Via Flickr.

Medical imaging is responsible for some of the most powerful moments of our lives, from the first glimpse of a growing fetus to the discovery of a tumor. Since the invention of the x-ray in 1895, imaging has become a fundamental part of diagnosis and even how we understand our selfhood.

If we consider the results of imaging to be art, then philosopher Don Ihde, a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at New York’s Stony Brook University, would be one of their most prolific collectors. He is the author of over twenty books, including the 1976 Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound–the first and only phenomenological investigation of the experience of sound–and a follow-up, 2015’s Acoustic Technics.

As a phenomenologist, Ihde studies consciousness. He believes we can interpret our experiences through the confines of not only our brains, but also the audio and visual instruments that mediate them. His next book will focus on how technology and instruments are shaping the humans of the future, just as they have shaped our understanding of humans past. Over a root beer float on the Upper East Side, we talked about echolocation, Vermeer, and Lucy’s skeleton.

Daisy Alioto for Guernica

Guernica: I’m interested in how you started exploring medical imagery.

Don Ihde: A lot of the medical imagery has to do with [my own] biography. I had open heart surgery, I had knee replacements, I had a hiatal hernia, etc. Every time you go for surgery, you get a whole spectrum of imaging. Of course, I’ve been doing research in imaging technology across the board for close to twenty years. When you think about it, medical imaging is actually quite new. The first major medical image was the x-ray in 1895. That was the first time you got imaging of anything that’s in the bodily interior.

Guernica: Versus drawings.

Don Ihde: Yeah. Australian Aborigines have a style of x-ray painting. In the European tradition, you can find these images going back to the Renaissance when people started doing autopsies. But to peer inside a living body—x-rays are the earliest example of those images. Now of course, it’s absolutely amazing. I have probably a dozen CDs of my own imaging, and a couple of times I’ve used them in lectures. At Oxford, I did a presentation called “My Case.” What specialists try to do is get at least three imaging processes that are totally different from each other. Then you can run these through a computer program and make a composite image. In one scenario you suspect a brain tumor, so you image the brain tumor with PET scans, MRIs, and CT scans and create a 3D model. The doctor opens up the skull to excise the cancer, but they can’t see anything. Do you cut out what’s supposed to be in that spot or not? The current story is yes, you believe the images over what you see with your eyes.

Guernica: Is that an actual case, or is it a medical school scenario?

Don Ihde: It’s a sort of urban legend, but the notion is true.

Guernica: The trust in medical imaging is that great?

Don Ihde: Yes. There are several books on the history of diagnosis, and that’s very interesting because, gender-wise, it had long been prohibited in Asia and Europe for male doctors to touch females. So there are periods in history when they created dolls, and the woman would point to the part of the doll where the pain was. Later, post-Renaissance, that taboo disappeared. A lot of the probes were both tactile and acoustic. For example, a doctor might thump an abdomen to see if there was a tumor. You have a long history of changes in diagnosis, from no touching to touching, to assessing acoustics and visuals. But visual is a problem, because if you’re a living being you can’t see beyond the surface of the skin. Now you don’t have that problem. Laparoscopic surgery, inserting a camera into the body, is sometimes called “Nintendo surgery”—the best training for laparoscopic surgeries has actually been video games. A developing field is sonifying cancer. You can acoustically discriminate between healthy and cancerous cells by hearing them. Make the vibrations into sound, and anybody can learn to tell the difference.

Guernica: When you characterize the evolution in diagnosis from visual to tactile to acoustic and tactile, do you see imaging as a return to visual, or do you see it as hypervisual?

Don Ihde: In the eighteenth century, it was very common to think that each of the five senses was discrete and yielded very different data. That period is totally dead. A Jesuit priest named Lazzaro Spallanzani was the first to discover bat echolocation. He saw that bats could fly in the dark and catch a moth. He put wax over the bat’s eyes, but the bats could still catch the moth. If you put wax in the bat’s ears, the bats couldn’t catch anything. So I argue that science would be much richer if it were multisensory. The problem with instrumentation is that instruments, unlike our senses, can be monosensory. Since the discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum—which is really the discovery that all energy coming from something has a wave form—in theory we could image anything along that spectrum. In fact, we don’t, because only certain parts of the spectrum have been instrumentalized. But the new thing is computerization. You can take all the data, the measurement of the frequencies, and transform it into an image.

