Field of Science


How Science Education Changes Your Drawing Style

Take a look at these neurons. Ignore the fact that several of the brain cells look like snowflakes and at least one looks like an avocado. Can you pick out the drawings done by experienced, professional neuroscientists? What about the ones made by undergraduate science students?

Researchers at King's College London gave a simple task to 232 people: "Draw a neuron." (Actually, being British, they said "Please draw a neuron.") Some of the subjects were undergraduates in a neurobiology lecture. A small group were experienced neuroscientists who led their own research labs at the college. And a third, in-between group included graduate students and postdocs.

The researchers saw marked differences in how the three groups drew their brain cells. To confirm what they saw, they also pooled the drawings together and asked a new batch of subjects to sort the drawings into categories. These subjects agreed: the drawings clustered into distinct styles. The results are in the journal Science Education.

Did you pick out the pictures in the top row as examples from undergrads? Student sketches had lots of detail and were often labeled. In fact, they mostly resembled this classic textbook drawing from 1899, which the authors describe as the "archetype" of brain cells.

Sketches made by lab leaders are on the bottom row. These highly experienced scientists were more likely to make abstract or stylized drawings. Instead of imitating a textbook picture, they drew from their own personal understanding of what a neuron is. (Or possibly, for the scientist on the bottom left, what a martini glass is.)

The graduate students and postdocs, whose drawings are in the middle row, seemed to fall somewhere in between. They didn't label their drawings like undergrads did, and they didn't include quite so much detail. Their neurons were more likely to bend, and the nuclei of the cells were often hidden—in other words, the cells looked more like they would under a microscope, rather than on a textbook page. But they weren't quite as simplified and abstracted as the lab leaders'.

Lead author David Hay says that the three drawing styles represent "different cultures." Undergraduate students spit out textbook images; scientists in training draw on their own observations; and more experienced scientists make "highly conceptual" drawings that represent their personal judgment.

This matters because "learning to reproduce the textbook images is NOT learning science," Hay says. Even postdoctoral researchers didn't seem to have internalized the concept as much as the lab leaders had. However, Hay thinks there are ways that experienced scientists can help students gain perspective.

One way might be by physically acting out scientific ideas. After Hay and his coauthors had students try a couple such exercises—for example, walking on different paths through a laboratory to mimic how neurons grow—the students produced drawings that were more creative and less like the textbook.

Hay thinks students need to internalize scientific concepts before they can play around with them and make their own hypotheses. "Scientists do not simply know information," he says; "they put information to work to discover something new." Failing that, they can create formidable Pictionary teams.

HAY, D., WILLIAMS, D., STAHL, D., & WINGATE, R. (2013). Using Drawings of the Brain Cell to Exhibit Expertise in Neuroscience: Exploring the Boundaries of Experimental Culture Science Education, 97 (3), 468-491 DOI: 10.1002/sce.21055

Images: Hay et al.


  1. Part of that is that undergrads are expected to draw the top row in any exams they have. If they didn't, they would fail the exam. Dr Martini there would have got a 0/10 for his picture in an undergrad class.

    The flipside is that professors and (to a lesser extent) graduate students are rewarded for understanding. Thus, they can afford to be a little "looser" in their imagery because they are allowed that latitude by the academic system.

    Cool post though! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. 22 looks like it has a diode and a ground, and so, like what's the circle? That's where the magic happens.

  3. Ms/Mr 21 had too much time on her/his hands :)

  4. Interesting. It's not just a matter of abstraction, exactly. Rows one and two are physical portrayals of a neuron; the third row, with it's electrical diagram type markings, appears to be a shorthand for describing the neuron's functioning. So it went from being "physically portray it" at any level, to being "explain it visually."

  5. Reminds me of the difference between a map of a mass transit system and a diagram of that same system.

  6. As suggested by Stephen's post, the experts' drawings are schematic in nature (like electrical diagrams) rather than attempting to be portraits of actual neurons. Schematics aren't meant to be aesthetic objects (though some can be) - they're used to clearly communicate the parts and connections of a system. The article doesn't seem to know what a schematic drawing is, and tries to describe these images as "simplified and abstracted," which is a weak description though not technically inaccurate.

    The lab leaders, for the most part, are responding to the assignment by drawing simplified schematics of the neuron. I'd wonder if the different scientists designed their schematics differently according to the focus of their research. (Can't tell from the abstract and the article is paywalled.) There's one outlier in that bottom row who drew a nice branchy thing (although still not as strictly "accurate" as the undergraduates' careful copies). I'd guess that person either teaches or communicates to laypeople in some way about science - or else just enjoys making a more "artistic" depiction for special occasions. I would still bet that person does NOT draw a neuron that way on the whiteboard on a daily basis in the lab.

  7. This is really interesting.

    I know that when I draw things, I mostly try to reproduce how it really looks, which is hard when you're randomly told to "draw a [thing]". (I'd probably picture a specific instance of one in my mind, like the grad students whose drawings come from what they remember individual neurons looking like under a microscope). But I also like my drawing to be clear --- to "explain [the thing] visually", like Nentuaby says. In drawing, like, a tree or a similarly branched object, I might leave out some of the smaller, cluttering branches to make the major structural lines clearer.

    And I am also sensitive to the art value of whatever it is I'm drawing, even if it's meant to be an informative drawing.

    I wonder how much a scientist's drawing style also depends on how much art education they have --- I could see someone like me, who is sensitive to both technical *and* aesthetic concerns, resisting the schematic style because it isn't as pretty.

  8. Hey, these guys copied me! ;)

    I've done this as an exercise with my students for a while now:

  9. Congratulations. You have just explained to me why I flunked the California bar. I have been told I need to learn to write like their kind of law student.

  10. You have just discovered that scientists who have to lead their own labs have less time to waste on silly assignments than undergraduates.

  11. If you're dealing with neurons in a technical way - you're interested what they're doing - and they're just input/output transforming objects for you.

    You should ask highly specialized technican who does brain-examination. I think he'll draw neuron just like students did. Because he knows how it really looks.

    I mean it's not the lack of knowledge, it's the point of view.

    "learning to reproduce the textbook images is NOT learning science"
    - somebody overinterpreted everything.

  12. The whole experiment was a great example of useless experiments done by people who do not contribute to the society at all.

    They could make a similar one: ask people to read the word "unionized".
    You will see that people that deal with chemistry will read it in another way than people who are in an union. Because they deal with this in a different context every day.

    Oh the sociological studies, so useless


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