2019 Science Art Wonder
Science.Art.Wonder. is an Atlanta-wide initiative promoting science communication by pairing scientists at Emory and Georgia Tech with local artists to create science-inspired work. One of the Young Lab’s graduate students working on Project I was matched with an undergraduate artist at Emory. Our student explained oxytocin, its role in social cognition, and how increasing oxytocin signaling in the brain has the potential to meliorate the social deficits associated with autism spectrum disorder. The art student created the attached painting entitled “That Trust-Me Drug”, which depicts the face of a child with autism breaking through a barrier and includes a hidden silhouette of a couple in a romantic embrace to represent oxytocin’s role in pair-bonding. It was presented along with a narrative explaining its connection to our research at numerous events and venues in the spring of 2019 including the Atlanta Science Festival, the Carter Center, and TedxEmory.
Charles Ford, a student in Emory’s MD-PhD program and a researcher in Dr. Larry Young’s lab at Yerkes, studies the effects of oxytocin on monogamous pair-bonding and social cognition in prairie voles. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide and a peptide hormone often associated with love, trust, and social bonding. Ford explained the neuroscience of the oxytocin network in the brain and its subsequent effect on the monogamy of prairie voles. Ford and other researchers in the Young lab hope that by studying the oxytocin system and ways to manipulate it, we may be able to improve the social skills of children with autism.
The painting, done by artist Janelle Tanghal, is a portrait of a baby who is on the spectrum for autism. The baby is seen through a ripped page implying that the baby is breaking through negative preconceived notions of autism within society. The abstraction of color is used to symbolize that children on the spectrum may see the world more vividly than those not on the spectrum. Ford emphasized that children with autism may focus on small details of their environment because the social aspects of their surroundings are less salient. The background and details outside of the baby’s face are in grayscale to emphasize the vividity of color of the portrait.
Oxytocin is often called “the love drug” because it is released during mating and pair bonding to make the brain associate another individual with positive and pleasurable feelings. As the pair bond strengthens, that association becomes reinforced so that eventually, simply thinking of that individual can evoke those positive feelings. Hidden in the painting is the silhouette of a couple in embrace to signify this aspect of the hormone. All but the outline of the torn pages comprise the couple’s silhouette, including the black negative space around the baby’s face, which is contrasted by the whiteness of the paper and the white spaces in the baby’s forehead.