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Portraits of the Mind: A Brief History of Visualizing the Brain

Few projects embody the fertile cross-pollination of art and science more beautifully than Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century (public library) — a book that sources its material in science, roots its aesthetic in art, and reads like a literary anthology, is making us swoon in all kinds of ways. Author Carl Schoonover explores — in breathtaking visual detail — the evolution of humanity’s understanding of the brain, from Medieval sketches to Victorian medical engravings to today’s most sophisticated 3D neuroimaging.

Schoonover curates images that come from data laboratories around the world, many of which are revealed to the world for the first time, contextualized through essays by leading scientists.

Axon Scaffolding Proteins (Photomicrograph, 2008) | The arrangement of proteins forming the inner scaffolding of axons, captured thanks to genetically engineered antibodies that help researchers study the molecular components neurons like specific types of proteins
Image by Michael Hendricks and Suresh Jesuthasan
Phrenological Skull (Drawing on human skull, 19th century) | A quasi-medical artifact of phrenology, the 19th-century pseudo-science positing that bumps on the head reflect the underlying shape and functionality of the brain, dividing the skull into regions that control specific aspects of one’s organs and personality
Photograph by Eszter Blahak/Semmelweis Museum

The foreword by Jonah Lehrer, one of our favorite science-distillers, only adds to the tome’s already irresistable allure.

Dog Olfactory Bulb (Drawing on paper, 1875) | A drawing of the first area in the brain that processes smells by physician and scientist Camillo Golgi, who invented a revolutionary technique for staining neurons still in use today
Drawing by Camillo Golgi. Courtesy of Dr. Paolo Mazzarello, University of Pavia
Hippocampus (Photomicrograph, 2005) | Genetically-encoded fluorescent proteins illuminate neurons in different colors in a modern version of the Golgi stain, a simple chemical coloring traditionally done with silver nitrate
Image by Tamily Weissman, Jeff Lichtman, and Joshua Sanes

While the history of brain research seems to be an extended exercise in Socratic the-more-we-learn-the-more-we-learn-how-little-we-know, Portraits of the Mind constructs a thrilling frame for hope in neuroscience by making the scientific understanding of the human brain both exciting and accessible, a digestible deluge of visual and intellectual fascination.

Images via The Atlantic

Published November 1, 2010




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