In 1083, the great Arabic luminary Ibn al-Haytham published an extraordinary sketch. On either side of a mottled, greying page, you’ll find a neat set of concentric spheres, accompanied by radiating lines of scrawled Arabic script. Running upwards and away from them, two confident ink lines arc towards each other and then split decisively, before merging into a mysterious, open-ended box. Somehow, the result is both unsettlingly enigmatic and persuasively assertive. And – almost incredibly – it is also the most ancient surviving diagram in neurobiology. Wonderfully, it’s the optic nerve.
When it comes to picturing the brain, scientists throughout the centuries have repeatedly been driven to devise an ever-stranger artistic grammar, constantly pursuing new means of framing some of biology’s most elusive questions. The resulting succession of “infinitesimal glimpses”, as Portraits of the Mind author and doctoral student Carl Schoonover shrewdly puts it, makes for an inspiring collection. Schoonover is part of an innovative New York project – NeuWrite – born of creative collaborations between neurobiologists and artists, and it’s not hard to see why: this wonderful menagerie of images represents, in Carl Zimmer’s words, “a rare combination of beauty and knowledge”.
In describing each vision in his remarkable miscellany, Schoonover weaves a rich and heady narrative, fraught with cultural pressures and populated by vibrant personalities. Take, as a brief case in point, the world of al-Haytham, who was building on Galen (who had by then been lounging in the Roman afterlife for a good 800 years). Despite early progress, claustrophobic Mediaeval taboos had effectively neutered neuroscience, and, in something of a scientific crisis, Galen’s models gradually congealed into stagnant convictions. Notoriously, even 16th Century da Vinci neglected to exorcise certain colourful beliefs: on Galen’s authority, it was accepted that the rete mirabilis – a circulatory structure not actually found in our species – purified an ethereal miasma into “animal spirits” , the mysterious substrates of the brain. As a remarkable case of scientific inertia, the Galenic canon reigned supreme for centuries; indeed, it wasn’t until the Renaissance – with the somewhat eccentric heterodoxy of a furtive, grave-robbing Vesalius – that practical empirical science really started eroding the dogma. In a feat of melodrama, Vesalius’s own tutor, Jacobus Silvius, viciously denounced this anatomical heresy, demanding that the “ridiculous madman” be restrained from “poison[ing] the rest of Europe with his pestilent breath”. In short, the course of Western neuroscience is a fascinating story of revolution, dogma, absurdity, and genius: clearly, Schoovoner had rich pickings to choose from.
Today’s neurobiologists inhabit an equally strange world. Since Santiago Ramón y Cajal annotated his famous diagrams with meticulous little arrows, the emphasis has been on elucidating the brain’s tangled data highways, the overwhelming information transfers coursing through billions of weaving axonal passages and punctuated by static explosions of synapses. What is the neuronal architecture of the mind? I’m not sure such questions could be more exciting. To answer them, the methods in vogue have become outlandish and ingenious, from recruiting light to control action potentials to employing MRI in tracking water diffusion in the brain. The awe-inspiring visualisations that grow out of such projects are elegant and enlightening, the latest visual metaphors in a tradition stretching back to 1087 AD.
Think of a near-infinite haze of hanging dots, flashing regions on a darkened map, or a series of eerily suspended black lines – all recent products of modern neuroscience’s exploration in a scientific and aesthetic terra incognita. That’s the mesmerising thing about Portraits of the Mind: today’s biologists, with their beguiling abstractions, are honestly situated within a grand contextual tradition tracable back to antiquity. As with every age, new puzzles lurk on the horizon. In interview, the author himself expresses this essential wonder of the unknown: neurobiology is “the most dark space… it’s just so embryonic right now”.
By illustrating the elegance, enigma, and science of the curious organ behind the eyes, Carl Schoonover has produced a tremendous collection. Portraits of the Mind is a marvellous demonstration that biology has long been – and long will be – a brilliant queen of the sciences.
Thank you to Abrams for their kind permission to let us use the above pictures.