For centuries art has been used as a universal method of communication. Art can portray outer and inner beauty, emotional state, or a fleeting feeling. It can attract a viewer’s attention to the big picture by portraying an overarching message, or a tiny detail emphasizing a very personal experience. Here I will describe how scientifically inspired art can be used in five different, but inevitably interlinked contexts to improve many aspects of communication.
Scientists usually think of themselves as rational left-brained individuals, whose daily lives consist of logical decisions based on solid numerical data. Yet they still appreciate visual arts. The main form of “art” available in a scientist’s daily life is microscopy. Microscopy not only provides data, but also presents amazing images that anyone can appreciate. In the recent years, scientists even began to hold competitions for the most awe-inspiring microscopy images. Confocal microscopy in particular presents striking images, that can be interpreted as abstract art by an untrained eye. Yet to scientists, they represent years of hard work, resulting in major breakthroughs of scientific discoveries. Therefore, a lot of scientists enlarge and proudly exhibit images of their most beautiful and significant findings. Seeing these images provides them with an extra source of gratification.
How is most of basic research funded? The vast majority of funding comes from the National Institutes of Health, which in turn receives its money from the taxpayers. Therefore, if science is primarily funded by the general public, people outside the scientific community have the right to know how their money is being spent. Poor communication between these two groups can result in ridiculously disappointing misunderstandings. Below is a humorous depiction of such disconnect. Visual portrayal of scientific information can make it easier for people without specialized education to understand what happens “behind the closed doors”. Art can act as a prompt to begin the dialogue.
Just like their tax-paying parents, children can feel uneasy when the subject of science comes up. They may doubt their ability to learn it or picture scientists as crazy looking individuals in white coats with disheveled hair. Yet, in order for society to keep moving forward, scientific education is more important than ever. Kids should feel excited about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math), rather than afraid of it. One way of promoting this attitude is to gradually present them with scientific topics in bite-sized pieces. Children are ever curious and love engaging, thought-provoking conversations. It is their parents’ responsibility to make sure that their curiosity grows and flourishes throughout their lives.
Patients and disease awareness
A couple of years ago, I attended a large meeting, where people working in the biomedical community were presented with a new potential treatment for migraines. In order to motivate the employees, the speaker asked how many people in the audience suffer from migraines. Half of the people raised their hands. The initiative to address this condition was certainly very motivating. Yet it made me wonder – if the topic would have been a more serious condition, such as multiple sclerosis or epilepsy, would the patients have equal courage to raise their hands? Most likely not, because they would have a sense of stigma associated with these conditions, even in a scientific community focused on neurological disorders. In such cases, art can serve as an icebreaker, allowing people to gently start the conversation on an uncomfortable topic. Breaking the ice can allow them to achieve more support from the people around them and move forward.
Last but certainly not least comes the topic of art therapy. Art therapy is a relatively new concept, where people with conditions such as anxiety or depression can use art as a form of self-expression. Producing art can be a calming activity, it can provide an outlet for emotions and provide a glimpse of your inner state to others. I recently spoke with a pediatric psychiatrist, who uses art in his sessions with children. He provides them with art materials and suggests beginning a small project to help them feel comfortable and relaxed. Then he can begin to probe what may be bothering them.
In summary, scientifically inspired art can aid in improving communication, education, patient awareness and mental health, making it an important aspect in daily life of many.