Falling somewhere between an infographic, a web comic, and an animated TED talk, Neurotic Neurons, an interactive graphic by artist Nicky Case, is charming, educational, funny, sad, and strangely hopeful. It’s ostensibly an interactive explainer of how neurons works, but it’s so much more than that.
At its most basic, Neurotic Neurons is an interactive model that explains how the cogs of the nervous system make connections, and then explores how they can be programmed and reprogrammed. The visualization lays out neuroscientific concepts like Hebbian Learning and Anti-Hebbian Learning, core components of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In essence, Case’s visualization explains how, if a dog were to bite you, the “dog” neuron and the “pain” neuron fire next to each other, make a connection, and lead you to be afraid of dogs. Likewise, to deprogram this connection, you need to trigger the “dog” neuron without firing the “pain” neuron.
What makes Neurotic Neurons more than just an explainer on behavior hacking, though, is that it has autobiographical slant, with Case seemingly working out how his own brain works, and why he harbors the phobias and neuroses that he has. At the end, Case asks you to help him deprogram his own neurons of their negative connections with crowds, social disapproval, and densely packed holes. When you successfully deprogram Case, you feel strangely hopeful, as if, through helping Case work out some of his own issues through CBT hacking, maybe you can deal with some of your own.
This isn’t Case’s first interactive animation: he also teamed-up with Vi Hart for the Parable of the Polygons, a “playable post” on the destructiveness of intolerance and biased social norms, as well as the Coming Out Simulator, a semi-fictionalized account of Case “coming out as queer to [his] conservative Asian parents.” But Neurotic Neurons feels like his most accomplished work to date.
If you like it, Case has a Patreon, which is sorely underfunded. Throw him a few bucks. This is a designer I’d like to see more work from.