MARCH 25, 2015
THE FACT that you can read this is a small miracle. Your eye picks up black marks on white, strip upon strip of patterns of straight lines and curves that are seamlessly transformed into unspoken sounds. Those sounds are in turn pieced together to form individual meanings, and those meanings come together to form strings of understanding that run deeper than the singular words, letters, or marks themselves.
In a matter of milliseconds, the little black lines on this screen have become an extended thought, and as you read the rest of this essay — as I hope you will — the extended thought forms a narrative. If you like the narrative, or maybe even if you don’t, it will be encoded in your memory in bits and pieces, accessed on occasion by a sudden association or a deliberate act of recall: “What was that book I read about once?”
Depending on your perspective, the act of reading comics can be viewed as utterly mundane, or it can be understood as a form of magic. Regardless of how you understand it, however, reading comics relies on a number of other abilities that collectively allow us to make sense of visual narratives. We as readers had to learn at some point to understand that a figure in one panel, when repeated in another panel, is the same figure, the same individual and character, even though the images are technically distinct. The basic conventions of comics are possible because of our brain’s narrative capacity, and those narratives are built on top of the brain’s ability to see and recognize shapes and figures, to turn assorted lines and curves into letters and words, to generate empathy for the characters involved, and to forge narrative seemingly without effort.
Neurocomic, a graphic novel by neuroscientists Dr. Matteo Farinella and Dr. Hana Roš, takes us on a journey through the brain. The book begins with a simple conceit: a man approaches a woman reading a book and strikes up a conversation. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, he is pulled away from the scene just as she turns to look at him, and he pops out of the page, traveling literally through the retina of a reader — the book is depicted within the book, in a meta sort of way — and straight past the occipital lobe. This lobe is the furthest back in our brains from our eyes, and yet it controls our ability to interpret the signals the eye picks up. In Farinella’s illustration, the protagonist lands with a thud after he zips through the brain, and his neck hurts from landing.
This Alice in Wonderland–style journey signals a new adventure for our protagonist, as he stands up in what looks like a forest. The trees of this forest are actually neurons that Farinella illustrates with exquisite detail. The book, wrapped in an elegant cover that elevates the content to the status of an old fairytale book, contains endpapers that lovingly suggest the surreal journey through this otherworldly land of the brain. They resemble the forests of the Brothers Grimm, mysterious, spooky, and suggestive of much more than they illustrate. But as the story will soon make clear, it’s only thanks to the millions of neurons in the Brothers’ brains that they could imagine forests as anything more than an array of wood, leaves, and dirt. A fitting tribute.
With the protagonist’s first arrival in the caverns of the brain, the book dips in and out between prosaic neuroscience facts, illustrated in rich, lovely detail, and fanciful visualizations of the history of the field. The narrative switches abruptly from our protagonist’s journey, with occasional jumps to explain details in more scientific terms. After our protagonist first arrives in the brain, he sees a bearded man sketching in the forest and asks him if he’s seen a girl nearby. The man replies, “I’m afraid you won’t find many girls around here” — a reference, perhaps, to the many white male neuroscientists who guide our hero through the remainder of the book. Major figures like Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, who coined the word synapse, and Eric Kandel, who won a Nobel Prize with colleagues Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard for their work on neurons and memory, pop up casually to guide our protagonist through this new world. They often rely on rich diagrams about complex topics, like the action potential, an electric signal key to how neurons communicate with each other.
But just as easily, we are treated to fanciful creatures that make reference to little details in the field. There’s “Jay,” a friendly granule cell with four short dendrites and a long axon, who looks like a friendly dog with a prehensile tail and spherical body. In one memorable scene, a giant squid crashes in, seeking revenge for the many studies done on its forebears, whose 1 mm neurons allowed scientists close study. It creates a “krrrrak” sound, referencing the kraken, a giant squid-like sea monster from Norse legends. Meanwhile, a hippocampus in the shape of a seahorse dutifully records explicit memory; hippocampus actually means “seahorse,” named after its physical appearance in the brain.
The comics format turns out to be an excellent one for exploring the brain. Ostensibly a hard science, neuroscience touches on ancient philosophical questions about the nature of the mind and consciousness; these questions are best represented as a surrealist dialogue. Although it is an inquiry driven by data, so many of its findings are most comprehensible in visual form: in the gorgeous shapes of neurons, the pitter-patter of neurotransmitters, the electricity of ions. Conducted in laboratories and hospitals, the exploration of the brain feels more like a journey into the depths of the ocean or outer space.
The loving detail Farinella and Roš apply to the story occasionally stands on the verge of textbook specificity before stepping back into the surreal landscape, leaving me confused as to the intended audience. Are readers high school students studying brain basics? Fledgling neuroscientists looking for a fun pick-me-up? General interest readers curious about this complex field, but not in need of too many details? Wide-reading philosophers of mind?
An example of this back and forth comes in one striking scene, when we gain a glimpse into the functionality of neurotransmitters. These are little organic bits that jump from neuron to neuron, sending crucial messages like a microscopic version of grapevine. The explanation, however, reads purely descriptively, complete with diagrammatic illustrations:
The axon of the pre-synaptic neuron forms a synaptic terminal which contains vesicles full of special molecules called neurotransmitters. When the neuron emits a signal, the vesicles are released into the synaptic cleft. The molecules then diffuse to the surface of the post-synaptic dendrite.
