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Kevin Mitchell - Associate Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience

  • When did you first come up with the idea for the book?
  • I had been toying with the idea of writing a book for a general audience for quite a few years. I have been writing the Wiring the Brain blog since 2009, which has been great practice in writing for non-specialists. And the topics I work on and write about – how the brain gets wired and how individual differences in brain wiring contribute to differences in our psychological traits and risk of psychiatric and neurological disorders – are of naturally wide general interest.

    I had also gotten some very kind encouragement from readers that suggested there was a demand for the type of synthesis that I was attempting to make, drawing together research from many fields – most notably genetics, developmental biology, and neuroscience, and their relevance to psychology and psychiatry.

    Fortuitously, Princeton University Press contacted me in 2016 to ask if I had ever considered writing a book. I had written a chapter for a book they had published called The Future of the Brain and it seems they liked it and saw some potential for a full-length book. So, that’s when the idea became a concrete goal.

  • What are three key ideas in the book?
  • The main idea is that we really are all born different from each other – we have innate psychological predispositions that strongly influence our behaviour across our lives.

    The second idea is about the origins of these differences. They arise in the first place from genetic variation in the program of brain development. We all have in our genome a program for making a human being with a human brain, but genetic variation means we all have a different version of that program, so that our brains vary as much as our bodies and faces. But a second part of this idea is that there is also variation in how that program plays out. The program of development is incredibly complex and the processes that mediate it are subject to noise at a molecular level. That means the outcome of every “run” of the program will be different due to intrinsic developmental variation. Thus, by the time they are born, even identical twins are already quite distinct from each other in the structure and function of their brains and in their psychological make-up. Developmental variation is thus a crucial third source of what make us all different from each other – distinct from both genes and environment.

    The final main idea is that the relationship between our innate predispositions and our behaviour necessarily involves an interplay with experience. Our initial predispositions strongly influence the kinds of experiences we have and the ways we react to them, shaping the ways our character and our habits emerge through experience. In many ways, nurture acts to reinforce nature.

  • Did you have a publisher in mind in advance or did you write the book first and then find one?
  • I was lucky to be contacted by Princeton University Press, who I knew had published many great books in this area, including the one I had been involved with. Building a reputation as a blogger certainly helped with that. They invited me to submit a book proposal and an editor worked with me on pulling that together, which was very helpful. She sought some peer reviews of the proposal, which were happily quite positive, and then pitched it to the board of the press, who approved it.

    I realise of course that this is an unusual situation and it is more typical for people to have to look for a publisher. The best advice I could give in that situation would be to talk to colleagues in your field who have written popular books – especially ones you like, pitched at the same level as the one you have in mind – and see what their experiences have been like.

  • How did you know that was the publisher for you?
  • Princeton University Press have a great reputation and I had read many excellent books that they’ve published. They are a serious academic press which is what I was looking for with this book, which was peer reviewed as a piece of academic scholarship, and not solely intended as a trade book for the general public.

    They do not, however, have the kind of budget or resources for marketing that publishers like Penguin or Random House do, who can push a trade book to become a bestseller. But Innate is not aimed at that wide an audience, so that was a less important consideration for me. I was fortunate to work with a fantastic editor, Alison Kalett, who was invaluable in helping me take a series of chapters and shape them into a book. She also has a keen eye for whether ideas are coming across clearly or not, for which bits really captured the imagination, and for the inevitable sections when I lapsed into the obscurantist habits of academic writing.

  • Did you do research and decide a book would make sense or did you come up with the idea for the book and then do the research needed?
  • I had really been doing research that would inform the book for many years both in my own work and, much more broadly, in reading the literature and trying to integrate findings from multiple fields. In fact, preparing my senior sophister course on Behavioural Genetics and keeping that updated provided a lot of the background for the book.

    Of course, once I had settled on specific topics for chapters there was a lot more reading and thinking to be done to come up with a final framework that I felt I could stand over.

  • How long did it take to write Innate?
  • It took about a year and a half of actual writing, mostly done in the evenings and weekends as I was still running a lab, teaching, and doing some administrative work in the College. Having written on a lot of the individual topics for the blog and having already thought a lot about the main ideas certainly gave me a running start.

  • Were there any writer’s block moments?
  • There were definitely some difficulties in structuring the book, choosing what to put where and how to build a succession of ideas. And plenty of time spent staring at a blank screen. But generally I work from an outline, which I flesh out progressively, which helps a lot because I typically know what I want to say before I start writing anything and just have to figure out how to say it. Once the ideas are in place, the words come a lot more easily.

