Saturday, May 14, 2016

Week 7: Neuroscience and Art

The relation between neuroscience and art is one that's both beautiful and perplexing. It's common for one to ask questions such as "what is consciousness", or "what are dreams", but any serious attempts to answer these thought-provoking questions have to stem from knowledge in neuroscience. To this end, we looked at a single organ in this week's lecture: the human brain. 
The human brain
Neuron map
As mentioned in Prof. Vesna's video, the human brain has been the subject of scientific studies only for about a century, following the discovery of electricity and microscope. As we now understand, the brain is made up of billions of neurons each connected by synapses to thousands of other neurons, and these neurons communicate via action potential sent along long protoplasmic fibers called axons. The recognition of neurons as primary functional units in the nervous system is credited to Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who is now regarded by many as the father of modern neuroscience. Among his great discoveries is the fact that one could "read out the connection patterns between neurons by simply looking at their shapes". This tree-like structure that connects neurons is not only artistically elegant, but are also optimized to allow efficient communication between neurons. It is in this regard that Cajal refers to neurons as the "mysterious butterflies of the soul". In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Cajal was also a seen as a legendary medical artists as his hand-made depictions of the neurons highlight the delicate arborizations of the brain cells, and are still widely used for educational purposes. 
Suzanne Anker's FMRI Butterfly

Cajal's idea of the butterfly has also influenced and served as a source of inspiration for many other artists and scientists. For example, artist Suzanne Anker, in collaboration with neuroscientist Giovanni Frazzetto, initiated the Neuroculture Project which aims to examine how "modern brain science has penetrated popular culture". One of their works, the FMRI butterfly, connected beautifully to Cahal's. In that work, 15 identical brain scans are arranged on a grid overlaid with various patterns of ink blots and an identical butterfly. When looking at these overlaid brain scans, one would pick up the nuance variations between each of them that give an optical illusion as if the butterflies are different from one another. Together with Cajal's beautiful neuron maps, these works aptly capture the artistic aspect inherent in neuroscience. 


1. Vesna, Victoria. “Neurosci + Art Lectures I-III.” Youtube, Web. 14 May 2016.

2. "Neuron" Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, n.d. Web. 14 May. 2016.

3. "Santiago Ramon y Cajal" Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, n.d. Web. 14 May. 2016.

4. "Techniques Series: Creating a Molecular Brain Map". Ana. Science Exchange. 8 April 2013. Web. 14 May 2016. 

5. "Neuroculture". Giovanni Frazzetto & Suzanne Anker. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Nov 2009. Web. 14 May 2016. 

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