Beauty in the Brain: Sleep, disease, and family life

anna-twitter-pictureAnna Goodman is a neuroscientist, amateur artist, mother, and pastor’s wife. In today’s podcast (transcript below), I wanted to find out how all of those elements connected together in her life. Is there beauty in the brain? What can we find out from studying neurological disease? What ways has Anna found to fit family life and career together, and how do both of those aspects of life complement her faith and role in the church? The result is a fascinating mixture involving a lifelong love of discovery, a fascination with everything to do with the brain, a growing interest in child development, and the role of prophecy in everyday life.

I am at City Church in Cambridge with Dr Anna Goodman, who’s a neuroscientist from Cambridge University who is now full-time looking after two small boys, one of whom is currently running around the toddler group down below, but she also absolutely loved her work. Neuroscience is still very much part of her identity and the way she looks at the world, and as far as I know she hasn’t completely ruled out a return to science when her boys have grown up, but that is a story that is yet to unfold.

Hi Anna!


I’d love to know what got you into neuroscience in the first place

Allen Institute for Brain Science by Lavender Dreamer. Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I did biology for A-level, and part of that is obviously studying the brain, and I was just immediately fascinated by the brain and how intricate and complex it was. I was very fascinated by the abnormalities of the brain as well, so I think it was something that immediately I just was really interested in. I used to read in my leisure time books on brain abnormalities, psychological abnormalities, and things like that. The more I looked into it the more I was fascinated by it, and I just wanted to know more and more and get a greater understanding of the brain, really.

So you basically never left university!


Good isn’t it? So what was the research that you were doing?

When I went to university to do my neuroscience degree I encountered a disease called Huntington’s, and I was very interested in that mainly because how little was known about it. When I was a child, I wanted to be a palaeontologist, or a researcher or an analyst. I just wanted to discover stuff, and that had always been in my heart – to discover things that were there but yet undiscovered. I didn’t want to be a doctor because they already had knowledge that they were applying – I wanted to further the knowledge that they had. I think I’ve always had this desire to do research and reveal stuff, and so with the Huntington’s it was a relatively new disease, people didn’t know much about it, so that appealed to me because I could further the knowledge that people have.

When I was looking about what to do next after university I came across the Cambridge centre for brain repair and found out that one of the things that they specialised in was Huntington’s disease. The person who was organising it was a Christian so that was a bonus for me. So the particular study I did was looking at why do patients lose weight in the disease, and also looking at their brainwaves while they sleep. The main reason was we were trying to find ‘biomarkers’ so that we could (if a drug came along that could help them) find the earliest markers in the disease, because it would be right at the beginning of the disease and they’re the people who you would treat. You have to have a very intact brain to sleep, so that is one of the best places to look for any trouble because it’s one of the first places that you would notice things going wrong.

And you are also a Christian, which you’ve already mentioned. So how does your science fit in with your faith?

512px-healing_of_the_blind_man_by_jesus_christWell, I think Jesus said that we are called to heal the sick, and I think that sometimes he can do that instantly, miraculously – he can do creative miracles. He can do on the spot…we can read stories in the Bible about Jesus performing all of these healings. But I also think that he likes to involve his children to work out other ways to bring healing, and medicine is all part of his plan and purpose to bring about healing. I think there are many levels at which God seeks to bring healing to people. So f I’m trying to be involved with that side of things, bring about healing, find a way of slowing down the disease or stopping the disease. I think that would be what Jesus would want. And I’ve never really found a conflict, personally, with science and my faith. I know other people think that I must be a weak scientist, or not very intelligent if I really did have a faith and science. Obviously some people really do believe that science means that God does not exist, and I personally can’t see that at all.

And you are a woman of many talents, you are also interested in art – so what form does that take for you?

It’s changed over time, so in addition to doing biology for my A-levels I controversially also did art, which people thought was completely mad but my parents told me to follow my heart and do the things that I loved. Initially I’ve done more pointillism – so black and white, fine pen, basically dotty pictures – and it’s all very realistic. I really enjoyed portraits: that was my main focus. I loved faces, and the story that a face told. That was time consuming, and I don’t have that much time now. I did go through a phase of oil painting as well, again with portraits, but again that’s very time-consuming so I do photography now. Again, the main thing that I really like doing is portraits because I just love people’s faces!

Well there’s a brain inside of the face, so maybe there’s a link there!


So the main question that I wanted to ask you was to connect all those things and to ask about beauty in science. Did you find anything in your work beautiful?

