Early in the planning grant MIT hosted the annual Neurotech Conference. This day-long meeting including technical presentations from graduate students, post-docs, faculty, and invited guests. This is such a common academic format that the project's demonstration team wanted to experiment with it. To begin with, the team found a way into the conference's formal schedule with an invitation for John Durant, Director of the MIT Museum, to give the final presentation of the conference on the topi of Neuroscience & Society. But the meeting still lacked any public voice or presence. Knowing that the conference proceedings themselves were not aimed at the public, the team hit upon inviting speakers to join them for a Science Pub on the eve of the conference. One of them agreed, and project writer-in-residence tells the story of that evening here.
One night in early winter, a neuroscientist and a museum manager walked into a bar …
This isn’t the set-up for a punchline. Rather, it’s a story about one of the more unusual turns that the MIT museum took during its Dana Center planning phase. It all began when museum manager, Ben Wiehe, issued a challenge to the neuroscientists participating in the Neurotech Conference, another of its planning phase events: Would any researcher be brave enough to accompany him to a possibly rowdy public establishment the night before the conference, in an attempt to interest a somewhat random group, many of whom might be slightly (or more than slightly) intoxicated, in their work?
The sole respondee happened to be a ringer: Reuven "Beny" Falkovich, a doctoral student in MIT's Department of Biological Engineering. Falkovich is the Reigning Champion Runner-up in the Ph.D. Category for the MIT Research Slam, in which MIT postdocs and students compete to provide the best explanation of complex research projects using non-specialized language in three minutes or less. Falkovich, who is originally from Israel, had some experience talking to a wider audience. “I gave a lot of popular science lectures at Israel’s version of ComicCon,” he explains. “I would promise to deliver a lecture about something that I knew about only vaguely, which gave me a deadline to learn about topics like evolution of parental behavior and migration of animals.”
Falkovich knew he might be facing a tough crowd. “I’d be talking at them out of nowhere when they just came to the bar to enjoy themselves,” Falkovich says. “So I needed to bring something, to give them something to take with them.” He decided that rather than discuss his particular area of focus—the causal synaptic molecular networks at play in autism and schizophrenia—he’d give a more general talk about neuroscience. “I described the predictive processing model of cognition,” he says, referring to the idea that, for instance, the brain fills in visual information to make sense of a scene; that there is an interplay between top-down mental computation of an environment and bottom-up sensory input that the brain is receiving. He thought his audience might find it compelling to know more about how we think—and especially, as he put it, “to think about how people close to them might have a differently wired brain.”
With all that in mind, Falkovich headed to Lord Hobo in the hopes he might turn a few patrons into neuroscience aficionados. Wiehe was already there, eyeing the crowd. He’d tried to smooth the way for Falkovich not only by getting the bartender's permission to take over the mike as the weekly trivia game wrapped up, but also by providing him with public engagement tips like, "Think about this as cocktail party conversation," and "The best way to hook others is to describe something that you’re really passionate about.” Nonetheless, Wiehe feared that Falkovich was in for a bumpy ride. At least one visibly intoxicated patron—an outgoing regular who functioned like the evening’s unofficial MC—had the rest of the room riled up and rowdy.
When Falkovich arrived, Wiehe introduced him briefly before giving him the floor, putting on a five-minute timer as he did. Falkovich was barely halfway through his allotted slot when a heckler called out, “You’re losing us!”—at which point Wiehe quietly urged him to get to the point. And so Falkovich wrapped up with a personal anecdote—describing a time when he was tripping on acid and narrating his experiences to his partner, who has autism.
As Falkovich explained, LSD has a similar effect on the brain to that of autism. In both cases, the brain pays less attention to top-down processing than to sensory input, thereby making external stimulation more potent and immediate. “Usually your brain knows, for example, walls don’t move so it discounts the possibility that the wall could be moving,” says Falkovich. But under the influence of LSD, the brain pays less attention to the foreknowledge it has of things like walls. And after Falkovich’s partner took in his experience of, for instance, experiencing the walls like they were moving, she responded, “Welcome to my brain.”
The drunken MC had snapped to attention as soon as Falkovich mentioned autism, and once Falkovich concluded his talk, the MC hurried over to talk to him. When he learned that Falkovich has done research into the synaptic networks of people with autism, the man “got very emotional,” as Falkovich recalls, because he had a nephew with autism. He wanted to encourage Falkovich to continue looking at ways to treat autism so much that he even reached into his pocket and thrust a crumpled twenty dollar bill at him, hoping to contribute to Falkovich’s funding.
Despite being embraced nearly literally by the night’s unofficial leader, Falkovich didn’t feel he succeeded in giving most people something meaningful to take with them. “Most people didn’t care and just wanted my talk to end so they could get back to their conversations,” he says. Nonetheless, he believes communicating with the general public about scientific research is crucial, not least because there is so often a wide gap between the public perception of an area of study and reality. “What’s usually happening in the scientific work is much milder and more restricted,” he says. A discrepancy of this kind fuels what he would call a “point of friction” when it comes to autism research. >>“Some people are opposed to autism research,” he explains. “They consider it able-ist: ‘Don’t look at us like we need to be cured.’ I understand where they’re coming from. But I think if they really knew what kind of research we do, they wouldn’t feel like that.”
Falkovich enjoys doing public outreach of this sort. He reminisced about an annual event in Israel, Science on the Bar, during which researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science give talks at bars throughout Tel Aviv. “The talks are free but you need to book a spot at the bar because they fill up,” he explains. “I would love to participate in something like this here. I don’t know what kind of impact this kind of thing has, but I doubt it can be negative—and people do seem to like it.”