- Roger Sperry:Ambicerebral Man
What is the value of artistic practices, techniques, inventions, aesthetics and knowledge for the working scientist? What is the value of scientific practices, techniques, inventions, aesthetics and knowledge for the artist? When does art become science and science, art? Can an individual excel at both science and art, or is even a passing familiarity with one sufficient to influence the other significantly?
With this first installment of the special project "ArtScience: The Essential Connection," Guest Editor Robert Root-Bernstein will lead an exploration of such questions in the pages of Leonardo. Authors interested in submitting texts for consideration may include artistic scientists who find their art avocation valuable; scientifically literate artists who draw problems, materials, techniques or processes from the sciences; or others interested in such interactions.
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Roger Sperry (1913-1994) received the Nobel Prize in 1981 for his demonstration that brain functions are lateralized—work that gave rise to the common and inaccurate distinction between artists as "right-brain thinkers" and scientists as "left-brain thinkers." Ironically, Sperry's research actually showed that all normal people are whole-brain thinkers and, in this regard, Sperry's own mind was unusually integrated .
As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, Sperry was such an enthusiastic sportsman that he considered a professional career as a coach, so we know his cerebellum got a good work-out. At the same time, he was majoring in English literature—not the usual background for a Nobel laureate in medicine or physiology, but excellent exercise for the verbal centers of his left hemisphere. His right brain was developed, he conjectured later, through the keen perception needed to play sports .
Fine art was a late addition to the panoply of Sperry's accomplishments and one of which few of his colleagues were aware . He came to it through his science, which he took up only as a graduate student in zoology at the University of Chicago. After postdoctoral studies at Harvard University and the Yerkes Laboratory of Primate Biology in Florida, he joined the University of Chicago as a junior professor in anatomy. A colleague, Elsie Taber, encouraged him to join an informal drawing club. The participants explored a range of techniques, media and styles, often copying from photographs. These informal drawing sessions lasted through much of 1947 and 1948. Sperry turned out a completed drawing or painting about every two or three weeks.
After moving to the California Institute of Technology and taking a 12-year hiatus from art while he did his Nobel Prize-winning research, Sperry took life drawing classes at the Pasadena Museum of Art for many years, exploring pencil, conte crayon, pastels, ink and watercolor (Article Frontispiece). His wife, Norma, has said, "He always had an eye for three-dimensional things," so it was predictable that he took up sculpture around 1970. He produced a series of bronze busts of his wife and children, various torsos and the head of a monkey. Some years later, he played with glazed ceramic pots and, after that, wire sculptures of fish and "found sculptures" made from driftwood.
Sperry called his forays into art "anti-brain strain" activities. In fact, his artwork always took second place to his science, save in two areas. For many years, he did the illustrations for his own scientific papers. He also used his extraordinary hand-eye coordination to design and produce a beautiful set of surgical tools to help him perform what colleagues describe as incredibly delicate and elegant surgical experiments. These implements occupy that strange borderland where sculpture, tool, aesthetics and practicality all meet.
Sperry seemed to like these borderlands where disparate activities are unified. While he demonstrated that brain functions are lateralized, he also believed that consciousness arose from the interplay between the hemispheres or, to use a term...