Visualizing Subjectivity

An article in today’s Science Times describes the artwork of Anne Adams, who suffered from frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which effectively rewires the brain in a way that can produce compulsive behaviors ranging from shoplifting to increased creativity. Adams, as you may guess, exhibited signs of the latter, increasing her output (and some might say her innovativeness) as an artist.

Some of her drawings and paintings appear on a web page from the UCSF Medical Center (“UCSF” refers to the University of California, San Francisco, BTW, so this is a shout out to my new homies) as part of the Patient Art Gallery of their Memory and Aging Center. The title of the above image is “Migrane,” which got me to thinking…

While it might be a little overblown to equate Adams’s drawings with a totally different condition, I nonetheless immediately thought of the effects of Charles Bonnet syndrome, when a person’s increasing blindness can occasionally result in vivid hallucinations—resulting from brain stimuli “bleeding over” into the visual cortex, if I can be forgiven for such a slapdash description.

I first read about Charles Bonnet syndrome in V S Ramachandran’s brilliant Phantoms in the Brain, which has much to recommend it if you’re at all interested in brain physiology—hateful as it is to think of one’s grey matter as, well, matter. As I recall, Ramachandran suggests that some of James Thurber’s later drawings may have been partly inspired by the hallucinations he experienced. Of course, I read the book about nine years ago (and it currently sits, unpacked and unavailable for review, in a box until I get my new office), so my recollection may have suffered.

The folks at Damn Interesting had a damn interesting entry about the syndrome earlier this year.

At any rate, I often like to talk about the subjectivity of science visualization, but these examples take subjectivity to the ultimate level: the completely subjective experience of an individual’s brain state.

(Oh, and happy birthday, Mom!)

Visualizing Refuse

Quick post. A friend pointed me to a page of work by the photographer Chris Jordan. The image above “depicts two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the U.S. every five minutes.” The actual image measures five by ten feet, and the web page zooms in on views of the individual bottles.

Um, yikes! I want to see these in person… I think.


A brief post, since people are waiting for me to go to dinner. (Added a little to it after the fact…)

The image above comes from the website for Quark Park, a temporary park set up to highlight interactions between Princeton artists and scientists. The specific installation is called “Subduction & Orogeny,” illustrating geological processes at work. Interestingly, the work takes the form of a diagram, given added heft (so to speak) by samples of rock representative of the geological strata in question. Other works appear far more abstract.

An article in Science News describes some of the more mathematical installations, but there’s a wide variety of odds and ends to choose from on the website. Unfortunately, you have to shuttle back and forth between the “Photo Gallery” page and the “Team Bios” page (which links to descriptions of the projects) to figure out what’s going on.

Tom Wolfe noted that “without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting,” which is oddly true, for very different reasons, in this case as well. With this work, without the scientific theory, you can’t see the meaning. In fact, with a lot of visualization, one misses (or misinterprets) the meaning if you don’t get an explanation of the theory to go with it.

Quark Park is open through the end of November, so if you happen to live near Princeton, New Jersey, you might want to check it out.