Beautiful brain: exhibit illuminates human connections behind neuroscience

It can be hard to get your head around the scope of neuroscience. The never-ending and complex interactions between all of the neurons that drive our nervous systems and our brains are almost unfathomable. Just a small malfunction can lead to disease, yet research to find potential repairs so far just scratches the surface of what there is to know and understand.

This is why pharmacology professor Simonetta Sipione — an expert in the causes of neurodegeneration in Huntington’s disease and member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute — reached out to experts from other disciplines to give others insight into neuroscience research.

The result is Connections: Bringing Neuroscience and Art Together, a luminous art exhibit of 70 multimedia pieces and a few poems that has been on display at the Friends of University Hospital’s McMullen Gallery over the summer and is now available online and as a book.

The exhibit depicts the beauty of the brain, its fragility, and the hope that connects everyone touched by the field of neuroscience — from patients to family members, scientists and clinicians. The institute conceived and sponsored the cross-faculty collaboration between the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and the Faculty of Arts.

“As scientists, we had this desire to share with the general public our excitement for the beauty of the brain, for the way the brain works, things that are revealed on a daily basis during our research work at the institute,” says Sipione.

But they also wanted to connect directly on an emotional level with people living with brain diseases and mental health problems.

“We wanted to send the message that we hear them, we see them, and we really work hard as scientists and as clinicians to clarify the mysteries of the brain and understand what goes wrong in diseases and develop treatments,” Sipione says.

Images of complexity

The images — on their own and as a collection — are striking. A fractured photo collage depicts the nonlinear thought of a person with dementia. A painted face with flesh dripping off one side to reveal the skull illustrates the experience of chronic migraines. A sculpture of wool, silk, wire and wood shows a female figure bent over with the anguish of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social anxiety, stress, stroke, autism, benign brain tumour, depression, borderline personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — all are explored in submissions sent in by U of A students, neuroscience researchers, professional artists, and community members with lived experience who make art to heal.

The materials used are just as varied as the artists: paint, beads, glass, metal, even sticky notes. Some are actual medical images, such as the live photo of a larval zebrafish’s eye submitted by neuroscience post-doctoral fellow Chinmayee Das. Her piece, “An angle of observation,” captures the moment when the fish perceives a threat and calcium rushes into its eye cells to trigger a fight-or-flight response.

A master’s student in the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute graduate program, An Bui studies recovery after stroke, but she also works as a freelance artist and illustrator. Her print, “A beautiful mind,” shows a doctor peering into the eye of a patient, with flowers and leaves of gold depicting what the doctor sees inside her mind.

“There are so many ways connections are made in neuroscience, between different parts of the brain, between the brain and the rest of the body systems, and most importantly, between humans and humans,” Bui says.

Master of fine arts candidate Emily Legleitner‘s woodcut on mulberry paper, entitled “I will nestle myself within your hunger for the ground,” depicts her personal struggle with anxiety. Legleitner says sharing her own experiences helps others feel safe to share stories of their own mental health.

“Art can be a very powerful tool in this way: it opens doors and asks us to grapple with difficult questions,” Legleitner says.

In “I will nestle myself within your hunger for the ground” (left), artist Emily Legleitner depicts her struggle with anxiety in hopes of helping others feel safe to talk about their own mental health. (Photo: Ramona Czakert Franson)

Powerful connections

Sipione collaborated with assistant professor of art Marilène Oliver, assistant professor in design studies Gillian Harvey, and professor of French and media studies Daniel Laforest. The trio had previously worked together on Dyscorpia, an exhibition exploring the impact of technology on the human body

They considered the title “Disconnections,” since that is often what happens in disease, but instead settled on “Connections” as a better description of the goals of the project. A class of

Harvey’s visual communication design students designed concepts for the visual identity, which Harvey applied to the design of the catalogue, website and exhibition. Laforest wrote an essay on the overarching theme of the exhibition and introductions to the three parts of the collection.

“The purpose of our efforts is to display the beautiful connections that exist among our brain cells; to weave together the threads that bridge neuroscience research, clinical care, and recovery from brain diseases and mental health disorders; to amplify the warm, inspiring, healing power of art; and most importantly, to highlight our human connection,” he wrote on the project’s website.

Laforest is struck by how the artists reveal their own stories through their art. 

“It reaches very deep for a lot of these artists, showing experiences that are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes awesome, but every time there’s a lot of personal emotion tied to both being ill and to healing,” he says.

For Oliver, the exhibit is like a conversation between the artworks and the artists, illuminating connections between people, between art and science, and between illness and health.

“It’s only when we’re surrounded by the pieces that we realize there are very few images that have depth of field, and the surfaces are often kind of fragmented or fractured,” Oliver notes.

Harvey agrees, pointing out that the layering in each piece “is almost like a symbolic representation of psychosis or brain dysfunction.”

For Sipione, she hopes the exhibit will help people understand the importance of scientific research on disease mechanisms and treatments, and that her neuroscience colleagues and students will find a powerful emotional stimulus for their work from the exhibit.

“The art and the contributions of all these many artists help us remember why we do what we do.”

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