Seeing Antlers, Feeling Dendrites

Artifacts / by Jessica Palmer /

Christopher Reiger’s Synesthesia #1, the fluidity of perception, and how art can express phenomena in a way data alone cannot.

Image courtesy of Christopher Reiger

At first glance this painting by Christopher Reiger depicts a grotesque, absurd chimera: the slim silhouette of Degas’s Little Dancer, burdened by the incongruously heavy head of a moose. But keep looking. Those aren’t antlers, but rather the sprawling dendrites of giant neurons. And this piece, entitled Synesthesia #1, captures one way in which art can be invaluable to science.

Synesthesia is a fascinating condition in which inputs to one sensory pathway — such as music or shapes — produce sensations in a different sensory modality. Synesthetes most commonly associate letters and numbers with certain colors, but they may also “see” music, “taste” words, or “see” flavors. Some researchers argue that synesthesia results from incomplete pruning of nascent connections in the developing brain. According to this hypothesis, leftover neural pathways allow a babble of unwanted crosstalk between regions that should be discrete — visual cortex and auditory cortex, for example. This sensory crosstalk may be undesirable from a developmental perspective, but most synesthetes savor their blended sensory modalities, while nonsynesthetes envy the added complexity of a synesthete’s world. Synesthesia may be the only neurological condition that everyone wants!

Art can give us “normals” a small window into the synesthete’s world. Even if we don’t experience numbers as colors or sounds, we can gaze at Charles Delmuth’s brassy I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (inspired by a William Carlos Williams poem) and begin to intuit what the synesthete’s experience must be like. We pick up hints of music and movement in the brushstrokes of great paintings, like Van Gogh’s writhing, rhythmic Starry Night. Symphonies can evoke colors, tastes, even odors for us. While these imaginative experiences and sensory metaphors are not true synesthesia, they are what makes art powerful, allowing it to seize our attention and wrest every sense into engagement. Artists strive to blur the borders between the senses, generating fruitful, messy, unanticipated connections between parts of the mind that usually don’t communicate. In that sense, art mimics synesthesia.

In Reiger’s painting, the synthesis of Degas’s dancer with the moose is awkward and forced, a good visual metaphor for the historical relationship between the fine arts and biological science. Both art and science are products of the mind — represented here by the crown of neuron antlers — yet in the past, these disciplines have often had competing agendas and profoundly different, even hostile, approaches to the world.

Consider the initial reaction to Degas’s sculpture. His critics found the commingling of wax, cloth, and hair in Little Dancer distasteful; mixed sensory modalities were apparently not their cup of tea. They derided the girl’s head for its bestial appearance and compared the sculpture to an anatomical exhibit – the clear implication being that anatomy was in opposition to fine art.

Reiger humorously amps up everything that Degas’s critics found objectionable. The moose head is a sly play on the supposed bestiality of the little dancer, and a reminder that biologically, one mammal isn’t so different from another. The antler neurons, which resemble Purkinje neurons (cerebellar cells that govern dance and movement) or perhaps retinal ganglion cells (which mediate vision), assert the fundamental anatomical underpinnings of both performing and visual arts.

Yet — and this is what I like best — the neurons also call to mind other natural patterns: blood vessels, tree branches, corals, a network of waterways. At first glance we assume they’re antlers because of their context, but the longer we look, the more possibilities emerge. To the scientist, these shared forms should be a sign of underlying commonalities and could shed light on the natural laws that influence the formation of geometric patterns in nature.

Yet anyone who’s spent years studying one species, cell, or protein knows it’s hard to recognize those parallels. It’s difficult to transcend one narrow, specific context to appreciate how disparate processes can be intimately related. By facilitating the confluence of multiple sensory and conceptual inputs, Synesthesia #1 and art in general help us make those leaps so we can reach across disciplines and find commonalities. Making those unexpected connections between things that seem unrelated — like seeing dendrites in the place of antlers — are a little bit like synesthesia: an added dimension of perception that enriches art and science alike. — Jessica Palmer is a biologist and artist. She blogs at Bioephemera for ScienceBlogs.

Originally published February 27, 2009

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