Self Reflected is your brain perceiving itself. It is perhaps the most fundamental self portrait ever created, a hyperdetailed animated representation of human consciousness designed to mirror the functioning of the viewer’s own mind. Self Reflected asks the question whether the brain is uniquely tuned to appreciate its own fractal-like anatomy and elegant, wavelike electrical activity as a consequence of those traits underlying its own construction. It is a work of neonaturalism, inspired by the cutting edge of neuroscience and engineering to expand our understanding of the natural world.

cerebellum and brainstem plate

Detail of the cerebellum from Self Reflected under multicolored light. Photo credit: Will Drinker and Greg Dunn

In many cases, art is a superior communicator of complex and nuanced ideas as it makes direct connections with the viewer through perception and emotion. Dry scientific explanations of structure and function often struggle to communicate the brain’s vastness and tremendously beautiful organization through written words and figures. Self Reflected was created not to simplify the brain’s functionality for easier consumption, but to depict it as close to its native complexity as possible so that the viewer comes away with a visceral and emotional understanding of its beauty. Though the neuroscience of the piece was painstakingly researched to give the piece a level of reality not seen on this scale before, Self Reflected’s deeper meaning is to elevate the consciousness of the average person to the exquisite machine that most defines our humanity.

Natural systems fall into one of three categories- repeating systems such as a salt crystal in which all particles are arranged with perfect predictability and regularity, random systems whose behaviors are impossible to predict, and chaotic systems which are on a spectrum between these extremes. Maximum complexity arises from chaos. It is ironic, then, that though the brain’s functionality is deeply chaotic, human behavior is often patterned and regular. The brain is a poor generator of randomness, thus we learned how to harness naturally chaotic forces to allow this element to unfold in Self Reflected.

neuron painting

Ink blown neurons through the painting and digitizing steps.

To capture their strikingly chaotic and spontaneous forms, the neurons in Self Reflected are painted using a technique wherein ink is blown around on a canvas using jets of air. The resulting ink splatters naturally form fractal like neural patterns, and although the artist learns to control the general boundaries of the technique it remains at its heart a chaotic, abstract expressionist process. The turbulence of the air, inconsistencies in the paper, variations in ink viscosity- all contribute to variety in neural forms as the technique allows nature to behave how it wants.

We are working on getting a video of the technique of ink blowing here. Come back later for the update. 

It is the ability for neural circuits to behave chaotically that allows room for organic, not robotic, behavior. Absolute rigidity and predictable functionality in a system is rare in nature.

cerebellum marriages

Algorithm designed connectivity between Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum (periphery) and neurons in the dentate nucleus (lower left). The algorithm chaotically satisfies constraints input into the system by the user and solves complex routing problems similar to delivery companies calculating optimal routes for package delivery.

We intentionally created chaos when simulating the animations of neural circuitry in Self Reflected. This chaos required the combination of research indicating disciplined maps for how, when, and where neural information propagates through the brain with our algorithm’s ability to inject a controllable degree of randomness into the system. The result is wavelike activity coupled with degrees of unexpected behaviors that naturally emerge, a result that would otherwise have been very challenging to achieve without specific attention paid engineering chaos.

spreadsheet choreography

The algorithm interface wherein connectivity and chaos is introduced into each step of neural circuit “choreography.” There are around 600 steps of choreography in Self Reflected, each with about 25 individually adjustable variables.

The artists utilized the reflective microetching technique to create Self Reflected because microetchings work with a third dimension of animated reflectivity to impart a greatly enhanced visual experience and ability to display a much greater amount of information at once. Compared with a conventional, two dimensional image of the brain that says nothing about how it evolves over time or communicates with itself, the microetching technique brings the brain to life through carefully controlled reflective dynamics. Using strategic lighting design, this allows the artists to indefinitely loop Self Reflected’s animations, designed to represent 500 microseconds worth of “brain time,” to allow the viewer to gradually absorb the tremendous amount of information and detail they are presented with. The pulsing of the light is a further manifestation of the periodic electrical activity that underlies the brain’s natural behavior, in a sense synchronizing the brain in the viewer’s head with the brain on the wall.

Motor and Parietal cortex color comp

Detail of Self Reflected under different lighting conditions.

Due to microetching’s reflective strategy and the fact that it has no color inherent to it other than the gilded surface from which it is made, Self Reflected takes on the color of any light source used to illuminate it. Microetchings turn color into an infinitely flexible variable, not only allowing it to be any color in isolation but also allowing complex mixtures of colors that change as the viewer walks around the piece. These colors are neatly separated from one another as the microscopic etches of the microetching capture light arriving from different angles.


A very zoomed in photograph of the surface of Self Reflected under multicolored lights. The angle of etch picks up different colors, e.g. etches slightly off horizontal are reflecting red light, angles 15 degrees counterclockwise are reflecting green, etc.

Finally, microetchings emphasize the concept that every human perceives the world differently from one another. Microetchings reflect a different image of the overall piece to every viewer depending on their position, meaning that the viewer (and even the viewer’s two eyes) each have a unique visual experience. This variety of visual perspective mirrors our own individual perspectives on human experience.