The Happy Brain with Dean Burnett – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

This is the last of my posts from Edinburgh Science Festival’s Delegate Programme; The Happy Brain with Dr Dean Burnett. I also went to see Robin Ince’s I’m a Joke and So Are You, but I genuinely have no idea how to articulate what I heard during that show – I know that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t find it particularly science-heavy.

Front cover of 'The Happy Brain' book by Dean BurnettAnyway, today I’m talking about ‘The Happy Brain’ – a show based on Dean’s latest book, that aims to explain the science of where happiness comes from, and why. I bought the book a few weeks ago because originally I intended to read it before seeing the show, then I gave it a bit more thought and figured that probably wasn’t the best idea. I’d read the first 50 pages or so, so I knew Dean’s tone, the type of thing that the show would include, but I’m glad that I didn’t race through to the end as I would have spoiled the show for myself.

Going by the show, I think that the first chapter of the book will be the most jam-packed with neuroscience. I’m glad that’s the case, because honestly I found it a bit heavy going for a popular science book. I found it really interesting, but the first chapter was just so long that I found myself avoiding going back to the book to continue reading. Seeing Dean talk about the book has made me much more excited to get back to it, and I think that’s largely due to his delivery.

On his website he’s described as a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’ – nothing wrong with that, but I get nervous when a scientist is described as an ‘occasional comedian’. That’s no reflection on the scientists that I know; there are tonnes of very funny people around me, but I’m fairly certain none of them would use the label ‘comedian’ for fear of setting themselves up for failure.
As soon as the show started, my nerves settled. This was not going to be an awkward attempt at stand-up comedy under the guise of science, because Dean is actually funny. Like, really funny. He started off by telling us he needed to be taught how to speak as an adult (he had elocution lessons in his mid-thirties in an attempt to improve his delivery), clearly I can’t speak to what he sounded like before, but his current mellow Welsh accent served his jokes very well and I found myself happily chuckling throughout the entire show. Dean was significantly funnier than a lot of the professional comedians I’ve seen do stand-up, and the exploration of happiness through the lens of neuroscience was a bonus.

He starts off by going through a few genuine newspaper headlines related to happiness. These are all genuine headlines taken from the Daily Mail – I’ve linked them below if you’re curious to find out more.

I love it when science communicators do this. Dean questioned them, poked fun at them, and gently demonstrated the art of critical thinking whilst making the audience laugh. His points were daft enough to make us laugh repeatedly, but he was asking scientifically valid questions. In the research world we often refer to the ‘PICO‘ method for generating good questions – Population, Intervention, Comparison, and Outcome. What Dean was doing was going through each of those headlines and finding where one or more of those components was missing, and drawing attention to it; precisely what scientists are often trying to encourage the public to do. He did it with humour, and it worked brilliantly.

There are two main things that I like about the way that Dean communicates neuroscience, one that I picked up from the first chapter of the book, and another from the show.
From the book: Dean is incredibly open about the limitations of science. A substantial part of the first chapter talks about Dean’s plans for researching the topic of happiness through use of a functional MRI scanner that he hopes he can get some time on through a colleague he knows. When Dean reveals his plan, this colleagues laughs at him, explaining that just because a bit of the brain lights up when something happens does not make it the ‘X’ part of the brain. During the Q&A Dean was questioned on this, and he explained it (predictably) brilliantly – “if you put someone in an fMRI scanner and wiggle a carrot at them, the bit of the brain that lights up to show activity cannot then be referred to as the ‘carrot centre’.
From the show: Dean makes it very clear that being happy all the time is not something that we should expect or strive towards. As someone that’s spoken openly about living with depression, I really value this approach. As soon as we’re seen without a smile it feels like we’re bombarded with supposedly inspirational quotes on social media, told that it ‘could be worse’, and to ‘appreciate what we have’ – but being happy isn’t something that is sustainable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

So, what makes a happy brain? Honestly, I still don’t know.
As with all learning processes, I came away understanding the science of happiness better than I had previously, but what that has ultimately done is given me an additional list of questions that are as yet unanswered. What I learned from this show is that happiness is much more complex than I thought; there are countless different versions of happiness, each of those is likely caused by something different, and every person is different. For me, I’m pretty happy right now writing this blog post whilst sat on my sofa in Aberdeen after a busy few days in Edinburgh. I’m currently the chilled, fulfilled kind of happy that means I’m content with what I’ve achieved over the past few days, and just the right level of tired – I’m looking forward to climbing into bed, but not over-tired and grouchy.

