2022/Apr/09 A Journey Through the Brain, A Reflection by its Tour Guide

We sat down with physician and illustrator Eoin Kelleher, author of Journey Through the Brain and Journey Through the Body to ask him how he put those doodles to a doctorly purpose.

Below please find his reflective article.


A portrait of the artist


When I was in High School, I wanted to be a political cartoonist. So much so, in fact, that I wrote to the editorial cartoonist of the Irish Times, Martyn Turner, even sending him some samples of my teenage self’s work. To my delight, he wrote back and gave me some sensible advice, get a day job. With that advice under the belt, I became a doctor, but kept the dream of being a cartoonist alive.


During my career, I have been fortunate enough to have been given several opportunities to combine my love of art with medicine. Together with a group of researchers at the Department of Psychiatry at RCSI (my alma mater), and Ireland’s Health Research Board, we created a glorious book about neuroscience, ‘Journey Through the Brain’. The book sought to capture the magic of the brain for children, or anyone who was interested. It was distributed free-of-charge to schools around the country, and translated into several languages. It can still be downloaded here: https://www.rcsi.com/dublin/journey-through-the-brain


Neurotransmission impossible?


Journey Through the Brain was initially conceived of as a colouring book, which were in vogue at the time. The key feature of colouring books is that the illustrations can only consist of black and white line drawings. As someone who was used to having a smorgasbord of colours at my fingertips, this was a bit of a change in style.


Jack White, the musician, is famous for setting himself limitations as part of the creative process. The White Stripes music is built on only three instruments (typically vocals, drums, and guitar). Their cover art famously only consisted of three colours: red, black, and white. Why do these limitations breed creativity? One of the challenges of the creative process is knowing when to stop. It is easy to be paralysed by choice: too many instruments, too many colours, too much time. Limiting the choices available forces you to make decisions, which in turn enhances the creative process.


From a book about the brain, the logical next step was to extend the concept to the rest of the body. Journey Through the Body kept the same limitations – black and white line drawings in the style of a colouring book (and indeed, it can be coloured in!). I sought to use fantastical imagery to lodge concepts from anatomy and physiology in the readers’ mind. Small pilots captaining red blood cells in a blood vessel are used to represent laminar flow. The portal circulation of the liver is depicted as a customs checkpoint for nutrients entering the systemic vascular system. The bony pelvis is shown as a basin with a drain at the bottom (something they both have in common)!


The Many Ways to Describe Pain - Eoin's illustration alludes to the 16th Century anatomical illustration, Wound-Man.

While my book does cover almost all organ systems, and a large chunk of gross anatomy, it is by no means comprehensive. The book merely sets out to capture some of the most interesting concepts in medicine. However, anatomy and physiology aside, the human figure fascinates and inspires us. For millennia, humans have experimented with different ways of representing or depicting it. The human form is used to represent gods across a whole variety of religions. Parts of the body have been used to symbolise emotions or more abstract concepts, such as the heart and love, or the brain and intelligence. The subject of the human body has been a favourite subject of artists for many centuries, driving our knowledge of human anatomy along the way.


With that in mind, I also sought to reference art movements or artists who depicted the body. For instance, the book contains an illustration about the role of sleep with a nod to surrealism, and one in which the autonomic nervous system is rendered in a pop art style.

cranial nerves

Cranial nerves as a pareidolic vegatative pondering

Over the course of my books I hope to shed some light on some of the more interesting parts of the body. An image can be more memorable than a thousand words, and far easier to digest. Although I did not quite make it as a professional cartoonist, there is still a place to combine it with any day job – even that of a doctor.


For more about the author:

eoin kelleher photo

Please follow anaesthesiologist and cartoonist Dr. Eoin Kelleher on twitter @EoinKr.  

You can purchase Journey Through the Body here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1781177082/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_35HHY87X0G4KDBZQ1NTF