A novel fusion of art and science

Clinical Neuropsychologists Siobhan Palmer and Jo Johnson visit an exhibition from the London Brain Project.

The London Brain Project is a not-for-profit social enterprise, founded by three developmental cognitive neuroscientists and an awarding winning artist. They use art to promote awareness and conversation about neurological and mental health issues. Beyond My Brain is the third in the project’s Beyond Series. It's an exhibition of expressive pieces of art (large and small) created collaboratively by people with brain injury, their families and professionals, funded by the Arts Council England and NIHR Great Ormond Street Hospital Biomedical Research Council. 

I was delighted to go with my colleague to the opening night and see the art first hand. It is a fun, user friendly exhibition revolving around questions posed by children with brain injury such as ‘what caused this?’ and ‘what does the future hold?’ On arrival, you are issued with a colourful map of the route around the small intimate gallery. We took a detour because the gallery was bustling with people discussing art and neuroscience; a stimulating blend. The journey guides you first through information about brain injury, then into the art. Helpfully, ‘big words’ are spelled out phonetically and explained (e.g. hahy-druh-sef-uh-luh-s). We learned new things, such as that Roald Dahl was one of the inventors of the modern shunt. Sadly, we also learned that 36 per cent of children with traumatic brain injury sustain it as pedestrians on the footpath.

Activities in the exhibition help people learn about language and executive problems. For example, saying the alphabet backwards, and following a new route with steps missing. We walk under rollercoaster tracks twisting amongst an enormous string of red and white blood cells; a touching representation of the fragility of our nervous system. There is tear-jerking poetry, photographs and singing. We liked it all, especially a piece with layers of fabric symbolising layers of emotion, produced from discussion about when we reveal our deeper emotions. Much like a support group, the workshops appear to have been empowering, informative and energising. Other viewers explained how the art connected with them, on a visceral level, with the personal impact of neurological disability.

As Clinical Neuropsychologists, it reminded us of the powerful use of group art; offering shared expression and a sense of belonging.  The collaborative painting concept could potentially transfer into clinical settings. Metaphors found here could helpfully be shared with other injured families too. Themes of loss, growth, acceptance and identity emerged, as they also do in published research about family adjustment to TBI. The metaphor of ‘learning to live on a houseboat’ stays with me because it simply captures, without negativity, how much a family system is required to adapt to a new, more intimate, lifestyle.

The evening was completed by a superb theatrical performance by a group of talented drama students portraying the lived experience of brain injury. A production by OffTheWallCo tells the story of Grace, a young woman with encephalitis portrayed so authentically in the play, and her sister. In many years of working within the field, I have not seen or heard such an accurate portrayal of the family perspective in brain injury. 

Overall, the London Brain Project exhibition presents a novel, unpretentious, fusion of art and science. The process of creation seems to be reciprocally therapeutic and informative for professionals and families. If you’re in London, this exhibition is worth a visit – but be quick, it runs to 21 January. Future projects include dementia (2017) and anxiety (2018). Find out more at www.londonbrainproject.com and #tracinggrace.

Image above from 'Brain Layers' by Holly Birtles.  

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