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  • Nicole Avakyan

Brain Art: Under the Microscope

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

By Liam O’Leary

I am starting to realize that art and neuroscience have surprisingly similar goals. Artists and neuroscientists daringly perform experiments that will, upon later interpretation, reveal insights into what it means to be human. Art and neuroscience also have similar methods – they both make associations between physical structures and metaphysical states. This is done by producing a new visual perspective of a known structure, that encourages a new idea about its potential functional role in the world. In this way, art and neuroscience form hypotheses relating structure to function. These relationships are judged similarly in both disciplines, where artistic form is like neuroanatomy and artistic content is like neurophysiology. This analogy might explain why, when artists look at paintings—or when anatomists look at microscope slides, most will agree on what is generally seen but not on its importance for the individual. In this light, I think we should encourage interdisciplinary approaches between art and neuroscience because they increase the communication of ideas between experimenters and should accelerate our exploration of the brain.

I recently attended a neuroscience image contest at Douglas Hall to celebrate the partnership between The Douglas Hospital Research Centre (DHRC), Olympus Life Sciences, and the Molecular and Cellular Microscopy Platform (MCMP).

Olympus Discovery Centre event, exhibition of finalists’ submissions. Photo: DHRC.

This event highlighted the potential of mental health research at the DHRC. For the first time scientists were encouraged to prioritize visual appeal and general significance of their images, and it led to surprising results! Three winning images were chosen from twenty submissions based on their visual impact, optical technique and project description. Finalist submissions differed greatly in their microscopic scale, some looked at parts of a neuron, whereas others captured entire brain regions!

Nuwan Hettige, winner of the Olympus Discovery Centre Image Competition. Photo: DHRC.

“I appreciate the opportunity the MCMP/Olympus Image Contest provides us to showcase the exciting and ground-breaking research that we do while also highlighting the artistic potential of neuroscience research.”

— Nuwan Hettige, 1st Place

The event also showcased neuroscience research success from the University of Toronto. Dr Evelyn Lambe delivered a keynote speech revealing a detailed study of how acetylcholine receptors modulate attention. The event was the result of extensive planning and collaboration across many partners.

Dr Lambe with Olympus, MCMP and DHRC representatives outside Douglas Hall. Photo: DHRC.

“The core aim of this event was to bring awareness to DHRC research and to celebrate our partnership with Olympus. We would like it to serve as a springboard for future events and collaborations that will themselves be more oriented towards scientific public outreach. Unlike other science competitions, images were displayed in an art exhibition fashion rather than on-screen. We wanted it to be a hybrid between a poster session and an art exhibition”.

— Melina Jaramillo Garcia, MCMP core facility manager

On reflection of having entered this science imaging contest, I feel scientific imaging and sciart collaborations are complementary approaches to neuroscience outreach. Scientific images can reveal visual summaries of the complexity of the brain and the techniques employed. They often encourage viewers to admire the curiosity and deduction scientists bring to intricate puzzles of nature. However, scientific images fall short for public outreach on two accounts. First, scientific images lack an aesthetic that reveals the personal or universal goal of the research. Second, scientific images rarely seem inviting to non-specialist audiences, partly because they often contain many unintended or unknown elements. I believe sciart compensates for the shortcomings of using scientific images for science outreach. In contrast to scientific images, sciart encourages viewers to imagine events happening in real time and space to help them understand what they may mean for us. Sciart often relinquishes precise scientific methods and measurements to make the project aim and goals far more accessible to the lay public.

As an example, below I show my entries into the Olympus Discovery Event competition and a related sciart collaboration made with Elizabeth Parent under the Convergence Initiative. The scientific image shows very precisely how a human brain cell (astrocyte) I study physically contacts blood vessels. The sciart installation shows that astrocytes have reduced gene expression and signalling in individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD). However, the sciart installation was able to convey a powerful message that goes beyond the scientific findings. It placed the public in the centre of the dilemma “What happens to our brain when we experience depression and how the company of other human beings can change that experience.” It allows the public to connect the scientific findings with the humanity behind it. It gives a glimpse on the direction of the research, showing how scientific observations can be used to improve the human experience in the planet.

My submission (left) was a scientific starting point for a Convergence Initiative collaboration with Elizabeth Parent for “Starlight Gone” (right)

Despite how effective these approaches are, both are needed to translate ‘what science research means’ to the public. While my scientific image did not show the activity or emotional relevance of the cell, the sciart installation did not capture the entire precision and scope of the cell and its surroundings. I see this as a universal limitation for scientific visualization as scientific outreach, that can be best overcome by combining scientific imaging and sciart in science outreach. This would work in most instances because scientific images communicate what science is and what scientists do, but sciart collaborations communicate how science works and why scientists do it. I feel it is very important for societies to support communicating both the story of science and of the scientist to young adults, as it will ensure that science research receives truly motivated and dedicated applicants in the future. Combining both approaches into joint science outreach events would be the easiest way to do this, giving justice both to the precision of science and the importance it has for society.

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