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Art–Science Collaborations — Avenues toward Medical Innovation
Caroline Wellbery, M.D., Ph.D.
Cardiovascular stents represent a successful scientific advance, but they may have their origins in art: some stent designs have been inspired by the principles of origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.1 Indeed, art can inform medical science in myriad ways — providing not only inspiration but also insight and a humanizing touch. A collaboration among physicians, artists, and humanities scholars in Britain entitled “Life of Breath,” for instance, is investigating the understanding of breathlessness in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), seeking ways in which a multidisciplinary approach can enhance the diagnosis and treatment of this increasingly prevalent disease. Elsewhere as well, it’s increasingly common to find artists working closely with medical scientists. Such efforts are an offshoot of broader interdisciplinary art–science collaborations that have a venerable history.
The organization Leonardo — evoking the interdisciplinary investigations of Leonardo da Vinci — was established in 1982 as a forum for exploring the mutual influences of art and science. Similarly, the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology emphasizes an “antidisciplinary culture,” using media arts and sciences to create new technologies. The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative recently convened a conference to explore “art and science, engineering, and medicine frontier collaborations,” encouraging interdisciplinary discussions focused on solving real-world problems. The Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California, devotes a month-long session each year to art–science collaboration. Countless other organizations are promoting similar work.
Art–science collaborations illuminate methods or procedures used in various disciplines that could enhance medical practice. One point of intersection lies in observation. Artists are deep observers: they use their senses and then assimilate their findings, transforming their insights into artistic expression. But close observation has long been equally essential to scientific investigation: in the 19th century, for example, biology emphasized description and classification, and earlier scientists carefully observed the natural world, even as they contributed to advances, such as the microscope, that enhanced their observational capacity.
This kinship of observational skills allows art to make two important contributions to medicine. First, artists can create representations of structures that are otherwise difficult to visualize. Who can’t conjure up an image of representations of Watson and Crick’s double-stranded helix in multicolored balls? Physicians are familiar with the anatomical drawings of da Vinci and Frank Netter and can appreciate both their accuracy and their beauty. In the digital age, art can represent such complex phenomena as the human genome, including dynamic interactions; for example, animations of the cell’s “micromachine” dynamics created by medical illustrator David Bolinsky exemplify the fusion of “truth” and “beauty.”
Second, such visual representations, even as they convey an artist’s particular vision, can communicate the fruits of scientific work to the public. For example, the artist Fré Ilgen collaborated with neuroscientist Partha Mitra to represent human neural networks, creating the sculptures “Albert 1” (see photo
Albert I, 2009.
) and “Marie.” These creations include appropriate labeling of various brain loci, with neural circuitry represented by multicolored wire. A more abstract but more pointed approach to educating the public, entitled “Your Brain Is Your Brain,” entailed the installation around Berlin of 110 billboards designed by artist Adib Fricke. In vibrant color, each billboard offered a message about the brain’s functioning; for example, “Your memories are unreal” alluded to speculations about the unreliability of memory, and “Your ideas alter your brain” introduced the notion of neuroplasticity.
Such artwork is often interpretive, far exceeding mere depiction of medical concepts. The Austrian artist Christina Lammer, in a collaboration with surgeon Manfred Frey, attempts to convey through a sort of choreography of gestures how surgeons’ hands move during an operation, but her video installations also offer meditations on surgical rituals and their kinship with prayer. In her work on malaria, artist Deborah Robinson joined researchers Julian Rayner and Oliver Billker in their laboratory to learn about the disease. She notes that her investigative videos, set to a disturbing soundtrack of mosquitos’ buzzing, intend to draw viewers beyond science into malaria’s meaning and mystery.
Beyond this public-relations function for scientists, whether such art can exert a direct influence on science is an open question. Clearly, scientists cannot change the factual realities explored by their research to accommodate flights of fancy; their protocols and methods protect against idiosyncratic interpretations. But there seem to be two areas in which scientists can learn from artists. First, many scientists admit that epiphany and serendipity play important roles in scientific discovery. Physicist Richard Feynman described watching the wobble of plates tossed in a cafeteria as the inspiration for his work on quantum electromechanics — an exemplar whose liberating “playfulness” resembles that of art as a source of creative spark.
Just as important for Feynman’s hypotheses was the fact that initially he had no idea what his demonstrations of wobble were for — he was just enjoying himself. By working with artists who see the world through a different lens, scientists invest in the opportunity to develop ideas that defy conventional rubrics and are untethered to outcomes. This potential for transformational innovation underlies the entreaty to applicants for the U.K. Longitude Prize to “embrace interdisciplinarity and realise the potential that `sciart’ collaborations have to strengthen ideas” and to recognize that “truly novel innovation often happens in unexpected ways.” Mitra, the neuroscientist, tells me that such freedom from compartmentalization is what motivates him to pursue art–science collaborations; his study of the neurocircuitry associated with birdsong led to the Ilgen collaboration, which in turn led him to develop hypotheses about human musical and artistic behavior.
Second, art–science collaborations influence scientists’ perceptions of their culture — from the microcosm of the team to its institutional and cultural context. Malaria researcher Rayner engages with the malarial parasite at the cellular level, but collaborating artist Robinson “doesn’t care about the molecules,” Rayner notes, “and her language, her lexicon is completely different. It’s an exercise in finding common ground and seeing things from the other side.”
More broadly, science, and particularly medicine, functions at the intersections of empirical investigation and cultural beliefs and practices. This realization is at the heart of the “Life of Breath” experiment, which explores the biomedical elements of COPD, its impact on lived experience, and its relationship to physical and social environments. Engaging scientists and physicians more deeply with medical science’s implications for the public motivates participants to improve outcomes for patients beyond the boundaries of their research or protocol. In one Canadian project, artists, physicians, social workers, and engineers collaborated to design a pediatric waiting room whose floor tiles children could activate to project images on the wall. While administrative efforts aim to reduce waiting times, this project targeted patients’ qualitative experience of waiting.2
We appear to be in the midst of an evolution toward interdisciplinary cross-pollination. Similar coalescence during the Renaissance or in fin-de-siècle Vienna proved to be game changing. Eric Kandel makes a case that the autopsies that pathologist Carl von Rokitansky performed at the Vienna General Hospital arose from the same essential intellectual shift as the mission of both Sigmund Freud and visual artists to “look beneath the surface,” which yielded insights about human psychology and biologic disease.3 Today, globalization, the Internet, and increased understanding of neurophysiology reinforce our focus on complex networks, which suggest connections between apparently disparate elements of our biologic and social organism. These developments are, I believe, at the root of our interdisciplinary fervor. The centrality of networks as a key tool and metaphor of our age provides both an explanation and a conceptual justification for art–science collaborations.
Professional artists with an interest in medical care could prove enlightening assets to teams of medical scientists or practitioners. Learning from them involves some risk, since art–science collaborations raise questions that may not be answerable in conventional formats and may lead in unanticipated directions. But that is precisely their strength. A major tenet of the art–science movement is that the creativity inherent in such collaborations is synergistic and facilitates the development of radical new products and ideas.