The Story Collider: Brain Awareness Edition

Seimi Rurup
March 8, 2018
Photo credit: Heather McKellar

The ethos of the Story Collider is this: Science touches every part of our lives.; it surrounds us, whether we notice it or not. Now in its eighth year, the live storytelling show travels to cities across the US (and soon the UK) to bring personal tales of science to the public through narratives that can be heartbreaking or hilarious. Though the theme sounds strictly academic, it’s everything but. Featured storytellers have included actors, physicists, comedians, writers, and, of course, neuroscientists. But the point of the story is not to educate, as the show’s artistic director Erin Barker reiterated at Tuesday’s show at Caveat in New York City.

Rather than tell the audience what to expect from the show, co-hosts Barker and Paula Croxson bantered and told us what not to expect: “You will not hear any lectures, or seminars. You will not see any PowerPoint presentations. In fact, you won’t learn anything at all tonight… That is the first rule of Story Collider.” The show did have a theme, however, given its partnership with braiNY, the Greater NYC Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, and with Brain Awareness Week (March 12-18) just around the corner: All five storytellers in the lineup had to share a true story involving the brain.

Barker has been a part of the Story Collider team since 2011 and helps run the flagship show in NYC. Croxson is a neuroscientist and the most recent recipient of the Science Educator Award given by the Society for Neuroscience and sponsored by the Dana Foundation. Croxson fell into her career as the show’s producer after telling her own story five years ago about her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease and realizing the great impact of science communication.

The five storytellers of the evening were author and 34-time Moth StorySLAM champion Matthew Dicks; neuroscientist and founder of Columbia University’s “Late Night Science” Anita Burgos, Ph.D.; comedian Sandi Marx; robotics team coach Nisse Greenberg; and director of scientific programs at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University Kelley Remole, Ph.D.

Kelley Remole. Photo credit: Heather McKellar

A neuroscientist herself, Remole shared her harrowing experience with sporadic, debilitating headaches that, despite numerous MRI’s and appointments with top neurologists in the country, could not be fully diagnosed. Imaging showed a Chiari malformation, which is a condition where brain tissue extends into the spinal canal, but the cause remains a mystery.

“Picture a brain floating in a sink,” she said, “The skull is the sink, the pipe leading down is the spine, and the brain floats in this sink…The liquid is called cerebral spinal fluid, and it runs around the spine and the brain, up and down. In the back of my brain, the cerebellum was almost plugging that drain.” The painful symptoms began interfering with Remole’s work, and she had to begin working from home, unable to stand up. Luckily, because of her work as a brain model for the Neurodome project four years prior, Remole had an image of her brain before she became sick. Comparing the two scans side by side, the neurosurgeon said her case was extremely rare and serious. While there were no immediate answers, Remole eventually began receiving radiation treatment from doctors at the Mayo Clinic and, after a year since the initial headache, Remole finally felt that the symptoms were gone and could go back to enjoying her family and professional lives.

Not all stories from the Brain Awareness-themed event were as serious as Remole’s, but all were just as captivating. Marx and Greenberg shared their own accounts of brain-related stories and managed to put a comical spin on a sober subject. Marx detailed her diagnosis of Lupus and how it affects her daily life, and Greenberg spoke of his complicated relationship with his father, who suffered a traumatic brain injury after a biking accident. Burgos recounted her unwavering goal of obtaining a Ph.D., which she accomplished after a traumatic experience writing her thesis. And Dicks shared a compelling story about his sleep disorder and how it led to him saving the life of his beloved pet dog.

Dicks has been sleepwalking his entire life. In the middle of the night, he would sometimes walk downstairs and sit on the couch with his parents, who were watching TV, and answer any questions they asked him—questions were oftentimes equally playful and embarrassing—as if he was awake. Occasionally, he found himself sitting behind the wheel of his car, but he never actually started it. Years later, Dicks is living with his fiancée and small dog, who just went to the vet for a non-life -threatening bladder condition and was being kept overnight for observation. Little did he know that in his sleep that night, he agreed to a high-risk surgery for his dog. Dicks recalled a disorienting morning when he received a call from his veterinarian saying his dog survived the procedure. Because of his sleep disorder, Dicks had no recollection of answering his phone in the middle of the night and agreeing to surgery for an unexpected ruptured disc in his dog’s spine. The surgery cost the entirety of the couple’s honeymoon fund, and the dog had less than a 50 percent chance of living, let alone ever walking again if she survived. They brought her home, but Dicks said it was heartbreaking to see his dog barely able to stand. After a few days, while he and his fiancée were watching TV, he said he looked over at the dog and noticed her head was perked up and looking at them intently. She managed to stand up and slowly walk over to them, which the veterinarian had said was impossible. She is still alive today and 16 years old. “The decision to go through with the surgery was so easy, I could have done it in my sleep,” he quipped.

The Story Collider will be hosting plenty more shows in the future, and has one planned especially for Brain Awareness Week (March 12-18). In case you can’t make it, they also have a regular podcast. Croxson will be featured in another Caveat show on March 13 on the brain and time-travel (tickets here). You can visit braiNY’s calendar of events to see what else is happening in the NYC area for Brain Awareness Week, or visit the official BAW calendar to find events happening all over the world.