Come sit on a mat with an artist and a psychiatrist to have a chat about mind wandering, gingerbread men, shark baits, and the interface of normal/abnormal behaviour

By Dr Kai Syng Tan (Leeds College of Art and University College London) and Professor Philip Asherson (Kings College London)

How far is too far?

Does your mind wander? What do you picture when you daydream? Where do you go? How far is too far? How often is too often? When does mental restlessness become impairment? What are the boundaries between pathology and normalcy, a healthy brain versus one that is ill, disordered and disorderly? What can a science-art collaborative exploration of mind wandering contribute to, challenge and extend our understanding of wellbeing?

Above: Left: Art invades science, science invades art: Phil and Kai at Monologue Dialogue IV exhibition inside Kai’s installation entitled ‘Crossed wor(l)ds (un-floored) (brain drawing) (2019 itinerary) (after Brexit, Chagall, Billingham, Wes, Savage, 2017)’, The Koppel Project, London (Photography by Richard Wright). Right: Memory Lane, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London.

A roving art installation

Drawing on emerging research on how mind wandering relates to Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder[i], channelling the exuberance of artist Grayson Perry’s legendary tapestries as well as an artist’s lived experience as a mind wandering extraordinaire, We sat on a mat and had a chat and made maps! #MagicCarpet is a new collaboration between artist Dr Kai Syng Tan and molecular psychiatrist Professor Philip Asherson that aims to generate a critical and creative space to explore the boundaries between normal and abnormal behaviour, social and medical models of disability, imagination and pathology, art practice and scientific research, clinician and patient. Under the mentorship of Professor Asherson at the MRC Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry (MRC SGDP) at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), a key aspect of the practice-led research project is how Kai will gate-crash/invade/intrude/immerse herself within the environment of leading researchers in ADHD at King’s College London as a Visiting Researcher. Apart from observing/participating in seminars, Kai will also volunteer for scientific experiments and trials. She will then embed knowledge, questions and interpretations gained in the design of a tapestry. The tapestry will be weaved in Flanders Tapestries in Belgium, which has produced tapestry art by Perry and other contemporary artists. The work ‘takes off’ when people sit on the tapestry, and chat about their mind wandering. Because words may be inadequate or challenging, they also capture their discussions/disagreements/discoveries in the form of maps and drawings (and the point is not how well you draw) that they will co-create. Co-riders of this ‘magic carpet’ include clinicians and researchers from UK Adult ADHD Network (UKAAN), self-taught artists from Submit to Love Studios, of Headway East London, a charity for people affected by brain injury, and as well as students and staff at King’s and elsewhere. Selected maps, as well as commissioned text and developmental sketches, will be documented in a limited-edition publication. A one-day seminar, exhibition and book launch will take place at the iconic Art Workers Guild. Other possible exhibition venues may include the Southbank Centre and IoPPN. Those who cannot experience #MagicCarpet live may enjoy photographs and a short film published on social media.

A space to problematise, debate and make magic 

As Flo Mowlem (April 11) and Dr Martine Hoogman (March 20) pointed out in previous blog posts, while mind wandering – in which attention switches from a current task to unrelated thoughts and feelings[ii] – is a universal human experience, excessive mind-wandering can be unproductive, and could be a key feature of ADHD; while ADHD can pose serious problems, there can be positives, and this is hitherto an under-explored area of research. Indeed, as one of the best example of a continuous trait found in both impaired and excelling individuals, ADHD is an ideal springboard to spark a discourse about the line(s) separating wellness and illness. BBC Horizon’s recent ADHD and me with Rory Bremner did a wonderful job in sparking mainstream interest in ADHD (not least in its controversial analogy of people with ADHD as half-baked gingerbread cakes and hapless victims of shark attacks). The ‘magic’ that #MagicCarpet as a project aims for is not to provide answers but to raise more questions. This is not just during the workshops, but publication, exhibition (if the tapestry and maps are portraitures of the makers’ neurodiversity, they present an interesting counterpoint to the hung portraits of able-bodied males that deck the Edwardian Hall of the Art Workers’ Guild), and beyond. While there are no shortage of melting clocks, cupboards that lead to other worlds and grand pronouncements about human beings’ primal desire for ‘journeys of the mind and body’, without which we ‘rot’ [iii] in the so-called ‘art world’, that mind wandering as a subject area, creative process or tool in the arts seems to be an unchallenged ‘given’ makes it an appealing area of research for Kai as a researcher and practitioner. Her own diagnosis of ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia in Autumn 2015 generated questions, not clarity. Where and when does the ADHD/art/personality begin, end or smash into each other? What are the problems and opportunities afforded by conceptualising and making ‘neurodiverse art’? Is this discussion a rehash of the tiresome myth of the ‘mad artist/genius’ (which artists themselves may corroborate, intentionally or inadvertently)? Is neuroscience society’s new tool to ‘otherpeople who do not conform, or does it enlighten and clarify? What can art bring to this conversation? #MagicCarpet is Kai’s process of inquiry/discovery as a woman/artist/curator/researcher. It is also her way to interrogate existing representation of ADHD which she has found to depict as largely only affecting children or adult male criminals, and only as an aberration to be corrected, cured, ironed out, medicated.

