created. In La Jetée, this intensity stands for the intimacy and is interpreted, via colour, as a fleeting moment of movement, which remains central to the film’s plot.

 oscillogramKellyann Geurts, Digital thinking #6: Oscillogram, 2010, digital print, 150cm X 105cm

Digital thinking #6: The reading of thoughts appears to be a cause for anxiety in popular cinema. This is rendered explicit in Minority Report, where ‘precogs’ are held captive; they are immersed in water and tethered by electrodes to a giant screen. Their power is lost to a machine that displays their thoughts to the probing judicial system. Ironically, the immersion in the water softens our visual impression of the image but simultaneously suffocates the subject, as a result of which their secrets are surrendered.

Thought images

disturbance Kellyann Geurts, Digital thought form #7: Interwoven threads of disturbance, 2008, digital print, 500cm x 105cm

Digital thinking #7: I have constructed a thought image to model an EEG recording. The thought is represented as a sinewy organic structure. Spaces exist between the fabric of its construction, in the loosely woven layers oscillating between what is and what is not there, between what is recorded and what is not. The form is fluid like, moulded by what surrounds it and by what impacts upon it. The form, like the thoughts themselves, is unpredictable and subject to disruption. The continuous streaming extends off each end of the image. The picture is a glimpse of an event rather than a discrete unit. With this, I am exploring thought which are images mediated by technologies, be it analogue or digital.

Techniques and ideas with regard to recording thought have changed over time. Approaches and insight into this topic have evolved alongside the development of the image capture devices. My work brings together threads from science, science fiction, art and imaging technology to explore the limits and possibilities of visualizing thought today.


Baraduc, H. (1913) The Human Soul, Its Movements, its Lights and the Iconography of the Fluidic Invisible (Paris: Librairie International de la Pensée Nouvelle). Boston Public Library eBooks and Text Digitised 2010,

Besant, A. & Leadbeater, C. W. (1901) Thought Forms (London: The Theosophical Publishing House Ltd.), The Project Gutenberg eBook of Thought Forms,, release date July, 2005.

Dick, P. K. (1956) ‘The Minority Report’. Fantastic Universe, King Star Publications.

Flach, S. & Arends, B. (2005) ‘Thought Experiments: The Brain as Arena’. Virtual Symposium On Visual Culture and Bioscience.

Fukurai, T. (1930) Clairvoyance and Thoughtography. London: Rider.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005) The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Marker, C. (dir.) (1962) La Jetée. Nouveaux Pictures, 2003, DVD.

Spielberg, S. (dir.) (2002) Minority Report. Dreamworks, DVD.

Trumbell, D. (dir.) (1983) Brainstorm. Warner Home Video, 2000, DVD.

Wachowski, L. & A. (dir.) (1999) Matrix. Warner Bros. 2007, DVD.

Kellyann Geurts is a PhD candidate at Monash University, Melbourne. Building on her MA project ‘A Theory of Error’, her current work, ‘The Digital Thought Imaging Project’, examines pictures of thoughts and reimagines mental landscapes through digital imaging. Geurts has published two artist books on this subject that are part of the collection at the State Library of Victoria. She has presented her work internationally at 5th Creativity and Cognition conference, Goldsmiths, University of London, and at the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conference at the University of Amsterdam. She has also shown locally in Melbourne galleries, including RMIT Gallery, Dianne Tanzer Gallery; Red Gallery; Project Space RMIT, St Vincent’s Hospital and National Neurosciences Facility, Melbourne University.


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