Beautiful Brains from a Beautiful Mind

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1856-1934), widely considered the father of modern neuroscience, wanted to be an artist. An avid painter during his youth, his father instead encouraged him to pursue a career in medicine. Cajal’s artistic skill, however, was instrumental to his scientific success. An exhibition of his drawings of the brain is currently on display at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

Cajal’s sketch of Perkinje neurons (cells in the cerebellum). Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid.

Curated by an art historian and a group of neuroscientists at the university, “The Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal,” showcases eighty of Cajal’s drawings that are both aesthetically pleasing and scientifically significant. These drawings were far superior to photographs for representing the brain’s structure because Cajal was able to highlight aspects that were important for research. For example, many of the drawings use shading and tone to bring individual neurons (brain cells) to the fore, letting other neurons and structures fade into the background. Such a move was important in part because Cajal’s theory of the brain differed from many of his contemporaries. He hypothesized that the brain, instead of being made up of a continuous web, was formed by neurons that were separable individual entities.

The collection highlights the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and aesthetics in scientific representation. Cajal makes formal choices (like coloring, line thickness, highlighting, and shading) to construct representations that are valuable scientifically as well as aesthetically. The exhibit nicely contextualizes this relationship by juxtaposing Cajal’s drawings with both older anatomical representations of the brain by Guilio Cesare Casseri and Andreas Vesalius (ca. 16th century) as well as cutting-edge representations produced by modern neuroscientists. In the room adjacent to that containing Cajal’s drawings, visitors can see images of the brain produced by diffusion tensor imaging, MRIs, confocal micrography, and scanning electron micrography.

While we might assume the rainbow colors of the large modern images to overshadow Cajal’s humble pen-and-ink drawings, most of which measure no more that 6 by 6 inches, one is instead struck by the minute detail of his sketches. The Weisman helpfully provides visitors with small magnifying glasses to fully appreciate the painstakingly small lines and dots that distinguish one cellular structure from another. Each drawing is also meticulously labeled, as many served as diagrams in Cajal’s published works, making it easy even for non-scientists to identify important aspects of each.

In Advice for a Young Investigator (1916), Cajal writes, “The act of representing something disciplines and strengthens attention. It forces us to examine the entire phenomenon, thus preventing the details that commonly go unnoticed in ordinary observation from escaping our attention.” Cajal’s works exemplify this tight link between representational practice, observational skill, and human knowledge, and are therefore worth our close attention.

The Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” will be on display at the Weisman Art Museum until May 21st.

Upcoming events around the exhibit include a lecture on Alzheimer’s disease by Dr. Karen Ashe (Grossman Center, UMN), a lecture on “The Life and Times of Cajal” by Dr. Larry Swanson (Neurobiology, USC), and an artistic presentation on neuroscience led by Dr. John Hallberg (Family Medicine, UMN).

–Katelin Krieg


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