Self Reflected: The Best of Neuroscience and Art

The phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” seems especially true for scientists. What we study becomes not only intellectually beautiful, but also literally beautiful: the form is pleasing to the eyes. Appreciation and endearment develops over time as scientists gaze on their subject for hours, days, years. In fact, research by the psychologist Robert Zajonc shows that the more familiar you are with something, the more likely you are to enjoy it.

So how do scientists communicate this special appreciation to others who may have never even seen a particular organism or structure or cell before? I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Greg Dunn, a neuroscientist and artist, who sought to create a piece of art that would immediately stir anyone’s emotions, regardless of his or her previous experience with the brain. He says, “scientists tend to inflate their language and use jargon when it’s really not necessary.” His goal? For “people to come away with it realizing that your brain is incredibly complex” with “no barrier of intellectual understanding.”

“You have to ask yourself, what’s the audience and what’s the purpose of this?”-Greg Dunn

Dr. Greg Dunn and Dr. Brian Edwards (artist and applied physicist) collaborated on an enormously detailed and challenging two year project to display the complexity and activity of the human brain. Their project was funded by the National Science Foundation and is titled Self Reflected:

Self Reflected shows a sagittal slice of the human brain—the plane that divides the left and right hemispheres—at 22X scale, including accurate depictions of different types of neurons, and the long connections between brain areas. First, the artists hand-painted examples of almost 100 different types of neurons which were then scanned and turned into digital outlines. These were combined and replicated to produce the various brain areas. The artists estimate there are around 500,000 neurons in the entire piece. Next, in order to accurately depict how the brain areas are connected, the team collaborated with Dr. John Pyles, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University, who helped them collect diffusion spectrum imaging data. This technique unveils the axons, the neuronal projects that reach across the brain, and was used to inform hand drawings of the connections. These steps produced a complex, but static image of neurons and axons. But the artists wanted to go one step further.

Our ability to think and feel and behave comes not only from the structure of specific brain areas, but from the activity between neurons within and across brain areas. The most important piece of information is how these neurons connect and communicate. To show this active process, Dunn and Edwards used neuroscience research to accurately connect the brain areas. In fact, the scientists turned artists used algorithmic and mathematical simulations to make sure the neurons were connected in a “chaotic” manner, which is more representative of how connections develop in the brain. This connectivity information was then used to etch or cut angles into the piece to allow light to reflect differently off different neurons and different areas. As light moves across the piece, the changing reflections are able to animate how the neurons communicate with each other in the living brain. These etchings were then overlaid with gold leaf to accentuate the reflection of light. Dunn said, “the whole point of making it animated, making it huge, making it gold, and making it through a technique that people wouldn’t have seen before is to add to that emotional touch.”

If you’re interested in a more detailed look of Self Reflected, check out this “guided tour” by Dunn:

As a trained neuroscientist, Dunn occasionally had to make difficult decisions between accuracy, beauty, and clarity. The brain is, of course, three-dimensional, so portraying it in two dimensions was especially challenging. To make those decisions successfully he says, “You have to ask yourself, what’s the audience and what’s the purpose of this? The dual purpose is, it is designed to be used as a neuroscience reference because it is so accurate, but it’s also supposed to be beautiful and it’s also supposed to be showing circuits in their kind of linear formats.” Because Dunn wanted to portray meaningful circuits between brain areas, he at times he chose to prioritize those connections even if they would not be visible on a sagittal slice of the human brain.

“Self Reflected reveals an insight into the human brain that science struggles with, at least for now.”

Although the creation of Self Reflected was mostly spent on tiny details and repetitive motions, Dunn came away with a profound and over-arching appreciation for how the human brain develops: “What was just so clear to me having personally routed hundreds of thousands of connections in the brain is that the element of randomness is a very real thing. Even outside of epigenetic and genetic variables there’s just a stochasticity.” He explains that this randomness interacts with the brain’s natural development in a beautiful way. We begin our lives with an over-abundance of connections that are gradually pruned based on the experiences we have in the first few years of life. As Dunn says, it is “just so incredibly beautiful that you’re extracting order back from chaos or back from randomness.”

In this way, Self Reflected reveals an insight into the human brain that science struggles with, at least for now. Neuroscientists are still basic questions about the brain, like, how do we see? Or, what brain areas are responsible for this behavior? Because neuroscience is relatively new, neuroscientists often ignore differences between individuals so that they can understand fundamental processes. Meanwhile, art provides an avenue for celebrating our differences, our complexity, our unique beauty.

Self Reflected (basal ganglia and brainstem) – dissected circuitry from the basal ganglia in raw colorized microetching data. 22K gilded microetching, 96″ X 130″, 2014-2016, Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards.


For more information and videos visit: Artwork from this project is available for sale on the website.


Zajonc, Robert B.(2001) Mere Exposure: A Gateway to the Subliminal. The Construction of Preference: 464-70.

Kayleen Schreiber

Kayleen is obsessed with the brain. After majoring in neuroscience at Vanderbilt University, she went straight to a PhD program in neuroscience at the University of Iowa. She currently studies how our brains process speech. She measures electrical changes produced by the brain to understand how the gender of a person talking influences how we hear their speech. Outside the lab, she works to get others excited about science and occasionally plays the bassoon.