Neuroscientist-Graphic Novelist Leads Readers on Journey through Brain’s Five Senses

November 17, 2017

In Matteo Farinella's rendering of the brain, a forest of neurons spread their branches to the sky and a bright Milky Way of neurons shine down upon them. (Image courtesy of Farinella)

Drawing is so fundamental to Matteo Farinella’s conception of childhood that when people ask him when he started drawing comics he always responds: When did you stop?

Farinella never stopped, but once he decided to become a scientist, he kept his comic-drawing secret. In his last year of graduate school, a postdoc in his lab encouraged him to turn his ink and brush on the topic they knew best: the brain. In 2013, the same year that Farinella earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience, he published his first graphic novel, Neurocomic.

“It took me a while to realize. Oh! You can put these things together,” he said, seated on the steps of Low Library on a recent afternoon.

 Matteo Farinella

A neuroscientist and cartoonist, Farinella is currently a postdoc in Columbia's Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience program.

Now a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, in the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience program, Farinella recently published his second graphic novel, The Senses. The book follows a virtual-reality researcher, Diane, as she tumbles into an alternate universe of nerve endings, taste receptors and pheromones. Along the way, she meets a cast of human and animal characters who explain how each of the senses works (including, briefly, Columbia’s Nobel Prize-winning expert on smell, Richard Axel).

Farinella made his protagonist, like his intended audience, a non-scientist. “I don’t want the reader to feel lectured,” he says. “The scientists are there to give information and allow the reader to move on.”

And move, the reader does, through trippy landscapes of one-eyed ganglion cells and surprising anecdotes that explain why deep sea fish see only blue, and mountains at a distance appear the same color (blue is the only wavelength able to penetrate thick layers of water and atmosphere). Diane learns why noise is annoying to the human ear (its randomness), and how a Japanese scientist traced a fifth taste he named “umami” to the amino acid glutamate —the flavor that the additive monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is meant to mimic.

 illustration of the five senses

In Farinella's latest graphic novel, The Senses, the protagonist falls into an alternate brain-like universe where  she meets animals and scientists who explain how each of the brain's five senses works.

The book also shows how science evolves with time to reveal the truth, slyly undercutting its own authority. The umami vignette ends with the scientist who discovered it debunking the myth that MSG, so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome, is bad for your health. The message, says Farinella, is that readers should question received wisdom, even in his book. “Twenty years from now it may not be true,” he says.

Farinella grew up in Bologna, graduating from the Bonelli comics—Italy’s version of Marvel—that he found on newsstands as a kid, to the nuanced, autobiographical works of R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes and Chester Brown. As an undergraduate he studied biology at University of Bologna, and went on for his Ph.D. at University College London where he focused on building computational models of brain cells to understand how they integrate information.

There, a postdoc named Hana Ros suggested they collaborate on a graphic novel about the brain. With support from the Wellcome Trust, they produced Neurocomic. On a whim, and not long after finishing his thesis, Farinella brought the manuscript to the London graphic-novel publisher NoBrow. To his surprise, they bought it on the spot. 

With no formal training, Farinella stumbled on proven storytelling tricks — the use of narrative to hold the reader’s interest, and metaphor to explain abstract concepts. Putting “the science in the background,” as he puts it, allows readers to absorb technical information unconsciously, he says. His hope is that their curiosity, once whetted, will lead them to seek out more information.

Now in the second year of his three-year fellowship at Columbia, Farinella is working with two advisers, Marguerite Holloway at Columbia Journalism School and Barbara Tversky at Teachers College, to study the role of metaphor in learning and articulating abstract ideas.

Take the metaphor of time as a place in space, he says. “It moves toward us, behind us, and we look forward to things,” he says. “It’s not just a poetic device, it’s a tool for thought.” Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish pathologist who founded the field of neuroscience at the start of the 1900s, himself used the metaphor of a branching tree to describe brain cells in his writing and exquisite drawings.

Farinella is currently designing a set of experiments to test whether comics, with their iconic imagery and punchy text, can help readers retain information. He has translated the work of Teachers College pediatrician Kimberly Noble, who studies the influence of poverty on brain development, into an eight-page comic. He will divide his human subjects into two groups: those given the comic, and those given an 800-word version of an essay Noble published in Scientific American describing her work. He’ll then measure how well the groups do at remembering key details.   

While he waits for the data to come in, he continues to find new audiences for his work, including this recent celebration of women scientists for the news-by-scientists website, Massive.  His ultimate goal, he says, is “to see comics recognized as a legitimate form of science communication.”

Farinella will moderate a seminar, “Metaphors and Models: The Neuroscience of Comparison,” featuring researchers from the sciences and humanities on Monday, Nov. 20.

—Kim Martineau