In the Grey Zone, With a Hint of Colour: The interplay between art and science in academically-driven careers
By Julianna Svishchuk
A few years ago, I was reading a book entitled This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin. The book essentially talked about why we tend to develop fascinations or, more boldly put, obsessions with abstract concepts such as music (the subtitle of the book reading The Science of a Human Obsession). Daniel Levitin is a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at McGill University. He also happens to be a musician, and, evidently, a writer. Many of his publications involve his fascination with the psychology of music, and why it seems to affect us to such extent, sometimes even on a physiological level. From the very first page of the book, I was instantly captivated by the way in which he viewed the subjects of music and science – two seemingly mutually exclusive or unrelated themes. He begins the book with an excerpt from American neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers — “I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.” This passage alone seemed to stick with me over the years.
Throughout my life, I’ve shaped my academics around wanting to pursue science as a career. Yet, my artistic mind has never failed to be my primary source of energy, inspiration and creativity. I almost constantly have music playing through my head (much to my concentration’s discontent) and have been dancing to that music ever since the day I could walk. At a very young age, I developed a fascination with Vincent van Gogh, and started writing him letters in hope that the ink would somehow seep its way into “The Twilight Zone” so he could read them and feel less lonely. The majority of the friends I had created in my childhood were the characters that I had made up, writing about them on white pages that my mother would later sew together into what I called “my novellas.” As a whole, my life has been governed by art, by a love for story-writing and storytelling, by an obsession with music, by an addiction to sketching all over my school notes. As I saw it, it was nothing but a hobby — something to do in my spare time that perhaps made my life a little bit more colourful, literally and metaphorically speaking.
However, as my time in academia went on, and more serious opportunities started coming my way, I began to feel that perhaps not everybody shared the same opinion. As I started applying for research positions, academic programs and organizations, etc., I started receiving some unexpected feedback. Since my artistic mind was such a big part of me as an individual, I felt that it was essential to discuss this side of myself when given the opportunity. To my surprise, the amount of higher academics who responded with disinterest when hearing this was astounding. What followed was, of course, rejection. I couldn’t understand — why was I being pushed away for thinking a little bit differently when it came to answering their questions?
As I see it, art is what our brain does when trying to turn our emotions into something tangible. It’s a creation of another world — one that, at times, helps relieve us from the challenges we face in our real world. To me, it’s where my mind goes when I feel elation, when I feel pain, when I want to feel as much as possible. Those nights of playing music in your ears while drawing or writing whatever comes to mind with trembling adrenaline-surged hands are some of the most cathartic experiences I’ve had. The drawings and words that come out of it are even more intriguing — not in the sense that I am an outstandingly skilled artist or writer — but in the sense that music, and that vibration sent throughout my entire body, brings images and ideas to my mind that my day-to-day brain wouldn’t normally see. It’s beautiful, really, to me at least.
Nonetheless, I’m currently studying Microbiology and Mathematics, two subjects that are often viewed as incompatible with anything artistic. When was the last time you associated a lab nerd in goggles with a devastated writer in tortoise-shell glasses and a tweed jacket? What’s often misunderstood is that a knack for one doesn’t instantly imply a deficit or disregard for the other. I don’t see myself as a bad “scientist” because I primarily consider myself an artist, nor do I think I’m a bad artist because of my interest in science. I see myself as lucky to be able to somewhat understand both sides, and fortunate be able to apply one to the other.
Although the intertwining of arts and science may seem novel to some, the interplay between the subjects has actually been noted over the past hundreds, even thousands of years, frequently in rather intriguing and unexpected situations. In an essay published in Field Notes on Science and Nature, a culmination of hand-written notes and sketches made by numerous scientists in the process of their research, Jonathan Kingdon, an researcher of African mammals at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, discusses the importance of his passion for drawing while studying the evolution of these mammals. He claims that in taking the time to allow his hand to learn and feel the exact morphology of the animals, he found himself paying closer and closer attention to details, to the small nuances that shifted between species. Through a desire to translate his intrigue of science into a more instinctual, more humanistic language — that is, his art — he was able to refine his skill in observation, and more importantly, in patience. He argues that something like photography did not have the same impact — contrary to forcing him into delicate observation, the camera did the work of looking for him.
Artistically-developed brains were also put to work during a social experiment attempted by CERN (Europe’s leading particle physics laboratory) in June of 2000. The goal was to assemble 12 contemporary artists and 12 contemporary particle physicists in hope of redefining the relationship between art and science. The experiment turned out rather successful, as the group ended up creating multiple pieces of art that were displayed in an exhibit entitled Signatures of the Invisible. In an article published in Nature, Ken McMullen, a film director and pioneer of the Signatures of the Invisible project, described the interplay between the two extremes as “the [contrary] to a meeting between opposites,” rather “a correspondence between equal partners from different traditions.” He claimed that although the project enabled a liberated flow of ideas between two very different groups of individuals, both extremes were infatuated with the mysteries that the Universe holds, equally perplexed with the concept of their own existence in this galaxy.
One encounter that inspired me above all to write about this issue was a presentation that I was lucky enough to see in around November of 2018. As a volunteer at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, I had heard about a neurologist who was coming from Boston to give a talk entitled Neurological Problems of Musical Masters. I was, of course, intrigued. At first, however, I had no idea what to expect. Was somebody coming in to talk about medicine? About composers? About medicine and composers? How? In what context? Regardless, seeing the words “musical” and “neurological problems” in one sentence got me very curious. The talk was to take place at 8:00am on a weekday, and so, I knew I would still be able to get to my 10:00am class after seeing the presentation. Having arrived for 8:00am, I come to find out that the presenter was delayed in Ottawa, and would be coming in at 1:00pm to give the talk instead. “Hm”, I thought – “I’ll have to miss my Differential Equations lecture…Is it worth it?”. Thinking of this now is rather amusing, because this talk turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career so far.
When I first walked into the auditorium at 1:00pm (still questioning my choice to skip math class), there was a man sitting at an electric piano at the front of the room, playing a piece I had never heard before. “Where did the piano come from?” I thought. Who was this man? Surely, he couldn’t be the neurologist coming in to give the talk. How could he be a clinician, and an exceptional pianist all in one life cycle? I sat down and waited until the man stood up from the piano, receiving an applause, and approached the podium to introduce himself as Dr. Phillip Pearl, a member of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, the Director of Epilepsy and Clinical Neurophysiology at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a Professor of Neurology — all at Harvard Medical School. I was shocked. Never in my life would I believe that somebody so facile with the piano could be all that. This was to be a very compelling hour.
The talk focused on Dr. Pearl’s interest in the medical history of legendary composers and musicians. He had somehow found information regarding the ages at which Beethoven started losing his hearing, the background behind Shostakovich’s heart disease, and even showed us photographs of Gershwin’s brain tumour, telling stories about Gershwin’s synesthetic influence when writing Rhapsody in Blue. But the aspect that struck me most was that after each composer was discussed, Dr. Pearl would move to the piano, and play a few pieces that he mentioned during his talk, discussing along the way as to why they sounded the way they did. I was in awe — never had I seen such a presentation. I found myself sitting in the middle of the room, something very strong radiating through my mind and body, for the first time thinking “somebody finally gets it”. The moment the lecture ended, I knew that I needed to get in contact with this professor. Within a matter of two days, after having written to my supervisor, begging her to scope out his email, I found myself writing to Dr. Pearl, expressing how much I was influenced by his outlook on what it was to be human.
Upon asking him for his opinion on the topic, something I noticed he very frequently mentioned was the aspect of humanism, a philosophy that focuses on maximizing human endeavour through progressive personal and social development. In his response, he made note of the fact that humanism is rather essential to resilience, a quality that is often necessary for potential progress in the field of science and medicine. As he openly stated; “The arts protect an individual from burn-out.” Claiming that professionalism in the field of medicine requires frequent deviation from isolated factual analysis and critical care, he stated that upon integrating the arts into his approach to his career, he was able to establish a greater understanding and appreciation for a vast variety of personalities, as well as developing novel and rather distinct solutions to the problems he faced.
