Category: Bloggers behind the blogs

The bloggers behind the blogs

Blogging has emerged as a powerful medium in recent years and nowhere is this more evident than in psychology and neuroscience. But who are the people behind these increasingly influential blogs? What are their motives and what advice do they have for aspiring bloggers? The Research Digest [AKA Christian Jarrett] caught up with a handful of the world’s leading psych bloggers to find out:

Jacy Young of Advances in the History of Psychology.
Jesse Bering of Bering in Mind.
Anthony Risser of BrainBlog.
David DiSalvo of Brainspin & Neuronarrative.
Petra Boynton of Dr Petra.
Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks.
Mo Costandi of Neurophilosphy.
David Dobbs of Neuron Culture.
Neuroskeptic of Neuroskeptic.
Hesitant Iconoclast of Neurowhoa!
Scarlett de Courcier of Ramblings of an Academic Petrolhead, Paracademia and 28 others.
Dave Munger of Research Blogging and Cognitive Daily.
Wray Herbert of We’re Only Human & Full Frontal Psychology.

Bloggers behind the blogs: Wray Herbert

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Last up, Wray Herbert of We’re Only HumanFull Frontal Psychology and the Huffington Post.

How did you become a psychology/neuroscience blogger?

I’ve been writing about psychology and brain science for more than 30 years, so in a way blogging was merely switching the technology used for production and distribution. I still do traditional science journalism, but now I post it electronically. I actually began blogging in 2006, when I created the ‘We’re Only Human’ blog as part of my new job as publicity director for the Association for Psychological Science. I still do old-school PR-press releases on Eurekalert etc – but it seemed to me at the time that blogging might be another valuable tool for promoting psychological science. I’ve since added the ‘Full Frontal Psychology’ blog at True/Slant, and my blogging for The Huffington Post.

What’s your blog’s mission?

To improve the public understanding of psychological science. I strive to show readers how psychological research connects to their lives, and also to take them inside the labs to see the ingenious ways in which human behavior can be studied.

Are you also on Twitter?

Yes (@wrayherbert), and Facebook. I use both to extend the reach of We’re Only Human and Full Frontal Psychology.

How does your blogging affect your day job?

Blogging is my day job. I’m one of the lucky few who is actually paid a salary to blog – although I do other things as well.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

The psychology/neuro blogging field is getting fairly crowded, but there also seems to be an insatiable appetite for this stuff. I would pick a narrower niche. For example, I am hoping to start another called ‘They’re Just Kids,’ which will focus on the science of child development and parenting. I am also starting one that spins off from my new book On Second Thought (forthcoming from Crown), which is a popularization of heuristics and biases research, broadly construed. The key to successful blogging is to find a host that will deliver readers: My blog appeared for years in Newsweek.com, and still runs in the print magazine Scientific American Mind and The Huffington Post. Blogging doesn’t work on the ‘if you build it they will come’ principle.

What blogs do you read?

Not many really, just for lack of time. I like David DiSalvo’s Brainspin on True/Slant and David Dobbs’ Neuron Culture. I check out Mind Hacks when I have time, and Laura’s Blog (by psychologist Laura Freberg of Cal Poly).

What books or other traditional media are your reading at the moment?

Dan Ariely’s new book, The Upside of Irrationality. Ellen Langer’s Counterclockwise. I still get the New York Times and the Washington Post delivered to my door. For fun I’m reading (and immensely enjoying) Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo.

What blog posts of yours are you most proud of and why?

None in particular, but I like the fact that my book On Second Thought emerged naturally from a few years of regular blogging on cognitive biases. It’s a nice interplay of old and new media, don’t you think?

Bloggers behind the blogs: Dave Munger

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, Dave Munger of the Research Blogging consortium and the hugely popular, but now discontinued, Cognitive Daily.

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

We started Cognitive Daily because I was looking to begin a career as a writer and I needed something to write about. I realized that since I live with a psychologist (my wife, Greta), I have access to a unique resource. We’re unusual among bloggers because we work as a team. Greta picks the research articles that I write about and serves as a sort of editor for what I write, pointing out cases where I get the science wrong so I can fix them. Of course, as the blog became popular, our readers were quicker at finding my errors than Greta was!

What was Cognitive Daily’s mission and why did you decide to bring it to a close?

We never formally decided on a mission, but I think basically what we were trying to do was show people how interesting cognitive psychology is. We also wanted to emphasize peer-reviewed research, and we never skimped on discussing the details of the research — methods, results, and conclusions — without getting bogged down in jargon.

