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M y nontraditional path to art through a doctorate in neuroscience arms me with an outsider’s perspective and gives me the freedom to introduce imagery and concepts derived from a different world than is traditionally encountered in fine art. My work is neonaturalist—art based on natural forms and influenced by scientific advancements that allows us to perceive the universe beyond human senses. Neonaturalism harmonizes unfamiliar scientific imagery and techniques with an experimental artistic scaffolding. For example, it demonstrates that fractal forms of nature are consistent across scale; that neural landscapes of the brain fit seamlessly into the established realm of Asian aesthetics; and that expanses of the microscopic world are fundamentally equivalent to landscapes of the macroscopic world. Neonaturalism fuses the worlds of concept and aesthetics, chaos and order, art and data. This approach visually, conceptually, and technologically brings the scientific method into design and technique to produce pieces that demonstrate surprising and sometimes beautifully abstract notions about the unseen while commenting on the common foundations of art and science in communicating human experience. Neonaturalism translates the perpetual stream of inspiration at the cutting edge of scientific research into visceral artistic form to portray the immense beauty that pervades all corners and all scales of our universe.
My colleague Dr. Brian Edwards (artist and applied physicist) and I created Self Reflected, an art project combining fine art and neuroscience, to elucidate the nature of human consciousness, bridging the connection between the mysterious three-pound macroscopic brain and the microscopic behavior of neurons. Self Reflected offers an unprecedented insight of the brain into itself, revealing through a technique called reflective microetching the enormous scope of beautiful and delicately balanced neural choreographies designed to reflect what is occurring in our own minds as we observe this work of art. Self Reflected was created to remind us that the most marvelous machine in the known universe is at the core of our being and is the root of our shared humanity.
Self Reflected is your brain perceiving itself. It is perhaps the most fundamental self-portrait ever created, a hyper-detailed animated representation of human consciousness designed to mirror the functioning of the viewer’s own mind. Self Reflected asks the question whether the brain is uniquely tuned to appreciate its own fractal-like anatomy and elegant, wavelike electrical activity as a consequence of those traits underlying its own construction. It is a work of neonaturalism, inspired by the cutting edge of neuroscience and engineering to expand our understanding of the natural world.
In many cases, art is a superior communicator of complex and nuanced ideas because it makes direct connections with the viewer through perception and emotion. Dry scientific explanations of structure and function often struggle to communicate the brain’s vastness and tremendously beautiful organization through written words and figures. Self Reflected was created not to simplify the brain’s functionality for easier consumption, but to depict it as close to its native complexity as possible so that the viewer comes away with a visceral and emotional understanding of its beauty. Though the neuroscience of the piece was painstakingly researched to give it a level of reality not seen on this scale before, Self Reflected’s deeper meaning is to elevate the consciousness of the average person to the exquisite machine that most defines our humanity.
Natural systems fall into one of three categories: repeating systems such as a salt crystal in which all particles are arranged with perfect predictability and regularity, random systems whose behaviors are impossible to predict, and chaotic systems that are on a spectrum between these extremes. Maximum complexity arises from chaos. It is ironic, then, that though the brain’s functionality is deeply chaotic, human behavior is often patterned and regular. The brain is a poor generator of randomness, thus we learned how to harness naturally chaotic forces to allow this element to unfold in Self Reflected.
To capture their strikingly chaotic and spontaneous forms, the neurons in Self Reflected are painted using a technique where ink is blown around on a canvas using jets of air. The resulting ink splatters naturally form fractal-like neural patterns, and although the artist learns to control the general boundaries of the technique it remains at its heart a chaotic, abstract expressionist process.
The turbulence of the air, inconsistencies in the paper, variations in ink viscosity . . . all contribute to variety in neural forms as the technique allows nature to behave how it wants.
It is the ability of neural circuits to behave chaotically that allows room for organic, not robotic, behavior. Absolute rigidity and predictable functionality in a system is rare in nature, and we intentionally created chaos when simulating the animations of neural circuitry in Self Reflected. This chaos required combining research indicating disciplined maps of how, when, and where neural information propagates through the brain with our algorithm’s ability to inject a controllable degree of randomness into the system. The result is wavelike activity coupled with degrees of unexpected behaviors that naturally emerge, a result that would otherwise have been very challenging to achieve without specific attention to engineering chaos.
The artists utilized the reflective microetching technique to create Self Reflected because microetchings work with a third dimension of animated reflectivity to impart a greatly enhanced visual experience and display a much greater amount of information at once. Compared with a conventional, two-dimensional image of the brain that says nothing about how it evolves over time or communicates with itself, the microetching technique brings the brain to life through carefully controlled reflective dynamics. Using strategic lighting design, this allows the artists to indefinitely loop Self Reflected’s animations, designed to represent 500 microseconds of “brain time”, so that the viewer is able gradually to absorb the tremendous amount of information and detail they are presented with. The pulsing of the light is a further manifestation of the periodic electrical activity that underlies the brain’s natural behavior, in a sense synchronizing the brain in the viewer’s head with the brain on the wall.
Due to the reflective strategy of microetching, and the fact that it has no inherent color other than the gilded surface from which it is made, Self Reflected takes on the color of any light source used to illuminate it. Microetchings turn color into an infinitely flexible variable, allowing it to be any color in isolation or a complex mixture of colors that changes as the viewer walks around the piece. The colors are neatly separated from one another as light arriving from different angles is captured by the microscopic etches.
Microetchings emphasize the concept that every human perceives the world differently. Microetchings reflect a different image of the piece to every viewer depending on their position, meaning that the viewer (and even the viewer’s two eyes) each have a unique visual experience. This range of visual perspectives mirrors our own individual perspectives on human experience.
