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Hyde Park, London, Summer 1851— Atop the grassy plains stands a quite remarkable structure; a regimented iron skeleton adorned with glass of bewildering grandeur. Catching the sun, the Crystal Palace lords over Knightsbridge. A greenhouse of unimaginable proportions, the building stretches almost 40 metres into the sky, engulfing the tallest trees, and stands upon 90,000 square metres of earth.
Within, the forefront of human endeavour in industry and manufacturing is housed. Nation’s flags and canvas awnings add a shock of colour to the engineered interior. Items from all around the modern world are paraded to the tens of thousands of astonished visitors that mill by every day, their echoes hovering amongst the rafters.
Organised by Prince Albert and Henry Cole, The Great Exhibition celebrated Britain’s and the world’s advances in various industries. Rapid printing machines, carriages and intricate French tapestries are just a fraction of some of the sights that were on offer. It was an unmitigated success. Opening in May 1851, the 5-month exhibit saw 6 million people pay entry, raising a profit of £186,000. This money would not be squandered. Prince Albert’s ambition was to use it to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”.
An area of London’s prime real estate, totalling 87-acres and stretching from Kensington Gore to Cromwell Road, was bought up and developed. The area became, first satirically then more affectionately, known as ‘Albertopolis’. Today, it is more commonly referred to as London’s Museum Quarter and is the home of world-leading institutions for art, music, design, science and engineering.
“You mean those tiny bumps on my tongue mean I can taste chocolate?”
The girl’s face flushes with excitement as she beckons for the handheld camera to continue examining her taste buds.
It’s mid-August and the summer holidays are in full swing at the @Bristol science centre. Children swarm around the benches and stools that make up the open plan LiveLab area, as they attempt various taste and flavour-themed experiments.
The centre is packed; the noise and energy levels indicate clearly that the interactive science on offer is being wolfed down more enthusiastically than the remains of the strawberry dissection.
However, these scenes contrast sharply with recent reports detailing how a lack of technical expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is threatening to jeopardise economic recovery.
Earlier this year Semta – the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies – forecast that it would be faced with a shortfall of 80,000 workers in the next two years. On top of this, the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) has warned that four out of five manufacturers are experiencing recruitment difficulties, with two thirds claiming that this is because candidates lack technical skills.
This demonstrates a glaring lack of appropriate careers guidance. Traditionally, the most coveted professions by children – astronaut, vet and zookeeper for example – all require a STEM-based education.
Many organisations have mirrored concerns about an impending ‘skills gap’, but what are the underlying issues that have caused it? What’s stopping children from pursuing their natural curiosity into adulthood? And most importantly, what can be done to bridge this gap between taste bud examiner and world-renowned sensory neuroscientist?
A survey by the Royal Institution’s L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre in 2012 found that around 50% of 6-16 year olds thought that STEM subjects were too difficult or boring, and 15% thought they were only relevant to jobs in medicine.
The 2011 Education Act took the responsibility for careers advice away from the independent, Department of Education funded Connexions service and placed the duty solely on schools. Last year a committee of MPs claimed that this was a serious mistake, voicing concerns about “a worrying deterioration in the overall level of provision for young people.”
However with regard to STEM subjects, David Cameron’s administration would keenly point out several ongoing initiatives designed to engage young people in this key area.
The STEM Network, STEMNET, is a UK-wide organisation that aims to promote STEM subjects to children through extracurricular clubs, while also providing teachers with resources that will engage students more effectively in the STEM curriculum. Inspirational role models can have a profound effect on the engagement of children, and the team of 28,000 volunteer STEM ambassadors representing thousands of employers across the UK aim to provide this inspiration. The plan seems to be working, as a recent evaluation by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that 82% of teachers thought that STEM ambassador activity improved pupils’ motivation to study STEM subjects further.
‘Your Life’ is a campaign designed to encourage young people to study maths and physics, with the ambitious goal of increasing the number of students studying these two key STEM subjects by 50% in the next 3 years. At its launch on the 12th November, Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan claimed that the campaign will dispel rumours that STEM subjects are “stuffy, boring subjects for people who don’t get outdoors much,” and instead promote them as “the keys to the most cutting edge, fast-paced areas of work.”
In order to succeed, the campaign will need to harness the tremendous sway that social media holds over the youth of today. Some science-based Facebook groups, such as ‘I fucking love science’, regularly produce content for audiences in the millions, providing a ready-made platform for the Your Life campaign to target. The website features quirky videos and articles with titles such as ‘Inventor makes Braille printer from Lego’, however it remains to be seen whether this content can be communicated effectively.
The role of universities in engaging with young people is also of vital importance. Lizzie Morcom is a third year Imperial Chemistry student, and works as a mentor for the university’s STEM Outreach programme.