Guernica: Coming at it from the perspective of a collector or someone who appreciates art, do you foresee a scenario where people will begin to collect these images or audio samples, and they’ll be decontextualized from the medical field?

Don Ihde: When I give lectures on sonifying science, many times there will be artists in the audience who give me samples of stuff they’ve done. There are annual contests put on by some of the top science magazines for best science images. They range from regular photography to the phenomenon of the microphotography of cells. Twenty-first century imaging is largely using microscopic processes. So, for example, you can trap a single atom or a single proton. Two years ago, one of my colleagues was the fourth member of an atom trapping consortium. Unfortunately, Nobel Prizes can only be split by three, so he was the guy who was left out.

Guernica: You’ve kept all of the images from your own cases. Do you keep them because they’re useful to your work, or do you have an instinct to save them for other reasons?

Don Ihde: I originally kept them because I wanted to use them as examples in what I write. I do, a lot. It’s very interesting because we have no direct experience of our brain. I can’t experience my brain because I’m inside of it. If you’re imaging your brain, you can also find scary things. As one ages, your brain shrinks. And how much it shrinks, and where it shrinks, relates to conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Guernica: Do you think that having recordings and imagery that help us experience our own brains has a philosophical impact?

Don Ihde: It clearly has. My thesis with Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction is that we make technologies, and, in turn, technologies make us. There is a notion in design of designer intent. Why was the lead pencil invented? Well, the inventor of the lead pencil wanted it to be a marking machine. The dominant function of a pencil is writing, but I remember going to a one-room public school, where one of my bullying friends stabbed me with a lead pencil. I remember reading about a court case where a man tried to stab a judge with a pencil. There are Google pages full of similar instances around the world. It’s obvious that the pencil lends itself to precisely that kind of use. It’s not as lacking in dominance as you might think. I have an article on the fallacy of the designer intent because a lot of designers think they can design uses into technology. You can’t do that.  I use the pen, I make the mark, but the pen is also using me. The pen could be said to be allowing these kinds of marks. I can’t do just anything with the pen. That’s particularly true of imaging.

Guernica: Instruments play a big role in this.

Don Ihde:  The interrelationship is true from the simplest to the most complex. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s art or science.

Guernica: There were artists who, even before computers, were creating their own coding systems to create analog works based on some ratio, or what we would call a program if it was in a machine. Computer art is really not that new–whether it was the Fibonacci sequence, or whatever other system.

Don Ihde: In the early 2000s, David Hockney produced a book with Charles Falco called Secret Knowledge. It’s about his discovery that many Renaissance painters used a camera obscura to construct paintings. Many in the art history community were outraged by this because they thought it cheapened the art. I happen to be a big Vermeer fan. There can be little doubt that he used a camera obscura. He’s only got something like thirty-nine paintings, and many of them show exactly the same room.

Guernica: So that’s why it was so funny to you, the uproar about the camera obscura.

Don Ihde: I never went into aesthetics. Aesthetics is what philosophers have to say about art, and a lot of them take an analytics position and raise the question, “What is an art object?” As soon as you fall into that trap, an artist is going to come along and say, “That isn’t art—it’s something else.” That’s a hopeless gig.

Guernica: But what about defining beauty? Is it harder to rewrite a definition of beauty?

Don Ihde: I don’t like definitions at all.

Guernica: So you couldn’t be a lawyer.

Don Ihde: Definitions get you into that time trap, and I’m very much more process-focused. Take Lucy, for example. Lucy is famous largely because she has almost a total skeleton. The more sophisticated we get with instruments, the more we can find out. Through CT scans of her skeleton, they now think she died falling out of a tree because of the way her bones are broken. If nineteenth and twentieth century technologies can retroactively transform our bodiment, what then do the technologies we now use do?


Daisy Alioto

Daisy Alioto is a culture writer living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, architecture and design for websites like Curbed, Hyperallergic and The Awl. Visit her website at

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