Self Reflected

Video credit: Will Drinker


Follow the light as it moves across the golden surface. What you see is a portrait of your brain—the communication happening in your own head at this very instant. Self Reflected is your brain perceiving itself.

Dr. Greg Dunn (artist and neuroscientist) and Dr. Brian Edwards (artist and applied physicist) created Self Reflected to bridge the connection between the macroscopic perception of the brain as a wrinkled, mysterious, three-pound organ and the microscopic behavior of brain cells, or neurons. Together, the functions of the brain at both levels underlie the very essence of our consciousness. Dunn and Edwards wanted to capture the brain as realistically as possible. The result—an unprecedented insight of the brain into itself—shows the movement and dynamic communication of information as the brain is visually stimulated by a work of art. Self Reflected was created to remind us of our common humanity that stems from the inner workings of our minds.

An MRI ScanThis image in the artwork represents one very thin slice of a human brain, 22 times larger than life. Encompassing over 500,000 neurons, the image is based on an oblique sagittal slice (angled from right to left) through the brain. As the light moves from left to right, we see motion through functional regions of the brain including  the cerebellum (motor control), thalamus (sensory processing and information sorting), olfactory system (sense of smell), basal ganglia (initiation of movement), pons (motor processing), and many regions of the multifunctional cerebral cortex: frontal, motor, sensory, and visual. The movement of light illuminates the patterns created by the firing of electrical signals, or action potentials, in the brain over 500 microseconds of time.

A Close up of Neurons

Self Reflected is a reflective microetching, a technique invented by Dunn and Edwards in order to microscopically manipulate the reflectivity of a surface. This creates a third dimension of information that can be used to create animations in a seemingly two dimensional surface. The technique combines a complex array of hand drawing, scientific data, computer simulation, photolithography, gilding, and strategic lighting design.

To make the piece, different types of neurons in each region of brain were characterized and painted by hand. They were then digitized and assembled into anatomically correct regions by painting large swaths of them at a time. These neurons were then connected together using Edwards’ specialized computer algorithm that can simulate the chaos and order of how the brain actually wires itself during development to program in the “choreography” of neural activity. The result: networks of neurons that fire in sequence to illustrate the flow of information in our brains.

The creation of a microetching is similar to the process of printing computer chips, where light is used to carve very complex designs into photoresist (a material that is sensitive to ultraviolet light). A hatching pattern was superimposed on the artwork, defining the shape of each neuron or axon by a series of black and white lines whose angles encode the position from which the viewer will see that part of the image. This design was then printed at ultra-high resolution onto transparencies. The final step involved coating the surface with gold leaf to increase its reflectivity and beautify its surface.

Scientist at Work

In order to get a seamless microetching at 8’ X 12’, the artists had to work with extreme precision in controlling the lithography and gilding conditions. Fabrication of the microetching plates had little room for error, involving tolerances of just a few microns—small fractions of the width of a human hair. In addition, Self Reflected is made up of 25 individually created microetched plates, which had to align perfectly to reduce the seams between plates as much as possible.

The artwork took two years to create from conception to completion. It contains 32 gigabytes of binary data in the artwork used to print the etchings (a two hour film in high definition is around 20 gigabytes). It required two weeks of dedicated rendering time on a high powered computer to solve the complex math that went into creating the network choreographies and hatching patterns. Finally, the artists hand applied 1,750 leaves of gold onto the microetching.

applying gold leaves to microetching

Self Reflected is the most complex piece of art on the brain in the world, yet it pales in comparison to the true complexity of the brain. Hard working and ever changing, the brain creates everything we see, hear, feel, and think. Self Reflected aims to show us a mirror image of who we are.

This project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation through the University of Pennsylvania.