MEET THE AUTHOR! A conversation with Dr. Jaya Viswanathan, author of Baby Senses: A Sensory Neuroscience Primer for All AgesMEET THE AUTHOR! A conversation with Dr. Jaya Viswanathan, author of Baby Senses: A Sensory Neuroscience Primer for All Ages https://www.readerviewskids.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Viswanathan-816x1024.jpg 816 1024 Reader Views Kids Reader Views Kids https://www.readerviewskids.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Viswanathan-816x1024.jpg
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Dr. Jaya Viswanathan
Archway Publishing (2023)
Hello! I am Jaya Viswanathan, a neuroscientist, educator, artist, and recent author born and raised in India. I am passionate about understanding how the brain works, so after graduating as an engineer, I pursued a Master’s in neuroscience followed by a Doctorate in Cognitive Neuroscience. I then worked as a post-doctoral fellow for 4 years at the University of Maryland studying the neural mechanisms of auditory and speech perception in noisy environments. I then joined the Division of Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging as a Kelly Government Program Analyst where I support programmatic development to achieve the research goals of the US National Plan to address Alzheimer’s disease. In my free time, I volunteer as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) educator. I love art and paint/sculpt/hand-build every chance I get. When I am not working, painting, or exhibiting my art, you can find me reading, writing, tutoring, or nerding out about brains, behavior, and evolution.
Hi Dr. Viswanathan. Thank you for joining us today at Reader Views. Tell us a bit about your writing journey. (When did you start writing? Have you always wanted to be an author? What made you decide to actually sit down and write your first book?)
Hello, thank you so much for inviting me to speak about my book journey with you. I have been involved in science writing for the public, by writing perspective/opinion pieces in student-run journals and through outreach organizations since the beginning of my career. I’ve always been passionate about making science engaging, relatable, and accessible to the interested lay audience. However, the idea of writing Baby Senses really crystallized for me during the COVID-19 global pandemic. I’ve been working on creating a series of neuro art paintings since 2018. The realization that I’d created a series of paintings that tied together into a narrative about the beauty and complexity of the many ways in which brains have evolved to do extraordinary things, coupled with the realization that there are not many neuroscience books available to early readers, really motivated me to sit down and start working on this project in January 2022. Over the following months, I threw myself into the project every spare moment I had – doing the research, painting the animal illustrations, working on the extended glossary, and working on the rhymes for the conversations between baby animals and their adults.
What is Baby Senses about?
In essence, Baby Senses is about the marvelous, bizarre, and creative ways by which animals have evolved throughout the animal kingdom to sense their environment, both external and internal. From the simplest of animals like earthworms to the most elusive and complex of our mammalian cousins, the narwhals, responding correctly to environmental cues is essential for survival. Over millions of years, the nervous system has evolved to “interpret the world” in animals based on the unique challenges they faced in different environments. Drawing simultaneously from contemporary neuroscience research (including my own) and historical documentation of the anatomy of sensory systems, Baby Senses provides a unique window into sensory mechanisms for both children and adults. Baby Senses is also a scholastic resource that educators can use to engage students in thinking simultaneously about the worlds within and around us.
What inspired the creation of Baby Senses?
I think that subconsciously I’ve been preparing to research and write this for my whole career! I fell in love with the idea of understanding how brains work as a teenager. There were not many neuroscience learning resources available to me then and I used to go to the library and look up brain-related topics in encyclopedias and textbooks. Because of this early experience, since the beginning of my research career, it has been a priority for me to give back to the community by teaching kids, and adults, neuroscience every chance I got. Through graduate studies and beyond, developing my science communication skills was as important to me as working on my research and analytical skills. As an artist, I’ve also found the actual forms in biology incredibly complex and beautiful. A few years ago, I made a couple of paintings – initially just for myself, to hang up in my apartment. However, friends and colleagues who saw these paintings urged me to keep going and soon enough I had several paintings which I began exhibiting around DC. The inspiration to put all of it together into a book came while I was tutoring with Reading Partners. A search of the existing neuroscience books for children to read with the kids I tutored left me disappointed in the lack of truly engaging neuroscience content for beginning/emerging readers. And there a germ of an idea was born – to illustrate and write a children’s neuroscience book with accurate visual representations of sensory systems.
