The Most Honest Year of My Life

Photo by  Bill Wadman . 

Photo by Bill Wadman

The story of Brain Knows Better begins on October 12, 2012. My friend from UCLA , Andrea Letamendi, just spoke at New York Comic Con about the psychology of cosplay and a few hours later we were discussing it over lunch.

“It was really cool to see you in action. Being such a hardcore geek on stage and backing up what you were saying with science,” I said. “But aren’t you afraid of what people in the field are going to think?”

Back in our college days, Andrea and I spent a lot of time reminiscing about Street Fighter 2 and Batman: The Animated Series. When we got to grad school, we both hid our geeky interests the way you might hide a tattoo on the first day of a new job. Seeing Andrea now, integrating all of the things she loved, was inspiring. And intimidating.

“You know, if I were still in school and constantly under scrutiny, I wouldn’t be so public about this other side of my life. But honestly, nothing bad has happened. It’s actually at comic cons where I feel like my life makes the most sense. It’s where I get to be a geek and a psychologist.”

I told Andrea that if I had her confidence, I would talk about how Star Trek influenced my life and how it led me to become a psychologist.

“You need to share your story. It’s about what can happen if you follow your passions. It would resonate with a lot of people.”

Andrea was the first person to encourage me to share my story.

Andrea was the first person to encourage me to share my story.

I took Andrea’s advice, wrote Growing Up Trekkie, and emailed it to my friend Lowen Baumgarten (you know, the guy who later wrote the most controversial article on this site). He liked it and thought it would be cool to base a blog on the story. We spent some time mining my favorite music to get inspiration for a title and that’s how Brain Knows Better was born.

I shared my story on Facebook. My friends were really encouraging. Even people who hated science fiction liked Growing Up Trekkie. That felt awesome and made me want to write more.

My second article got fewer likes. I tried again. Even fewer people read my third article. The trend continued. Even though I spent hours developing each article, it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to read my work. I didn’t write anything in December. It just didn’t feel worth the time that went in to develop each post.

Lowen had some extra frequent flier miles he needed to use up and made a last minute trip to New York to hang out. I took the opportunity to vent.

“I’m thinking of pulling the plug on Brain Knows Better. The blog hasn’t gone anywhere and I have no clue why.”

“Yeah, let’s talk about that…”

I could tell Lowen also had something he needed to get off his chest.

“Your first story was great but everything after has been soooooo academic. Look at this.” He grabbed my laptop and pulled up my most recent article. “’Ridley’s Scott’s Prometheus and the Fallacy of Origins’ – I have no idea what that means and I don’t want to find out. What happened to your story? I don’t hear your voice anymore.”

Lowen has always been my Number 1.

Lowen has always been my Number 1.

Lowen was right. Brain Knows Better was boring. I thought back to Andrea’s panel and how honest she was about her own cosplay. That’s what made the talk awesome – her story combined with real research. 

I rebooted everything in 2013 and launched with a story about how Firefly helped me understand the culture clash of my childhood. Overnight it became my most popular article and led to some cool conversations about multiculturalism (and Captain Tight Pants). The more I opened up, the more my work resonated with others.

My audience started to grow, as did my confidence as a writer. I wanted to do more, so I messaged Andrea with an idea I had for a comic con panel we could do together about the psychology of Star Trek versus Star Wars. She loved it, and it was picked up for both WonderCon and San Diego Comic Con. Comic Con fast tracked everything. It helped me make new geek friends, like Star Trek experts Larry Nemecek and John Champion. Somewhere along the way I was nicknamed “the science fiction psychologist”.

I met a lot of cool people at San Diego Comic Con.

I met a lot of cool people at San Diego Comic Con.

But something didn’t feel right. The more I talked about my passions, the more I kept remembering my brother, Salman. He was a big part of my geek origin story. When he committed suicide in 2008, I buried my memories of him – it was the only way I was able to move on. Now that I was talking about being a geek publically, I was also beginning to feel like I was losing control of my emotions. This happened a lot at cons, especially when people asked me about my family. All that raw pain, guilt, and shame started resurfacing against my will.   

Being honest as a writer had helped me up to now so it made sense to write about my current struggle dealing with my brother’s death. So that’s what I did. The first time I sat down to write a few paragraphs I cried. A lot. It ended up taking a month to get out, but the more I wrote the less raw it felt.

The response to this story was overwhelming. I’ve heard from over 3,000 people (I save every response) who also struggled with mental health, some who were mourning loved ones and others who also felt the stigma of suicide.