“Hey! Hold on, hold on […] I’ve had enough explanations,” notes the comic’s protagonist immediately after this text, perhaps echoing readers’ concerns with the level of detail about these functions. Although, perhaps not: I found the explanation very much welcome and fascinating, but it did feel out of touch with the general narrative flow of the book.
It wasn’t clear why some concepts get a deep-dive scientific explanation while others receive a more narrative review. The different types of drugs that affect neurotransmitters, for instance, are represented as surrealist animals. Agonists, for instance, are represented as a long-billed bird that can open up receptors for neurotransmitters, and modulators look like a bird with a long, snake-like body that traps neurotransmitters before they can exit the synaptic cleft.
The story shines when describing science through figurative illustrations. Operant conditioning, made famous by Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with bells and dogs, is told through icons and arrows, as the trees (representing memory) are watered with associations that train them to expect certain conditions. This is followed up by a charming scene where Pavlov’s dog attempts to escape a dark cave with the protagonist. It collapses to the ground and salivates upon hearing the ring-ring of a bell. “C’mon! Stand up,” shouts our panicked hero. “You know that no food is coming!” The dog, unfortunately, is too conditioned, and it has to be left behind to meet its fate.
From fairy-tale beginnings, Neurocomic soon grows into an epic. The story makes me wish for the treatment of a multi-volume comic series like Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha and Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, or the meandering fantasy narratives of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. These lengthy tomes home in on the story of a single individual coming to some sort of understanding after a long journey, and they dive in and out of fiction and legend with detail made possible by their length. The success of Neurocomic in telling just a small fraction of our knowledge about the brain made me wish for more — a serial, multi-volume comic — transforming the inquiry of neuroscience into a truly Homeric ode. Entire volumes could be spent on the way we recognize shapes, or literacy, or emotional regulation.
For a general audience, the book can inspire a curiosity about the brain that few textbooks can. Where words and diagrams tell us details, fanciful images can help us remember just how amazing this organ is. It takes a skilled and intimately knowledgeable illustrator like Farinella to bring to life the undulations of neurons that stream through the body. These neurons do everything from sensing minor degrees of variance in heat to allowing us to plan out our lives days and weeks into the future, and he represents them sometimes as large, hulking trees with big trunks and meandering branches, and sometimes as stretching tentacles, squiggling around until they find a another neuron to pair with. Somehow, somewhere, in the gaps and connections of these many types of cells, consciousness arises, but Roš and Farinella never quite tell us why or how.
Indeed, in Western culture, neuroscience, like physics, is held up as the pinnacle of human expertise. When we say “It’s not rocket science,” and “It’s not brain science,” we mean, effectively, the same thing: “It’s not this impossibly complicated field of inquiry that only a small, elite number of people can ever hope to understand in detail.” And while both fields are hard sciences, both are philosophical in scope, addressing deeper questions of meaning and identity as old as human inquiry.
If there’s a deep space mission for neuroscience — in other words, a mission as much scientific as it is spiritual — that mission might be to provide humanity with a richer understanding of the relationship between the minds we live in each day and the materiality of the brain that these minds seem bound to. Our senses capture the outside world, and our brain turns senses into perceptions and experiences, and those experiences become narratives. But where does the notion of “I” come in? How does mind happen, and where does it go when the brain ceases to function, either through death or injury? These are ancient, vexing questions.
Toward the graphic novel’s end, the classic problem of dualism — the notion that the mind and brain are entirely separate entities — is brought up in the comic by the character of Hans Berger, who invented the electroencephalogram (EEG) after observing electrical activity on the surface of the brain. Berger raises these questions for our protagonist after he plugs the EEG onto his head. “Is my mind something else than the brain?” Berger asks. “Or is the mind just a product of my brain?” To drive the point home visually, Farinella draws Berger as an exposed interior, his brain and spinal cord bare for the reader. There are no clear answers here, and just as theoretical physics has taught us the how of the universe but not the why of its creation, so does neuroscience give us more answers about the how of the brain than the why of the mind.
Circling back to the central conceit of the story — of the main character being sucked through the eye and the occipital lobe — Farinella and Roš share one perspective on how mind happens, touching briefly on the Judeo-Christian concept of a permanent soul before landing more closely to the Buddhist concepts of skandhas, or aggregates that lead to consciousness, and annatta, or an impermanent self. “There are no ghosts, there is no soul!” declares the protagonist to himself in Zen-like fashion. “The idea of yourself as ‘someone’ inhabiting your brain is nothing but an illusion; a reflection that the brain has of its own body and actions.” A neuroscientific explanation, indeed.
The final chapters illustrated by Farinella take us through an M.C. Escher-like twisted landscape, as the protagonist attempts to the find the woman he met in the beginning chapters. It turns out that the whole experience is imagined, not by the protagonist, who only exists as two-dimensional ink on paper, but by the reader of the comic — meaning you, me, and everyone else who opens the book. The unresolved story mimics the unresolved relationship of brain and consciousness raised by Berger. To butcher a famous quote by the seminal French philosopher of mind, René Descartes: we think, therefore everything around us, including Neurocomic, this review of Neurocomic, and every concept raised by Neurocomic, appears to be.