Sunday, July 17, 2016

Butterflies in the Brain

I remember being introduced to Franz Joseph Gall and phrenology in my high school psychology class, but it was only a blip in the lesson and was immediately written off as a pseudo-science. It was enlightening to learn about his discovery of axons and neurons in white and grey brain matter, respectively [1]. Santiago Ramon y Cajal furthered Gall’s neuron discovery with Neuron Theory, a fundamental part of neuroscience today.

Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul 

The most interesting thing about this unit to me was the theme of butterflies that seems to tie together a lot of artists who work with neuroscience. Beginning with Ramon y Cajal and his book Butterflies of the Soul, scientists and artists have been drawing connections between butterflies and the brain for decades [2].

Cajal himself was a very artistic man and believed that scientists were innately artists as well. He produced many detailed drawings of the neuron structures he discovered [3]. In this way, Cajal was a conduit of communication between art and science during his time.

One of Cajal’s neuron drawings

Suzanne Anker is another artist who likened butterflies to the brain. She superimposed butterfly wings on MRI brain scans [4]. She used the same butterfly in each picture, but each looks different because of the way they were mapped onto the brain. It speaks to the difference in perception we have as humans, and her artwork makes me appreciate the beauty and complexity of the human brain, and I am in awe of how our brains function.

MRI Butterfly (8), Suzanne Anker

The other thing that stuck out to me this unit was LSD and the 60s counter-culture. I wasn’t aware that esteemed academics like Dr. Leary and his psychology grad students were experimenting with LSD in the name of art and science, and I did not expect him to get fired and imprisoned for his actions [5]. It’s not new for artists to be met with backlash for their work sometimes, but I find it less common for something that both artists and scientists find common ground on to be so opposed by society. LSD to this day is controversial in its use, and it concerns me that this branch of art is hindered by the laws in place. While I understand the need for these laws, I still find it a shame that this segment of neuroscience art is very limited due to the laws.



[1] Mangels, Jennifer. "History of Neuroscience." Psychology 1010: Mind, Brain and Behavior. Columbia University, 2003. Web. 17 July 2016.

[2] Bentivoglio, Marina. "Life and Discoveries of Santiago Ramón Y Cajal.", 20 Apr. 1998. Web. 17 July 2016.

[3] Costandi, Mo. "Unusual Varieties of Soul Butterflies." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 17 July 2016.

[4] Anker, Suzanne. "Bio Art - Suzanne Anker." Suzanne Anker. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2016.

[5] Vesna, Victoria. Neuroscience Lecture Part 3. Video. 16 July 2016.

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