Post by Ruthanna Gordon
I fell in love with the brain my second year in college. Specifically, with the cerebellum. There, the delicate, tree-like neuronal networks become visible at the macro level. You can see the way ideas are born out of connection, can imagine the traceries of electricity leaping from node to node just before someone shouts, “Eureka!” The brain is a metaphor made flesh. So really, it was poetry that brought me to science.
The brain might not, at first glance, seem like an ideal inspiration for art. In person, it’s gray and a bit slimy. At an event designed to draw more students into the sciences, I helped a crowd of high school girls dissect cow brains. They had 45 minutes to find the hippocampus. Cattle are not known for their impressive memories—the whole brain was half the size of your fist, the target area a little smaller than your thumbnail. The ridges and valleys that mark human intelligence were notably absent. One girl would not touch the thing even with gloves on, only prod it gingerly with her scalpel. “You’ve got to hold onto it,” I explained. “Otherwise, it might go like—” and I gestured to indicate the probable trajectory of the disaster. Holding a slippery internal organ. I don’t know whether I’m the only psychologist who’s ever thrown a brain at a prospective student, but I don’t recommend it as a recruitment method.
Though the brain may have some difficulty making first impressions, many people do seem to have noticed its beauty. Anatomical illustrators often get caught up by the intricacies of its structure. Neural scans and stains may double as art. And, often, they inspire art. Some is simply mimetic: a quilt based on an MRI, or a full crocheted brain—anatomically accurate except for the colors! Other artists are captured by the same metaphorical possibilities that originally inspired me. The brain may be like the swirling grain of a maple tree, or an ocean wave. It may be shaped by its contents. It may be a force for creation.
And then, some people just really like the cerebellum.
Neuropsychology has begun the long process of finding the self in the brain. Love and awe and inspiration can be seen in their glory, lighting up those branching networks and sending electrochemical surges through the forest of neurons. But it’s hard for many people to feel comfortable with the connection. Art can help bridge the philosophical gap. When we can see the beauty and complexity of the brain itself, it becomes easier to imagine that it could produce such beautiful, complex experiences.