Practitioners of science and fiction are both in the business of exploring the question “what if?” For a scientist the question is a hypothesis to be tested, for the fiction storyteller the question is explored in the medium of film or writing. UCLA psychology associate professor and Exchange consultant Aaron Blaisdell takes us on an adventure of animal behavior, what inspires him, and the value of a great story.

Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become an expert on animal behavior? Why is it important to study animal behavior?

I always loved the natural sciences ever since I was a little kid. I collected rocks, leaves, bones, and even fossils when I could find them. I loved being in nature and catching all kinds of animals from cryptic insects, to stealthy lizards and stinky garter snakes. In college I majored in anthropology where I was captivated by the evolutionary history of Man and the other primates. I even took part in a paleontological dig in Montana during the summer of 1990. But it was the unique opportunity to work with living primates during my final year at SUNY Stony Brook when I found my true love of animal behavior and cognition. I was fascinated by both the similarities and differences between the nonhuman primates and us. This fascination, along with serendipitous opportunities, that led to my receiving a Ph.D. in experimental psychology/behavioral neuroscience and to continue comparative analyses of behavior in humans, rats, pigeons, and even hermit crabs. An understanding of the ways that species are similar to each other in some respects but different in others provides unique insights into evolutionary processes and the constraints the world places on them. It also fosters humility to learn how much our knowledge is shaped by our sensory, perceptual, and psychological adaptations.

Did any movies or television shows influence your decision to become a scientist? Which ones and which were your favorites?

I cannot say that they have, but I have always loved the medium of film, even more so than television, starting from an early age. The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was Bambi. I was really drawn to the science fiction and fantasy genera in both books and film. Star Wars, of course, left a huge impression on me, as did Star Trek. What film truly taught me was the art of storytelling. Many people do not realize how important the ability to tell a story, which requires an understanding of audience expectations, is to the dissemination of scientific information. It is a fundamental skill to good science writing; even grant proposals.

Why did you want to become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange? Why did you want to become a consultant for the entertainment industry?

Living in LA is like living in a land of contemporary mythology. I was approached to consult on a film for Disney Animation and I grabbed at the opportunity. Disney films have always been classics, and I was enthralled at the prospect of helping to contribute to the feel and believability of a film from the initial stages of development.

What have you enjoyed most in your role as a consultant?

Working with the directive talent at Disney Animation has been exciting and rewarding. The individuals I have met are idealistic and enthusiastic, but also very down to earth. They are not really very different from you or me, except that they have been given this opportunity to craft stories on such a grand scale. The process of crafting a world around a storyline is very much like the craft of building an experimental protocol around an idea or hypothesis. I think that is why I felt such a strong and vigorous connection to the individuals with whom I have worked.

Also, I must confess that I have always had secret fantasies about creating a situation for television or film. Often when I would watch shows like Saturday Night Live, and see an interesting comic idea fall flat in execution, I would run an internal fantasy of how I would have executed the idea to make it a success. Or I sometimes have a sudden insight into a funny punchline to a story, and then backtrack to figure out what the storyline might be to lead up to it. It is very creative and playful, just like science.

Is there a storyline you would like to see in a television show or movie that involves an aspect of your field – or science in general – that has not yet been covered?

What we need is a tale that captures the plight of the human condition in the modern world. Forget the health care problem. We are in the grips of a global health problem, with increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases; cancer; mental health problems in both young and elderly; all in epidemic proportions. There is an increasing realization in academia among clinicians, and in the general public, that these health problems stem from discordance between our modern lives and that experienced by our ancestors, especially from before the industrial revolution but also predating agriculture. The field of evolutionary medicine provides a framework to view human health and disease from the perspective of the Darwinian evolutionary framework, and is finally gaining popularity but only slowly. I think fiction, such as film, would provide an additional important tool by which to tell the human story; about where we come from and why we are facing such severe physical and mental health crises. I am not talking about a group of humans in ape suits dancing around a black monolithic slab, but really digging into the paleoanthropology, ethnography, archeology, and the rest of human science to understand where we came from and where we are going.

Do films and television shows influence young people to want to become scientists? Should that be a goal of science consulting?

I think the influence on the younger generation will come indirectly from the honesty and integrity with which film and television can portray the scientific process and to put a human, personable face to scientists. That includes showing how goofy or even whimsical many of us can be, and how much fun it is for each of us to play in our own sandbox, I mean laboratory. I must admit, a few of my colleagues are serious bores, but I do not hang around them too much.

Moviemakers are often inspired by science and scientific breakthroughs. In turn, how has science benefited from the entertainment industry?

Practitioners of science and fiction are both in the business of exploring the question “what if?” For a scientist the question is a hypothesis to be tested, for the fiction storyteller the question is explored in the medium of film or writing. Personally, I find good fiction gets my creative juices flowing, which translates into better, by which I mean more creative and thoughtful, science.

What misperceptions do scientists, in general, have about the entertainment industry, and what misperceptions does the entertainment industry have about scientists?

I am not sure in general what misconceptions may reside on either side, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of background research that goes into each project at Disney Animation for which I consulted, from the initial stages all the way through to production.

What should we have asked you that we did not? What would you like to share? What inspires you?

Well, if I ever lose my career in science, I now know that I can fall back on moviemaking! Just please do not tell me I have to spend 20 years busing tables first!

Photo credit: UCLA News