Everything changed after that. It felt like someone flipped a switch and I was able to talk about Salman like I used to when he was alive. I started a new job in the fall and everyone already knows about my brother and the impact he had on my life.

Salman has been with me ever since that story went live. He was with me while I read Ready Player One, explaining all the references to 80s culture that I missed. I imagined that we debated which next-generation system to get, the Xbox One or the PS4 – there would've been endless feuds about which one is better. And in that parallel universe, we had a massive discussion about Spike Jonze's Her. As a computer scientist working in speech recognition, he would have loved seeing the promise of his work realized in the film.

My brother lives on, in memories old and new.

My brother lives on, in memories old and new.

I used to worry a lot about what people thought of me. I avoided any public displays of geekiness because I didn’t want people to think I was weird. That’s also why I shut down every thought I had about my brother – no one could see me lose control of my emotions. This kept me safe. But as I started opening up about whom I really was, I met a great group of people who shared my passions and struggles. Playing it safe just isn’t worth the cost of feeling alone anymore.

This past year was the most honest of my life. Everything that was good came from writing truthfully and connecting with people like you. Thank you for making 2013 so awesome.

Coming Out as a Geek Is Hard to Do

I spent most of my life hiding who I really was until a conversation
with Nhu-An changed everything. 






  
  
   
  
    
  
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I spent most of my life hiding who I really was until a conversation with Nhu-An changed everything.

We've crossed the one-year anniversary of Brain Knows Better and it's pretty incredible to think how much my life has changed over this last year. It's been a ton of fun to explore the psychology of sci-fi, but more than anything, this blog has helped me be honest about who I am – a big geek.

I didn't like who I was in middle school and tried everything I could to blend in.

I didn't like who I was in middle school and tried everything I could to blend in.

I wasn't always this open about being a geek. For most of my life, I tried to hide it. In middle school, I knew some kids who wore Starfleet uniforms to class. When they were bullied for it, I stood by silently. Back then, I probably watched as much Star Trek: The Next Generation after school as they did, but I wanted nothing to do with them. They weren't cool and more than anything else, I wanted to fit in.

It took me a long time to open up about being a geek. I like to think it started with a conversation I had with Nhu-An in high school. She’s now my fiancée, but back then we were just getting to know each other.

"What's your deepest fear Nhu-An?"

She didn't hesitate to respond.

"Not fulfilling my full potential in life. I think about that a lot. What about you?"

"Oh wow...yeah that's a good one. For me, I have to say spiders. I have to ask my mom to kill them anytime they're in my room."

It was easy to be myself around Nhu-An, but I hadn’t told her about my love of sci-fi, technology, or comic books. In fact, I never told anyone outside my family about these things. Six months into our relationship, I was ready.

"Nhu-An, can we talk after school? There's something I need to tell you."

"Is everything okay?!?" You could tell she was worried.

"Yeah, I just need to get something off my chest."

I waited until after school, when everyone else had cleared out. We walked around the campus a few times to make sure no one else would hear what I had to say.

"Are you okay Ali? What’s wrong?"

"Yeah, everyone's okay, it's not like that. Well you know how you know every line in Hello Dolly? No one else knows this, but I'm the same way with Star Trek—I’m a Trekkie."

Nhu-An was the first person to learn that I was a geek.

Nhu-An was the first person to learn that I was a geek.

It felt weird saying that out loud.

"Stop messing around, what did you want to tell me?"

"That's it, I'm a Trekkie, a big fan of Star Trek. Actually, I love all science fiction, Star Wars, too."

"Is that it!?!"

Nhu-An hit me in the arm.

"I THOUGHT YOU WERE DYING ALI! You had me worried all day. All you wanted to tell me was that you like science fiction?!? Who cares?!?"

That wasn't the response I expected. I was afraid Nhu-An might break up with me because I love Star Trek. Turns out she just didn't think it was a big deal.

That was a huge relief. Even though she didn’t like sci-fi herself, we spent much of the following weeks talking about why Star Trek meant so much to me.

“It’s actually really cool that a TV show had this effect on you. A lot of people watch TV and play video games but it doesn’t make them a better person.”

Nhu-An helped me feel proud of being a geek, but I continued to avoid talking about my geeky interests with anyone else. I just didn’t think there were many people out there who shared my interests and were normal. That’s why I was so shocked three years later when I noticed Alix, a girl in the neighboring dorm room, had a Star Trek logo on her keychain. I didn’t know her well, but the keychain made me think she was a safe person to talk to.

