A Neuroscientist Throws Science Overboard for Art

Studio 360

Neuroscience is a vast field. Here's how Greg Dunndescribes it: "It's as if in New York, there's like a little neighborhood for electro-physiologists, there's a little neighborhood for the behaviorists and for the cellular specialist. It's quite a labyrinth." When he was studying in grad school, Dunn's neighborhood of neuroscience was epigenetics. "It's how your body learns," he says. For example, if a skinny person gains 100 pounds --- will their future offspring be prone to obesity? Or if you experience a traumatic event, will your future offspring have anxious dispositions? Our traditional understanding of genetics and inheritance says an individual's experience doesn't get passed down to the next generation. But epigenetics studies the ways that our parent's experiences do affect us.

It's a fascinating, cutting edge field. "But to be honest I was never really all that excited about it," Dunn admits. "I didn't feel like I was producing anything research-wise that others couldn't have produced. I was decent, but not great." But he did have a knack for graphic design --- he used to paint album covers to make extra money.

One night he was dabbling with inks, and a bug landed on his paper. He tried to blow it away. Dunn remembers how his breath "blew the ink around in this gorgeous pattern that's very reminiscent of the branching patterns of trees or neurons or lightning bolts or something." It was a personal breakthrough.

Dunn started painting neurons in the style of ink wash painting from East Asia. He points to an image of "The Old Plum," a 16th century painting by the Japanese artist Kano Sansetsu. "It depicts a gnarled plumb tree on a gold leaf background, and the branches of this plum tree are taking all these crazy twists and turns," Dunn explains. For Dunn, there are two images in the painting: "There is the image of the tree and rocks, which are the principle part of the image, and then there's the negative space too."

His inspiration may be hundreds of years old, but Dunn's paintings are very high-tech. He etches neurons by hand on to large metal plates, then he covers the surface with gold leaf, to give it a reflective quality. The colors change depending on the angle at which you view the panel.

He's been successful enough to become a full-time artist, but not everyone is a fan of his work. He says some of his colleagues in neuroscience will complain, "the inner nodal distance on a purkinje neuron is 15 microns, not your 50 microns. Clearly you haven't done your research." But Dunn became an artist so he could "bend the rules a little bit," and draw layperson into science by the beauty, if not the accuracy, of his work.

'Cortical Columns' represents neural synapses. Gold, ink, dye and mica color the aluminized panel.
'Hippocampus II,' enamel on composition gold and aluminum depicting the titular region of the brain.
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