Neuroscience + Art

If you’re happen to follow me on twitter, you will I’ve seen that I like to get out and visit exhibitions and shows in London.

One week this summer saw me lucky enough to attend 2 events that sparked my interest as they both take inspiration from neuroscience research, past and present – Incognito at the Bush Theatre and Connectome at the Royal Opera House.

Incognito @ The Bush Theatre

I wouldn’t have known about this new play if one of my lab mates hadn’t told me about it over lunch. The premise sounded intriguing and after reading some glowing reviews, I booked myself in for a matinée performance that Saturday.

Over 90 minutes the cast of 4 delivered a trio of intertwining stories, two of which were based on real life events from the history of neuroscience.

Henry Molaison, now known to science as simply, H.M. suffered from severe epilepsy and in 1953 he underwent experimental neurosurgery in an attempt to treat his condition. The surgery partially removed his temporal lobes and though it controlled his epilepsy, it caused in severe memory impairment. H.M. was no longer able to form any new memories. As a result he became one of the most widely studied individual’s in neuroscience history, with findings still being published today.
Thomas Staltz Harvey performed Albert Einstein’s autopsy in 1955 and stole his brain. He hoped to discover the biological basis for Einstein’s intelligence and drive forward the understanding of the mind, but after a lifetime of work no real insights were gained.
Martha, is a neuropsychologist who is beginning relationship with Patricia, after leaving her husband and son. She has her own views on the mind, her work forcing her to feel that life is really without meaning and our consciousness is simply a way to fill the time in this world.

Minimal staging - you can just see the brain jar on the right

Minimal staging – you can just see the brain jar on the right

After reading that description you’d be forgiven for thinking that the play had a bit of a depressing feel, but I left feeling reaffirmed about life. The cast showed the beauty of human relationships in the face of the unknown and I felt completely absorbed right up to until the end of the final scene.

Watching as a brain bank technician, I enjoyed the reaction of each character to a piece of brain held in a jar on stage, something that I may have become a little too used to(!). Something else that stood out for me was the portrayal of H.M. Having sat through numerous lectures referring to H.M. as a student, it was refreshing to see a depiction of the man behind the case study – his life before the operation, his relationship and the frustrating nature of his condition.

A brilliantly stimulating play and an exciting bridge between science and society- if it’s ever given another run, catch it!

Connectome @ The Royal Opera House

Another recommendation lead me to get some last minute tickets to the Royal Ballet mixed programme. Sandwiched between two excellent comedy pieces, I had come to see ‘Connectome’.

Based on the work of computational neuroscientist, Sebastian Seung, the connectome refers to the idea that the connections in our brain make us who we are. As detailed further in his TED talk and book, Sebastian Seung, together with the Human Connectome Project, is attempting to model the connections between individual neurons in the brain to form a unique map.

This idea inspired Alastair Marriott to choreograph a new ballet, quite possible the first ever neuroscience inspired ballet.

The opening staging was imaginative and gave the impression of a ‘forest of neurons’ similar to that pictured in another art/science crossover – Neurocomic. Among this forest we followed just small subset of ‘neurons’ as their apparently random interactions changed and evolved until they begin to act as one.

As the interplay continued the ‘forest’ gives way to an image of the human connectome projected onto the back of the stage. The image was created by diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (DWI MRI) tracking the passage of water molecules through the brain to identify the ‘paths’ of nerve fibers. Once processed the image can be colour coded, relating to the direction of travel between different parts of the brain. This process has created images that have been used as album covers and even won awards.

Curtain call

Connectome curtain call

Although science is often perceived as cold and complex, it’s can also be beautiful; this beauty can be accessed by everyone in some way, shape or form. For me it was particularly exciting to see neuroscience portrayed in such and interesting and novel way to such a diverse audience.

An excellent spot from my humanities inclined friend and a great evening out for the both of us.


I hope the (neuro)science and art collaborations continue and even at some point, to be a part of one.


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One Response to Neuroscience + Art

  1. Pingback: The Effect @ The Pegg Studio Theatre | NeuroRach

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