The Beautiful Brain

Art and neuroscience in a heady combination at the Weisman

A team at Harvard University created this image from The Beautiful Brain at the Weisman Art Museum. It shows individual brain neurons in different colors flowing through crowded biological space.

photo by jeff Lichtman, Jean Livet, and joshua sanes at harvard university, 2007, light micrograph. lent by jeff lichtman

There are few mysteries as complex and profound as the workings of our own minds. In the last century-plus, though, we’ve learned so much about the infinite plains of thought (as well as the vastness of the universe) that we might well hope future generations will live in a different world entirely. At the top of the list of those we have to thank is a Spanish scientist whose name is less recognized than Albert Einstein’s, but whose pioneering discoveries in neuroscience are as important as the contributions the German-born genius made to physics.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was an extraordinary, visionary researcher who wedded his artistic skills with laboratory advances to revolutionize his field. The Beautiful Brain at the Weisman is the first exhibit to properly lend context and curation to the drawings he made during his study of the brain and its cells—detailed depictions of his groundbreaking work analyzing human tissue as well as his draftsman’s capacity for making it accessible to colleagues and laypeople alike. Along with Cajal’s drawings are contemporary visualizations of the brain using scientific imagining, bringing into digital focus a science that has built on Cajal’s work and confirmed many of his findings. Taken as a whole, the exhibit can be experienced as the work of artists crafting infinite complexity and rendering them with all the restless energy and tumultuous flow of the mind—the realm of cognition and dreams as images that seems to emerge from an unearthly realm (but which, of course, resides in that shadowy place between our ears).

Santiago Ramón Y Cajal, Untitled (Self-Portrait, 1876)


Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a cut nerve outside the spinal cord, 1913, ink and pencil on paper

Photo courtesy of Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas

The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal
January 28 – May 21
Weisman Art Museum