Complexity and Accessibility: Why Science Needs Art

Elaine Reynolds and Michael Hadley, The Gratuitous Gram (installation shot), 2014. Food shortening, sugar, protein powder, and other foodstuffs on plate.

Art and science are disciplines that have a shared history but differ in underlying goals, perspective, and practice. When a partnership is formed between the two disciplines, their differences can be a strength in approaching ideas. As a neuroscientist and educator, I see many benefits to science, art, and public outreach that can be accomplished through collaboration.

One area in which science needs art’s help is in understanding complex systems. Science has been taking a reductionist approach for so long that scientists are struggling with the analysis of systems. It’s as if they have taken the car apart and can’t put it back together. For example, in neuroscience we do not understand how molecular, cellular, or circuit level events in the nervous system lead to behavior or consciousness. Even constructionist approaches in the field fail to consider the emergent properties often seen with systems. Because visual art has a history of practice in which artists construct perception from components, I believe art offers neuroscience an opportunity to achieve a greater understanding of emergent systems. Even if art uses its toolbox to construct form from parts, it would allow scientists to view the system in new or unique ways. Better yet, art could construct metaphors for, or multiple alternative views of, scientific processes. These contributions might allow scientists to develop hypotheses about systems that are testable. I can imagine that an artist might become part of a scientific problem-solving team, much like modelers have been included more recently. 

An example of a visual artist who I believe is making a significant contribution in this way is Ellen Levy. Her work on complex systems creates analogies and juxtapositions that are useful in thinking about neurological processes like attention and information flow. This is more than just using science as an inspiration; it’s an exercise in imagining how the processes themselves might work. I have been incorporating these ideas in my own work with students. Students spend a semester imagining possible solutions to perceptual problems using visual art (traditional or digital) to work out hypotheses that they will test scientifically in later semesters. In the past, students have worked on representations of multisensory perception before attacking computation models of that problem. Currently, students are creating visual representations of conflicting perceptions processed in different parts of the brain that they can use to explore the perceptions more fully.

Art’s ability to create metaphors for complex ideas could allow both art and science to become more accessible, thus facilitating public discussion. An example of this approach is my collaborative work with Michael Hadley, a Chicago-based artist, which questions the impact of science on our relationship to food. One piece, called The Gratuitous Gram, displayed plates of food based on the nutrients featured as measurements on food labels. We represented food as composed of grams of lard, protein powder, and sugar. A tent was set up at a local farmer’s market where people could observe and discuss the food we had plated and compose their own food according to the labels. This work suggests that food is more than a sum of these mandated measurements and questions how government offers nutritional advice. In another project, we took a near-future look at advertising for genetically modified food. We created a company called Promise Foods that embraced its new GM product: a caffeinated apple. The installation and company website created for the project included an advertising campaign for the apple as well as other artifacts for the company such as apple packaging, a company logo, and FDA/EPA applications. The project, titled Promise Foods, was exhibited at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York Hall of Science.

While artists and scientists can work on visualizing scientific ideas independently, I believe these collaborations could be rich and could open new horizons for the interaction between art, science and society. As more scientists and artists begin working together and speaking each other’s languages, the possibilities and potential will become clearer for both fields. 


Elaine R. Reynolds

Elaine Reynolds is a neuroscientist and educator at Lafayette College in Easton, PA.