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How art and chaos can help businesses innovate

From helping humans live longer and hacking our performance, to repairing the body and understanding the brain, WIRED Health will hear from the innovators transforming this critical sector. Read all of our WIRED Health coverage here.

Lucy McRae's art might make you uncomfortable, but that's okay – it's meant to. It might also redefine medicine delivery and planetary colonisation.

McRae uses unorthodox materials and performative elements to explore themes of "extreme human experiences", such as isolation, and their effects on the human body. Some of McRae's works see her partnering with synthetic biologists and scientists, connecting their expertise with her approach to storytelling "as a way of merging health, beauty, and biotechnology with science fiction." 

"I push my body to extreme limits and create surreal experimentations, and I tend to use technology like it's a visceral, elastic membrane as a way for me to explore the physiology of the body," McRae told the audience at WIRED Health.

But McRae's background isn't purely in the arts. Her "disruptive, artistic study of technology" began in 2006 when she worked at electronics company Phillips. Relocating to Eindhoven and leaving a career in architecture behind, McRae lead a team of engineers and designers in a research program looking at wearable technology.

"Our main focus was around emotional sensing," she said. "We were trying to understand what happens on a physiological level or a chemical level when you kiss someone for the first time, or when you brush past a stranger, and could we build sensitive technologies that blush or shiver with light."

The results included a dress outfitted with biosensors that responded to its wearer's emotions, and an electronic tattoo, with magnetic balls implanted under skin that changed design at a touch.

"Whilst I was at Phillips, I began thinking about the role of skin and how skin could become a platform for innovation," said McRae. "And if technology is to become the size of a blood cell, how might we ingest it?"

The answer to that, and what such small scale technology could do once inside the body, drove McRae to explore "reprogramming" biology. In 2011, inspired by pheromones, she created a swallowable perfume – a cosmetic pill that used the body's own natural processes to breakdown fats to activate a protein impregnated with a fragrance. This in turn was excreted through the sweat glands, resulting in a far more pleasurable alternative to natural body odour.

It sounds frivolous, but in allowing the skin to sweat a "genetically unique fragrance", essentially turning the body into an elaborate biological atomiser, it opens the door to manipulating the immune system.

"I started receiving heartfelt emails from people suffering hyperhidrosis, an excessive sweating condition," said McRae. "They were sharing personal stories about how their condition hindered every aspect of their life, and that this product gave them such hope. Some even offered their body for research."

Cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies from around the world had also contacted McRae, all battling to be the first to bring swallowable perfume to retail. But "they weren't aware of the medical benefits that could follow," she said.

Experiments and installations centred on isolation also have the potential to benefit space exploration. A chance encounter with a Nasa economist after a TED talk lead to a discussion on the viability of gestating foetuses in zero gravity. This inspired McRae to consider how to prepare the body for the rigours of space, and the behavioural and emotional changes it brings.

McRae set up a "Future Day Spa" in Los Angeles, where visitors lie on beds under pressurised sheets. Air was vacuumed out, with most participants lulled to sleep by the process. Throughout the experiment McRae monitored signals from their bodies.

The results were unexpected. People reported it helped with hangovers, or triggered womb-like memories. One person, who was haphephobic, rejecting all physical contact, said it felt like an embrace. He wanted to take one of the units home, and was moved to hug McRae afterwards. The emotional changes brought on by restricted movement and artificial isolation were profound.

"Can I speculate experiences like the Future Day Spa may be able to naturally trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain – normally released during touch, sex, or breastfeeding?" said McRae. "And can they be developed to create new ways to relax, change behaviours, or treat disorders?"

McRae is now working on a project inspired by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans' book Evolving Ourselves, which posits humans are now in a phase of evolution driven by choice, not nature. The result will be The Institute of Isolation, an "observational documentary" opening at London's Science Museum on 20 June.

It looks at whether extended isolation can indeed shift brain patterns, and how doing so could become a willfully evolved human capacity. "What happens on a mission to Mars when four people are travelling for decades in a very very small space?" she asked. "We can easily measure the physiology of the body, but the psychology is largely unpredictable."

But where does this avant-garde creativity intersect with the average consumer? "I'm an honest believer that businesses, brands, companies – if you can operate more like an artistic studio, where you introduce creative processes, allow for spaces for chaos or serendipity early on in any kind of new innovative or technological process – then you open up such a vaster area of possibility and tap research spin offs that you may never have imagined. That's the way that I've come to do what I do."

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