If you’re lucky enough to wander into the Your Brain exhibit at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, you’re in for a mesmerizing treat — a portrait of the brain, ironically, as it views a work of art. The stunning display, appropriately called Self Reflected, depicts a thin slice of the human brain scaled up by a factor of 22. Made of 25 etched plates hand gilded with 1,750 sheets of 22 karat gold leaf, the 12-by-8-foot piece depicts the circuit dynamics of approximately half a million neurons. A network of 144 LED spotlights flash across the piece to give it its life, yielding 500-microsecond animations of brain activity that unfold in colorful waves as the viewer walks from one side to the other.
Self Reflected is the brainchild of full-time artist Greg Dunn (NGG’11) and Brian Edwards (ESE’08), who now works as a research scientist in the lab of his former doctoral advisor Nader Engheta, H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering.
With the help of about half a dozen Penn undergraduate students, the duo spent two years creating the world’s most complex piece of art on the brain to bridge the gap between the large-scale view of the brain and the activity of individual neurons, thereby elucidating the nature of human consciousness.
As Edwards explains, this ambitious endeavor presented a unique challenge. “Most systems, from clocks to computer chips, can be easily reduced to the sum of the components. However, you can understand each individual neuron in the brain and not understand how the magic of consciousness appears out of them,” he says. “Borrowing the adage of ‘missing the forest for the trees,’ we wanted to present both the forest and the trees in as much detail as we could. If you get close enough, you can see individual dendrites, but if you stand back, you can see brain waves and flashes of regional activity.”
CHOREOGRAPHY OF NEURAL ACTIVITY
The secret to success behind Self Reflected was reflective microetching, a technique invented by Dunn and Edwards to microscopically manipulate the reflectivity of a surface. This creates a third dimension of information based on the angle of reflectivity, which can be used to create animations on a seemingly two-dimensional surface. Their approach combines hand drawing, scientific data, computer simulation, photolithography, gilding and strategic lighting design.
Microetchings are comprised of collections of angled ridges that are designed to gather light from a source at one location and reflect it to an observer at another location. Through smooth and subtle changes in the angles of the ridges, microetchings become animated as either the light source or the observer moves. Even though Self Reflected is a single piece of art, the microetching can appear in a huge number of ways depending on how it is illuminated and where the viewer is standing.
ROOTS OF SELF REFLECTED
Before creating Self Reflected, Dunn and Edwards began by working on microetchings of small numbers of neurons. After earning a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Penn in 2011, Dunn became a full-time artist and was invited to give an art show at the National Science Foundation (NSF) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Based on these early microetchings, the NSF invited the duo to give an informal talk, and subsequently, to submit a proposal.
Their efforts paid off. In 2014, they received the NSF’s EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award, sponsored by Penn, for the creation of the most comprehensive illustration of the human brain ever produced. Three years later, Self Reflected was named Expert’s Choice for illustration by the NSF and Popular Science magazine in the 15th annual Vizzies Challenge, which celebrates the use of visual media to artfully and clearly communicate scientific data and research.
“The NSF cares deeply about science education and outreach,” Edwards said. “They felt that Self Reflected had the ability to communicate something about science that couldn’t be conveyed through traditional means such as textbooks. We are very grateful to them for believing in this idea.”
Dunn and Edwards also credit their respective Penn educations for their success. For example, Edwards has taken a wide range of courses in optics, electrical engineering and computer science. He has also made use of lab space generously offered by Engheta. As a graduate student and now as a research scientist in the lab, where research focuses on the physics and engineering of fields and waves and the various features and characteristics of wavematter interactions, Edwards has gained extensive experience running optical, radio-frequency and microfluidics experiments.
This broad-based training allowed Edwards to tackle the greatest challenge of Self Reflected, writing specialized computer algorithms that produced an animated neural network, in addition to developing lithographic exposure systems and a sophisticated lighting system to help bring the piece to life. “Penn is very encouraging of mixing ideas and skills across disciplinary boundaries,” Edwards said. “It is only within the incredibly supportive environment of Penn that we could have undertaken a project of this magnitude.”