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Author Page for Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator. Recently he has curated Subjective Resonance Imaging at the 2013 Human Brain Mapping Conference, was a featured speaker at the 2013 Association of Neuroaesthetics Symposium at the Venice Biennale, curated the 2014 Impakt Festival in Utrecht, Netherlands, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art. Noah graduated from Wesleyan University, where he studied art history and neuroscience.

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Greg Dunn: Gallery + Interview

[ 27 ] November 9, 2011

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.




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.

Using Brain Activity to Reconstruct Subjective Experience

[ 1 ] September 28, 2011

A video has been sweeping the web this week that shows the result of UC Berkeley scientists taking fMRI data, dividing the brain into “pixels,” connecting those pixels to thousands of YouTube videos, and generating a novel image that purports to show the subjects’ inner representations of visual stimuli. The setup is crude and the results are not altogether convincing– but it certainly signals the start of a technology that could one day yield startling results.

In practice, test subjects viewed some video clips, and their brain activity was recorded by a computer program, which learned how to associate the visual patterns in the movie with the corresponding brain activity.

Then, test subjects viewed a second set of clips. The movie reconstruction algorithm was fed 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos, which were used to teach the program how to predict the brain activity evoked by film clips. Finally, the program chose 100 clips which were most similar to the movie the subject had seen, which were merged to create a reconstruction of the original movie.

The result is a video that shows how our brain sees things, and at moments it’s eerily similar to the original imagery. [source]

“NeuroArts” Panel Presented at ISEA 2011

[ 0 ] September 26, 2011

The annual International Symposium on Electronic Art was held this year in Istanbul, wrapping up last week. One panel in particular caught our eye: Neuroarts.

Here’s the description from the conference’s website:

Philosophies of scale within NeuroArts: from the scale of the single cell to the mesoscopic scale of brain emulations through to emergent large-scale phenomena including self-hood and consciousness. What are the relationships between plasticity, stimulation and firing patterns in small brain circuits? And, how can their adaptation in artistic projects alongside synaptic plasticity, and cellular topologies be exploited to make adaptive art?

Very interesting. We only wish we could have attended. If this catches your eye, make sure to check out the paper abstracts from the various presenters featured on the Neuroarts panel at the ISEA website.

Pinker Deftly Places the Internet Where it Belongs

[ 2 ] September 7, 2011

I am skeptical of the idea that the Internet–structurally– is a completely unprecedented innovation in human history. I didn’t know exactly how to express this until I came across a passage by Steven Pinker in “The Mind,” a series of insightful Q&A-structured essays by prominent scientists and philosophers, edited by John Brockman.

Steven Pinker

Pinker begins by comparing the Internet to the human brain in its ability to share a lot of information very rapidly. But then he goes on to give us some humbling history as to where the Internet as a tool fits into our evolutionary past.

“Even nonindustrial hunter-gatherer tribes pool information by the use of language. That has given them remarkable local technologies– ways of trapping animals, using poisons, chemically plant foods to remove the bitter toxins, and so on. That is also a collective intelligence that comes from accumulating discoveries over generations, and pooling them among a group of people living at one time. Everything that’s happened since, such as writing, the printing press, and now the Internet, are ways of magnifying something that our species already knew how to do, which is to pool expertise by communication. Language was the real innovation in our biological evolution; everything since has just made our words travel farther or last longer.”

The Palaces of Memory and Genius

[ 2 ] August 16, 2011

Over at the World Science Festival site, an intriguing discussion of memory palaces– a technique by which one builds a mental representation of a structure and then fills the rooms with certain memories for later recollection:

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, walks us through the process of constructing “memory palaces”—an age-old memorization technique currently exploited by the world’s leading memory champs and mental athletes. Psychologist and memory expert Lynn Nadel explains why this trick is so powerful and how it leverages some the brain’s strongest faculties. [video of panel discussion]

In addition, WSF has some excellent new content surrounding the question of genius, including a report on a panel discussion that featured Julie Taymor and Philip Glass discussing creativity and the mind.

Art & Science Debates Hit London

[ 1 ] August 9, 2011

For those interested in the dialogue between the arts and sciences, there’s an epicenter of discourse that has emerged in London at the GV Art Gallery. Besides being the only commercial gallery to exclusively display science-inspired art, GV Art also hosts frequent panels and debates focused on interdisciplinary questions. Two recent panels were videotaped and are publicly viewable on YouTube:

In many sections, the participants in the debates grasp for how to identify the future of a merged art/science world. How would you label this pursuit, often called the “third culture”?

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