When I asked if he ever found art to be a hindrance to his progress in academia, Dr. Pearl made it clear that although he did face certain challenges associated with this aspect, he does not necessarily find that it lead to any hindrance, so to speak. Expressing that he isn’t so much a fan of musical accuracy or “correctness” as he is of musical improvisation and creativity, Dr. Pearl mentioned that this preference had an influence on his patience, and his desire to be wary of fine detail and precision when it came to science. Claiming that he could not see himself studying one very niche, and therefore limiting, problem to extraneous detail as a PhD researcher, he said that his artistic endeavours, on the contrary, aided him in developing stronger human interaction when it came to being a physician. Dr. Pearl has recently been awarded the directorship role in a course at Harvard Medical School entitled Global Pediatric Leadership, which will address issues associated with modern approaches to medicine “through the lens of humanism, resilience and the integration of the arts” in order to establish a sense of harmony and fulfillment within the participating aspiring professionals.
Those kids in science class who are constantly told to “think critically”, to “think scientifically”, to “stop drawing all over themselves”, to “stop drumming their fingers on the desk”, are all hidden gems that belong in the grey zone of art and science.
The last number of years, having been filled with a plethora of reading, researching, attending talks, really striving to do anything in my power to acquaint myself with like-minded individuals, I must say my outlook on the subject has significantly been refined. As a young child, my obsession with all things artistic and imaginative was nothing more than something I did when I got home from school. As the years went on, and complications started coming my way, it became rather difficult to continue seeing value in myself. More so, it became difficult to establish my value amongst the professionals I was beginning to be surrounded by. Although I felt remarkably proud and accepting for being the way that I was, it became apparent to me that not everybody could see what I saw. Even if they did, there was no guarantee that what they saw would be of any interest to them. For me, my ability to see a rainbow in the puddles on the ground while others see only muddy water is a quality that I respect, and don’t want to change. To me, having the desire to constantly draw the things I see in my mind, to focus on their shapes, their emotions, the way that they feel – it’s what I’m best at. I feel as though (like Dr. Pearl had mentioned) I have the capacity to understand a level of depth in other individuals, because of my fascination with conveying emotion.
Those kids in science class who are constantly told to “think critically”, to “think scientifically”, to “stop drawing all over themselves”, to “stop drumming their fingers on the desk”, are all hidden gems that belong in the grey zone of art and science. I, on the contrary, feel that we should think critically, but imaginatively — think with colour, with creativity, with endeavour. The drawings that cover our non-dominant arms, dancing and telling stories all over our school notes, are nothing less than a depiction of where our minds were at that moment in time — an attempt to output the enraged imagination that’s constantly being constrained by our skull. The sore fingertips, the achy wrists — an attempt to harmonize with the music we hear, there’s something so beautiful about it. When seeing Dr. Pearl, I was infatuated with the story of his hands, hands that had been held by so many children, that had taken so many illnesses away from them, but had also had a virtuous resonance embedded in them — the power to create phenomenal music.
Although the consequences of having such artistic drive in an academic setting can be seen as rather detrimental, I feel that it is much more wise to view it as quite auspicious. I can confidently say that I will never stop drawing, I will never stop playing music, nor will I ever stop telling stories, regardless of who I tell them to. To me, my artistic capacity is what makes me unique, what gives me new perspective — it’s what makes me me. If I do happen to come across others who feel a similar isolation, I’ll most definitely gravitate towards them, and I’m sure we’ll manage to delve into a fascinating conversation. Conversely, if an academic superior sees no value in what I have to offer, perhaps I’m not meant to in that environment to begin with. Regardless of the path that this strange kaleidoscope of interests will take me on, I feel that I’ll forever remain in the grey zone — with just a hint of colour, of course.
Julianna is a third year Microbiology and Mathematics student at University of Calgary.