University of Alberta book blends neuroscience and art to share the brain’s wonders with the masses
By Cory Schachtel | December 1, 2022
The human brain is amazing, mysterious, and by far the most complex thing (that human brains know of) in the universe. It’s also incredibly beautiful, but unless we somehow evolve MRI vision, most of us will never know it — unless we pick up a book.
University of Alberta Pharmacology Professor and Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute (NMHI) member Simonetta Sipione studies the causes of neurodegeneration in Huntington’s disease. Her U of A bio page is full of words and terms like gangliosides, glycolipids and polyglutamine stretch, followed by an impressive list of published articles that non-academics will most likely never read.
The problem — besides the inherent difficulty of studying the degeneration of the most complex thing in the universe — is that she’s on a small mental island, sharing discoveries of the brain’s wonders and disorders with only her students and colleagues while the rest of us swim on by. Her focus is on helping people, but after so many years of seeing such intricate and concealed beauty, the urge to share it overwhelms.
“Within the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, we wanted to showcase research work and images of the brain that are so beautiful that they almost resemble art,” says Sipione. “And we thought that in order to connect with the lay public, and people with neurological and mental health problems, we could put together images from research, as well as artistic renderings of brains with neurological and mental disorders, that could help people relate to neuroscience and people living with mental health and neurological problems.”
To reach the public, Sipione first reached out (through NMHI Director Doug Zochodne) to Assistant Professor of Art Marilène Oliver, who included Assistant Professor in Design Studies Gillian Harvey (who designed the book), and Professor of French and Media Studies Daniel Laforest (who provided the text), all of whom Oliver had worked with on a previous project. During the pandemic’s early days, the group discussed ideas over email, and went to work building up a collection of images for what would become a gallery (which ran this fall), and book (available now), both titled Connections.
“We wrote an open call and shared it as widely as we possibly could in all our networks,” Oliver says. “Originally, we called it ‘Disconnection.’ But we decided to change it and focus more on the positivity we saw coming through with the submissions, which were about being part of a community and about making connections with each other. We received many submissions, and then from that, [LaForest] and [Sipione] suggested these three groupings.”
The first group (“Is the Brain Beautiful?”) shows detailed, microscopic images of the brain. The second (“Home is Where the Neurons Connect”) shows the brain’s fragility and shares lived experiences of people with neurological disorders. And the final section (“We Are Eternally Accidental”) is about the importance of people with all kinds of brains working together.
“The very first thing that emerged from looking at the microscopic images of the brain is that it is made up of trillions of connections among the brain cells,” Sipione says. “And it’s these connections that actually make our brains work, determine how we think, what we remember and who we are. Then, we wanted to portray the disconnections neurological disorders cause people to have with the outside world, and how those connections can be restored through family ties, through friendship, and through interaction with clinicians and healthcare practitioners.”
Each of the book’s 36 “chapters” are really two-page spreads, with images on the left that sometimes bleed over to the right-side explanatory texts. Some images are photographs, some are drawn, but most are striking renderings of things only people like Sipione usually see: neural networks that could be deep-space photographs of distant galaxies, neuron -coating myelin along pathways that look like neon tributaries, or in the case of page 27’s “Pollock in a Petri Dish,” a scattered array of thin, abstract paint swaths showing the communication between neurons and astrocytes that determine our actions and thoughts.
It’s an astonishing-yet-accessible book, perfectly titled for what it sets out to do: connect the average person with the world of brain scientists by showing how the connections within our brains, and between our brains and the outside world, make us who we are.
“We as researchers actually need to do a better job to communicate the amazing things science can do, especially at a time when people are negating science, almost like we were back in the Middle Ages,” Sipione says. “It’s very difficult to communicate science efficiently, and there is no better way, in my opinion, than using art to help people discover how beautiful the brain can be.”