sculpting the brain

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published: 09 February 2012
doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00005
Sculpting the brain
Pablo Garcia-Lopez*
Rinehart School of Sculpture (MFA), Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Baltimore, MD, USA
Edited by:
Neuroculture, conceived as the reciprocal interaction between neuroscience and different
Idan Segev, The Hebrew University
areas of human knowledge is influencing our lives under the prism of the latest
of Jerusalem, Israel
neuroscientific discoveries. Simultaneously, neuroculture can create new models of
Reviewed by:
thinking that can significantly impact neuroscientists' daily practice. Especially interesting
Todd L. Siler, Psi-Phi
is the interaction that takes place between neuroscience and the arts. This interaction
Communications, LLC
(dba Think Like a Genius,

takes place at different, infinite levels and contexts. I contextualize my work inside this
neurocultural framework. Through my artwork, I try to give a more natural vision of the
human brain, which could help to develop a more humanistic culture.
Pablo Garcia-Lopez, Rinehart
School of Sculpture (MFA),

Keywords: art, neuroscience, neuroculture, sculpture, metaphors, Cajal, mechanism, butterflies
Maryland Institute College of
Art (MICA), 1300 W Mount
Royal Avenue Baltimore, MD
21217, USA.
e-mail: [email protected]

The development of neuroscience in the last century and in
recent years has been very influential in many fields of knowl-
edge such as economics, politics, law, philosophy, public rela-
My work as an artist is directly inspired by my experience as
tions, art, etc. Reciprocally, different disciplines of knowledge
a neuroscientist. I completed my PhD in conjunction with the
have also influenced the development of neuroscience and sci-
Museum Cajal, working with the original slides and scientific
ence as a whole, pointing out the important keystones of the
drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934). Besides being
neuroscientific agendas and also influencing scientific research
completely astonished by the historical and current neuroscien-
from different sociocultural perspectives. This interwoven mix
tific concepts, and esthetics of his histological slides, drawings,
of different areas of knowledge has been essential to the rise
(Garcia-Lopez et al., 2010), articles, and books, I was impressed
of a neuroculture (Frazzetto and Anker, 2009) that is influenc-
by the great abundance of metaphors that he employed in his
ing our life under the prism of the latest neuroscientific dis-
scientific writings. Possibly, even more impressive concerning
coveries. Furthermore, this neuroculture can have a significant
Cajal's metaphors are their naturalistic and organic essence. Many
impact on neuroscientists in their daily practice creating new
of these metaphors could be considered rhetorical ornaments,
ways of thinking that will influence their research. Especially
although they also function as explanatory and even as heuristic
interesting is the interaction that takes place between neuro-
tools for proposing his models and theories about brain function-
science and arts. This relationship takes place at diverse, infi-
ing. As Lakoff and Johnson pointed out in their seminal book
nite levels and contexts. Many artists have used discoveries,
Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980), metaphors
data, illustrations, paradigms or scientific methodologies guided
are not just rhetorical figures of speech, but ways of thinking.
by different goals, motifs, global and personal narratives, and
Describing Cajal's approach to the brain, Sherrington wrote:
mediums. Through their holistic artworks, they not only echo
"A trait very noticeable in him was that in describing what the
the latest scientific discoveries, but many times their works go
microscope showed he spoke habitually as though it were a liv-
beyond the nature and meaning of these discoveries, enrich-
ing scene . . . The intense anthropomorphism of his descriptions
ing them with their personal narratives, ambiguity or critical
of what the preparations showed was at first startling to accept.
opinions of some aspects of neuroscientific research and open-
He treated the microscopic scene as though it were alive and were
ing a neurocultural dialog to a wider audience. Besides adding
inhabited by beings which felt and did and hoped and tried even
complexity, these artworks also add plasticity, subjectivity and
as we do. It was personification of natural forces as unlimited as
that of Goethe's Faust, Part 2. A nerve-cell by its emergent fiber
intra-individual differences to the neuroscientific models. The
"groped to find another"! We must, if we would enter adequately
personal experiences are many times hidden by the normative
into Cajal's thought in this field, suppose his entrance, through
scientific method, and other times highlighted by the subjec-
his microscope, into a world populated by tiny beings actuated by
tivity of artists, are essential to add reality, complexity, and
motives and strivings and satisfactions not very remotely different
plasticity to the neuroscientific models. That is why I would
from our own. He would envisage the sperm-cells as activated by
like to explain my position as an artist at the junction between
a sort of passionate urge in their rivalry for penetration into the
neuroscience and art.
