IN THE LOOP
Background: This week we published a paper on neural constraints on learning. The research explores how adaptable the brain is during learning and finds that some new neural activity patterns are easier to generate than others — corresponding to more easily learned tasks — and that these can be predicted at the start of the experiment.
This finding could form a basis for a neural explanation for the balance between adaptability and persistence in action and thought.
Design challenge: The cover is obviously a highly conceptual, artistic interpretation of the research. As with most creative endeavors, the final image is the result of many stages of ideas and iteration.
It all started with a fantastic idea from author Aaron Batista, who saw the work of Escher as a good visual metaphor for his work. This from Batista:
“Escher’s art involves covering space (his tessellations) and playing with dimensionality. His themes resonate with our work. We tile a mathematical space with distinct patterns of neural population activity, and we define two spaces of neural activity, which appear identical, yet one is unreachable from the other. Our idea for this illustration would be a tessellation at the bottom of the page. The design elements which tessellate might be a cortical hemisphere and a 3D geometrical space with a 2D plane within it. Then, out of the tessellation would emerge an impossible staircase - that is, one of those that keeps going up but ends up where it started. This conveys the idea of a self-contained manifold. Above it, upside-down, is a second staircase that looks the same as the first, but is clearly not reachable from it. It’s perhaps hard to make out all that in the second attached illustration, but we think the idea might have some promise.”
(See original sketch, second image, from Amanda Crossen and Jordan Bush in CMU’s art department, as a result of a brainstorm with Batista and co-authors Patrick Sadtler and Byron Yu.)
From us to Monument Valley, with love. I was taken with the idea, and after some conversation around the office we decided to build on the idea of creating an Escher themed world by making an image inspired by the new hit game Monument Valley. We pitched this idea to Batista and team and they embraced that direction, as Batista had actually been playing Monument Valley when the Escher idea occurred to him in the first place!
We then gave the brief to Jasiek Krzysztofiak in the Nature art team, who created this memorable and transporting cover art. It shows two people on different planes, to convey the idea of ‘neural manifolds beyond reach’. The purple platform corresponds to the manifold that is visited as the monkey from the study explores neural activity space. (It appears like the others, but it’s the only that that is reachable, thus the stairs). As a finishing touch, Jasiek created some gorgeous breezy neurons to firmly set the scene in the brain.