Why Storytelling in Science is Important
Storytelling in the same sentence as science? Oh no she di-in't, you'll say. (You are super sassy in my mind, apparently). And yes, yes I did, I'll say.
Why would those terms go together? Stories are whimsy. Not fact. Stories are made up, even. Something we want nowhere near a field that is supposed to bring us factual, unbiased answers. Right? Yes, this is all true. However, let us not forget the brain and what makes us human...
Oh, here she goes on again about the brain, you are saying. And I'll say, seriously, what is with that sass? But yes, I do go on about the brain. Why? Because it is the number one most exciting and interesting organ. Number two is the kidney, but I won't go into that here. If you want to know why the kidney is next on the list of fascinating, urine the wrong blog post. Ha! Yeah, I bet you caught that play on words, you sassy-pants.
Back to the brain. It is fascinating because it controls us, it IS us, and it is full of endless mystery. I have a PhD in neuroscience and I am still blown away with how much I don't know about it. But this is the stuff of life, right? Endless learning!
One of the coolest parts of the brain is that it really is like a computer. It is wired to deliver a certain output to the user. What is that output?
That's right, you heard me. A story. Our brains are telling us stories all the time. Mostly, they are non-fiction. But they are stories. We collect a metric crap ton of data all the time (solid fact). And our brains, bless there little cortices, are constantly compiling this data and spitting out a coherent story. It's filling in all sorts of gaps to save energy and give you a picture of the world that makes sense. Why would we spend energy encoding every single piece of input when we can fill in what we know is likely happening? We take this for granted because we are so used to it but we've all experienced when this goes awry. You ever see a picture and it looks like something else and then you're sort of disoriented when you learn what it really is? I mean, this is why optical illusions are so interesting, they mess with our brains' narratives. This may also be what makes a joke funny- it trips your brain's idea of what should come next in a story.
So why did we evolve to tell stories? In a way, the stories themselves are more important than the actual data. In the days of cavemen, it was important to remember that bears would kill you, right? (Did bears attack cavemen? I don't know, I suck at history, but come on sass machine, try to stay on topic). We did not need to remember things like what the bear looked like specifically- it's hair color, the exact tone of its growl, etc. We needed to remember: bear bad, bear lives over there, water can be found in this spot, etc. So we compile the data and make fuzzy sort of ideas out of them.
The best books and movies we consume are laid out in a way that allows our brain to form the story for itself. Otherwise, mystery novels wouldn't sell and spoilers wouldn't bother us. So, ok, hopefully by now you're with me that stories are good. So why not in science?
What if I told you that for my PhD research I studied a group of neurons in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus, that are estrogen-dependent and project to thermoregulatory centers of the brain to control vasodilation? Did you even read that whole sentence? Of course not, it was hellllla boring. And it was my research! But what if, instead, I told you that we looked at the part of the brain that controls temperature - the thermostat - and how it was affected by hormones so that we can better understand hot flashes? Now, I'm willing to bet many of you are bored silly by the idea of hot flashes, save for maybe 1 or 2 of you. That's fine, but all of you understood that much better, right? It was at least digestible AND it was factual. I told you a story about my work. It was accessible to you.
This is a critical component that is severely lacking in our world right now- telling the stories of science. There is a disturbing lack of science storytellers out there (I am one but we are few). Science is incredible and it should be for everyone! I won't stop telling the stories of science. Will you join me? (Sassy answers only).
Your average neuroscientist, Melinda