Dr Dean Burnett
Dean Burnett is a doctor of neuroscience at Cardiff University working in the Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences. He is also a comedy writer and part time stand-up comedian. His comedy work revolves around science and he is the author the popular Guardian blog Brain Flapping.
I’ve had a couple of people who don’t think it’s acceptable to portray science in an amusing manner.
On getting interested in science
What spurred my interest in science…bit of a mixed bag; I’m not from an academic background, I sort of grew up in South Wales in a mining valley, a bit sort of depressed in an economic sense, and I just got into reading stuff, I wasn’t into sport or anything like that. My father is a particularly, you know, rugged male, pub landlord, heavy drinker, sportsman, you know, alpha male type, and getting into science was, you know, my way of rebelling against him because, you know, when you’re a teenager doing that sort of stuff it’s seen as rebellious but that’s what he did, so I went the other way and became a nerd. And it doesn’t have quite the same impact, but it does give you better career prospects.
I just became interested in reading and science fiction type things, I got interested in that sort of thing, and also I was a bit of a different child, and I wondered why that was…sort of, buying books about brains at a rudimentary level, and I got interested from there, really, so that was sort of how it happened.
So, yes, I went on to study neuroscience at the University of Cardiff. It was actually quite close to my actual home, home valley of course, but its…geographically it’s a short distance but psychologically it’s a massive distance; they always say you should travel and widen your horizons, but I grew up in a valley so our horizons are like a mile apart, so anything more than that is quite impressive.
On current work in neuroscience
Things going on in neuroscience which I currently am interested in…I’ve always liked incorporating technology with brain science and brain functioning because I think it is obviously…it’s got to be one of the more complicated ways, because you’ve got to invent like an artificial organ, like they’ve done artificial hearts or other certain things, and they’re not very good yet but as time progresses hopefully they will become more seamlessly integrated with the body, more functional and more enduring. But I’m actually…the brain is obviously a different story because it’s so specifically set up and so minutely constructed, it’s going to be a lot harder to replace bits of it because obviously that takes a lot of…chunk of, like, memory or function or circuitry out of it.
So, trying to incorporate technology with the brain does seem to be something which I quite like as a research area. Deep brain stimulationn is always a bit of a creepy but good one, in the ways you can plant very deep electrodes into certain parts of the brain which aren’t working as they should be in certain disorders and supplying electrical charges to try and correct that. It looks a bit odd to think someone’s had these electrodes buried deep in the brain but it’s really helpful so, yeah, I’m sort of interested in that side of things, I think we’ll see more of that in the coming years.
On PhD studies
On my PhD I was studying memory formation, the role of the hippocampus in memory formation and retrieval. The way memory generally works is…we put it down to three processes: encoding, where the memory is laid down and it’s formed; storage, where the memory is of course put somewhere in the brain where it can be accessed later; and retrieval, where that memory is retrieved at a later date when you remember something.
The hippocampus is part of the temporal lobe which seems to be heavily involved in memory formation encoding. It’s like the nexus where all the information goes in and the hippocampus puts it into a usable format and then passes it off to the memory system, and it’s well been known to have been involved in encoding and a certain amount of storage, but we showed that it also has a role in retrieval as well. In certain types of memory you need the hippocampus to retrieve them, not just lay them down. And we did sort of manage to successfully show, insofar that any scientific experiment successfully shows anything, I’m sure plenty would argue with us…we did show that it is involved to some extent in the retrieval of memory as well as encoding and storage.
On doing comedy around science
Yes, I actually…at first I was doing science and though I was interested in comedy I didn’t actually have the guts to do stand-up comedy at all, but it’s something that’s always fascinated me, I did enjoy making people laugh. I am from a family which has a strong performance side to it, we were formerly called the von Crapps, because I like to sing, but not many of us are actually any good at it. So…I’m not a singer at all, I have the musical skill of a house brick and I was aware of this, but I did like to perform and make people laugh, doing comedy plays or, like, amusing pantomimes or stuff like that in university and school, and I did actually want to do some sort of comedy but I couldn’t quite face going through with it, but I actually worked as a cadaver embalmer for the medical school after graduating my first undergraduate degree. And when you handle dead bodies all day, every day, it does sort of give you a bit of a different threshold for what you’re willing to put up with.
And I sort of became…I was becoming quite bleak and morbid, so I thought I might as well give it a go, what’s worse than my actual day job? And I did actually practice my first routine in the room full of cadavers, I thought it would be good practice doing my jokes in front of people when none of them were laughing, which of course prepared me for my first gig, but then people did laugh and I pretty much soiled myself. And that’s sort of how I ended up doing it, but I kept them both very separate, I did like to do one and then the other. I thought people in comedy gigs don’t like to hear about science, but then I did one gig, in Abergavenny it was, a small pub, about 15 people and I had a piece about I could…it’s not one I do now, but excuses people have about being overweight, one of which was big boned, and I said there’s not really such a thing as big boned, you can get big bones but they’re on display in museums more often than not. And I started the joke and someone laughed, which threw me – which shows you how good I was – and I said, no one normally laughs at this point, what is it you’re laughing at, and she said, I used to be big boned, which got a bit of a chuckle, and I said, did you enjoy your time on the international space station, which is kind of incongruous as a reply. Of course, I got a lot of baffled looks, and then I started explaining prolonged periods in micro gravity cause calcium depletion and bone mass loss, and that got a big laugh and some applause, so I decided that maybe people are actually interested and I sort of tried to combine the two from then on and its going OK.
On Brain Flapping
I started blogging my own personal blog because I like to write jokes about science and comedy but…coming from Cardiff, there’s a small comedy scene but it’s not particularly big, it’s bigger than it was when I started but it was very small then, three or four regular gigs once a month and the same sort of people would go to them all so you can’t have a go at each one, there are other comics in Cardiff, so you could only get about 30 minutes stage time a month, but that’s not enough to keep trying, churning through new material, so I started a blog just to out it somewhere. I always liked writing more than actually performing because I look and talk like this and I realise its always a handicap. And I just enjoyed doing it and then it got a bit of a small audience…because there’s obviously not many people who do try and do satirical science comedy stories or articles or pieces or whatever. And I got involved and did one or two guest posts for the Guardian bloggers, I had my own first dedicated blog post on there about the most depressing day of the year, which is a particular bug bear of mine. And then they said they were expanding the blogging stable – because they think of bloggers as livestock – and they said does anyone have a blog they’d like to pitch to us and I thought, I could do this, I suppose, on a more professional basis. I pitched it to them and I didn’t hear anything for a month so I assumed they just deleted the email on principle and possibly had the hard drive smashed, which happens a lot at the Guardian, but eventually they got back to me and said yeah, that sounds great, let’s do that, so, yeah, that’s how, and now I do it and they haven’t fired me yet. So I take that as a sign of ongoing success, essentially.
On reaction to being a scientist and a comedy writer at the same time
Have I had any negative feedback in terms of being a neuroscientist making light of this sort of thing? Not really a great deal. It’s the Guardian’s website and there are comments available so, yes, I’ve had plenty of negative feedback and some of it is even correctly spelled, but it’s not necessarily something which is about me per se, it’s just obviously about people who want to say something about something they don’t like. I mean, I’ve been called a journalist by people who don’t even read my bio page…well, what gives you the right to talk about this, you’re just a journalist? Well no, actually, I’m very qualified to talk about this memory test. And I’ve had a couple of people who don’t think it’s acceptable to portray science in an amusing manner, but then I personally think these people are the exact sort of problem which is why science isn’t as popular as it could be. So negative feedback, yes, but is it of any sort of significant level, no, people in general seem to quite like that someone is trying to do it; not saying that its succeeding but at least I’m having a go, and very few people are, so that’s something nice at least to say about that.