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Twisty, shiny, and sometimes otherworldly depictions of the brain are popping up across the country. Artists say they want to use the pieces to inspire people to contemplate what’s happening inside their heads.

And also, to turn those heads.


Take the giant sculpture that will soon be installed at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. The headquarters sit on the third floor, so when you walk in off the street, all you see is a stairwell, an elevator, and the bathrooms.

Enter Ralph Helmick, a sculptor who is working on a massive piece of art suspended from the ceiling.

Helmick’s piece consists of 100 unique bronze-and-stainless-steel neurons that will stream from the ceiling, each hanging on three wires. As visitors enter on the ground floor, the cloud of neurons cascading from the ceiling will guide them up the stairs to the McGovern’s third-floor entrance.


Stand there and look back over the stairs and the neurons will form the shape of a brain.

“It’s a way to introduce another level of optical discovery,” Helmick said about the visual trick, known as anamorphosis.

When viewed from the proper angle, this model of the sculpture looks like the human brain. Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe

On the other side of Kendall Square, a towering, tentacular sculpture of a neuron was recently installed in South Plaza by BioMed Realty Trust, which jointly owns the park. The planners commissioned it to celebrate the scientific research that has rejuvenated the neighborhood.

An even more ambitious installation is planned for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia next year. The 8-by-12-foot polymer-and-metal piece will depict a cross section of the brain complete with different cell types, blood vessels, and activity patterns. The National Science Foundation, which took the uncommon step of awarding a $260,000 grant for the artwork, called it “the most comprehensive illustration of the human brain that has ever existed.”

To create the piece, artist-engineer duo Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards are using a process called reflective microetching, engraving designs in intricate detail so that they can control how light is reflected. The appearance of the work thus changes based on where the viewer stands or how the light is projected. The artists plan to use light to animate different parts of the brain, signaling how circuits connect and cells fire.

Dunn, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, said the artists want the piece to evince the complexity of the brain to a lay viewer while also standing up to the scientific scrutiny of fellow researchers. Dunn hopes that the brain piece earns respect as artwork, not just an educational tool.

“I really want to get scientific material as translated into art taken seriously,” he said. “The fine art world to a large degree treats science art as being kind of kitschy or not having a lot of depth to it. I want to change that.”

Not all projects start so intentionally. A few years ago, a nonprofit placed 22 fiberglass brain models around Bloomington, Ind., for an event called the “Brain Extravaganza.” One happened to land in front of Indiana University’s psychological and brain sciences department.

“People would cross the street to come take a look at it,” said William Hetrick, the chair of the department. “People would come touch it, really interact with it.”

The fiberglass brains remained for just a few months, but the idea stuck. The university commissioned a 7-foot-tall anatomically accurate brain made of Indiana limestone from artist Amy Brier and installed it in 2013 in front of the department. In addition to providing a backdrop for selfies, the sculpture serves to bring science out from behind closed doors, Hetrick said.

“Often (scientists) are hidden away in their labs,” he said. “This brings awareness to what we do.”

Dan Shaw, technical designer at Helmick Sculpture, modifies and sculpts neurons on the computer before they are 3-D printed in a stainless-steel bronze alloy. Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe

Back in Cambridge, the McGovern Institute similarly hopes the new sculpture will convey the research that takes place inside. The idea for a neuroscience-themed sculpture originally came from Pat and Lore Harp McGovern, who established the institute in 2000 and wanted the piece to broadcast to the public the kind of research in which the institute specialized.

Helmick, the artist, consulted with McGovern researchers as he planned the sculpture, even down to designing the shape of the neurons. Each component is being 3-D printed and will be covered in gold leaf to capture light. The cell bodies range from the size of a walnut to a baseball, with a number of dendrites stretching in all directions.

Robert Desimone, the institute’s director, also wants the sculpture to inspire other research institutes and companies in the area to think about the image their buildings project to the public. He said Kendall Square could use more art.

“I hope all our neighbors come over and see it,” he said.