#MagicCarpet may also present a template of how art and science can clash and/or create sparks. As an ‘experiment’ which ‘invites us into the epistemological space of the laboratory’ while pointing to ‘ethical and aesthetic territories of novelty, invention, and play’[iv], it contributes to discourses on interdisciplinarity. Research in and with the arts and sciences tends to be siloed, but grand (and not-so-grand) challenges often require crossovers and the pushing of boundaries. The work creates a platform for clinical communities to dialogue with the arts about ADHD. As a leading artist working in the art-science interface argues, ‘not only is medicine capable of providing new material for the gallery space’, art can bring ‘new knowledge into the consulting space’ [v]. Equally important is the opportunity for artists to engineer forays out of comfort zones, in order to learn unfamiliar tools, languages and processes. A mind that does not seek new frontiers is one that is closed and stuck. Kai is thrilled as she is terrified by the extent to which her trespass into the medical world disrupts her assumptions and habits as an artist. Which was why she approached Philip in March 2016. The ensuing cultural clashes, collisions and antagonisms would, hopefully, be jarring, surprising, productive [vi].

Unlimited commission, unlimited possibilities

#MagicCarpet is one of 6 works commissioned by Unlimited in its Main Commissions strand for its 2017 round of awards. Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that celebrates the work of disabled artists, with funding from Arts Council England, and is delivered by Shape Arts and Artsadmin. While the project is expected to run between Summer 2017 – Autumn 2018, there are possibilities to extend #MagicCarpet intellectually, artistically, pedagogically. An example is to tour the tapestry at various universities and working with the respective disability offices to help raise awareness of ADHD, mindfulness and neurodiversity in its staff and student populations. Another is to incorporate the tapestry as an object-based learning activity for students at MRC SGDP. Evidence relating ADHD with exercise as a preventative treatment is emerging[vii]. This is an area that could be developed into a research project, and relates to Kai’s existing body of work on running as a creative and critical toolkit. A related strand is to work with mobile EEG devices to enable the ADHD brain to create ‘brain drawings’ as the body runs through different places in various parts of the world, which could fit under the Science in Culture flagship of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Come ride the magic carpet with us. Share your thoughts, experiments, explorations, recommendations and counterarguments. Let’s see how far we can go (together).


Dr Kai Syng Tan FRSA SFHEA is an artist and curator. Through installation, performance, film, and text, she explores the body and mind in (com)motion. Sitting/slipping between/beyond discipline/form/conceptual frameworks/spaces/places/allegiances, her work is turbocharged by a day-glo palette, hyperactive layering and over-the-top vocabulary. They have appeared at Documenta, Royal Geographical Society, Biennale of Sydney, MOMA, BBC and the Guardian, and are collected by the Museum of London and Fukuoka Art Museum. Currently a Research Fellow at Leeds College of Art, Visiting Fellow at University College London’s Institute of Advanced Studies, Peer Review College Member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Director of RUN! RUN! RUN! International Body for Research, Kai completed her PhD at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. From Summer 2017 she will also be a Visiting Researcher at SGDP. @kaisyngtan
Professor Philip Asherson, MB,BS, MRCPsych, PhD is Professor of Molecular Psychiatry at the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London in the United Kingdom. Since 1996 when he moved to the IoPPN he has worked closely with Professor Jonna Kuntsi to develop a program of research on clinical, quantitative and molecular genetics of ADHD. In his own work, he has a particular focus on adults with ADHD. Current research projects include investigations of the neural basis of mind wandering in ADHD, clinical trials of prisoners with ADHD, and the impact of ADHD on learning in University students. He is the author and co-author of more than 300 articles and book chapters on ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders and traits. @ukaan_org

[i] See for instance Franklin, Michael S., Michael D. Mrazek, Craig L. Anderson, Charlotte Johnston, Jonathan Smallwood, Alan Kingstone, and Jonathan W. Schooler. “Tracking Distraction.” Journal of Attention Disorders 21 (6): 475–86. doi:10.1177/1087054714543494 (2014) and Mowlem, Florence D., Caroline Skirrow, Peter Reid, Stefanos Maltezos, Simrit K. Nijjar, Andrew Merwood, Edward Barker, Ruth Cooper, Jonna Kuntsi, and Philip Asherson. “Validation of the Mind Excessively Wandering Scale and the Relationship of Mind Wandering to Impairment in Adult ADHD.” Journal of Attention Disorders, June, 1087054716651927. doi:10.1177/1087054716651927. (2016).

[ii] Smallwood, Jonathan, and Jonathan W. Schooler. “The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness.” Annual Review of Psychology 66 (January): 487–518. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015331. (2015).

[iii] Chatwin, B. Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings 1969-1989. Viking Pr. 100-106 (1996).

[iv] Callard, F, and Fitzgerald, D. “Medical Humanities.” Where Does It Hurt, 16–17 (2014).

[v] Padfield, D. MASK: MIRROR: MEMBRANE The photograph as a mediating space in clinical and creative pain encounters. University College London. 3 (2013).

[vi] Elsewhere Kai has talked about interdisciplinary collaborations. See Latham, Alan, and Kai Syng Tan. “Running into Each Other: Run! Run! Run! A Festival and a Collaboration.” Cultural Geographies, Cultural Geographies (Sage), doi:10.1177/1474474017702511 (2016).

[vii] Rommel, Anna-Sophie, Jeffrey M. Halperin, Jonathan Mill, Philip Asherson, and Jonna Kuntsi. “Protection from Genetic Diathesis in Attention-Deficit/hyperactivity Disorder: Possible Complementary Roles of Exercise.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 52 (9): 900–910. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.05.018. (2013).

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