Art in the Lab

How do you envision the brain? Do you imagine a blue glowing brain or a brain-shaped computer, which graphic designers love? Or perhaps you think of more technical imagery, such as brain slices or an MRI? While the former are purely artistic and the latter are very scientific, neither group really translates the intricacy of the brain.


Credit: Shutterstock

Greg Dunn, Ph.D., is trying to bridge the gap between these types of images by illustrating the complexity of the brain through artistic renderings on the cellular level. Dunn received his doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania and now focuses on art full-time. On Wednesday, he shared his passion with the public at an Art in the Lab program at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, as part of Brain Awareness Week.

While Dunn uses different mediums, his current focus is on micro-etching, for which he has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation “to produce a giant 8’ X 12’ reflective microetching of a sagittal section of the human brain at as close to full resolution and complexity as possible.” Dunn said that working on this piece allows him to step back and say “‘holy s@%t,’ this is why I started doing this kind of work,” and he hopes that neuroscientists and kids alike will experience that same excitement. The etching will be displayed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia later this year.

The technique used by Dunn and his colleagues is described in the short video below.

Following his talk, in which he walked us through the intricate steps to complete the large-scale sagittal representation, Greg challenged us in the audience to put on our artistic hats. With limited instruction, he asked us to draw a tree with no leaves in about three minutes. Afterward we were asked to look for patterns in our style. As someone who is drawn to symmetry, I noticed immediately that several of my branches looked similar and balanced in terms of placement on the tree and direction of growth.

In a second exercise, we were given the same time frame and asked to draw a tree more chaotically. This took real effort for me and I actually found it even made me a little anxious! Many others felt the same way, though for some of the more artistic minds in the audience, this second assignment was more enjoyable.


Chaotic tree on the left and initial tree on the right.

Dunn explained the exercise was to see how your brain treats different instructions and also to see what style you prefer. He pointed out that even though a number of us found the second exercise a bit stressful, that type of benign stress can be good for the brain, challenging it to learn something new.

The second part of Art in the Lab took us into the physical lab. Each attendee was given their own station with a microscope, slides of different brain specimens, descriptions of each slide, and a number of painting and drawing tools. I decided to focus on the frog neural plate/neural tube (“a key development structure that serves as the basis for the nervous system”) and the cerebellum (“part of the brain at the back of the skull in vertebrates”).

People really got into this activity. I managed to produce two spectacularly mediocre paintings, but I had a great time doing it and found myself quite focused!

Ann Art.JPG

My work station, with my frog neural plates painting on the left and the cerebellum on the right.

Art in the Lab is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Founded by Alison Dell, Ph.D., and Irina Ellison, Ph.D., this was the fourth time it was held. The next opportunity to attend will be at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY, on April 23. I recommend you go!

Brain Awareness Week 2016 continues through Sunday, March 20. To look for events in your area, search our Calendar of Events.

– Ann L. Whitman

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