Greg Dunn is a visual artist and has a Ph.D in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s not so easy to tell at first glance whether Dunn is painting a branching pattern of a plant or that of a neuron. But maybe that’s the point. Dunn’s eye seems attuned to the dazzling beauty packed into the cellular architecture of each square millimeter of our nervous system, architecture that repeats itself all around us.
The neuronal imagery in Dunn’s paintings appears to draw some influence from the early 20th century drawings of stained neurons by foundational figures like Santiago Ramon y Cajal (find our essay on the young Cajal here). Yet Dunn’s work presents another clear influence, one that the artist himself discusses in the interview below. He is a deep admirer of a diverse range of pan-Asian artwork, and in his work this influence has made for elegant renderings of individual neurons and larger regions that exhibit both what Dunn calls the “raw and bold” quality of some Japanese and Chinese ink drawing traditions as well as their “simple, emotional, and direct” nature.
INTERVIEW WITH GREG DUNN
1. Where do you interests in the brain and in pan-Asian art originate?
I’ve always been interested in psychology and philosophy, and I suppose that was where my early interests lay. I’ve always been a pretty introverted person, so I spend a lot of time in my thoughts. Suffice to say, I am often puzzled by whats going on in there! As my scientific interests developed, I realized that really any biological system can be fascinating. However, what sets the brain apart is that it is the apparatus through which we experience the world. Every single human activity has a neurological story to it. If you’re a scientist because you want to understand yourself, as I am, then it doesn’t make sense to look any place else.
I honestly don’t remember when my interest in Asian art began, but I suspect that it may have been in reaction to overexposure to Rennaissance art on one Europen trip or another I took with my family as a kid. In contrast to a lot of the art produced in Europe, Asian art was so simple, emotional, and direct. There was breathing room on the canvas, and the techniques were so raw and bold. It is the kind of art that just punches you in the gut with its immediate, visceral impact.
2. How did your tastes for pan-Asian art and your interest in the brain merge? What is it about these techniques and aesthetics– particularly in Japanese scroll and screen painting– that fit your aesthetic interpretation of the brain?
Neural forms and Asian painting styles collide in a completely natural way, and I am so fortunate that I found this out for myself because it has led to a very satisfying career as an artist/scientist. Neural forms are naturally elegant and spontaneous, characteristics that also describe the more traditional forms of Asian sumi-e painting- branches, grasses, etc. All that is required to connect the dots is the realization that you need to crank down your awareness to the micron scale to see that nature has very similar forms across different scales of magnitude. The branching form of a dendrite is nearly identical to the form of a branching tree, a series of cracks in the pavement, the movement of rivers and streams as viewed from space, or a lightning bolt. I wouldn’t be surprised if the form were represented on a cosmic level as well. It is a fractal solution to the Universe.
3. First seen in slides and in medical imagery, do the images of neurons and glia in the brain change at all in your mind once you start working with their forms in an artistic setting? Do you have any examples of such a change?
My perception of the brain regions and the cells within them are always changing as I paint. This is because I’m always trying to walk a line between photorealism and interpretation. Using photomicrographs as a hard reference can be useful because it helps to hammer down the anatomy correctly, but it can rob the painting of sponteneity. It also robs the painter of the almost meditative discipline of learning how to emulate the random movements and branching of neurons, a deceptively difficult skill. The brain is always wanting to generate or pick out patterns in things, and it is a real challenge to try to avoid that tendency.
4. What has this artistic interpretation of brain structures done to your conception of the brain and its small units of processing? How has this artistic practice influenced your academic life, if at all?
It has really given me an appreciation for how utterly chaotic the microstructure of the brain is. For clarity’s sake, I usually paint only a few neurons on a canvas to emphasize their form without obscuring it with too many lines, but the brain doesn’t look like that at all. There’s a cliché in neuroanatomy about how each brain region claims only so much “real estate,” and that all of the processing units must be crammed into a very small space. Put together 100 billion neurons, each making up to thousands of synapses with one another, and the evolutionary limit on head size and you’ve got one densely packed little organ indeed. It is an unfathomable mess on the one hand, and exquisitely ordered on another. If these realizations have affected my academic life at all, it is in what a difficult organ it is to study! So heterogenous and complicated, it is a mighty challenge to understand the workings of just one neuron, let alone a whole brain full of them.
5. Do you believe the brain will ever understand itself, or is it vastly too complex to ever fully comprehend its own function, even through all the tools of modern science?
I had this conversation when I was just starting grad school with a friend of mine who recently finished his PhD, and it really stuck with me. There are some astounding geniuses out there that are making huge progress for us all. But one day, when imaging technology, data acquisition, supercomputing, etc reach the point when some of the really deep questions can be answered, I’m not sure how a human being can really grasp the avalanche of data. Even if a brain could fully understand itself, it seems impossible to me that it would be through the mediums of graphs, tables, connectivity diagrams, and all of that that would be the inevitable output. I’m personally not interested in that these days anyway. For me, it seems that a more relevant and rewarding approach of self discovery lies in personally developing an intuitive approach to understanding the brain. To understand my own brain I seriously practice meditation, the science of observing the mind. That is where I will be spending my future years of scientific inquiry, and hopefully I’ll understanding something or other by the end of it all.
6. Beneath all, what do you find beautiful about the brain?
6. It is literally the most complicated object in the known Universe! The tremendous knot of cells when connected in a certain way gives rise to a strange sense of “I” that is able to ponder and learn things about its environment. It is an utter miracle, and is at the root of why we are conscious beings able to appreciate this world and all of its beauty. How can you not love it?!
For more information or to order prints, paintings, or to commission custom work, visit Greg Dunn’s website.