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Q&A with Greg Dunn, neuroscientist turned artist

For most neuroscientists, long days in the lab pipetting or recording from cells doesn’t inspire one to pick up a paintbrush or sketchpad. But for others, the still-mysterious—and often breathtakingly beautiful—workings of the brain are a source of awe. One such individual is neuroscientist-turned-artist Greg Dunn. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, his own research merged with experimental forays into painting, adapting neural forms to the principles of Asian art. Greg joins us to discuss his personal journey to becoming a science artist, his visions for the burgeoning field of science-inspired art, and his advice for aspiring brain-loving artists.

You followed a unique career path compared to most scientists. Could you share a bit about your transition from scientist to artist and what inspired you to pursue this path?

GD: I had always needed an artistic outlet in my life, and that became more true than ever when working on very complex biological systems in the lab. When experiments don’t work after a massive expenditure in your efforts, its nice to have something going in parallel that produces something tangible, such as art. I’ve always loved Asian art and the neuroscience images I saw every day in grad school began to merge with that interest, and over the course of several months in my first year of grad school I began to develop my aesthetic in earnest.

I never felt that I was doing anything at the lab bench that others couldn’t have, but I do feel like I have a useful voice in combining science and art. I hope that my career trajectory serves as an example that specialized scientific knowledge can be applied to many different fields and can help to refine a person’s individual voice.

Art based on science (including neuroscience) is becoming increasingly popular. Why do you suspect this field is so appealing, even to non-scientists?

GD: The brain is the ultimate frontier, it is more fundamentally US than anything else we possess. It is at the fundamental root of everything we could possibly be interested in or do with our lives. It is similar to why astronomy is popular to the lay public in this sense, it holds such great philosophical mysteries to explore. And on top of its conceptual and metaphorical meaning, it is aesthetically beautiful. It is so rich in possibility that it is the sort of thing a person can comfortably spend their whole life exploring.

How, if at all, do you believe that neuroscience-inspired art can serve as an effective outreach tool? Have you witnessed this with your own work?

GD: Yes. Art harnesses the power of emotions and direct perceptions in a way that hard data and dry explanations can’t. I deliberately use the power of composition and design to try and make my works appealing on an instinctive level. With the world at our fingertips, people need to be given a reason to care about what they are looking at. Making compelling paintings is about drawing the viewer in initially and then giving them something to chew on in the long term, in this case pondering the nature of the brain and mind.

In the case of Self Reflected, my latest work done in collaboration with Dr. Brian Edwards, the point was to demonstrate directly what complexity looks like. Telling somebody that the brain has 86 billion neurons is essentially meaningless because we have no ability to grasp what that number means. Showing somebody directly what the activity of 500,000 neurons looks like at once in a huge, wall sized microetching gives a person a stepping stone to begin to comprehend this astonishing fact. When you then tell them that the brain is actually hundreds of millions of times MORE complicated than that, that’s when a light goes on.

Self Reflected in Violets- the entire Self Reflected microetching under violet and white light– (photo by Greg Dunn and Will Drinker)

How do you select the subject matter for your work? Do you have any favorite pieces that were particularly meaningful, or that you’re especially proud of?

GD: I’m attracted by a variety of compelling images and subjects in neuroscience and meditation. I try to choose subjects that are of interest to different categories of people- some are more specialized neuro, others more general, some more abstract, etc. I’d say that some of my favorites are Basket and Pyramidals as I think it is a clear statement about how neurons fit in the fractal like organization of nature and how they are similar in form to trees, branches, etc that have been painted in gold leaf in Asia for centuries. Cortex in Metallic Pastels also turned out very well and is one of the first examples of my deep reflective gold leaf technique. And, of course, Self Reflected is the most ambitious project of any kind I’d ever attempted. Its scope and attention to detail I think will make it a useful visualization of the brain for a very long time.

Cortex in Metallic Pastels (21K gold, palladium, dye, ink, and metal powders on aluminized panel), 48” X 96”, 2012.

The overlapping fields of art and neuroscience are evolving rapidly. How to do you see the field changing over the next decade?

GD: Representing brain aesthetics is only one part of it. There is a lot of art/sci work going on in using EEG signals or other neurofeedback devices to direct tasks of various sorts. I am looking forward to seeing some of the work that will come out of collecting unconscious brain activity data that will direct image generation software. I personally plan to try to elucidate states of consciousness that arise in deeper states of meditation through art, as this is more of a subjectively and experientially directed bit of neuroscience art. I think that it is important that art poke our brains into different types of perceptions to teach us a bit more about how it works.

Do you have any advice for others hoping to pursue a career in science-inspired art?

GD: Find your own unique voice! Make a Venn diagram of what your passions are and think hard about how and where they intersect. That is where you will be more effective, motivated, and unique. Really strive to make something categorically new. Don’t always trust your first idea on how to do something, give yourself the time to really iterate an idea in your mind before you realize it. If you are trying to make a living at it, be smart about how to balance your passion with financial realities. Overall, work to convince the world that the barriers between science and art are indistinct at best, and that multifaceted approaches to problems are the most effective solutions.

You can learn more about Greg Dunn’s work at

Feature imageBasket and Pyramidals, ink on 22K gold leaf, 18” X 24”, 2013

Any views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS.Emilie Reas received her PhD in Neuroscience from UC San Diego, where she used fMRI to study memory. As a postdoc at UCSD, she currently studies how the brain changes with aging and disease. In addition to her tweets for @PLOSNeuro she is @etreas.

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