Olympic Athlete Neuroscience Visuals
Working with incredible scientists at the top of their field is one of my favorite things about creating science visuals. Most of the time, that means creating animations of black holes or cancer nanosphere illustrations. Which don’t get me wrong, is incredible. But, it was a special treat to create an infographic about the neuroscience of gymnastics. Like many girls, I did gymnastics just long enough to believe I was good at it ;-). Approaching this art, I loved thinking about how gymnast’s skills encompass mental AND physical strength.
Yet, I hadn’t thought about this series of illustrations, even with the 2021 summer Olympics in full-swing. It wasn’t until Simone Biles shook the gymnastics world by NOT competing, that I was reminded of it. Her mention of twisties brought me back to this simple series of illustrations. The drawings were created for Columbia’s Zuckerman Brain Institute for the 2016 Olympics when Simone Biles won 4 golds. The series highlighted how little we understand about the neurology of movement.
Athlete Movement and Neuroscience Drawings
Drawings that highlight the neural pathways of movement:
- Sensory nerves send the signals of touch to interneurons in the spine.
- The vestibular nuclei in the brain stem handles split section adjustments.
- The inner ear helps track acceleration and gives us balance.
- The visual cortex processes visual signals, allowing gymnasts to track their position.
Olympic Gymnastics Neuroscience Infographic
If you look in our gallery, we don’t highlight many small ‘spot’ illustrations. Our jam is usually creating detailed, immersive science experiences. Yet, it can be so rewarding to create simpler drawings that complement the whole of a science communication piece. In this case, I worked closely with Devin Powell who was developing both the text content and the infographic design. I love the way he brought it all together with a photograph of Simone Biles on the beam. The combination of tension and grace helps us understand the mental phenomenon of a world-class athlete.
Thoughts on Work, Athletes, and Mental Health
Neurology is a mystery. Piece by piece we learn a little bit more about how our brains work. In light of this year’s Olympics, I wonder how these neurological studies on the brain and movement cross-reference to studies of mental health. When we’ve reached our limit of stress, what does that do to this carefully orchestrated system?
As an adult who’s a tad older than the average olympian ;-), I’ve been able to try many different pursuits. I marvel at the focus and dedication it takes for Olympic athletes to compete. As many who know me will tell you, I can sometimes be… obsessive. Now, with my kids reflecting my emotional state back to me, I’ve been working on being kinder to myself. It’s hard! It’s hard to recognize and admit weakness. To know when we need a break, to reach out to others, to forgive ourselves. So when Simone Biles announced she was pulling out of the team All-around competition I felt…celebratory. I know that many were disappointed, but I thank her and others—like Naomi Osaka and Noah Lyles—for their strength, candor, and self-respect.
I hope that by showing our support of those who speak out, we can help change sports to better support our athletes, and ultimately ourselves.
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