Books & Manuscripts

The Spark of Life: Illustrating the Beautiful Complexity of the Human Brain

By Sotheby's

D r. Greg Dunn (artist and neuroscientist) and Dr. Brian Edwards (artist and applied physicist) wanted to show the complexity of the brain as it responds to various activities. In order to realize that vision, the two artists invented a technique known as reflective microetching, which changes the way a viewer experiences a work of art. The result is the most complex rendition of the human brain in the world.

The artists’ works are created using an elaborate combination of hand drawing, algorithmically simulated neural circuitry, adapted neuroscientific data, photolithography, gilding, and strategic lighting. Their works are not a scan or a photograph of any kind, but rather, microetchings are handmade lithographs that manipulate light on a microscopic scale to control the reflectivity of metallic surfaces in precise ways. They are designed to evolve based on the moving perspective of the viewer and are impossible to capture in still images. Here, preview the pair’s astonishing artwork resulting from their research, on offer in the History of Science and Technology, Including Fossils, Minerals and Meteorites auction (17 December 2019, New York).

T he piece Chaotic Connectome, 2013 was the first microetching produced by the artists and is of an abstract neural landscape. This piece was initially developed to illustrate the depth of complexity of any given region of the brain through designating specific sets of neurons to different reflective “channels.”

T he triggering of an action potential is one of the foundational principles on which the brain operates. Action Potential, 2017 is an animated microetching that simulates how a neuron receives and integrates incoming signals from connected neurons to trigger an action potential. Incoming action potentials from the small neurons hit the dendrites of the large neuron while their collective input builds through the large neuron’s dendrites. When these signals simultaneously reach the cell body, they trigger the large neuron to fire its own action potential. While this piece is a study of how input velocities, locations and relative strengths influence a downstream neuron’s ability to fire, it is also an artistic experiment exploring the explosive beauty of the process. Action potentials are the fundamental processes by which we think, feel, taste and accomplish every task our brain carries out.

T he animated reflective microetching Brain Machine Interface, 2018 is a piece that concerns the interconnected future of the human brain. It simultaneously comments on both the amazing benefits and potential dangers of these powerful neural interfacing technologies and is intended to serve as a reminder to humanity to proceed with cautious optimism.

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