We actually closed Cognitive Daily for reasons similar to why we started it. I’m a writer, and I’m ready to move on and write about other things. I now have a weekly column in Seed Magazine, so there’s a regular outlet for my writing, and I’d like to pursue other projects with the remainder of my time.

Are you also on Twitter – if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?

Yes, I’m @davemunger on Twitter. I think there’s a delicate balance between tweeting and blogging. Twitter is so much easier to do than blogging that it can be tempting to spend all your time doing it. But while Twitter is important for connecting with new people and sharing your work, it’s not a substitute for actual blogging. Very few things can be thoroughly explained or discussed in 140-character chunks, and the best tweets link to blog posts! I’ve now banished Twitter from my main work computer and only use my iPad for tweets. It’s cut down on the time I spend on Twitter, but still allows me to connect with people.

One really great thing about Twitter is that if you’re Twitter friends with someone and then you see them at a conference, it’s like you already know them. I think more scientists should use Twitter (as long as they can find a way to limit their time on the platform). I was at the Vision Sciences Society conference last month and was surprised at how few people there were on Twitter. Twitter is really a fantastic way to improve your experience at a conference.

How does your blogging affect your day job?

I’m in an odd situation because blogging is my day job. As editor of ResearchBlogging.org, I promote blogging about peer-reviewed research. But even so, that’s a different thing from actually writing blog posts! I always considered Cognitive Daily to be a separate ‘job’ from my duties as an editor.

For a scientist who also blogs, I think the balance is a little different. Blogging may seem unrelated to your day-to-day work, but it can also be a critical part of your work. Organizations like the National Science Foundation in the U.S. expect grant recipients to do public outreach, and blogging is a great way to do that. All other things being equal, someone who regularly blogs about research in their field is much more likely to be awarded a grant than someone who does not.

I do have one suggestion, if you have a day job: Don’t put ‘daily’ in your blog’s title! It’s okay to blog once a week, or whenever you have time.

What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

I use WordPress, but at this point it’s primarily out of habit. One thing I like about it is that when you host your own blog (as opposed to signing up for their free hosting at wordpress.com), you’re not obligated to sign up for every single update of the system. If a new version adds a ‘feature’ you don’t like, it’s possible to roll back. That said, I don’t spend a lot of time tinkering with the technology. I’d much rather be writing about science!

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

My main advice is to be flexible. You might start with one idea of what your blog is going to be like, but eventually find it evolving into an entirely different thing. That’s fine! Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect – everyone understands that a blog is a work in progress, and that as long as you acknowledge your mistakes and fix them, in the long run they’ll come to trust you.

I’d also suggest that you put some of yourself into your blog. This doesn’t mean sharing all your deepest secrets, but you should definitely give readers some idea of who you are and why you love psychology. That’s the quickest way to build a connection with an audience.

(And as editor of ResearchBlogging.org, I’m obligated to say that when you blog about peer-reviewed research, you can get additional publicity for your blog by sharing your posts there as well.)

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

I’m a big fan of The Thoughtful Animal. I love Neuroskeptic and Neurodojo. Getting outside of psychology, one of my favorite science blogs is Denim and Tweed. Finally, I’m going to cheat a bit and recommend all the psychology and neuroscience finalists from The Research Blogging Awards – including, of course, BPS Research Digest, which deservedly won the Best Blog – Psychology award!

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

I’m just finishing up Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. I also enjoyed Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ The Invisible Gorilla. Next on the queue is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

This is a bit of a copout, but I’d have to say it’s the post that launched what eventually became ResearchBlogging.org. While I’ve written hundreds of posts about peer-reviewed research, all of which I’m extremely proud of, this paved the way for over 12,000 posts (and counting!).

The bloggers behind the blogs: Scarlett de Courcier

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, Scarlett De Courcier of Ramblings of an Academic Petrolhead, Paracademia and 28 others!

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

I’ve been on a psychology of religion research team for the past three years and have always been interested in psychology. I got into blogging through my day job, which is in new media advertising; I spend hours traversing the blogosphere so thought starting my own might be interesting. I then got a bit obsessed and now have 30 blogs overall, though not all are about psychology!

What’s your blog’s mission?

To take the bits of exciting information that drop into my inbox from journals and conferences, and make them into short, bite-sized articles people can easily understand, regardless of their academic background (or lack thereof).

Are you also on Twitter – if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?

I am indeed: @bohemiaacademia. I love Twitter, it’s a great way to promote whatever blogs you’re posting, but also to meet others who are working the same fields, both on and offline.

How does your blogging affect your day job?

It doesn’t really; I’m lucky because my day job involves the blogosphere, so they see it as a positive thing that I blog a lot. Having said that, I do my blogging in my non-work hours, mainly because I like to maintain a line between ‘home’ and ‘work’. If anything, blogging is affected (positively) by my day job: I often find interesting/beautiful/intriguing things in my internet travels at work, note them down and blog about them later.

