Health Literacy and the Mantis Shrimp

This blog has been authored by guest blogger, Megan Beardsley.

Looking to radio for inspiration

My family (1 adult female, 1 adult male, and 2 inquisitive 9-year-olds) listens to Radiolab. It’s a WNYC public radio production that tackles oversized topics related to science (such as “Time” or “Death”!) by weaving together stories and discoveries that raise more questions than they answer. It is the Peabody award–winning brainchild of Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the former a 39-year-old transfuge from the world of music, the latter a grizzled veteran of the public radio space.

But what does a radio science show have to do with health literacy? Seems like a bit of a stretch, doesn’t it? Well, it is, but bear with me…

Explaining colors on the radio?!

The show we listened to most recently was “Colors.” Had Abumrad and Krulwich gone over the edge? I wondered. How were they going to pull this off? But it turned out to be one our favorite episodes yet. A particularly gripping segment talked about species’ vision differences—more specifically, what colors species can see, based on the number of different color cones they have in their eye. Turns out that whereas human beings have 3 cones, dogs have only 2, and butterflies have 5. And the number of colors a species can see increases quasi exponentially as you add cones.

So far, sounds more like a math lesson, right? In truth, the episode could well have become horribly dry, because there was no way for us to truly visualize the range of colors from what we were hearing. But Abumrad and Krulwich called in a choir to sing the color ranges of different species. And in the segment’s grand finale, a hilarious “hallelujah”-like moment, the choir belted out the seemingly never-ending color crescendo of the Mantis shrimp, a spectacularly hued creature from the Australian coral reef which claims the prize of 15 cones, the most of any documented animal.

RadioLab’s musical rendition of how the Mantis shrimp sees colors appears in the “Rippin’ the Rainbow a New One” segment of Color.
Mantis shrimp, photo by ursonate/flickr-CC-BY-2.0.

“OMG,” my daughter said.

Analogies with passion

What Radiolab did was use an analogy to explain something complex and normally beyond the reach of an audio-based medium. Could my family visualize how the Mantis shrimp actually sees the world? No, and we probably won’t ever be able to, becase we have only 3 cones for its 15. But we felt visceral awe at the power of its color perception, and will never forget that extraordinary…shrimp!

Now to bring it back to health literacy. Analogy is one of many techniques—along with reading level, content chunking, relevant visuals, etc—that we use to create patient-friendly materials. These techniques work, we know, but I believe we sometimes miss opportunities to put more passion behind them. We use them to lightly support our text, but not so much to do any heavy lifting. What Abumrad and Krulwich did was take a known trick from the educational bag and supercharge it so that it completely transformed a story and its impact.

The emotional connection

The first Radiolab show my family listened to—the one that got us hooked a few years back—was Animal Minds.It explores possible moments of connection between the minds of animals and us. When we heard a National Geographicreporter describing how he had been “adopted” and protected by a leopard seal in the Arctic, and his emotion at having to leave the seal, my then-7-year-old son burst into tears because he was so sad for the reporter. Then he wanted to listen to the show again, and ended up using it as inspiration for his first science report.

This makes me think that for all our method, we sometimes neglect essential ingredients that Radiolab has mastered—and remastered. Abumrad and Krulwich stay focused on storytelling and its essential components: personality, emotional connection, pacing, and suspense. That’s what has kept my family sitting in the driveway on more than one occasion, despite having traveled for hours to get home. We couldn’t bear interrupting our journey of learning and feeling.

Beyond the facts

Supporting health literacy doesn’t just mean creating materials that are easier to read. It also means supporting deeper meaning and connection. And that’s not always easy. Which is why it’s so important for us to always be on the lookout for inspiration from any source, however distant.

To be in the business of health literacy and the patients and communities that we work with, we also need to be in the business of learning—and of using all our senses to do so.

For more on health literacy, visit our site at : www.surroundhealth.net!

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