Client: Dr. Barbara Oakley, Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning
Client: Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Client: Penguin Random House

The Challenge

Develop original, and universally understandable, illustrations to explain difficult concepts to a wide range of readers.

The Outcome

Set of illustrations for a book that went to becoming a NY Times Science Best Seller in 2014. The same illustrations were used to print the book in 11 languages.

You can buy A Mind For Numbers from Amazon and Barnes & Noble

For this project we begun our research by reading an early draft of the book and setting up weekly meetings with the author to receive feedback on my sketches and listen to her ideas. We worked together for months and during that time we came up with various ingenious ideas such as the pinball brain illustration to explain how the ideas bounce in our brain and the octopus of attention to show how our brains handle attention. By using similes we could create “neural hooks” in the reader’s mind. This means to use old or well known ideas in the reader’s mind to hook the new ones presented by the author.

Dr. Oakley’s lessons are rich in metaphor, which she knows helps get complex ideas across. The practice is rooted in the theory of neural reuse, which states that metaphors use the same neural circuits in the brain as the underlying concept does, so the metaphor brings difficult concepts “more rapidly on board,” as she puts it. She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an “octopus of attention.” 

John Schwartz, writer at The Times.
A version of this article appears in print on August 6, 2017, on Page ED6 of Education Life with the headline:You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain.