Art and Science / New Media / Technology

On Mice, Brains and Technology

Prometheus’ gift of fire was the foundation of all Technology that humankind was to master in later eras: “every art [techne] possessed by man comes from Prometheus”.[1]
Whether in the form of a mobile phone, a PC, a pen or any sort of simple instrument, technology merges seamlessly with our daily lives. Typically, we only notice it when it fails to perform. The philosopher of technology Don Ihde explores the ways in which our bodies and our orientation in the world are affected by technology, reading Heidegger in light of the new developments in science and technology studies (STS).[2] As many other theorists and philosophers before him such as Bacon, Kapp, Heidegger and Jonas, Ihde has the merit to bring such a phenomenon to the foreground, prompting us to remember that its essence is never purely technological: an instrument can create, affect and sometimes reduce both the world it depicts and our relationship to it.

As a scholar interested in the visual culture of science and medicine, I cannot ignore the role played by technology in the investigation of the mysteries of our bodies and brains. Since the molecularization of the human body prompted by research in biomedicine and genetics, a variety of techniques for imaging the interior of the body and the brain, i.e. Magnetic Resonance Imaging, provide us with a picturing of the body as composed of neurons, cells and molecules rather than merely anatomical organs. The process of thinking itself is turned into an image.

future-of-the-brainBrain imaging and nanotechnologies are central to the volume The Future of the Brain, one of the most recent collections of essays on neuroscience written by some of the world leading researchers in the field.[3] It is certainly illuminating to read how scientists, thanks to cutting-edge technologies, are able to map out the brain and attempt to tease its structure out of the intricate cell wiring responsible for the genetics that govern it. The final chapter, with the rather futuristic title “Neuroscience in 2064: a Look at the Last Century”, predicts a technological convergence between brain imaging and nanotechnologies in nanobotic neural implants, machines capable of imaging and manipulating the brain. What draws the attention of scholars of visual studies is, however, the initial premise of the book, namely the convergence of new technologies that will offer researchers the tools to develop the theory required for making sense of a massive amount of data that, without a theoretical model, would run the risk of remaining mute. Technology and technological development in the neurosciences are crucial not only to record and collect new data but, more importantly, to help us create new theoretical frameworks, concepts and models with which to interpret them.

Why should the discipline of visual studies bother with technology? Why not leave serious discussion on technology to philosophers only? I believe that dismissing the rather undisciplined field of visual studies as a hodgepodge of theoretically weak remarks, does not help us tackle some of the issues at stake in discussing the increasingly visually-mediated field of scientific imaging, nor does it help the field of visual studies as a whole evolve in productive ways. At present a whole branch of visual studies deals with material, multi-sensory contexts and practices that make use of digitalized and computerised images, visualizations and models, thus becoming increasingly entangled with STS.[4]

Here I would like to briefly recall the story of the first MRI image of a dead mouse, an image capable of proving the concepts of MRI. Back in the 1970s, the main protagonists of the story were: John Mallard, who was the Head of the Biomedical Physics Department at the University of Aberdeeen, Jim Hutchinson who had the scientific lead of the group of researchers, Bill Edelstein, a young postdoctoral scientist involved in the project and, of course, the dead mouse.
This story intertwines an image with technologies (Magnetic Resonance Imaging and paint), people (the researchers involved in the research and the potential patients benefiting from it), the experimental subject (the mouse), a laboratory setting and money. As it happens with other types of images, this image too reminds us of how much images count in our lives, influencing our thinking and our decisions and actions.

MRI image of a dead mouse

MRI image of a dead mouse

As is the case with the majority of scientific breakthroughs and discoveries, the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), involving different scientific laboratories across the UK and independent research teams, has not been a linear one. The University of Aberdeen continues to be at the forefront of technological innovation in the field of biomedical imaging where, for example, groundbreaking field-cycling has been tried since 2010.
Images like this one need to be read in order to be understood. What this image depicts is the relaxation time variation (T1) of the water protons in tissue samples that could highlight physiological changes in tissues, such as the broken neck of a mouse. The matrix of numbers (raw data) of the MRI mouse image was printed out on paper and then hand-painted. The contours of the mouse are an artistic licence and the colours chosen for highlighting the different areas and physiological changes are a convention, such as the white used to represent the “noise” in the image. This hand-painted image reminds us that in spite of the pervasive computerization of imaging and visualizing, human eyes and hands are still as central to laboratory work as in the past. The first MRI mouse image is both anatomical and functional, showing regions of oedema where the animal’s neck had been broken. The projection reconstruction method was used for imaging the dead mouse. This method, which was used only for bodily parts that were not moving, was prone to artefacts in the image and therefore became superseded by the spin-warp method in the 1980s, a much more robust way of encoding spatial information and thus of producing artefact-free images.