Baby Senses is a remarkable blend of science and art. What sparked this idea to discuss sensory systems in such an innovative way?
Thank you! I wanted to use multi-modal ways to engage diverse minds (neurotypical and neuroatypical), and of all ages. I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted the book to look like before I sat down to write a single word because I wanted the content to be relatable and engaging, visually and auditorily appealing, as well as inclusive of a wide range of species within the animal kingdom. With the conversational text for example, I recited these lines out loud many times and tweaked the text to smooth out the cadence and phonetic rhythm of the rhymes that an educator or parent would read out loud with their children. I worked on drafts of the neuroscience and animal paintings to make sure that the colors were complementary, and that the scientific accuracy remained salient and visually appealing. I also used more subtle cues, like the parent-child bond as the context of these question-and-answer conversations to make the content relatable. More scientific choices like including the full references list were also deliberate since I wanted to emphasize the reality of science building upon knowledge over time.
You’ve covered a broad spectrum of sensory systems in your work, from traditional to more exotic ones. Could you share what inspired this extensive exploration?
Thank you for this great question! One of my goals in writing Baby Senses was to challenge the all-pervasive idea that humans only have ‘5 senses’ and that having a ‘6th sense’ was somehow an anomaly. As humans, we have more than 5 ways to sense our internal and external environments. Moreover, researchers still don’t fully understand all the ways in which we sense our environment; for instance, how our gut microbial environment influences our brains through the gut-brain axis is not fully characterized. My choice to cover 16 systems is not by any means meant to be a comprehensive list. In many of the systems I do cover in Baby Senses, research is still underway to fully understand their utility and the evolutionary advantage they confer. I wanted to highlight the vast variety of structures and mechanisms that organisms have evolved over millions of years, ranging from symbiotic relationships with bacteria that can enhance existing senses, to how superorganism colonies of social insects sense the needs of the hive. Within the traditional sensory systems that humans have, I wanted to highlight animals that have evolved to do some of these better than we have, because their survival and propagation in their environments depended on being able to.
The animal illustrations, ranging from lemurs to golden orb-weavers, are captivating. How did you choose which animals to feature and their relation to the senses you discuss?
Thank you so much, that is another great question! Many of the animals I’ve chosen were personal favorites – I think sloths are completely adorable and wanted to include them! Others were based on personal experience – I once saw a golden orb-weaver in its huge web which hung vertically between the trunks of two trees in North Carolina and I was fascinated by and read up a lot about them and how they weave these amazing webs that extend their tactile worlds. As an auditory neuroscientist, I already knew about the incredible sound localization ability of owls and the bat’s echolocation abilities so I knew I would include both. In the course of my research on sensory abilities that I was less familiar with before Baby Senses, such as the ampullae of Lorenzini, I had to choose between different species of sharks and rays, so I picked the pretty blue spotted Rays based on visual appeal. When I learned that carp and goldfish navigate the world through taste receptors, I picked the ethereally beautiful butterfly goldfish which have been selectively bred for their looks. Overall, I usually narrowed down my options of animals to choose from based on their “superpowers” in the sensory system I wanted to highlight, and then picked the animal that I wanted to paint!
I’m intrigued by your mention of the Tuesday Night Drawing Group in Georgetown. Could you tell us more about it and how it influenced the illustrations in your book?
Absolutely! The Tuesday Night Group (TNG) is a group of artists and art enthusiasts that have been meeting every Tuesday in Georgetown for the last 38 years to paint together from life. I consider myself lucky to be one of their newer members having joined the group in 2018. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we met virtually over Zoom and expanded to creating, sharing, and discussing art inspired by a wide range of themes. Members are from different walks of life, have varied expertise, and use a diverse range of media and styles. I’m very grateful to have received artistic feedback from members of TNG while I was illustrating Baby Senses, including the cover image. In many ways, they were my ‘Advance Readers’ since I would often share nerdy facts about the systems and animals with the group and the facts which piqued their interest were often the ones that made it into the glossary! We meet in the studio of D.C. based artist Micheline Klagsbrun where select work from members of the group is always on view. Please find more information about the group at https://klagsbrunstudios.com/aboutus/ .
