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Emma Isle explores the fascinating intersections between visual art and neuroscience, from ink-stained synapses to art as therapy.

The sciences and arts are often separated as polar opposites, and in doing so a deep connection between the two is obscured, even lost. Where better, however, to illuminate and explore this oft-overlooked link than within the brain itself—which may ultimately hold the key to understanding creativity itself.

This is a subject which can be approached from two angles: while the neuroscientist may study the creative brain to try and discover more about our artistic natures and what motivates and enables us to create masterpieces; the artist may look at the brain and draw inspiration from its complexity.

‘There is a logic of colours, and it is with this alone, and not with the logic of the brain, that the painter should conform’, Paul Cezanne

The fusion between these two disciplines is demonstrated no better than in the work of the artist Greg Dunn—who holds a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania. He uses gold leaf, microetchings and paintings in the Japanese Sumi-e style to produce intricate works which mirror what may be seen when the nervous system is put under a microscope. His artwork captures the beauty and intricacy of the nervous system structures, which he believes emulate the beauty that is seen in traditional forms of the same style.

Sumi-e ink washing has been practiced for over 2000 years, and is a cornerstone of Japanese art

This idea of bringing the nervous system to the visible eye via the medium of art is not a new one, however. In the infancy of neuroscience as a subject, Santiago Ramon Y Cajal was able to bring the complexities of the brain to the ordinary human eye by staining the brain and then sketching the images which he saw under his microscope. The result of his work was not only that scientists were able to better visualise the brain, but also the beautiful series of sketches that are still visible in textbooks today.

The pathologist, neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934)

It is not just on paper where one may find artists bringing the subject to life. Sculptor Ralph Helmick was recently commissioned to create a giant suspended sculpture, consisting of 100 bronze and stainless steel neurons, to hang in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. The sculpture also serves as an optical illusion, as from the ground floor the cascade of neurons looks like exactly that, a cascade. However, from the top of the stairs on the third floor of the building, the neurons combine to form the image of a brain. Helmick described this as ‘a way to bring another level of optical discovery’ to the work.

Indeed, the expression of neuroscience in art seems to be one that is gaining traction amongst many neuroscience societies and groups. Many provide incentives for people to engage with the fusion and cross-pollination of the subjects via competitions such as the annual Art of Neuroscience competition, which was born out of the Netherlands institute for Neuroscience—and offers a 2000 Euro prize for the winning piece. The competition describes its goals as making the research from neuroscience labs more tangible, and encouraging the researchers in those labs to look at their results in a different, but nevertheless productive and fruitful, way.

‘Ramon Y Cajal was able to bring the complexities of the brain to the ordinary human eye by staining the brain and then sketching the images which he saw under his microscope’

The idea that art could bring subjects such as neuroscience closer to the public in a way that can be easily engaged with is a wonderful prospect, which should encourage further work between the disciplines.

The question of the link between neuroscience and art can also be looked at from the perspective of the science. Many neuroscientists have devoted their life’s research to trying to understand the underlying processes that drive our creativity and enjoyment of the arts, a subfield known as neuroaesthetics.

‘There is a logic of colours, and it is with this alone, and not with the logic of the brain, that the painter should conform’, said the artist Paul Cezanne. It is the desire of neuroscientists to break down such ideas, and truly discover the neural patterns that accompany enjoyment and the pleasure that human beings glean from an amazing piece of art.

Could neuroscience ever provide an explanation as to why we enjoy some pieces of art?

However, the study of such things as creativity provides its own problems, as neuroscience tends to look at what we have in common—such a discipline as art is far more about what makes us unique. A single painting can mean very different things to different people, so the hope that this can be broken down into something scientifically tangible is possibly an unrealistic and somewhat reductive idea.

Art has not just been recognised by neuroscience as something to be better understood, but as a method to help people who are suffering from such disorders as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and autistic spectrum disorders. Art therapy has been gaining traction as a way to help people with various conditions enhance their quality of life; the pursuit of art allows us to reframe experiences, reorganise thoughts, and gain personal insights into ourselves. Art will allow people to open up to therapy in a way that some people might struggle to do with words.

Given that art—its creation and appreciation—is such an individual and personal experience for each of us, it may be difficult to see neuroscience ever being able to pin down exactly what makes humans so wonderfully creative. However, by utilising art both as a way to communicate with a wider audience, and help people who require therapy to open up and express themselves in a constructive manner, neuroscience and art can demonstrate that they are not as far apart as one might think.

Related content: ‘What has Art got to do with…Physics?’


Do you know of any more artists working within the field of neuroscience, or who use the brain as inspiration for their art? Give us your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @EpigramArts

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