Over the next few weeks we’ll introduce you to the ScienceOnline Brain Advisory Team by asking them to answer a set of questions. Please welcome Emily Willingham!
Emily Willingham is a Ph.D. scientist, science writer, and educator who focuses on developmental biology as a scientist and on autism as a science writer. She earned her bachelor’s in English and her doctorate in biological sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco. Her other pursuits include writing science-related books, including the upcoming Science of Parenting from Perigee Books/Penguin Group, and opinionating at Forbes about autism, science, and the media. Twitter: @ejwillingham
Why did you decide to work with ScioBrain?
–Because if any organ deserves its own conference for people to talk about how we communicate about the science of an organ that we use to communicate, it’s the brain. Head-spinning, yes? I’m glad to be a part of that discussion.
How do you feel about the current state of psychology and neuroscience communication online?
–It’s mixed. Some people are very, very good about presenting information clearly and in interesting ways without resorting to hype or facile interpretations and extrapolations. Others, not so much. I don’t think it does anyone–anyone with a brain-related condition, the casual reader, scientists–to engage in hand-waving when it comes to these areas of research. Given that most folks tend to go for headlines more than nuance, I appreciate most the writers who take the time to deal in the latter in ways that draw readers and build a network.
What do you feel are some of the major issues facing psychology and neuroscience communication today?
–First of all, a key is reconciling the two disciplines and focusing on where they overlap rather than treating them as separate. An example is the DSM, which is treated as a psychological manual that resolves the identity of a condition based more on a checklist than on neuroscience-based indicators. The converse of that, obviously, is that neuroscience has a lot of work to do to catch up with these conditions that we’ve classified as diagnosable and place them in the context of critical mechanisms. Psychology, in my mind, gives us a rough idea of where function derailment crosses over into pathology, a broad impression that neuroscience should ultimately make more specific and concrete.
What do you feel are some of the major accomplishments in psychology and neuroscience communication?
–I’m glad to see an explosion of this kind of communication online because when it’s done well, it serves the purpose of informing and brings together people who recognize themselves in the information or who seek to understand those whose psychology and neurology differ from theirs. I see communication about both, when well done, as one of the great levelers of society as people, I hope, learn just how much more our commonalities outweigh differences. The folks who are really good at it build trust with their readers and develop communities around this kind of trustworthy information exchange. Having the involvement of engaged experts and scientists helps in building those communities of trust.
What do you feel you bring to the ScioBrain advisory committee?
–Some expertise on both sides of the neuroscience and psychology equation, in part because of my scientific background but also because I’ve spent such a long time writing specifically about conditions that fall under the psychology umbrella, for better or for worse. I also bring the perspective in some cases of a consumer of this information, in addition to being a translator of sorts for the parts of the autism community interested in autism science.
What do you hope will come out of the ScioBrain conference?
–I hope the conference leads to a clear understanding of what communicating about the brain means–it’s not like science communication on any other subject because our brains are more than just an organ. They’re who we are, and when we write about the human brain, we’re writing about people, including ourselves. That’s something we should never forget. I’m also really looking forward to just hanging out with brain-interested folk for an intense period of time just to talk brains brains brains. As I said, if any organ deserves this attention, the brain is it.