Bridging Art & Neuroscience: A Contemplation of Elizabeth Jameson’s Art

Elizabeth Jameson is an artist who uses her art as a way to reclaim her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) from the scientific community. Through art, she is able to take custody of the often unsettling and clinical black-and-white MRI scans. She uses color to transform the scans into something that invites others to contemplate the beauty of the brain.

As a former public-interest lawyer, Jameson felt disempowered when she was diagnosed with MS and could no longer pursue her passion for public service. She stumbled upon art when her friend took her to an art class after her diagnosis. When she picked up her first paintbrush, she found herself falling in love with the warmth and solace that art provided her. She enjoyed mixing vibrant colors, experimenting with new materials, and grasping with complex ideas through her art. After she discovered her newfound strength through creative expression, she wanted to use art as a medium to empower others.

For this piece, we interviewed Elizabeth Jameson and Anthony Norcia, Ph.D, a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford, about the intersection of art and neuroscience that appears in three of Jameson’s paintings, which incorporate vibrant French dyes on silk. Dr. Norcia specializes in visual development in young children. He found Jameson’s pieces to be striking against the many MRI images he examines daily. A fresh re-rendering of the scientific tool, Jameson’s abilities have allowed her to take control of her situation.  

 “Conversation with Myself” by Elizabeth Jameson. French dyes on silk.

“Conversation with Myself” by Elizabeth Jameson. French dyes on silk.

Norcia: I’m sure on a day-to-day basis we are largely not aware of the inner, powerful mechanisms of the brain.

In “Conversation with Myself” it seems to be shot from the console with the brain glowing. I’ve seen multiple times the console with the text on the side, but the presence of the glowing colors communicates that something else is going on. There’s energy — the brain is a living thing.

All of a sudden, people realize: the brain has different parts and is doing different things, and sometimes some parts are more or less active. I think scientists should use more visual images to get the public to understand and to think. If it’s a small child’s brain, all the better.

Jameson: Yes, I agree - research on the brain development for children is so important. I’m currently working with a professor on brain scans of disadvantaged children under stress, such as lack of nutrition or poverty. We are trying to make data more readable so people can become more aware of these issues.

Norcia: For a scientist, a graph is the most obvious way to represent data. With numerical data and graphs, lay people may not grasp graphs intuitively. Art is intuitive. Art speaks to people through a different mode, so a graph is not the best way to make a narrative. So far we scientists haven’t been good at communicating our research, and it’s important that people understand it.

Jameson: Scientists and lay people speak very, very different languages.

Norcia: Hopefully art can be the mediator between the public and the [scientific community].

 “Kaleidoscope” by Elizabeth Jameson. 

“Kaleidoscope” by Elizabeth Jameson. 

Norcia: The first thing that struck me was the saturation and the choice of colors - it draws the attention of the viewer. There’s also an interesting conversation happening between the geometry of the piece. To me, the piece looks like windows - perhaps, windows to the brain. The smaller rectangles look like pixels. There were also actual, identifiable brain sections that contrasted so much with the pixels because they are in this natural form. Thus, some rectangles are in a verbatim and biological form while other rectangles are more abstract.

That’s kind of how we [scientists] think of the images, “Oh, if we could only have a sharper image, it would make things so much easier for us.” There are different levels of literalness and accessibility and really wonderful colors.

Jameson: It was lots of fun bridging the clinical and non-clinical in that piece.

 “Celebration” by Elizabeth Jameson. Solarplate Etching on Paper.

“Celebration” by Elizabeth Jameson. Solarplate Etching on Paper.

Norcia: I appreciate the emotional contact the viewer makes with the art. “Celebration” was amazing. I know as a scientist that it depicts arteries, but to me, they look like dancers. Very Matisse. I have a very positive feeling about this object that would otherwise be treated as a clinical object to be dissected.

We typically think of many medical things, such as human anatomy, to be scary - but in this image, you are transforming it by drawing people into it. There’s beauty here and excitement and joy. The image is no longer creepy but becomes interesting and cool.

A lot of this has to do with how information is conveyed. Many people do not think of the internal inner workings of their brain while they are thinking. It’s like looking at a map — you can see the nooks and crannies. You become fascinated by a particular part of the map, which you previously overlooked. This is similar to your art, you shed light on parts people previously haven’t seen.

Jameson: Exactly, I wanted to create images of clinical data, making the images more approachable.

Norcia: We’re approaching a new space here; it’s a different language. The scientist revisits his work and finds a new way of seeing.

Jameson: Imaging makes the invisible visible. The mystery of how the brain works becomes visible. Yet, imaging is not a neutral act for patients. There’s a psychological impact on people who have their MRIs done. It can be invasive since an MRI is a very vulnerable space as you’re naked and your brain processes become exposed. The question is, how do we as patients cope with the MRIs? That’s why we need to develop narratives and take ownership of the data.

 

For more information about Elizabeth Jameson's art, please visit www.jamesonfineart.com.