Greg Dunn’s Self Reflected: The Beautiful Brain

Vivek Mehta, MD

Greg Dunn earned a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania before devoting his time to art. His work focuses on artistic renderings of neurohistology and neuroanatomy. His newest work, Self Reflected, is a collaboration with Brian Edwards, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, that was supported by the National Science Foundation. Taking over two years to complete from conception to completion, the work is the most complex and detailed artistic depiction of the human brain to date. It consists of an 8-by-12-foot gold panel which depicts an oblique sagittal slice of the human brain— 500,000 neurons connected in a fractal web.

To illustrate the neural activity within the brain, the team developed a new technique called micro-etching, which combines a complex array of hand drawing, scientific data, computer simulation, photolithography, gilding, and strategic lighting design. When the light source moves in relation to the gold panel, electric signals seem to spread from one region of the brain to another, as if waves of activity are sweeping through it. What you see is a portrait of your own brain, essentially, the communication happening in your own head as you perceive a work of art. Self Reflected is on view at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Self Reflected, 2016, Photo by Will Drinker/Greg Dunn.

CQ: How did you decide you wanted to pursue a PhD in neuroscience?

GD: There’s this general societal noise saying, “Don’t ever go into art. You’re never going to make a living doing that.” I never even considered art as a career option, but luckily I was equally interested in science. I studied molecular biology and genetics in college, and minored in music. After college, I realized that I was interested in too many things, but understood that the brain was the common root of everything. Everything that you can possible by interested in has its root in the brain. It is the absolute fundamental aspect of who we are. It seemed to me that the ultimate mystery, not just scientifically, but in terms of trying to solve the human problem of who we are and why are the way we are, lies in understanding the brain. For me, it seemed like an excellent place to devote my energies.

CQ: When you started your PhD program, did you know your career would transition back into art?

GD: Definitely not. It was something that dawned on me slowly as I was going through graduate school. If you’re going the academic route, you see how much work it entails, and how constraining a lifestyle it can be. That didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t feel like I was contributing something at the bench that others couldn’t have contributed. As I started to experiment with this combination of art and science, I realized I was producing something that was uniquely my own, and that people were responding to my work in a positive fashion. I was reaching people, who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in science, by using the emotional power of art to teach them something about themselves and the world that they live in. I do think there’s just a lot more crossover between the field of art and science that is not appreciated.

CQ: We are living in the era of the Obama BRAIN initiative with an ambitious goal of accelerating the neurosciences. How do you see your work playing a role in this?

GD: At the top of my list of things to do with my life is to help people better understand the brain. The brain is more fundamental to ourselves than anything else in the universe. Even those of us who are intimately involved in neuroscience have a limited understanding, so you can imagine how difficult it can be for the average person to understand. The knowledge about the connectivity, functionality, temporal dynamics, and the flexibility is woefully inadequate. That was really the whole reason that we took on this project and why the National Science Foundation—I believe—saw promise in our idea, which was to try to bridge the gap between the cellular world of the brain and how that, in time and in space, makes up the entire macroscopic structure.

Self Reflected, 2016, Photo by Will Drinker/Greg Dunn.

CQ: Can you tell us about your newest opening, Self Reflected?

GD: Self-Reflected is a combination of science and art. To show the microscopic and macroscopic structure to this degree of accuracy we had to make this piece gigantic. It is 8-by-12-feet, and it has half a million neurons in it, all of which have very precisely calculated neural circuit dynamics. In science there is a tendency to reduce concepts to their most fundamental variables for clarification’s sake, but a reductionist approach is insufficient to demonstrate the brain’s many complex features. Billions of neurons communicating creates consciousness, and to illustrate this irreducibly complex system we had to depict an enormous number of working parts functioning at once. We used reflected light to create a unique visual effect because we wanted to touch people’s emotions. Essentially it was important for us to get away from communicating information through language. If you’re telling somebody that the brain has 80 billion neurons, it makes no impact, but if you see and can perceive half a million neurons in a gigantic piece of art in front of you, all of which are activated at the same time, you get a much greater appreciation for the scope. Self Reflected gives the average person a better understanding of the complexity of the human nervous system. It’s more a comprehensive illustration than people have been used to seeing. And even though this piece of art is 100 million times (at least) less complicated than the brain is, it gives people a starting point to imagine, then, further steps of complexity. That’s the core idea of what this piece is about, and through our approach we hope to communicate a tiny sliver of the unimaginable vastness of complexity that is the human brain.

Self Reflected, 2016, Photo by Will Drinker/Greg Dunn.

CQ: How do you balance dedication to accuracy versus aesthetic appeal?

GD: This project was more focused on accuracy than some of my previous work. Sometimes I’ll intentionally make things look more lyrical or abstract to make aesthetic or artistic points. The brain doesn’t need to be beautified, it’s so magnificent in its natural state, and it’s important for people to see it that way. I very much wanted to have something out there that communicates how beautiful and complex the brain is. And, I want it to stand the test of time and scrutiny as being as accurate as we could possibly get it at this point in time. This piece is as much for professional neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, and neurologists as it is for the lay public. There were aesthetic decisions made where sometimes we moved the structure into or out of the plane depending upon how cleanly we could show a circuit. For example, we moved the LGN, which would be more lateral to the slice, into our slice so we could show more completeness in the visual circuitry. That’s one example of the type of decisions we made, but it was always for serving the concept of neuroscience.

CQ: You use a variety of techniques from ink to microetching. How did you come about creating the effect you want?

GD: I started with a foundation in Asian art, which I thought translated well into the world of neuroscience. When you look at a catalog of Asian art, trees, branches, and flowers are depicted with a fractal-like shape to them. A neuron is functionally doing something similar to what those macroscopic objects are doing, so it fits into the aesthetic principles of Asian art very cleanly. The artistic point I was making was that this category of beauty exists at many different scales. The masters of Asian art had also figured out that by putting very few things on a canvas one can have a high amount of detail in one place and a low amount of detail in another place, and your brain responds to the contrast. There’s something inherently pleasing about that type of silhouette. Your brain puts emotional inflection on basic form very quickly, and as an artist I realized the importance of silhouette because of our primal response to it. Experimenting over the years with gold and some other techniques taught me how metals behave under different conditions. One big turning point in my career was when I realized that I wanted to start showing the brain closer to its three-dimensional form rather than a minimalist form of just a couple neurons. The micro-etching technique was invented as a strategy to depict the brain much closer to its full complexity than we had ever attempted before.

Greg Dunn. Photo courtesy of Will Drinker.

CQ: Do you have any ideas in mind for future projects and where do you see your work heading to in the future?

GD: I’m keeping an open mind at this point. What I want to do now is go back in the studio and be a little bit free for at least a couple months to uncouple myself from the extreme rigor that was this last project. Over the long term, I’d like to do large micro etchings of different scales of nature such as string theory, particle interactions, cell nucleus interactions, DNA, and a single cell. These are all very complex systems and it would be great to show nature’s complexity through these different orders of magnitude. I want to enrich people’s understanding of how elaborate this world is.

To learn more about Greg Dunn’s work, and to see a Self Reflected video teaser, visit