It’s easy to take for granted in our medically enlightened era that once upon a time people had no idea what the mind looked like. We’re not just talking about gray matter and frontal lobes and all that junk. We’re talking about thought. Thanks to technology like fMRIs and electroencephalography, we can actually watch ourselves think. Our predecessors, on the other hand, had to use their good old-fashioned imaginations.
The drawings, paintings, and diagrams they produced as a result form the backbone of a new exhibit at the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden, Germany. Images of the Mind in Art and Science zeroes in on how humans have represented all things cerebral throughout more than 400 years of history. It includes everything from medieval manuscripts and anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci to probing psychological portraits by Rembrandt and Max Beckmann to modern-day fMRIs and maps of monkey neurons. The point: To create an immersive environment in which visitors accompany artists and scientists “in their bid to chart and explore the inner continents that lie within the human being.”
Heavy stuff. But also endlessly fascinating, and the exhibit does a good job of covering all the bases: A section dedicated to “metaphors of the mind” shows a 1470 drawing of a nun’s heart represented as a house alongside an excerpt from The Matrix. Another section, “depictions of mental states,” gives us phrenology alongside Evward Munch.
There’s so much variety here, you start to wonder: What are all those slick computer-generated brain scans saying, anyway? They’re biologically accurate, sure, but do they tell us about the fuzzier aspects of the mind any more than, say, one of Munch’s angsty woodcuts?
The answer is right there in the exhibit. One of the pieces, a video (above) by neuroscientist Daniel Margulies and art curator Chris Sharp, features the fMRI of a test subject who’s listening to Igor Stravinsky’s "The Rite of Spring." (Moments earlier, he had been asked to reflect on a passage from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement.) The kaleidoscopic patterns show his brain activity. It’s fun to watch. And if you know anything about neuroanatomy, maybe you can even try to guess which parts of his noggin were dancing along to the music (or thinking deep thoughts about Kant). But it doesn’t tell us anything about how he felt. It’s the difference between looking at a doppler weather map and actually standing in the middle of a storm. As the exhibit catalog points out: “The work playfully underscores the impossibility of modern imaging methods to capture subjective experience.” For that, I guess we still need art.