Betina’s research aims to understand how we learn to see in depth, by investigating the neural circuitry underlying depth perception in the human brain. Her research can help develop treatments for ‘amblyopia’, a neurodevelopmental condition that affects around 3% of the general population and is linked to a loss of normal binocular vision.
Usborne have just published her Book of the Brain. Here she is interviewed by Talitha Smith from the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics.
What first got you interested in studying the brain?
Before becoming a scientist, I was studying sculpture in London. I was drawn to the idea of making a sculpture out of light, no physical materials. I got very fascinated by the idea of perception. By chance, I found a textbook on neurophysiology in the art school library. Reading it, I realised that light is received by the eye, yet the making sense of it happens in the brain. That is what first got me interested in the brain.
What motivated you to write the book?
My daughter Bianca once asked me: 'Do ants have brains? Do plants have brains? Do stones have brains?' I've always loved children's books and illustration but my daughter's open curiosity inspired me to act. In addition, I can't help myself but make small playful drawings in my everyday life. Some feature neurons and glial cells, with the latter sweeping the floor with a broom.
Why is it important to introduce the brain to children at such a young age?
It builds an appreciation for the beauty and mystery of the brain. You may feel more comfortable talking about yourself, your fear and happiness, because you know a place where thoughts, actions, and feelings emerge from. Also, if you are exposed to the concept of the brain early on, in a friendly and fun way, then the barriers to engage with it in the future may be lower.
How do you begin to condense the complexities of the brain into a children's book?
With engaging pictures and accessible ideas. With two friends who are taking a walk together and having an interesting chat. I wanted the book to be playful, showing places and objects that are familiar to us. For example, emotions are presented in a picture gallery, vision is represented by a machine with different windows. These are metaphors that all contain some of our knowledge about how the brain works.
Was there a starting point? A process or technique you used to help you?
I started with a number of topics that I found interesting, such as vision and memory. When dealing with decision making, I got really stuck on how to visualise it for children. Then one day I watched kids keenly queuing for ice cream after school, and imagined how hard it must be for them to decide on what ice cream they want to eat. That sparked the idea of using a decision chain on buying ice cream. It is one of my favourite pages in the book. Together with the amazing creative team at the publisher we refined each page over many iterations until it was optimal. It was a fruitful collaboration.
Did you show excerpts to children to see how they responded?
Absolutely. My daughter commented on the spreads along the way, and I also asked my friends' and colleagues' children to have a look at different versions.
Have you carried out any public engagement work that has given you skills in communicating science?
Plenty! Oxford is full of excellent opportunities for public engagement. Communicating science to children has been a particularly great learning experience. Their facial expressions are an immediate reflection on what works and what doesn't. I love that directness. My research is on seeing with two eyes. Rather than tell, I have participants feel the effect of using only one eye while playing ping pong. I also made giant red-green glasses for the T-rex head at the Natural History Museum, just for fun. Everyone was laughing a lot during the activities. I learnt that this is a good element to have in communicating science.
Tell us about the journey your book will take its young readers on
The story starts with a girl who cycles into the forest on her favourite bike (inspired by my bike when I was eight years old). In the book, the little girl is my daughter Bianca. She asks herself a question and meets her friend, an owl, who is me in an owl costume. We go on an adventure together through the brain forest. It is a bit inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
How are storytelling and art important tools to convey science?
Through storytelling and art, one can create an emotional and intellectual connection to science. It opens a space for wonder.
Do you see the book as a family learning experience between parents and their children or could it be used in schools?
It is a book that can be read aloud or silently on a rainy day, or it can be read with a group of children in a classroom to stimulate discussions. I hope it is the start of a journey rather than the end, because it raises more questions than answers. It may even stimulate an appetite for finding things out.
What does your daughter think of the book?
You can see that in the picture above!