Johns Hopkins University

Spring 2008
Vol. 5, No.2

ALUMNI

>The Brain Explained

At the Helm of American University

Physics' Female Role Model

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The Brain Explained

When neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt ’88 goes to parties, she often finds herself talking to people about the human brain. She has noticed that most people have misconceptions about how it really works. “The most common one is that you only use 10 percent of your brain, which is completely wrong,” she says.

Now, thanks to a book Aamodt co-wrote with Sam Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, laypeople can get an accurate, easy-to-fathom overview of the body’s most complex organ. Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life, which hit bookstores in March, debunks myths such as the one about 10 percent usage (we actually use virtually all of our brains) and that playing Mozart for your kids will make them smarter (it won’t, but teaching them a musical instrument might). Readers can also find answers to such questions as: Does cramming for a test really work, and does drinking kill brain cells?

Writing for the masses is a big departure for Aamodt, who is editor-in-chief of Nature Neuroscience, a leading scientific journal in brain research. “We were told early on, if you’re asking someone to spend their Saturday afternoon with you, you had better be good company,” she remembers.

Aamodt the writer/editor actually trained for and expected a career as a bench scientist. While she was at Hopkins earning her degree in biophysics, David Olton in what was then the Psychology Department piqued her interest in neuroscience. She went on to earn a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Rochester in 1994 and did her postdoctoral work at Yale. In the lab she tried to figure out the biological reasons young brains learn more quickly and more permanently than mature brains.

But she also liked writing, and she thought hard about becoming a science journalist. Then she saw an ad for an editor position at Nature Neuroscience and decided to apply. “I don’t know anyone who grew up wanting to be a journal editor,” she says. “But by the end of the interview, I knew I was going to die if I didn’t get that job.”

She lived. She was one of three editors hired to launch the journal in 1998. In 2003, she became editor in chief. Telecommuting to the journal’s editorial offices in New York from her home in California where she lives with her husband, she manages the peer review process and has the ultimate responsibility for what articles appear in the journal.

Aamodt had been kicking around the idea for a book on the brain for the general public for a while when, in 2000, she learned from a mutual friend that Sam Wang was thinking about writing a similar book. “It turned out to be a great inspiration,” she says. “I’m not sure either one of us would have done it on our own.”

They didn’t do much right away, and then in 2003, they started writing down some ideas for a table of contents. In March 2006, they had a contract from the publisher (Bloomsbury USA). They got a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation and went to the Bellagio Study Center in Italy as visiting scholars. There, they spent a month in a mansion—“and we could bring spouses, which made me very popular at home”—and made good headway on their writing.

Last November, Aamodt and Wang wrote an op-ed for The New York Times called “Exercise on the Brain.” In it, they explained that the best thing you can do to protect your brain is not Sudoku puzzles. It’s physical exercise. Many readers were surprised, and the article was one of the most e-mailed Times stories of that month.

Aamodt was amused later to see the article referenced on a discussion board for video gamers. “One of the kids wrote that we were just smug jocks,” she says. “I’ve never been accused of that before.”