“Song Portraits”


“Seems so Long” by Stevie Wonder

Synasthesia is “a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Synasthesia’s effects can take many forms. For example, some people with the condition – called synesthetes – may experience letters and numbers or music as having unique colors (grapheme-color synesthesia, chromesthesia, respectively). Less common forms include “tasting” words (lexical-gustatory synesthesia) and “feeling” sounds (auditory-tacticle synesthesia).


“At Last” by Etta James.

It’s probably no surprise that synesthesia is understood to aid the creative process in those who experience it. Missouri artist Melissa McCracken is a perfect example: she “hears” color, and renders her experience into paintings in which she “translates sound into color.” McCracken paints a wide range of songs, from classic rock to jazz to modern electronica. The results are abstract and quite beautiful. I’ve included a few examples here, but you can read about the artist and see more paintings here.


“Karma Police” by Radiohead.

Related links:

– Melissa McCracken’s website.
– Melissa McCracken’s Etsy shop, where she sells prints of her paintings.
– Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia.
– NPR story about pianist Laura Rosser, who is a synesthete.


The Art of Understanding the Human Brain

Neurons in a crab’s brain.

As you probably already know, brain scans have become all the rage in recent years. Scientists in a variety of fields – including psychology, sociology, behavioral finance and neuroscience – have turned to fMRI scans in an attempt to uncover the secrets of human motivation and behavior. I maintain a certain amount of skepticism about whether or not all of these scans will ultimately amount to anything more than descriptive data gathering (e.g., “When a person thinks about a dollar, this part of the brain lights up! And when they think about giving away that dollar, this other part of the brain lights up!”). Nevertheless, some of the work being done seems promising, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. But, there is no doubt that the brain (human or otherwise) is a miraculous thing, and one artist/Ph.D. has been exploring its hidden beauty for years.

Developing human cerebral cortex at 15 weeks.

Greg Dunn has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is also a visual artist who merges art and science in his Japanese-style paintings of neurons and other brain structures. He employs traditional pan-Asian ink drawing styles, in which capturing the unseen “essence” of the subject is the ultimate goal. Mr. Dunn was interviewed by the online magazine The Beautiful Brain last year, and said this about his work:

“Neural forms and Asian painting styles collide in a completely natural way, and I am so fortunate that I found this out for myself because it has led to a very satisfying career as an artist/scientist. Neural forms are naturally elegant and spontaneous, characteristics that also describe the more traditional forms of Asian sumi-e painting- branches, grasses, etc.  All that is required to connect the dots is the realization that you need to crank down your awareness to the micron scale to see that nature has very similar forms across different scales of magnitude.  The branching form of a dendrite is nearly identical to the form of a branching tree, a series of cracks in the pavement, the movement of rivers and streams as viewed from space, or a lightning bolt.”


He was also asked whether or not he believes the human brain will ever understand itself, and Mr. Dunn said this:

“There are some astounding geniuses out there that are making huge progress for us all.  But one day, when imaging technology, data acquisition, supercomputing, etc reach the point when some of the really deep questions can be answered, I’m not sure how a human being can really grasp the avalanche of data.  Even if a brain could fully understand itself, it seems impossible to me that it would be through the mediums of graphs, tables, connectivity diagrams, and all of that that would be the inevitable output.  I’m personally not interested in that these days anyway.  For me, it seems that a more relevant and rewarding approach of self discovery lies in personally developing an intuitive approach to understanding the brain.  To understand my own brain I seriously practice meditation, the science of observing the mind.”

So I guess I’m not the only one who has doubts. I consider myself in good company, however, since from the beginning of human history artists have been the ones to offer most of our profound insights into human nature; those moments that make you light up with the glow of self-recognition as a card-carrying member of the human race.

Pyramidal neurons.

Mr. Dunn sells prints of his work on his website, as well as scrolls and gold leaf images. From what I gather, it looks like a lot of his work hangs in scientific labs, universities and medical centers around the country. What do you think? Could you see hanging one of these in your home? I think I could.