What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform/hardware do you use and why?

Blogger, because it’s very simple.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

Just go for it. Blog about the things you like! It doesn’t matter if someone has already covered it, because no one has covered it in exactly the same way you would. Also, don’t give up after a little while when you discover no one’s reading it! It takes time to build an
audience. Use social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to augment your number of readers and connect with other bloggers.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

Mind Hacks, Not Exactly Rocket Science, Tom Froese’s blog, The Lay Scientist, and various others!

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment?

Right now I’m reading ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana‘ by Umberto Eco (one of the greatest writers of all time, in my opinion!).

The bloggers behind the blogs: Jacy Young

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, Jacy Young of Advances in the History of Psychology.

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

Advances in the History of Psychology began as a collaboration between Jeremy Trevelyan Burman, a graduate student in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York University, and Christopher Green one of the program’s faculty members. As a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology program working with Chris Green I became involved with the blog in May 2009 and took over as editor in September of that year. Burman’s previous TV and web production experience and the success of Green’s Classics in the History of Psychology website and This Week in the History of Psychology podcast series each served as catalysts for the creation of the blog. While I currently edit the blog and Green and I contribute posts, we also have to occasional contributors: the blog’s founding editor, Jeremy Burman and another student in the History and Theory of Psychology program, Jennifer Bazar.

What’s your blog’s mission?

Advances in the History of Psychology was launched in 2007 as a venue for bringing together history of psychology related news, resources, and discussion. More particularly, we seek to inform our readers of the most recent publications, conferences, and general news pertaining to the history of the psychology. Our audience includes both those with a general interest in the history of psychology and those who do historical work on psychology themselves or teach on the subject. Of broad appeal, are the interesting historical tidbits related to the discipline’s past that we unearth. Regular posts announcing recent publications and conferences related to the field appeal to a somewhat more limited audience, mainly those who do work in the history of psychology themselves.

How does your blogging affect your day job?

Blogging about the history of psychology while working on a degree in the field is a rather ideal pairing. Prior to blogging I would seek out various developments in the history of psychology simply for my own edification. Now each development I come across, and actively seek out, gets filed away for the blog. Ultimately, searching out information in my own field to blog about is a great way to keep abreast of new developments and to continue to expand my own knowledge of the discipline’s past.

What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

With multiple contributors, an easy to use blogging platform is a necessity. We currently use WordPress and while it is not without its issues, it is user-friendly enough that we have managed to avoid any major disasters.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

Making the blogging process as easy for yourself as possible. If blogging is hard to do, you just won’t do it. In addition to easy to use blogging software, one of the most straightforward ways to make the process easier is to blog about what you know. For us this means blogging about the history of psychology while doing the history of psychology.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

While there are a number of excellent psychology and neuroscience blogs on my blog roll, I thought I would focus on a few of the blogs that take a more historical bent. For instance, the recently begun H-Madness, which focuses on the history of madness, mental illness, and treatment and is written by a group of established international scholars, provides an interesting counterpoint to our blog.

The All in the Mind blog, which accompanies the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio programme on all things mental, often features interesting additional information on the topics covered in the radio program, many of which are historical.

BioMedicine on Display is the blog of the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen and features discussion of the issues surrounding the preservation and display of health related material.

And finally, Vaughn Bell’s Mind Hacks deserves a nod for not only being an excellent read, but also regularly featuring posts related to the history of psychology.

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

I am currently reading Harold J. Cook’s Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age.

Also on my summer reading list is John Carson’s The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750-1940, which recently won the International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences Cheiron Book Prize. I will also soon be re-reading the 2008 Cheiron Book Prize winner, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public by Sarah Igo.

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

Some of our most popular posts have been those on psychologists’ experimentation with hallucinogens, undoubtedly an attractive topic for students looking into the history of psychology for the first time. Also popular, are posts related to various replications of Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority experiment that have taken place in recent years, including a recent Milgram-esque French game show. Yet, one of the posts that attracted the most discussion (Presentism in the Service of Diversity?) was on a completely different topic: what are the boundaries of the history of psychology and how do we set these boundaries? Even though the post was before my time, witnessing sustained discussion on such an admittedly academic topic was gratifying.

Bloggers behind the blogs: Neurowhoa!

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, ‘Hesitant Iconoclast’ of the NeuroWhoa! blog.

