A few dozen large gray brains are printed on transparencies and arranged neatly on a light table. They’re the first images to show which parts of primate brains are receptive to the much-hyped “love hormone” oxytocin.
You’d never know that, though, from staring at the table of brains. It sits starkly in the middle of an art gallery, without so much as an informational plaque on the wall.
The aesthetics of scientific research
“Experimental Space” is the latest show at Oakland art gallery Aggregate Space, consisting of images and videos created by scientists in the course of their research. Gallery director Conrad M. Meyers II conceived the idea, and brought on Selene Foster and Christopher Reiger of the Bay Area Art and Science Interdisciplinary Collaborative Sessions as enthusiastic co-hosts.
The trio sent out an open call for submissions, but found it challenging to fill the show. “We didn’t say no to much,” said Meyers. “We said no to actual artists.” Most scientists, whose idea of showing their work is a conference presentation or a journal publication, were hesitant about the idea. “This is taking away their ability to frame it,” said Reiger. “It’s risky. Or they just don’t get it.”
Science is full of framing. Research papers are long and dull because they explain every methodological decision, label each figure ten different ways, run several independent statistical analyses, and finally list any future study that could disprove the results.
Take all that away, and you’re free to appreciate the pure aesthetics of a food web diagram or a mutant shrimp.
According to Meyers, the aim of Aggregate Space is to display art that gives, “The feeling that you’ll never in your life understand the whole story.” There could hardly be a more appropriate sentiment for an image snatched from the annals of research and plopped into an art gallery.
Do the displays in “Experimental Space” count as “art” even though they weren’t created with aesthetics in mind? Can they still be “science” once they’ve been deliberately divorced from their objective context?
A scientist who embraces subjectivity
According to Sara Freeman, the UC Davis neuroscientist whose stained slices of brain tissue are on display, even the thoroughly-explained science in journals isn’t really all that objective.
We’re often taught, simplistically, that science is the objective process we use to uncover the fundamental truths of our world. But in graduate school, Freeman discovered that every scientist makes choice after subjective choice: which part of the brain to focus on, which statistics to use, which people to include in a control group.
“The more you think you know about the area you’re working in, the more you realize how much we really don’t understand, and how subjective a lot of that knowledge really is,” she said.
She eventually worked through her crisis of faith, and accepted that decisions must be made. In fact, she says that taking responsibility for them can be empowering. “It’s all subjective, but if you are aware of it, you can work to come up with something more objective.”
Solving the primate brain puzzle
Freeman’s field of research, the effects of oxytocin on social behavior, is full of fascinating discoveries that can’t yet be fully explained. In humans oxytocin has been associated with trust and empathy, maternal care and sexual relationships–but our understanding of how the brain receives oxytocin signals is based primarily on work in rodents. This is only so useful for understanding ourselves. Rodent social interactions are dominated by smells, unlike the visual and auditory social cues of most primates.
Unfortunately, the chemicals that scientists use to map oxytocin receptors in rodent brains don’t work as well in primates. Instead of binding exclusively to oxytocin receptors, the chemicals turn promiscuous, attaching themselves to receptors for both oxytocin and another hormone called vasopressin.
Freeman has developed a new technique to tell which receptor is which. She uses a precise concentration of an entirely different molecule to tie up the vasopressin receptors, forcing the promiscuous binding chemicals into monogamy with oxytocin receptors.
This restricted binding revealed that the primate she was studying, the rhesus macaque, has oxytocin receptors in parts of its brain that deal with both vision and hearing. Freeman also found receptors in regions of higher-order processing, which suggests more nuanced behavioral effects than are seen in rodents. These brain maps will almost certainly help us understand the complexity of the oxytocin system, and refine the molecule’s use in medical treatment.
To my mind, that usefulness adds significantly to their aesthetic appeal.