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Gallery + Interview: Megan McGlynn

[ 6 ] September 9, 2013


Megan McGlynn

Megan McGlynn‘s sculptures might not immediately strike you as brain-inspired, or brain-related. But look at them closely: inside their intricate worlds, there are hints at the complexity, functionality, and organizational principles of minds; these seem to be the thematic reservoirs for the artist’s architectural explorations. The results of these explorations have formed an impressive body of work by McGlynn, who seems particularly adept at navigating the delicate balance between the intuitive and the explicit, speaking about her work with clarity, yet remaining sensitive to its mystery.



You write in your artist’s statement that you are interested in the “architecture of human perception.” Looking at your wood sculptures, which have titles like “Mirror Neurons” and “Neural Network 005,” I’m struck by how architectural they are, how you’ve created microcosmic worlds within these structures. Do you think about the brain in a very architectural way? What’s your conceptual process of translating findings on mirror neurons, for example, to a built structure? 

I think architecture is a powerful way to visualize neuroscience concepts because it’s one of the most ancient of ways that humans organized themselves and their thoughts. In that way it helps illustrate our evolution, but also consistent patterns in our thinking. It’s difficult for me to look at a built structure without having a visceral response, there’s so much information to take in about the people involved with it, their skills, their access to materials, their needs and aspirations. Also, as a visual thinker and craftsperson, I tend to think about most aspects of life through building processes – I always have to think about what materials, tools, steps you would need to create a certain structure or effect. In that same vein I end up visualizing the brain and the things it creates – personalities, memories, emotions – as emergent structures made from anatomical “building blocks.”

For your example, several studies show that mirror neurons may be what allows humans and animals to transfer knowledge through imitation. This could be a major reason for how organisms make connections and can organize themselves, and even a foundation for the beginnings of culture. In my work, I take these kinds of concepts, experiment with materials, and try to create my own simplified architectural language to express them. The structures in Mirror Neurons are less about anatomy and more representative of what they enable – the acquisition of knowledge (the stacking of pieces upward), the alteration of that knowledge as it’s passed from one individual to another (the differences between each structure), and their lasting connection (their facing toward one another).  

How did you originally become interested in neuroscience? What was it that hooked you, and what continues to be at the core of your interest in this area?

I began training in drawing and color theory at a young age in a strict atelier program, and learned that there was a unique way of perceiving and portraying the visual world on a 2D surface. I learned to flatten objects into simple geometries and strategically pick out and replicate masses of ever-changing color. It wasn’t intuitive but has become a kind of second vision that I can turn on and off, like being fluent in a second language. This never occurred to me as interesting until I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, by Oliver Sacks, as a young teenager. I realized how amazing vision is – and then how amazing every sensation is, and that there is some quantitative mechanism underneath it all. I am still fascinated by vision, but my work now deals mainly with how images are altered by memory. Neuroscience is such a vast and unknown world, I feel genuinely lucky to observe its rapid growth and add my own little comments through artwork.

Looking back at the work you’ve made to date, how do you feel your conceptions of neural architecture have evolved since you first started making work? Do you feel the work has noticeably co-evolved as your own understanding of the neuroscience has developed?

My earlier work was mainly copies of CAT scans or illustrations of the limbic system interspersed with classically rendered still-life paintings of oranges. In other words, I copied things I saw. Slowly I became less interested in making a clear image and decided to use concepts I understood from studying neuropsychology: the mind will make sense of what it sees due to its own experiences. My philosophy now is that strange or unclear artwork is much more interesting to create and to view. It forces people to either reject it or figure it out. The allusions to architecture have become much greater since I’ve begun literally constructing sculptures. The building process can become all encompassing and make me start to see everything in a mechanically replicable way, even the protean nature of thought.

What do you hope to communicate to the casual viewer of your work, someone who doesn’t know much about science?

With little formal education in the sciences, I often feel as though I don’t know much about science… but I am a self-taught enthusiast and endlessly fascinated. I think my artwork is equally a reassurance to myself as it is a statement to others that expertise is not required to be curious, learn and talk about these things. Curiosity and exploration are so deeply human, and modern science is so incredible, I want everyone to find an exciting gateway into learning about the world around and within them. If a piece excites someone to look up the title and find out for themselves what mirror neurons or synapses are, that is wonderful.  While I do make my work with some concrete ideas based on research, the rest is rather intuitive and responsive to materials. It leaves a lot for the viewer to pull apart, so I don’t expect people to understand what they are about. Without looking at the title, people with any level of scientific background may see something with no connection to neuroscience or see something much more complex than I currently understand. It may be why I am an artist and not a scientist – there are no wrong answers in art.

