You Wish Your Neurons Were This Pretty

Cortex in pastels

When Greg Dunn finished his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Penn in 2011, he bought himself a sensory deprivation tank as a graduation present. The gift marked a major life transition, from the world of science to a life of meditation and art.
Now a full-time artist living in Philadelphia, Dunn says he was inspired in his grad-student days by the spare beauty of neurons treated with certain stains. The Golgi stain, for example, will turn one or two neurons black against a golden background. "It has this Zen quality to it that really appealed to me," Dunn said.

What he saw under the microscope reminded him of the uncluttered elegance of bamboo scroll paintings and other forms of Asian art, and he began to paint neurons in a similar style. He supplements traditional brush painting with methods he's developed on his own, such as blowing a drop of ink across a surface. The ink spreads much as a neuron grows, Dunn says, propelled by a natural force, but forming random branches as it finds its way around microscopic obstacles. "I like the concept of drawing on similar forces to produce the art," he said.

Dunn has sold commissioned works to research labs and hospitals, and he says his prints are popular with neuroscientists, neurologists, and others with a special interest in the brain, including people with neurodegenerative disorders. "I think it helps them come to terms or appreciate this thing they've been so vexed by," Dunn said.

The images in this gallery are drawn from his imagination, but they're informed by his knowledge of neuroanatomy. "One of my frustrations with grad school was the necessity for absolute adherence to truth, and principles, and facts," Dunn said. "I'm inspired by anatomy but not a slave to it."

Cortex in Metallic Pastels

This painting depicts a cross section of the motor cortex, a region involved in planning movements, illustrating the prominent layer V pyramidal neurons.

21K gold, palladium, mica, enamel, and dye on aluminized panel (2012) (High-resolution version)
Bu Greg Miller
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