For more information about what Dean does head to his website, and I’d recommend picking up a copy of his book too – buy it from the publisher here (I’m doing my best not to buy books from Amazon, hence the publisher’s link).

The Science of Sin with Jack Lewis – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

As I said in my last post, I’m currently at Edinburgh Science Festival, learning lots about public engagement and science communication, but also getting the chance to sneak into some of the shows for free. Monday evening saw me make my way back to the Pleasance to see ‘The Science of Sin’ presented by Dr Jack Lewis.

(On an unrelated but important note, I am now very familiar with the cafe at Pleasance, and wholeheartedly recommend their curly fries, veggie chilli nachos, and English breakfast tea, though I’d avoid the halloumi burger if I was you.)

The Science of Sin was probably the show that I was most excited about, though also the one I knew least about. I hadn’t heard of Jack Lewis before, and during the beginning of his talk he attempted to explain why – fantastic TV series hidden away on niche channels. Still, I was frustrated that I hadn’t found his work before, because it’s right up my street.

Image of Dr Jack Lewis presenting
Image credit: Hire conference 2018

Jack is a Neuroscientist by training, and now describes himself as an Author, Broadcaster and Consultant. To that I’d also add that he’s a passionate advocate for good science, a talented blogger, and my favourite kind of atheist, more on this later.

Front cover of 'The Science of Sin' by Dr Jack Lewis
The Science of Sin by Dr Jack Lewis

His talk focussed on his latest book, The Science of Sin, which aims to bring together the latest findings from neuroscience research to shed light on the universally fascinating subject of temptation – where it comes from, how to resist it and why we all tend to succumb from time to time.

Each of the book’s chapters is inspired by one of the seven deadly sins, and Jack’s talk was structured in a similar way, littered with tips and tricks to help us better manage out most troublesome impulse.
My favourite being, if you wake up painfully early and cannot get back to sleep, do not use this time for good. Do not head to your desk to make a start on work, do not spend your additional time beating your high score on whatever game you’re pretty sure you’re addicted to right now. No, do something you actively dislike; choose to use this time to clean the oven (or equivalent task that you repeatedly avoid). Why? Essentially, your brain is like a petulant child, if you reward it when it wakes up early you will remain awake, and you might just wake up early tomorrow as well. Forcing yourself to clean the oven will make your brain regret acting up, and you’ll find yourself yawning and sleeping soundly within a matter of minutes.

Image of cartoon drawings of each of the seven deadly sins

The rest of the talk looked more at how the seven deadly sins relate to human social interactions, and how each of the sins are essentially extreme versions of things that, in lesser doses, are good for you. He talked through each of the deadly sins and explained how they connect to the survival of the human species. Without greed, our ancestors wouldn’t have put on the much-needed extra chub that enabled them to survive times when food was sparse; without lust, our ancestors would not have found their partners and reproduced; without envy, our ancestors would not have been driven to self-improvement after seeing someone else succeed. The seven deadly sins are deadly only when pushed to the extreme; and the extremes of each of those ‘sins’ result in isolation.

So, back to that ‘favourite kind of atheist thing’… I wanted to draw attention to how respectful Jack’s discussion about religion, and how science relates (or doesn’t), to it. He is someone who respects religion and understands that it offers people a variety of things that science, currently, does not. He explained how he had been a member of his local church choir despite being raised atheist purely because he loved singing, and he went into depth about the impact that the church has had on his life in terms of community. In science, we don’t have an obvious community; we do science in labs, in offices, and in schools across the world, but we don’t have a place where we go to meet other scientists on a regular basis. We don’t have a place to go to where everyone knows your name (if you’re not singing the Cheers theme tune right now then I suggest you change that asap), a place filled with people that you know you can rely on; a sense of community.