Do you believe art that deals with the brain can reveal or communicate anything about the brain that science alone cannot?

This is a very tough question. I think it boils down to how you define art… which is also a never-ending question. I have a hard time finding the boundary between art and science, but I do believe there are a lot of things images can communicate that words cannot and visa versa – of course, science creates a lot of images, so this is not really a reflection on the powers of science versus art. These fields are very closely tied – psychologists use art to help explore mental health, and I already mentioned the ability of architecture to reveal a lot about thinking and needs. Are these more artistic approaches “better” at telling us about the brain than “science”? I don’t know, it depends on what kinds of answers you’re looking for. That said, contemporary art is also far from being just paintings and sculptures. As technology evolves with exponential speed and accessibility, it wouldn’t surprise me to see artists push further into more traditionally scientific realms with revolutionary ideas. In terms of this question and my own work, I am experimenting with qualia, which may always remain an unknown and is the spirituality of science: the fact that the universe exists and we can experience, observe and reflect upon it.


See more at the artist’s website.

Subjective Resonance Imaging: Gallery + Essay

[ 12 ] July 12, 2013

Subjective Resonance Imaging was a group gallery show we co-organized with the Neuro Bureau for the 2013 Human Brain Mapping conference in Seattle, June 16-20 2013, featuring the work of 12 artists from around the world. The following essay appeared in the show catalogue, and the following images were taken at the exhibit in Seattle last month.


by Noah Hutton

Like the human brain it seeks to understand, neuroscience, as a discipline, leans on the visual: from founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s hand-drawn sketches of neurons, to the present-day offerings of functional magnetic resonance imaging, optogenetics, connectomics, and computational simulations, seeing is vital to knowing.

Artists are seeing these images of the brain as well, and their contributions to 21st century imaging of the self is the subject of Subjective Resonance Imaging, a group exhibition presented at the 19th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, in Seattle, June 16-20 2013. The work assembled here comes from around the world and encompasses both established, widely exhibited artists as well as several emerging voices in the present-day conversation between neuroscience and art.

(cont’d below)



From Nina Sellars, working in Australia, who creates mixed reality pieces that integrate links to digital scans of her own brain, to Julia Buntaine, working in New York City, whose sculpture provides conceptual footholds to grasp metaphors of brain structure and function, Subjective Resonance Imaging finds artists at this interdisciplinary vanguard working with a wide range of materials and thematic interests.

Some touch on more personal issues of identity and disfunction through their work, attempting to shape new meaning from the scientific images of themselves. Elizabeth Jameson’s special installation Sanctuary of Mind and Brain builds on her interest in bringing the sacred and the profane together, searching for a place where science becomes transcendent. Scans became a recurrent image in Jameson’s life when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). “As the stack of MRIs grew,” she writes, “so did my fascination with the brain and the eerie black and white images that seemed to hold my fate. They are frightening, yet also immediately mesmerizing.” The art that resulted came from the artist’s undeniable urge to reinterpret the im¬ages, to use them to explore the wonder and the complexity of all brains—including those with disease.

Two other painters featured in Subjective Resonance Imaging—Constance Jacobson and Katherine Sherwood—also investigate the point at which art, science, and disability intersect: Sherwood through her mystical explorations of neural landscapes following a stroke she endured in 1997, and Jacobson through structural depictions of memory loss—inked suggestions of tidy neural networks, carried off into blurred edges and disappeared forms.

As diverse as the forms and approaches are throughout this group, there is a common pursuit that has brought everyone here into a shared space. This is a band of explorers who have all shone their light on the vast and uncharted realms of the human brain; their maps may be more subjective, but they are cartographers nonetheless. With commonality in mind, how does one deal with this work as a cohesive artistic movement, and approach the work of these interdisciplinary artists through the lens of traditional art criticism?

We often speak of the sort of work seen in Subjective Resonance Imaging as being science-inspired art; in this case, neuroscience-inspired art. What this passive description fails to capture is the active loop of making and perceiving that this work embodies. These artists have actively turned their focus onto the physical structure of their minds, and of all of our minds, and they are using that biological architecture to make the work itself. Whatever resonance their work creates for others is felt in that very biological architecture which originally focused—and was the focus—of this work. This is a system of mirrors of mirrors.

