Claude Monet, one of the most famous of the Impressionist painters, was more than a painter: He was an artist who, as part of his art, wanted to understand the human psyche, delving into the depths of memory and experience to urge a reaction from his onlookers. He developed a new technique, turning away from the conventions of five centuries and focusing on the moment, the way light moves through the air and over different surfaces, ephemeral in its perfectly unique setting and frame. The play of light, surfaces, and paint, and the response of the mind to all, ultimately took precedence over absolute photographic fidelity. Ultimately, his innovations helped redefine how art worked and what it meant to a modern audience.
"The impressionists were trying to circumvent constraints, just like we are with microetching," explained Brian Edwards, an artist, electric engineer, and applied physicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Now, suppose you wanted to represent the brain as it functions in time? You'd be faced with a problem much like the one that faced Monet: how to circumvent the constraints of art? Every two-dimensional work of art has length and width, so an innovator's challenge is to incorporate another aspect. The impressionists added movement to their depictions of reality. Edwards and his partner, artist and neuroscientist Greg Dunn, opted for time as their third variable.
Backed by a grant from the National Science Foundation and assisted by eight undergraduates from Carnegie Mellon and Penn, they invented a way to animate images through tiny etches on a metallic surface so they could "choreograph electric activity in the brain," unveiling "the evolution of neurons over time," according to Dunn.
Self Reflected, the culmination of two years of research and practice, now sits inside Your Brain, a permanent exhibit that opened at the Franklin Institute in June 2014. The looming 8-by-12 installation is the most articulate artistic depiction yet of the human brain in action, and aptly, it's housed at the largest neurology exhibit in the United States. Here are some close-ups of the animated microetching:
The image itself is a sagittal slice – what you would see if you held your hand in front of your face and turned your palm left or right. Based on an actual scan of the brain of Carnegie Mellon researcher John Pyles, the shot has been fine-combed to displace circuits and remove noise for the cleanest possible, most dramatic visual while remaining anatomically accurate. Self Reflected combines several arts and skills: hand drawing, photolithography, adaptation of neuroscientific data, algorithmic simulation of neural circuitry, lighting design, and gilding.
Essentially, Pyles' brain scans inspired the basis for the white matter. Then, Greg and Brian animated neurons using algorithms and such to mirror their best guess of what looking at a microetching would do to your brain. So the idea is that you are looking at a picture of what your brain would look like at the moment you're looking at the picture.
"When you start to put pieces together, sometimes you can kind of simplify it, but sometimes you can't," Edwards explained. "The human brain is one of those things that doesn't simplify well. You can't understand the brain by understanding a single neuron."
He and Dunn were inspired to create art from science after looking through a lens for years at the beauty of our universe, microscopic molecules that not everyone gets to see every day. Like a painter wandering through woodlands, they felt they needed to share their discovery.
"Scientists happen to be studying the brain. But really, if you're painting a field of neurons, the only thing to differentiate it from a forest is its context," Dunn said. "By the time we finished with this, I didn't know if it was science or art we were working on."
These days, science and art are strictly partitioned off in our culture, assigned distinct sociocultural roles – yet the professions of scientists and artists do share a great deal. In the Renaissance, many of the great artists were also scientists – and there is a reason. Da Vinci and Michelangelo didn't have to fit into categories, and so they could strive for both accuracy and beauty. They wanted to study corpses when given a chance, and they wanted to understand geometry, because for them, the arts and sciences were inextricably intertwined.
"Today, I think society is really bifurcated in that you have to choose one or the other," said Frederic Bertley, the Franklin Institute's senior vice president of science and education. "Either you're a scientist or an artist. And one of the reasons I like Greg and Brian is that they are bona fide scientists, but they are also bonafide artists."
Bertley spoke of how Picasso made multiple versions of Guernica before finishing his famous tableau, a tactic he described as a scientific process through experimentation.
And though science relies on falsifiable formulas, those have to actually be invented by someone.
"To come up with things like special relativity and general relativity, you have to be creative as heck," he said.
So Self Reflected is itself both art and science. It's a piece about "common humanity," claims Dunn, a "self-portrait for everybody," according to Edwards. When you look at it, you see what your brain is experiencing in that moment.
It even leaves an impression on Dunn and Edwards' two-year-old sons, who are still learning how to speak.