ovum-cell. Listening to him I asked myself how far this capacity
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Sculpting brain
for anthropomorphizing might not contribute to his success as an
(Canon, 1949; Freire and Garcia-Lopez, 2008)
The use of metaphors by scientists has been studied by many
scholars to see the cultural and personal influences that model
the scientific practice (Hyman, 1962; Young, 1985; Sontag, 1990;
Todes, 1997, 2009; Otis, 2002). They are useful as heuristic tools,
but they can also become dangerous traps and obstacles, which
can lead to initial progress but later stagnation in science (Kuhn,
For Cajal, the neurons were the "butterflies of the soul" (Cajal,
1901), in his personal interpretation of the psyche's myth. He
often named different morphological structures using naturalis-
tic terms: star-cells of the cerebellum, claw endings of the granule
cells, etc., and named different cells and cellular endings with
plant names such as mossy fibers, climbing fibers, rosacea end-
ings, and nest endings (Cajal, 1899-1904). He also related the
development of neurons to plants when he successfully applied
the ontogenic method to study the nervous system:
"Since the full grown forest turns out to be impenetrable and inde-
finable why not revert to the study of the young wood, in the
nursery stage."
(Cajal, 1901)
Cajal related plants to neurons not only by their morphology
and development, but also because of their physiology, advancing
his theories about the plasticity of the nervous system:
"As opposed to the reticular theory, the theory of the free arboriza-
tion of the cellular processes that are capable of developing seems
not only the most likely, but also the most encouraging. A con-
tinuous pre-established net--like a lattice of telegraphic wires in
which no new stations or new lines can be created--somehow
rigid, immutable, incapable of being modified, goes against the
concept that all we hold of the organ of thought that within cer-
tain limits, is malleable and capable of being perfected by means
of well-directed mental gymnastics, above all during its period of
development. If we did not fear making excessive comparisons, we
would defend our idea by saying that the cerebral cortex is simi-
lar to a garden filled with innumerable trees, the pyramidal cells,
which can multiply their branches thanks to intelligent cultivation,
sending their roots deeper and producing more exquisite flowers
and fruits every day."
FIGURE 1 | Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace)
(Cajal, 1894; see also DeFelipe, 2006)
(1926). From Fritz Kahn (1888-1968). Chromolithograph. National Library of
Medicine, Stuttgart.
Cajal's organic metaphors may reflect many of his personal life
experiences. Being born in a village (Petilla de Aragon, Navarra in
Spain), being a naturalist and being an artist were part of adoles-
neuroscientists to refer to the brain (computational analogies,
cent experiences that would latter emerge on his science life inside
circuits, wires, cables, switching, firing, etc.) (Figure 1).
the lab. Cajal's metaphors were also a product of his time. They
reflect cultural, social, and personal narratives of the age they
were created. Nowadays, these organic metaphors could be old-
I do not want to transmit the perception that organic metaphors
fashioned1 or even dead neuroscientific metaphors, if we compare
are more truthful, useful, or beautiful than the mechanistic
them to many of the current mechanistic terms employed by
ones. Mechanistic metaphors seem more objective than organic
ones, but I believe comparing the brain to a computer has the
1Cajal terminology is indeed still in use as well as many other organic terms
same heuristic value as comparing the brain to a cauliflower.
such as "dendritic tree" or "synaptic pruning", but the current trend is to
Depending on where you put the focus of your analysis, you
employ more mechanistic terminology.
will highlight or hide some important characteristics about
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Sculpting brain
the brain. Both systems of metaphors give us opposite, but
(Descartes, 1664; La Mettrie, 1748) that has usually equated the
complementary intellectual models, and both have their own
brain-mind-nervous system to the latest technological innovation
esthetic beauty. For instance, it is interesting to note that the
in every generation; the catapult by the Greeks (Searle, 1984),
telegraph-nervous system model rejected by Cajal to explain
the telegraph (Du bois-Reymond's idea released in a public lec-
the plasticity of the cerebral cortex was useful for Hodgkin
ture held in 1851, review in Otis, 2001), the jacquard loom
and Huxley (1952) in their Nobel Prize-winning studies of
(Sherrington, 1942), the telephone switchboard, the computer
nerve action potential generation and propagation. They used
(Von Neumann, 1958).
