Research News

A craving for brains (and knowledge)

Timothy Verstynen on using pop culture, including zombies and podcasting, to talk about serious research

Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor Timothy Verstynen has dedicated his career to learning more about how the human brain works and researches ways to stimulate certain parts of it. But while he operates in a world of complex terminology and cutting-edge discoveries, he's determined to find ways to hone that science down to its most basic concepts and get the public to understand it.

Verstynen's professional focus is on how humans make decisions and control their movements. The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences supports his current research that looks at how the brain learns sequences of concepts, like written notes on a sheet of music, differently from sequences of movements, such as pressing a piano key. By understanding how healthy brains go through that process, the work could lend new insight into rehabilitation for neurodegenerative conditions.

His list of upcoming scholarly publications have titles like "Dynamic Sensorimotor Planning During Long-term Sequence Learning: The role of Variability, Response Chunking and Planning Errors" and "Inflammatory Pathways Link Socioeconomic Inequalities to White Matter Architecture." And his portfolio at Carnegie Mellon's Axon Lab lists other research projects that are impressive but might be intimidating to the non-expert.

Verstynen says he's always been interested in public education, so outside of his research work, he devotes his time to outreach efforts. He and University of Pittsburgh philosophy professor Derek Leben host a podcast called "Axons and Axioms," focused on cognitive neuroscience and philosophy. Verstynen has used blogs, public discussions and social media to bring science to the general public.

So when he and a friend, University of California, San Diego, cognitive scientist Bradley Voytek were looking at ways to not only engage the public about the latest developments in the field, but also teach non-experts about a complicated topic, they hit upon an idea: What if you present scientifically accurate information but swap in the term "zombie" for "neurological patient."

The result was "Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain," a book that uses the recent pop-culture obsession with zombies to help illustrate real concepts in neuroscience (and doubles down with pop-culture references--the book's title is a reference to Philip K. Dick's novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" on which the movie "Blade Runner" is based).

Verstynen recently spoke with NSF about his outreach, and how it relates to his research.

Q. You do research in cognitive neuroscience that can be difficult to communicate with the public, but you're deliberately doing outreach work. Why?

A. I grew up in a family of teachers, so education has always been a part of my family and something I'm hyper-aware of. I also have a passion for science outreach because I get kind of frustrated as a scientist when we have such a large portion of the U.S. population that seems to be uninformed about some important issues. So when I became a postdoc, it became a passion to figure out ways to make science more accessible to the broader public, so they would be more engaged.

Q. What are some basic lessons you've learned about communicating with the public?

A. What I've found works best is to try and leverage people's inherent interests in popular culture as an educational tool. As an example, I do a series of talks with a friend of mine, Bradley Voytek, and we've written a book on teaching neuroscience by diagnosing horror movie zombies. We talk about motor pathways and brain and language pathways and spatial perception, but we frame it in explanations of why zombies act the way they do. It's amazing how inherently interested people are in talking about the brain when you're talking about zombies. People who normally don't think about the brain will start asking fairly sophisticated neuroscientific questions when you're talking about zombies. I don't have to do anything to engage their passions. They're naturally engaged in the topic.

There's this delicate balance you have to strike, though, between simplifying information to make it readily understandable and distorting the science. That was extremely difficult when we were writing the book. You want to isolate things down to the core, important details and cut out everything else that's not essential to know, so you can get to the main idea. Getting to that is really hard. When we're trying to leverage pop culture, we have to make sure that we're true to the science itself.

Q. How do you avoid going in the wrong direction by leaning too hard on pop culture?

A. Feedback from colleagues really helped. When we were putting together the talks and writing chapters of the books, we would consult with colleagues who were specialists in the areas we were talking about. My background is in motor control and decision-making, so I feel comfortable grasping the nuances of those topics, but for things like visual-spatial attention that I'm peripherally familiar with, I would seek out friends who were experts to find out if I was really talking about the core issue or simplifying it too much.

The other way we'd do this is to ask, "If we replaced 'zombie' with 'neurological patient,' would it still be true?"

Q. You're now producing a regular podcast. What are the advantages of that format?

A. I used to blog and it takes a lot of time to write even a short blog post, whereas it takes me a little over an hour to produce a podcast. It became a really efficient way to talk about topics of interest, and I get more hits, comments and feedback from the podcast than I ever did on my blog.

Q. It's a very informal structure--often just two professors having a conversation. Is that deliberate?

A. That was deliberate. We still get a little long-winded at times and we're working on that. There's an art to podcasting that we didn't know about when Derek and I got into it. The whole point of the podcast is that Derek's a philosopher. I'm a cognitive neuroscientist, and there are lots of areas where these two fields overlap. We just wanted to bring up topics in that overlap area the people would find interesting. It gives us a more free-flowing platform for discussing an idea. Because unlike a blog, a podcast has a structure that allows you to elaborate on new ideas as they come up. It gives us a lot more leverage for wandering down interesting alleyways.

Q. You're not just talking about discoveries in scientific fields on the podcasts--you also discuss larger, more general issues. There's an entire episode of you talking about approaching psychology as a science.

A. Oftentimes when you read neuroscience blogs or listen to podcasts that deal with neuroscience, they're focused on core facts, core studies. But there are a lot of big issues at play in modern cognitive neuroscience that I don't think get addressed, like whether we're adhering to Popper's law of falsifiability, or do we even need to? In psychology, where do we define ourselves? These bigger questions are important. Plus, we find that people tend to be more engaged when we talk about these big issues.

Q. And have you been getting feedback from the general public?

A. Oh, yeah, with both the book and the podcast. With the book, we got letters from high-school students, from parents--people who didn't know much about the brain going in. We'd hear from people who would say "I didn't know much about the brain going in, but now I feel like I know a lot about it."

Q. As a modern scientist, do you see outreach to the general public as an important part of your work?

A. I think there's a generational difference. A lot of the colleagues in what I'd call my scientific generation are passionate about outreach. The only pushback I've received on this work has been from older colleagues who are afraid that it trivializes science, or that our focus should just be on our science and the outreach is a distraction. But a lot of younger colleagues view outreach as part of their jobs--the education doesn't just sit in the classroom. I think you're going to see even more outreach projects in the future.

What we do as scientists is really hard. It takes a lot of energy to add a project you're not going to get paid for, that doesn't count toward your career development. If you're working 80 hours a week for science, it can be hard to add that outreach. I think a lot of people now, though, are seeing it as part of your career, instead of just as a side project.

To listen to Timothy Verstynen and Derek Leben, tune in to the "Axons and Axioms" podcast. You can also watch Verstynen talk about neurological conditions--and diagnose zombies with some of them.

Learn more about the book he wrote with Bradley Voytek.