Learning about the brain through science podcasts and fantasy worlds

The term ‘science education’ often brings to mind stressful chemistry labs, memorizing biology facts from a textbook, or struggling to read dry, confusing research papers. Such learning methods may work for those specializing in a particular field, but do little to convey the ideas to a broader audience. Morgan Sweeney, U3 Arts & Science, has a plan to change how science, particularly cognitive science, is communicated. 

Through her new podcast, Magic of the Mind, Sweeney aims to introduce intriguing cognitive science topics and ideas in two steps. First, she and her friends play an adapted Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game that introduces cognitive science ideas through their story. Similar to how science fiction often bases its technology off of real scientific concepts, Magic of the Mind builds its key plot devices based on real cognitive science topics, like memory or language. After each episode’s adventure concludes, Sweeney interviews a prominent female scientist on the issue to learn more about the topic. These two-part episodes come out roughly every two weeks on magicofthemind.ca, Spotify, and Apple Music.

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Sweeney explained that it was her encounters with podcasts that led her to want to create one.

“I wanted to make a podcast after listening to all these different podcasts while travelling,” Sweeney said. “At the end of last year, I thought about what […] I wanted to do in a podcast. I love learning about the brain, […] it is so pertinent to everyone’s life [.…] So, it seemed really natural to center it around that.” 

Magic of the Mind’s unique format was also guided by the podcasts that Sweeney listens to. In particular, Sweeney cited Radio Lab for its ability to weave together journalism and storytelling and Dungeons and Daddies for illustrating how D&D can provide the basis for a comedic fantasy adventure with friends. The end product of incorporating such influences is a rich soundscape of Sweeney and her friends voicing their characters with emotion and dramatic pauses. 

“As a kid, I loved fantasy [and] plot-driven narratives,” Sweeney said. “[…] A lot of other [book genres] were a little more boring. I personally have always been drawn to storytelling and more complicated narratives.”

In the first episode, the adventurer Quest reveals that she is bilingual and only knows the word ‘home’ in one of her languages, foreshadowing a source of conflict later in the episode and bringing attention to the interesting way that bilingual minds can work.

To further explore how these bilingual minds work, Sweeney interviewed Dr. Debra Titone, director of the McGill Language and Multilingualism Lab. Through Titone’s work, listeners learn that bilingual people sometimes heavily compartmentalize words for certain objects between their languages but can often recognize more clearly that many labels could be applied to a variety of objects. Beyond bilingualism, Titone and Sweeney delved into the world of semantics and the differences between spoken and written language. 

Future episodes will feature experts at McGill tackling several themes on topics like memory and attention. Encouraged by the great interviews that she has had with scientists so far, Sweeney is excited to highlight more female scientists going forward.

“[If there is] anything I can do to showcase the awesome work of female scientists, of course I will do it,” Sweeney said. “Representation is so important, […] and there are so many female scientists to share their great experience.”

Sweeney has the format, resources, and ideas to keep this podcast going strong, and she hopes that it can reach a wide audience at McGill and beyond. 

“I mostly just want people to listen to it,” Sweeney said. “I want people to view science as a human endeavour, especially if there are other people [at] McGill who want to do science communication.”

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