The Humanistisk Studentlag Oslo is a newly established humanist student group at the University of Oslo. From what I gather, there has been something like a group kicking around for a while, but it wasn’t until March this year that the necessary combination of enthusiasm and work-avoidance that sparks all new student groups reached critical mass. With the support of HEF and the Human-Etisk Ungdom the society has established a committee and a constitution and are well on their way to being a strong atheist/humanist voice on the UiO campus.
I was chuffed to bits when, having heard about my excitable ways through the humanist grapevine, one of their organisers contacted me out of the blue asking if I wanted to give a talk at one of their open meetings. The brief was pretty broad, as neither of us knew what to expect of each other, but I immediately had the idea of adapting a talk I had put together for my Researchers in Residence placement (a great STEM engagement scheme which is no longer being run, much to my disappointment) and doing a talk on common myths and misconceptions of neuroscience. It’s a topic that interests everyone and one that I can wax lyrical about for hours on end.
I went with a kind of pick ‘n’ mix approach, putting together a collection of ideas and demonstrations around that loose theme. I really wanted to give the audience a flavour of how incredible the brain is, talking them through a little neuroanatomy, the ingenious ways we can study the brain using neuroimaging technologies like magnetoencephalography, magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation, how our tendency for psychological phenomena like apophenia may lie at the root of all our superstitions and religions, and how people can use things that look and sound like they’re based in genuine neuroscience to add a quasi-respectable veneer to their pseudoscientific ideas and pocket-lining self-help mumbo-jumbo.
By happy coincidence, I found a link to this great BBC Radio 4 documentary by the excellent Claudia Hammond on brain myths the day before I was due to give my talk. The documentary also covered the 10% myth and the Mozart effect that I had included in my presentation, but also discussed the idea of ‘left brain’ vs ‘right-brain’ people and the effects of the moon on the mind. The left-brain/right-brain thing came up in conversation after my talk and is something I’ll think about including if and when I give this kind of talk again.
I’m a big fan of making these kinds of general audience talks a dialogue rather than a monologue with me trying to get from A to B in the allotted time. Having small, discrete ideas meant I could really tailor the talk to the interests of the group, giving me the flexibility to focus on a single topic if it caught the imagination of the audience and encouraging people to chip at any time with questions and comments without them feeling like they are interrupting the flow or direction of the talk.
I presented each idea as a ‘fact or fiction’ statement for people to vote on as a way of gauging how many people had heard of the idea and to see what kinds of views they had. Each time there were a handful of people who went one way or the other, leaving a majority to look around furtively before deciding not to commit, which was exactly what I expected. The flip side of the pick ‘n’ mix method is of course that the talk can lose some of its coherence and there’s a chance of information overload when you’re talking about too many things. I worked hard on making sure that I spent enough time going through one idea before taking on the next and was always on the look-out for blank or fatigued faces in the audience.
There was a surprisingly good turn-out given that they’re a new group, that I was essentially an unknown quantity and that I was competing with the gorgeous Oslo weather. The organisers had done a good job of drumming up interest on campus and even put up posters outside Humanismens Hus. The fact that a group of students picked listening to ranting talk about brains over BBQs and beer gardens made me inordinately happy (although I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that some of them should have been revising for exams!).
Aside from a few technical glitches with the wi-fi and getting the embedded videos to work, it went really well and they all seemed to enjoy it. One of the organisers told me later that I was ‘surprisingly good’, which I’ll take as a compliment. My idea of pick ‘n’ mix worked out really well in that they were so interested that we ended up scoffing the whole bag of neuroscientific delights and I ended up talking for nearly two hours with a half hour break for pizza in between.
It was fun to hang out with some of the students after the talk and enjoy a beer in the sunshine. I had a really interesting chat with some of them about snus (pouches of tobacco kept under the lip that are banned everywhere in the EU save for Sweden and Norway (which is in the EEA, but not EU)). I’ve become fascinated with it it since moving here and I’ve started reading some of the research behind its use so that I can write about it properly as and when I get the time.
I know the hard work it takes it starting and maintaining a student society, so more than having the chance to have a good time and give a talk, I was really pleased to be able to support the Humanistisk Studentlag Oslo and look forward to working with them some more in the future.