Greg Dunn: Thinking About Thinking
In trying to illustrate the complexity of the human brain, Greg Dunn has created great beauty.
Greg Dunn is an esteemed visual artist whose work blends art and science in representations of the human brain.
Born in 1979, Dunn studied molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. While working on a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, he began creating paintings neurons using the minimalist aesthetics of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art. After gaining his doctorate, he teamed up with applied physicist Brian Edwards to make sophisticated renderings of the human brain using millions of tiny etches on a metallic surface. The works in this series, Self Reflected, are regarded as the most detailed representations of the brain ever created.
Dunn’s art is held in the permanent collections of the Franklin Institute (Philadelphia), the Museum of Science (Boston), Caltech and Johns Hopkins Universities, and the headquarters of Society for Neuroscience headquarters, among other institutions.
Most artists don’t start out by getting a PhD in neuroscience, but Greg Dunn did.
Greg Dunn: Everything that I’ve done up to this point in my life has been focused down into this moment.
This moment, and all the minutes, hours, and days that he’s so far spent as a full-time artist, have been focused on helping create greater understanding of what he calls the most complex object in the known universe: the human brain.
Dunn: To communicate that sense of vastness, was something that was very—just like, had to get out. So viscerally important to me, so important for me to help people to understand the most fundamental aspect of themselves. You know, our brains, we don’t do anything without our brains. And I think that the average person’s basic working vocabulary for what it is, is pretty poor.
One of Dunn’s early projects combined his obsession with the brain and his love of Japanese sumi-e painting traditions.
Dunn: It made sense that neurons fit into that context, so I inserted this world into the familiar aesthetic kind of motif of Asian art, using gold leaf and scrolls. And when I first started painting neurons, one of the things that immediately became apparent to me is that your brain is terrible at generating randomness and spontaneity. A technique that I developed in order to get around this, is that I blow the ink around on non-absorbent papers. And what that does is it’s…nature is organized into these fractal-like shapes, and it wants to be able to make these shapes. So, when you have the mode of force of the air blowing the ink droplet over the paper, the turbulence of the air causes the droplet to split up into these random tendrils. And the process is never the same twice. You can develop some degree of control over it, but, at its heart, it’s a spontaneous and random process. In this type of work, it’s about allowing nature to unfold in the way that it wants to unfold, and just getting out of the way.
But Dunn wasn’t ready to stop there. Committed to finding a way to illustrate the brain’s full complexity, he teamed up with applied physicist Brian Edwards.
Brian Edwards: I think that that specific title, though, is kind of secondary. All of a sudden, the skills that you need for the day are in chemical engineering, and you’re gonna be like, “Okay, I’m gonna do that.” Or, you need to program, and you’re like “Okay, I’m gonna do that.” And so, I would say that I am not an expert in anything. I do a little bit of everything, and amazingly, that is often times enough.
Dunn: I’m very privileged and lucky to be able to work with Brian, because he’s…I don’t toss this term around lightly, but Brian is an everyday kind of genius.
Together, Dunn and Edwards invented hand-made lithographs that manipulate light on a microscopic scale, to control the reflectivity of metallic surfaces. The result, the most sophisticated renderings of the human brain that any human has ever seen.
Dunn: Because you’re making a reflective template, which is essentially just millions of tiny little etches in a metallic surface, there’s no color inherent to it at all. So, if you have a structure which is etched at this angle, if you have a light source which is perpendicular to it over here—
AJC: And it happens to be purple, then everything that’s at that angle would be purple.
Dunn: Exactly right, yup. And so, you can put whatever color of light you want there. You can move the lights around, and as you move your head around it, everything changes, too. So there’s a flexibility in perspective, but the technique was always the servant to the idea, which was: how do we depict the brain in its full complexity? Because if you were to try to paint an image of the brain, in full complexity, with black ink, you’d have a black square.
AJC: If you’re trying to do a coloring of a big lump of brown.
Dunn: Exactly. Even if you colored all the neurons different colors, it’s just…wow, like, makes no sense. It’s just too complicated. So micro-etching was us breaking up that very complex image into reflective channels, so that, as you walked around it, or as the lights were moved around it, that you could get a more gradual idea of what the depth of complexity of it is.
But as unique as this work is, Dunn and Edwards are actually part of a larger movement called neo-naturalism. Naturalism was a 19th Century movement that sought to accurately depict nature’s inherent beauty. Neo-naturalism applies the same principles, while making use of modern technology.
Edwards: We now can see things that were totally inaccessible before, right? Georgia O’Keeffe painting a sunflower, everybody had access to the sunflower, but what about the electron density surrounding atoms, on a plate? That also has beauty. It’s just not easily seen by many people. So, Greg and I are trying to mine the things that are on the edge of what people naturally see, in their day-to-day existence, for our inspiration.
AJC: It’s also very lovely. I mean, I hate to just bring this down the aesthetic part of it, but I can look at your etchings and think, “wow!” Is that okay?
Dunn: Oh, God, it is more than okay. It’s the point. It’s important to me that my work have something instantaneously accessible about it. It’s absolutely deliberate that a technique which is aesthetically pleasing was invented specifically for this method. We wanted something that would give you that emotional shot of surprise, that dopamine burst when you see the thing, you’re like, “What the heck is this? I’ve never seen anything like that before.” So that you might be inspired to ask some of the deeper questions about what the content of it is.
AJC: There seems to be an inherent bias now, against creative expression as a worthy pursuit, versus science and technology.
Dunn: Yeah. That’s too bad. In my own path, I got a PhD in neuroscience before I decided to take the risk to be a full-time artist. If that says anything about the societal hum of “don’t be an artist, don’t be an artist, don’t be an artist, you’re not gonna be able to support yourself.” Even though that was never directed specifically at me as I was growing up, I had never even considered that I would be doing this. It was a part of my unconscious decision-making process in going through the scientific path, and then realizing, well, you know, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can, by taking baby steps into that world, realizing that no, this is a viable path, as long as you have something to say and you do it well.