Santiago Ramón y Cajal: The Artist as Scientist

Santiago Ramón y Cajal is “the most famous scientist about whom very little is known,” said Eric Himmel, the speaker at Thursday night’s talk about the man whose prolific drawings helped revolutionize the field of neuroscience. But by the end of the evening’s event, the audience walked away with a much better understanding of how an aspiring artist, steered into medicine by his doctor father, found a way to merge his two passions.

Himmel, a publisher who worked on last year’s book, The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and collaborated on the accompanying travelling art exhibit of the same name, was privy to more than 4,000 images from Cajal—drawings and photos—and the selection he chose to accompany his talk really brought the story to life.

Cajal, born in 1852 in Aragon, Spain, was already practicing watercolors at a level way beyond my high school renderings by the time he was ten. Sent to the provincial capital, Huesca, at age 12 to attend school, he further explored his artistic interests, taking art classes and learning about photography from a friend.

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A watercolor painted by Cajal at age nine or ten

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What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain

Dana Alliance member and Professor of Neurobiology Margaret S. Livingstone, Ph.D., spoke about art and the brain on Tuesday night at this year’s annual Irving H. Jurow Lecture at New York University’s College of Art and Science. Her lecture demonstrated to the audience how looking at art reveals how we see and what mechanisms are at work in the brain to create visual perception.

All artists use lines in their works to create shapes that are interpreted by the brain as specific contours or forms. Center-surround antagonism enables edge detection and contrast enhancement within the visual cortex. Livingstone explained center-surround antagonism as a process by which light creates signals, also known as action potentials, in retinal cells. Certain cells in our visual field are excited while other cells fail to fire. Neurons in our visual cortex are either activated or inhibited to create an accurate depiction or mental map of what we see.

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An illustration in Livingstone’s presentation that demonstrates how color and luminescence affect what we see in markedly different ways.

Painting and art rarely represent realistic accuracy even though they are photorealistic. Shadows, reflections, and perspectives defy the laws of physics and, very often, artists emphasize and play with how our vision works and how we see. Our visual system involves two processing streams that originate from the retina— the higher visual cortex ventral stream (the “what” system) and the older and more ancient dorsal stream (the “where” system). The ventral stream recognizes a specific object such as a bike or an animal and the dorsal system allows us to sense where objects are in space, including depth and position.  The dorsal stream is colorblind—the “what” system can see colors but the “where” system can’t.

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DIY: Brainy Crafts for Brain Awareness Week

Two weeks from now, people all over the world will be taking part in activities organized by people who share our love for the brain. (BAW) is a time for everyone to pause from their busy schedules and find a way to celebrate and learn more about the organ that is responsible for everything we do. Not sure where to start? We’re here to help.

We wrote a recent post on making “Sweet Brains”—or colorful cupcakes that resemble brains—for those of you with a sweet tooth. We also took some time to try out “recipes” for do-it-yourself arts and crafts that are great for anyone wanting to sport the latest trends in brain-wear.

First up: Brain Hemisphere Hats

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Music and Meaning: Hitting the Right Notes

Relating neuroscience to the humanities, politics, and other disciplines is a primary goal of the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University. Part of its mission is to sponsor programs that examine the implications of brain and other kinds of research and debate issues and ideas with scientists and inquisitive audience members.

The center’s most recent program was titled, “Music and Meaning,” and featured three prominent researchers who study the relationship between the brain and music: David Huron, arts and humanities distinguished professor, School of Music & Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Ohio State University; Aniruddh D. Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts University; and Elizabeth Tolbert, professor of musicology, Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The moderators for the event were two Columbia University scholars: Andrew Goldman, a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience; and Jacqueline Gottlieb, professor of neuroscience.

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Image: Shutterstock

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Sound Health: Music and the Mind

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center for the Arts have teamed up to explore the connections among music, the brain, and human wellness. The idea for the “Sound Health” partnership came up in conversations between NIH director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and Kennedy Center artistic advisor Renée Fleming. In March NIH hosted a science workshop, where researchers shared what they know about sound and sense with Fleming and other musicians, scientists, and music therapists. This past weekend, they moved to the Kennedy Center for a shared performance with the National Symphony Orchestra and a day of talk and music-making for the general public.

Bone flute from Geissenklösterle, a cave in Germany. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

“Music is a critical part in understanding how the brain works,” Collins said on Friday. It’s likely that early people made music before developing formal language–we’ve found  flutes that are more than 35,000 years old. “It’s critical to understanding” how the oldest circuits in our brains work, and it can add “new and stronger scientific basis” to the range of techniques that music therapists use to help people recover from stroke, trauma, chronic pain, and other maladies.

All the Saturday events except a kids’ movement workshop were recorded; I’m including them here. They are all worth a watch or two, with engaging scientists talking interspersed with great musicians performing. Together they add up to more than seven hours, so take your time! I’m listing them in the order of the day, but if you want the general overview, skip down to “The Future of Music and the Mind” (but that is the only one without a musical performance).

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