From The Anatomy of the Brain Explained in a Series of Engravings, by Sir Charles Bell, 1802 (Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London)

I threw down a bit of a challenge last month at the Association of Medical Illustrators Conference in Minnesota.

But first, I had to–somewhat unexpectedly–accept some challenges presented by others. And face the reality that some of us simply do not have the constitution of an anatomist.

I love classic anatomical illustrations such as the vintage works of Andreas Vesalius and the more modern stylings of Frank Netter. And on that front, this conference definitely delivered. Talks by Daniel Garrison and Francine Netter were drool-worthy, and I snapped photos of quickly advancing slides presented by W. Bruce Fye on the history of the illustrated heart, so I could reverse-image search them later and spend more time checking out the details and context. Videos of Robert Beverly Hale’s Art Students League lectures on anatomy charmed me (as presented by Glen Hintz), as well as new videos of clean architectural microstructures like the inner ear, presented by Robert Acland. I had to make myself walk quickly by one vendor table to avoid blowing my book budget for the year (and then some) on an impulse buy of Vesalius’ 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica, newly translated to English.

But I averted my gaze when surgeons presented on the topic of facial transplantation and skull reconstruction. Shoot, I couldn’t even look at the screen through the entirety of a fascinating talk by Elizabeth Weissbrod and Valerie Henry on creating and using virtual and prosthetic simulations for military emergency response training.

I avoided the hands-on human cadaveric dissection workshop sessions, telling myself and others that my travel schedule would simply not allow me to get to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., early enough to participate or observe. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that an illustrator that would make more direct use of the experience in their day-to-day work should take a spot rather than me. It somehow felt disrespectful to observe a dissection simply for the sake of the experience. As a generalist in the world of science communication and art direction, I rely a great deal on anatomical illustrators who know their content inside and out. But I wasn’t convinced that I would be a more effective art director after viewing a dissection for myself.

The truth? The raw source material for the illustrations I love is, well…a little too raw for me to handle.

It’s not a new revelation. I could barely handle bivalve dissections in paleontology class years ago. But it was a forgotten one. I’ve existed for quite awhile as a science illustrator in an ivory tower of sorts. I may art-direct medical illustrations that recount the stories of lives saved, or cutting-edge research that may lead to treatments that will save lives in the future. But I rarely have to get my hands dirty. I trade in stylized and editorial process diagrams, and reference material in the form of e-mail attachments. Not surgical illustrations based on direct observation of flesh and bones. But I was now surrounded at this conference by artists who are in the midst of it all, many of whom work in hospitals and in tandem with surgeons, creating anatomical images that literally and directly save lives.

Perhaps it’s fitting that my challenge to this group was to consider when functional illustrations might be more appropriate than anatomical ones. Many of the other speakers were making me realize that anatomical illustrations are not just the stuff of vintage obsession, and indeed, it’s a vibrant and still absolutely relevant genre. But I still yearned to see some of these skilled visual communicators push beyond the figurative. Where were the data visualizations and/or new information-rich illustrative forms? (I should temper my argument with a word on context. As I mentioned before, many of this cohort work alongside or in the training of surgeons and in medical litigation, where anatomy is king, and representational illustration is key. And several other presenters, such as Lisa Nilsson and Travis Vermilye, are exploring new forms with their medical-inspired fine art).

But still, I wondered aloud–how might advances in an entire field of study affect how we even begin to think about illustrating it? For example, as neuroscientists get closer to actually mapping the whole brain, we will pull further and further away from representative depictions of it? Will an influx of data (prompted by initiatives like the Human Brain Project) fundamentally change the way we illustrate the brain?

Will qualitative brain drawings, like this

Illustration by Jen Christiansen, from "The Neuroscience of True Grit" by Gary Stix, Scientific American, March 2011.

…be replaced by quantitative brain data visualizations, like this?

If the past can serve as a guide for the future, not entirely. Classic anatomical illustrations of the brain, like the one below, appear in Scientific American starting in 1948, when the magazine began covering medical research in earnest.

Illustration by Eric Mose, from "The Great Ravelled Knot," by George W. Gray, in Scientific American, October 1948

Through the decades, this sort of illustration persists.

Illustration by Carol Donner, from "The Organization of the Brain," by Walle J. H. Nauta and Michael Feirtag, in Scientific American, September 1979

Even as imaging technologies such as PET scans and MRIs emerged, and became more and more familiar to the non-specialist reader, and included more and more often in the mainstream media, they didn’t render classic anatomical illustrations obsolete. That said, in order to honor the scale and complexity of new research, I think we’ll need to push beyond figurative illustrations more and more.

As reference material provided by research scientists shifts from back-of-the-envelope cartoons to data spreadsheets, it seems to me that we’ll be producing a little less of this:

Illustration by Bryan Christie, from "The Food Addiction," by Paul J. Kenny, in Scientific American, September 2013

And a little more of this:

Graphic by Jan Willem Tulp, from "The Genetic Geography of the Brain," by By Ed Lein and Mike Hawrylycz, Scientific American, April 2014

Folks producing data visualizations in tandem with ongoing research may be committed to this already. After all, data visualization artist Jan Willem Tulp‘s graphic solution to showing gene expression in the mouse and human brain is obviously deeply rooted in a heat map provided to us by the scientists. But it seems to me that this sort of abstract visualization is most often used as a tool for analysis in the lab, rather than a form that can be appropriated for communicating research findings to larger audiences. (Please disagree and include links to other examples in the comments area below, if you have evidence to the contrary!)

True, this kind of data can be presented in a more familiar form. Mapping this sort of information onto a 3-dimensional brain model telegraphs immediately as representing data related to the brain. But points in 3-D space on a static printed page can be challenging to interpret. Interactive portals, such as the Allen Brain Atlas, can help bridge the gap by making excellent use of a combination of several of visual forms for the motivated reader.

But in the context of a magazine for a popular audience, sometimes the benefits of showing information in an abstract form outweigh the limitations of showing information in a more familiar–but somehow less informative–manner. Especially when trying to explain a very specific part of a very specific story. The trick lies in the use of welcoming gestures to make the image approachable, such as clear-language keys and annotations, to help engage the reader and clarify the content.

For more of my thoughts on welcoming gestures as they relate to information graphics see the October 2012 blog post A Defense of Artistic License in Illustrations of Scientific Concepts. For a pdf download of my more formal paper on the same topic, “A Defense of Artistic License in Illustrating Scientific Concepts for a Non-Specialist Audience,” (from 2CO Communicating Complexity: 2013 Conference Proceedings, edited by Nicol? Ceccarelli), click here.

Click here for a Storify collection of my tweets from the conference.