Image credit: John Atkinson, Wrong Hands

After the show I went to get my book signed (no shame, I am a book nerd and a science nerd and a signed science book is 100% relevant to my interests), and we ended up having a beer in a pub round the corner from the venue. Nerding out with fellow scientists is one of my favourite things, and the conversations that we had left me thinking a lot about the way that scientists treat their work, and how they then decide to communicate that work with people that have chosen a different career path. I’m still mulling many of those thoughts over, but I’m sure once I’ve had chance to think some more they will prompt future blog posts – a few of them would be a bit political so I want to make sure that I’ve put enough thought into them before throwing them out into the internet!

For more information about what Jack does head to his website, and I’d recommend picking up a copy of his book too – buy it from the publisher here (I’m doing my best not to buy books from Amazon, hence the publisher’s link). This blog post on Jack’s website also includes videos from the time that he went to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park – a place that’s usually reserved for religious preaching – to talk about neuroscience.

Songs for Science Education with Jonny Berliner – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

This week I’m at Edinburgh Science Festival as part of their Delegate Programme, and it’s been fantastic! The programme enables science communicators, researchers, public engagement professionals, teachers and creatives to come together to find out how the Edinburgh Science Festival team craft events, choose speakers and put together the programme. We’ve also been able to attend a number of the ticketed events so that we can use them as discussion points later on in the programme.

The first event of these ticketed events that I chose was, ‘Songs for Science Education’, which was described as a humorous and song-studded talk with science troubadour Jonny Berliner. Jonny Berliner - science through song

I’d never heard of Jonny Berliner before, but figured that using songs and music to communicate science would fit into my recent quest to further the impact of science communication with creativity. I’ll be honest here – before attending I fully expected these songs to make me cringe. I had flashbacks of the toe-curling songs that I’d been taught during science lessons at school that aimed to help me remember things, but ultimately resulted in me turning a vibrant shade of beetroot whilst I attempted to get away with miming the words. I was a quiet kid, and when teachers tried to push me by forcing students to sing these horrendous songs solo in front of the class, it made me dread attending lessons.

Anyway, I’m pleased to report that I found myself laughing, learning, and at times voluntarily singing along to Jonny Berliner’s science songs. Not only was I impressed with the way that the science songs made learning about areas of science that I’ve previously actively avoided (dark matter, for example), I was also happy to see Jonny discuss the important subject of ‘democratising science’, in his words the process of improving access to information, accountability of scientists, and representation of scientists. At beginning of the talk, I was unsure just how many of these issue that a seemingly simple science song could tackle. Perhaps predictably, again Jonny proved me wrong in his explanation of how songs can open science up to the masses by making subjects memorable, understandable, critical and universal.

The video below for Jonny’s song ‘Sexual Reproduction’ was a highlight as it allowed him to explain how he uses humour and diagrams to make his music videos just as engaging as his songs.

That said, I think my favourite song of the entire show was ‘Understanding Misunderstanding‘; a song written with Professor Abigail Williams from the University of Oxford, to communicate her work on 18th century English Literature.

From Jonny’s website:
“Abigail’s research looks at ways in which the misreading of text in the 18th century parallels many of the problems faced navigating new media in the digital age. Her research tells us that there is no need to worry. As people learned to handle new media in the 18th century, they learned to deliberately misread texts, leading to great satire. It is just a matter of time until we can do the same with digital information.”

I recorded a snippet of Jonny’s performance of this song, so you can see just how utterly brilliant it was. Also, the song was so effective that I found myself talking about Abigail’s research in conversation with a stranger this morning – we were talking about The Daily Mail’s reputation for bullshit science, which led to talk of fake news, and then suddenly I found myself humming the start of the chorus of Jonny and Abigail’s song; “There’s so much misunderstanding, fake news spread globally, how do you know what to think, when the web’s got no integrity?

Now, music is not my strong point.

I learned to play the keyboard when I was much younger, but quit when my teacher suggested that I sit the Grade 1 exam – my reasoning being that as a hobby, it shouldn’t be an additional cause of exam stress. I don’t think my teacher was very keen on me after that. That said, Jonny gave some excellent ideas during his talk for those of us that are less musically inclined than him; the act of writing a song is itself a learning exercise, and though I highly doubt that I’ll be singing about all things clinical trials any time soon, I may have a stab at writing a science song for my own amusement.

For more information about what Jonny does, and to access his portfolio of science songs, head to his website.