Everyone who has seen the cells that make up the brain knows how intricate and delicate they are, like the finest filigree nature has ever made. As a graduate student in neuroscience, I spent hours upon hours labeling and reconstructing neurons. I so often marveled at their beauty, and thought to myself, someone needs to turn the brain into artwork.
Fortunately, a tall and lanky neuroscientist named Greg Dunn seized the inspiration, and has emerged as a leader in neuroscientific art. Recently, our very own Vania Cao had the great privilege of sitting down with Greg Dunn to talk about how neuroscience informs his gorgeous reflective artwork, his latest project, and his advice to young scientists and artists. You can read the full transcript of the interview below, and watch him in action in a must-see video that illustrates how he makes his extraordinary creations.
VC: Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background and your work?
GD: My name is Greg Dunn, and I am currently an artist/neuroscientist. I began my career doing this particular hybrid when I was in graduate school. But I began my scientific career somewhere around high school when I learned this was what I wanted to do. I did my PhD in Neuroscience, and when I was in grad school being constantly bombarded with some of the most incredibly beautiful images that I had ever seen before, I was kind of inspired to translate that into fine art. What was a very natural connection to me was how the world of Asian art and neuroscience really intersect well. And, it was a respite when my experiments didn’t work, which was almost all the time, [laughter] that I could come home and spend time on something and have a tangible result at the end, because often science can be not that. So, when I finished my PhD, I kind of engineered my life so that I was going to try to make a living doing this science art thing.
I think what’s at the core of my interest in it is really trying to publicize some of the incredible research that’s being done on the front lines of neuroscience research. The brain interests me because it really is at the root of absolutely everything you could be interested in. So, for a person like me who is interested in too many things, it’s kind of a good denominator that you can return to. And it’s just so rich in terms of its aesthetic and conceptual material that it just seemed like a, sorry, but no brainer.
So this is what I’ve continued to do for the last few years. Now I’ve just completed a project that was funded by the National Science Foundation with my collaborator Dr. Brian Edwards, who’s an applied physicist at Penn where we were working out of, which is the most complex artistic depiction of the brain in the world. It’s hanging at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. That piece stretched me harder than I’d ever been stretched before, both because of the rigor of the scientific content, but also in really trying to break out of the way the brain is typically visualized in still images. So, we invented this technique called reflective microetching that we used to depict activated neural circuitry. So we’re creating animations through reflected light and doing algorithmic simulations of the brain, combined with hand drawings and other sorts of data inputs. It gets a little complicated but what we want to be able to do is just to get the average person to look at a piece of art, and to just for a moment actually understand a little piece of how complex the brain really is.
You can scream from the rooftops that the brain has eighty billion neurons as much you want, but it simply will not click. Our intellect is not built to be able to internalize that kind of information. You need to show it and communicate with somebody’s perceptions and their emotions directly. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do, and how I’d like to stake my career out in the future is to continue collaborating with basic scientists across many disciplines to deliver some of this more cutting-edge scientific content through the medium of fine art.
VC: So on that topic, could you comment on your thoughts on the power of visual expression when it comes to communicating something that’s potentially very abstract, distant, or very foreign to the viewer?
GD: There are a couple of things I think are worth mentioning. One of the things fine art has the advantage of in terms of communicating visually is that visual images can be consumed instantaneously. It’s one of the advantages that painters have specifically relative to other artists. As the internet spreads your images around, people see it and instantaneously share it, as opposed to having to read a book or listen to a lecture. I think that it is a conducive medium towards disseminating information.
It’s also true that the limbic system is tied in with visual processing at a very deep level. So, knowing this as a neuroscientist, knowing that as visual information is being sent into the cortex it is diverging into parallel streams which are going into different parts of the brain to be processed in parallel before it’s recombined into the final percept. I understand the fact that some degree of that information about basic form is going into the limbic system for emotional analysis prior to your really perceiving what it is that you’re looking at, such that everything that you’re looking at has that emotional quality to it, whether or not you realize it. And it’s for the evolutionary purpose of being able to have a reaction that’s that much quicker to a threatening form. That’s really hardwired into your brain.
So, because of that, a person can be conscious based upon how they design the silhouette of a piece in particular. Or in my case, I also understand that humans seem to have a very instinctual draw to things that are brightly reflective. These are activating the limbic system in a way that you can take advantage of in order to add additional visual interest to your piece, so that people are interested to ask deeper questions about the scientific content.
In a globally competitive world where there are beautiful images coming from everywhere, and in the fine art world where there is work that’s very conceptual, that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to aesthetics, it’s my opinion that strong art should have both of those things going for it. It should be both aesthetically beautiful and taking advantage of the fact that your brain is primed to be able to recognize something that’s beautiful, and to be conceptually deep so that the piece continues to evolve in your mind as you think about it or as you look at it on your wall everyday.
VC: Do you have any thoughts about how the scientific community can better harness either visual expression or any other art forms, or maybe non-traditional ways of communicating science for the betterment of society?
GD: That’s a good question. I think that in general…well, there are some really incredible documentaries that are being produced that have advanced visualizations of this sort of thing. In fact, one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time – Interstellar, was made in collaboration with astrophysicists at Caltech. They went through great pains to make sure that their simulations of black hole dynamics were correct. And you remember that! You know, when I saw the movie I was just blown away by how awesome it was! But it was done in this context that’s kind of tricking you a little bit. You don’t realize that you’re learning something, but because you’re so emotionally drawn into it, because it’s very well produced, and it’s trying to be different. I think that’s so key. I mean, how many watercolor of sunsets does the world actually need? I think this is something that’s very important to me. The first instinct of how to depict something is oftentimes not your best choice. And you see memes travel through, in everything, but in scientific illustrations all the time…for example, right now there’s kind of like a blue outline of the brain that’s mostly transparent. This is a common way to depict the body and the brain. And it’s this style which just gets passed from one designer to the next. It gets copied over and over and slightly reinterpreted, but it becomes it’s own like universe that’s impossible to break out of, which happens in any closed community.
My wife is an experimental dancer, and I’m kind of a part of that community in Philadelphia. And even the field of experimental artwork has its boundaries. You know, there are these ideas which are deemed acceptable and unacceptable only implicitly. So, just knowing what those rules are, and consciously breaking them elegantly I think is a good way to break out of the traditional forms. Because particularly in today’s world, you’ve got to have something new and different, and that is communicating something important.
VC: Where do you find inspiration for your pieces today?
GD: Well just ten minutes ago I was outside taking pictures of the marble that was on the ground, and the beautiful vein patterns that’s going through it, which is so neural. One thing that’s interesting about this world is that it’s organized into fractals, and you see the same types of shapes through the microscope as you do on the intergalactic level. I mean, the orientation of galactic superclusters have similar types of thread-like orientations. So you can maintain a large number of different emotional qualities by studying how nature behaves on many different levels. So I always try to just be aware of what’s going on around me and tune to that, and I think sensitive to your emotions and to know when something even just slightly clicks in your mind that’s grabbing your attention and to focus on that thing for just a second and say, you know, is this an idea that’s worth expressing to the world or not.
One of the things that’s also very important to me is…obviously the academic study of neuroscience is important to me, but the personal and intuitive understanding of the mind is also of great interest to me. I own a sensory deprivation tank, and float in my house. That was my graduation present to myself when I finished my PhD, to study the brain from a different perspective. I’ve been meditating for about fifteen years now, and I’m interested in describing through art the internal states that come very gradually as you learn to steady your mind. So, I think in general I’m interested in trying to depict worlds that most people aren’t used to looking at and to do it in a way which is rigorous and serious. And to combine art and science on a deep enough level that when you’re making the piece you’re kind of not even sure what you’re doing, which has happened to me a few times recently.
VC: What advice would you give someone who may, for example, come from a neuroscience background, but may not be sure what path to pursue to make an impact that is right for them, and right for the field that they want to go into?
GD: Staying within academia, I’m sure there are many people who would be answering that question better than I would. It seems to me that interdisciplinary study or focusing your interest down so far, so specialized that you’re able to supply some type of data which is relevant to many different fields, that puts you in demand is important. But as it relates to the world outside of academia, what worked for me was to take an honest stock of what I’m passionate about and how those things intersect with one another.
There’s a hell of a lot of people who are interested in the brain. There are also a hell of a lot of people who are interested in neuroscience, and who are interested in things that are beautiful and or sparkly. [laughter] But when I combine those two things together, the center of that venn diagram is some place where there’s essentially nobody, and that can become your unique voice in the world. And you do that thing as damn well as you possibly can. Because if you’re not sufficiently specialized, I think your ability to create your own job becomes much more challenging.
And obviously you want to attune your life to the things that you’re interested in. The things that you’re interested in are going to be the things that will drive you the hardest, and make you the happiest. Figuring out how to combine your interests is a first step. And because we’re in the golden age of neuroscience right now, an understanding of the brain and having a technical understanding of science will serve you no matter what you do. So if you decide to go out of academia, I think that there’s going to be good opportunities if you can be clever about what you want to combine that knowledge with.