In his seminal essay “Modernist Painting,” written in 1961, art historian and critic Clement Greenberg, speaking of the abstract expressionists of his time (namely Pollock’s paintings that seemed to call more attention to the physical paint itself than any sort of figurative representation) observed that

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence… The Enlightenment criticized from the outside, the way criticism in its accepted sense does; Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.

Greenberg’s Modernist mechanism is again at work here, but in a different context. Now, instead of artwork referring to the external discipline of the art world in order to achieve the awareness of Modernism, we have subjective images referring to the seat of subjectivity itself, the human brain. In this sense, the work in Subjective Resonance Imaging represents a new evolutionary branch on the Greenbergian tree of artistic self-awareness. This art is engaged with the procedures (brain imaging, processes of the mind, complex structures) that are themselves the creators and perceivers of it; this art is acutely aware of the inside.

There may also be structural parallels between the pursuits of art and those of neuroscience, which may be helpful to consider if we are to push the interdisciplinary conversation at hand from passive-inspiration to active-convergence. Consider the line of criticism focused on large-scale mapping projects, such as those undertaken by the leaders of the push to map a full mammalian connectome, that asks the question of just how helpful such a map of one individual’s nervous system will be for the ultimate goal of abstracting universal principles regarding brain function that can be applied to all individuals of a species. This critique poses a question that continues to loom large in the field: Are we in a place yet, with large-scale mapping projects, to be able to pull out abstract universals from the noise of individual differences between brains?

The artist sometimes faces a similar dilemma. Will the art object, in its emergence from one individual’s subjectivity, resonate with another individual? Though the artist may prefer not to think about this dilemma directly, it may creep up from time to time: achieving some resonance from the world can be intoxicating. Yet trying to create from this place—with the ends shaping the means—can make for art with some sort of diluted ideal, an “average” of all tastes. Scientists have even created “average” faces and landscapes: the results have repeatedly shown to produce sterile and unexciting images. This is neither a viable nor an interesting solution for the artist.

For the scientist, a sort of “average brain” might be helpful as a sketch of a nervous system, but may not help us account for the particularities of consciousness, disease, or any number of highly specific neural phenomena—this “average brain” might display certain basic principles, but may not actually be like any real brain. From these observations, a shared truth emerges: the solution for both the artist and the scientists may be to just keep doing more work. The artist who sets out to create his work will never step in the same internal Heraclitean river twice; the scientist who seeks to pull out abstract universals from individual brains may also find that the Heraclitean edict applies to her practice as well: a first map will need to be followed by many more maps before the vast extents of neural possibilities and their causative relations comes into focus. With more neural data and more artwork—from the Chauvet caves to today’s vanguard—what Paul Churchland has called the “multidimensional space of possibilities” becomes more and more populated, giving us more context, coordinates, and means of comparison and analogy between individuals and their subjective and objective maps.

But why make these maps, and why make this art? What is the urge that drives both endeavors, and is it linked at its core? It is helpful here to turn again to Greenberg, for his evolutionary account of art disciplines.

Each art, it turned out, had to perform this demonstration on its own account… Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.

Let us reframe Greenberg’s concept in terms of the deep, unanswered question of our time, pertinent to science as well as art: What is it about this piece of matter—the human brain— that generates the “effects exclusive to itself”? To map these effects, which include subjectivity, consciousness, and the feeling of selfhood, a symbiotic approach through the “operations and works” of both science and art seems most appropriate, given the source of the matter.

Affecting Perception: Interview + Gallery

[ 14 ] March 6, 2013

An exploration of art and neuroscience has taken over Oxford Castle’s O3 Gallery this month. The exhibition is titled Affecting Perception, and it features the work of artists “affected by neurological conditions, and contemporary art inspired by discoveries in neuroscience.”

The show was devised by an intrepid, forward-thinking group of recent graduates from the arts and sciences known as the AXNS Collective. Their eclectic roots and can-do spirit has yielded a first-of-its-kind show in Oxford, funded by grants that the AXNS Collective secured from the Wellcome Foundation and the Wates Foundation. You can click each featured artwork below to enlarge it and learn more about each artist, and then scroll down for our full interview with the show’s curators.





Martha CrawfordCosima Gretton, and Rachel Stratton are the co-curators of Affecting Perception.

The exhibition seems to present the work of these artists in the context of that work being affected by their respective brain conditions, illnesses, injuries, or other neurological states we typically label as “dysfunctional” in some respect. What do we see across the board in this work, about how the art seems to reflect something about these inner states?

