What To Read: Clayton Mansel is studying our brains

This week, we interviewed Clayton Mansel, an aspiring physician-scientist who writes Synapse, a newsletter for people who are curious about the brain.

What's your Substack about in one sentence?

Synapse is a newsletter about neuroscience as it applies to human nature and society, written with more nuance and less hyperbolic pseudoscience.

What made you want to write about neuroscience for a broad audience?

I went to a liberal arts college that really emphasized writing in my science education. I thought this was going to be a challenge for me, but ended up discovering that I really love the art and science of writing.

Neuroscience to me is just such a fascinating topic. I study cell biology, and neurons have all kinds of exclusive and amazing superpowers compared to other cells. Combine this with the philosophical and cognitive nature of the mind, and neuroscience is a topic that cannot be exhausted even in a lifetime. I started Synapse with the hope of spreading this fascination to others. 

What do you think science reporting tends to get wrong when covering academic research?

In my view, science reporting often doesn’t have the nuance that you find in academic discourse. Throwing out nuance can have the effect of enhancing a nice and tidy narrative, but I think it can be misleading to the reader.

I have also noticed that science reporting abstracts away from the original source dramatically – often not even linking to the original study. I believe that science communicators have the opportunity to improve the scientific literacy of their readers by showing the original data and walking the reader through the scientific rationale. This has the effect of empowering people to look at the study themselves and come to their own conclusion. 

I have no doubt that most science writers intend to faithfully represent the scientific literature, but they are forced to work in a business model that often relies on click-throughs to a story with an attractive headline. That’s why I am excited about the prospect of reader-funded independent publisher platforms like Substack for science communication, because it will relieve science reporters from the pressure of attracting clicks. 

What benefits do you find in writing for the casual enthusiast, versus the depth you get with your colleagues day-to-day?

In academic research I am forced to zero in on a very specific topic and spend most of my time in the weeds. I love writing for non-experts because I get to climb out of my hole and look at the bigger picture.

For example, in undergrad, I studied the toxic effects of one specific compound in one specific cell type. Yet, when I spoke to my humanities professors about my research, we got to have a more broad discussion about what it means to live in a world where we ubiquitously use certain chemicals without knowing the subtle toxic effects they could be having on our ecosystem and physiology. 

I also love writing for enthusiasts because they force me to think about the practical application of scientific research. Earlier this year, I wrote about how scientists induced memory formation in mice without a corresponding experience. This experiment was fascinating to me because I’m inherently interested in memory, but what does it mean for a casual observer? Well, for one, artificial memory formation could act as a therapy for memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.

Thinking about application and broad appeal is such a critical skill for a scientist, because I believe it’s our job to communicate what everyone’s tax dollars are paying for. 

What are your best tips for making complex topics understandable to others?

First, use an analogy of something people are already familiar with. Neuroscience, especially at the molecular level, can be such an abstract concept that I like to ground it in something people experience everyday. For example, I recently wrote about how the neurons in our brain change throughout our adult life by comparing them to a road network in a city with intersections that are constantly changing and road capacities that fluctuate between highways and dirt roads.

Second, find the part of the story that is most important for the reader and stick to that. When I wrote about an experiment about memory, there were many parts of the experiment that would have distracted the reader away from the core conclusion. Staying focused has the effect of leaving the reader satisfied with the story without feeling overwhelmed by information that leads to many different avenues and other questions. 

What's a question about our brains that you dream about being able to answer?

I would love to know the origins of consciousness. I think some scientists would agree that this is the greatest mystery in our universe. We might someday solve the story of how our universe came to be, but it’s difficult to imagine how we are going to be able to objectively study experience itself “from the inside.” It’s fascinating to challenge our intuitions about beings that are conscious.

For example, I think most people would say that their dog or cat is conscious, but what about a cricket? Maybe not, but surely it is like something to be a cricket. Maybe even inanimate objects like coffee tables have very low levels of consciousness. It sounds absolutely crazy, but the logic of a lot of arguments about consciousness leads you there. 

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

I highly recommend Shamay Agaron’s Friday Brainstorm. Shamay focuses on cognitive neuroscience and is so good at making scientific insights applicable and practical to our everyday lives.

Subscribe to Clayton’s newsletter, Synapse, or find him on Twitter @Clayman98.