Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Bloggers behind the blogs: Neurowhoa!

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world's leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, 'Hesitant Iconoclast' of the NeuroWhoa! blog.

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

I was a psychology undergraduate and, in the course of my studies, was astounded at how much high-quality science content was available on the Net. I stumbled across ScienceBlogs one day and gravitated almost immediately to Mo Costandi's excellent Neurophilosophy blog, where I became a regular reader. After a few weeks of reading a selection of different psych-oriented blogs I just felt an inspiration to create a blog of my own, where I could talk about the issues that interest me as well as share the knowledge that I was and am learning.

What's your blog's mission?

I'd say a large part of it is public education as well as stimulating interest in psychology and neuroscience issues. I've come across so many misconceptions about 'the mind' and its functions that I've often felt driven to correct them in some way. For example, I have heard people suggesting that thinking too much or too long about something is a bad idea because it risks destroying valuable brain cells! Seriously. I know that's pretty wild, but it just goes to show some of the crazy ideas people can have about the most simplest of things like memory, emotions, personality, etc. And yet the fact is that the subject is so full of beautiful and illuminating examples of the ways the mind and brain really do work that we cannot know if we will fully plumb the depths. In any case, one can only wonder why we seem to only discuss these things among ourselves and not putting the knowledge 'out there'.

So that's my angle; a combination of educational and interesting things to engage with and inform the public. My own efforts may be quite small, but I trust that the motivations for doing so are quite common among the majority of science bloggers and I am confident of collegial approaches going quite far in that direction.

Are you also on Twitter - if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?

Yes, I'm @NeuroWhoa. Twitter is fantastic in the way it can make automatic announcements every time I write a new article, but especially greater is the facility to keep in direct contact with other psychologists, neuroscientists, researchers, writers - people who are both notable and knowledgeable in their fields. Not only is there the capacity to learn new things in short and snappy conversations, but the fact that almost every tweet contains a link to some new announcement or article means a great proliferation of sharing information and resources endlessly! It's popular to muse about learning something new every day, but with Twitter it's really true.

Also, it's quite possible to gauge the 'buzz' about whatever makes the news of the day and that's what gives me the ideas to write about. A lot of my posts have been inspired by something I've read via Twitter, and when it is a case of blogging about some new finding it helps to know what other people are saying about it and that in turn helps to write up a balanced view of the subject. It is great that when you are stumped sometimes, you can just ask a question and get an answer almost straightaway. I'm always grateful for the help I've received from fellow Twitterers that makes a direct contribution to whatever post I'm writing, and always try to repay that by crediting them wherever possible.

What are your weapons of choice - i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

I use the Blogger platform, mainly because that's the one where I've had most experience with. I've flirted with the idea of moving to Wordpress, Typepad or some other free service and have explored some of them, but in many cases I found the controls somewhat elaborate and I get the feeling I'd be spending more time twiddling knobs to prettify the blog design than writing. So in that respect Blogger suits me well - it gets the job done by simply letting you write whatever you want, and you're set!

I'm open to the possibility of a change, however. If I can be convinced that another platform has better facilities that are both user-friendly and audience-orientated then I'd be willing to give it a try.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

I'd say that, whatever motivated you to write in the first place, remember that regularly and try to keep true to it. Stick to a pace that's comfortable for you and don't feel obligated to churn out postings too fast. Sometimes quality is better than quantity, there's no substitute for a well-crafted and thoughtful post that enables people to learn something than just posting two or three lines of comment on something obscure because you feel you have to or you may lose readers. Also, make an effort to be easily understood. We all know that academic papers can be hard to read, so it is essential to strike a balance between transmitting valuable information and keeping the jargon to a tolerable or minimum level. This is a skill to be learnt in time and with experience, however.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

Mind Hacks is my daily fix, with Neurophilosophy coming a close second. I like to be eclectic in my science reading so as to be informed of developments elsewhere. So aside from a few other neuro-blogs like Neurocritic and Neurologica, I also skim through Pharyngula, Why Evolution Is True, and Respectful Insolence.

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

Ha! It's good that you ask me to list up to five because I always tend to have my nose buried in several books at a time! At this moment I'm reading David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives. Eagleman is a neuroscientist and, while I don't believe in an afterlife, it's interesting to approach the subject from forty different and interesting scenarios of 'what could be'. I'm also reading Theodore Millon's Masters Of The Mind, which is a general history of mental illness and how definitions and treatment have changed throughout history. Other items on my reading list include Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and D.J. Enright's Oxford Book of Death.

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

I've written many posts that I'm proud of so it's hard to pick, but I guess What Is Self-Transcendence? was good in that I did something different than the usual. This post referred to a recent paper that reported how neurosurgery performed on certain brain structures effected personality changes in patients which made them feel more 'spiritual', giving further credence to the idea of spirituality having a neurobiological origin. The study drew interested comment from various quarters when it was released, but my curiosity was piqued by the mention of a personality construct called Self-Transcendence (ST), the increase and manifestation of which was said to be the evidence of increase of spiritual feelings. I wanted to know about the measurements involved in determining this construct and what its essential elements were. It involved hunting down papers from 1993 in a bid to track the development of ST as a concept and discovering the actual items of ST that were used to determine the personality changes of the neurosurgical patients. To display the ST items and comment on how they could properly define spirituality (or not, as was the case) made the whole thing a detective story of sorts, so I was a little pleased with myself for managing to find an interesting angle and doing some real investigation for a change instead of doing what everyone else was doing and blogging about the study itself.

I guess if I could find more such angles in papers that highlight the studies in a different and interesting way, I would be that much more satisfied with my writings and hopefully my readers will too!

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