the differential equation that describes coaxial cable transmis-
Philosophical mechanism has been essential to reject the "elan
sion (the spatiotemporal "Telegrapher's equation," which had
vital" of vitalist philosophy. Once eliminated the vital sparks,
been developed to model signal propagation for the design of
energies, and spirits, mechanistic science became the new reli-
the transatlantic undersea cable) (Daugman, 2001). Reciprocally,
gion with their "objective" metaphors. Some disciplines such
the use of brain's computer analogies has been very useful for
as cybernetics, AI research, and radical behaviorism have espe-
the development of new technologies and important scientific
cially enhanced the mechanistic terms during the last century.
fields like cybernetics and artificial intelligence (AI) research.
It is still impressive how Skinner (1971) on the first chap-
These new technologies have also enhanced the development of
ter, A Technology of Behavior, of his book entitled Beyond
Freedom and Dignity, tries to escape from the anthropomorphic
Although from a pragmatic point of view, the mechanistic
metaphors of Psychoanalysis to start using his battery of mech-
metaphors can be more useful for scientists to continue their
anistic metaphors. In an era of mechanical objectivity, radical
research about the brain, I find them negative as neurocultural
behaviorists found the best place to eliminate any kind of subjec-
products because they help to create a mechanical, determinis-
tivity of the human mind. Simply put, free will was considered an
tic, and reductionist vision of the human being. They hide some
illusion. It was not until the visualization of the brain in action
essential characteristics about the brain (natural origin, plas-
with new imaging techniques and the parallel development of
ticity, self-organization, self-consciousness, emotional behavior,
cognitive neuroscience that the inside cognitive process of the
etc.). The vision of the nervous system that neuroculture cre-
mind/brain became again objective.
ates is essential to envisioning ourselves and developing our life
The behaviorist approaches were easily accepted and perme-
projects. From an educational perspective, I found more value to
ated many levels of society and educational systems. They were
turn to another famous art-related metaphor of Cajal (1901) that
so resonant with human culture because we had already been
envisions us as self-builders of our projects:
transformed into machines before. The technology of behavior
has been already in use in every society since ancient times:
"Every man if he so desires becomes sculptor of his own brain."2
from the classical system of punishment and reward of educa-
tion, religion, etc., to the more subtle strategies used today in
Interestingly, in a sort of unconscious echo of this metaphor,
social engineering. It facilitated the phenomenon of socialization
the conceptual artist Jonathan Keats put his brain, as well as it's
and education despite being also at the ground of many anti-
original thoughts up for sale. He registered a copyright of his
humanistic positions that enhanced the use of man as a medium
brain as a sculpture created by him through the act of think-
or machine. During the process of socialization, we were pro-
ing. According to an interview with the BBC, he wanted to attain
grammed to become cultural machines. The great achievement of
temporary immortality, on the grounds that the copyright act
radical behaviorists, mechanistic biologists, and some cybernetic
would give him intellectual rights on his mind for a period of 70
approaches were to make us believe that even our nature was only
years after his death. He reasoned that, if he licensed out those
mechanical. Through the abuse of mechanistic terms and analo-
rights, he would fulfill the "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I
gies to refer to our body, brain, and physiological processes, we
am"), paradoxically surviving himself by seven decades. He then
were transformed into cultural cyborgs.
facilitated the sale by producing an exhibition and catalog at the
Besides this conceptual and partial transformation of man
San Francisco Modernism Gallery. The artwork consists of MRI
to machine, we also assisted to deeper changes in the scientific
images of his brain activity as he thought about art, beauty, love,
practice, from Cajal's laboratory where he worked usually alone,
and death (see also Frazzetto and Anker, 2009).
to laboratories that are were envisioned as authentic factories3.
Nowadays, science is one of the main important economic activi-
ties. Because of it's economic importance, the great competition,
Using mechanistic models is not a new procedure, and it
the race for arriving first to the new discovery, and many other
is inscribed in a long philosophical and scientific tradition
reasons, many labs have become fabrics of science production.
