EAGER: Microetching of the Human Brain

September 1st, 2014 - August 31st, 2016 | PROJECT

The project "Microetching of the Human Brain" endeavors to create the most comprehensive illustration of the human brain that has ever existed. Investigators will utilize reflective microetching, a process combining mathematics and optics to create an art piece that evolves based on the position of the viewer. Microetching allows the depiction of very complex brain activity at incredibly fine detail. The final piece will be a wall-sized piece of fine art experienced by a diverse population of thousands daily at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Additionally, this project is an educational opportunity for undergraduate students through direct involvement in the creation of the piece. As this project spans many scientific and artistic disciplines, students will be given an opportunity to learn about fields apart from their own, to broaden their skill set, and to learn how to communicate scientific concepts effectively. This project is a collaboration between neuroscientists, engineers, physicists, and artists to address the question of whether art can be used in the dissemination of scientific understanding to new audiences in a way that gives a visceral sense of the underlying concepts. The human brain is massively complex and challenging to portray clearly. Conveying a sense of its complexity through art may inspire an interest in the brain's scientific content and inspire a new generation of neuroscientists. To produce a piece of fine art capable of sufficient detail to depict the brain at near full complexity, the piece will be executed by a technique called reflective microetching. Microetching is a high-resolution lithographic process that patterns a microtopography of periodic ridges into the surface. These ridges are engineered to reflect a point-source illumination toward a viewer when standing at a specific angle relative to the painting. Similar to darkfield microscopy, this can yield incredibly fine detail. Additionally, the angular dependence of the light adds an extra dimension that can be used to convey time, depth, or motion as the viewer walks past. The piece will feature neurons, glia, vasculature, white and gray matter, and reflectively animated circuit dynamics between areas of the brain corresponding to neural processes involved in visual self-recognition. This will infuse the piece with additional meaning, as the circuits activated within viewers' brains will be the same that are depicted in the artwork.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

Self Reflected - Summative Evaluation

Team Members

Brian Edwards, Principal Investigator, University of Pennsylvania
Gregory Dunn, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: ISE/AISL
Award Number: 1443767
Funding Amount: 260810


Audience: Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Art | music | theater | Health and medicine | Mathematics
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Exhibitions | Museum and Science Center Exhibits