The Art of Neuroscience

By: Shayna Herszage  |  May 23, 2021

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

Every time I tell someone my two majors, I enjoy seeing the surprised confusion on their face. As someone studying in the neuroscience concentration of the psychology major and the creative writing concentration of the English major, my two areas of study seem to be complete opposites. How can someone have a passion for two things so different as neuroscience and the arts? However, in my two years as a declared double major, I have learned that neuroscience and arts, in fact, have no problem coming together in harmony.

One example of this is the story of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience. Cajal’s dream, his entire life, was to go to school to become an artist. However, his father wanted him to study medicine, so he turned his back on art and complied with his father’s wishes. After medical school, however, he returned to his passion for art when he saw samples of brain tissue under a microscope. Instead of seeing a tangle of chaotic neuronal structures, he saw a series of patterns. Using his artistic eye and his knowledge of neuroscience, he drew vivid diagrams of neurons within the brain. By applying art to neuroscience, what was difficult to know about the brain and nervous system was elucidated.

Several decades after Cajal used his artistic skills for neuroscientific advancement, Dr. Oliver Sacks used his literary abilities to bring neurology to the public. Dr. Sacks is known for writing books such as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hatand “An Anthropologist on Mars.” In his books, Dr. Sacks discusses neurological disorders and anomalies he encountered as a neurologist. His books, while undoubtedly scientific in nature, also have a literary quality: they are fun to read, easy to understand without an education in neuroscience, and they have clear narratives. Thus, due to Dr. Sacks’s ability to make his literary skills and neurological background converge in his novels, readers are able to cultivate a love and understanding for neuroscience.

Both Sacks and Cajal opened my eyes to the idea that the arts and sciences, specifically neuroscience in my case, are not contradictory values. All my life, I had heard that some people are “arts people” and some are “science people.” I dreaded the part when I would have to make a choice. When I first declared myself a psychology major in the neuroscience track, I thought the choice had been made. But then I picked up a Sacks book at the bookstore, and a professor told me about Cajal soon afterward, and I realized I had not made a definitive choice between two fields I love, nor was I obligated to do so — and, what’s more, I could bring the two together.

For my final semester, I decided that my Advanced Creative Writing class was the chance I needed to try my hand at combining creative writing and neuroscience. For my project, I wrote a script inspired by “The Case of the Color-Blind Painter,” a chapter in “An Anthropologist on Mars” that describes a situation in which a painter suffered head trauma and, as a result, lost all color vision and only saw the world in shades of gray — a condition called achromatopsia.

Writing a play about neuroscience was a challenge — I wanted to be scientifically accurate, but I also wanted to maintain a compelling story. Now, however, I look at my work — a full length, two-act script — with satisfaction and a desire to improve it and make more efforts at combining the arts and neuroscience.

After completing my double major in an art and in a science, am I on the same level as Santiago Ramón y Cajal or Dr. Oliver Sacks? Not at all. But incredible people such as these have shown me that there is more than one path forward, and when the paths are combined, the results can be beautiful.