“Outreach is vitally important for enthusing pupils who don’t necessarily have the access to people in their community to quiz about studying science,” Lizzie says. “The student mentors provide a more attainable vision of a potential future and can relate to the pupil in a way that classroom teachers can’t necessarily.”
It is clear that a coordinated effort involving more targeted careers advice, implementation of government policies using social media and involvement of universities are required in order to get young people excited about the wealth of opportunities that STEM subjects provide.
Centres like @Bristol show that children are born scientists, however the measures described will hopefully ensure that this passion is encouraged, not downtrodden, as children make crucial educational decisions later in life.
The John Sevier apartment complex in Johnson City, Tennessee, is home to a unique combination of different types of people, ranging from disabled veterans to the unemployed. Amongst them, lives artist Bryan Lewis Saunders. His fourth floor flat is both his home and studio, filled with art materials and the sketchbooks in which he has visually documented most of his adult life. Saunders started his collection of self-portraits when he was 26 and has drawn pieces of himself during events throughout his life. The eclectic range of portraits catalogue an unusual life and feature himself on the Appalachian hiking trail, seeing a rattlesnake for the first time, and during a visit to China to become a stand-up comedian.
Of these hundreds of self-portraits, 50 of them have become particularly famous. In a disturbing and frankly dangerous art project, Saunders experimented with a huge range of drugs to explore the effect they had on his pieces. Saunders snorted, smoked and popped pills of a different cocktail of drugs every day, for 50 days, from which the brain damage caused “fortunately wasn’t irreparable”. As usual, Saunders drew daily self-portraits, but did so under the influence of these substances, and their diverse effects on the brain are reflected in the strange and varying styles of portrait.
One of Saunders’ portraits stands out as particularly harrowing, he created it after taking half a gram of cocaine. Unlike most of his pieces, it is monochromatic and dark, with heavy shading and nightmarish surrealism. The subject bears little resemblance to himself, and is covered with strange symbols and numbers. Conversely, as a mess of scattered scribbles and smudges, his portrait after taking phencyclidine (PCP), other wise known as Angel Dust, is barely recognisable as a figure. One of the only obvious indications of how Saunders was feeling whilst drawing, is the eerie pair of glasses lying haphazardly on the floor.
The erratic nature of these pieces provides evidence for the mechanisms in the brain that would normally allow artists to create and design. As in this case they have clearly been disrupted by mind-altering drugs. The neurology underlying the creation of artworks has scarcely been studied by neuroscientists, despite it providing a unique portal into the complex and otherwise difficult to research processes of creativity. This may have been a result of the longstanding idea that art and science do not correlate. The contrast between art and science is so large that it was theorised they were processed in completely separate halves of the brain, but assigning creativity to one half of the brain is far too simplistic. Realistically, the artistic process requires both the conscious and unconscious, and a combination of complex models, such as memory, emotion and knowledge.
So how does the brain enable us to create masterpieces? It was Leonardo da Vinci who first inadvertently began answering this question, when he theorised the human method of depth perception in order to represent it on a canvas. The method of sfumato, the gradual change in tone and colour, arose from this, and is most famously seen in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. More modern explanations for vision of depth are known as depth cues, and include binocular parallax, which describes the physical phenomenon that is the creation of depth using the eyes as two separate vantage points.
Additionally, to visually represent a subject the brain must co-ordinate further processes that are essential in the creative process. These are organised into three networks, spanning a large proportion of the brain. The Executive Attention Network focuses the artist’s attention and regulates their working memory, which is the short-term storage of information for a certain task. This enables the artist to retain the image of their subject. The action of this network is shared between the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain, and the parietal lobe, which is located towards the back of the top half of the brain. Therefore, the Executive Attention Network overlaps with the Default Network, which is active in the temporal lobe, in the middle of the bottom half of the brain, prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe. This network is responsible for imagining new scenarios, such as visualising the future. This ability to imagine directly leads to the ability to create. Finally, the Salience Network acts deep in the centre of the brain, in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortices, in the upper region towards the front, and anterior insular. This network is the regulator, and is necessary to control the actions of both aforementioned networks. It is believed the communication and balance between these networks are predominantly responsible for the creative process.
However, as well as large regions of the brain, small chemical neurotransmitters in the synapses between neurons must contribute to the creation of art. When released in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for new ideas, decision-making, planning, and inventing, dopamine causes a feeling of elation therefore rewarding these behaviours. As these activities are all components of the creative process, an artist is likely to feel rewarded in response to working on a piece of art. Another important neurotransmitter in the brain is glutamate, which is necessary for the processes of perception, memory, and emotion and therefore will therefore heavily influence the creation of artwork. With the knowledge that PCP alters glutamate and dopamine activity, it is clear to see why this drug had such a detrimental effect on Saunders’ portrait, almost to the point where he couldn’t draw at all. Saunders felt these effects in a way that made him lose “mobility, because it separates your brain from your body”. Similarly, cocaine increases activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe and therefore interferes with both the Executive Attention Network and the Default Network. This may explain the particularly strange imaginings present in the Saunders’s cocaine-influenced portrait.
