Distinguishing signal from the noise

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to display my artwork at the “Art of the Brain” exhibition organized by my former graduate school. There was a reception held on the opening night and there was a big crowd of people. At the time, I was a bit surprised by how many people were non-scientists. I wondered what could have attracted them to such a show. Now I know that you don’t have to fully understand science to like it. These people attended so they could feel in touch with cutting edge science presented in an accessible way. It made them feel smart and well-rounded.

You don’t have to fully understand science to like it.

One of them approached me and started asking questions about my work – “Tortured” in particular. He asked me about how likely it is that a scientific image would be so clear and if it’s not, how do I decide which details to include and which ones to leave out. That made our discussion go down the “background” rabbit hole…

Background noise

In the vast majority of scientific techniques, the word “background” has a very negative connotation.  It usually implies that your detection method picked up something else besides the specific signal you were looking for.   People even go as far as calling their images “dirty”.   In microscopy, that non-specific “noise” usually appears in the form of either randomly scattered bright pixels, or as a general haze of auto-fluorescence all around your cells.  In contrast, high quality images usually have a very clean, black background that, when printed, has a glossy feel to it.  To capture this quality, I use shiny black satin as the backdrop for most of my art.  It gives the piece a clean and crisp look that allows the cells to really pop forward.

“Tortured”, for example, was inspired by a series of images similar to the one below. It shows an injured nerve that is attempting to regenerate. The asterisk indicates the injury site, and the green fibers on the right are trying to grow back out.

You can see that there is a lot of haze and random spots. That is what I leave out to allow the viewer to focus on the most important details. Namely, healthy nerve fibers on the left, injury in the center and the deformed neurons on the right. With these three key structures, it’s easy to explain the process of nerve injury and regeneration to your friend or family member that comes to visit.

#Sciart can make it easy to explain complex scientific concepts to your friends and family.

The other daily noise

In my daily life there is also a lot of background noise. I have two daughters who have an unlimited amount of energy. It does not take much for them to put me out of focus and make me feel scatterbrained. But when I find some time to sit down and make my artwork, I can zoom in with a laser-like focus and find myself in a state of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

A few years ago, I was talking to someone on the phone, and the topic of NeuroBead came up.  The conversation suddenly took a sharp turn and a series of questions was fired at me.

“Why do you want/need to do this?”

“Don’t you have enough on your plate already?”

“As it is you barely find any free time.  How will you manage?” 

I think there is a logical order to these well-meaning questions.  First comes the “why” and if the reason is good enough, the “hows” will fall into place.  For me, it is because the creative process allows me to concentrate on my inner world and at least temporarily drown out the background noise.  It brings my life into focus.

How about you – does making or viewing art help you stop, take a moment to yourself and feel like you’ve got this?

Don’t let the noise of daily life throw you off course!

Tortured, 2017

3-dimensional bead work on satin. Framed. 12″ x 12″


Art is my emotional outlet and my oasis.  I use art to express my feelings and work through life issues.  Come join me on this journey of letting go of control and letting the creative process take over.  You will get access to all of the behind the scenes footage and see the major breakthroughs that translate into new artwork.

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