Everyone knows that nature is beautiful. So much of nature’s beauty, however, is too small to see without a microscope. Greg Dunn, an artist with a neuroscience doctorate from University of Pennsylvania, has managed to make the microscopic splendor of the brain accessible to anyone, not just scientists, through his paintings. His vivid, organic brushstrokes capture both the essences of neural structures and the interests of scientists, artists, and pedestrians alike. Have you noticed the fundamental similarities between neurons, trees, veins, and even lightning? Have you found yourself wondering why these similarities exist? Dr. Dunn just might have an answer for you, and artistic evidence to boot.
Though art and neuroscience may initially seem like severely different disciplines, artists and neuroscientists have more in common than one might think. For example, as Dunn himself proclaimed, “Part of being an artist or a scientist is living your life with the intent to solve a problem: wanting to know more about something that you’re interested in, and allowing yourself to become utterly obsessed and consumed by the problem.” It appears that Dunn has done exactly that, and in the process has produced some captivating pieces of art and compelling scientific theories. The Airspace had a fascinating opportunity to have a conversation with Dr. Dunn about the science behind his art, and the art behind his science.
This interview was conducted by Airspace writer Melissa McSweeeney and contributor Erin Ford
Melissa McSweeney: How did your interests in neuroscience and art converge?
Greg Dunn: My interest in Asian art allowed me to see the beauty of neurons in an artistic light. I love the simplicity of Asian art; I love the breathing room and spontaneity in it. I love sumi-e and its philosophy that a practitioner need exercise their mind as much as they exercise their aesthetic sense when they paint. With these principles in mind, I started seeing incredible slides of silver or fluorescent stained neurons in my neuroscience classes, and it really struck me how much those images worked within the Asian aesthetic. The silver-staining method is such that only a certain percentage of neurons will actually take up the silver grain and become visible on the final micrograph, thus you only get a few neurons stained on an entire slice of tissue. This leads to a lot of negative space in the final image, a foundational aesthetic in much Asian art. In this sparse setting, you’re able to appreciate the spontaneous nature and random branching of neurons.
If the technique were to stain every neuron in the brain the resulting images would be a big, brown, undifferentiated blotch. The techniques of visualizing neurons naturally produce images similar to sumi-e paintings of a tree or a flower or some other kind of branching structure. Because of these simple connections, sumi-e painting techniques transfer logically to neuroscience paintings.
Erin Ford: What exactly is the philosophy behind sumi-e art?
Greg: Sumi-e is Asian brush painting. It was originally developed in China, and then spread to Korea and Japan. The philosophy of it is to capture the essence of an object using as few strokes as possible while imparting a sense of freedom and expressivity. You distill the salient aspects of the subject and you don’t add any unnecessary detail. Branches, trees, flowers, animals, and landscapes are the canon of sumi-e.
The best paintings are done by artists who have been successful in calming their minds and perfecting their strokes, because ink painting is totally unforgiving. If you make a mistake, you can’t erase it. In the great masterpieces, every stroke has to be perfect. Maintaining the calmness of mind necessary to make every stroke perfect for the duration of the painting, which can be minutes to hours, is very difficult and takes years of practice. A meditative practice goes hand in hand with this type of painting.For example, Sumi-e artists often calm their minds before painting by grinding ink. The ink comes as a stick of compressed, black ash, and they grind the stick on a wet stone for 20 minutes. They perform this simple repetitive motion, focusing their minds in the process. By the time they finish, they have cultivated calmness that they can then use to guide their strokes. This calmness can be a powerful presence in a painting.
I’ll never forget this moment when I visited the Tokyo National Museum, standing in front of a bamboo scroll that they had selected to be the ultimate representation of a popular sumi-e theme in the most prestigious museum in Japan. The strokes were pristine, consistent, and fluid: it came from the hand of a master. You could see the clarity of the mind of the person who painted it. That’s something that really intrigues me about the whole process: when your mind is clear, you’re able to generate spontaneous ideas and graceful flow that are the cornerstones of sumi-e.
Melissa: Does your own mental state, then, play a role in your artwork?
Greg: Absolutely. I’m an avid meditator, and I take it very seriously. I actually don’t do a lot of brush painting, to be honest. But I try to emulate the core philosophy of sumi-e, which is to bring out the spontaneity and randomness that you see in nature by using your human brain: a deceptively difficult task. I use my breath a lot to this end, which is a nice connection between meditation and painting. I try to bring spontaneity and randomness to painting by using my breath to blow ink around on certain types of paper. By doing this, you can get the ink to form very fine tendrils which branch like neurons do:
This technique works so well because it harnesses the same basic forces that create neural branching in nature. Ink takes the path of least resistance in the direction it’s trying to go. The paper itself has all sorts of imperfections on the microscopic scale, such as variations in absorptivity or orientation of fibers. These minute fluctuations influence where the ink spreads on the page, resulting in lines with random twists and turns. This is very similar to how neurons grow through vast fields of molecules, winding around proteins and carbohydrates, extracellular matrix, etc. While following molecular cues to grow in the right direction, neuronal axons or dendrites take a random path through these obstructions, bumping into something and having to turn left, bumping into another object and turning right. Things grow in the direction that is easiest to grow in, which gives rise to the branch-like structure of the neuron, the way the ink will move on the page, or the way a crack on a piece of glass or concrete will move through the structure and give you a jagged line. The form is also seen in a lightning bolt that burns through the atmosphere and takes the simplest path down to the surface, and even on a cosmic scale in the way that clusters of galaxies orient themselves. This branching form represents a fractal solution to the universe.
Melissa: What has neuroscience taught you about art and what has art taught you about neuroscience?
Greg: A painting is an experiment in the same way that a research project is an experiment. Both begin with a question you’re trying to answer. I begin with an idea in my mind, and then it becomes an issue of bringing that vision into reality. Oftentimes that involves working out new techniques, doing experiments, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Science also begins with a fundamental question that you apply experiments to in order to get an answer. You develop a hypothesis, you develop a research strategy, you do the experiments and you interpret the results. The same basic principles of composition apply to painting an image, designing and executing scientific experiments, writing a song, etc. Based on the results of your experiments, you iterate the techniques, or you realize “oh, this is gonna work” or “this isn’t gonna work,” or “this has taken me in an entirely new direction.” Unexpected results can either be very frustrating or amazingly helpful, and it is from those unanticipated twists and turns that you grow both as a scientist and an artist. Both art and science require a strong foundation on which to stand. If your hypothesis isn’t clear and strong, then the results will not be clear and strong either. In painting, a strong foundation derives from a strong silhouette. In my early work, I painted using only black on gold because it helped me to focus on optimizing form and composition without having to worry about color.
Erin: I think the creative freedom you take with that really helps to make your art accessible and appreciated, especially by people who aren’t as familiar with some of that imagery and some of those forms that are neurons. I’m leading off of that into my next question: Do you have a favorite type of neuron?
Greg: Well…Maybe…Oh, that’s a hard question! I even have a shitty diplomatic answer for you, which is that they’re all beautiful in their own way. However, I’d say the classic pyramidal neuron is my favorite because there’s a lot of contrast in its structure. You have regions of dense branching and you have areas of sparse branching, and that contrast in complexity is at the heart of the Asian aesthetic. Many compelling paintings constrain the hyper-detailed portions to discrete regions of the canvas. That contrast makes the details more meaningful, because your eye will compare the complex regions with the negative space. Your eyes and mind can breathe on the page.
To learn more about Greg Dunn and his artwork, visit his website.