On Science and the Arts

While today the term ‘scientist’ is commonly understood as an individual who employs the scientific method, until the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists were often called natural philosophers or men of science.

Convergence: Bridging the Gap Between Neuroscience and the Visual Arts

By Kim Glassman

Art History, Concordia University

While today the term ‘scientist’ is commonly understood as an individual who employs (often professionally) the scientific method, until the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists were often called natural philosophers or men of science. [1] The 19th century expressed an urgent need for a term that would join together the growing professionalization and specialization of the field of science. The word ‘scientist’ first appeared in print in William Whewell’s (1794–1866) review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences in 1834. [2] Whewell hoped that a unifying term would prevent the many specializations from drifting apart: “Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.”[3]


Interestingly, Whewell used the word ‘artist’ as a comparative measure to establish a need for the term ‘scientist’. However, while an artist in today’s society is described as one who produces works of art, the term originally derived from the Latin “ars” (stem art-), which means skill method or technique. [4] In Latin and Greek writings, art was defined by the mastery of a type of craft. During the Middle Ages, the definition of ‘artist’ was more akin to that of a craftsman. It was only in the works of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), who focused on the intellectual as opposed to manual skill of the artist, where the divide between high and low art became apparent—and the Western art historical canon as we know it today was born.


Historically, it seemed natural for these terms to develop in order to identify members of society who were skilled in one field over another. What is less clear is why these terms became mutually exclusive and eventually came to be seen as adversaries, as Harvard Geology Professor Stephen Jay Gould remarked. [5] What is particularly troubling is that there have been what American physician and cardiologist Robert Atkins calls “artist-scientists,” since at least the Renaissance. [6] For example, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) was a painter, architect and writer in addition to being a mathematician, engineer, anatomist and geologist. Moreover, with the advent of photography in the 19th century, an association with ‘scientific documentation’ as opposed to ‘artistic representation’ strengthened the divide. Consequently, beginning in the 20th century, art and science in the Western world diverged, in part because of individuals like Whewell who grouped together specializations under the term ‘scientist,’ isolating the categories of this group from those grouped under the term ‘artist.’ 

What is less clear is why these terms [scientist and artist] became mutually exclusive and eventually came to be seen as adversaries, as Harvard Geology Professor Stephen Jay Gould remarked.

Andrew Greenhalgh and Tia Besser-Paul.

Neuroscientist and Designer.
Photo by Kevin Jung-Hoo Park.

Despite its tumultuous history, the relationship between arts and sciences has begun to experience its own kind of resurgence in recent years. However, art and neuroscience would not meet until years after neuroscience was established as a field of study in its own right. The Society for Neuroscience, based in the United States, was only founded in 1969 and the Canadian Association of Neuroscience (CAN) was created a few years later in the early 1970s. While its development involved fighting for government backing, funding, and legitimacy, neuroscience was arguably one of the more unapproachable new scientific fields. [7] With emerging technologies such as the computer-assisted tomography (CAT) or computerized tomography (CT) scan in the 1970s, and fMRI scans in the 1990s,[8] neuroscience introduced the world to scientific images of the brain—shedding light into the black box. Art and neuroscience thus only began to come together in the early 21st century, due to the field of neuroscience’s recently gained momentum over the past ten years.


Joining neuroscience and art is a multifaceted and complex endeavour. The artist can wonder ‘how can neuroscience influence art practices,’ and the neuroscientist can likewise ask ‘how can art contribute to the development, explanation, or representation of research in neuroscience.’ The creative process, beginning with conceptualization and journeying to realization is one of the shared qualities of the artistic and scientific processes, which has been elaborated on in David A. Edwards’ work, Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation (2008). The art historian as observer and analyser, has all the while attempted to explore new art historical methods, such as Neuroaesthetics and Neuroarthistory, in order to create historical conversation and debate on these collaborations in an attempt to see both fields through the lens of the ‘other’, such as with the work of John Onians—European Art: A Neuroarthistory (2016) and the works of Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel (2012, 2016).


However, as science has been advancing at a continuously accelerated rate, a gap has formed between the ‘professionals’ and the ‘general public’. Similarly, the contemporary art scene, especially in the last twenty years, has become generally more ambiguous and abstracted from narrative and illustrative representation. Neuroscience and art, both making new waves of discovery and exploration in their respective fields, have become less accessible to the general public. It is from this issue that the Convergence initiative has built its foundations and curriculum: with the main goal of making neuroscience research more accessible to the public by translating the complexities and beauty of the brain into artwork inspired by cutting-edge neuroscience research. The future is where culture, knowledge and the value of art and science are acquired through interdisciplinary collaboration and dissemination.

‘What is a perception of neuroscience?’ A perception is here understood as a work of art resulting from an engagement with neuroscience research and artistic expression. The works in this exhibition catalogue ask us to question how neuroscience is perceived on an educational and conceptual level from the point of view of the scientific researcher as well as the artist. The ‘perceptual’ takes on the form of the visible, that which can be exhibited and communicated, while the ‘neuroscience’ provides the subject matter and the initial topic of reflection.


The visual arts and neuroscience both ask questions about the world we live in, through different approaches. Bringing their specializations together, on an equal footing, they do not simply complement one another; they fully permeate each other, suffusing their differences in a true collaboration where one cannot call what they are looking at art or science but rather, artscience. Deleting the space between the terms rewrites the etymological history of the two fields. Whewell and Alberti no longer need to secure the legitimacy of their professions with definitions. Removing the space leaves room for convergence, for the ‘unified whole.’


The Convergence exhibitions aimed to foster conversations that can start bridging the gap between neuroscience and the visual arts, while facilitating the communication of neuroscience research to a wider audience. The innovative artworks invite you to engage with science and art simultaneously, without valuing one over the other. As Eric Kandel wrote: “In art, as in science, reductionism does not trivialize our perception – of colour, light, and perspective – but allows us to see each of these components in a new way.”

Sydney Ross B.Sc. [1]Ph.D, “Scientist: The story of a word,” Annals of Science, 18:2 (1962), 65–85, DOI: 10.1080/00033796200202722; Sydney Ross B.Sc. PhD, Nineteenth-Century Attitudes: Men of Science, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

[2] Richard Hamblyn, “First Use of the Word ‘Scientist,’” The Art of Science: A Natural History of Ideas, London: Pan Macmillan, 2011.

[3] William Whewell, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences Volume 1, Cambridge: John W Parker J&J Deighton, 1834.

[4] Gayle L. Ormiston and Raphael Sassower, “The Interplay of Science and Technology,” Narrative Experiments: The Discursive Authority of Science and Technology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989: 4.

[5] Stephen Jay Gould and Rosamond Wolff Purcell, Crossing over: Where Art and Science Meet, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000, 13.

[6] Jill Scott & Esther Stoeckli, Neuromedia: Art and Neuroscience Research. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012, 2.

[7] Dr. Vivian Abrahams, "History: Talk by Dr. V. Abrahams to Canadian Association for Neuroscience" (2005), in Canadian Association for Neuroscience website, (Annual Meeting November 10, 1998, Los Angeles).

[8] Mitchell Glickstein, “Consciousness and the Techniques for Study of the Human Brain,” Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014.

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