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Share Your Brain: Explain the Science!

By Dr. Vania Cao
June 5th, 2014

One more week to enter the Brain Awareness Video Contest.

Public interest in the brain is stronger than ever.  More and more people have had some kind of brain disease or dysfunction touch their lives, and with brain injury, PTSD, autism and cognitive decline often mentioned in the news these days, the public’s awareness of brain science is at an all-time high.  The 2012 bestselling novel Brain on Fire brought public attention to how psychosis feels from the patient’s perspective, and brought home the importance of neuroscience research.  The need for better mental health research has also been highlighted by the most recent tragedies that at least partially sprang from depression and disturbed cognition.  Coupled with federal attention from the President’s BRAIN initiative, talk of gaining traction in the treatment of complex mental disorders and brain injury are infectiously optimistic and exciting.

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Yet there remains a disappointing amount of confusion and pseudoscientific understandings of the brain.  Movies like “Limitless” and “Lucy”, where people gain special powers by tapping into “more” of their mind, certainly don’t help (the 10% brain usage myth has been hard to kill).  Neither does sloppy and sensationalist science reporting, which has become rampant as websites vie for reader clicks.  Oversimplifying and failing to anticipate public misunderstandings obscures accurate scientific information (a protein described too simply as the “cause” of stress; mapping self-reported emotions in the body but displaying it as though it were a physiological heat-map).  Discussions of altering rodent memories inevitably leads down the path towards government mind control and tinfoil hats.  All of this can get frustrating when the hard work in the lab gets translated poorly or flat out mangled as it passes, like a bad game of telephone, from article to blog to all forms of social media into the world.

While no single person can control what the public thinks, this does present a formidable and worthy challenge to neuroscientists and science communicators who understand the value of the scientific process, and who can also effectively explain the limitations of research techniques and data interpretation. 

I hope more neuroscientists will join me in adding to a body of accurate yet engaging knowledge for the public about the brain.  If you’re interested, next week (June 12th, 2014) is your deadline to submit a video for the Society for Neuroscience Brain Awareness Video Contest.  While this is not the only way to share information about the brain, this contest is a free and easy way to reach a broad audience, and is not limited to scientists.  Last year’s winner was a film student who made an amazing video about anosmia, or the lack of ability to smell.  Participating in this event will hopefully whet your appetite for other forms of science communication and outreach, be it as simple as posting an easy-to-understand explanation to someone’s neuroscience question on Facebook, or as involved as spearheading a science café or bar event in your neighborhood.  Help to lay a foundation for more people to practice scientific reasoning, and everyone will benefit!

In particular, alongside repackaging facts or simply describing a disease or condition, I believe it will be valuable for more people to tackle conceptual topics or research methodology.  Break down a complex technique, or highlight interesting tools that are an integral part of how brain science is actually done.  Although it is not practical to explain every detail of a study, there are ways to arm those in the public with useful concepts that will help many of them navigate bad journalism and overblown hearsay.

There are many reasons why it’s important for those who study the brain, or have a personal experience with brain disorders, disease or conditions, to spread their knowledge in an accessible and engaging way.  We need a more educated public to support science funding, be engaged in research studies, and to produce the next great scientists.  Adding a human touch to laboratory experiments, or injecting some technical details into brain disease from a patient’s experience, serve to enrich both academics and the layperson.  Either way, better communication about the brain and about how neuroscience is actually done is now more important than ever!

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