Images of the Mind in Art and Science

A view of the exhibition

My Soul

Artist Katharine Dowson used her own MRI scans to laser a 3-D representation of her brain inside a glass block.

Feeling Material XXXI

British artist Antony Gormley uses rolled steel rings to show what the exhibition catalog calls "the inner and outer boundaries of the human body and its spatial coordinates."

Haft II

Also by Gormley, this sculpture is part of a larger series called Constructed Ataxia. "Ataxia" is a degenerative neurological disorder characterized by a progressive loss of coordination and self-awareness. "Each of the architecturally designed cast iron blocks in the series features a body frozen in a particular pose, implying a transient psycho-physical state," the catalog says.


The image shows how injected fluorescent proteins spread out during the thought processes of a mouse. Up to a hundred different color tones can be used to differentiate the various functions of the neurons.

The Inventor’s Head

An illustration from the 1890 volume of La Nature depicts a familiar metaphor: the mind as a machine.

Sigmund Freud drawing

Freud sketched this diagram of the organization of the psyche for his 1923 paper The Ego and the Id.


By German Expressionist Max Beckmann

Renaissance manuscript

A 1497 representation of Aristotelian theories of consciousness


How People Have Visualized The Mind Throughout History

Meta brain freeze alert!

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.

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  • Guilherme

    Please, I'm looking for the exhibition book or catalog to use in a research program. Does any one one knows if they've printed or are selling a catalog?
    Thanks for the attention.

  • Jeff Knapp

    Actually, we have made some recent breakthroughs in understanding how we think, which can be diagrammed on one page.  With regard to the phrase "think outside the box," there actually is a box, and there are eight ways to break through and think outside of it.  I may explore how to share this with the Fast Company community. -- Jeff Knapp 

  • Deepak Nayal

    It is kinda strange that even though man has reached the moon, trying to reach Mars, reached the bottom of the ocean, we still have a lot to understand about our own body and specially our brain.