UPenn professor describes brain scans as art

By Rachael Renz
January 28, 2010

Shannon Keough

The topic of debate during “The Religious Minds; The Art of Science, Religion and Healing” was whether or not brain scans could be interpreted as art. Dr. Andrew Newberg never thought so, until years after his experiments became showcased in a museum.

Newberg, associate professor of the radiology and psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Cabrini’s Holy Spirit Library on Thursday, Jan. 14. to discuss his artwork. Newberg has been taking scans of the brain and they are now considered to be an art.

The opening reception showcased religious and folklore art that Dr. Leonard Primiano, religious studies and department chairman at Cabrini College, has collected Newberg’s brain scans.

“The greatest reward of doing work is to share it with other people,” Newberg said. “It’s been about 10 to 15 years since my partner and I started collecting brain scans. We started thinking about what was happening to the brain during religious experiences. Although it is a spiritual experience it is also a mental one.”

Obtaining the brain scans isn’t an easy task. First, Newberg injects a tracer into the body that you wish to obtain the brain scan from. The tracer is injected into a catheter into the person’s arm and while they meditate, pray or contemplate God, the tracer goes to the brain and gets trapped.

After the tracer is trapped in the brain, the scans are taken. The scans take pictures of different parts of the brain, which helps Newberg see all the working parts. When certain practices are being done, different parts are affected.

“I think that taking a picture of the brain while it’s thinking about something like God is really interesting, but I don’t know if I would consider it art. All I think is, why is it considered art?” Melissa Gambino, junior biology major, said.

But how are the scans artistic? “Well, for one thing there are a lot of pretty colors,” Newberg said. “With art, if you stand real close you can see every brush stroke. This is similar to the brain scans. You can see all the brain activity in different lobes and parts of the brain. We create art one stroke at a time and create the scans one picture at a time.”

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Rachael Renz

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