After considerable discussion we settled on depicting an oblique sagittal slice of the human brain, as this view provides a large variety in structures and interesting circuitry, and avoids the ventricles (fluid-filled cavities in the center of the brain) that would simply have appeared as holes in the brain in this view.
In order to guide the piece with the latest neuroscience research, two neuroscience undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, Melissa Beswick and Carl Wittig, assisted in collecting data for each of the regions in the section from the primary literature. These data contained information about each region and its location, its neuron types and sizes and what other neurons and regions they are connected to, firing patterns, neurotransmitter type, and so forth. This research served as the scientific basis for the further development of the art and computation.
We consulted with many expert neuroscientists and neurologists to ensure the accuracy of the neuroscience behind the work. There are several instances where structures were either moved into or out of the plane of the piece to clarify certain points or to complete a neural circuit.
To collect data to inform the layout and construction of the white matter—the complex, threadlike collections of axons that make up about half of the brain—we collaborated with scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s BrainHub. We used diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI) data from the brain of Dr. John Pyles, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), to render and filter a map of what the white matter looks like in our slice of interest. Each bundle of axons, or track, was rendered and filtered by Kevin Jarbo, a PhD student at CMU.
While the DSI data could not directly be used “as is” for our purposes, they provided a scaffold from which we created hand-drawn vector images that would function as the white matter in the final piece. Since the algorithm used to compute all of our neural choreographies, or circuits, required very specific inputs, we generated dozens of datasets functioned as the white matter:
The most challenging part of this project was taking the neuron and axon datasets and algorithmically combining them to choreograph the neural circuits. Because microetching allows the display of a third dimension of information based on angle of reflectivity, we assigned this dimension as time so that the viewer could perceive how action potentials propagate through the brain: as the viewer walks from one side of the piece to the other, or as a light moves over the piece, these neural circuits animate. Detailed information on how the algorithm works, and how it simulates neural activity, is provided below.
Based upon our own research and consultations with experts, we programmed and directed the algorithm to build neural circuits that propagate through the brain in a simulation of how it actually functions.
There were several characteristics about the brain’s functioning that became apparent through our analysis of its structure. First of all, the brain’s characteristic wave-like neural firing patterns (think: brainwaves) emerge from its layout in space. As adjacent neurons are often wired together and connect out of their immediate region through long-range axons, if a signal is propagated from a small number of neurons outward, this activity will manifest as wave-like behavior. Local processing circuits with interneurons and recurrent connections add noise and fidelity to this system.
The three-dimensional construction of the brain is paramount to its functionality. The brain has taken advantage of this naturally emerging wavelike activity to sequence processing steps efficiently. Of particular interest to us were the strategies that the brain has evolved to address the problems of how to arrange neurons and axons along three-dimensional, strongly convoluted structures. There is a natural bunching of neurons and axons that occurs in a concave curvature as the space in which axons can travel becomes constricted. In contrast, in a convex curvature there is a reduction in axon bunching as a natural consequence of the geometry. These local minima and maxima are laid out in three-dimensional space and encourage dramatic twisting of axon bundles to thread through areas where there is room made by convex curvatures. As every square micron of space in the brain is utilized, it is very densely packed, and the pressure of developing regions undoubtedly crowds structures together in space. This tendency was most apparent in the cortex and cerebellum, structures characterized by a large amount of surface area relative to their volume. Indeed, these regions proved very challenging to paint and choreograph since flattening a highly three-dimensional structure into two dimensions required much re-imagining and artistic license in order to realize.
The brain has evolved several strategies that it applies to multiple regions. For example, the cerebellum, olfactory bulb, superior colliculus, lateral geniculate nucleus, olfactory tubercle and cerebral cortex have all adopted a layered structure that vertically organizes processing circuitry while also allowing horizontal connections to take place. This provides more symmetrical and systematized access to local information than do spherical or elliptical structures. As opposed to many midbrain structures whose organization is largely dispersed, the aforementioned structures (which tend toward the periphery of the brain) have adopted this layered arrangement for one reason or another, presumably in order to maximize processing efficiency.
This layered structure in the cortex can give rise to very different circuitry depending on the size of cells, their connectivity, the number and types of interneurons present, and so on. The relatively simple organization of the primary visual cortex, for example, propagates distinct wavelike activity throughout the higher order visual cortex as the number of interneurons tends to be low relative to other areas of the cortex. The frontal cortex, in contrast, has a very large number of interneurons that feed back onto the primary output neurons, causing this region of the cortex to be “noisy” relative to the more wavelike activity of other cortical regions.
It is interesting to speculate that natural variations in the way the brain develops and the consequent impacts on how neurons connect with one another have a degree of randomness that is outside the realm of genetic control and organization. The structure of every neuron, every axon, and every region is affected by their times in development, what they are surrounded by, and what types of information they are given to refine their own behaviors, thus even genetically identical brains would contain a large amount of variation in how they wire up due to nothing more than random variables. This is a factor essentially outside the consideration of epigenetic or even environmental concerns. The brain’s stunning order amidst this randomness is one of its greatest marvels as it builds in natural variability and flexibility in function that can achieve a much higher degree of sophistication. The brain, like many natural systems, reaches its maximum potential when teetering on the edge of utter chaos.
Like any large engineering project, the creation of Self Reflected needed to be broken down into bite-sized pieces. The division for this piece was fundamentally drawn in terms of scale and dimension. This project can be thought of as the collection and integration of three types of information: microscopic data, macroscopic data, and behavioral data.
Microetchings are two-dimensional objects and the brain is three-dimensional. While microetchings can contain one extra dimension, which we could have used to denote depth, we decided early in this work to use the extra dimension to denote time. Therefore, the brain had to be reduced to a two-dimensional plane so that we could put it on our microetching canvas.
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You can find out more about Greg Dunn and his art at gregadunn.com