Drawing inspiration from neuroscience: the Neurocomic
Matteo Farinella is one of the creators of Neurocomic, an exciting new initiative that brings neuroscience to life in a fictional comic story. Here he gives an insight into how, and why, this unique project came about.
I have spent the past 5 years using computer simulations to study how particular brain cells process information by day, and drawing comics by night. I am a PhD student in neuroscience at University College London, however I am perhaps better known as a comic artist. Currently I am tasked with writing up my scientific findings for a doctoral thesis. It is a long and solitary process, and it saddens me that even my own parents probably will not be able to understand it, because it is written in technical jargon.
The workings of our brains underlie our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, so it is unsurprising that the brain garners a lot of public interest. It is without doubt a fascinating topic, but it is also very complex, which may make it seem inaccessible to many. Comics in the past have proved to be an excellent medium to approach complex historical and social issues (ie: Maus 1991; Persepolis 2000; Palestine 2001) and recently they have started to treat more medical and scientific topics (Epileptic 2002; Psychiatric Tales 2010; Economix 2012).
It occurred to me some years ago that I could do the same for neuroscience. I reasoned that a carefully constructed graphic novel could convey many of the fundamental concepts of neuroscience in a simple and enjoyable way, which could help raise public awareness around the subject. This is more important now than ever – I think everyone should have the basic tools to understand the latest scientific research, which increasingly shapes our bodies and the world around us. Science itself is also heavily reliant on public support, both for funding and for the recruitment of new scientists.
Thanks to a generous People Award from the Wellcome Trust, the inspiring collaboration of Dr. Hana Ros, and the patience of my PhD supervisor, I started work on Neurocomic last year. Neurocomic chronicles the story of a fictional character who is sucked into the brain, a strange parallel world where he comes face to face with the famous neuroscientists of the past, diabolical monsters, and the basic workings of his own mind. It is essentially a work of fiction riddled with scientific fact.
Of course the idea of using art to disseminate scientific findings and ideas is not a new one. Camillo Golgi and Ramon y Cajal, among the first scientists to study the microscopic architecture of the brain in the late 1800s, recorded their findings and shared them with the scientific community in pictorial form. For these drawings and their insights they later shared a Nobel prize. Golgi and Cajal have always been a source of great inspiration to me, so it is with more than a nod to these luminaries that Dr. Ros and I will be organising an event at the Barbican during the Wonder Street Fair in which we will invite visitors to peer down a microscope at genuine brain slices and find their own way through the forest of neurons, armed with pencil and paper (and a little expert guidance). I hope this will allow people, not only to learn about the brain, but also to discover the original wonder of scientific research, which should be about critical thinking and creativity as much as memorizing facts and numbers – something not so dissimilar from art, which sometimes even scientists themselves tend to forget.
The book, Neurocomic, will be released in September 2013.
The Wonder Street Fair will take place at the Barbican from 7-9th of April. For more information on this and other Wonder season events please visit the website.