Communicating Complexity

In his 2001 song, Mississippi, Bob Dylan sang, “You can always go back but you can’t go back all the way.” Bob Dylan is famously a lot of things to a lot of people, but who knew he was a science translator? In this one sentence, Dylan captured the essence of the science of early childhood development.

Working on translating the science of development for the last 10 years, we at FrameWorks have come to see that one of the most difficult things to accomplish in translating the science of development is to help people hold in mind, simultaneously, the notion that early matters and the idea that our brains can change — the idea of plasticity.

The idea that early experiences fundamentally shape the developing brain in ways that have long term (even life-long) implications for learning and health seems irreconcilable with the fact that our biology can change based on the quality and content of our experiences. We have observed, across our work on early childhood, adolescence, mental health and addiction that this tension is alive and well in the minds of Americans. The problem is that people tend to engage this tension by either thinking deterministically about the importance of early childhood from an “it’s too late” understanding, or through an unbridled, wide-open and optimistic sense that change is always possible.

So how do we have our cake and eat it too? How do we help people understand the importance of focusing resources on improving experiences for young children and help them see the importance of supporting services and programs that focus on children and adults who have moved out of the earliest stages in life?

The challenge here is helping people see that both perspectives are true at the same time.

FrameWorks has been working on communicating the “early matters…but so does later” perspective that Dylan seized so eloquently. We have developed metaphors like Brain Architecture and The Resilience Scale that use familiar systems to illustrate the importance of early experiences while remaining open to change. In this work we aim to communicate complexity, which is an important driving force behind successful science translation work.

All too often the assumption is that science translation is about “simplifying” or “dumbing down” science and reducing its complexity. But any translation attempt that eliminates the complexity of early matters…but so does later is poor science translation. This “both at the same time” principle is the basic kernel of many more specific developmental concepts—from resilience to epigenetics, and mental health to executive function.

For these reasons, we argue that the work of science translation is not about reducing complexity, but instead about encouraging the understanding of it. And this is why science translation is, itself, complex.

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