Kirsten Johannsen

Ten Thousand Steps

Your Brain is Your Brain


Since installing a ten-thousand-steps app on my phone, I have taken a daily walk through my neighborhood and beyond to do some good to body and spirit. So Adib Fricke’s installation Your Brain is Your Brain goes well with the start of my walking career. As I see from the artist’s website, this art project deals with the functioning of the human brain and combines this with aesthetic perception. Fricke has studied the findings of neuroscientific research and produced a ten-part work that can be seen in the Berlin districts of Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, and Mitte on 110 billboards.

It is May 28, 2013 and I have ten days to explore the work of art on foot. To start with I plan a route that takes me past the railway bridges on Yorkstraße and then to Kurfürstenstraße. In Hornstraße I come upon the first billboard. In white letters on a green background it reads your gut thinks along with you. I rub my eyes in astonishment. In no way does this sentence correspond to the intellectual journey I had wanted to be sent on—or does it? Doesn’t the unpleasant feeling kindling in my stomach region have something to do with the artwork’s message? Through my smartphone I find out that I’m right in my discovery, as the intestines are also described as a "second brain" by the neurosciences. They are held to possess capabilities that go beyond pure intuition and to have a direct influence on our everyday decisions. And these don’t only concern to our daily intake of food.

While I dwell on the artist’s intention, I continue my neuroscientific promenade in the direction of the railway bridges. I walk past an area cleared for the soon to be built Möckern neighborhood. The furniture store and second-hand car dealer no longer exist. Instead there is nothing but pre-construction emptiness. Under the landmarked bridges I spot a blue billboard with the phrase your synapses await arousal, and right next to it a yellow one with the words your memories are unreal.

I stand still. On the website I read how neuronal interfaces, so-called synapses, can be stimulated by suitable information and thus by chemical substances. Though the other sentence seems to imply that our memory deceives us and continually puts together its own stories, which don’t necessarily need to correspond to lived reality; on the contrary, we combine fragments of memory into new content. So it’s quite possible that the second-hand car dealer that used to be on the site, and whose presence always evoked a dubious feeling in me, will soon be replaced in my memory by a snack bar, stimulated and saved by my current hunger.

I walk on. A short time later I discover the sentence your ego is an imaginary bighead. The orange billboard stands on a slope above Yorkstraße, exactly opposite the entrance to the subway line 7. The spot can be seen form all sides, by passers-by, cyclists, and car drivers. Here too I spontaneously ask myself if I should take the sentence personally. Its ambiguity is annoying, but it also prompts me to think. The website tells me that the phrase doesn’t refer to vanity, but to the faculty of imagination. Brain and subject form a unity from which all action, thought, and feeling arise. This connection enables the individual to find his or her bearings in the world. There is no being in our heads who sets the tone and directs or commands us. The self is more of an illusion, and biochemical processes determine our almost three-pound brain!

The next locations lead me up to the tracks of the urban train station Großgörschenstraße. Here I encounter the sentences you never think the same again and your brain makes you happy. I sit on a bench in the sun and think about the dictum of the Dadaist artist Francis Picabia: "Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction." Picabia was concerned with variety of thought and the continual trying out of new artistic styles. For him, well trodden paths or even a recognition feature meant creative standstill. Similar ideas can be read on Adib Fricke’s website. Here the dynamic of the human brain is termed "neuronal plasticity." The continual restructuring of neuronal branchings brings about new ideas and experiences, and can lead to a modification of habitual patterns of behavior.

But does the busy mental restructuring process also make me happy, as the opposite billboard suggests? Cognition scientists would agree, and think that the neurotransmitter dopamine is responsible for this. The happiness hormone is brought about during the process of thought through the interplay of intellectual challenge and brain activity. The release of dopamine can thus be regulated by the activation of our brain. As with physical activity, brain fitness also makes us happy!

Around three thousand steps later my perambulatory feelings of happiness are momentarily dampened. I’m now standing on Kurfürstenstraße. The sun is burning down onto my head and there’s dreariness wherever I look, when I discover the sentences you get on other people’s nerves and your brain is looking for friends. "This area hasn’t changed since the Wall came down," I think, when suddenly a tour bus stops next to me. A short while later I’m surrounded by excited tourists with their sights on a few drug-addicted prostitutes, whom they photograph without restraint. Who’s getting on whose nerves? While I make a quick getaway, I turn once again to my phone and find out what my fit of pique was all about. Our existence is imitational in character. So-called mirror neurons are responsible for this. These nerve cells are thought to enable us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. But our capacity for empathy goes further. Instead of merely observing, we experience the feelings we perceive in others ourselves, for real. And the project website further informs me that the human brain only attains its full development in contact with other brains. This concept isn’t new—the human being as a social animal. But connecting it to our brain’s search for like-minded counterparts certainly is.

In passing I also register your ideas alter your brain. Later I will read that behavior and thought continually change our brains, a neuronal process that lasts a whole lifetime. The more varied our surroundings, the more they stimulate our brain. But after two-and-a-half hours of reflective strolling around, my head is spinning and my feet ache. I have seen a lot, and learnt and neuronally sorted a great deal. I have walked almost ten thousand steps and seen nine urban installations. I’m already sure that my next walk will take me to Berlin-Mitte. Only once I’ve been there is the work of art complete for me. Near Alexanderplatz a billboard shows your brain is making sense. I’m curious to know how place and artwork will merge in my mental cosmos.


Kirsten Johannsen is an artist and obtained a doctorate with her thesis on "Creative Activities in Space".
The text was first was published in a catalogue about this project

© 2014 by the author, translation by Michael Turnbull