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Zombies eat brains, I draw them...

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Over the summer, in the sweltering heat of Israel’s coastal plain, where was I? I was diving deep…

~into neuroanatomy~

By a strange confluence of events I had 2 jobs one after another that required detailed illustrations of the human brain. The level of anatomical detail was higher than in my previous pieces featuring brains. But part of the fun of this job is learning new things, right?

Job 1 was an illustration for Dr. Jodi Pawluski, a Canadian researcher at the Université de Rennes 1 in France. It was made for a review paper about postpartum depression and its uniqueness when compared with other mood disorders. The idea was to visualize how various brain regions’ activation increases or decreases in patients suffering from different mood disorders. In the case of postpartum depression the research also distinguishes between the responses to infant vs. non-infant related triggers.

The finished piece: Activation of regions of the brain in patients with different mood disorders.

The brief included a list of structures that needed to appear. We decided on 2 views of the brain and work went relatively smoothly, aside from the challenges of the cut-in view, which was necessary to show the insular cortex (IC).  The technique I used was ink-brush pen which I then converted to vector format and worked on in Adobe Illustrator (I have used this technique before and I really love the results! It allows for much of the cleanness and adaptability of vector illustration while still maintaining the more fluid qualities of hand-drawn work).

The next step was creating a design and color scheme that would be legible. I took inspiration from how overlapping regions are marked on maps, ( for example, or this amazing vintage map of Yugoslavia from Nazi Germany), but used dots instead of interlocking stripes.

Left: inked versions shown here with the original cut in (before correcting it digitally). Right: swatching to design a color scheme and pattern

As a side note (and an opportunity to brag) Dr. Pawluski’s research has peaked the interest of several media outlets in a few languages, plus the Huffington Post. Also see: Original paper in Trends in Neuroscience, media pieces: RealWire, MedIndia, other languages: FrenchSpanish.

And with that job 1 was complete- not quite a suspenseful zombie flick, I admit. Let’s call it act 1, where our protagonist is lulled into a false sense of security.

Shortly thereafter a longtime client, Dr. Ruth Feldman of Bar Ilan University, contacted me about creating the figures for her new review paper, one of which would be a detailed neuroanatomy illustration. So we have the building blocks of job 2: subject matter I had just dealt with successfully, a client I have worked with for years- what could possibly go wrong?

Let’s start with the brief: this paper deals with the striatum and its role in human attachments. The illustration needed to describe the interactions between regions of the brain that play a role in different kinds of human attachments…. Oh, and also rodent attachments. Sorry, I forgot to mention that. In case you are wondering what parts of the brain are involved in attachments, we will get to that, but as long as I am referencing zombies, I may as well try for some suspense (I’m sure you are on the edge of your seats).

Dr. Feldman warned me the job would be a bit complicated, therefore it required something fairly unusual in my line of work… a meeting, with a real live person! I met with Dr. Feldman’s student, Eyal Abraham, at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv to discuss the requirements in detail. I admit I was feeling pretty confident in my brain-drawing abilities thanks to my experience in job 1. I came out of the meeting with the following:

The different relationships that needed to appear. In humans: parental, romantic, friendship. In rats: parental, in prairie voles: pair bonding. No biggie, right?

With this 4 page list came 2 more things: 1. A partial visual aid for some of the areas (though I can’t find it to upload), and 2. The beginnings of a mild stress-attack (aka my zombie senses started to tingle though they were not yet at full alarm mode). Because as you can see from this list- and to answer the question posed previously; what regions play a role in attachments? The correct answer would be EVERYTHING (okay not really, but still- you see this list, right?).

Using the references available to me I started by mapping out each area to see which views of the brain allowed the most regions to be visible. I went full stationary-nerd and used color coding to cross reference the views with the list of anatomical regions. At some point I realized that in my exuberant haste to break out the highlighting markers, I had made a rather critical error: unlike job 1, the focal-point of this illustration is not really the regions themselves, but the interactions between them. So rather than make sure a particular area was visible, it was more important that each pair of regions connected by an arrow be visible in the same view, when possible. Cue even more obsessive color-coding and arrows.

By this point I had turned the brief into some kind of intricate, complicated puzzle by trying to determine which views of the brain would best serve the subject matter. It seems I have destroyed the evidence but trust me, it wasn’t pretty. It had begun to dawn on me that the zombies are, in fact, coming and what’s worse- I have probably been signalling them inadvertently with my obsessive color-coding. I’m telling you they could smell the brains…

First version, pre-color. The brains were drawn by hand in pen and then scanned into Adobe Illustrator. I decided on 3 general views plus the striatum detail view based on the lists and relationships

I should make clear that while I am a trained science illustrator, I have no formal education in neuroanatomy, neurology, psychology or medicine. (I do, however, own this absolutely brilliant coloring book of Frank Netter’s illustrations which I use to educate myself on an ad-hoc basis. I was using this and other references to understand the anatomy). Ordinarily, when working for scientists here is where I ask them for guidance, and I did receive a great deal of help! However, brain research is an inter-disciplinary field and researchers differ in their backgrounds and perspectives (though zombies have yet to gain the recognition of the establishment). Dr. Feldman and Eyal Abraham are both trained psychologists. Their understanding of the brain and its functions, while clearly far more extensive than mine, is inherently different from the point of view of an anatomist, for example. It is less structural and for our purposes, less visual. This meant that the guidance I received was in a slightly different ‘dialect’.

To return to our zombie analogy, in this particular case, my team, (in fact my bosses) are amazingly knowledgeable zombie experts. They have a complete understanding of the zombie; its psychology, anthropology, motivations and culture, as well as its physiology! However their understanding of how to kill one in the event of an attack is somewhat theoretical. I’m the hired muscle but the thing is, I’m not quite sure I can pull it off either.

I wish this this story had a better climax, but the truth is, the solution was time. Time spent pouring over the best references I could get my hands on. Time spent thinking and imagining the structures in 3D, checking the different views to make sure I understood them. Time I wouldn’t have had if this project was really a zombie. Time is always in short supply, but some things demand it. Truthfully, the time I spent cross referencing was useful, but much of it may have been better spent in quiet contemplation. When you have time, you can sharpen your mind and your weapons, and wage an epic battle against the zombies that want to eat the brain you are drawing.

Final image as it appears in the original article in Cell Press, Trends in Cognitive Science

Lots more stuff happened between the sketch and the final, as you can see. We dropped the coronal section, which meant there were now even more arrows on the remaining views (a working title for the piece was “MY that’s a lot of arrows,” but we decided against it. Likewise “Can anyone even follow that?”). I painted the brains by using an old paper texture and painting over it in photoshop, and we added the view of the networks where I again took inspiration from map design. And that was it, Zombies slain, success, the end!

This was one of the more ambitious pieces I’ve completed as a freelancer and I’m really proud of the end result, even if I couldn’t kill a zombie in real life. The subject matter is really interesting, so of course I recommend the excellent original paper for a bit of light reading

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