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Looking through Another’s Eyes

Image of mylar sculptuer, Butterflies of the Soul, by Rebecca Kamen

Butterflies of the Soul by Rebecca Kamen.

This week I’ve had an experience only a few people get the opportunity to enjoy. I saw a friend lecture at the Cajal Institute, the oldest neurobiology research center in Spain.

My friend, Rebecca Kamen, is an accomplished artist and Professor of Art at Northern Virginia Community College. Over the course of the past two years, she has demonstrated that art education vastly improves the quality of scientific discovery.

We’ll get to the details of her hypothesis and the discoveries she’s made by working with some of our nation’s leading neuroscientists and academic institutions over the coming months. Let’s just say, I think we’re on the verge of seeing some major transformation in the STEM to STEAM movement. The trip to Madrid and hands-on research of Cajal’s work validated her findings. In the interim, the following is a translation of the article written by EFEfuturo.

Art Is Also Steeped in The Legacy of Ramon y Cajal

Madrid, March 5 (EFEfuturo.) – Santiago Ramón y Cajal has continued to inspire new generations of neuroscientists, but now his work has crossed the frontiers of research and genius to become “muse” of Rebecca Kamen, an American sculptor who says in his work unites art and science.

Rebecca Kamen says that the Nobel Prize winner has become her “muse” and a “vital inspiration,” and is convinced that viewing both the art and science of Ramón y Cajal “makes the invisible visible.” Kamen explained what she meant while visiting Efe Ramón y Cajal Institute of CSIC, “a magical place” where today she gave a seminar on “Art, science and the creative process.”

[Neuroscience] Center in Maryland

The sculptor has come to Madrid to soak up the legacy of Ramón y Cajal and prepare for her next project: Creating art inspired by [both Ramón y Cajal and modern neruoscienfic research] for a new neuroscience research center to open in [Bethesda] Maryland, USA in 2014.

“Cajal had artistic abilities, and I think it was his background as an artist that enabled him observe relationships and scientific details, then feel and interpret what was behind the observed samples,” said the sculptor.

The scientist wanted to be a painter, but eventually devoted his career to physiology. His ability to describe the nervous system marked a huge step towards the understanding of the structure and function of the brain.

Ramón y Cajal’s talent and passion for painting remained and [ultimately] resulted in an important—but perhaps least known legacy—of extraordinary drawings and observations of the brain.

His passion for art is [also] evident in some of his writings: “The garden of neurology research provides captivating performances and incomparable artistic emotions,” he wrote.

Drawings of Cajal

In the institute that bears his name are stored illustrations with maps of neural connections, the routes followed by nerve impulses of neurons or pyramidal cells of the cerebral cortex.

“His beautiful drawings allowed us to see things in a time when others could not. It’s amazing what he was able to see when you think of the quality of the optics of the instruments of that time,” said Kamen.

The sculptor works with the National Institutes of Health in the United States by helping researchers to “express [their work using art]” as a way of disseminating science to the public.

“Both great scientists and great artists are very intuitive. They have an idea and pursue it but do not [always] know its full meaning,” said Kamen.

Fascinated by “the ability to see the truth through Cajal” Kamen recalled her excitement during the seminar honoring the neuroscientist. Kamen described that the first time she saw the [purkinje] cell [as drawn] by the Nobel Prize winner [Cajal] and thought “butterflies.”

Shortly thereafter, Kamen read the following quote from Ramón y Cajal’s book, Recollections of My Life: “Like the entomologist in search of colorful butterflies, my attention has chased in the garden of grey matter cells with delicate and elegant shapes, they mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose beatings of wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind.”*

<End of story.>

A heartfelt thank you to everyone at the Cajal Institute for the amazing experience, and in particular the Director, Ignacio Torres Alemán, Juan de Carlos, PhD, and Maria de Ceballos, PhD. We are grateful for your generosity and kindness.

*Note: Final paragraph has been modified to adjust for inaccuracies in translation during the interview.

©2013. All rights reserved.

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