The causal relationship between the brain and the creation of art can be inverted, meaning that not only does neurology influence creativity, but the process of creating art can affect the mind. Art and creativity is often encouraged in therapy, and the natural relationship between art and the mind may be why, albeit surprisingly, Saunders prefers art therapy over drug therapies. Many of the drugs Saunders drew under the influence of were prescribed anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety medications. Even after these treatments he believes art is “like the best therapy in the world”, and it is the power of art which has saved him from an unstable life.
“What were they thinking about? What were their concerns? How did they understand the universe?”
These are the questions that Richard Barnett asks as a medical historian. In his most recent book, The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, he asks these questions of anatomists through the 18th and 19th centuries. He uses medical illustrations from this era to tell the story of the changing perception and understanding of human disease. Over a cup of tea, we spoke about this book, medical illustrations and some of the ethical and philosophical questions they raise today.
Richard started off as a medical student. He has said that his initial drive to study medicine came from the mystery-solving aspect of the profession, uncovering a narrative in something so complex as a human body. However, ultimately dissatisfied, he made the switch into history of medicine. In so doing, Richard discovered a discipline that provided the opportunity to uncover narratives in medicine as a whole, and to tell stories that could offer new and exciting perspectives on human health and disease.
The latest story to grab Richard’s attention was “the way in which new views of the body, especially new understandings of the body as a material, secular system of organs and tissues, start to shape the way that we represent the body in art and culture”. The Wellcome Library’s vast collection of images relating to medicine has become freely available online, and The Sick Rose is the first of a number of projects aimed at bringing some of these images to a wider audience. Anatomical and pathological illustrations fill the pages of this book, ranging from a beautifully curated double page spread of heart tissue pathology, through to the almost unrecognisably human faces of those afflicted with severe skin disease.
This kind of material holds an enormous amount of power to elicit strong reactions in its audience, ranging for morbid fascination to outright disgust, everything in between or both simultaneously. In spending so much time with these images while creating this book, to his surprise, Richard began to feel a sense of unease. Ethical questions regarding how images of this nature should be used outside of their original intended context – in this case, for educational purposes in the medical profession – arose in his mind and wouldn’t budge. In a piece he wrote for the Wellcome Library, Richard emphasised that all of the images contained in his book “depict something that happened to someone, somewhere”. For the reader, this recognition of the “humanity” in each of these images when viewing them is one step towards ensuring that their power and the sense of their original context aren’t lost entirely. These images are often “the only mark that these people have made on the historical record”. The individuals behind the images are no longer around to object to their use. They have no voice.
When considering the idea of the person behind these images and what they may and may not have consented to – for how could they consent to the use of these images in an online environment, when no conception of the internet existed at the time – I was taken back to my first experience in the dissection room: Cadavers, chest open with string attached to tie it back together at the end of the session; a dissected spine; male and female genitalia lying next to each other on a bench. I remember feeling surprised, but not in the way I had expected. I hadn’t imagined how un-human body parts would be when they were carefully dissected and displayed in isolation from their owner, nor how the sense of individuality of each of the cadavers would be carefully hidden in the covering of their faces. I remember wondering whether or not these people, when they had decided to donate their body to science, had fully understood the context in which their physical remains would perpetuate – reeking of formaldehyde, passing through uncountable pairs of students’ hands, being handled with varying levels of care and respect.
Although the questions around how to use these images in an ethically sound way remain unanswered, Richard sees them rather as “questions to think with”, something to consider as we cast our gaze over depictions of the suffering of others. He says “it seems that these questions aren’t just worrying me as an academic, these are questions that, in this visually saturated age, we’re all asking about images that are powerful; images that move us.”
These universal questions raised by The Sick Rose are just one example of how the history of medicine is about so much more than the well-told, and often misconstrued, tale of medical progress through the ages. “The history of medicine, considered in a wider sense as the history of life and death, health and disease and the body, has this great potential to be a unifying force”. We, as humans, are united in our experiences of health, disease, birth and death. In looking back in time, we can appreciate how people’s understanding, interpretation and representation of the human endeavour to understand and overcome disease has changed and evolved. This discipline, where the human, cultural, fallible and subjective side of science is exposed, critiqued and celebrated provides us with a moment to pause and reflect on what it means to be human. As Richard puts it, “there’s so much that unites us, so much we share and yet at the same time, this single few tens of pounds of flesh that we all walk around in has been thought about in so many different ways in so many different times and places, and that’s what makes it so exciting”.
You can find a copy of The Sick Rose on Richard’s website: www.richardbarnettwriter.com. Richard’s first poetry collection, Seahouses, will be published by Valley Press in April 2015.