The colour of thought: inside and outside brains in visual art.

di Elena Fanelli

In april 2001 a street exhibition linked with “BrainForum”, the annual forum about neuroscience, opened in Milan.
It was called “The color of thought” and there was almoust 30 panel with giant images of brain events compared to modern art paintings by famous painters of last century.

Here some examples:

To the left of the image of a neuron. To the right of ‘The Fountain’ by Gustav Klimt (1909)

To the left brain damage. To the right ‘Camouflage’ by Andy Warhol (1987)

To the left growing astrocytes. To the right ‘Red Plastic’ by Alberto Burri (1961)

The tecnique they used for make these photos is called “Brainbow” technique and it works some ways like tv or computer monitor.
All colors in old monitors were formed by mixing three primary colors: cyan, magenta and yellow. In graphics is called Tri-color technique.
Actual monitors uses four-color process or more (adding for example green in the primary colors). This is the reason why when you try to run an old videogame the computer asks you to change the monitor resolution to 256 colours.

In neuroscience there was an old tecnique to “coloured” brain cells invented by Camillo Golgi in 1873 but it allowed to color just few neuron at time.
The 256 video resolution.

This new tecnique, developed in the Spring of 2007 by a team led by Jeff W. Lichtman and Joshua R. Sanes, both professors of Molecular & Cellular Biology in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, consist in a genetic engineering stuff.

In substance they have modified the DNA of some mice with inserted fluorescence genes from coral, jellyfish and a bacteria called Cre. And this fluorescents ints hundreds of brain cells at a time in about 90 various colors. And, most important, you can see how cells interact together. Instead of having a vision of just one cell within a circuit, you have a vision of the circuit itself.

Two problems in this tecnique:
1. It works only with modified mice. No normal mice and mostly no human.
2. It cost a fortune. For see this wonderfull pictures you’ve to buy several hundred thousands dollars fluorescent microscopes.

My own speculations about this street exhibition are on the perspective of the humanistic vision of it. I wonder how is possible that something that already exists in nature, although in tiny and hidden form, is visible and paintable for some genius artistic minds.
In some way it’s like they paint what they have in their mind VISUALLY that unconsciously was what their mind was PHYSICALLY.