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

I was a psychology undergraduate and, in the course of my studies, was astounded at how much high-quality science content was available on the Net. I stumbled across ScienceBlogs one day and gravitated almost immediately to Mo Costandi’s excellent Neurophilosophy blog, where I became a regular reader. After a few weeks of reading a selection of different psych-oriented blogs I just felt an inspiration to create a blog of my own, where I could talk about the issues that interest me as well as share the knowledge that I was and am learning.

What’s your blog’s mission?

I’d say a large part of it is public education as well as stimulating interest in psychology and neuroscience issues. I’ve come across so many misconceptions about ‘the mind’ and its functions that I’ve often felt driven to correct them in some way. For example, I have heard people suggesting that thinking too much or too long about something is a bad idea because it risks destroying valuable brain cells! Seriously. I know that’s pretty wild, but it just goes to show some of the crazy ideas people can have about the most simplest of things like memory, emotions, personality, etc. And yet the fact is that the subject is so full of beautiful and illuminating examples of the ways the mind and brain really do work that we cannot know if we will fully plumb the depths. In any case, one can only wonder why we seem to only discuss these things among ourselves and not putting the knowledge ‘out there’.

So that’s my angle; a combination of educational and interesting things to engage with and inform the public. My own efforts may be quite small, but I trust that the motivations for doing so are quite common among the majority of science bloggers and I am confident of collegial approaches going quite far in that direction.

Are you also on Twitter – if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?

Yes, I’m @NeuroWhoa. Twitter is fantastic in the way it can make automatic announcements every time I write a new article, but especially greater is the facility to keep in direct contact with other psychologists, neuroscientists, researchers, writers – people who are both notable and knowledgeable in their fields. Not only is there the capacity to learn new things in short and snappy conversations, but the fact that almost every tweet contains a link to some new announcement or article means a great proliferation of sharing information and resources endlessly! It’s popular to muse about learning something new every day, but with Twitter it’s really true.

Also, it’s quite possible to gauge the ‘buzz’ about whatever makes the news of the day and that’s what gives me the ideas to write about. A lot of my posts have been inspired by something I’ve read via Twitter, and when it is a case of blogging about some new finding it helps to know what other people are saying about it and that in turn helps to write up a balanced view of the subject. It is great that when you are stumped sometimes, you can just ask a question and get an answer almost straightaway. I’m always grateful for the help I’ve received from fellow Twitterers that makes a direct contribution to whatever post I’m writing, and always try to repay that by crediting them wherever possible.

What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

I use the Blogger platform, mainly because that’s the one where I’ve had most experience with. I’ve flirted with the idea of moving to WordPress, Typepad or some other free service and have explored some of them, but in many cases I found the controls somewhat elaborate and I get the feeling I’d be spending more time twiddling knobs to prettify the blog design than writing. So in that respect Blogger suits me well – it gets the job done by simply letting you write whatever you want, and you’re set!

I’m open to the possibility of a change, however. If I can be convinced that another platform has better facilities that are both user-friendly and audience-orientated then I’d be willing to give it a try.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

I’d say that, whatever motivated you to write in the first place, remember that regularly and try to keep true to it. Stick to a pace that’s comfortable for you and don’t feel obligated to churn out postings too fast. Sometimes quality is better than quantity, there’s no substitute for a well-crafted and thoughtful post that enables people to learn something than just posting two or three lines of comment on something obscure because you feel you have to or you may lose readers. Also, make an effort to be easily understood. We all know that academic papers can be hard to read, so it is essential to strike a balance between transmitting valuable information and keeping the jargon to a tolerable or minimum level. This is a skill to be learnt in time and with experience, however.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

Mind Hacks is my daily fix, with Neurophilosophy coming a close second. I like to be eclectic in my science reading so as to be informed of developments elsewhere. So aside from a few other neuro-blogs like Neurocritic and Neurologica, I also skim through Pharyngula, Why Evolution Is True, and Respectful Insolence.

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

Ha! It’s good that you ask me to list up to five because I always tend to have my nose buried in several books at a time! At this moment I’m reading David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives. Eagleman is a neuroscientist and, while I don’t believe in an afterlife, it’s interesting to approach the subject from forty different and interesting scenarios of ‘what could be’. I’m also reading Theodore Millon’s Masters Of The Mind, which is a general history of mental illness and how definitions and treatment have changed throughout history. Other items on my reading list include Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and D.J. Enright’s Oxford Book of Death.

