A Fresh Look at Your Brain on Drugs

“I’m sorry for the bad reception,” Meaghan Li apologizes through a patch of blurry pixels. She’s skyping from a hot living room in Beijing, where she’s currently visiting family. Last month, she was in the Netherlands attending a graphic design course. That was thanks to a Benenson Award she received before graduating from Duke last May. Next month, she thinks she might return to her native New Zealand. As an international student she’s used to long flights and being away from her family. But her recent spurt of globe-trotting is the product of a graphic-design project that became internet famous—a project that she conceived in her last semester at Duke.

It all began in “Alcohol: Brain, Individual and Society”, a course taught by Amir H. Rezvani, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience. It’s a popular course that focuses on the psychology of addiction. According to Dr. Rezvani, understanding the science of addiction and the reality of living with it is crucial to understanding drug use. “I don’t use scare tactics,” he says, “because they simply don’t work.” Over the semester, students listened to guest talks by former addicts and mothers of children with fetal alcohol syndrome. They also visited TROSA, a residential recovery program in Durham. Their final assignment was to explore addiction in their own terms.

“What people don’t realize,” Meaghan says, “is that ‘not discouraging’ is not the same as ‘encouraging.” She considers every word carefully – though she’s a recent college graduate, she has the calm disposition of someone older. “The stance against drugs has become a moral issue, but it’s really a health issue. Why can’t we stay objective about it?” Her posters play off the scare campaigns of the 1980’s, when the War on Drugs initiated by the Nixon administration gained momentum under Reagan. One public service announcement made a particularly brutal and long-lasting impression. “This is your brain on drugs,” a man warns, dropping an egg into a frying pan and letting it sizzle until the egg whites burn. The campaign was revived in the 90’s with even greater intensity. “This is your brain,” a young woman says, holding up an egg along with a frying pan emblazoned with the word “heroin.” She smashes the egg with the pan and then flies into a destructive rage, smashing the dishes (“and this is what your family goes through!”), the sink (“and your friends!”), the clock (“and your money!”), and essentially the entire kitchen. The message is clear: drugs are destructive forces that obliterate lives, nothing less.

Meaghan’s posters, however, are more beautiful than frightening. While she uses the classic tag line, her approach to drug education is startlingly different from the old egg-and-pan trick. Simple and abstract, the posters are symbolic representations of what it might be like to experience a series of drugs. “I found a lot of articles, studies, and anecdotes about each substance. I wanted to distill all this research into one pattern or symbol to depict each drug’s psychoactive effect.” Some representations make the drug seem more benign than dangerous. MDMA is a glowing heart set on a pink background. Psilocybin ‘shrooms’ are shown as splashes of different colors rising from a flower pot. Others are spookier. Cocaine is represented as a thick, jagged line, while heroin is a ghostly, faceless shadow sinking into a dark background. Despite their minimalistic nature, they capture something that PSAs in the past have dismissed—people are drawn to drugs for a reason. Campaigns and education programs in schools have fixated on the damaging effects of drugs on the body and the behavioral changes they cause, but they’ve ignored a key question: Why do people take them? One can view her posters with interest, pity or judgment, but Meaghan believes they fill a void that’s been left by the heavy-handed tactics of mainstream drug education.

Of course, Meaghan’s project has received criticism as well as praise. Some have accused her of promoting drugs by romanticizing them while others say her posters are one-dimensional. “I can see why people may think that my posters are reductive,” Meaghan responds. “It’s impossible not to be when tackling such a complex topic. But I don’t think that they encourage drug use. They’re educational in intent—I actually designed them with the idea of using them on the back of drug information cards.” In fact, a couple of health and policy organizations have approached her with that very purpose. Dr. Rezvani agrees. “Of course there are consequences,” he says, “but the reality is that all drugs are appealing in the beginning.”

The events that led to her posters going viral also reveal Meaghan’s ability to leverage technology and the power of social media. She first posted her work in the “Design” section of Reddit, a discussion forum where members can comment on each other’s work, photos and opinions. It was not her intention to let it go further than that, but the posters were well-reviewed and well-liked. Someone reposted them on Tumblr and they received thousands of shares over the next few days. From there, it escalated. The Washington Post and other media publications contacted her, intrigued by the attention her posters were receiving and by their underlying message. People, especially young, artistic people, were entranced by their visual nature and their accessibility. Everyone understands a picture, after all.

Meaghan credits much of her success to her experiences as an undergraduate at Duke. Her favorite classes have been centered on designing for the modern audience (“I loved Michael Faber’s class Graphic Design for Multimedia”). She also had plenty of practical opportunities to hone her designing chops while working as a graphic designer for the Duke Innovation Design Agency (DIDA), a resource that provides free design services to student organizations. In her first semester as a senior she studied in New York City and designed a highly-detailed rendition of the skyline. She was also a Policy Research Intern in Amsterdam for Transnational Institute’s “Drugs and Democracy” program. As more people recognize the power of design and art in policy and non-profit fields there is a growing niche for people like Meaghan.

Having graduated with a Public Policy major and Political Science/Visual Media Studies minor, Meaghan wants to do good things for the world in imaginative ways. According to her, policy doesn’t have to be boring – it can be creative, passionate and geared towards an audience that demands to be treated without kid gloves.

What began as a school project has led her to consider a future in the graphic design industry. Since her encounter with Internet fame a month before graduation, she has been offered a variety of freelance work, from professors wanting to develop their websites to companies scouting for fresh talent. Next in store is an internship with M&C Saatchi, one of London’s top creative ad agencies, a spot she won over young designers from all over the world. But when I ask her what she wants to end up doing, she’s still uncertain. There is one thing she is convinced about, though. “I want to find a way to apply my creativity and passion for design in a environment that also makes a public impact.”