Washington DC, 15th November 2017, Society for Neuroscience Conference 2017

In the classical book of Homer, Odysseus had to cross the island of Anthemoessa to be reunited with his homeland. “Dive thy ship swiftly past the island”, Circe warned the Greek hero: for the island was home to beautiful – but tragic – creatures called Sirens. They were half mermaid, half bird; and even more beautiful than the Siren’s face were their voices, which were able to lure numerous sailors to death.

Aware of the danger he was putting his men in, and acutely aware of the prophecy put on him, Odysseus told his men to fill their ears with beeswax to protect themselves from the lovely, wicked singing of the Sirens. Together with it, he ordered his men to tie him up on the ship’s mast and no matter what he would scream or beg, they were not to let him loose.

Upon hearing the chant of the creatures and their beautiful faces, Odysseus quivered, “Come hither, come hither, brave Odysseus!” they called, and Odysseus pleaded to be released. His men only bound him tighter.

It is said that the Sirens die when they are not able to lure men to their final fate.  After Odysseus’ triumphant plan, it is believed that the Sirens indeed perished after their failure.

This passage of the Odyssey can have its meaning extrapolated in many ways to modern daily life. For instance, a sudden burst of passion for someone unreachable or untouchable – Odysseus tied to the mast would be the passion itself, only to be released when logic once again takes over of one’s mind (it can even be a literal rope and bondage, if in any case you are into that...). One can even extrapolate to a mechanism of axonal regeneration after injury.

Yes, you heard it right!

In 2017, Dr. Frank Bradke gave a lecture at the Society for Neuroscience about his work on axonal growth following injury. To make a long story short, he compared severed axons to Odysseus on the mast, unresponsive to growth arrest cues from the environment, these represented by the Sirens. The successful regeneration after injury would be then portrayed by the safe passage from the Anthemoessa islands.

DFG Leibniz Lecture with Frank Bradke and the Neuroscience in Germany XXIV Social
Me in the audience, clapping cheerfully after the illustration of scientific concepts with art.

Too great of an extrapolation? Maybe. Or rather beautifully explained? Yes, and please give me some more of that!

Ever since my interest in neuroscience arose, I have always tried to observe things happening at a second level of perception. I do not know exactly how to explain it, but I think there is a word that would maybe convey what I mean: apophenia, or, as Wikipedia describes it, “The tendency to attribute meaning to perceived connections or patterns between seemingly unrelated things” or “(implies) an universal human tendency to seek patterns in random information”.

We, human beings, are comfortable when we can find patterns in the random. Like the gambler’s fallacy or the pareidolia (I wrote a text about the “apparent” anatomical findings in Michelangelo’s paintings here (in Portuguese)). We find meaning in these patterns and these artificial, made-up meanings can be considered our own little instinct of survival (unless you are a nihilist, in which case you are now rolling your eyes at my own little idiosyncrasies).

However, getting back on track – I always try to find a bridge between my personal interests (art, writing, human behavior) and the cold, sterile analytical side of science. Even though I am fascinated by axon growth and migration mechanisms, I confess I almost dozed off while Dr. Bradke delineated all the molecules, signaling pathways, and Taxol-induced stabilization of microtubules… but on the next slide, when I saw the painting by J. W. Waterhouse at Dr. Bradke’s slides, “Ulysses and the Sirens”, I became a molecular-mechanisms-of-axon-growth-and-regeneration groupie (if that even exists).

Another example of a nice talk in the Society for Neuroscience was Dr. Pasko Rakic, a well-humored Serbian neuroscientist, known for his radial unit hypothesis and further work on the development of the cortex. He showed one of my favorite paintings, La Clairvoyance by René Magritte. This painting shows a self-portrait of Magritte during his process of creation – he stares at an egg, but he paints a bird. As a painter, Magritte is making a statement:

I am a clairvoyant, I convey the future in my part, I see the process of creation and existence in advance – and that only because I am an artist

Dr. Rakic, however, boldly announced the bridge between this painting and the work of a scientist. A scientist should be able to see outside of the box – a broader picture of the present’s reality must be in sight in order for science to prevail, as we know it is a flexible and revolutionizing discipline.

“Science and art walk together, you should know that”, added Rakic, after showing Magritte’s painting.

Having Leonardo da Vinci as my spiritual mentor, (I hope I do not sound too spiritualistic for a scientist), the concept of art and science walking together is already part of my indisputable reality. It is impossible not to notice the science behind Escher’s paintings, or the art behind Cajal’s depiction of pyramidal neurons. One can argue that science and art are separate fields– but then we come to the second level of perception that I introduced earlier.

One way of contemplating Art is by finding the aesthetical essence to it e.g. by finding the beauty in the determined thing being presented. This thing, let it be a painting, sculpture, theater play, furniture or whatever else, should portray a message that reaches out more to the observer than the artist himself. This message being perceived and interpreted by the observer, is my definition of ‘beauty’ in the art realm.

PS: I should also add here that ‘beauty’ is a very nebulous term, as it involves cultural parameters and personal experience (I, for instance, have already heard people saying that Pollock’s paintings look abysmal, declaration that still today haunts me…).

Upon using the scientific method, how can one not find beautiful that Nature’s laws obey to no God, to no entity, to no one, but only to the laws of Physics and Life itself? How can one not see the beautiful aesthetics it presents?

Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
"Convergence" was painted by Pollock and is considered one of his best works.
Some conservatives believe that there is no 'beauty' in abstract expressionism.... sad life!

Upon painting something with no reference to science or the natural laws still the painting is going to be observed by photoreceptors in the retina and decoded in the primary visual area in the occipital lobe, Perhaps maybe it will trigger connections in the limbic system and the hippocampus, triggering memories and emotions from previous years…

I might have end up in a Sisyphus’ trap; I might have condemned myself to an eternity trying to explain why thinking of art and science as inseparable makes so much sense, at least in my world. Maybe I should try to stop here, or maybe I just should have my brain checked in fMRI while I am looking at Magritte’s paintings, or while I am reading Kandel’s Principles of Neuroscience.

“Come hither, come hither, neuroscience apprentice,” art invites me. Flamboyant and warm, while the cold, razor-sharp logic of Science weights in my back like a boulder. Upon not knowing where to go, I remain aboard the ship, hoping it will not sink, hopping I will not drown.

Oh, this is going to be a long ride…


Eduarda Streit Morsch is currently in the Neural and Behavioral Neuroscience Masters Program in Tübingen, Germany.

Categories: Science perspectives

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