n°42 — A conundrum: the visual communication of neuroscience. Author: James Langdon


Neuroscience is a visual science. Our understanding of the brain’s biology originates in the beautiful and pioneering images of neurons and dendrites produced by Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Camillo Golgi in the late nineteenth century. In recent decades neuroscience has embraced computational imaging. We have witnessed dynamic images of living brains produced by FMRI, and intricate, colourful representations of ‘neural connectomics’ that promise ultimately to reveal the ‘wiring diagram’ of the human brain. Such images are not merely the documentation of scientific work, they are themselves primary sites of research. The images *are* the science.

          And yet the interaction of neuroscience with mainstream visual culture tends toward the simplistic and the amateurish. Science communication seems to regard graphic design and art direction sceptically, preferring to contextualise its technical images with a collage of cartoons, internet memes, and generic high-tech stock photography. The emerging neurotechnology industry, by contrast, adopts the visual language of corporate ‘big tech’. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Neuralink project presents its experimental neural implant technology as if it were an innocent commercial appliance.

          These observations are urgent. Inevitably neuroscience will soon yield opportunities for technologically augmenting the human brain that could further entrench inequality and stratification in our society. This text is *not* a call for more friendly interdisciplinary collaboration between graphic design and neuroscience, but a pointed critical assessment of the visual literacy of one field from the perspective of another.

Jonathan Monk, «Exhibit Model Four», 2019 Kindl, Berlin. Photographie: Jens Ziehe. A1 format poster printed in CMYK on blue back paper, 25 copies signed by the artist: Print on Demand. Jonathan Monk