Writing a paper is an important skill for scientists, however, designing a good graphical representation of a scientific discovery takes an extra dose of imagination and artistic ability. In 2022, the winners of the annual best Neuroscience cover competition were the creative team that illustrated their work on the cover of issue 481 of IBRO’s flagship journal, Neuroscience. The team was led by Dr. Adolfo García, Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Center (Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina), Senior Atlantic Fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute (University of California, San Francisco), and Associate Researcher at Universidad de Santiago de Chile. In this interview, Dr. García explains the research behind their winning cover image, produced in collaboration with Gonzalo Pérez, Dr. Eugenia Hesse, and Lucas Neufeld.
What was the goal of the study and what were the main hypotheses behind it?
The study was about one particular aspect of translation, known as the translation asymmetry effect, which has been replicated in many studies since the 1990s. Usually, if you measure the time needed to translate a word from a native language to a second one (a language that you learned at a later stage) and compare it with the time needed to translate the same word from the second into the native language, the speed is not going to be the same. You’re going to be faster when you’re translating into your native language.
This is what we call translation asymmetry. Until this study published in Neuroscience, what was known about that effect came almost exclusively from behavioral studies, through measures of response time and accuracy, but the electrophysiological foundations of the effect remained unexplored. Thus, we wanted to study whether the translation asymmetry effect was underpinned by different electrophysiological modulations. We used electroencephalography for this, and hypothesized that the translation from the native language to a second one would be accompanied by electrophysiological signatures indexing greater cognitive lexical and semantic effort. In particular, we anticipated that this would be captured by differences in oscillations and the functional connectivity in three frequency bands that have been associated with word-retrieval demands, namely the theta, the alpha, and the beta bands. Finally, we predicted that there would be a correlation between the translation speed and these brain modulations, such that the greater the speed difference between directions, the greater the oscillations and the functional connectivity changes in these frequency bands.
And what were your findings?
First of all, we replicated what we already knew, that it takes longer to translate from the native language into the second one than the other way around. The second thing we found was that there were different modulations in all three frequency bands depending on the direction of the translation, suggesting that the translation asymmetry effect is underpinned by specific oscillations and different patterns of brain connectivity. However, for our final hypothesis, the correlation between how long it takes to translate and the modulation of those brain signals, we found a correlation for only one frequency band, the theta band. That’s interesting because it reminds us that not all the cerebral events that take place when you’re doing something are directly associated with the measure that you use to capture behavioral performance.
Could you explain the idea behind your winning cover?
The cover is a very visual and, of course, simplistic metaphor of the first two hypotheses. The first thing is that we thought about each language in the bilingual brain as a different city. These cities might seem similar at first sight, but have their own identity. If you take a look at the buildings, they are not exactly the same. This indicates that each language has a different organization, and that’s the first thing that we’re trying to capture iconically. The cities are also interconnected, meaning you can get from one city to the other in any direction, but when you take the road from your first language (here, Spanish) to your second language (here, English), you don’t face the same conditions as when you go in the opposite direction. Crucially, the speed limit for one road is different from the limit for the other.
The second thing is that if you take a look at the streets, they have a color grading, which is the same grading we used to plot the oscillations and connectivity patterns. In this case, what really matters is not any individual color, but the flow of color along the street. Here, we tried to capture the specific types of modulation that we observed as the basis of this asymmetry effect. As a whole, our cover captures this central idea: when you translate guitar as guitarra you are not traversing the same (neurocognitive) road as when you translate guitarra as guitar.
Designing this cover was a metaphorical exercise to show the key components of what we studied: the two languages, their similarity in some sense but their distinctiveness in another sense, their interconnectedness, and the individuality of the ways in which you can go from one to the other. Yet, it’s worth mentioning that we have to be careful on how far we push our interpretation of these visual representations. One may interpret the two cities as if the two languages are stored in different parts of the brain, and this is a mistake. Or one may think that the connections between these two languages, shown here as streets, are literally two brain pathways connecting the two languages. Yet, these are questions that fall beyond the scope of our work (and whose answer, indeed, would likely run counter to such intuitions).
How was your experience in publishing in Neuroscience?
We had a very good experience. This was our first submission and publication in Neuroscience. We have published again since, and I can say that both times we received a very good review, in the sense that [the editors] were positive but also constructively critical. They helped us to improve our work: if you compare the manuscript we submitted to the published manuscript, after addressing the reviewers’ comments, the second one was objectively superior.
IBRO would like to congratulate the team for their beautiful work! The successful cover was selected by the IBRO community as the best Neuroscience cover of 2022 and received a 500$ prize from the publisher, Elsevier.
Join Dr. García and his team – publish in IBRO’s journals, Neuroscience and IBRO Neuroscience Reports. Proceeds from IBRO’s journals support more than 90% of its initiatives, so all submissions contribute to the organization’s global neuroscience activities.