art and science

If art helps us to see things differently and science helps us to know different things, can a combination of art and science help us see there's no difference between addiction and other chronic diseases? William Stoehr thinks it can. So does Dr. Nora Volkow. And if Jon Hamilton's engaging NPR piece is any indication, the two are doing their collective best to see that it does.

Art types most likely know William Stoehr. The Boulder-based artist's oversized portraits have been exhibited from Atlanta and Denver to Kuwait City and London, where he happens to boast personal representation (that is, galleries). Stoehr also has a knack for getting his works into some of the world's most prestigiously-juried shows. He seems to score while showing there too, and he's received Best In Show, Special Recognition and Merit Awards from the likes of the Whitney and the MET.

Dr. Nora Volkow, for her esteemed part, is nothing less than the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As a research psychiatrist and scientist, Dr. Volkow "pioneered the use of brain imaging to investigate the toxic and addictive properties of abusable drugs," and as such, she's "been instrumental in demonstrating that drug addiction is a disease of the human brain." Dr. Volkow has been recognized as "the best medical student of her generation" by the National University of Mexico (where she earned her medical degree) and one of "10 Outstanding Psychiatric Residents in the USA" at New York University (where she undertook her psychiatric residency).

In other words, we're talking about two of the most reputable and recognized in the fields of art and science here. We're also talking about a pair of very compelling doers.

Art and Science Collide

You could say that Stoehr and Volkow were meant to collide. Volkow is also a visual artist, so she's well tuned to the visions found in the music of the spheres. And Stoehr has been actively engaged in the merging of art and science since at least 2010. That was the year he was invited by the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute to join neuroscientists, researchers and a molecular biologist in its "The Science of the Arts" conference.

"Artists like Stoehr have begun studying neuroscience as a map to enhance their artwork," wrote Aimee Heckel in the Daily Camera way back then. That too was natural considering Stoehr had left his job as National Geographic's mapping president to pursue an art career.

The field of play Heckel was exploring is called neuroaesthetics. It's a "sub-discipline of empirical aesthetics," which itself "takes a scientific approach to the study of aesthetic perceptions of art, music, or any [other] object that can give rise to aesthetic judgments" (thanks Wiki!). Or as Heckel so clearly sums it up: "it’s the science of aesthetics and beauty. In other words, how the brain processes, responds to and creates art."

Neuroaesthetics has unleashed a rash of science-infused artworks, as well as art-spurred science experiments. It's also provided insight into just how and why any of the aforementioned makes people feel the way they do. Those results, in turn, may then be used for highly-specified purposes (i.e. making people feel a certain way).

Feeling and Thinking (and Believing)

But if neuroaesthetics can help us influence the way a person feels, might it also help us influence the way a person thinks? That seems to be the bright idea behind the Stoehr/Volkow collidings, which in a way actually go beyond neuroaesthetics. See, Stoehr and Volkow aren't merely interested in whether or not a work of art makes a person feel, say, delight or even horror (though of course there is some of that). Rather they're more interested in impacting the what a a person believes.

That means changing the way a person thinks. Oh, Stoehr and Volkow aren't just interested in any random mind control. In fact, mind control isn't even on their agenda. Thought control isn't either. Not really. The artist and the scientist are however interested in changing the way people perceive addiction. Specifically, they want to stomp out the stigma which has kept so many SUD sufferers marginalized and at high risk.

In Stoehr's case it's personal. Very personal. See Stoehr lost a sister to Substance Use Disorder. In fact, she was found with with two bottles by her side. One once held vodka; the other once held prescription pain pills. "It was obvious, and tragic," Stoehr says.

Stoehr also seems to fully believe that had his sister not seen herself as a cast-aside, she'd likely still be with us today. "She said once that she was evil," he told Hamilton. "Well, she's not evil. She had a disease."

Painting the Truth

Stoehr's spent much of the time since then painting that truth. And ensuring that truth is both seen and understood by others. And while much of the ensuing portraiture contains various degrees of his sister's visage, he still can't bring himself to title any of it by using her real name. He couldn't even use her real name in the first post-loss portrait.

"And so I called it Emma," he told NPR. "And now I continue with the Emma because Emma now has become a stand-in for everyone who is a victim, witness or a survivor."

Those paintings -- deep, dark and evocative of even deeper darknesses -- "eventually lead Stoehr to Volkow" says Hamilton. Makes sense since "she was waging her own campaign against stigma."

Substance use disorder has a lot in common with diseases like Alzheimer's, Volkow says. Both alter the brain and both can change a person's behavior.

And neither should be stigmatized. In any way whatsoever.

If the Stoehr/Volkow collidings don't produce the tangibles found in the usual artist/scientist collaborations, it's only because their starting point is on higher realm. Again, they're not so much concerned with feelings; they're concerned with thought. Right thinking regarding addiction to be precise. More, the two are interested in how said thought can change the way a person believes. After all, nobody is adjudicated harshly for contracting a disease. And until folks firmly believe that addiction is in fact a disease, we're going to continue to lose people at an astronomical rate. People who just might still be here had we been more considerate of their plight.

How About You?

Are you suffering from SUD? Has stigma stopped you in your tracks? Created a stir? Caused a riff? Are you looking to address the issue? Help is out there you know. So's understanding. You can get it by phone. And you can get it online, through the exemplary efforts of Stoehr and Volkow and Hamilton. From there you should easily be able to get it in person. Good luck!

(Image: William Stoehr courtesy Saatchi Art)

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