How Design Is Helping Us Understand The Brain

A startup incubated through TED’s inaugural residency program in New York is helping demystify neuroscience–and this is only the start.

Neuroscience has advanced tremendously over the past few decades, but the field remains a puzzle to most. A new startup called The Leading Strand wants to help the public better understand the brain and its myriad mysteries.


The key? Design. Founded by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, The Leading Strand pairs neuroscientists with designers, who make their living demystifying complex ideas, to shed light on everything from memory to how our brains process gender.

Phingbodhipakkiya studied neuroscience at Columbia and later went to Pratt to study design. The Leading Strand was born to merge her two areas of interest. Last month the startup had its first-ever exhibit at Pratt in New York City, showcasing partnerships centered on memory, gender recognition and sexual behavior, mood and exercise, and neurons and muscular movement.

Multidisciplinary designer Brian Foo and NYU researcher Sam McKenzie put together a song that continually listens to, remembers, and interprets sounds from the immediate environment–the idea is that the song is a metaphor for how memory might work in the human brain. A “continuously learning song,” the piece provided an immersiveness to the exhibit, since it was ambient, says Phingbodhipakkiya. “As people moved through the exhibit, you could hear the song change as people added their inputs by drawing shapes on the input screen. As they drew shapes, they quickly learned that drawing the same shape would increase the strength of a particular node on the output screen. Seeing this happen in real time allowed them to connect that not only is memory in the human brain fluid, but also that repetition strengthens neural networks.”

An industrial design piece by Elaine Khuu and Andrew Bogaard relied on audience participation to visualize two models of how neurons precipitate movement. How does a single neuron give rise to movement? What does that look like? Participants had to manually move a crank multiple times to realize that for a neuron to signal a muscle to move, there are actually many neurons involved and one single neuron alone cannot prompt movement. It’s a delinear process and in the piece people can actually see that, because the neuron is represented by a machine that looks like a video game. “It ties something familiar to the unfamiliar,” says Phingbodhipakkiya.

A chatbot called Exley developed by Kelsey Hunter and Julia Basso helps users understand how mood and memory can be improved by physical activity. The goal: to create meaningful behavioral change through weekly reports via Facebook Messenger. Whereas many health and fitness apps struggle to maintain users, Exley reinforces use by acting as an interactive coach. “When I talked to Exley, it was like a mini journaling session and I could see how exercise affected my mood and mental state. It was like a positive feedback loop I looked forward to,” one user reported.

This is where design gives neuroscience a boost: It translates a complex concept into something tangible. New Age-y concepts like mindfulness, meditation, and yoga–all having to do with the brain–may be trendy, but those in the health communication field have not yet cultivated a a deeper scientific awareness. “There’s such a cursory understanding of science, especially neuroscience,” says Phingbodhipakkiya. “Design has the power to bring weight to science because weight comes with understanding.”


And neuroscience is just the start. The Leading Strand–which is being incubated as part of TED’s inaugural residency program in New York City–plans to tackle other woolly scientific topics such as climate science, particle physics, and genetics. “What is missing is real translation,” Phingbodhipakkiya says. “Art is often inspired by science, but design–as distinct from art–helps communicate concepts that are difficult to visualize.”

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About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.