Cosima Gretton: It is hard to say there is a universal something that can be seen across the board in all the works. That is why they are interesting: each artist is differently affected, and has responded to and engaged with their condition differently.

With regards to the concept of ‘dysfunctional’ – while in some (Utermohlen) the dysfunction as a result of the condition can be seen in the progression of his work over the course of his disease, in others the condition adds to and informs the artist’s work. Cecil Riley, for example, paints his hallucinations, and JJ Ignatius Brennan’s migraine aura form the basis for his surrealist drawings. Jon Sarkin, one could argue, has in fact gained a function: prior to his stroke, although he had an interest in art he had never fully engaged with it, whereas now his post-stroke obsessive-compulsive tendencies generate a prolific output.

Perhaps what can be said across the board is that for each artist engaging with their condition through their art is cathartic in some way. For Utermohlen it was an attempt to understand what was happening to his mind as his Alzheimer’s disease progressed, and for Cecil Riley, painting his hallucinations (caused by Charles Bonnet Syndrome as a result of macular degeneration) seems to exorcise them. Jon Sarkin, Jason Padgett and George Widener have at different points all hinted at the fact that they cannot stop creating their art, and that creating provides a release from a kind of psychological tension.

Do you hope that viewing art in this context– the context of the brain, and its various states of function or dysfunction, healthiness or illness– can have an impact on how we view all art? 

Rachel Stratton: It is important to distinguish between looking at art through the lens of neuroscience in general and looking at art in terms of neurological conditions. Art history and art criticism are constantly looking for new contexts through which to discuss the art of a particular century, style, artist etc. and analysing art through the lens of neuroscience can provide this. In that sense it can impact the way we look at all art.

Looking at a person’s art through their altered brain function, however, is a niche branch of that neuroscientific approach and should only be applied when it fits the context. We were very careful, in our selection of artists, to only choose those whose works could be seen to convey characteristics associated with their condition. We wanted the science and the art to inform each other: the art to illustrate the altered brain function of the artist and scientific understanding of the said condition to offer another perspective on why the artist created the work they did. We were also careful with the way we framed the artists’ illnesses. For example, when looking at the work of William Utermohlen, an artist with Alzheimer’s disease we found that whilst his cognitive and spatial abilities were deteriorating his work became incredibly emotive and visceral, taking on a new poignancy. We wanted to highlight the commonality and difference rather than purely focusing on his cognitive decline.

This approach should not be applied universally to art because, in many cases, the art will not reveal anything about the illness and the illness will not illuminate our understanding of the art. However, I think as a collective we all feel quite strongly that people should not shy away from confronting an artist’s condition when the context permits it.  It can provide fascinating insight into an artist’s work and add a further dimension of understanding about the art.

In the early 20th century it’s been hypothesized that revelations in physics may have contributed to a culture shift in the arts, seen in the explosion of abstraction and cubism. We live in a time where the brain sciences are in a similar scientific spotlight, with major endeavors to understand the brain being announced on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you feel that 21st century neuroscience is contributing to a cultural movement in the visual arts, and how is that movement taking shape?

CG: Semir Zeki points out that 21st century neuroscientists are often treading old ground with the visual arts: artists have for centuries been using the tricks and techniques of the visual system to manipulate the viewer. Take perspective, object invariance, and colour constancy. For example, in many cubist paintings, such as those by Braque or Picasso, the artist provides all the viewpoints of an object within one painting, showing an understanding, almost half a century before it appeared in cognitive neuroscience, of the nature of object invariance. Neuroscience provides these discoveries with a neural basis, and often re-confirms what artists have known for a long time.

RS: There does, in recent years, seem to have been a flurry of activity around neuroscience and art that suggests that there is a particular zeitgeist at the moment. However, it is slightly different to the way that 20th century movements looked to Physics, perhaps a reflection of wider changes that have taken place in the art world. Early modernist movements such as Cubism used discoveries in geometry and physics to interrogate the visual arts. They appropriated these scientific principles with a view to exploring the fundamentals of painting and sculpture. In the contemporary context, it seems to me, that the lines of communication between neuroscience and art are much more fluid and run in both directions. Artists look to neuroscience and neuroscientists to artists. There is a greater move towards collaboration for the common goal of understanding more about the human condition and the world we live in rather than solely to inform the discipline of art. Nowadays art is less introverted and more outward looking, as are many other disciplines.

It feels to me, here in the U.S., that the U.K. is at the vanguard of this dialogue between the arts and sciences, with active sources of funding, artists, scientists and philosophers of all breeds involved in building a highly interdisciplinary culture at present. Do you sense that the culture in the U.K. is leading in this regard, and if so, why do you think that’s the case?

