The Brain and
the Visual Arts


Norberto Garcia-Cairasco, PhD

Some Historical Considerations about the Brain

Human beings have always created symbolic representations and models when they pondered over their own brain structure and function. The evolution of humankind towards the acquisition of higher cerebral functions and culture led to the development of evolving and controversial ideas about the brain and the mind (12). The wonderful book The Enchanted Loom (4), -- the result of a multi-institutional and multidisciplinarian task about the history of neurosciences -- exposes in a peculiar way the most diverse moments (not always brilliant) of the evolution of thoughts, models and theories about the brain. It presents, for instance, how Aristotles (384-322 B.C.) held a cardio-centric vision in relation to body functions (the heart as the acropolis of the body), rather different from Plato (429-347 B.C.) or Galen (129-199 A.C.) who stated: It seems to me an acceptable assertion that the soul itself resides within the body of the brain where the activity of thought is produced, and the memory of sensorial images is stored there.

"Human Head Arranged for the Purposeof Demonstrating the Brain” 

Taken >From Vesalius in Sanders andO'Malley (1950).

The latter two philosophers held brain-centric vision. For a long time the cerebral ventricles have been pinpointed as the loci of mental faculty (animal spirits). Thanks to the wonderful dissections of the great anatomists, the ventricles have been assigned a less important role. Vesalius (1514-1564), for instance, probably in association with Titian, produced magnificent works of universal anatomy such as Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543; Saunders and O’Malley, 1950; 11). Another great anatomist, Bernard S. Albinus (1697-1770) worked with Jan Wandelaar and produced, among others, works such as Tabula Sceleti et Musculorum Corporis Humani (1747) (8).

"Brain and Ventricles Saggital View" by Da Vinci. Taken from Fincher (1981)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a genial painter, inventor, mathematician, anatomist and drawer. We can also mention Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), one of the greatest Renaissance painter and sculptor. Some of the many pictures of the brain, nerves and muscles - some magnificent, others rather non accurate - were produced during this fertile epoch of humankind history (4).

Within this context Corsi (1991) mentioned the Danish scholar Nicolaus Steno who presented his lecture Discours sur l’Anatomie du Cerveau [Discourse on Brain Anatomy] in Paris (1665) with the opening statement: Gentlemen, instead of promissing to satisfy your curiosity about the anatomy of the brain, I intend here to make the sincere, public confession that this is a subject on which I know nothing at all. Steno behaved cautiously when describing the brain and its function, in opposition to authors such as René Descartes (1596-1650) and Willis (1621-1675), who, according to Steno, assumed a frivolous attitude by saying that nothing was difficult. Steno was always asserting the need of what he called "an overwhelming certainty", which could only be obtained by precise dissections. Severe criticisms were aimed at imaginary systems, such as Descartes', who held that the pineal gland exerted the function of regulatory center for the processing sensorial information by means of the activation of endogenous spirits. Likewise, Descartes' worldview of human beings as simple earth machines was criticized.

Recent views about artificial intelligence can be found in Blakemore and Greenfield (1987), Corsi (1991), Ford and Hayes (1998). An obvious consequence of Descartes philosophy was the undertaking of brain function study into a subset of small subprojects on parts of the brain, a view that overlapped the 16th and 17th century. Sophisticated researches were conducted that led to the development of the magnifying lens and microscopy, generating advances in macro- and microscopic knowledge about the Central Nervous and Peripheral Nervous System partly due to wax modeling and detailed dissections. However these approaches had a negative consequence of breaking apart the brain unit into its constitutive elements, and the necessary reconstruction from those constitutive parts became even more complex.

Corsi (4) comments on how Vesalius felt capable of explaining many of cerebral functions and dysfunctions as a result of his magnificent dissections, but at the same time he felt unable to understand how the brain could perform the functions of imagination, meditation, thought and memory. Within this context it is relevant the historical importance of Descartes' body-mind dualism. This notion persisted for century and it is still hotly debated by scientists and philosophers. A natural consequence of Descartes point of view was the support to mechanist ideas that privileged the search for the so-called physiologic automatisms. It is interesting to mention here Damasio (1994) recent book Descartes Error , where the author proposes, rather elegantly, body-mind and reason-emotion interactions, frontally opposed to Cartesian proposals.

