“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain” – Cajal, 1923
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852 –1934) was a Spanish neuroscientist, pathologist and histologist. Voltaire (1694–1778) was a French Enlightment writer, historian and philosopher. Pablo Garcia-Lopez (1977-current) is a neuroscientist and an artist. His work as an artist exemplifies the rising influence of neuroscience in popular culture.
So what is the link between these three men?
Neuroculture on the rise
Since the 1990s new domains sporting the prefix ‘neuro’ have increasingly been emerging. For example, neuroeconomics, combining neuroscience, psychology and economics for the study of how people evaluate gains, losses and rewards in economic decision-making. Or neuroeducation, which aims to develop novel teaching and learning methods combining pedagogy and findings in neurobiology and cognitive sciences.
This mirrors the general rise of the broader term, neuroculture, which reflects the integration of neuroscience into our life, culture and intellectual discourses. Its growth reflects the rising interest of the general public in neuroscience. This is unsurprising considering that neuroscience holds the promise of deciphering the underpinnings of emotions, consciousness and socio-psychological interaction – topics we all find relevant.
Neuroscience has also penetrated into popular culture and artistic expression. Neuroscience-related ideas, images and concepts are increasingly captured in the artistic projects circulating in the public. Think ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘ (2004). Think Ian McEwan’s ‘Saturday’ (2005).
Garcia-Lopez was born in Madrid in 1977. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry and a PhD in Neuroscience. He has published many articles in international scientific journals. He has a Masters in Fine Arts. He is both a proponent and product of neuroculture.
Garcia-Lopez and Cajal
Garcia-Lopez’s work is directly influenced by his experience as a neuroscientist. Throughout the course of his PhD he collaborated with the Museum Cajal and worked with the original slides and drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934).
39 Brains Form a Flower by Pablo Garcia-Lopez, prints and sculpture.
The work above is directly influenced by Cajal’s idea that “the cerebral cortex is similar to a garden filled with innumerable trees, the pyramidal cells, that can multiply their branches thanks to an intelligent cultivation, sending their roots deeper and producing more exquisite flowers and fruits every day.” (Cajal, 1894).
This piece conveys the brain as a garden and is a clear representation of the sprouting, branching and budding that our brains undergo throughout our lifetime. The brain is ‘plastic’; i.e. it changes throughout our lifetime. Synapses strengthen and weaken; connections between neurons are formed and pruned. This neuroplasticity enables the brain to undergo physiological changes in response to stimuli, such as behaviour or the environment. Neuroplasticity underpins learning and memory. It permits our growth, maturity, and sense of identity for without our memories we are not ourselves.
Introducing François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire
I am fond of this concept: the brain as a garden. Ringing in my ears now is Voltaire’s final line of Candide, as voiced by the protagonist himself: “il faut cultiver notre jardin”. I have found several translations and the two of most relevance are “we must tend our garden” and “let us cultivate our garden”.
At the end of the novella, the characters find themselves on a small plot of land in Turkey – where they have finally gained control over their lives and destinies. There are several interpretations of this quote to include Voltaire’s support for the writing of the Encyclopédie; that we must be aware of our potentials; that by ‘doing’ we are productive, and that productivity gives rise to happiness…
Cajal refers to neural cells that ‘can multiply their branches thanks to an intelligent cultivation’. Beautifully summarized by Voltaire one hundred years prior, is the idea that we must take the time to learn, to study, to mature. That by living and experiencing, our brains can evolve and change. That we die different to when we are born, because we have been granted a sponge, that can absorb information, store it, and consequently, grow.
“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain” (Cajal, 1923). Yes, that is exactly the point. Both Voltaire and Cajal are spot on. If we don’t tend our garden, who else is going to do it? And two thumbs up to Garcia-Lopez for throwing these concepts into the 21st century world for everyone to see. His pieces inspire narratives about current neuroscience research and about the crucial role of the brain in our lives.
Garcia-Lopez on the matter: “Neuroculture, conceived as the reciprocal interaction between neuroscience and different areas of human knowledge is influencing our lives under the prism of the latest neuroscientific discoveries. Simultaneously, neuroculture can create new models of thinking that can significantly impact neuroscientists’ daily practice.”
Interestingly, Ramon y Cajal was also an avid painter/artist, the skills which underpin his incredibly intricate illustrations of sections of the brain. His metaphor of the brain as a garden echoes his artistic outlook on science. I like this bridging of Science and the Arts as it permits us to explore outside the square-box that Science so often rests in. As writer Jonah Lehrer eloquently states, ‘science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery’.
Post scriptum: On a side note, I am shocked I pulled through in my French lessons and that seven years on I whip this one out for my readers. At the time I was called to the headmistresses’ office to discuss my French essay on the book. What horror and shame today as I recall my passionate discussion of Candide’s gardening skills. To my embarrassment, the essay was read out-loud by my French teacher and I was rewarded a mark of zero. In the end though, I did learn from Voltaire and have (somewhat) cultivated my own garden along the years.
Post scriptum 2: I am inevitably going to throw the Wellcome Trust into my post – something I have been doing quite a lot recently. But let’s face it, doesn’t the organisation propel the neurocultural phenomenon? They support and fund partnerships across the arts and sciences specifically with the aim of reaching new audiences. Here, please refer to their Brains: The Mind as Matter exhibit.
Other pieces by Garcia-Lopez:
PET Soul Butterflies, 2012, Silkscreen, photo printing and crystal beads on black plexiglass
“Like the entomologist in pursuit of brightly coloured butterflies, my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may some day– who knows– clarify the secrets of mental life” (Cajal, 1923).
Wig, 2009, silk and hair styling gel, 6×8.5×5 inches
Chewing Gum Brain, 2009, plastic, 6×8.5×2.5 each hemisphere
Other Products of Neuroculture
Helen Chadwick’s ‘Self-Portrait’, 1991, Photographic transparency and glass and aluminum frame and electric lights, 50.9 X 44.6 X 11.8 cm
The work is a kind of collective self-portrait. Regardless of gender, age or race, everybody’s brain looks the same.