Dimmer switches of conscience

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The Independent Culture
From The start I liked the logo: a fistful of blue test-tubes placed like brushes through a red artist's palette, encapsulating the possible interaction between art and science, "Sci-Art". Sci-Art is a remarkable scheme initiated recently by the Wellcome Trust. It arose from an unlikely beginning: a physiologist specializing in the inner ear, Dr Matthew Holley, had used highly magnified images of it for decorative enamels. This clear example of science inspiring art led to the Wellcome Trust hosting an exhibition ("Look Hear") for propounding the idea of mixing the two. Such was the success of these and related shows that Laurence Smaje, Ken Arnold and others at the Wellcome Trust went further and developed the Sci-Art initiative to bring together scientific and artistic communities.

There has been an awesome minority of all-rounders such as Descartes and da Vinci, who have eloquently expressed scientific theories with aesthetic images, and the idea that science might present a new angle to artists is neither surprising nor particularly controversial. High-tech images of the brain, or high magnification of body parts can indeed be aesthetic. Abstracted scientific images have now proved arresting too - Mandelbrot set, for example, where lop-sided spheres laced with little protuberances offer infinite possibilities of magnification as each protuberance is itself revealed to be a lop-sided sphere covered with protuberances, and so on.

But that is still not the point. One under-explored but exciting issue is whether visual images could actually inspire new turns in science. For example, the interpretation of patients' artwork might provide insights into minds disrupted by schizophrenia; or the analysis of an individual's visual imagery might throw light on processes for memory. But could art be more central still in aiding science? After all, design can certainly inspire technology: in designer Nick Butler's devices form and function are inseparable - be they scissors that pull apart to function as knives, or complex machines where closing a lid will automatically entail a requisite cleaning.

Even when Nature has done the construction and design work, the scientist might still use the anatomical structure to extrapolate function. Obvious perhaps for those who point to the heart as a pump or the lungs as bellows - but what about the brain? Its structure gives no clues as to how, for example, it might be responsible for consciousness. Enter the artist. If we had a metaphor in the form of a visual image, then that would provide a framework for contemplating the problem. Francis Crick once suggested that consciousness was like a "searchlight". I myself have opted for a dimmer switch to give the idea of consciousness being graded not only within the animal kingdom, but even from one waking moment to the next.

Once a metaphor has been found, its value could be not only to give a vivid description, but actually to bootstrap further ideas. For example, what would the light be illuminating? I have often thought that degree of consciousness at any moment could be likened to ripples emanating from a stone thrown into a puddle. This image could in turn point the way to identifying other contributing factors to consciousness that would also need counterparts in the functioning nervous system. The size of the stone, for example, could be the intensity of the stimulation, the loudness of a faulty exhaust, or the smell of rotting fish. Whether the final scenario is ultimately correct, however, would depend on the rigors of scientific method, not the impact or inspiration of the image.

At least for exploring the the human mind, Sci-Art could provide a happy forum, where subjective images give rise to objectively testable ideas. Agonies over the hypothetical similarities and differences between science and art could eventually give way to a real and practical symbiosis.

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Physic, London