Naturalists, anthropologists, philosophers and neuroscientists, among them Willis, Haller, Flourens, Broca, Wernicke, Ferrier, Sherrington, Darwin, Golgi, Cajal, Pavlov, Papez, McLean, Penfield, Lorenz, Jackson and Freud, have contributed, in the following centuries to a changing view of the brain and its dysfunctions. They suggested theories ranging from localization of function to motor and sensorial centers, reflexes, the neuron as the morphological and functional unity of the brain, limbic system, homunculus, imprinting, psychoanalysis, brain electrical activity to cognitive neurosciences.

The Impact of Molecular Biology and Informatics over Contemporary Neurosciences

The advance of electrophysiological techniques ("unity recordings", patch and voltage clamps), as well as today's boom in molecular biology have increased the paradox between deep and sophisticated knowledge in neural micro-universes and the apparent impossible task of solving the puzzle by putting the pieces back into place.

”Head” taken from the Images Gallery from the Visualization Laboratory (1999)
I think Contemporary Neurosciences underline clearly the need for new artist-scientist associations, aimed at allowing a more realistic interpretation of molecular dissections, in analogy with Renaissance dissections. Nowadays, just like in that previous period, there are beautiful examples, in science and culture that illustrate the concepts of mind and brain. Contemporary tools to our models are obviously electronic and virtual computations. The sites of Visualization Laboratory  and Montreal Neurological Institute, among others, illustrate mixed compositions made by Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Positron Emission Tomography, and 3-D reconstruction of human brains, hippocampal cells and many others. In a period when people feel fascinated by molecules, it is interesting to browse Molecular Expressions, where microscapes illustrate superb landscape created by diverse organic crystals such as amino acids and DNA. One example of integration, as time has allowed it, is the work of one of the discoverers of the DNA double strand, Francis Crick. His most recent research deals with explaining cellular and molecular correlates of consciousness. 

The gigantic NIH and National Library of Medicine project entitled "The Visible Human" illustrates magnificently the fusion between artistic intentions and the use of computational tools to the study of Anatomy and specially Neurosciences. We could comment upon the logo of project itself who morphs a Vesalius anatomic profile, where the extended arm presents a low resolution image and the head (backpart) corresponds to the brain where volumes are shown, produced by nuclear magnetic resonance 3-D imaging. That is an example of the historical fusion of art with contemporary technology. Unsurprisingly, two subproject of "Visible Human", are named "Vesalius" and "Beyond Vesalius", an obvious recall to the great 16th century anatomist.
"Logo Project". Taken from the Visible Human Project

"Neuroimmersion: Diving in Unknown Neuronal Waters" by Norberto Garcia-Cairasco (1999).
The impact of computational techniques and the vast amount of updated information could be dealt with in the future by means of Neuroinformatics. The National Institutes of Health supports the Project "Neuroinformatics: Putting the Brain Back Together Again", a subproject of the Human Brain Project. According to the NIH, by means of cooperative, multi-institutional and transnational projects, it is necessary to avoid that the exponential and continuously growing accumulation of information in the Neuroscience can hamper the fuel that has enabled that the research in brain and behavior were at the frontline of science.

Integrative Neurobiology and the Visual Arts

Human performance in aesthetic domains such as those required by visual arts has been generally linked to our powers of abstraction and critical contemplation of creation. Let us consider two kinds of universes: first the realm of geniuses who presented maniac-depressive conditions (Tenessee Williams, Ezra Pound) or suffered epileptic seizure (Van Gogh). Was their artistic and creative performance compromised, or was it enriched by those pathologies? (1; 9). Another example is the universe of abnormalities, the realm of individuals with deep brain damage, with severe mental retardation, where the motor-sensorial function is greatly impaired, but keeps exceptional performance in specific tasks, including artistic ones (idiot savants; Winner, 1998). Could we explain the performances of these two kind of individuals under the light of powerful, sophisticated and yet limited contemporary neuroscientific approaches? Moreover, the recognition of phylogenetic events to explain the origin of human intelligence lead us to the trail of discoveries of elaboration of complex, cognitive process in the brain of non-human primates and other non-primate species. The reports on artistic and aesthetic expression by monkeys and cats (2; 10), draw our attention to the need of defining art and beauty within an evolutionary - not just anthropomorphic - framework. These issues will certainly be addressed and probably solved next century.

