In December 2012 I was fortunate to be asked to speak about some of my research at Nerd Nite Sydney.
I chose to present a talk titled “Can neuroscience make you forget your ex?” and to use the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a basis for the topic. The film is one of my favourites, I could go on about the convincing acting, beautiful cinematography, my love of Jim Carey since I saw Ace Ventura Pet Detective as a kid, but also because the film applies to the research I was doing in memory reconsolidation.
I think the most important thing when presenting scientific data to a “general audience” is to not dumb down your findings, I hate being talked down to, so does everyone! I find real-world examples are the best way to convey complex science in a manner that people can understand.
A year ago I had two undergraduate students working in the lab on a project under my supervision. The crux of the experiment was that over-expectation would be generated by combining two previously rewarded stimuli into a compound, and whereas the rats would expect two rewards – they only got one (and this would drive a prediction error signal that would then underpin memory reconsolidation see Reichelt & Lee, 2012). The best way I could think of explaining this to the students (who kept looking blankly at me) was that it was like your birthday got moved to Christmas day and you didn’t get double the presents. I also thought of the example of the film Alien vs. Predator, Aliens = good film, Predator = good film, Alien vs. Predator = Awesome film? I think not. Over-expectation conveyed in a tangible manner to nerds like me.
Memory reconsolidation was a bit harder to explain, particularly as it involves quite a conceptual framework. I was pretty terrified to be honest, especially as the audience consisted of people who I work with and also lots of clever, but non-expert, people. A couple of beers later my nerves were soothed and I had to step up to the stage and cover basic conditioning principles (with the aid of a wonderful clip from The Office), memory consolidation (or not… with the aid of The Hangover), the rationale for memory reconsolidation (Eternal Sunshine) and clinical applications (I chose spider phobias, I know I could have gone with PTSD, but it seemed a bit of a dark subject for a light-hearted talk). I find that sometimes it’s really easy to become caught up in your science-speak, and you need to shift modes to general-speak. But it’s incredibly satisfying when people understand your research and get excited about it just like you do (except the moments when experiments go utterly wrong).
Anyway, if you are up for the challenge I would really recommend presenting at a local Nerd Nite. They are run all across the world. And the experience of doing a presentation on my work with a beer in my hand was incredibly gratifying!