Dance of the Neurons: The Art of Neuroscience

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Lisa Borgsdorf

Published on May 25, 2015

  • Description:

    “Dance of the Neurons: The Art of Neuroscience” is on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. Up four flights of circular stairs (yes, there is an elevator should you need or prefer) and to the left I was greeted by a hallway bursting with color. If I hadn’t read the sign outside with the exhibition title clearly displayed, I might have thought I was looking at images of plant life submerged inside lava lamps. Or an iridescent coral reefs deep under sea. The pictures themselves were so striking to look at that I almost didn’t want to read the introductory panel or the labels. Knowing the exhibit had to do with the study of neuroscience, however, I was curious to discover what there was to learn. What was I really looking at anyway?

    The introductory panel is straightforward enough. These images come from the view under the microscope where scientists in various fields are looking for information about cell structure and growth that will help them learn more about health and disease. And if you buy the catalog, proceeds go to support continuing research at the University of Michigan Department of Organogenesis. (I learned that the Department of Organogenesis is interested in the study of organ formation, organ function, and organ disease. I did not learn what the various fields are that have come together to do this work.)

    The approach to the labels seems to be to provide the answers to the questions, “what am I looking at?” “why does it look that way?” and “why should I care?” In many cases this is successfully achieved. Each label has an inviting title that by and large refers to what the image looks like, rather than what it actually is. For example, one title, “Rose Garden” refers to a large horizontal image made up primarily of greens, blues, and pinks with the green occurring most densely at the bottom such that it looks a bit like and Impressionist painting of a flower garden. The text on each label contains a couple of words highlighted in yellow that let you know you are looking at an embryonic mouse brain, a chicken embryo, brain tissue, ear structures, and so on. Most labels indicate why the image is interesting and useful for the scientists in language that I could understand. For example, in the “Rose Garden,” the green color shows the places between the cells where the cells join. The scientists can see whether the cells are dividing properly by looking at the relationship of the greens to the blues and pinks. The label goes on to say that cell division is important for healthy brain development. Cool! The label has answered the basics. Now that I have gotten this far, I wonder, well, does the image show me healthy cell division or unhealthy? Which one am I seeing here?

    Not all the labels do their job equally. Some are quite full with terminology that I could not decipher. Depending on which label you start with you might get really interested in the scientific content of the images whereas in other cases you might just stick to the pleasure of looking at the interplay of colors and shapes. For example, in one label titled “Contact” it says, “Each podocyte sends out elaborate ‘foot processes’ that interdigitate with the foot processes of other podocytes. “ Huh? What are foot processes? And what is interdigitate? Microsoft Word doesn’t know either – it tells me I need to run the spell check on that one. Podocyte is defined—they are filtration cells in the kidney—but the cumulative effect of having a new word, an unfamiliar word, and an undefined process all in the same sentence is mostly confusion.

    For a museum whose large majority of visitors are children and families, I would imagine this small exhibit mostly makes its impact in the “ooh! ahh!” response to the beautiful images. It’s on the way to the wonderful planetarium there so I’m not entirely sure how much the museum really wants us to stop and read the labels so much as make the journey to the main attraction more pleasurable, especially if you’re waiting in line. (A laudable purpose. Who likes standing in a boring hallway?)

    The take-away: The images are lovely to look at and I enjoyed thinking about the intersection of art and science. The idea that these teeny tiny things—these cells and neurons—could be so beautiful was pretty enchanting. What did I learn? Well, I think mostly some of my pre-existing ideas were reinforced. People who want to be scientists have to go to school for a very long time to learn a very special language and somewhere along the way some of them forget how to speak English. Scientists want to understand how the world works so that they can make it better. Scientists also use very sophisticated technology and understand the world at a level of detail that is mysterious and wonderful. Science can be beautiful and magical. And without understanding all the detail, I could appreciate that.

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