"Drawer’s Poet: Poetic Inspiration for Brain Studies". by Norberto Garcia-Cairasco (1998). 
My conclusion is that a profound, integrative change in the approach of Neuroscience, ranging from Cognitive Neuroscience to Molecular Neuroscience, would possibly offer us with better explanations about our brain and the kind of model that would explain it. We certainly need Synthesis together with Reductions. 
In its more recent book Consilience. The Unity of Knowledge, Wilson (14), borrowing Whewel's (1840) expression jumping together of knowledge, he refers to the Enlightenment as an Icarian flight of the mind, whose engine was science, suggesting the current need for integration between science, arts and humanities. Thus, he explains how, at the same time we need to understand our brain and the co-evolution of our genes and culture, we will surely discover the way to save our planet, expressing "The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper, and I believe if gifted with a full quiver, he also writes like a journalist. As a painter stands before bare canvas, or a novelist recycles past emotions with eyes closed, he searches his imagination for subjects as much as for conclusions, for questions as much as for answers".

In a future article I would like to explore how the processing of aesthetic information and artistic performances are regulated in the brain, having as references our current concepts in Cognitive Neuroscience and Aesthetic Theories.


To the technicians, undergraduates and graduates to researchers who have participated along all these years at several creative processes in our Laboratory. To the colleagues who have read and suggested changes in the previous version of this article. Thanks to the FMRP-USP for the institutional support and to FAPESP, CNPq, CAPES, PRONEX, PADCT and FAEPA Programs for financial support.

This text has modified and adapted to this site, from a previous version published at the Annals of the Ist "Integrative Neurosciences" Symposium of the Neurophysiology and Experimental Neuroethology Laboratory, held at the Physiology Department at the Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine, University of São Paulo, between October 23-24 1998. Recently it was also presented at the III Congress on Sciences and the Arts, at the School for Communications and Arts of the University of São Paulo. Thus, I would like to thank, at last but not least, Prof. Dr. Sérgio Mascarenhas and Dr. Elza Ajzenberg, by their honorable invitation to deliver this lecture at that Congress.


1. Arnold, W.N. Vincent Van Gogh. Chemicals, Crises and Creativity. Birkhäuser. Boston, 1992.

2. Busch, H and Silver, B. Why cats paint. A theory of feline aesthetics. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley Califormia, 1994.

3. Blakemore, C. and Greenfield, S. Mindwaves. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987.

4. Corsi (Ed.) The Enchanted Loom. Chapters in the History of Neuroscience. Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.

5. Damasio A.R. Descartes Error. Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. Avon Books, New York, 1994.

6. Fincher, J. The Human Body: The Brain: Mistery of Matter and Mind. US New Books, US News and World Report, Inc. Washington, USA. 1981.

7. Ford, K.M. and Hayes, P.J. On computational wings: Rethinking the goals of artificial intelligence. Scientific American. Special Issue. Exploring Intelligence. 9(4)78-83, 1998.

8. Hale, R. B and Coyle, T. Albinus on Anatomy. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1979.

9. Jamison, K.R. Manic-depressive illness and creativity. Scientific American. Special Issue. Mysteries of the Mind. 44-52, 1997.

10. Lenain, T. Monkey Painting. Reaktion Books, London, 1997.

11. Saunders, J.B. deC. M. and O’Maley, Ch.D. The Illustrations From the Works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels. Dover Publications, New York, 1950.

12. Tattersall, I. Becoming Human. Evolution and Man Uniqueness. Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1997.

13. Wilson, E.O. Consilience. The Unity of Knowledge. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998.

14. Winner, E. Uncommon talents: Gifted children, prodigies and savants. Scientific American. Special Issue. Exploring Intelligence. 9(4): 32-37, 1998.

The Author
Norberto Garcia-Cairasco, PhD
Assistant Professor ofPhysiology - Neurophysiology

DirectorNeurophysiology and ExperimentalNeuroethology Laboratory, Physiology
Department, Ribeirão Preto School of
Medicine, University of São Paulo. Current
Research activities: Experimental Models of
Epilepsy, Brain Plasticity and Behavior and
Methods and Models in Experimental

Neurophysiology and Experimental
Neuroethology Laboratory (LNNE), 
Ribeirão Preto School ofMedicine, 
University of São Paulo.
CEP 14049-900. SP.
Ribeirão Preto, SP, Brazil 

Fax 55-16-6330017



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