Neuroscience and narrative in Montreal

The eighth meeting of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN) was held in Montreal at the end of May. Over 940 people attended this meeting. As a member and a researcher in behavioural neuroscience, I attended with some of my graduate students. It was nice to return to the city where I grew up and received my education.

For most of my career in this area, the Canadian neuroscience community met as a small part of the much larger Society for Neuroscience. SfN is the American neuroscience society, and it is a sign of their pre-eminence that over 32,000 people attend its meeting each year. But Canadians felt a need for their own meeting, so eight years ago the neuroscience community in Canada organized its first meeting in Toronto. Since then it has followed the natural pattern of academic meetings in Canada, holding a meeting in the centre of the country every second year, interspaced by one in the west and then the east.

This year’s meeting was a great exposition of the cutting-edge research in neuroscience, both internationally and within this country. Four of the plenary or keynote lecturers were American scientists doing Nobel-class research, and three were Canadian scientists. All the lectures I heard (and I missed several) were wonderful, opening up vast vistas of the neuroscience landscape for me. For me and my students, located at a smaller university, the opportunity to hear the best that Canada and the States have to offer was an exciting reinforcement to the work we do in our laboratories. I get the same excitement when I go to the annual SfN meeting.

Stories illustrate

Leading researchers can often give mind-expanding talks and tell their scientific stories clearly and precisely, pointing to the wide-ranging implications of their work. Younger scientists and students, while doing good work, tend to demonstrate less storytelling skill. For example, at CAN, I attended two talks on similar material, one by a leading researcher in neurochemistry, Dr. Eric Neisler, and one by Dr. Rosemary Bagot, one of Neisler’s students, a young, very talented scientist. Neisler was much clearer and easier to understand. Similarly, when I attended poster sessions, at which graduate students and trainee post-doctoral fellows stand by a poster of their research and interact with interested passersbys, it was rare for me to hear this work described in a way that opens up the terrain as senior, active laboratory leaders can do.

The students could usually explain what they did and what they had found, but they were often less clear about why it was important and what it meant. I often had to wade through and discard the details to get at the main thrust of the research. One mark of a good scientist is that he or she can zero in on the important aspects and then use the details to explain those key points. I first learned this principle from my PhD advisor, Jane Stewart, whose lectures about how the brain is changed in drug addiction illustrated powerfully that science requires the telling of a story, not presenting lists of findings. The specific findings of a research program are important but often meaningless unless they are linked to a story that explains some part of God’s creation. Sometimes it is through the ability of scientists to take seemingly lost and random findings and fit them into the fabric of science that their greatness as researchers is defined.

Stories teach

When we look at how God has chosen to communicate with us in his special revelation, we see the same storytelling. Much of the Old Testament narrates God’s interaction with individuals and the people of Israel. The New Testament does the same in telling us how God’s Son and the Holy Spirit met us and interacts with us as we walk on this earth. The Scriptures are a book of God’s interaction with humans, not simple, but framed in our daily lives. I don’t think this is an accident. The stories of Job, Daniel and Esther tell us how complex it is to live a God-filled life in our world and reassure us that God is faithful. The challenge for us in this day and age is to determine from these stories how we are to live as God’s children.

Good scientific communication does the same; it tells a story of how the creation is structured, not in facts but in connections and meanings that speak to us clearly. When I attend a scientific meeting, one of the joys is to hear such talks. CAN at Montreal delivered.


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