How did you manage the task of writing Baby Senses, especially given your diverse professional commitments? Could you walk us through your writing process and tell us how long the book took to come to fruition? Can you share how you balance the demands of your professional career and your passion for writing?
It might sound cliché, but the way I have always tackled my to-do list is using simple time management and prioritizing things based on timelines and deadlines. I usually have a list of things I plan on working towards every week. The time and energy to effectively communicate neuroscience through this book has been worth every “extra” bit of effort outside my research work. Because I didn’t have any hard deadlines to keep for my book, I planned it out in smaller chunks based on work and other commitments, week by week. I took about 8 months to finish my first draft of the book and all the illustrations. I then spent several months researching publishing options and timelines, choosing my publisher, revising my book, and working on the cover images. Overall, it took a year and 5 months for my book to be published from when I started working on it.
Making scientific language accessible for a diverse readership is no easy task. Could you share the strategies you used to ensure both adults and children can follow along easily, and how you kept the balance both educational and entertaining?
I wanted to maintain the balance between writing an engaging and relatable narrative while not shying away from scientific terminology. A picture is often worth 1000 words, so I illustrated the parent-child bond, which is instinctively relatable, as the context in which babies learn about what makes them special. Instead of overwhelming readers with scientific jargon, I limited myself to one technical term per sensory system and explained the rest through common parlance that relates back to what makes the animals special. This might be a personal preference, but I’ve always felt that hand-drawn illustrations are more appealing than photographs or computer-generated graphics and I chose complementary color combinations using richly pigmented colors to create all the illustrations myself. In the glossary, I was keen on relating back to the reader how these mechanisms and concepts relate back to their own lives, and how biological systems are inspiring discovery and development in medicine, technology, military, and more.
Providing a thorough glossary and reference section must have been quite a task. Can you share your intention behind this effort?
There are a couple of reasons I was keen on including both glossary and references sections which I realize is unconventional for a children’s book. For one, I wanted to introduce the early reader to more than just the facts of science. A fundamental tenet of scientific endeavor is that knowledge is built over time, with many researchers working together or apart to gather facts in small steps. I believe that a powerful way to resist the spread of inaccurate and misinformation is to introduce the lay audience to what a properly researched book looks like. Related to this was my desire for Baby Senses to be a stand-alone educational resource for classrooms and families laid out in a scientific format.
You beautifully intertwined your scientific career with literature in “Baby Senses.” How do you see this impacting your readers, particularly the younger ones?
I think that it is important for early readers to sample different kinds of science and learn that anyone can become a scientist! When I first left India to pursue grad school in Canada, I didn’t have much except a graduate research assistant stipend and the unconditional support of my parents. It was passion, grit, a strong work ethic, and incredible mentors I’ve had along the way that brought me to where I am. I hope to pass on that sense of research community and team-science and collaborative spirit through my book to all readers, especially younger ones.
Your book is widely appreciated for its detailed exploration of the senses. Are there certain senses or sensory systems that you personally find most fascinating?
Oh boy, that’s tough to answer! The short answer is yes. I’ve always been fascinated by auditory and somatosensory systems for many reasons, chief of which is that these stimuli are very transient, much more so than our visual or gustatory inputs, for instance. In my doctoral and post-doctoral work, I was investigating the mechanisms by which sounds are processed, perceived, and are held in long-term memory. In the exotic systems, I will confess a fascination for how snakes have evolved to have pit organs and what other functions the narwal’s tooth might be revealed to have. That being said, I put a lot of love into every animal and sensory system in the book and even when I didn’t know much about a particular species going in, by the end of writing Baby Senses, they all held a place in my heart.
What are your thoughts on the benefits of learning about the senses and neuroscience from a young age?
