Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How - and why - to write about the brain

The event at the Society for Neuroscience meeting last week was great fun. Dan Levitin is a great guy, funny and down-to-earth. A few days later we were together again, in a panel discussion (along with Michael Gazzaniga, Carl Zimmer, and Rebecca Saxe) at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on the brain, so we had several chances to chat. If you have a chance to meet Dan in person, go! Just don't request "Freebird."

At the SfN meeting we got into the topic of how - and why - to write about the brain for nonscientists. Dan comes at it from a different direction than Sandra and me. He started out as a musician, then came to neuroscience. So he has a natural, music-based sensibility. Sandra and I are more into the stuff that happens in our brains during in everyday life. Two different takes, both fun!

We talked about why one would write for a general audience. Too often, scientists are oblivious to the relevance of their work for everyone else - and to the importance of talking or writing about it. For those of you who study the brain for a living, here are some points I made:

1) Research is very rewarding, but it takes years to pay off. When you write for people who don't know much about neuroscience, the payoff can be immediate. It's rewarding to give them something useful to people that can even (sometimes) change their lives.

2) These days there's often a large gap between science and public policy. It's important to open a dialogue about what current research has to say about issues that people care about: autism, schizophrenia, moral reasoning, anything involving the brain. In addition to the good you can do, you also create goodwill for our field - which can be important when the question arises of how much the government should support research.

3) You can recruit people into the field! Potentially, you can reach many times more people than you can in a career of research or teaching. Stephen Jay Gould did this in spades. Counterintuitively, you might have a large impact on your field by telling a general audience how exciting it is.

Of course, all of the above pertain not just to writing, but also to public outreach - visiting schools and so on. If you're interested, the Dana Foundation provides resources that can help you. Take a look!

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Don't think this is some dreary textbook"

In Cogito, a magazine for gifted kids, we're reviewed by Keerthana Krosuri, a student. She writes:

Aamodt and Wang are both neuroscientists, so they know what they’re talking about, but don’t think this is some dreary textbook. The authors go to great lengths to make Welcome to Your Brain easy-to-understand and fun to read.

Instead of getting into the details of the review, let's compare her review with that of Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard Medical School. I never thought we'd get reviews from two such different sources in the space of a month, very cool.

They both liked the myth-busting, as well as the treatment of autism. Keerthana liked many parts, and pointed out that the child and teen development parts might appeal to parents (a key demographic that she might be closer to than Steve Hyman). She found the "wacky" illustrations to be quite funny - but Hyman wanted more diagrams showing actual brain regions. They did share one reservation: they both wanted a reference list for further reading. We didn't originally include one, which just goes to show how un-textbooky the book is.

Well, Provost Hyman and Ms. Krosuri, we heard your call. The paperback will have a full reference list! You can also download it here. The paperback also has other new material, for which you'll need to consult a fine bookseller near you in late December.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Off to Washington DC!

I'm off for the Society for Neuroscience meeting! This is the big annual meeting for our field - basically Carnival for brain geeks. This year it's in Washington, D.C. and will have around 25,000 people. It's a week of posters, talks, and technical exhibits. It was also in Washington in 1986, the first one I ever attended. It's where I first got to see the whole sweep of neuroscience research.

In addition to the research, this year I'm co-hosting a discussion on Sunday evening on "How To Write About Brain Science For The Public." With me will be Dan Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain On Music. The event is open to everyone, not just scientists. Come join Dan and me!

Where: Renaissance Washington DC Hotel, Washington DC - Main Auditorium
When: Sunday, November 16th - 6:30 pm
Here's the postcard.