Depending on many aspects such as: the educational system, the
2Metaphors provide ambigous models of thinking. I interpret this sentence in
country, the team principal investigator, among other factors,
the following way: it does not mean that you can make whatever you want with
these factory lab models reject more or less the development of
your brain (there are physical and material limitations to build a sculpture).
science creativity and originality to form robotic scientists with
It also does not reject the notion that education is essential to modulate your
a high degree of specialization to produce very ambitious science
brain. But once you have that material that you have not conciously chosen,
it is your own responsibility as a human to become a self-creator, through
creativity and originality. This practice will allow us to become more human
3In Cajal's time, there were also other labs managed as factories like Pavlov's
and not programmed machines.
lab (Todes, 1997).
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Sculpting brain
projects that require a lot of mechanical daily hard work, but with
was completing my bachelor in molecular biology. Before fin-
very few creative reward, especially for young scientists.
ishing, I realized I did not want to become a scientist. Through
But of course, the transformations of society and culture of
the excessive theoretical approach, dogmatism, memorization of
the last centuries did not only take place in the science educa-
data, and lack of experimentation inside the lab, I did not develop
tion systems and scientific labs. The art studio was also trans-
my scientific creativity and originality4. I have always consid-
formed. Many machines and technologies became more used by
ered myself a very creative person and furthermore, a person that
artists, though art has always been linked to technology. Some
needs to be creative to be happy. Although I did not develop my
art studios were transformed into art factories as soon as this
creativity as a scientist, as compensation to this excessive mecha-
notion of art became such an important socioeconomic industry.
nization, my artistic creativity was enhanced. I had always made
During last century, the number of assistants in art studios has
art at home, but it was not until this progressive mechanization
increased, whereby transforming many studios into companies.
that I started to feel the imperious necessity of creating art. This
The mechanical objectivity terminology also affected the language
creativity and altered sensibility was also pointing to the neces-
of artists. I was surprised of how some artists refer to themselves
sity to express myself. Only very creative scientists can express
as object makers in order to highlight their craftsmanship activ-
themselves through their science as we have seen in the case
ity. Of course, a painting or a sculpture is an object, but is it only
of Cajal.
that? Naming them only as objects removes any kind of spiritual
It was during a visit to the Venice Biennale (2003), during the
value of the work; it only focused on the objective properties of
last year of my bachelor, when I realized I wanted to mix sci-
the object. But what about the other characteristics of the art-
ence and art. There was an installation by the Israeli artist, Michal
work, such as the effort of the artist, the intention, the narrative,
Rovner entitled, `Against Order? Against Disorder?' at the Israel
it's symbolic meaning, etc.?
4There are educational systems that do not promote the scientific creativity
and originality. Creativity cannot be taught, but can be guided and stimulated.
I am also a mechanical product of this mechanistic culture and
Some of these systems, with the excuse of being objective, reject creativity,
society. A mechanical product enhanced by science. I had this
imagination, and originality; and consider them as attributes of humanism.
intuition that I had transformed myself into a machine while I
This is the first step to become a mechanical scientist.
FIGURE 2 | PET soulbutterflies (2010). C-print and silkscreen on plexiglass. 1.20 x 1.20 m.
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Sculpting brain
Pavilion that was synthesizing the main ideas of molecular and
neurons as butterflies of the soul" (Figure 2)5, or the "cortical gar-
evolutionary genetics, and social engineering in a very pleasant
den" (see section 2.1) (Figure 3). That is also one of the reasons
and instantaneous way. All the chromosomes, molecular cas-
I usually work with silk (the product of the cocoons neurons-
cades, cellular cultures, population genetics, eugenics, etc., were
butterflies) (Figure 4), a very fragile/resistant and plastic material
resonating in a single image. The main ideas I arrived through
related to the butterfly's metamorphosis or neuronal plasticity.
memorizing a great quantity of biochemical cascades, signaling
Interestingly, silk has been recently used as a scaffold for neu-
pathways, etc., were already synthesized in a single image through
ronal grafts, regeneration, and remielinzation in the peripherical
a superposition of different visual metaphors. Furthermore, these
nervous system (Allmeling et al., 2008; Radtke et al., 2011).