I think that an early introduction to how diversity in nature makes all animals special is important to encourage an appreciation of our ecosystem and why its delicate balance needs to be conserved. Beyond that, I am hoping it will encourage a spirit of curiosity to learn more about our world, and an acceptance of that which may seem weird or strange. We are all influenced by the books we read in our childhood and adolescence. I am hopeful that young readers of Baby Senses will carry these messages of the book with them into adulthood. In my experience, children are easily inspired or discouraged from pursuing further learning in topics based on demographics and gender, as well as how scientific topics are taught. By making neuroscience engaging I am hoping that children are inspired to pursue it, regardless of gender or demographics. When I take a step back to look at the bigger picture, the challenges facing neuroscientific endeavors are complex and large. Solving them requires team-science efforts, new ideas, collaboration within and across diverse teams, and an open-science, data-sharing approach. All of these require that people from diverse backgrounds are drawn to and remain in research careers, and in the long run, I hope that Baby Senses will contribute to that goal.
After taking your readers on a journey through the senses, what do you hope they will glean from reading Baby Senses?
The obvious message I wanted to convey is that brains are amazing, and to remember that there is beauty in ourselves and the world around us even when we can’t see it. I hope that general readers of Baby Senses are left with a new appreciation of the wonderful animals we share our planet with. Beyond that, I hope that the more subtle message – that what makes us different is often our strength – percolates through readers. I hope that it creates acceptance and value, both within and between each other.
With such a wealth of knowledge in the field, how do you decide what to include in your books and what to leave out?
This has sometimes been a difficult choice. When research on a topic/system was scarce – such as the mysterious narwhals who have not been studied as much as the common lab mouse, the choice of what to include and how to narrate it was simple. With others, like for example frogs, bats, or butterflies, I often fell into a rabbit hole of learning fascinating science and nuances of animal behaviors. I followed 2 broad principles while deciding what to include, either in the main text or the glossary – (i) if the information shed light on how and why that system evolved as well as what advantage it lent that species, and (ii) how that relates to contemporary research and everyday life for the lay audience.
Could you expand a little more on how the environment shapes the nervous systems of various animals, as touched upon in your book’s introduction?
An easy way to think about how environment drives our brains is to compare terrestrial mammals like humans and aquatic mammals like dolphins and whales. Despite having a lot in common, such as needing air to breathe, being able to execute complex social behaviors, communicating, having ‘big’ brains, and more, the brains of aquatic mammals have had to evolve to solve different challenges such as navigating in low-light water, compared to humans. In fact, because they need to come up for air periodically, dolphins and whales sleep half a brain at a time – a process called unihemispheric sleep. Researchers often use these kinds of comparative studies to understand evolutionary processes which are broadly classified as divergent (when species that are related show vast differences in biology due to environmental differences) or convergent (when species that are unrelated have similar biology and behaviors due to similar environment or behavioral needs) evolution.
In your introduction, you talk about the cognitive abilities that set humans apart from other species. Could you delve a bit more into how this has influenced our sensory perceptions?
In many ways, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what mechanistic processes sets us apart from other animals. A lot of what were considered uniquely human abilities have been demonstrated in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately, other hominid species either died out or were absorbed into our gene pool so we don’t really have any close hominid genetic relatives to compare. However, we are long-lived social species and as such, in order to survive, our brains have evolved to detect and perceive the smallest of facial expression changes, to detect familiar faces even when they are far away or in a crowd, and more. Another thing that has set humans apart from other species is having gone beyond just language – to write, store, and share information to be passed on to future generations is a uniquely human behavior. Our ability to distinguish pitch, timbre, tone, nuance, and even emotion from voice and music is also a result of being a social species where vocal cues can indicate intent.
So, what’s next for you? Will there be additional books in the future?
I would certainly like to write more – I’ve a couple of ideas I’m playing around with right now. As a first-time indie author, I’ve learned a lot about the publishing process and am still learning so much with Baby Senses so I am not ready to completely move onto the next project yet. I also have ideas about further expanding the reach of Baby Senses by, for example, turning it into a sing-along project. A lack of ideas has never been an issue for me so stay tuned for updates on my website https://babysensesbook.com/, where you can also sign up to receive my newsletter with events and updates or follow me on social media platforms!
Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Viswanathan! It’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your remarkable work!
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