Knowing Neurons
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Making the Neuroscience Maze Emoji

By Amy Than

As of 2023, the emojis that pop up on phone keyboards when the term “science” is searched for are limited to a lab coat, DNA molecule, microbe, and petri dish. These emojis are widely used, yet they only represent molecular and biological research, excluding the vast number of fields that scientific research is composed of. The anatomical brain emoji, and perhaps also the rat emoji, stand alone to represent the broader field of neuroscience. However, a group of neuroscientists are working to change that. Dr. Louise Corscadden and Suhanee Mitragotri, who lead The Maze Emoji Project, are pioneering a new emoji to represent the maze, a commonly used experimental tool in the field of neuroscience. In this article, we’ll first revisit the origins of the maze in research, and then discuss what it takes to make an official neuroscientific emoji.

Dr. Louise Corscadden and Suhanee Mitragotri, who lead The Maze Emoji Project, are pioneering a new emoji to represent the maze, a commonly used experimental tool in the field of neuroscience

Why the maze? By observing how rodents and other species navigate, learn, and optimize their path in a maze, scientists gain insights into rodent behaviors that are analogous to human behaviors. The first rat maze was developed by Edmund Sanford and Willard Small in 1899. It was inspired by the Hampton Court Maze, the United Kingdom’s oldest human-sized hedge maze and popular tourist destination. The two researchers demonstrated that blind rodents were able to return to the starting point of the maze, indicating that vision was not required for rodents to successfully find their way (Small, 1901). In other words, spatial navigation and learning is not fully dependent on visual cues. This study initiated a flood of research using mazes. Maze engineering and selective breeding of rodents have drastically improved our understanding of cognitive processes related to learning and memory (Innis et.al, 1992, Dudchenko et.al, 2010). The innovative mazes that are available today allow researchers to test increasingly complex behaviors. These include discrimination learning and drug effects (water mazes), memory and spatial learning (T-, Y-, and radial arm mazes), as well as anxiety-related behavior (elevated plus mazes).

Emojis have become a powerful tool in science communication, conveying the scientific method and human health despite being simple digital characters. Unicode, a consortium that oversees the universal standard for digital characters, has accepted organ emojis including the brain (2017), the heart (2019), and the lung (2019). Recently, a group of researchers published an article in The Lancet Neurology titled “A neuroscientific emoji”, describing the need for a neuroscience maze emoji (Corscadden et al., 2023). We interviewed Louise Corscadden, PhD. (Director of Science and Development at MazeEngineers) and Suhanee Mitragotri (Neuroscience undergraduate at Harvard University), who are leading the Maze Emoji Project, to answer a few questions about why the digital world needs a maze emoji and what the process of getting an emoji to the keyboard looks like (L. Corscadden and S. Mitragotri, personal communication, February 10, 2023). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emojis have become a powerful tool in science communication, conveying the scientific method and human health despite being simple digital characters

Why a maze emoji?
Dr. Corscadden: Our founder, Dr. Shuhan, was on the committee to create the heart and lung emojis. Our project was born in continuation of this medical and science-associated emojis initiative. One of MazeEngineers primary products are mazes. Our mazes handle all sorts of behaviors such as cognition, sociability, and anxiety. We also work a lot with universities in the digital communication space — essentially marrying both ideas of mazes and digital health.

Who would this emoji benefit?
Dr. Corscadden: I feel as though there is a divide between the research scientists publish and the research that the public has access to and understands. The public being exposed to science is very important, and using a neuroscientific emoji is a very easy way to do that.
Suhanee: We’ve seen certain emojis go viral. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the microbe emoji was one of the most used emojis on Twitter. Scientific emojis not only spread awareness of research but also let people interact with the research.

