Translating a complex scientific endeavor into a story that everyone can understand can sometimes be achieved with the help of a simple metaphor.
One of our favorite examples of this came about during publicity efforts on behalf of Dr. Jed Hartings, a stroke and neurotrauma researcher. After Dr. Hartings earned his first million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Defense in 2008, we began the task of explaining the phenomenon he was studying – spreading depressions – to the general public through news releases and media pitches.
We had a tough time, and some members of the media did as well. These depressions, or depolarizations, in the brain had nothing to do with sadness and everything to do with an electrical phenomenon that led to worse outcomes for patients. Spreading depressions are a type of brain seizure activity in which brain waves can no longer be generated and become dampened, or “depressed” in amplitude. Because networks of the brain’s cortex are all connected in a continuum, once a depression is triggered by an injury, it spreads across the cortex like a ripple in a pond.
Dr. Hartings’s research progressed, and when we interviewed him a few years later, he was no longer using the term “spreading depressions” – too confusing to too many – and instead was using “spreading depolarizations.” But in this interview Dr. Hartings also described this silencing of brain electrical activity as a tidal wave. The tragic earthquake and tsunami had recently occurred in Japan, and we knew instantly that we had a metaphor that the general public could understand. The electrical disturbances that unleashed a wave of harm through the brain could be likened to brain tsunamis.
With some trepidation, we presented the draft of our news release to our research scholar with the opening, “Electrical disturbances that spread through an injured brain like tsunamis have a direct link to poor recovery and can last far longer than previously realized.”
Dr. Hartings agreed to the metaphorical language, and the phrase traveled like … a tidal wave. Within a year the phrase “brain tsunamis” was being used in headlines in our news releases and on scientific websites across the Internet.