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

I’ve written many posts that I’m proud of so it’s hard to pick, but I guess What Is Self-Transcendence? was good in that I did something different than the usual. This post referred to a recent paper that reported how neurosurgery performed on certain brain structures effected personality changes in patients which made them feel more ‘spiritual’, giving further credence to the idea of spirituality having a neurobiological origin. The study drew interested comment from various quarters when it was released, but my curiosity was piqued by the mention of a personality construct called Self-Transcendence (ST), the increase and manifestation of which was said to be the evidence of increase of spiritual feelings. I wanted to know about the measurements involved in determining this construct and what its essential elements were. It involved hunting down papers from 1993 in a bid to track the development of ST as a concept and discovering the actual items of ST that were used to determine the personality changes of the neurosurgical patients. To display the ST items and comment on how they could properly define spirituality (or not, as was the case) made the whole thing a detective story of sorts, so I was a little pleased with myself for managing to find an interesting angle and doing some real investigation for a change instead of doing what everyone else was doing and blogging about the study itself.

I guess if I could find more such angles in papers that highlight the studies in a different and interesting way, I would be that much more satisfied with my writings and hopefully my readers will too!

Bloggers behind the blogs: Neuroskeptic

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, Neuroskeptic of the Neuroskeptic blog.

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

I’d long had an interest in science communication. Growing up I was a big fan of the great science writers like Stephen J Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Carl Sagan, but until I started blogging I’d never written much beyond occasional pieces for student newspapers. My main inspiration to start came from Ben Goldacre’s blog (and book) Bad Science – because it showed me that the print media coverage of science was very often terrible but more importantly that they really had no interest in making it good. So it’s often up to amateurs to do it right.

And I was struck by something Ben said at a talk he was giving: someone asked him for advice in doing the same kind of thing in another country and his advice was ‘just go ahead and do it’. So I did. I started reading a lot of science blogs at around that time, and really admired them, so I tried to get in on the act.

What’s your blog’s mission?

Well I write about what interests me, I think that’s the only thing you can do really – your mission should be to tell people about what interests you in a way that makes them interested in it too. But I suppose my mission is to show that there are lots of really interesting things in neuroscience, and you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to understand them.

How does your blogging affect your day job?

I think it improves it. On the one hand it takes some time out of the day, though not very much, but it means I read papers I wouldn’t otherwise have, it’s improved my writing skills enormously (which is very useful for writing papers, proposals and grant applications ) and it’s given me contacts.

What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

I use Blogger just because it was the first one I found when I typed ‘blog’ into Google… and I’ve stuck with it because it does the job. I think WordPress is probably objectively a bit better, you can do more with it, but I see no reason to move.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

Start off by reading blogs, read them for a couple of weeks, decide which ones you really like and try to work out why. Then ‘Just go ahead and do it’ sums it up I suppose – if you’re thinking of starting a blog or thinking of writing about something in particular, go for it. Of course you need to know your stuff before you do, but don’t be put off by the idea that someone must have already done it, or that someone will come along and do it better than you. That held me back for a long time. I was overestimating ‘someone’! There’s loads to write about and most interesting science doesn’t get blogged about at all.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

I read the ‘big’ neuroscience/psychology/psychiatry blogs but here’s 5 that are perhaps less well known:

[Citation Needed]
Wiring the Brain
The MacGuffin
Women’s Mag Science
Providentia

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

At the moment I’m reading Daniel Carlat’s Unhinged, for a review. Also embarrassingly I am about to read The Da Vinci Code.

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

I’m very pleased by how fMRI in 1000 words turned out – because it took me hours of head-scratching to understand fMRI when I first read about it a few years back, but I managed to compress it into 1000 words that will be, hopefully, useful to people learning about it for the first time. I can see it being useful to me if I had had it back then! It’s proven very popular so I think it turned out well.

Bloggers behind the blogs: David Dobbs

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, David Dobbs of Neuron Culture.

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

Though mind and brain has probably been my steadiest and most frequent topic — and will almost surely be so now that I’m writing a book about genes and behaviour, I still think of psych and neuroscience as just one of several things I blog about.

They do seem in my wheelhouse, however. I went years without writing about psych or neuroscience, but when I started a few years ago, it felt as if I’d come home. Both my background and the nature of my interest in science areas make natural fodder for me. For starters, my mom was a shrink (no jokes, please), which probably played a role; my dad was a surgeon, and I’ve always been interested in that too.

Yet it scarcely requires having a shrink as a mom to take a keen interest in how people behave, or misbehave, for this is life’s fundamental puzzle. I don’t mean from just an intellectual standpoint. You must understand how people behave — and manage your own behavior accordingly — to survive and thrive. This holds for individuals and also accounts for humanity’s success, however mixed it is. Small wonder, then, that most of us take a keen interest in how others think and why they behave the way they do.

So that’s the behaviour. But why your interest in the sciences that study it?

