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Our Beautiful Brains: How The Father Of Neuroscience Makes Synapses Look Like Modern Art04:09
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Santiago Ramón y Cajal's ink and pencil drawing of injured Purkinje neurons, created in 1914. (Courtesy  of  Instituto  Cajal)MoreCloseclosemore
Santiago Ramón y Cajal's ink and pencil drawing of injured Purkinje neurons, created in 1914. (Courtesy of Instituto Cajal)

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Are our brains beautiful?

Not just figuratively, for what they can do, but literally — are the synapses and the neurons and all the other cells in there, inherently pleasing to the eye?

One of the most important neuroscientists of all time — Santiago Ramón y Cajal — certainly thought so. The 20th century scientist spent decades of his life drawing the parts of the brain he analyzed through a microscope.

"For him, the trick was to draw again and again and again and again to look at these structures again a thousand times, and in that sustained period of observation that was the source of insight," said Debbie Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum.

There, you can see an exhibit of about 80 of Cajal's intricate ink and pencil drawings through the end of the year. In the museum context, the drawings look like abstract works of modern art — a neuron that resembles a deconstructed penguin, cells that look like starbursts, a synapse that mirrors a group of playful little creatures with large eyes.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal's ink and pencil drawing of the calyces of Held in the nucleus of the trapezoid body, created in 1934. (Courtesy of Instituto Cajal)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal's ink and pencil drawing of the calyces of Held in the nucleus of the trapezoid body, created in 1934. (Courtesy of Instituto Cajal)

Cajal drew from an early age and originally wanted to be an artist. But his father, a doctor, swayed him into the life sciences.

Looking at his drawings now, it's clear that Cajal maintained his artistic sensibilities. Except now, his muse was the brain.

"I see huge connections to contemporary art, because the line work is so detailed and beautiful and you can see almost dimension, but they're these very abstracted, beautiful, linear, analytical drawings," said Ann Neumann, director of galleries at the MIT Museum.

A self-portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal taken around 1885. (Courtesy of MIT Museum)
A self-portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal taken around 1885. (Courtesy of MIT Museum)

Cajal's work led to the Neuron Doctrine, the fundamental discovery that the nervous system is made up of individual cells. The breakthrough won him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906.

But what Cajal was obsessed with was finding out what makes us human — the central question in art. And even today, if we follow all the scientific advancements made possible by Cajal's discovery, that remains the central question in neuroscience.

"There are scientists today who argue that if you understood all of the connections in the brain between all the different processes and all the different neurons, that you could recreate the person's consciousness," said Robert Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

"Many other people disagree with that and it's still being debated right now, but there's no question that these kinds of circuit diagrams that Cajal was giving us are telling us a great deal about what makes us, us."

At the MIT Museum exhibit, modern brain imagery juxtaposes with Cajal's delicate drawings, including an 85-inch screen that shows a rotating simulation of a brain slice.

Today, we see art and science as distinct fields. But Cajal comes from a line of renaissance men and women seeking to understand our humanity through drawing.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal's ink and pencil drawing of glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child, created in 1904. (Courtesy of Instituto Cajal)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal's ink and pencil drawing of glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child, created in 1904. (Courtesy of Instituto Cajal)

You don't have to look too far to see the legacy of drawing exploring the human condition — even Leonardo da Vinci added some interpretation to his anatomical sketches.

"Here at MIT, which was founded in the mid-19th century, 20 to 25 percent of the courses that all students regardless of discipline took were drawing courses," Douglas said. "If you could draw the machine, you understood it."

We draw, we sculpt, we paint, we dance and perform -- all to probe our own humanity. Just like Cajal and his brain drawings.


"The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" is on display at the MIT Museum through Dec. 31. 

This segment aired on May 22, 2018.

Maria Garcia Twitter Senior editor of The ARTery
Maria Garcia is the senior editor of The ARTery, WBUR's Arts and Culture Team.

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