World-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Rodolfo Llinás was waiting for a flight the first time he saw one of Carlos Jacanamijoy’s paintings. He was so impressed with the artist’s work that he immediately left the airport and went to Jacanamijoy’s studio. There he proceeded to walk up to a large canvas, point to a paintbrush stroke, and ask the artist, at the time a complete stranger, “What do you think when you see this point here?”
This question sparked a conversation, and a friendship, that have lasted for close to twenty years. Jacanamijoy and Dr. Llinás have discussed everything from the artist’s cultural beliefs as a member of the Inga indigenous group to Dr. Llinás’s research and the neuro- science of visual perception. Dr. Llinás owns several of Jacanamijoy’s paintings, including a canvas he commissioned for his astronomical observatory in the United States, and is full of admiration for his friend’s work.
“I was very excited when I met him because he was so original in posture, in color, in his view of art,” recounted Dr. Llinás. “ is constructive and new every time.”
While Dr. Llinás studies a part of the brain called the thalamus, which coordinates the processing of sensory information, and the way neurons work, Jacanamijoy explores the relationship between memory and the senses. In one of his more recent series, the artist brings memories associated with tastes, sounds and colors onto his canvas in bright strokes that seem to radiate with light. A piece in another series featuring chalkboards reads, “The sense of sight is the same in all human beings, but everyone sees differently.”
Before he met Dr. Llinás, Jacanamijoy hadn’t considered the relationship between his brain and his art. Now he discusses this topic at length and attends Dr. Llinás’s conferences around the world. “He has taught me a great lesson,” the painter affirmed.
On October 16th, these two Colombian luminaries let an audience of more than 200 people in on their conversation. In a packed auditorium at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá (MAMBO), the museum where Jacanamijoy’s retrospective is currently on display, Dr. Llinás explained his understanding of how the brain processes works of art.
“What is art?” Dr. Llinás asked the room. “It’s a motor expression that causes a special, gratifying emotional reaction.”
“The eye paints what we are looking at,” he continued. “Looking is a sophisticated way of touching.” He went on to describe how the brain creates colors from different frequencies of light waves and how the mind is wired to reject ambiguity, seeking to settle on one interpretation of an image at the expense of multiple meanings. Everything we see, he concluded, is an interpretation of the stimuli we receive from the outside world. “Art exists inside of us,” Dr. Llinás said, “we’re talking about a biological situation that permits us to enjoy . We resonate with art.”
Far from minimizing the power of artistic expression, Dr. Llinás’s explanation of art as the product of a series of neurological processes seemed to come from a place of wonder. As he discussed the different brain functions that merge to derive meaning from an image, his voice was full of awe. It’s this sense of wonder that has propelled his research on everything from abnormal brain rhythms to giant squid neurons. It’s also this sense of wonder that emanates from Jacanamijoy’s work in explosions of light and color, drawing the viewer into the realm of his ancestors.
Dr. Llinás and Jacanamijoy don’t always agree. The artist recalled that when he told his friend about the Inga idea of spirits, Dr. Llinás answered that he didn’t believe in that type of supernatural phenomena. “For him spirits are calcium, potassium, magnesium, and I don’t know what else,” Jacanamijoy said, smiling.
Although they come from different disciplines, Jacanamijoy and Dr. Llinás are companions on a ceaseless exploration of the world within us as it relates to the world outside. Their friendship underscores the immense value in learning to see from another perspective. “It’s nice to be able to discuss as much as we do,” Dr. Llinás said. “We come from such different worlds and yet it’s a complete mutual understanding.”