Science constitutes our most serious and rigorous attempt to understand the world — and psychiatry, psychology, and now neuroscience make great material partly because they so often and starkly show science’s power and pitfalls. These disciplines are hard. The people who work in them, whether researching, treating patients or both, are trying to discern and treat enormously complex and opaque dynamics. Some do brilliant work. Others, both now and through the centuries, have come up with some really fascinating wrong ideas, some of them, like phrenology, hare-brained and obviously corrupt, and others, like Freudian psychology, more rigorous but in the end almost as badly flawed empirically. Freud created a brilliant, beautiful, and disciplined body of work — a gorgeously developed account of how we think and behave — that ultimately fails as science because you can’t falsify it. Meanwhile, Cajal was figuring out the neuron — and quietly laid a path now being followed to much greater effect.

At their best, these disciplines try to find empirical ways to understand human behavior, mood, and thinking, and to treat problems in the same areas. And even as we’re starting to get a few real insights into the brain, these disciplines offer one object lesson after another in the challenges and dangers of science. Take neuroimaging alone. You get brilliant people like Helen Mayberg, who uses imaging to create and test deep, complex, substantial ideas about how depression works. And you get others who claim they can read an fMRI and tell you whether someone is lying. And in between you encounter — sometimes starkly, sometimes subtly — every kind of intellectual, financial, cultural, and personal issue that generate what we call conflicts of interest — that is, the desires and motivations that pull scientists or medical people away from solid, empirically based science and practice and into murky terrain. Meanwhile you get the very cool technical solutions people devise, and the lovely long detective-story-level intellectual puzzles they solve.

All that, and a million alluring ideas about why we act, think, and feel the ways we do. There’s no end to the richness.

What’s your blog’s mission?

Same as my writing in general, only faster. I want to write about science, nature, medicine, culture, and — the big fun — how they overlap. Blogging lets me do this in quicker, more provisional takes. It lets me revise my provisional takes and respond more fluidly to other people’s provisional takes. It lets me elaborate or post sources on longform articles I’ve written for print. It lets me write about things I’ll deal with more deeply in my book on behavioral genetics — and on related issues I won’t have room for in my book. All that, and I can post YouTube mashups of Soviet soldiers dancing to hip-hop. I can write about curveballs and Sandy Koufax. Twice.

So I suppose the mission is to write seriously, to have and deliver some fun, and to participate in a range of conversations that are going on online.

Are you also on Twitter – if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?

I’ve really taken to Twitter, and it complements and feeds my blogging enormously. It provides an even faster, more fluid way to communicate and share ideas. And feeds me faster and richer than any other medium.

How does your blogging affect your day job?

I’m a freelancer, so my day job is what I make it. (That sounds so leisurely; it really means I work all day and then again at night. Though I do sometimes go fishing.) I used to view blogging as eating into my real job of writing. Now I see it more coherently as part of it. Though I do have to limit it, since it doesn’t pay — not directly, anyway.

What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

Scienceblogs uses MovableType, so I’ve no choice there; I find it clumsy and would rather use WordPress instead. I use MarsEdit (a Mac program) to write most of my posts. I usually write on my big-screen iMac so I have plenty of working room for cutting and pasting and linking and such.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

Read and heed Strunk and White, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and all three of the annual science writing anthologies. Read Strunk and White every year. And read your own stuff out loud (to yourself); you’ll be amazed at how quickly it exposes the lame passages.

Finally, read some history and philosophy of science and intellectual history — The Metaphysical Club; A Short History Of Nearly Everything; Newton and the Counterfeiter; Reef Madness; The Great Betrayal. Seeing how clumsy and wrong-headed even great scientists were in the past will help you develop a good bullshit detector — essential to any good writing, especially needed in writing about psychology.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

This is representative rather than most visited. A few I find particularly valuable, fun, or interesting lately are Not Exactly Rocket Science, where Ed Yong puts out a stunning combination of quality, quantity, and sheer WTF wonder; Vaughan Bell’s Mind Hacks, which offers a lovely combination of bullshit detection and previously undiscovered wonders; and some fine pairs: SuperBug and Speakeasy; Genetic Future and Gene Expression; Neuroanthropology and Neurophilosophy. The Loom. And for literary illumination, n+1, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, and the New York Review of Books. I could list another dozen quite easily, some it pains me to leave out.

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

Heavy on genetics lately. Recently or presently on my reading table: The Selfish Gene; Here is a Human Being by Misha Angrist, still in galleys; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Not By Genes Alone; John Cacioppo’s Loneliness; and James Schwartz’s absorbing history In Pursuit of the Gene — another one for that recommended history of science list.