“Hey Alix, this is sorta random, but do you like Star Trek?”

She looked terrified and started hyperventilating.

“Whaaat?!? How do you know?!?”

I explained the situation and reassured her that I too was a fan. She eventually calmed down.

We became friends and watched new episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise together. Word spread in our dorm and people asked to join us. Soon, we organized a Star Trek movie marathon that packed my room full of people. Some were die hard fans, some were just curious.

It was such a strange new world for me to have a friend like Alix to geek out with.

It was such a strange new world for me to have a friend like Alix to geek out with.

Once I discovered that there were other geeks out there in the world just like me, I wanted to find them. Like Alix’s keychain, I dropped small geek references in my conversations – stuff like “Make it so” and “Do, or do not” – to see if anyone would take the bait. This is how I've made almost all of my geeky friends, especially those who've also struggled to identify as geeks themselves.

Once I found the courage to do so, being honest about who I am brought me nothing but good things. That’s why I went public with my geek identity and started this website. I wanted to share what I’ve learned about the stuff I love. The experience has been incredibly rewarding because it’s made it possible for me to meet all of you.


February 14, 2014 Update: To hear a podcast version of this story, check out the Valentine's Day episode of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour.

6 Secrets to Writing a Blog (Brain Knows Better 6-month Anniversary)

Brain Knows Better logo concept by  Duaba .

Brain Knows Better logo concept by Duaba.

This past week was the 6-month anniversary of my inaugural post, Growing Up Trekkie - How Star Trek Made Me Fall in Love with Psychology. Since then, I've written 18,118 words across 20 posts, averaging a little more than 3 articles per month.

I've had a lot of fun writing about what I love. It's also been encouraging to see the website grow - my readership has tripled since October 2012 and my list of the best scifi scores from the last decade was featured on one of my favorite science fiction websites, SF Signal.

I've got a lot of neat stuff lined up for the next 6 months - a logo is in development (check out the concept above), there're a lot of new scifi films I'll write about this summer, and I'm talking at Nerd Nite (and possibly San Diego Comic Con) in the near future. But before I get to all that, I want to mark this this occasion by looking back on the 6 biggest lessons I've learned about writing for the internet these past 6 months.

1) Academia trained me to think, not write

My 100+ page dissertation could probably be summarized in 10 pages. 

My 100+ page dissertation could probably be summarized in 10 pages. 

I spent 7 years in grad school doing science. Thanks to my professors, colleagues, and the dreaded peer-review process, I got really good at critical thinking. It's all about knowing where to look, what to search for, and how to digest the information you find.

But just because I can think through an issue doesn't mean I can communicate in an effective way. Academics don't write like the rest of the world - we write exhaustive papers, include vague titles, bury the lead, and avoid personal details. While academic writing is thorough, fair, and objective, it is also stripped of any humanity. Academics love reading in this style - the rest of the world not so much.

Many of my original posts were plagued by the academic curse. Look at "Star Wars Episode VII, Star Trek into Darkness, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, and the Adaptability of Fans" - what the heck does that title even mean?!? This essay should have been called "No Matter the Franchise, Fans Will Always Want More". Then there's my Prometheus film review - this post takes far too long to get to its point (my thesis doesn't come up until the 4th paragraph) and covers too many ideas. Here's an outline of what I wrote:

  1. Prometheus was a letdown.
  2. Prequels usually disappoint people.
  3. Prequels and evolutionary theorists make the same mistakes.
  4. Old ideas in psychology lead people to make similar mistakes about themselves. 
  5. Prometheus 2 will be better. 

That’s not a cohesive story. Compare that to my review of Oblivion, which sticks to one message:

  1. Oblivion was entertaining.
  2. It's not a complex movie.
  3. It's just a fun ride.

Lesson Learned: When you write for the Internet, you have to communicate in a very clear, brief, and highly organized way.

2) Blogs aren't newspapers, they're conversations

Lowen  helped me understand that blogs work best when they're authentic and conversational (photo credits go to  New Starship ).

Lowen helped me understand that blogs work best when they're authentic and conversational (photo credits go to New Starship).

Some of the best advice I got about blogging was, "write like you're talking to me, not lecturing at me." People read blogs because they enjoy the personal perspective of the author - their voice, opinions, humor, and stories. My readers are fellow geeks and they want to read an interesting article about stuff they like, not feel like they're in a class studying for a test.

