Exploring Art and Neuroscience at Duke

Leaving Dallas, Texas, to attend Duke has allowed me to explore my interdisciplinary ideas in a way that wouldn’t have been possible at another university. In high school, I pursued a disconnected and diverse array of activities. I tried almost everything: soccer, Model United Nations, volunteering at a local court, art competitions, science fairs, app contests, and biomedical research. My diverse interests led me to choose Duke, where I knew my interdisciplinary mindset would be embraced and not diminished. Not surprisingly, I entered college with almost no idea of what I wanted to study.

As an artist, scientist, and everything in between, I was told that I would ultimately have to choose between my left and right brain. However, I think this is an outdated idea, and I don’t view my interests as mutually exclusive. When I mention my double major in neuroscience and visual arts, people typically say: “Haven’t heard that one before” or “Oh, wow those are so different!” In my time here, I have found a surprising number of intersections between two fields that many view as diametrically opposed.

Sujal’s drawings on display in the Wellness Center Gallery.

see the schedule

The exhibition also features work by other Duke students, including sophomore Cameron Oglesby.

I have explored the arts in a variety of contexts: serving as photography editor for The Chronicle, teaching art and photography to children at Duke Hospital, and illustrating a coloring book for those with neurological and psychiatric disorders. I am part of the Ruby’s CAST program, I work as a graphic designer through the Duke Innovative Design Agency, and I have displayed art in several exhibitions across campus. I am currently creating a photography project highlighting an art program for Alzheimer’s patients at the Nasher Museum of Art. My research in a cognitive neuroscience lab focuses on visual perception and implicit judgments. I am especially interested in using the arts to better understand the fields of science and medicine, and grateful that Duke has provided me the opportunities to explore my interests in an interdisciplinary manner.

When the Duke Wellness Center reached out to me last semester asking if I wanted to display artwork related to wellness, I knew it was the perfect intersection of my two majors. A few months later, I created an art series highlighting mental health at Duke. The artwork focuses on some of the most prevalent causes of stress at Duke (from effortless perfection to academic concerns) and emphasizes mental health care. Visual art can depict abstract ideas in a tangible way and illuminate invisible issues.

“Sujal’s pieces showcase a variety of common stressors that many of our students face. Through this medium, other individuals are able to see that they are not alone when it comes to having these thoughts or challenges. The beautiful thing about the Student Wellness Center’s gallery is that it brings together the arts and wellness in a way that speaks to our entire community.”—Justin Sharpe, Assistant Director of DuWell.

See Sujal’s work at the Student Wellness Center through Feb 2019

piece of paper with writing on it.
Students wrote thank you notes to Sujal after leaving the exhibit.

I hope my artwork will spark important conversations on campus and contribute to raising mental health awareness. In addition to the high turnout at the exhibit’s opening last fall, multiple students have commented that they relate to this artwork. At the end of the exhibit, there is a blank paper where viewers can leave comments, questions, and ideas about the work. I noticed an anonymous comment from a student about how they were struggling with similar mental health concerns and how viewing the artwork made them feel as if they weren’t alone. To me, this is most meaningful impact of my art—it positively affected someone and changed their perspective.

This exhibit has confirmed something I realized a while ago: though they might not have obvious intersections, neuroscience and art have a lot more in common than first meets the eye. My activities at Duke have shown me that understanding subjects in the context of other fields can lead to more enriching experiences, and can bring a new, creative approach to problem-solving.

Sujal is planning to continue creating artwork with this theme for a senior thesis in Visual Arts. You can view more of her work and current projects at sujalmanohar.com.