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

I may be missing some early ones. But the one I like the most at present is probably Does depression have an upside? It’s complicated. I was responding to ‘Depression’s Upside,’ a feature in the New York Times Magazine in which my friend Jonah Lehrer presented, and largely sided with, an argument for the ‘analytic-ruminative’ theory, which holds that depression is adaptive because it creates a ruminative focus that generates valuable insight. I disagreed. But as I wrote the post, I realized I disagreed from a side-angle rather than head-on. I badly wanted to convey that, both because the evolutionary foundation of depression is highly important but tricky and multidimensional, and because I so value Jonah’s writing. I wanted to convey all that. And when I finished the post I felt I’d done pretty much what I’d hoped. This pleased me and still does, because the time constraints of blog posts make it hard to write clearly about such subtle and complex points — such things usually take me a while, for lo I am slow — and this time I felt I got it.

Now if I can just clean up the typos.

Bloggers behind the blogs: Mo Costandi

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, Mo Costandi of Neurophilosophy.

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

Out of boredom. Ten years ago, I was doing a Ph.D. at the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, but I left the lab without completing it, for various reasons. After a short stint as a secondary school science teacher (which I didn’t enjoy) I ended up working as a security guard. The job involved long hours but very little work. I had always enjoyed writing, so I decided to set up a blog. On the Ph.D., I was getting bogged down in the technical details of my experiments, and began to lose sight of the bigger picture, of why I had become interested in neuroscience in the first place. The blog really helped me to rediscover my passion for the subject, because I read and write about virtually all aspects of brain research.

What’s your blog’s mission?

At the beginning, its purpose was to stop me from going mad in a mind-numbingly boring job. But about three years ago, once I had built up a readership, I started thinking about earning a living as a writer. I decided to stop posting YouTube vids, quick links, and so on, so that I could focus on writing short essay-type posts. The idea was to turn the blog into a sort of portfolio, or showcase, of good quality writing about neuroscience. It paid off – various editors noticed it and offered me freelance work, and a while ago I was contacted by a wonderful literary agent, with whom I’m now working on a book proposal.

Are you also on Twitter – if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?

Yes, I’m on Twitter (@mocost), and I enjoy using it. Blogs were once thought of as being interactive, but in fact they’re quite static. Twitter, however, really is interactive, and it’s by far the best of all the social media websites I’ve used. I mainly follow researchers and science writers, and it’s a great way of engaging them, as well as anybody else who’s on there – my readers, editors, and even some of my favourite musicians. It’s also very useful for posting quick links, which I no longer do on the blog, and for finding interesting new stuff too (although it still hasn’t replaced my beloved feed reader).

What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

I started off on WordPress.com, which I still think is one of the best blogging platforms there is. Three years ago, I moved my blog to the ScienceBlogs network, which uses another platform called Movable Type. As for hardware, I use a desktop PC, a laptop and a netbook. I’ve used Macs in the past, mainly to analyse DNA sequences while I was in the lab, but I’ve always preferred PCs.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

Write about what you know and are passionate about. Try to write regularly, but don’t force yourself to update your blog just for the sake of it. Blogging should be fun, so if the mood doesn’t take you, then log out and come back to it later. Building a blog takes time, so it needs perseverance, but if you know what you’re talking about, you’ll be recognized sooner or later. Also, read and comment on other blogs – that’ll help you get noticed – and, although it’s nice watching your visitor number increase, don’t get too obsessed with your stats.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

Other than yours, Mind Hacks, The Neurocritic and Neuroskeptic are essential reading for anyone interested in neuroscience and psychology. I love Carl Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, and also BibliOdyssey. There are thousands of great blogs out there, so it’s very difficult to list just five. I’d urge everyone to browse my blogroll, which is full of excellent blogs that I try to read when I can.

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

I usually have three or four books on the go at any one time. At the moment I’m reading The Phenomenology of Perception, by the existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Body, by Michael Sims. I like to buy The Guardian on Saturdays, mainly for the Review section, and have been subscribed to The Economist for about 10 years – it’s conservative, but very well written and informative.

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

That’d have to be my post about the pioneering neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. It’s very long – about 6,000 words – but that’s not why I’m proud of it. A lot of research went into that post, including reading Penfield’s original papers from the 1930s, which I really enjoyed. When I posted it, there were some lovely responses in the comments section and elsewhere. Vaughan Bell – who writes one of my favourite blogs – linked to it, calling it ‘probably the best article on Penfield you’re likely to find on the net’, and I also got an email from William Feindel, the director of the Wilder Penfield Archive, telling me how much he enjoyed reading it. Those are some of the things that make blogging worthwhile.

Bloggers behind the blogs: Vaughan Bell

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world’s leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks.

How did you become a psychology blogger?