    An exception was the chapter on the genetics and neurobiology of personality traits. It took me a long time to figure out if I had anything novel to say or any useful perspective to offer on that topic. I eventually realised that this difficulty was partly because a lot of what is published in this area is very descriptive and superficial – at the level of the behavioural manifestations of such traits. A breakthrough came when I changed the perspective to thinking of personality traits as reflecting differences in decision-making. This let me ground the discussion at a deeper level of the neuroscience of decision-making and the parameters that underlie it and led, I hope, to a novel framework for thinking about the origins of personality traits.

  • How did you decide on the writing style?
  • I think the key thing for deciding on a style is deciding on the target audience. This was a bit tricky because the book is aimed kind of in between an academic audience and the general public. But actually, since most academics are so highly specialised, a book like this that integrates concepts and findings from multiple areas has to be aimed at non-specialists, whether they are in academia or not.

    The style I use is conversational – I try to write it the way I would explain it to you if we were sitting down over a coffee or a pint. I try not to assume any specific knowledge on the part of the reader, but I do assume they are just as intelligent and capable of understanding as I am – it's just that I happen to know something they don't.

    This is the style I had been using for many years in blogging so it was quite natural. There is a wonderful book by Thomas and Turner called Clear and Simple as the Truth that gives great advice on writing in what they call “classic style”, which is particularly well suited to this kind of book. The goal should be clarity and simplicity, not trying to impress people with jargon, with flowery phrases, or with how much intellectual effort went into figuring something out. If you're noticing the writing, you're being distracted from the ideas. So I follow Elmore Leonard's advice: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it”.

  • Did having an established online presence play a role?
  • It certainly helped that I have been blogging for a long time and am also active on Twitter. This helped me build a reputation as someone trying to bring together diverse findings from genetics and neuroscience and understand their implications for how we think of ourselves as individuals and as societies. Twitter in particular has also been a great platform for promoting the book and for having interesting discussions arising from it.

  • What did writing the book allow you to do that you can't do via academic journals?
  • Journals in science are overwhelmingly concerned with primary research – the discovery of new facts and the ever more detailed elucidation of specific questions. That is, of course, how science progresses – through discovery.

    That is what I was trying to do with Innate. While it is possible to make small stabs at this in journal review articles some topics demand a book-length treatment, and the age-old question of nature versus nurture is certainly one of them.

    The other thing it allowed me to do was write like a human being talking to another human being!

  • Do you get any comments or responses in which people disagree with those key ideas?
  • I haven't had any drastic disagreement with the thesis I put forward. I think that is because it presents a nuanced position on these complex and sometimes fraught topics. That stands in contrast to some other books on the same broad topic that have attracted more attention by advocating more extreme positions, from strong genetic determinism to naïve blank slatism.

  • How did the audiobook version come about?
  • That choice was made by the publishers. I've only heard a little bit of it myself but I gather it's quite good. It is strange, though, to hear my words being narrated in a rather old-fashioned, rumbly English accent!

  • What advice would you give someone about to embark on a book project?
  • A really good piece of advice I heard one time was: “If you're thinking about writing a book – don't. Not until you reach the point where you can't stand not writing it”.

    It's a very significant amount of work and, if you're like me, can consume your mind for a long period of time. But if you think you've got something worthwhile to say, or a novel and useful perspective that people will find interesting, then go for it!

    There are some technical aspects to finding a publisher and interacting productively with an editor that prospective authors might seek advice on – I certainly benefited from such advice. Finding your voice can be a challenge too – that's where I found writing blogs and short articles for other public forums, as well as giving lots of public talks, to be a great help. It's a great way to find a style you are comfortable with, and to get some feedback on what works and what doesn't. So, if you think you might enjoy this kind of writing, but don't want to commit to a book, blogging is a great way to start.

    If you're committed to a book already – great! My advice would be to finish it. It doesn't have to be perfect – it has to be out there. Everyone has their own habits for productive writing, but I would emphasise the importance of structure. Know what each chapter is saying, and what work each section, each paragraph, each sentence, and each word is doing. Work out the flow of ideas and the words will take care of themselves – most days at least. And even on the days they don't, some good advice from Henry Miller is “When you can't create, you can work”.

    Innate is available to order directly from Princeton University Press.

    Kevin Mitchell

    Kevin Mitchell is an Associate Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. His research is aimed at understanding the genetic program specifying the wiring of the brain and its relevance to variation in human faculties, especially to psychiatric and neurological disease and to perceptual conditions like synaesthesia.