ideas were amplified in very different and ambiguous ways that
These naturalistic metaphors are the starting point of my
multiply the number of meanings and interpretations. For work-
artwork. It is through the use of these concepts, intuitions, per-
ing in the interface between science and art, I decided to complete
sonal experiences, materials, mediums, and different methods
my PhD in Neuroscience. I wanted to learn more about science to
(very much influenced by scientific experimentation) that I try to
have a better approach to the science and art interaction. I was
make my artwork. In the case of the sculpture "Silk explosion or
lucky I could find the Museum Cajal, and besides obtaining my
how to destroy 106 cocoons that will never become butterflies,"
PhD, I obtained the perfect link between my personal narrative
(Figure 4), besides using silk, I also used a technical approach
and my global one.
reminiscent of my microscopic observations. In this sculpture, the
Because of my Cajalian influence, I have been working with
light plays an essential role catching the attention of the audience.
organic or naturalistic metaphors with a special goal in mind: I
The light is filtered through the shrinkfast transparent plastic
would like to enhance the public vision of the brain as a natu-
ral organ rather than as a mechanical and cybernetic one. It is a
5"Like the entomologist in search of colorful butterflies, my attention has
romantic yet lost battle to renaturalize the public perception of
chased in the gardens of the grey matter cells with delicate and elegant shapes,
the brain through my artwork, but it is still worthy. As an artist, I
the mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose beating of wings may one day
started to work with some of the Cajalian metaphors such as "the
reveal to us the secrets of the mind."
FIGURE 3 | The cortical garden (2009). Photo video installation: digital print on velvet paper and video (Dimension variable).
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Sculpting brain
FIGURE 4 | Silk explosion or how to destroy 106 cocoons that will never become butterflies (2011). Silk, MDF, electrical conduit, CFL ligthbulbs,
plexiglass, shrink fast plastic. 6 x 6 x 3 m. Middendorf Gallery (Baltimore).
scaffold and silk obtaining textures similar to the histological
"When the perception you have from yourself does not fit with
stainings like the Golgi method (Figure 5).
who you really are, and you develop a mechanical behavior, is the
The global naturalistic narrative I explained overlaps with my
moment to look for a new experience to alter your state."6
personal narrative, which is to become the oil or petrol of my
artistic machinery. Of course, art is a process of research and
Step by step, I have abandoned this first-theoretical and
experimentation when many times I become detached from my
metaphorical approach for a more experimental one. At the
initial narrative only to arrive to a new place that becomes the
present time, I do not think too much in logical linear terms
real artwork. It is a sort of paradigm shift, in scientific terms.
This is not only important for my art practice but also for my
6Free translation of the song Personalita Empirica by Franco Battiato, with
life philosophy.
lyrics by Manlio Sgalambro.
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Sculpting brain
FIGURE 5 | Details of the "Silk explosion or how to destroy 106 cocoons that will never become butterflies" (2011). Silk, MDF, electrical conduit, CFL
ligthbulbs, plexiglass, shrink fast plastic. 6 x 6 x 3 m. Middendorf Gallery (Baltimore).
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Sculpting brain
while I am working. I try to be free of prejudices and theoretical
For hold them, blue to blue
premises, and follow my intuition guided by the experimentation
The one the other will absorb,
in the studio. At the end of the day, I have an empiric personality,
As sponges, buckets do.
as beautifully sung by Battiato, and life is an experiment. My prac-
The brain is just the weight of God,
tice of sculpture is not only an exterior project, but an inherent
For, lift them, pound for pound
And they will differ, if they do
work in progress. As Cajal once said and Jonathan Keats updated,
As syllable from sound.
I am shaping and reshaping another important sculpture that I
Emily Dickinson (ca. 1860, published in 1921)
hope will never cease.
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will contain
I want to deeply thank John Peacock, Daniel Todes, Virginia
With ease, and you beside.
Garcia-Marin, Robert Merrill, Jennifer Coster and Yasmeen Afzal
The brain is deeper than the sea
for their critical and helpful comments on the manuscript.
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Document Outline

  • Sculpting the brain
    • Introduction
    • Bridging the gap between Neuroscience and Art through Metaphors
      • Cajal Naturalist Metaphors
      • Organic Metaphors vs. Mechanistic Metaphors
      • The Success of Mechanical Metaphors
      • The Metamorphosis of the Machine into a Butterfly
    • Acknowledgments
    • References