The public being exposed to science is very important, and using a neuroscientific emoji is a very easy way to do that

What does the process of publishing an emoji look like?
Dr. Corscadden: This process takes a number of years. It’s a rather complex process from idea to emoji. We have to make sure that our emoji hits multiple criteria based on how novel, distinct, recognizable, and unique it is as well as its potential use. We’ll have to provide evidence such as search engine trends. Once it’s approved, the unique numeric code that is assigned to each emoji will be pushed to essentially every smartphone device capable of having an emoji keyboard.
Suhanee: We’re now promoting our Lancet Neurology editorial within the scientific community and the public. The next step would be submitting the maze emoji to Unicode in 2024 with the hopes of it reaching devices in 2026.

neuroscience maze emoji photo

Latest design for the Neuroscience Maze Emoji from the Maze Emoji Project

What are some things that influenced the design of the maze emoji?
Dr. Corscadden: We’ve redesigned this maze emoji 3 to 4 times already. Once we submit, we’ll likely have several more revisions. We’ve tried to keep the maze emoji as simple as possible so that it is compatible across IOS and Android platforms, which use different codes. One funny example of why this is important is that one platform had represented its hamburger emoji with cheese underneath the meat instead of over the meat, and there was a lot of public uproar over what was the “correct” way to design the emoji. There’s a lot of working through kinks like that where we have to ensure the true representation of the emoji on each platform. We also wanted the maze to be as widely accessible as possible, so it’s not only used in the context of mice and rats. Mazes can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. They can represent stories, myths, and even corn mazes, which is why it is important to us that it’s representative of many different uses of mazes

We also wanted the maze to be as widely accessible as possible, so it’s not only a mouse emoji. Mazes can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.

How do you hope the maze emoji will inspire scientists?
Suhanee: I hope this inspires people to think about the role that emojis play in social media and our daily communication. Emojis represent what’s important to us as a society, which means that it’s crucial to ensure that all topics in science are represented in emojis
Dr. Corscadden: Anyone is welcome to submit their own emoji. If you have an idea for an emoji that would benefit the scientific community, be inspired and use your creative side of science to make that emoji. I think creativity is something that is lacking in our field and scientists should engage with it more. Science communication is incredibly important to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public. One way to bridge that gap is through emojis.

With the explosion of social media as a source of free open-access medical and scientific education, a maze emoji would not only improve science communication, but also celebrate the rich progress that neuroscience has seen in the last century. If accepted by Unicode, the maze emoji could appear in chat bubbles and Twitter threads as early as 2026.

This article was updated on August 8th, 2023, to incorporate minor grammatical edits and additional details to the interviewees’ responses.

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Written by Amy Than
Illustrated by Vidya Saravanapandian
Edited by Lauren Wagner, Lupita Valencia, and Honoreé Brewton

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image of phone screen with maze emoji

References

Corscadden L, Mitragotri S, He S. A neuroscientific emoji. Lancet Neurol. 2023;22(2):113. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S1474-4422(23)00003-0.

Dudchenko PA. A history of ‘maze’ psychology. Why People Get Lost. Published online September 15, 2010:9-30. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199210862.003.0002.

Innis NK. Tolman and Tryon. Early research on the inheritance of the ability to learn. Am Psychol. 1992 Feb;47(2):190-7. doi: 10.1037//0003-066x.47.2.190.

Small, W. S. Experimental study of the mental process of the rat. II. The American Journal of Psychology, 12(2), 206–239. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/1412534.

Author

  • Amy Than

    Amy Than is a Neuroscience PhD student at UCLA in the lab of Dr. Shulamite Green, using neuroimaging to study the neural mechanisms underlying sensory over-responsivity in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is fascinated with how the brain perceives and interacts with the world. Prior to UCLA, she was involved in tobacco cessation research at the California Smokers' Helpline and drug addiction research at the Scripps Research Institute. Her passion for neuroscience is paired with a dedication to supporting underrepresented scholars through equity-minded mentorship and educational access efforts. In her free time, Amy enjoys making travel vlogs, matcha lattes, and quality time with her family.

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Amy Than

Amy Than is a Neuroscience PhD student at UCLA in the lab of Dr. Shulamite Green, using neuroimaging to study the neural mechanisms underlying sensory over-responsivity in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is fascinated with how the brain perceives and interacts with the world. Prior to UCLA, she was involved in tobacco cessation research at the California Smokers' Helpline and drug addiction research at the Scripps Research Institute. Her passion for neuroscience is paired with a dedication to supporting underrepresented scholars through equity-minded mentorship and educational access efforts. In her free time, Amy enjoys making travel vlogs, matcha lattes, and quality time with her family.