Martha Crawford: I am not sure if we are ‘leading’ in discovering this new dialogue but I do think that we are seeing a steep rise in interdisciplinary work between art and science in the U.K. Projects like ours and the Wonder Season at the Barbican certainly indicate so and more groups are cropping up whose main interest is the relationship between art and science and exploring this relationship.

In the last fifty years we have seen huge leaps and discoveries in science which have helped us understand more about ourselves, the world around us and our relationship with it. As all artists, scientists and philosophers are explorers in their fields, sharing the common quest to learn, discover and rediscover our place in this world, I think this marriage between sciences and the arts is a natural and inevitable move. Looking at the world through the lens of a different subject gives us more lines of questioning to follow. The more questions we can ask, the more we can learn.

The new dialogue is an exciting one as we can utilise it as a tool to increase public understanding of tricky issues and new discoveries. We still have an education system which separates people early into ‘scientists’ or ‘artists’. Although this in itself is an issue it does mean that interdisciplinary dialogue can give scientists and artists a way into a world they might previously have been excluded from.

What is original about your initiative with AXNS Collective that you feel hasn’t quite been done before? 

MC: Several elements of our project have not quite been done before and I think that this strengthens what we are doing substantially. The artists in the exhibition have never been exhibited in this way together. As far as we are aware this is the first exhibition which looks at a group of artists with direct reference to their neurological condition and asks what we can learn about said condition from their art. The response we have received so far and results of our own discussions could conclude that this is a brand new way of looking at neuroscience and conditions of the brain. We are taking the discussion out of a specialist forum and placing it in the public arena. This move is extremely important for this new area of interdisciplinary work as it will increase its longevity and ensures the continuation of innovative fieldwork.

I think the most exciting and original aspect of our project is the way we are asking questions about neuroscience and art. Our project has three platforms for discussion and for learning: the exhibition exploring the work of artists with neurological conditions and those who play with perception in their work; the community seminar series exploring the themes of the exhibition and the workshops and tours for local community groups and schools. This means we can include everyone and offer people with different learning styles and abilities a way into the conversation.

What do you, as curators, hope visitors take away from the exhibition?

CG & RS: The exhibition, seminars and workshops are public engagement exercises and we were clear from the start that one of the fundamental objectives was to make people more aware of different areas of the brain and how the brain works. We want people to leave a greater awareness of different neurological conditions and how they differ from psychiatric conditions. We have tried to make people think about the nature of vision and visual processing, and how it affects the creation and appreciation of art. We also want to make people think about the philosophy and anthropology of art production. We want people to question why we produce art in the first place and what function it fulfills.

Ideally we would like them to leave with more questions than they arrived with. We hope that the exhibition opens up new avenues of enquiry, and stimulates them to ask questions on the mind, the brain and creativity that they might not have considered before.

Greg Dunn: Gallery + Interview

[ 28 ] 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.

GALLERY: Elizabeth Jameson Spring 2011

[ 18 ] April 16, 2011

Elizabeth Jameson found her art when her own brain lost one of its most basic functions.

After suddenly finding herself unable to speak, Jameson was diagnosed with MS in 1991. She soon came to know the geography of her own mind through countless MRI sessions.

Jameson felt a hunger to step beyond her career as a lawyer and reinterpret this medical imagery, adding an artistic treatment to her brain scans in what has become a unique form of portraiture. Jameson writes that her MS inspires her “to create images that provide new insights into the brain and, at the same time, makes medical imaging and its representative humanity more accessible to both medical professionals and others who view these revealing pictures.”

Most recently, the Harvard Center for Brain Science commissioned the installation of four of Jameson’s paintings. We are proud to feature Jameson’s work in this exclusive online gallery as well as an interview with the artist below. Check out her previous gallery on this site for more images.




How did you arrive at your present moment as an artist who is deeply engaged with her own brain and the brains of others?

I became fascinated by the brain when I suddenly lost my ability to talk. It happened when I was playing with my children at a local park.  I had no pain but, with absolutely no warning, I found I could not speak. The next week, surgeons removed a part of my brain in order to determine the origin of my aphasia. I was subsequently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since then, in order to monitor the progression of the disease, I have spent many hours in the darkness of the scanning machine, during innumerable MRIs (brain scans).

