“Why do humans do science? Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human“.
For every scientific issue, there is a cultural equivalent. Art creates metaphors that make science more transparent for the non-scientists. This subject is particularly timely now, as images and ideas in neuroscience are widely circulated among the public. The brain is seen as the last frontier in research. Questions in neuroscience, if answered, address aspects of our individuality. We may learn how neural networks enable us to think, act, and even love. In this post, I interview two visual artists working at the intersection of Arts and Neuroscience. The first is Suzanne Anker, a pioneer of bio-art and the chair of the Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan. The second is Luke Maninov Hammond, a contemporary jeweler and neuroscience imaging specialist who manages the Advanced Microscopy Facility at the Brain Institute at the University of Queensland (QBI) in Australia.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal is considered by many to be the father of modern neuroscience. He provided the first detailed analysis of the nervous system through visual art. His body of work is a defining example of art in neuroscience. In the 19th century, microscopy was in its infancy. Neuroscientists relied on drawings of what they observed under the microscope to communicate their work to others. In this way, Cajal generated beautiful drawings of neurons in meticulous details. His art facilitated his understanding of neuronal theory, which states that the connection between neurons is contiguous rather than continuous. From static drawings of neurons, Cajal was able to infer properties of the dynamics of these cells. The legendary neuroscientist received the Nobel Prize in Physiology for his work alongside Camille Golgi and has said, “There can be no doubt, only artists are attracted to science.”
As Cajal began his studies of the cerebral cortex, he writes the following paragraph in his book Recuerdos de Mi Vida (Recollections of My Life):
I felt at that time the liveliest curiosity—somehow romantic—for the enigmatic organization of the organ of the soul. Humans—I said to myself—reign over Nature through the architectural perfection of their brains . To know the brain—we said to ourselves in our idealistic enthusiasm—is equivalent to discovering the material course of thought and will.  Like the entomologist hunting for brightly colored butterflies, my attention was drawn to the flower garden of the grey matter, which contained cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may some day (who knows?) clarify the secret of mental life.  Even from the aesthetic point of view, the nervous tissue contains the most charming attractions. In our parks are there any trees more elegant and luxurious than the Purkinje cells from the cerebellum or the psychic cell that is the famous cerebral pyramid?
Ramón y Cajal, 1917
Visual artists such as Suzanne Anker and Luke Maninov Hammond continue the tradition begun by Cajal and create pieces inspired by images in neuroscience. For Anker, iconic images in neuroscience are “the brain, anything symmetrical, the enteric nervous system (which is like Cajal’s butterflies of the soul transformed into butterflies of your stomach), and dendritic trees.” Hammond is inspired by the research that surrounds him at the Queensland Brain Institute. He explains how “We have gone from this era of single snapshots to comprehensive imaging of entire organs and organisms. The Advanced Microscopy Facility at QBI caters to a wide range of light microscopy applications, from super-resolution of single molecules in neurons to two-photon microscopy of living organisms. Groups study a diverse range of organisms such as C. elgans, Drosophila, and mouse.” Both Anker and Hammond translate advances in neuroscience research to unique works of art.
Anker has curated a number of neuroscience exhibitions nationally and internally. She spoke of one titled “Fundamentally Human: Visual Art and Neuroscience” done at the Paro Museum in Istanbul. She explains that she was asked to have an exhibit that would “exchange ideas not from a scientific point of view but from something that was more poetic, literary, or cultural.” One of her pieces is of a series of MRI scans with a butterfly superimposed on each image. She explains this work as “a way to picture a thought… Behind each butterfly is a Rorschach test, some are real and some are not. Because of the figure-ground relationship, it appears to be a different butterfly in your perception. You see all these different shapes… and the butterfly is not true.” Anker has also done a piece involving 3-D Rorschach tests. “If you take one and pick it up, it is like picking up a fantasy” she says wide-eyed. Anker’s fascination between the ethereal and the material is apparent her work.
Hammond creates fine jewelry and silver sculptures and has exhibited his work in Australia as well as internationally, including USA. In a recent group exhibition titled “Above and Below,” he contributed jewelry and sculpture inspired by neuroscience. He describes the exhibition as “a celebration and reflection of the past ten years I’ve dedicated to improving my understanding of microscopy and how to use glowing proteins from the sea to reconstruct the forms of living.” Each piece is made in solid sterling silver or rose gold and some are complimented by precious stones. As I viewed rings patterned as dendrites scintillate in the light, I thought of how exciting neuroscience is for so many. Hammond is uniquely positioned as a scientist-artist who has expertise in neuroimaging. Although he finds technology such as 3-D printing exciting, he avoids using it in his practice, as “we are making incredible breakthroughs with digital techniques for imaging and analysis for neuroscience but for my practice I prefer the analogue approach of working with my hands, which ensures uniqueness.“
The process of curating an exhibit is not dissimilar from the way neuroscientists conduct research. Anker describes the process by stating “An exhibit is like a proposition. If you are taking on an experiment, you are proposing X, Y, and Z. You research what has been done in that area before. You figure out what would be another angle… something that has not been proposed before and you work on that. Every curator and artist does it a different way.” I nodded in agreement as I thought of how I plan and perform experiments in the laboratory. For Hammond, curating an exhibit begins by bringing pieces to a space and seeing how people can engage with those works. “An exhibit bridges the gap between the university, the institute, and the general public” says Hammond. Anker adds, “The scientific method is more structured but many scientific discoveries have been by accident. What scientists and artists share is that during this process of making something or producing knowledge that even if you’re not there yet, you know which way to go. All the cases of serendipity are so critical in the way in which a person can perceive a situation. Everyone’s vision is not the same.” That last line struck me as I thought of how we impose our memories and experiences as we witness the world.
In a visit to the SVA Bio-Art lab led by Suzanne Anker, I was stunned by the vast array of objects. I was a greeted by a display of specimen and slide collections. As I navigated my way through the lab, I came across a herbarium exploding with plant life and an aquarium filled with coral reefs. Mason jars filled with stained marine life lined the windows. In my final question to Anker, I asked of the role of art in facilitating understanding of science. Anker concluded by saying “Art is the pulse of the cultural imagination. It wraps the hopes and fears of the general public.”
- De Felipe, J. (2010). Cajal’s butterflies of the soul: science and art.
- Frazzetto, G., & Anker, S. (2009). Neuroculture. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(11), 815-821.
- Ramón, S. (1995). Recuerdos de mi vida: Historia de mi labor científica. Alianza Editorial.