Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact



Observatory

About
Resources
Submissions
Contact


Featured Writers

Michael Bierut
William Drenttel
John Foster
Jessica Helfand
Alexandra Lange
Mark Lamster
Paul Polak
Rick Poynor
John Thackara
Rob Walker


Departments

Advertisement
Audio
Books
Collections
Dear Bonnie
Dialogues
Essays
Events
Foster Column
From Our Archive
Gallery
Interviews
Miscellaneous
Opinions
Partner News
Photos
Poetry
Primary Sources
Projects
Report
Reviews
Slideshows
The Academy
Today Column
Unusual Suspects
Video


Topics

Advertising
Architecture
Art
Books
Branding
Business
Cities / Places
Community
Craft
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Disaster Relief
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Fashion
Film / Video
Food/Agriculture
Geography
Global / Local
Graphic Design
Health / Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Illustration
India
Industry
Info Design
Infrastructure
Interaction Design
Internet / Blogs
Journalism
Landscape
Literature
Magazines
Media
Museums
Music
Nature
Obituary
Other
Peace
Philanthropy
Photography
Planning
Poetry
Politics / Policy
Popular Culture
Poverty
Preservation
Product Design
Public / Private
Public Art
Religion
Reputations
Science
Shelter
Social Enterprise
Sports
Sustainability
Technology
Theory/Criticism
Transportation
TV / Radio
Typography
Urbanism
Water



Carl Schoonover

Portraits of the Mind


Cover of Book
Cover of Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century, by Carl Schoonover. Published by Abrams

Take a brain out of its skull, cut a thin slice, examine it under a microscope and you will see nothing but grey, barely differentiated matter. You might be astonished then, as late nineteenth anatomists were, to discover that when treated in the right manner the blank slate contains a universe teaming with small parts, thousands upon thousands of lines wrapping around each other in terrifyingly convoluted patterns. Out of that serene gray the central challenge of neuroscience arises: the organ in our heads is of such monumental complexity that our feeble minds alone cannot make sense of the whole.

The history of neuroscience, then, is the history of the techniques researchers have employed to delve into the brain. The entire edifice of knowledge, our very ability to pose questions about the nervous system and its relationship to the mind, depend on the tools and methods contrived to interact with them. These methods, some exceedingly elegant in conception, illuminate for us what our eyes and minds fail to pick out unaided.


Without these methods science cannot exist. Every publication includes a dedicated section, sometimes pages long, describing in detail how the experiments summarized in the article were performed. Even by the modern standards of scientific communication — often noted for its dry, objective tone — the so-called “methods section” is virtually platonic in its purity and remove. Sometimes I speculate that this stems from some unconscious desire to preserve the romantic notion of science as a wholly objective, unassailable, superhuman enterprise. Whatever the reason, the manipulations as described in the methods section are invariably performed by a nameless, faceless third-person passive-form agent. One would be forgiven for wondering whether the procedures occurred overnight, ex nihilo, to the elation of a team of flesh-and-blood researchers who strolled into the lab the next morning to discover the findings neatly summarized on their desks.

Despite the formal and narrative weaknesses of the methods section, it stands at the heart of any empirical enterprise, yet is oddly overlooked in most popular accounts of scientific adventure. Experiments succeed or fail on the strength of the techniques employed to perform them. The reliability of the data — its known knowns, its known unknowns, its unknown unknowns, as they say — is only as good as the weakest link in the sequence of events that generated it.

This sequence, this craft, can be the fruit of decades of experience transmitted from mentor to student, and from lab to lab. Those who deploy the most powerful techniques are licensed to ask the most powerful questions with them. Occasionally, a new set of revolutionary methods opens up space in a field — sometimes even birthing an entire new branch — where previously there had been nothing but darkness. And occasionally the ideas underlying a technique are so exquisite, so breathtaking in their conception, that I find myself contemplating them for themselves alone, irrespective of the data they may (or fail to) produce. The model here is Sol LeWitt’s famous summary (“the idea becomes a machine that makes the art”) that argues for an aesthetic appreciation of concept on equal footing with that of the thrilling of our senses by the physical object. I propose then, that in science as in art we should delight not only in the physical manifestations of beautiful data but also in the ideas that made them.

My recently published book, Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century (Abrams) documents this overlooked dimension over two millennia of obsession with the brain, through roughly one hundred images of actual data from laboratories around the globe. An extended caption that accompanies each image describes the means by which these results have been teased out of the grey slate. These captions, in conjunction with short essays from experts across the field, examine prior scientific upheavals fueled by the development of as many new ways of peering inside; and chronicle a series of very recent technical developments that many researchers hope will soon yield a revolution in the study of brain and mind.
Share This Story

RELATED POSTS


John McHale and the Expendable Ikon


Who's Your Data?


Digital Deception


John McHale and the Expendable Ikon


Chris Foss and the Technological Sublime



RSS Subscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (1)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Well, the essay on methods did not excite me. But then I looked at the pictures. Beautiful! We know the brain is wonderful, and now we are beginning to be able to see the wonder.
Tom Sanocki
12.13.10 at 09:27



LOG IN TO POST A COMMENT
Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.

Email


Password




|
Share This Story



ABOUT THE SLIDESHOW

A slideshow of images from the book Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century by Carl Schoonover.
View Slideshow >>
Carl Schoonover is a neuroscience PhD candidate and National Science Foundation graduate fellow at Columbia University and the author of Portraits of the Mind.
More >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS