The Serpent in the Brain

When children visit my studio, it fills with light and play. I am always drawn to the art of children, I think because I have taught art to children, but also because of the childlike innocence of children that Picasso envied as did Nietzsche. After a recent visit, I had the inspiration to arrange segments of their art on a new canvas. Their creative openness reminds me of the state of ego-surrender claimed to be needed to achieve personal or spiritual transformation.

Attaining higher states of consciousness has been associated with serpents throughout history from ancient Vedic texts to biblical references of the serpent that guards the Tree of Knowledge. Joseph Campbell describes the concept of Kundalini, for example, as “the figure of a coiled female serpent—a serpent goddess. . . the aim of the yoga then being to rouse this serpent, lift her head, and bring her up a subtle nerve or channel of the spine to the so-called “thousand-petaled lotus” (Sahasrara) at the crown of the head…She, rising from the lowest to the highest lotus center will pass through and wake the five between, and with each waking, the psychology and personality of the practitioner will be altogether and fundamentally transformed.” [1]

In previous paintings, I have delt with the symbology of serpents from tales about Medusa as symbols of change and transformation. I am interested in both the social context of the reclamation of feminine power and the personal transformation of consciousness. The barrier to both lies in our preconditioned attitudes and subsequent responses to fear and outside threats. This response is also a physical response found in the midbrain. When I looked at the midbrain I remembered the Eye of Horus, which is the thalamus.

The Eye of Horus over the Midbrain.
Image credit: [2]

The thalamus controls what we are allowed to ‘see’. It also has vision and light cells and I believe it is the organ of the third eye (but only the one on the right side). Then, I realized that in front of the thalamus is the basal ganglia, guarding the thalamus like a serpent. The tail of this serpent is the amygdala, which controls our motor responses to fear or threats from trauma memory, just like the aspects of the south node in astrology, which is also referred to as the tail of the dragon. The top of the basal ganglia is the caudate nucleus that responds to pleasure and drives the feel-good hormones associated with ambition, desire, and arousal just like the north node in astrology or the head of the dragon.

Basal Ganglia Guarding the Thalamus
Image credit: [3]

Stories of The Hero’s Journey takes us from the tail to the head, and if successful we can overcome the dragon in the cave and attain the stone it is guarding (the thalamus)—the gateway to enlightenment. Hence, the serpent appears as the brain’s basal ganglia, which guards our inner vision and prevents us from being receptive to change out of fear and behavioral conditioning. It is our thalamus that makes decisions from which external stimuli is passed on to our conscious awareness. Opening the thalamus to a fuller spectrum of information provides access to higher knowledge and wisdom. This is the journey I am trying to convey visually in the painting, almost like Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The other elements in the painting came together from random influences that I felt worked well with the overall theme. I tried to approach the painting as I imagined a child would, with enthusiasm and exploration. I could feel my rational brain lean towards meaning-making, while my creative brain only wanted to play. In the end, I am happy if I achieved a little of both.

Gateway, oil on canvas, 193 x 216 cm

[1] Campbell, Joseph (2011). A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living. San Anselmo, California: Joseph Campbell Foundation. p. 117.

[2] Refaey K, Quinones G C, Clifton W, et al. (May 23, 2019) The Eye of Horus: The Connection Between Art, Medicine, and Mythology in Ancient Egypt. Cureus 11(5): e4731. doi:10.7759/cureus.4731.

[3] BrainCaudatePutamen.svg: User:LeevanjacksonDerivative work: User:SUM1 – Derivative work based on File:BrainCaudatePutamen.svg, CC BY-SA 4.0,


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