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What does neuroscience-inspired art look like?

Joshua Sariñana PhD ’11

February 23, 2022
Joshua Sarinana
Courtesy Photo

Although he originally wanted to be a physicist, a love for psychology and philosophy landed Joshua Sariñana in neuroscience. “I wanted to study consciousness at multiple levels: the behavioral, physiological, and the genetic,” explains Sariñana, now a writer and photographer.

Professionally, Sariñana communicates neuroscience research to medical professionals to foster cross- disciplinary collaboration. But that’s just one way he uses his background to help “translate the astonishing and majestic aspects of science into something that the general public can connect with.” Sariñana recently co-produced an art exhibit, “The Poetry of Science,” which pairs scientists of color with poets of color to explain the science via poetry.

The exhibition launched in late 2021 and has shown at Massachusetts General Hospital, the MGH Cancer center, and the MIT Rotch Library. It aims to increase the representation of people of color and their experiences through poetry, science, and photography.

Sariñana applies his knowledge of how the brain works to help broaden people’s perspectives. Constantly witnessing media images of violence toward people of color “is physiologically and emotionally detrimental to our nervous system,” he says. “The amygdala, a brain region that associates environmental cues with potential danger, becomes larger because of constant stress, and it also underlies general anxiety. This leads people to avoid things that they create negative associations with and are anxious about. ‘The Poetry of Science’ seeks to assert a positive association between people of color via the aesthetics of imagery, compelling poetry, and the emotional excitement and awe that comes with understanding nature by the sciences.”

The idea for the exhibit had been brewing for a while, he says, but in the summer of 2020, a call from the Cambridge Arts Council for projects to address racial and social injustice compelled him to act. He connected with a local poet, with whom he now oversees 21 participants: scientists (including Daniel Chonde ’07, Huili Chen, SM ’18, and Shannon Johnson, SM ’19), poets, and a MassArt student and photographer. 

For Sariñana, who’s always seen science, communication, and the arts as intertwined, “The Poetry of Science” is a chance to demonstrate that to the public and perhaps inspire the next generation. “As a little kid, I didn’t have many models to look up to who were scientists of color,” he says. “There’s exceptional opportunity for science and art to work together to translate complex and seemingly out-of-reach ideas to the public, and this project is [one] way to do it.”

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