As a PhD student in neuroscience, Greg Dunn Gr’11 found beauty in the brain. “I was just looking at these gorgeous images of neurons all day long,” he says. One day, as he examined some gold-and-black Golgi-stained neuron slices under a microscope, “I realized they had a lot in common with Asian art aesthetics, which I really appreciate.” The neurons “were just such beautiful source material.”
He began to paint pictures of neurons in his free time and discovered that, as an artist, he could put his own spin on science, re-imagining colors and scale and patterns. In fact, though he often looked at micrographs of brain cells for inspiration, many of the images he painted came directly from his own mind.
“I can see the results of my [artistic] work immediately,” he says, “whereas on the bench you’ll spend six months on an experiment and not know for another six months whether it worked.”
By the time he received his PhD from Penn, he had produced numerous works that now hang in universities, medical centers, and private homes. He’d also realized something: Though he was a competent scientist, he never felt as if he was “contributing anything that another person couldn’t have done,” he says. “With my fusion of art and science, I felt that I was actually making something of value that was also unique to my skill set.”
And so, instead of pursuing a lab job, Dunn threw himself into making art full-time, and has been at it ever since. While many of Dunn’s current fans are neuroscientists, neurologists, and doctors, he doesn’t necessarily consider what he does to be “science art,” he says. “I’m painting something that scientists happen to be studying, but painting a landscape of the brain is no different than painting a forest.”
Dunn recently discussed three of his works with regular Gazette contributor and Arts & Culture blogger Molly Petrilla C’06.
Cerebellar Lobe (2012)
The cerebellum is near and dear to my heart because I studied it when I was a technician in Seattle. The molecular landscape of the cerebellum is very distinct, and it’s very dramatic and beautiful. It’s also a more ancient part of the brain. It’s found in animals in which cortex and more evolutionarily new parts of the brain had not yet evolved.
It’s right at the top of the brain stem, about where your head connects with your neck at the back of the brain. It controls movement and motor coordination. It receives input from the spinal cord telling your brain where your body is in space, and all that information is integrated in those huge cells—I made them gold in the painting—called purkinje neurons, which are the largest neurons in the brain. Then there’s some communication with cortex and other parts of the brain, which allows the cerebellum—in concert with other parts—to essentially plan where you’re going to be moving next and to send signals down to your muscles so you can move.
The cerebellum is involved in motor learning as well. That’s the type of learning where, if you’re a pianist and you practice one piece over and over again, your fingers at some point know instinctively to go from A to B and can even do it 50 years later.
For a painting like this, I cherry-pick the anatomical features that I really want to emphasize. In this case, one of those features is the dramatic arborization of the dendritic patterns of the purkinje neurons. I wasn’t working directly from any micrograph. I might reference a few of them along the way, but for the most part, it’s just from my imagination. The color coordination and things are based on my own aesthetic principles. They’re not taken from any degree of reality.
This is an older painting I did of the mammalian olfactory bulb, which is the basic processing unit of the olfactory system. You have the large dark green neurons reaching up into that higher collection of neurons. The large neurons, called mitral cells, bring in information from the olfactory neurons that are in your nose and directly bind with chemicals you might be smelling. That information is transmitted to this processing unit. The combination of all of those different glomeruli gives you the unique smell you’re experiencing.
One of the interesting things about the olfactory system is that there aren’t that many unique types of chemical receptors—that is, receptors that are activated by a specific molecule you smell. There are only about 200 or so of them. We can smell way more than 200 unique smells, but each one of these receptors will bind to a molecular feature as opposed to an entire molecule. Even though there are only 200 of these different things, their combined information will give you extremely unique signatures for each set of smells that you might be encountering.
This piece was on the cover of the Journal of Neuroscience in October 2009. A friend of mine who studies the olfactory system commissioned it. He had an article coming out in this journal and asked me if I’d do a painting for it in the hopes he’d get the cover of the journal.
Cortex in Metallic Pastels (2012)
Cortex is one of the basic processing units of the brain. It means bark [of a tree] in Latin, and it’s the covering of the brain. It does a wide variety of different functions. Cortex is divided into layers—six or sometimes seven depending on where it is. The neurons in each layer can be organized depending on their function. In this painting, layer one would be at the top and layer six at the bottom. The large black neurons are layer five, which would be the motor neurons. This image of cortex is probably taken from motor cortex because it has a very prominent layer five.
This painting was not drawn from any specific micrograph, so there’s some degree of artistic license. It’s not perfectly anatomically correct. But I think cortex is a very iconic neuroscience image just because it’s involved in so many things, like vision and other sensory processing.
I would consider this to be one of my better paintings. It was commissioned by The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s Brain Science Institute. In this painting—and Cerebellar Lobe as well—a lot of the lines in the neurons are created by invoking the randomness of nature. I’m not painting them with my hands. I create the randomly branching neurons by blowing the ink around. (I use a similar technique for the gold leaf.) When you blow the liquid around, it separates out into these tendrils in a very similar way that a neuron would actually grow. By using this method, I’m trying to allow nature to do its thing as much as possible without me getting in there and screwing it all up.