Every week I post a quick Q&A with one of our bloggers on the network, so you can get to know them better. This week, I chat with Jason G. Goldman of the The Thoughtful Animal blog.
Hello! Let's start with first things first. What is the name of your blog and why did you choose that name - what does it mean?
The first is that we tend to think of humans – of ourselves – as the most intelligent or the most thoughtful species. The problem is that it's hard to directly compare species when it comes to cognitive aptitude. Three-toed sloths are really good at solving day-to-day three-toed sloth problems. Chimpanzees are far better at being chimpanzees than we would be, and likewise we're far better at being humans than a chimp could ever be. To ask whether humans or chimps are better at a particular task or problem completely misses the point. All animals have some amazing cognitive abilities, and its just a question of how to measure and identify them.
The second mistake we make that we tend to think of ourselves as in a category different from all other animals – which is of course untrue. We're as much animal as dogs or horses or dolphins or lizards or squids or harpy eagles.
So, really, any species that I write about can be considered thoughtful animals - humans included!
Where does the artwork for your banner come from, and what are you trying to convey with it?
My banner artwork was done by the very talented scientific illustrator Carl Buell. We wanted to convey the breadth of species that I write about, since I write about behavior and cognition in anything from ants to humans. You can't fit too many species on a blog banner, so we decided to focus on three wildly different species, from very different types of environments, with very different evolutionary histories, but who are all commonly thought of as particularly "smart." (Whatever that means…see above!) First, you've got a bonobo, and then a common dolphin (they're a bit more visually interesting than the more well-known bottlenose dolphin) and then there's a scrubjay. One primate, one cetacean, and one corvid; one that walks, one that swims, one that flies…you get the idea.
Tell us more about yourself - where are you from, how did you get into science?
I grew up and still live in Los Angeles, CA. I did my undergrad at USC, and stuck around for grad school. Altogether, this is now my ninth year on the USC campus.
It's funny, looking back at my life it makes perfect sense that I'm now doing what I'm doing. But if you had asked me 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, I don't think I'd have told you that I was going to be a scientist or science writer.
I always liked my science classes. I remember picking out old issues of Scientific American and National Geographic from deep within the stacks of the school library when I was a kid, writing reports for science classes in elementary and middle school. Scientific American was one of the few magazines I’d pick up and read while sitting in my pediatrician’s waiting room, and it was one of the first (if not the first) magazines I actually bought from a newsstand with my own money.
I've always been interested in why people do what they do, and I think at its core, that is the question that psychological science tries to address. I was taking Intro Psych and some of the "bread and butter" psychology courses like Social Psychology and Child Development, just as an MRI facility was being built on the USC campus right next to the psychology building, devoted solely to cognitive neuroscience research. I took a course in Functional Neuroimaging the first time they offered it to undergrads, and then sought out a position as a research assistant in one of the labs that was doing research in the new neuroimaging center. We were investigating the process through which the brain learns to read, and what happens to disrupt or alter that process in developmental dyslexia. I decided to apply for grad school, and ended up staying at USC, working in that same lab. As they tend to do, though, my research interests have changed and I've moved away from imaging and from reading/dyslexia, and into other methods and other questions. Perhaps one day I'll return to neuroimaging with a different set of research questions.
How did you get into science blogging and science writing? What were the early influences on you regarding your blogging style and topics?
I've been blogging in some form or other for a long, long time. But I started reading science blogs around 2007, shortly before I started grad school. As I read more and more in the science blogosphere, and became more familiar with the academic literature in the areas I was interested in, I realized that there wasn't anybody writing about the topics I really wanted to read. Lots of people covered animal behavior and cognition, of course, but there weren't really any blogs just about behavior or cognition. There were blogs about animals, but not really about psychology. There were a few great psychology blogs like Dave and Greta Munger's Cognitive Daily and Mo Costandi's Neurophilosophy (then at Scienceblogs.com), OmniBrain, and a few others, but they didn't really focus on animals. That's all to say that I identified a niche that hadn't really been filled, so I decided to fill it.
I carved out my own little corner of wordpress.com and started writing. I was very fortunate to have been noticed in those early days by people that I now consider friends and colleagues like Scicurious, Dr. Isis, Dave Munger, and Bora, without whom I do not believe for a second that I'd have been invited to join Scienceblogs. And, well, here we are, almost two years later.
What is your blog about? Who is your target audience, and why do you think people should read your blog?
My blog is about behavior and cognition, psychology and neuroscience, humans and non-human animals, and anything else I find particularly interesting. In general the "anything else" category seems to be filled with photography, meditations on science communication and social media, and the human-animal relationship.
My blog is about the animals we're most familiar with (such as the ones we invite into our homes almost as members of our families, and the ones we eat), the animals we hear a lot about but don't have any real interaction with (such as the ones we see in zoos and nature shows), and the animals we never really hear about. All of them are important, and all of them can tell us something interesting about the world and about ourselves.
We live in a world where many people think of science as hard to understand, full of equations and weird bubbly liquids. That's part of science, to be sure, but science is so much more than that. There's science to be found in watching your dog play. There's science in the layout of city highway systems and in the nasty stuff that college kids are drinking these days. If people who come to my blog looking to read about why their pet dog does what it does or what sorts of social cognitive abilities their Thanksgiving turkeys have leave feeling a little bit less overwhelmed by science, then I've done my job.
Anything else interesting about you, perhaps cool hobbies?
I'm an amateur photographer! This is still a pretty new thing for me, but since I got my first DSLR last year, I've been going out to photograph the city three or four nights a week. I spend my days in front of a computer screen, and unless I get out to shoot, I'll just spend my nights in front of a TV screen. I share a bit of my photography on my blog each week on Sundays, but I talk photography a lot more extensively and share more of my work on Google+.
Here's a slideshow of some of my nighttime photography of downtown LA:
Previously in this series: