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Self Reflected: When Art and Science Come Together

This is how the mind sees itself. Love, pain, hope, aspiration, it all happens here, in the brain.


Self Reflected is an incredible work of art created by Dr. Greg Dunn, neuroscientist, and Dr. Brian Edwards, applied physicist. Over four years, these scientists-turned-artists combined knowledge from their careers with their artistic talent to remind us how fascinatingly complex our brains really are. The work is essentially a self portrait, allowing the brain to perceive itself.

The team developed a technique called microetching. The method allows light to be captured an manipulated to give the illusion of a flowing, moving, design. Inspired by real brain scan images, they hand-painted individual neurons and mathematically stitched them together on a computer. The piles of data that went into the project include neuron size, location, firing patterns, and connections. The final product is intended to be a a highly accurate depiction of the brain’s structure and functionality.

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Engraved on a microscopic level, different parts of the image reflect light from different angles, allowing the neurons to light up or disappear depending on the viewer’s perspective. This would otherwise be impossible to illustrate using a conventional two dimensional image.

The scientists chose this specific section of the brain, known as an oblique sagittal slice, because it shows the most detailed structure and circuitry and avoids pockets of brain fluid, making for a clearer, diverse image. In the future, they hope to add educational tools and video explanations to their project for a more comprehensive study of the brain.

“This is really meant to be one of those pieces that allows even the most jaded neuroscientist to just step back from the grind of the lab bench and take a second to go ‘Wow!’”

The image contains approximately 500,000 interconnected neurons magnified by 22 times. They were etched with extraordinary precision onto a total of 1750 gold sheets. Together with 144 individually programmed lights to simulate motion, the algorithms used in the microetching design are based on 500 microseconds of “brain time.” The result of all that attention to detail is an animated image that can reflect motion and even different colours of light simultaneously. The original Self Reflected is being exhibited at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Prints are available from gregadunn.com

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The project is a brilliant example of what happens when art and technology collide, and how they can improve one another. Self Reflected was designed to expose the beauty and complexity behind even the most mundane tasks such as picking up a coffee cup. It is hard, even for a scientist or a doctor, to step back from the numbers and wrap their minds around concepts like consciousness. The fact that the brain is a human organ that is aware of itself can be a strangely alien concept to anyone. With Self Reflected, the team hopes to express what science alone cannot. That is, the philosophical questions that arise from our study of the human mind. When scientific data fails to grasp the intricacies and beauty of the brain, art can communicate just how enormously elaborate it is.

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