How to rewire your brain (Part I)

8 06 2010

A personal experience from the 2009 Banff Centre Science Communications Program. (Reprinted from E-cass September 2009, Part I of III)

“In one sentence, why is this important to the man on the street?” The reporter’s question took me completely off guard. I didn’t have a good answer. I was prepared to talk about galaxies, not whether they were even worth studying. After taking a second to think, I bumbled an old Sagan quote about the universe and apple pies. It had no impact.

At that moment I vowed to be more prepared.

Jay Ingram and Mary Anne Moser

It took a while to make good on the vow, but last August I took part in a two-week program at the Banff Centre dedicated entirely to communicating science. This annual workshop is chaired by Jay Ingram, of TV’s “Daily Planet” show, and is directed by Mary Anne Moser of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary. Five additional professionals from various media took the faculty complement to seven, while there were 20 participants.

Jay began the program by saying that it was, “The two most exciting weeks of the year,” for him. This seemed to be setting the bar very high, but we would later come to understand why he felt this way. Following some introductions it was very clear that we had 27 extremely talented and exciting individuals participating—from musicians through to neuroscientists. I was almost immediately energized by the diversity and energy of everyone in the room.

I checked my ego at the door and decided to be a student again for two weeks. It was strangely liberating to be—briefly—devoid of the responsibility of mentoring and teaching.

The program split roughly into two parts. The first four to five days were spent going over skills, such as how to write a popular article, develop podcasts, website design and even branding concepts. The second part of the program was devoted to group projects, in which teams of five came up with new ways to communicate a particular science concept.

The skill sessions were frequently “free form”. For instance, Mark Winston of the Centre for Dialogue at SFU had the participants arrange themselves in a circle. We then discussed the personal aspects of science and how we can find our own voice in communication. He also took pains to emphasize brevity, focus and impact. “Lose the preamble!” is one his mantras.

Perhaps the most unique session in the first week was an evening at a ceramics workshop. I confess to having been extremely skeptical prior to the program. I wasn’t going to learn anything from making clay pots, was I?

Well, we didn’t make any pots. Instead the evening went from using clay to communicate non-verbally, to seeing how different ideas can evolve through interpretation. One exercise in particular has stayed with me. Groups developed a model of something, a maze, a beach scene, you name it. We let our imaginations run wild.

What should we make? So many possibilities...

Then after five minutes all the groups rotated on to the next bench and began working and building on what had been done previously by a different group. This was repeated three times. The results were intriguing and hilarious. Some themes, such as the beach, filtered through, others were utterly lost. It was an amazing exercise in seeing how ideas can develop without boundaries.

That was our strongest exposure to being given absolute freedom to “think”. No constraints. In contrast, the science we do is so often limited by the realities of our instruments, or funding, or our theories. That isn’t necessarily bad–sometimes creativity can come from the tightest binds. However, being given a tabula rasa was both freeing and simultaneously alien.

By the end of that first evening I was using parts of my brain that I hadn’t used since high school. I was also pretty exhausted. The program had events planned from 9am to 9pm almost every day, and it suddenly appeared as though I was facing a test of endurance. While some participants headed off for beer my wife and I, who was also participating, headed off back to the residence and collapsed. Sleep didn’t come easy though. Our brains were both buzzing.

Next post: Part II, understanding effective communication.

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