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A report of a workshop on developing effective metaphors in visual communication

Screenshot of the ‘Metaphors for the mind and brain’ webpage, created by Michelle Fava Darlington.
Screenshot of the ‘Metaphors for the mind and brain’ webpage, created by Michelle Fava Darlington.

Visual representations are important in scientific communication - the 'gist' of an image can usually be captured and processed more quickly than a paragraph of words can be read, and an eye-catching diagram or figure is often the centrepiece of a poster. A good image can allow us to explain concepts more easily to all kinds of audience, from explaining your proposed method to a grants panel, disseminating findings in a paper, or telling family members just what exactly it is that you spend your time doing.

Michelle Fava Darlington, a visual practitioner and researcher based in Cambridge, visited the the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging (WIN) in November to deliver a neurosketching workshop delving into the importance of developing effective metaphors in visual communication. Beginning immediately with a group drawing warm up, the workshop explored the idea of drawing as an iterative process in which emotions and the input of others can both play a large role. It isn't often easy to communicate complex scientific principles in an easily understandable way, so instead Michelle offered an alternative approach: the use of metaphor.

A photograph of Carinne’s collection of index cards, each with an idea of how to represent ‘What WIN does!’ visually.A photograph of Carinne’s collection of index cards, each with an idea of how to represent ‘What WIN does!’ visually.

The idea for this workshop was developed by Carinne Piekema of the WIN Public Engagement team and Betina Ip in the Vision Group. Betina, an avid fan of drawing and comic books, had been toying with the idea of a public engagement event which shifted the perspective from reading comics to actually making them. Together, she and Carinne developed the idea of working with Michelle and Matteo Farinella (author of Neurocomic), as a training opportunity to allow WIN researchers to think about their research in different ways.

The group discussed common metaphors in science, with Michelle providing an informative, interactive webpage of metaphors for the mind and brain to be used as a starting point for developing our own ideas that could be used to express different principles and areas of research.

After a delightful lunch break, participants paired up and described their research to one another, with each person creating a sketch of the other person’s research idea. This turned out to be a particularly useful method, as it can be difficult to see your own ideas from any other perspective. “Being stimulated to think in metaphors will potentially also give [researchers] more tools to explain their research to a wide variety of audiences,” said Carinne about the event, “which is of course brilliant from a public engagement point of view!”

Participant Katherine Bryant commented: “I think scientists sometimes shy away from using metaphors to describe scientific concepts because we have witnessed them being misused and even causing misinformation about science in the public, for example, the notion of the brain being ‘hard-wired’”. She continued: “However, this workshop gave some excellent examples of how metaphors can illuminate ideas, and how a good presenter can also highlight the places where the metaphor doesn't work as a way to clarify concepts even further.”

Towards the end of the workshop, we connected virtually with Matteo Farinella, a professional illustrator and neuroscientist known for the book Neurocomic. He provided valuable input into the use of metaphor for scientific communication, with his top tips being to ensure the metaphor is relatable so that people understand it, and to know how far the metaphor can go before it begins to break down and no longer fit your subject.

Participants said the workshop was both useful and enjoyable - and perhaps wished it lasted longer! Working in groups to discuss ongoing or future research and explore ideas to effectively communicate this research to others through art was refreshing. Personally, I had never considered using comics in science, however I now believe that art can be an effective mechanism for communicating scientific findings to non-specialists.

I would like to thank Michelle for her fantastic job in leading the workshop, Betina and Carinne for organising it, and everyone who attended for making the workshop as effective and enjoyable as it was. I would also suggest that anyone interested keeps their eyes peeled for sequel events!

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