• 1.12.15

    Sawdust Helps Us Understand Our Own Brains

    We know less about the human brain than almost anything on the planet. As a species to this point, we’ve mapped the moon better than we mapped our own grey and white matter. But we’re trying to learn more and more every day, and have a long way to go. Neuroscientist Sebastian Seung is taking all that on personally, mapping the human brain in a way that is so detailed it was considered a flight of fancy before he took on the challenge himself a decade ago.

    Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Gareth Cook was tasked with explaining Sebastian’s quest to the masses with a New York Times Magazine cover story this past weekend, and the design studio Sawdust was given the challenge of creating a cover for the story. The inherent trial with telling this story is explaining what Sebastian is even doing. Mapping the brain on its own already presents an almost impossible challenge, but to fully illustrate that it has to be explained and understood.

    Using different techniques, Sebastian, his team, and a whole host of volunteers using a game that Sebastian had devised, set about doing the impossible: creating a literal map of the trillions of neurons in the human brain. But what would it look like? And how can we understand it? Those are the questions that Sawdust had to face in creating their cover.

    The first question is almost incidental. At the end of the day, the design had to reflect the ideas of the project, even if it didn’t reflect the actual results. What Sawdust ended up working with was an illustration that was both deeply physical but also reflected the subtler electrical circuitry of the brain. Using watercolor in the hues of oxygen rich and hungry blood, they spelled out “This Is Your Brain.” Playing on both our visceral reaction to viscera, and the mystique of the proposal, Sawdust’s cover pulls us in while repelling us. It asks the same questions that brought Sebastian to the medical problem in the first place: What is our brain, and what does it tell us about ourselves? They may be questions that are unreachable to a daily reader, but they are inherently valuable and worth the struggle.

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