Laugh Out Loud Neuroscience

Megan Messana
February 19, 2019

Contrary to popular belief, scientists are just like the rest of us. They complain about their jobs, they like to joke around, and they tend to tell anyone who will listen about their work. Shannon Odell, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at Weill Cornell Medicine, writes and stars in “Your Brain On [Blank]” videos, a series that combines comedy and neuroscience to dispel the myth that her brainy teachers and classmates are not fundamentally different from anyone else.

The videos are produced by Inverse, a San Francisco-based digital media company that covers topics such as technology, science, and culture. The company’s website says that Odell’s series has received 75 million hits, including more than 400,000 through Facebook alone.

Odell got on Inverse’s radar when the company’s editorial staff was based in Brooklyn and learned of Drunk Science, a popular experimental comedy theater-like show co-created and co-hosted by Odell. Inverse invited her to create a show entitled “Big Ideas with Little Kids” before they approached her about making a video on the neuroscience of drinking. She agreed, and from there, the “Your Brain on [Blank]” series was born. In the series, she uses humor and illustrations and maps of the brain to explain the science behind 14 topics, including subjects such as social media addiction, caffeine, conspiracy theories, kittens, and puppies. As a dog-person, the puppy video is probably her favorite, says Odell, who grew up in Byram Township, New Jersey.

Having performed in theater when she was younger, Odell took an interest in comedy when she came to New York City after receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Vassar College. Her interest in neuroscience was inspired by studying animal behavior while studying abroad in Australia, and from she worked in a neuroscience lab at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she developed a passion for neuroscience and was ready to make the kind of commitment required to pursue a Ph.D. At the same time, she signed up for an improv class to meet new people and started thinking about combining the worlds of neuroscience and comedy.

Odell uses her natural charm and humor as well as her neuroscience studies to make her under 10-minute videos educational and entertaining. Watching her on camera is like sitting down with a friend who patiently explains to you why, for example, too much alcohol can lead to a hangover.  “I think science can really benefit from having people that are super creatively-minded in it,” says Odell, who lives in Brooklyn. “Because that’s when you come up with the out-of-the-box ideas,” adding that scientific advancement is tied to creativity.

Along with the success of her videos, Odell hopes to complete her degree later this year on epigenetics and how the hippocampus develops. “It’s good to get out there and talk to people about your science,” Odell says. “And I think it’s important for scientists to talk about their science because ultimately it is publicly funded, most of it. The people are paying for it. They deserve to know about it.”