Sunday, July 17, 2016

Week 4 (Unit 7): Neuroscience + Art

The brain is a complex organ of over 100 billion nerves that interact through trillions of synapses. Therefore, it only makes sense that the art created with the brain as subject matter is just as elaborate and intricate. After watching this week's lecture, I was inspired to learn more about how artists use brain imagery to create stunning content.

The first topic that caught my attention in the lecture was the mention of the 'Brainbow' technique, also known as 'Cre-Lox Recombination'. In this technique, developed by labs at the Center for Brain Sciences, specific neurons are marked with fluorescent proteins. Then, when the neuron synapses, it appears as a bright color, depending on which protein was used. When many neurons are marked, the brain is, in a way, "color-coded so we can see where they are" (Cao). This allows scientists and researchers to see where neurons are located and what other neurons they connect with, overall helping them understand what parts of the brain are responsible for different functions.

An explanation of the 'Brainbow' technique

Besides the incredible scientific breakthroughs that have become possible with this technology, "coloring" the brain with these fluorescent proteins also results in impressive works of art. The images below are a 'brainbow' representation of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for memory, perceptual awareness, thought and language functions. A camera captured the brain activity and therefore, the explosion of color as neurons interacted with each other. The final images are unrecognizable as a brain and instead looks like a contemporary painting or even a work of digital media.

The cerebral cortex of the brain, highlighted using the 'Brainbow' technique

A prominent artist who has used the human body, especially the brain, as subject matter for his work is Dr. Kai-hung Fung. I mentioned his work in the MedTech + Art section as he has the ability to turn ordinary human organs into fascinating illusions. Dr. Fung uses CT and MRI scans to capture an image and then applies what he called "The Rainbow Technique", original mapping algorithms, to change what the viewers see. Originally, he created these images to allow surgeons to better visualize complex surgeries by highlighting the specific anatomy. However, after receiving positive feedback about the creations, he realized that the color made the images into works of art as well.

Dr. Kai-hung Fung's Network is actually the blood vessels inside the brain with the skull base as background

Another creative way to depict the brain as a work of art is demonstrated by artist Greg Dunn. Dunn, who had earned a doctorate in neuroscience before deciding to pursue art professionally, paints patterns of branching neurons using a variety of media, including gold leaf, ink, and digital software. Inspired by Asian art and the 'Brainbow' technique, his works range from looking like a minimal forest landscape to resembling the circuitry of some electronic device.  Dunn is just one of many artists who began their careers as scientists but turned their focus to depicting science as an art.

TopGreg Dunn and Brian Edwards's Self Reflected artwork to be featured at The Franklin Institute
Middle: Greg Dunn's Cortical Columns, made with 21K, 18K and 12K gold, ink, dye, and mica on aluminized panel
Bottom: Greg Dunn's Cortical Circuitboard, made by microetching gold on steel

Overall, all these artistic representations have changed my perspective on the brain. Before, I viewed the brain as a purely scientific topic. However, now I can see the beauty of such a complex organ.  I was particularly mesmerized by the Self Reflected video (above) and rewatched it several times because I could not believe that it was actually a depiction of the brain.  Neuroscience allows the world to see the brain's complexity, but when combined with artists' creativity, the combination uncovers the hidden aesthetic in the maze of nerves and tissue.



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"Brainbow." Center for Brain Science. Harvard University, n.d. Web. 17 July 2016.

"Review: Brains @ Wellcome Collection." Londonist. Londonist Ltd., 27 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 July 2016.

Gearing, Mary. "Evolution of Brainbow: Using Cre-lox for Multicolor Labeling of Neurons." Addgene. Addgene, 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 July 2016.

Frank, Priscilla. "Neuroscience Art: Greg Dunn’s Neurons Painted In Japanese Sumi-e Style." The Huffington Post., Inc., 23 May 2012. Web. 16 July 2016.

Looger, Loren L. "New Fluorescent Protein Permanently Marks Neurons That Fire." Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 16 July 2016.

Shen, Helen. "See-Through Brains Clarify Connections." Macmillan Publishers Limited, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 July 2016.


Cao, Vania. "Brainbow: Mixing Colors to Map the Brain." YouTube. YouTube, 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 July 2016. <>.

"Cool Uses - Brainbow." GFP - Green Fluorescent Protein. Marc Zimmer, n.d. Web. 16 July 2016. <>.

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Herman, Judith B. "Psychedelic Images From Inside Your Body." Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 09 May 2013. Web. 03 July 2016. <>.

Lewis, Tanya. "Dazzling Images of the Brain Created by Neuroscientist-Artist." Live Science. Purch, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 July 2016. <>.


  1. The artworks that you chose for this topic are truly amazing. I especially enjoyed looking at Dunn's work. The way that he incorporates gold and black hues gives his art an ethereal look. I also agree with you that his video Self Reflected does not appear to be a brain at first glance. For some reason, when I first saw it, the imagery reminded me of highways at night or city lights seen from space. In fact, most of these brainbow techniques seem to be almost unworldly. Thank you for introducing me to the works of Dunn and Dr. Kai-hung Fung!

  2. I really enjoyed how you tied neuroscience and art together in your blog post! Something intriguing specifically was how you elaborated on the brainbow; normally in my psychology classes I merely learn the processes of neurons but I like that you went a step further to explain HOW artists have contributed to this phenomena.