I struggled with this - including personal details is a big no no in clinical psychology (many psychologists try to maintain a "blank slate" with their patients). But something really interesting happened - the more authentic I was, the more my posts were read and shared. For example, an essay about how Firefly helped me understand my culture was linked/tweeted/liked all over the place. Sharing personal details, when relevant, turned my content into a more natural form of communication.

Lesson Learned: Keeping a conversational tone doesn't dumb down your message - it makes you more credible, interesting, and persuasive.

3) The best conversations happen off the blog

Funny that I haven't written about most of the topics I outlined in my first Facebook post.

Funny that I haven't written about most of the topics I outlined in my first Facebook post.

Once I was regularly publishing, I couldn't understand why so few people commented on the blog (this was supposed to be a conversation right?). I knew a good chunk of people were reading, they just weren't saying anything. I feared silence meant people hated my writing.

That just wasn't the case. Someone usually did say something, just not on the blog. Readers were more likely to communicate through email, Twitter, Google+, or Facebook than by commenting on this website. What's really surprised me is how much feedback I got offline – usually from coworkers, friends, and family.

I have no clue why this is (maybe my posts fail to ignite strong emotions?) - but I've learned to accept it and no longer judge the quality of my writing by the number of comments it receives.

Lesson Learned: Some people are going to love what you write, some won't, but the most meaningful conversations will happen off your website.

4) You never stop writing

To prevent writer's block, I write down ideas when I get them. I use  Drafts  to record thoughts and  iA Writer  to polish them.

To prevent writer's block, I write down ideas when I get them. I use Drafts to record thoughts and iA Writer to polish them.

Every medium has its specific challenges - the most difficult thing about writing a blog is that IT'S NEVER DONE. Like some sharks, blogs have to keep moving or they die. Part of this is really exciting and keeps me from getting bored - it's fun to get a new idea, flesh it out, send it into the world, and then get started on something totally different. But blogging is REALLY tiring - a 500-1,000 word post takes me 2-8 hours to write (depending on how well I know the topic and source material). When I do the math, all the time I've spent blogging could have gone into starting (and finishing) a book.

What's helped me keep up with the pace of a blog is constantly writing down ideas as they come to me. I keep a text file called "blog ideas" synced between my phone, tablet, and computer - when inspiration strikes (often in boring meetings, while watching TV, or riding the subway) I immediately jot down all the details. This is why I never get writer's block - I have a gigantic list of ideas to draw from.

Lesson Learned: Blogs need a constant supply of new posts so make sure you have a way to capture ideas as they come to you wherever you may be.   

5) Stay on target

A blogger must stick to what they know - for me that means scifi+psychology. 

A blogger must stick to what they know - for me that means scifi+psychology. 

A few weeks before I launched this website, I attended a talk by top scifi/fantasy bloggers at the 2012 New York Comic Con. Their consistent advice was to find a niche no one else does and stick to it. For the most part, I've done a decent job sticking to my niche - psychology+science fiction. But I did make one very big mistake...

Last November I reviewed Spielberg’s Lincoln. The film was about as far away from science fiction as you could get. However, I had some strong opinions about the movie and wanted to share them. I thought that by focusing on Spielberg, who has made a lot of science fiction films, I could get away with expressing my disappointment at Lincoln's ending. I ended up coming across as an armchair psychologist, diagnosing Spielberg with anxiety and hypothesizing how his childhood influenced the creation of his movies. No one liked this post - it had the fewest hits/likes/tweets of anything I've written. It was bad for psychology and bad for my blog.

Lesson Learned: Find a specific niche topic and stick very closely to it, even when you are dying to write about something else. 

6) Writing makes me resilient

Seeing my Starfleet emblem at work reminds me that no matter how bad things get, I always have my writing to look forward to. 

Seeing my Starfleet emblem at work reminds me that no matter how bad things get, I always have my writing to look forward to. 

The most surprising thing I've learned about writing is how much I love it! I didn't write much growing up. I wrote a lot of academic papers in undergrad and grad school, but I was never excited about that type of writing. This has been different.

Writing for Brain Knows Better invigorated me. This website kept me resilient against burnout from my day job. When patients have been in crises and I've been overwhelmed with administrative work, coming home to my blog always gave me something to look forward to – something fun that was completely under my control. Through writing, I strengthened my ability to reflect on big ideas like what would really happen the first time we meet aliens or why music takes us back in time. Writing for the internet has also opened up a lot of opportunities, like presenting at WonderCon.

