“Neurons and shit”: What does the public understand about neuroscience?

I was standing in the airport in Charlotte, NC about to board my flight to New Orleans for SfN when a man comes up to me, points to my poster tube and says, “So, tell me: Why does everyone on this flight have one of those?” I explain that there’s a neuroscience conference in New Orleans this week and that we’re all carrying posters of our research. The man responds, “Neuroscience. So… neurons and shit?” Sure. The man then goes on to say, “Wow! You’re all a bunch of nerds! Can you all stand up in the middle of the flight and hit each other with those tubes?” Yeah I don’t think that’s going to happen. This conversation with the stranger on my flight got me thinking: About 30,000 people are invading New Orleans for this conference – what does the public think of us? What do they assume about neuroscience and even science in general?

As I was listening to many of the talks in the Epigenetics and Cognition series on Sunday, I wondered what Mr. Stranger on flight 3221 to NOLA would understand from these lectures. I was learning a bit about microRNA changes in schizophrenia, aging in relation to the hippocampus, and epigenetic mechanisms of long-term memory formation. Then I thought: Does Mr. Stranger even know the definition of epigenetics? What would he take away from these talks? I know that I certainly couldn’t understand every piece of every talk, so what would he understand? These thoughts reminded me of the importance of clear communication of scientific results and how catering to the audience is crucial.

Presenting complex scientific findings to the public is no easy task, which I’m sure every scientist understands. Some people of the general public may actually assume they won’t understand immediately after hearing the word “science.” Because of this, I think it’s crucial that scientists find new ways to educate the public. This thought reminded me of the CBS show, The Big Bang Theory. (If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you start watching!) The show follows a group of three physicists, an engineer, a waitress hoping to become an actress, a microbiologist, and most recently a neuroscientist. (The actress, Mayim Bialik, who plays the neuroscientist character Amy Farrah-Fowler, actually completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2007!) While the show clearly pokes fun at the scientists, I think it does a great job of making science more approachable and interesting to a general audience. The interactions between the waitress (the public) and the other characters (the scientists) also show many of the potential problems facing scientists when communicating complex ideas to those without a background in their field. I find it interesting that this show is appreciated equally by my friends interested in science and those who aren’t. Scientists need to work toward a similar standing, where their research can be appreciated and understood by all.

And now I leave you with a short clip from The Big Bang Theory featuring Amy, the neuroscientist, and Sheldon, one of the physicists. Enjoy!!

One thought on ““Neurons and shit”: What does the public understand about neuroscience?

  1. ..as a random person that could be on the plane.. I can only say thank you!.. for being one of those that goes into a field that should help so many (including me).. due to my own needs (ALS) I am starting to ramp up on some terminology but it is still hard to follow along without a lot of research.. yay for you!..


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