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Reflections on when Science meets Art

Words by Amy Holt Cline

Illustrations by Santiago Ramón y Cajal from the book The Beautiful Brain. From left: A diagram suggesting how the eyes might transmit a unified picture of the world to the brain; a Purkinje neuron from the human cerebellum; and a diagram showing the flow of information through the hippocampus in the brain.

As we all know, inspiration for a new idea, a painting or a design can come from anywhere. Ideas can strike in an instant or can be developed over a long period of time. Some of the greatest thinkers in history made their discoveries because, in addition to hard work, they allowed imagination, serendipity and play to inform their perspective along the way.

Common to both fields of science and art, include such mental practices as recognizing patterns, creating analogies, observing, abstracting, modelling, imaging and more. After studying hundreds of innovative thinkers in various fields, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein identified thirteen thinking tools commonly used by all successful thinkers regardless of the field they are based in (1999).

For example, Georg von Bekesy, a Nobel laureate in biophysics, studied art to better understand how living organisms functioned. It was the essence of what they represented that allowed him to see differently. Similarly, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who was a famous neuroscientist, spent half of his day observing neurons in the brain and spine under a microscope before spending the other half of his day drawing those patterns from memory. 

Ramon y Cajal was able to mentally see both small and large-scale patterns within the neurons in ways that scientists hadn’t previously realized.  Both Ramon y Cajal and Bekesy are Nobel Laureates, in the field of ‘Physiology or Medicine’ and interestingly they both developed their abilities and interests beyond science, in the field of art.

Reminiscent of the schools Ramon y Cajal and Bekesy attended in Europe, schools in the United States today are still largely set up to teach in single subjects although a conscious effort is being made to develop cross-curricular thinkers who are mentally prepared to combine content that connects subjects.

As a teacher who facilitates opportunities to help students understand biology through using art-based methods and visual thinking skills, I have witnessed a shift from content absorbers to content explorers in profound ways. Intermixed between traditional microscope work, dissections, fieldwork and tests, 9th-grade students are asked to build 3D models of the internal anatomy of organisms or to design and construct anatomically correct schooling fish using cardboard, a scroll saw and pastel chalk. 

As stated by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, it “has long been observed by psychologists that people who are innovative tend to participate in a wider range of activities and develop a higher degree of skills in those activities than other people” (pg 323)*.

Students, just like scientists and artists, need experience working with tools, such as computers, scroll saws, laser cutters, paint brushes, microscopes, drills, sewing machines and more to give them exposure to a variety of types of mediums that will help them create their thoughts in 3D form.  It is my hope to develop whole learners who can make contributions to the world through learning to read between the lines and make connections across subjects like the noteworthy scientists and artists have done throughout history.

*Amy Holt Cline is a Visual Science teacher who merges the fields of art and science to help learners with literacy learning differences better understand and fully participate in biology. Read her Master’s Thesis here. Amy teaches at AIM Academy near Philadelphia, PA.

(Picture courtesy of Amy holt cline. *Root‑Bernstein RS & Root‑Bernstein M. (1999). Sparks of Genius. The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin)
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