What is interesting for scholars of visual studies is that this hand-painted MRI image of the dead mouse became a potential diagnostic parameter as Mallard immediately understood and, at the same time, a powerful instrument of persuasion. It was with this image in his hands that Mallard persuaded stakeholders of the clinical usefulness of the MRI technology and of the need to invest resources into the development of a human body size scanner; numerical data supplemented visual image. As with other types of images coming from the field of art and cultural history, biomedical images too are part of a complex network of information, power, money, technology and people. This image became a milestone in the development of a whole-body MRI scanner, an extraordinary piece of science, design and engineering which would be called “Mark I” upon its completion in September 1978. The image below makes visible both the technology which remains hidden in today’s scanners (the magnet and gradient coils, the water cooling system, the radiofrequency coil and the Faraday cage) and the research participants.[5]

Mark I, 1978

Mark I, 1978 – Edelstein standing next to Mark I and Hutchinson as first experimental subject inside the scanner

As Mallard himself wrote: “it is important to realise that imaging is not just a series of pretty pictures; it is an array of measurements, and the images are important because they make it possible for each patient to act as their own biological normal: both the normal and the pathology are seen on the same image at the same time”.[6] The Aberdeen first mouse image is not often mentioned in academic literature nor recalled in public engagement initiatives. In this respect, the forthcoming exhibition of the Aberdeen “Mark I” imager, which will be held in September at the Suttie Arts Space and accompanied by a documentary film directed by Rob Page (Schedule D Film and Video Production) on the history of “Mark I”, should be praised for being an excellent occasion for both scholars and the lay public to encounter not only a piece of technological equipment used to picture our brain, but a whole new world.

Moving forward from the first MRI hand-painted mouse image, the mouse brain serves today as a model for the human brain in the controversial European flagship project Human Brain Project (HBP), which aims at creating a silicon “virtual brain” through cloud computing.[7] The possibility of revealing the mysteries of our brain thanks to new technologies or, put better, thanks to technological convergence, is going to be at the centre of scholarly interest and of artistic-scientific projects for a long time to come. In fact, artists and designers involved in collaborative projects with neuroscientists are currently shifting their focus away from brain scans and portraiture to living tissue – i.e. the brain cells of the mouse are being used in the installation Silent Barrage, a recent work by Symbiotica at the crossroad of neuroscience and art/design.

Artist-scientist collaborations are often worthwhile exploring for at least two reasons. First, they help re-frame the terms of a research investigation by challenging the normative use of a given technology to explore alternative possibilities. In this respect, they are responsive to Ihde’s idea that technologies (even a simple screwdriver) are always defined by their specific relational contexts, against any essentialist view of technology. Secondly, they invite us to engage French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s question: What Should We Do With Our Brain?. She reads the concept of brain plasticity, typically understood as flexible adaptation and biological survival, in terms of ability to realize our potential for freedom and creativity.[8]
Malabou’s question concerns us all. It should raise in everyone the sense of being responsible for what we choose to do with our brains. Artist-scientist collaborative projects encourage us to take responsibility for the ethical, social, political choices that affect our bodies and lives, choices that are increasingly intertwined with science and technology. Often the works resulting from such collaborations function like radar, capable of capturing and transmitting the many signals that emerge from our techno-scientific society. Rather than argue over the final result of those art-science collaborative projects, we should pay attention to the scenarios that are sketched for us citizens in the age of science and technology. Who has the task of creating, choosing or, possibly, withstanding such scenarios?

[1] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, trans. H.W. Smyth, Harvard: Harvard Uni Press, 1988: pp. 504ff.

[2] See Ihde, D., Instrumental Realism. The Interface between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology, Indiana: Bloomington Uni Press, 1991; Ihde, D., Philosophy of Technology. An Introduction, New York: Parergon Press, 1993.

[3] See Marcus, G. and Freeman J., The Future of the Brain, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Uni Press, 2015.

[4] See the book published in the Routledge series in Science, Technology and Society. Carusi, A., Hoel, A.S., Webmoor, T., and Woolgar, S. (eds), Visualization in the Age of Computerization, New York and London: Routledge, 2015.

[5] I am indebted to Professor David Lurie, Chair in Biomedical Physics and Bio Engineering at the University of Aberdeen for the details related to the history of MRI in Aberdeen and for the permission to use these images.

[6] Mallard, J. R. “A Brief Personal Account of the Aberdeen Story – with particular reference to SPECT and MRI”, Academic/Clinical/ Practical Activities and Achievements, 178.

[7] For a taste of the controversies around the HBP, see the article in Nature: < http://www.nature.com/news/human-brain-project-votes-for-leadership-change-1.17060&gt; (accessed August 26, 2015).

[8] Malabou, C., What Should We Do with Our Brain?, New York and London: Fordham Uni Press, 2008.

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