My diagnosis and treatment gave rise to a keen interest in medical technology and inspired me to create images that interpret the medical images in a new light. For the anxious patient, the MRI images can appear ugly and frightening—a bunch of black and grey pixels spelling out their fate. I felt a strong urge to reinterpret these images—to use them to explore the wonder and beauty of all brains including those with a disease. My images create an artist’s view of imaging technology–one that is both accessible to those who view these revealing pictures as either subject or doctor and also one that, I hope, captures some of the feeling and emotions evoked by these kinds of medical images.

I discovered art after my diagnosis. Prior to this time, I was a civil rights lawyer.

Describe one or two of the works we see in the online gallery. Where is it derived from and what led you to select this particular imagery? How does the image of the brain– first seen through medical imagery– change once you start working with it?

My artwork derives largely from my own MRI or brain scans. My two favorite etchings, Valentine andEmerging, deal with the exquisite nature of the structures of the brain.

Emerging is a cropped image of my frontal lobe and inter-hemispheric fissure. In this image, my brain and the skull are emerging from  the quiet of my interior self and entering into the world outside. This image captures the mystery and magic of the brain and asks us to meditate on where the brain is going on its journey.

Valentine I is another cropped image – this time of my brain stem, cerebellum and corpus callosum.  I chose this portion of the brain because of its shape– the structure that echoes that of the human heart. I use warm and cool colors in my work to evoke the emotions that I feel when I immerse myself in the interior of the brain, and to express my happiness in discovering the image of the heart within the interiors of my brain.

What do you find beautiful about the brain?

I continually find myself humbled and awed by the layer upon layers of mysterious and imponderable structures that comprise the brain. I find beauty in its mystery.

Do you think the brain will ever understand itself, or is this organ too vastly complex to grasp its own workings?

I am comforted by the fact that I believe my brain knows exactly what it is doing. I have never felt that I needed to fight my disease or the repercussions of having an imperfect brain. Instead, I use my art to celebrate the brain. Without multiple sclerosis, I would never have thought so deeply about this incredibly vital organ. In fact, without MS I would never have discovered my passion for art.

You write that your MS inspires you to create images that provide new insights into the brain. What are the nature of these new insights? Are they insights that can only be achieved through art?

MRIs produce images of a brain that are naked and without emotional context, without passion or sadness, without all the frailties, humor, and idiosyncrasies that make us who we are. I feel I am enormously lucky that my art allows me to spend my time hunting for images where I can find beauty and sensuousness, as well as perplexing complexity.

More generally, do you see an ultimate division between the ambitions of science and of art, or do you feel they are exploring the same issues at their cores?

I really don’t know. I imagine scientists are trying to discover the mysteries of the brain, while I am trying to present and interpret the beauty in that mystery.  I like to think that we are all approaching the study of the brain with the same degree of humility and awe.

GALLERY: The Art of Neuroscience vol. III

[ 10 ] November 1, 2010

Neurogenesis– the creation of new neurons in the brain– was conventionally believed to only occur in the growing brains of infants and children.  In the 1960s, data started appearing that showed the birth of new neurons in adult, fully formed brains.  Now, 40 years later, adult neurogenesis is one of the more robust fields of study in the neurosciences.

Jason Snyder studies adult neurogenesis in Heather Cameron’s lab at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD.  Snyder’s research focuses on neurogenesis in the hippocampus, highlighting the role of these new neurons in such fundamental behaviors as memory formation and learning.

In his earlier days, Snyder was a student of electrophysiological techniques for studying the brain, and admired the simple, elegant aesthetic of the technology: “I remember pasting a voltage waveform on my bedroom wall because…those curves were beautiful!”

We’re delighted to have some exclusive images from Jason Snyder’s microscope.  He has a sharp eye for the compelling, unusual forms of brain tissue and uses a beautiful array of staining techniques to highlight young neurons and answer questions relating to neurophysiological results of neurogenesis.

In deciding how to crop these images and which colors to use to visually distinguish certain cells from the surrounding chaos of brain tissue, Snyder’s work toes the line between a hard science goal with great explanatory value and a more artistic mentality in the science’s visual presentation. The art and science go together: a stunning visual can make for a stunning revelation about the structure and function of cells and regions of the brain, and can emotionally move us with its sheer beauty, perhaps steering us towards a lifetime of studying the brain.

Enjoy the gallery below, which presents views of neurogenesis from different regions across the brain and at various magnifications. Jason truly embodies the pursuits of our Art of Neuroscience gallery series.


For more of Jason’s work, check out his blog, Functional Neurogenesis.

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