It's been such a great experience that I've decided to start writing a book! I can't wait to tell you more, once things are crystallized. In the meantime, what I can tell you is the project involves some of the biggest franchises in science fiction. 

Lesson Learned: Not only does writing lead to many new opportunities, it can also be a rewarding experience in itself and builds resilience against stress.  

Thank you for supporting Brain Knows Better! I couldn't have hit this milestone without readers like you. Please do send me your comments, questions, requests, and complaints through email, Twitter, or Google+ - I'd love to hear from you.

Growing Up Trekkie - How Star Trek Made Me Fall in Love with Psychology

I have a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and spend most of my days working in a hospital treating anxiety and depression. As a child, I never thought I'd be in this position. Back then, I spent most of my time riding bikes and playing video games. While other kids dreamed about who they would become when they grew up, I was content just thinking about the next great Nintendo game. My dad feared I might not graduate high school, let alone college. I was okay with that.

March 13, 1988: That’s me on the left playing Atari with my brother.

March 13, 1988: That’s me on the left playing Atari with my brother.

All of that changed when my brother took me to see Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I was only eight years old at the time and knew nothing about Star Trek. While the movie's social commentary on the end of the Cold War was way over my head (I was much more fascinated by the exploding spaceships), something about this universe spoke to me. While Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were cool, I couldn’t see myself living in their scary universe. But I wanted to be friends with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and believed it just might be possible for me to serve on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

January 27, 2004: Sharing my story with the director of Star Trek VI, Nicholas Meyer.

January 27, 2004: Sharing my story with the director of Star Trek VI, Nicholas Meyer.

A few days later, my brother and I were channel surfing when we came across an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I remember him saying, "You really liked that Star Trek movie, maybe you should check out this show." I was a little confused at first - I had no idea there was a Star Trek television show (nor did I realize there were 5 other movies and an original television series). The Next Generation immediately consumed me. I raced home every day from school to watch reruns of the series and anxiously awaited new episodes.

This experience changed my life in a seismic way. Star Trek taught me that by using science, technology, and exploration we could push the human race forward. As I grew up, Star Trek challenged my world views. Episodes such as "Tapestry", "The Inner Light", "Darmok", "The Outcast", and "The First Duty" forced me to reconsider my beliefs on life and death as well as right and wrong. The core Star Trek value of inclusion ("infinite diversity in infinite combinations") became the foundation of my own philosophy.

September 25, 2010: Thanking Patrick Stewart, Star Trek’s Captain
Jean-Luc Picard, for inspiring me to love science. 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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September 25, 2010: Thanking Patrick Stewart, Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, for inspiring me to love science.

I didn't know how, but I wanted to pursue similar goals (science and exploration) in my life. Yet, in high school few subjects appealed to me. I enjoyed my science courses, but I didn't feel like biology, chemistry, or physics "spoke" to me like Star Trek did. Eventually, I enrolled in college as an undeclared major. While I told friends and family that I was considering pre-law and pre-med, inside I was lost.

I avoided choosing my first semester freshmen courses as long as possible. It reached a point where most classes were closed. When I did enroll, only introductory psychology was available as an elective. I knew nothing of the subject and enrolled more by default than by interest.

The first lecture by Professor Goesling hit me just as hard as the explosion of Praxis in Star Trek VI. Psychology spoke to me in much the same way as Star Trek did. The integration of hard scientific research and introspection, two elements of all great Star Trek stories, were the foundation of psychology. I saw psychology as a field that could finally answer questions proposed by Star Trek - how do we define life, what makes a person good versus evil, and how can we better humanity? The science of psychology (behaviorism, cognitive science, and neuroscience) had empirical methods for analyzing these questions and a rich literature of experimental answers. Once again, I geeked out and devoured the field by devoting the next decade of my life to earning my bachelors, masters, and doctorate in psychology.

As the internet celebrated the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation and wrote about its legacy and the impact it has had on so many lives, I felt compelled to share my story and start this blog. It is my hope that this blog will inspire the next generation of science fiction geeks to love the brain and behavioral sciences.

Welcome to Brain Knows Better.

October 22, 2012: This model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, hanging in my hospital office, reminds me of the human potential to change and grow.

October 22, 2012: This model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, hanging in my hospital office, reminds me of the human potential to change and grow.