Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog


Whoever said that you can’t learn anything useful from TV? A Harvard research team, headed by Jeff Lichtman, has duplicated the way that a television monitor uses varying amounts of just three colors (red, blue, green) to produce a huge array of resultant hues. They have applied this technique in the brain using fluorescent cyan, yellow, and red pigments–varying amounts of which can produce 90 possible color combinations to label individual neurons. Through genetic recombination, pigment-expressing genes are inserted into the genomes of developing mice. The result is the “Brainbow” mouse, whose individual neurons express the three pigments in a random pattern making it quite useful for tracing and visualizing them in later experiments.


These images, in addition to being scientifically informative, are also incredibly beautiful aesthetically. One thing that I am extremely interested in is the intersection and overlapping goals of art and science. A couple weeks ago I attended a workshop series called “Arts and Minds” led by Pulitzer prize-winning author Natalie Angier. The goal of this workshop was to bring scientists, poets, designers, artists, and students together for discussions about how the arts and sciences impact each other. For example, in one exercise, several people’s galvanic skin response was measured and displayed on a huge screen, as the entire audience listened to music. During musical pieces that had high emotional content to the listener being recorded, their skin response went crazy. This tipped off discussions as to auditory processing, how bonds were formed with music, and even picking apart the methods of the skin response apparatus.

It was amazing, and made me realize how the compartmentalization of art and science is a rather arbitrary one. Ages ago, educated people were often artists AND scientists (like Leonardo di Vinci) and the pursuit of knowledge and fact fed into their desire to understand aesthetic beauty and the creative process. I later found out that there are small grants that are available to extend the goals of Arts and Minds, if someone wanted to take the trouble to write a short proposal. So, thats just what I’m doing. The proposal’s goal is to create an interdisciplinary writing workshop between MFA students and grad students in the sciences, led under the auspices of an experienced writing teacher. There’s actually a similar initiative, on a larger scale, taking place at the Liverpool Centre for Poetry and Science. Their website is chock full of poems and essays merging science and the arts, which is exactly the type of result I’d like this proposal to have.

Reference: Livet et al. 2007. Transgenic strategies for combinatorial expression of fluorescent proteins in the nervous system. Nature. Nov 1. doi:10.1038/nature06293


  1. #1 Rev. Dr. Incitatus
    November 12, 2007

    Speaking of poetry and science, I recently discovered Digital Cuttlefish. Well worth a read, IMHO.

  2. #2 The Flying Trilobite
    November 12, 2007

    A rich and interesting post, Shelley. Science and art need to intersect more. It’s one of the things I enjoy about SEED magazine.

    Art and science can sometimes be touchy together. On the one hand, you can end up with kitschy science-centre experiments, spinning paint colours to make white, for instance. On the other, you can end up with artists ‘referencing’ (mimicking) scientific systems without full understanding of what they are creating.

    The picture above reminds me of the song by the dj Prodigy, Claustrophobic Sting: “my mind is glowing”.

  3. #3 John P. Baumlin
    November 12, 2007

    I’ve often thought of the best scientists as creative artists in their own way. Einstein was (maybe not coincidentally) also an accomplished musician, and so was Planck. And Pasteur showed early promise in painting. The practice of art is the best way I know of developing problem-solving and intuitive skills that can be applied to almost any other discipline, but especially scientific investigation.
    By the way, Natalie Angiers wrote a beautiful piece in the New York Times magazine several years ago called Confessions of a Lonely Atheist. She’s been one of my heroes ever since. How I would have loved to be at that workshop series!

  4. #4 John P. Baumlin
    November 13, 2007

    Oops, that “s” slipped in at the end of Natalie Angier’s name…it’s Angier, without an “s”.

  5. #5 yukon slim
    November 13, 2007

    If you’re interested in the intersection of science and art, you might check out the monthly column written by Maura Flannery in “American Biology Teacher.” She frequently writes on this topic – most recently in the May issue.

  6. #6 DK
    November 13, 2007

    My galvanic skin response went crazy when I saw your picture- you are HOT!!

  7. #7 Crusty Dem
    November 13, 2007

    Did you see Lichtman’s posters at SFN? I remember seeing similar work in DC two years ago (although these newer lines are far more interesting), and I walked by one of his posters in San Diego, but with the pretty pictures, they’re always about 6 deep.

    The “pretty” seems to overwhelm the functional right now, but since this will essentially be a Cre-mediated system, this should be extremely useful to anyone with the right Cre mouse and a $200k-500k confocal/two photon imaging system..

  8. #8 bioephemera
    November 13, 2007

    “Ages ago, educated people were often artists AND scientists (like Leonardo di Vinci) and the pursuit of knowledge and fact fed into their desire to understand aesthetic beauty and the creative process.”

    Very well said!

  9. #9 Kevin
    November 13, 2007

    Wired Magazine has an Interview with a former neuroscience lab drone
    entitled “Q&A: Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer on Art for Science�s Sake”

    “Artists have something to teach researchers. In his new book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer argues that many artists have foretold the scientific future � Proust revealed the inaccuracy of memory, chef Auguste Escoffier anticipated the fifth taste sensation we now call umami, and post-impressionist Paul C�zanne proved that the brain fills in what a painting doesn’t show.”

    a little food for thought

  10. #10 Shelley Batts
    November 13, 2007

    He’s a blogger here, at The Frontal Cortex, and he’s sending me his book to review. Can’t wait! 😉

  11. #11 Kevin
    November 13, 2007

    I thought the name was familiar!!

  12. #12 Nathaniel
    November 14, 2007

    Although it wouldn’t be of any good scientifically, I would like to see this happen in mouse skin. Just to see how random activation of pigments in the skin can create wacky patterns. Imagine a tie-dye mouse! Then make it glow in the dark!

    This really does bring up new frontiers for art through science. Lets just hope that artists don’t begin to create transgenic animals purely for artistic purposes. Although there might be some interesting results from such endeavors.

  13. #13 jb
    November 14, 2007

    Hey, if you’re interested, I’m an fMRI researcher who has written a series of posts about the intersection of neuroscience and art…

    find them here:

  14. #14 Chris
    February 11, 2009

    I am a scientist. This is a nice read. However, you have completely misused the word pigment. A pigment is a substance that reflects color as a result of light absorption.

    That is not fluorescence. GFP, RFP etc, are not proteins that are pigments. They do not reflect color due to selective absorption of light. They in fact EMIT light as a result of light absorption resulting in a Stoke’s shift.

  15. #15 Flippables
    July 9, 2011

    On very superficial level science imagery could be inspiration for artwork. The final result could be very loosely related to the subject, but art is not meant to be precise, especially now, when we have photography. Art is always very personal and emotional interpretation of image or idea.
    Art might also get people interested in particular idea or scientific finding. I think the scientist often make a mistake of measuring art with the same measure they approach science.

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