Bridging the Brain Divide
For those attending a recent RISD/BrownBrain Storm panel, the giant-sized cerebellum resting off to the side of the stage was symbolic of the meeting of the minds about to unfold. The creative directors ofEverett, a Providence-based dance and performing arts company with multiple RISD connections, hosted the discussion as part of a five-day residency at Brown University’s Granoff Center for the Arts.
Artists “should be part of the conversation” scientists are having about advanced research, noted Dorothy Jungels, co-founder and executive director of the company that has created provocative performance pieces wrestling with such issues such as autism, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).Brain Storm, the latest production she co-directed with her sonAaron Jungels 87 FAV, focuses on the beauty and complexity of the human brain.
“What happens when [artists and scientists] get together at the same table?” Jungels asked the audience clustered in pockets throughout the auditorium.
Sarah Pease 13 FD was among the panelists ready to respond. While working in RISD’s office of Government Relations, the furniture designer caught wind of the STEAM movement, the RISD-driven initiative to add “Art” to the national education agenda calling for greater emphasis on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Noticing that the student body was not fully aware of these efforts, she founded theRISD STEAM Club.
“RISD students stereotypically don’t pursue science or math…But it’s all connected,” she said at the panel discussion, adding that the popularity Apple products is an excellent example of what happens when technology gets a boost through the incorporation of art, design and aesthetics.
The STEAM concept is close to her heart, Pease says. With the help of her father, she grew up tinkering with model boats and potato launchers, gaining an early introduction to physics andmechanical engineering. And these experiences actually led her to pursue a college art education and a future bright with innovation. “I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms,” she explained. “But it was a hands-on introduction to science and design.”
Fellow panelist Michael Paradiso, a professor of neuroscience and director of Brown’s Center for Vision Research, literally showed how visual perception and brain wiring are inexplicably linked, noting that artists were among the first to understand how colors and dimension influence perception. Using optical illusion tricks, he explained to the delighted audience that human minds are programmed to recognize certain images – like faces – even if they aren’t the real deal. And in order to understand this concept, neither science nor art can be overlooked, the neuroscientist noted, adding “there’s circuitry in your brain that you can’t overcome.”
Panelist Lucy Spelman, who teaches biology at RISD, spoke about her own experience making interdisciplinary connections – during years spent studying an isolated population of mountain gorillas in the African wild. The zoologist soon discovered that the animals were contracting human diseases and getting sick, which meant that in order to protect the gorillas, the local population would need to be treated first. Thisis a difficult concept to relay using only hard data, she explained. “Science is more than just facts. It’s creative, challenging – it’s a personal endeavor.”
And ultimately, Spelman realized that the gorillas – much like ideas born from the marriage of art and science – can’t be held captive to manmade restrictions. And that is concept forward-thinking minds of any discipline can relate to.