Picturing the Brain: A History of Imaging in Neuroscience
The Lavender Door Gallery
The Lavender Door Gallery, in Stockbridge, MA, will be hosting the opening reception for Picturing the Brain: A History of Imaging in Neuroscience from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m
The exhibit will remain on display from June 16 to August 16, 2017.
Gallery Hours: Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Instructor in Visual Arts Mark Mulherrin explains the origins of this exhibit:
If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't.
- Emerson M. Pugh, as quoted in The Biological Origin of Human Values
Some months ago, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by the Medical Director/CEO of the Austen Riggs Center, Dr. Andrew Gerber, on his experience working with the Human Connectome Project. This ongoing endeavor represents the combined effort of a large collective of research scientists and institutions to create a definitive catalog of the neural networks in the human brain using MRI technology and computer modeling. The complexity of this task is hard to fathom in sheer numbers alone–86 billion neurons representing 100 trillion synapses among them, give or take. In large part the ability to do this work is limited by the scientists’ ability to see it. The raw data of the neuroscientist is predicated on pictures, it lives in pictures. The images Dr. Gerber showed us during the talk were exciting and strange. They reminded me of maps, which is in fact what they are in a way. Like old atlases there are entire continents depicted that remain unknowable to this day–terra incognita, or as they say, “there be dragons.” Dr. Gerber described this research as always pushing the limits of available technology to observe the terrain, then to compute and interpret what exactly it is they are seeing. The machines can never quite keep up.
We later spoke about showing a collection of these images in our gallery. They are beautiful pictures both in form and content and represent an exhilarating time for our ability to finally approach understanding how the brain actually works on a molecular level as a perfectly complete yet constantly evolving system. In order to educate myself a bit on the subject I started venturing backwards through the history of neuroscience, always looking at the pictures. It soon became apparent that no matter how seemingly primitive the images were, how misguided or simply wrong was the information they conveyed, they always represented the highest state of the art technologically at the time they were made.
The pictorial language of them as well expresses the visual style of their period. Schematic and crude linear drawing evolves into more sophisticated rendering of detail until microscopy allowed the very small to be subtly transcribed neuron by neuron. Suddenly the images start reminding one of modern painting in their wild abstraction. But these images are based on direct observation, not invention; they are empirical not emotional. They offer aesthetic experiences nonetheless, reflecting the sublime constructions, raging storms, lyrical dances, and mysterious landscapes inside all of us. Our ability to experience this history as both science and art is of a piece with our own consciousness; we are able to inhabit both places at once. Here is a story in pictures of our brain trying to look at itself through an ever narrowing gap between seeing and understanding what it sees.
I have tried to select examples with respect to showing the widest range of artistic styles and scientific concepts. The oldest image dates from before the 14th century while the most recent are from the 21st century. Methods utilized to create the information seen in these images range from cracking skulls open with hammers and spying on their contents, to spraying them with electrons and counting their pixels . . . all in the service of exposing the object to reveal its secrets. It was difficult to track the sources of many of the older images so I decided rather than present shoddy scholarship to provide none at all, encouraging viewers to exercise their own curiosity regarding when the image could have been made and what it is they are looking at. In some cases I have created facsimiles of particular images by hand to give them presence as artifacts and will leave it to the viewer to discern these from among the examples.