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!

1 comment:

RobinH said...

I'd also say that making new discoveries in basic science accessible to the general population is simply a worthy goal.

I'm a manufacturing engineer by profession and some would say I have absolutely no reason beyond curiosity to have read your book (I've also read both of Dan Levitin's). But I found all three interesting, the act of learning new things enjoyable.

Moreover, in a work context, understanding what brains are good at/capable of helps me to better design manufacturing processes- they do, after all, have human operators, and the difference between a good process and a bad one is how consistently and accurately the operator can perform it.

I've also recommended your book to people who for health reasons wanted a better understanding of overall brain function- a basic level of eduction they hadn't or couldn't get on their own - if not from you, who's going to tell them? Their health provider? I somehow doubt it.

One of the things that makes humans successful as a species is understanding ourselves and the world around us. Making that information available to the public at large is IMO one way of making it a better world. And as a wide-ranging and voracious reader, it's an enormous pleasure to find such a lot of good, accessible non-fiction writing being published on a variety of subjects.