Many thanks to Elizabeth Bass and others at the Stony Brook Center for Communicating Science for help in creating this tutorial. For those interested in going deeper, the CCS offers fantastic courses on science writing.
The People’s Science provides a centralized forum in which you can present your work to the public and directly talk with people far outside your field about how you see your work and its importance. For this process to work effectively, you must meet a difficult (but deeply worthwhile) challenge: becoming your own interpreter. A common stereotype about scientists is that we do not or cannot describe our work in a way that is palatable and interesting to the lay public. This site is designed in part to overcome that assumption. However, in order to do so, it is important to take some time in thinking deeply about how to convey your work in the most accessible way possible.
What follows is some advice (in the form of a goal, two approaches, and an example) on how to do so.
A (Relative) Goal: During the holidays, family members typically ask each other how work is going. For scientists, answering this question can be surprisingly difficult. This is because we can get so entrenched in the details of our work that the “long view”—the one our grandparents would understand—seems far away indeed. In writing a pop abstract, your challenge is to write as though explaining your work to an intelligent, capable relative who is totally naïve to your field and its importance. In essence, this is an exercise in theory of mind: understanding that others’ knowledge and thinking diverges from yours, and that communication requires bridging that gap.
An (Inverted) Approach to Prioritizing: One important piece of fulfilling our Relative goal is learning to re-prioritize the way we present and order information. In a standard abstract, we open with a short introduction about existing knowledge our field has produced about a specific topic. We then spend the bulk of our time describing the details of our study, and end with 1-2 sentences about our conclusions and the possible implications of this work. For your pop abstract, you should consider inverting this structure. A good pop abstract will start with (and emphasize) the clearest and broadest conclusions that can be drawn from your work. Does your research inform how people think about some feature of their lives? Does it hold implications for medicine, technology, policy, or the like? This is what readers will most want to know. An inverted pop abstract should then provide background about the problem your work tackles for the uninitiated. Finally, it fills readers in on the details of your work, and ends by reiterating the implications this work can have.
A (Baseball) Approach to Terminology: Think of a baseball game you once watched. (If baseball isn’t your thing, any sport or rule-based competition works too.) Now try to explain what happened to a visitor from another planet. You’ll quickly notice that you’re using terms that your audience has no reasons to understand. “It’s the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded and the Sox down 3” can be a very exciting phrase for some, but not for someone who doesn’t know what an inning is. You’ll then notice that explaining that “an inning is three outs” just begs the question of what an “out” is, and that “an out is three strikes” just begs the question of what a “strike” is. Instead, the most intuitive way to describe baseball might be to start at the beginning, with what’s at stake to the people involved (“It was one group’s last chance to win, and in order to do so they would need something just shy of a miracle to happen.”).
It’s useful to think of scientific jargon in a similar way: totally useful to those who know about it, and a potential barrier for reaching outside. In writing your pop abstract, take the time to think about when the terms you use are the equivalent of saying “innings” to someone from Alpha Centauri. If so, consider thoughtfully explaining them, or (even better) testing the extent to which you can explain the same idea in more common language.
Here’s an example of a scientific abstract of my own, which I’ve “translated” into a pop abstract.
Classic theories of emotion posit that awareness of one's internal bodily states (interoception) is a key component of emotional experience. This view has been indirectly supported by data demonstrating similar patterns of brain activity – most importantly, in the anterior insula – during both interoception and emotion elicitation. However, no study has directly compared these two phenomena within participants, leaving it unclear whether interoception and emotional experience truly share the same functional neural architecture.
The current study addressed this gap in knowledge by examining the neural convergence of these two phenomena within the same population. In one task, participants monitored their own heartbeat; in another task they watched emotional video clips and rated their own emotional responses to the videos. Consistent with prior research, heartbeat monitoring engaged a circumscribed area spanning insular cortex and adjacent inferior frontal operculum. Critically, this interoception-related cluster also was engaged when participants rated their own emotion, and activity here correlated with the trial-by-trial intensity of participants' emotional experience. These findings held across both group-level and individual participant-level approaches to localizing interoceptive cortex. Together, these data further clarify the functional role of the anterior insula and provide novel insights about the connection between bodily awareness and emotion.
New research from Josh Davis, Kevin Ochsner, and I, demonstrates that the brain processes emotion and internal bodily states in overlapping ways, suggesting a strong link between what we feel and how we feel. We hope this work can help advance our basic understanding of how emotions work and how they go wrong in psychiatric disorders.
Many of us hold the intuition that our emotions come from the “bottom up.” We feel our heart race, or our limbs tense, and these bodily signals tell us something about how we feel. Over a century ago, William James had the same idea, and took it even further. In a classic article called “What is an Emotion?” James suggested that bodily sensations are not just symptoms of experiencing an emotion; they are (at least in part) the experience of emotion. This controversial theory has been supported by more recent data from neuroscience. Specifically, scientists have found that a brain region known as the anterior insula becomes active both during “interoception” (when people pay attention to internal bodily states like their heartbeat) and during emotion experience. However, scientists had previously only examined activity in the insula during either interoception or emotion, making it unclear how much these two phenomena actually overlap in the brain. In this study, we took a closer look at the extent to which thinking about your body and feeling emotions share a neural signature.
Our participants were scanned using functional MRI during two separate tasks. First, they viewed emotional videos and rated how they much these videos made them feel positively or negatively. Second, they focused on and tapped along with their heartbeat (interoception). We found that the insula was the only brain region that showed activity in response to 3 phenomena: (1) focusing on one’s heartbeat, (2) watching emotional videos, and (3) the intensity of emotion participants felt during these videos. Further, the same part of the insula responded to bodily sensation and emotion within each participant. It’s important to realize that the insula is engaged by many different states (pain, disgust, uncertainty), and we are not claiming that only bodily sensations and emotion activate this region. However, it’s interesting and important to think about the common “psychological ingredients” that connect the different states that activate the insula. One intriguing possibility is that the body—and attention to the body—is one such common ingredient. We hope that this study, along with other similar work, will help us more deeply understand the architecture of human emotion, in ways that can eventually help those with affective disorders such as anxiety and depression.
I hope these tips help in your pop abstract preparation. Happy writing!