After my experience as the the only non-scientist to be invited to hang work at the 2011 Art of Systems Biology and Nanoscience conference at the Santa Fe Complex, I created BIONS 1-15 (2011), a series of imagined biological images. But I wanted to experience some real science. As an English major who fled from all things quantitative, which I often regret, I have enjoyed a later life of self-education thanks to the amazing resources that became available via the internet. I have especially pursued the research into the neuroscience of the creative process, from Herbert Benson’s The Breakout Principle (2003) to the more recent Imagine (2012) by Jonah Lehrer (with numerous stops in between and since). It’s like creating an independent study class: neuroscience for humanities students…and there’s no exam.
I don’t get the whole argument about neuroaesthetics (creativity is just chemicals and synapses) nor do I think we are just our brains, but the emerging science of consciousness is nonetheless fascinating to me as a creative person. Not to be confused with the New Aesthetic (Bruce Sterling): “the eruption of the digital into the physical, a product of modern network culture”; I use digital process as just another pencil, an evolutionary development in the history of human mark-making. As artists we inherit the creative gene pool of our ancestors and keep their torch alive (see Werner Herzog’s wonderful, inspiring and humbling Cave of Forgotten Dreams); also recent hand stencils by Neanderthals’ blowing pigment on cave walls over 40,000 years ago (Science June 15, 2012 and widely reported).
When Duchamp said the viewer completes the work he prefigured the research today confirming what we as art-lookers bring to the gallery and museum. Recent brain research has shown that looking at art in a peaceful setting is a profound experience for the trained and untrained in such things: “Moreover, the most moving paintings produce a selective activation of a network of brain regions which is known to activate when we think about personally relevant matters such as our own personality traits and daydreams, or when we contemplate our future.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, reported in Futurity April 18, 2012.
We now know about life-long neuroplasticity: that our neural pathways continue to change even in later life. I believe that art literally rewires us, as creators if we continually challenge ourselves rather than produce repetitive art-products, and as viewers if we really stop to look or listen with care. See Max Planck Florida Institute study in Neuron, May 24, 2012: persistent sensory experience causes massive rewiring to the cerebral cortex, even as one ages. Also New Neurons for Old Brains, Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, fall 2008: contrary to Cajal’s belief, neurogenesis is a lifelong continuum, neurons must extend axons and dendrites to form functional synapses. While we think and perceive, the communication of our billions of neurons acts like a social network (some post a lot, some a little, and new networks are constantly formed). Life Science, December 2010. We also now know about mirror neurons: that specific neuronal activity lets us experience the pain, joy and other emotions we witness outside of ourselves…maybe these are involved in the viewer’s perceptions of our art work? “Cells That Read Minds”, New York Times Science January 10, 2006.
In the middle of the 19th century scientists realized that living things were composed of cells. Nervous tissue seemed web-like but was hard to examine until Camillo Golgi discovered his “black reaction” staining methodology in 1873. At that time it was thought that nerve fibers formed a fused network called the reticulum. But in 1887 Santiago Ramón y Cajal improved the black stain method and found that nerve cells were autonomous interweaving structures; Wilhelm Waldeyer termed these discrete structures “neurons” in 1891, and quickly thereafter in 1896 Rudolph Albert von Kolliker called the long strands carrying signals away from cells “axons” and those carrying signals towards cell bodies “dendrites”. See Ferris Jabr, Know Your Neurons: The Discovery and Naming of the Neuron, Scientific American May 14, 2012.
In 1940 Oxford neuroscientist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington poetically described the awake brain as “an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.” He sensed that the brain would reveal some of its secrets optically, at first through more sophisticated staining and pseudocoloring techniques now extending from jellyfish fluorescence to mouse antibodies to the genetic process named Brainbow, electron microscopy and computer simulation…rather than me creating a long litany of techniques, the key work to read is Carl Schoonover’s Portraits of the Mind (2011). From merely viewing and naming the underlying cell structures, scientists proceeded to functional imaging (do, see or think something, see what lights up). The key, of course, was to be able to image non-invasively in humans, but as an animal-lover I do feel sad about all the poor mice and rats sacrificed for the cause.
The work of scientists using contemporary imaging techniques is beautiful and fascinating, thrilling even (see Schoonover above); I therefore felt no need to recreate the literal, choosing instead to try the transformational—merging art and science into a sometimes successful new image. (But to see a contemporary rendering in the tradition of the beautiful Cajal imagery, look at the work of neuroscientist and artist Greg Dunn.) Just as the viewer completes the work, I as artist augment the data and make it my own. In this series NEUROSCIONS 1-24 (2012) I wanted to reveal the evolution of my thoughts, to show the connective tissue as I moved through the work, while acknowledging the influence of the raucous world of gaudy stains so essential to today’s neuro-imaging, with its fabulous blurry other-worldly results. I am well aware that I often stumbled and only occasionally hit it out of the park; but when that happens, it’s (literally) phenomenal. “Process not product” Nathan Lyons would say at the Visual Studies Workshop; exploration and discovery, not art-object production.
It fascinates me that the first views of the brain were drawings. Cajal wrote: “What an unexpected spectacle! On the perfectly translucent yellow background, sparse black filaments appeared that were smooth and thin or thorny and thick, as well as black triangular, stellate, or fusiform bodies! One would have thought that they were designs in Chinese ink on transparent paper.” Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates (1899, 1904). As I stated earlier, my low-tech digital process assists me in drawing in ways I never could or have (I don’t); to make marks never seen before but consistent with our ancient traditions of mark-making from caves to Rauschenberg and beyond.
It may be, as Joy Hirsch from Columbia University has written (Schoonover p. 203) that: “The transformative effects of art, poetry, and music could also be understood in terms of gifted neurons endowed with complex abilities to connect highly valued stimuli to neural emotion-generators in the brain.” Okay, I can handle that. Go ahead, you gifted neurons, do your thing…I just wish I could make you a bit more obedient sometimes. The latest realm of neuroscientific inquiry appears to be what is described with a new word I learned and love: connectome. It’s a map of all the brain’s changing circuits via imaging and super-computing, a changing grid constantly reweighting, rewiring, reconnecting and regenerating (Sebastien Seung, Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are (2012), as summarized by Ian Sample in The Guardian/The Observer, June 9, 2012); also A Countdown to a Digital Simulation of Every Last Neuron in the Human Brain, Scientific American online preview June 11,2012.
A connectome, fascinating, since as artists do we not connect the dots? As Bevil Conway, arist and neuroscientist from Wellesley and Harvard Medical School has said, artists and scientists have similar projects: to understand the compelling nature of nature (podcast May 4, 2010 on a wonderful website called The Beautiful Brain).
Although I have now sampled widely from the field of neuroscience, as best I can understand of course as a poor liberal arts major, I am aware of the trap of the perception of having deep knowledge so easy in these internet times. I am but a novice paddler on the flowing turbulent river of the mind. But how awesome it is to assemble images from real life, and from the very building blocks of our consciousness; reality as jumping off point for the imagination (on gifted neurons, on neural emotion-generators all!).