School of Art and Art History, INI unveil new artwork that reflects brain activity

The piece, created by School of Art and Art History faculty member Daniel Miller, is modeled using human brain imaging and LED lighting to embody the constantly changing patterns of brain activation.
Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Few projects exemplify the University of Iowa’s emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration better than Receptive Field, a new interactive sculpture by School of Art and Art History Associate Professor Daniel Miller. The project was commissioned by the Iowa Neuroscience Institute (INI).

Miller’s work integrates robotics, media, and electronics, often exploring systems and ecologies of the natural world. These attributes led INI Associate Director for Education and Outreach and CLAS Associate Dean for Research Joshua Weiner to reach out to Miller for a new artwork that might grace the institute’s space in the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building.

“Dan’s utilization of light, movement, and references to scientific experimentation in his art made him the ideal creator of this new piece, which we hope visitors to the INI will enjoy interacting with for years to come,” Weiner says.

Miller’s experiences with brain scans and other methods of monitoring neural activity during visits to the UI Hospitals and Clinics' Department of Neurology for his son gave him the idea for a sculpture that would embody the constantly changing patterns of brain activation.

“In the early stages of the project's design, I consulted with Dr. Aaron Boes and Joel Bruss about possible 3D models of the human brain,” Miller explains. “After some discussion, we settled on a composite model based on multiple MRI scans provided by INI scientists.”

Miller constructed the accurate human brain shape of his piece from more than a hundred stacked pieces of transparent acrylic, held together with aluminum posts and fasteners. Inside are more than 3,000 individually addressable LED lights whose color and intensity are constantly changing thanks to Arduino microcontrollers.

“As the electronic circuits were developed for the project, it turned out to be a real advantage to model the sculpture’s circuit design on the human brain, with two separate micro-controllers—one each for the left and right hemispheres of the brain,” Miller says.

Receptive Field by Dan Miller
Receptive Field a new interactive sculpture by School of Art and Art History Associate Professor Daniel Miller
Photo: Jeff Hackbarth, UIHC

In addition to this basal level of “neural activity,” the artwork boasts microphone “ears” and motion-sensing “eyes” that, when they detect sounds and movement, light up the auditory and visual cortex, respectively.

Receptive Field was unveiled by Miller on the first floor of the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building as part of the INI’s Synapse Workshop meeting held on September 22 and 23, which brought 16 prominent neuroscientists from across the US, Canada, and Germany to Iowa to discuss their cutting-edge research.

The interactive sculpture is already delighting visitors to the INI, who are greeted by its beautiful, shifting colored lights as they exit the nearby elevator. Most importantly, the work exemplifies an interdisciplinary spirit of exploration and collaboration that INI Director Ted Abel has made a focus of the institute since its founding in 2017.

“This new piece reminds us that creativity is an important part of science. Putting thoughts into words, or music, or sculpture, enables us to see things from a new perspective,” Abel says. “We’ve sought to do that in the past by connecting writing to neuroscience, and I am excited that we have now been able to partner with CLAS, the School of Art and Art History, and visual artist Dan Miller to portray conceptual aspects of neuroscience—that the brain has sensory ‘maps’ within it—in the form of a new sculpture. We hope this will be the beginning of more collaborations between neuroscience and the vibrant, creative arts community here at Iowa.”

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers about 70 majors across the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. About 15,000 undergraduate and nearly 2,000 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by faculty at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all Iowa undergraduates through the college's general education program, CLAS CORE. About 80 percent of all Iowa undergraduates begin their academic journey in CLAS. The college confers about 60 percent of the university's bachelor's degrees each academic year.