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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Discovering the Art of the Brain

New imaging techniques let scientists and doctors see what is going on inside our brains in better detail than ever before. These images help develop a better understanding of the brain and its disorders, but what if we looked at them as art?

In honor of Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), Mount Sinai’s Friedman Brain Institute opened their 2017 “Art of the Brain” exhibition to celebrate the beauty of the brain. Researchers took on the role of artist and displayed brain-inspired pieces at the Grady Alexis Gallery in New York City.

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Brain tumors by Anthony B. Costa, Ph.D.; Holly Oemke; Leslie Schlachter; Jillian Beroza; and Joshua B. Bederon, M.D.

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Science Meets Art in New Kandel Book

Creativity (2).jpgWe don’t typically think of science and art as rooted in similar methodologies or techniques. Science is considered a strict, fact-based study of the world around us, while art is a no-rules expression of creativity. By thinking of the two disciplines as distinctly different, there has not been much study of their similarities.

Dana Alliance member Eric R. Kandel, M.D., noticed the lack of interdisciplinary study of artistic and scientific methodologies and used it as the foundation for his new book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. The book examines modern neuroscience alongside modern art, focusing on how both disciplines use reductive techniques. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal about his book, Kandel said:

This is reductionism—to take a complex problem and select a central, but limited, component that you can study in depth. Rothko—only color. And yet the power it conveys is fantastic. Jackson Pollock got rid of all form.

[In neuroscience] you have to look at how behavior is changed by environmental experience…I began to realize we’ve got to find a very simple learning situation…I looked around for an animal that had the kind of [simple] nervous system I would like. Aplysia [has] the largest nerve cells in the animal kingdom.

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Art in the Lab

How do you envision the brain? Do you imagine a blue glowing brain or a brain-shaped computer, which graphic designers love? Or perhaps you think of more technical imagery, such as brain slices or an MRI? While the former are purely artistic and the latter are very scientific, neither group really translates the intricacy of the brain.

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Credit: Shutterstock

Greg Dunn, Ph.D., is trying to bridge the gap between these types of images by illustrating the complexity of the brain through artistic renderings on the cellular level. Dunn received his doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania and now focuses on art full-time. On Wednesday, he shared his passion with the public at an Art in the Lab program at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, as part of Brain Awareness Week.

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Beauty & the Brain Revealed

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Back in 2010, I and 3,000 of my fellow museum-goers participated in an exhibit/experiment at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (and I wrote about it for this blog). Last week, I learned the results of the research during a tour of the AAAS gallery in Washington, DC, and got the chance to do the experiment again. And so can you.

Gary Vikan, former director of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum and self-described “neuroscience junkie,” walked us through the exhibit this past Thursday, just before he took part in the panel discussion “The Arts and the Brain” upstairs (see our recap). As a museum programmer, he continually sought ways to make art viewers more active participants in the experience. When he met Ed Connor of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University and learned of his work on shape preference in vision, Vikan saw a way to bring science into the world of art, too.

Connor’s work could be seen as an exploration of the aesthetic theory of “significant form,” which includes the idea that certain aesthetic experiences are the same, independent of time, place, history, or culture. For example, are some aspects of shape universal? Do artists take advantage of our pre-programmed expectations when they design shapes they intend to be pleasing or startling?

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