Science and art are often considered to be two separate domains. Even though the fields actually have a lot of similarities between them in the ways they approach visual analysis, it’s rare to see them overlap at the professional level. It was in this lack of crossover that Dr. Greg Dunn and Dr. Brian Edwards saw an opportunity to create an artistic representation of science itself.
Dunn is an artist–neuroscientist who got his doctorate in neuroscience from Penn in 2011. Edwards is an artist–physicist who got his doctorate in electrical engineering from Penn in 2009 and is working on his post–doc with the Engheta group, a physics research group at Penn. Together, Dunn and Edwards collaborated on a project funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation through the University of Pennsylvania. The project is currently on display at the Franklin Institute and is called Self–Reflected, a study in the art of the brain.
This series of images resembles both the hair of Rapunzel and the reflective shine of a Klimt painting—things that have rarely been thought of in association with the brain. The hand–painted flowing lines actually represent the neural fibers of the brain. But there’s another layer to the project that the title hints at. The electrical activity presented in these images is a simulation of the electrical activity going on in your own brain as you look at and analyze the art. In Dunn’s words, “What you’re seeing with your eyes is what’s happening in your brain.”
In crafting Self–Reflected, Dunn and Edwards developed a new technique called micro–etching to help create a visual representation of the electrical signals that neurons use to communicate with each other. The process starts with hand–painting individual neuronal structures based on their different morphologies. Then, using an algorithm made by Edwards, the hand–painted shapes were arranged according to known brain anatomy. With the structure of the brain established, they then made simulations of its electrical activity through variations in light and color.
But instead of just printing these images as a digital photograph, the final physical work was made in a way that’s similar to the photolithography manufacturing process used to make computer chips. The base material is a sheet of photoresist, a material that can be etched when exposed to certain kinds of light, such as those translated from Edwards’ algorithm. The details of micro–etching can get complex, but essentially, Dunn and Edwards combined handmade art with digital media to produce an accurate representation of the neurons in their natural arrangements.
Neuroscience is notorious for being one of the more difficult fields of biology, involving rigorous math to help formally define the electrical aspects of it. Sometimes, these numbers can overpower the beauty of the natural phenomenon behind the physiology. Like Dunn says, “You can read in a magazine or a textbook that the brain has 86 billion neurons in it, but it’s just totally meaningless.”
The project is refreshing in a field that can be intimidating. The result of all of this work is a series of images that might be some of the most beautiful representations of the brain yet. It’s a reminder of how much we’ve learned about the brain, but also how much there is left to understand. We can derive equations and take measurements forever, but is that really the only way we can describe what individual consciousness looks like? These micro–etchings certainly suggest otherwise.
It’s tempting to try to definitively explain every phenomenon we experience. In fact, it’s often our nature as Penn students to take that approach. The point of Self–Reflected though, is to abandon that habit and simply allow yourself to be amazed. “This is really meant to be one of those pieces that just allows the most jaded neuroscientist to step back from the grind at the lab bench and just take a second and say ‘Wow,’” says Dunn.
Both Dunn and Edwards feature this project extensively on their respective websites, with close–ups of image details and videos explaining the creative process. Though the hard science behind the project can be daunting to some audiences, the art displays it on a level that appeals to both novices and experts alike in a project that’s sure to leave you in wonder.