James Panero in Proto:
It was the hippocampus as no one had ever seen it, illuminated in radiant hues. The image is called, aptly, a Brainbow, the colors serving a scientific purpose by highlighting specific neural structures. Yet their choice also reflects an artistic bent; scientists display the brain not the way it is (an undifferentiated gray) but the way we want to see it, “painted” with bursts of fluorescent color.
This image, created in 2005, is one of many that Carl Schoonover, a doctoral candidate in neurobiology and behavior at Columbia University, has collected in his recent Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain From Antiquity to the 21st Century (Abrams). As science has probed the brain’s structure and function, scientists have had to rely on art to translate their discoveries to visual form.
Leonardo da Vinci created a notable example around 1500, borrowing the techniques of statue casting to inject wax into the ventricles of a freshly killed ox. After the wax cooled, he carved the brain away to create an impression of the cavity, then sketched this casting of the void, rendering it from multiple angles.
The arrival of powerful optics during the mid-nineteenth century enabled scientists to penetrate the brain’s microscopic dimensions. Soon another Italian, Camillo Golgi, inaugurated modern neuroscience by successfully staining individual neurons. In his 1875 drawing of a dog’s olfactory bulb, Golgi records his observations while also somewhat imagining the process of smell, with bulbs in the shape of root vegetables penetrating a layer of neural connections, depicted in fanciful wavy lines.