Is it the brain of your art, or the art of your brain? A drawing of stellate neurons in the cerebellum looks like delicate pieces of thyme, attached and crossing over themselves in serendipitous ways. A structure of neurons floats on a page, like bobbing seaweed-esque alien blobs.
These are scientific renderings of the human brain that artist/scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal drew nearly 100 years ago. Many of the drawings look like forms that could been encountered in the forest. Eighty of Cajal’s 2,900 brain-y drawings are on display at the Weisman Art Museum as part of the traveling exhibition “The Beautiful Brain,” on view through May 21.
Considered the father of modern-day neuroscience, Cajal sought to answer deep questions about the brain through his research, which also made its way into his drawings. The exhibition was organized in collaboration with three University of Minnesota neuroscientists, Drs. Eric Newman, Alfonso Araque and Janet Dubinsky. Before taking his position at the U, Araque was at the Instituto Cajal in Madrid, where Cajal worked and his drawings are stored (the central nervous system, so to speak).
Cajal began his career as an artist. At an early age, he obsessively and constantly drew everything around him, and also collected things he found around him and in nature, such as birds, eggs and nests. The exhibition outlines this fact, but the focus is on the drawings themselves. He also had a notable surrealist influence, befriending artist Salvador Dalí and poet/playwright Federico García Lorca.
Though they’re beautiful to gaze upon, at times it’s hard to relate to these works if you don’t understand the science behind them. But who needs to understand something to enjoy its beauty, truly? Drawings of neurons in the gut appear like dripping blips on the outside of a windshield, like water, dribbling their way down. On an aesthetic level, these enlargements of the teeny electric currents inside us are fascinating to see drawn out, rendered from microscopic slides and plates. These are depictions of lesser-seen forms that operate within our bodies.
The overlap of art and science that Cajal created through his work stands the test of time, much like the scientific legacy he left behind. The exhibition works on two levels: for the science fanatics who think about chemical reactions as more than just what happens between bodies and in pop songs, and for those who are less than well acquainted with deep cerebellum studies. (The cerebellum is the part of the brain, located in the back of the skull, that’s in charge of muscular activity.)
Unlike other scientists of his time, Cajal was invested in the idea that the nervous system is made up of billions of separate nerve cells, eventually concluding that basic units of the nervous system were represented by what we now know as neurons. This breakthrough set up the principle of the nervous system. Cajal won a Nobel Prize in 1906 for his studies.
In an adjacent room, there’s a plethora of brain renderings from contemporary scientists and artists, but they do not have the delicate antiquity of Cajal’s masterpieces. It’s a wonder that art and science don’t meet as often. Just from walking through this exhibition, it’s apparent that they are far more intertwined than meets the eye.