Art + Science: Creating a Shared Space

Mollie Marr, M.D./Ph.D. student in Behavioral Neuroscience

I studied theatre because I was drawn to the transformative potential of performance. A play surprises you with truths—truths about yourself, what it means to be human, what it means to be alive. Frequently, these truths are experienced instead of named; and that experience, shared among strangers in silence, is powerful and palpable. Plays push the audience past the comfortable and expected into the deeper questions; sometimes they guide you to an answer and sometimes you are simply left with the questions. A good story fundamentally alters what you know to be true or how you experience that truth; it inspires you to continue to ask the hard questions, to continue to seek meaningful answers.

Perhaps you can imagine this college dreamer sitting in an introductory neuroscience course after studying Shakespeare and Chekhov, Brecht and Pinter; realizing that there was an entire science devoted to the same deep questions raised by these playwrights. It was the first science course where the focus was not centered on acquiring the centuries of accumulated knowledge, but on formulating and addressing the infinite remaining questions. Hypotheses replaced stories, but the end goal, the communication of some deeper truth, remained constant. Science, too, has the power to transform.

Mollie Marr (right) with Damien Fair, Ph.D., P.A.-C., associate professor of behavioral neuroscience and psychiatry

Over the years, I learned to love data in the way I once loved plays, to respect the truth described by a number, a chart, a heatmap, a model. After years of wrestling with truths so intangible they required a narrative instead of a word, I appreciated the elegant simplicity of a number. Having lived the truths night after night, experiencing them with the audience, whether painful or joyous; I relished the chance to step back from the emotions, and instead to reason through an idea, to view a problem objectively, to remove confounds and complexity, and to ask simple, pure, and meaningful questions that can be answered experimentally.

When I started working in science advocacy and policy, I expected to communicate through numbers. I imagined presenting charts and graphs showing the impact of NIH and NSF funding cuts on research, breakthroughs, jobs, young investigators, and students pursuing STEM careers. I expected to convince my listeners using decimal points and predictive models. But instead, I was reminded of the power of a story.

Meeting with members of Congress as part of the Society for Neuroscience’s Capitol Hill Day, we shared stories about people struggling with addiction, debilitating diseases, and neurodevelopmental disorders. In each case, a story about a deeply human experience, led to a question, and a hypothesis. We followed the stories first to their furthest abstraction—molecular components, biochemical interactions; then to tissue culture, mouse models, and primate models; finally returning to where we started. Each person in turn discussed the truths they found on that journey—pills that disrupt cravings, genes that explain disease, and neural circuits that regulate attention and processing. We filled the space with stories and we left richer for it.

I share this story, because in many ways, science has lost its privileged space. There were Marches for Science across the globe last year and again this spring. The fight to protect funding for the NIH and NSF is ongoing. Perhaps in this instance, science can learn from art. Art, outside of its privileged space, is usually called radical or revolutionary, but at its heart it remains unchanged—art continues to reveal truth, even if disguised as humor or satire. I witnessed science experimenting with this approach during the March for Science. The posters and the chants reflected satire, humor, and visual puns, not numbers and data. I do not mean to imply that there is no longer a space for numbers and data, but to suggest that there is room (and a need) for both numbers and stories.

The other issue we face right now is the polarization and politicization of neutral topics, but science does not need to be political, even as we fight to protect it. Here again, we can take a lesson from art. A story can be used to connect individuals with vastly different beliefs and opinions, even if they disagree on the interpretation or the experience. Art creates a space for communication and conversation by building on the core values and truths that connect us, centering us in that space. We often lose this space when we communicate about science. We focus on the end results, the abstractions, and the evidence; and in the process we lose the humanity. Science has the same power to connect us. Like art, science creates a space for discourse because, at its core, science shares the most fundamental aspects of what makes us human—an unquenchable sense of curiosity, a need to ask questions, and a desire for answers. We can start from here, like any good artist or scientist or citizen—with curiosity and questions, with a desire for answers and greater truths, with a sense of how we are all connected—and together we can create a space for deeper conversations.

About the Author

Mollie MarrI’m from Virginia (we moved frequently, so I claim the whole state). In high school, my debate coach warned me about my tendency to be a jack-of-all-trades (and master of none). So no one was surprised when I double-majored and minored in college. I received a BFA from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University with majors in Theatre and Psychology, and a minor in Applied Theatre (focusing on theatre for political and social activism). A course in neuroscience at NYU my senior year changed my trajectory from theatre and to science. After several years of post-baccalaureate coursework, I applied to medical school. I am currently an M.D./Ph.D. student in Behavioral Neuroscience (why just do one thing?). I still dream of being cool, someday, maybe; but I am learning to accept that I am a huge nerd. I love reading, history, science, theatre, and philosophy (not nerdy at all, right?).


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2 responses to “Art + Science: Creating a Shared Space

  1. Hey Mollie, It is nice to know that you have a performing arts background as well. I am a classical Indian dancer and my left and right brain (scientist and artist) benefit a lot from each other. Left brain from the right more often than not 🙂 Please let me know if you do any theater related activity at OHSU or otherwise in Portland. I would like to come watch and even participate if possible 🙂

  2. Mollie, What a powerful essay about the intertwined nature of science and art, of narrative and data. I will be sharing this piece of writing with participants in the Paths to Leadership faculty leadership development program. Thank you for encouraging us all to consider using both science and storytelling in our advocacy, to view them as complementary rather than either/or. Thank you! Niki

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