Tom Stafford and Matt Webb wrote an amazing book called Mind Hacks that explains psychology through self-experimentation and asked me for a few short contributions. At the launch party (aka: meeting in a pub) they asked me if I’d like to write a few ‘guest posts’ for the blog. Six years later I am still guest posting, normally about 2-3 times a day.

Are you also on Twitter – if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?

I do use Twitter, and I’m @vaughanbell on the service. Early on when writing for the blog, I started writing a weekly ‘Spike Activity‘ post on Friday that consists of lots of interesting links from the week that were worth checking out but didn’t merit a full post with a one line description. For me, Twitter is just like an instant version of Spike Activity. I think of it like a news ticker but just for things I find interesting, and I also use it to subscribe to other people who make interesting news tickers themselves – so it functions like a custom built news wire service where you can choose your reporters from a selection ranging from the BBC to your friends.

Twitter also seems to have an interesting property: the limited message size lends itself to informality so people are less concerned, and indeed, less able to be ‘self-important’ and so will post about their own work and opinions more than in other mediums. For example, imagine you’re working with someone who makes a point of telling you every time they have an article published or read something they found useful. You’d probably get pissed off with them pretty quickly. But for some people, I would like to know this information. Sophie Scott (on Twitter as @sophiescott) is a good example of this. She’s a professor of neuropsychology at UCL who studies speech and language – an area I’m by no means an expert in. When Sophie Scott thinks a new study is important, I’d like to know that. Twitter is the internet equivalent of making these announcements by writing them on post-it notes on your office door. We all know people who have expertise we value – whether that includes neuroscience, football or new music, and I want to read their post-it notes, but without breaching social etiquette and hassling people. Like all communication technology, it’s useful primarily because it addresses a social issue.

How does your blogging affect your day job?

It just kind of slots in. I’m not really sure to be honest. In the old days [cue music] people used to take extensive notes on the things they’d read to make them more accessible. I have memories of researchers with card index summaries of books and papers. I think it works like that except I write my notes up for public consumption and just include anything I find interesting. It’s easy to kid yourself you’ve understood something and trying to explain it is a good way of making sure you’ve got it clear in your own mind. You could be wrong of course, but with the internet you’ll quickly find this out. This sucks by the way, but it is a useful way of learning, even if you don’t realise it until a week afterwards and you’re no longer wound up about being flamed in public. I also love writing and I don’t really see it as work, so I’m happy to sit down and write even after a busy day.

What are your weapons of choice – i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

Matt Webb is a talented digital designer and we have the luxury of having the blog managed by professional web people without having to put too much thought into it. A lucky position to be in.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

People like pictures. The best way of getting good at something is to spend lots of time doing it badly. Expect synchronicity. The rewards are in the process, not the product. Readers like regular updates. Explain why something is important: motivate people and they’ll teach themselves. Get used to being wrong. Aim for differing levels of understanding but not necessarily at the same time. PubMed is your co-pilot. Actually, just give it a bash, you’ll learn everything you need to know as you go along.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

There are lots of fantastic blogs I read on a daily basis, and I notice that most have already been mentioned by other people in the series, or, are by people in the series! So instead I’ll mention three that I read that I think are under-recognised or you may not know about, probably because they tackle specialist areas.

In the News is a fantastic blog on forensic psychology by a US-based practitioner. Don’t be put off by the fact it looks a bit sparse, it’s a fantastic source of news and recently broke a big story about legal shenanigans in psychopathy assessment that got picked up by major internationals. Sadly, possibly the only blog on UK forensic psychology closed down last year.

Addiction Inbox is a blog by a journalist that covers addiction science in the sort of depth you would expect from a specialist in the field. I sometimes find I don’t agree with his take on things but the issues are covered in enough detail that I have to ask myself why, which strikes me as being a sign of being a good writer.

Advances in the History of Psychology is a group blog by the people behind the popular internet resource ‘Classics in the History of Psychology’. Very well informed writing backed up by a real enthusiasm (they recently announced they would take a break for the summer but keep posting things that are ‘too important’ to miss!) [Having read Vaughan’s comments, the Digest has contacted Advances in the History of Psychology to take part in this interview series].

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Anna Freud (not a lesbian, as I’d previously thought).
Tenebrario by Nina Melero (a collection of Spanish-language short stories by my ex-Spanish teacher).
Hallucinations by André Aleman and Frank Laroi (no academic book should cost 50 quid but it is excellent).
Into the Silent Land by Paul Broks (again).
One River by Wade Davis (my arm-chair training for a long-promised voyage into the Amazon).

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

Any that I’ve managed without undetected typos. I am guessing there are not many.