B0009489 Nerve fibres in a healthy adult human bra
Nerve fibres in a healthy adult human brain. Credit Zeynep M. Saygin, McGovern Institute, MIT, Wellcome Images. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Well, that’s a really interesting question. The disease itself is pretty horrific. It is a very ugly disease, on the face of it. I think what I found beautiful was actually comparing the disease to a normal healthy brain: it highlighted the beauty of the natural way that God has created us to be. There’s so much order and symmetry, predictability. Just looking at sleep brainwaves, you can see that there was a real beauty of the brainwaves, and how that’s destroyed with the disease. I think the study of the brain really increased my appreciation of natural normal healthy bodies.

Did studying that disease affect your faith in any other way?

Because it is a fatal disease, it made me really realise that with these people the duration can be (once the disease has begun) 5 years, it can be 10 years, 15 years, but they do have a reduced life expectancy. It did really make me realise that actually time is short, and you know the sense of urgency that you read about in the gospel – of communicating the gospel to people. It made me feel like I really wanted to somehow be able to share my faith with them, or to pray that they would somehow meet with God, because you just realise your days are numbered in a way that is more transparent than an average person

So you’re the scientist there, but you’re also a person. You’re Anna Goodman who cares for those people?

Yeah, and I was very personally involved with lots of them. They would write me Christmas cards with lots of really sort of… sentimental things because I think I did become a friend to them. We’re commanded to love one another, and I think that was one way – I was a scientist doing research but I was loving them at the same time.

Is it a bit of a dilemma in the way that you really discovered that beauty of the sleep patterns and the normal brain behaviour through studying a disease?

Yes it’s a tragic way of realising – you don’t realise how much something means to you until you’ve lost it, or its been taken away from you in some way. So it is sad that something so tragic would need to be in my face to appreciate what is actually very beautiful. You’d hope that you would not need something that extreme to highlight God’s creation and its order and structure, and the beauty in that.

And now, you are in a different role, you are a mum of a family, and you’re also – your husband is the leader of this church, so thinking first about your family life, does the science that you’ve done and the person that made you, does that inform any of your thinking?

Yes, definitely! I originally thought I was never going to be a stay-at-home Mum. I just thought “I’ll go crazy and that’s just not me, I cant do that”, but the more I studied the brain the more I realised how the early years were so informative, and basically laid the foundation to the way that people reacted and responded to different life events, and how absolutely crucial it is that they have good foundations, and how as a person you can really help influence that. I realised that actually it was something that… my children were my research project, as it were! I couldn’t invest all my time doing research studies for other people, and then actually the most precious ones where I can make the most impact and the most difference with them, send them off to someone else to influence them. So in the end I gave up what was – four years at university, then four years PhD and postdoc-ing after that – a lot of time. I effectively pulled myself completely out of that, which all of my colleagues said was complete career suicide. But because I believed so strongly that this was really valuable – this time was so important, and would make such a big difference to them neurologically as well as on many different other levels… Understanding the way the brain develops, and understanding boys (because they’re different to girls!), all of that has really changed my behaviour and attitude towards them. I really try to nurture and encourage them day-to-day, in what I expose them to, and how I try and help them learn and grow.

Baby & me by mamihod. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

The other question I was interested in is, if you did find yourself going back into science, do you think your experiences over these last few years as a Mum and in a different world, as it were, would change the sort of   questions you’d be interested in scientifically?

I think I’d be quite interested to look into the early stages, with children who are potentially at risk of Huntington’s, and to study them in a bit more detail to see if you can see any signs or symptoms that would highlight them as being at risk of developing Huntington’s later. I think I’ve completely changed to be honest. Over the last five years I’ve changed more than any point in my life. Having children has completely transformed me, and I think part of that is just – has changed me from being quite a selfish person, I think, where it was all about me and my bubble and my research and making my name known, and God really… I think part of the reason I think he asked me to come out of that was not actually anything to do with looking after the boys – it definitely was to do with that but actually I needed a lot of work done myself, and God needed to teach me how to serve.

I know that this is a very live debate about scientists and family life, and how one enables that to happen, so its really good to hear from you honestly speaking about how that experience has been for you as well as your scientific passion. Clearly neuroscience is not something you got fed up with, it’s something you’re thinking about going back to. So what gave you the confidence to do what you’re doing?

Well part of it was that I really did feel that God spoke to me, twice really, about leaving. Daniel had just started to lead the church, so I felt like I had to prioritise my family and that we couldn’t actually juggle having a newborn and me going to work and Daniel leading the church. So through various circumstances God made that very clear that I should leave, and interestingly – I think it was last year – someone who did not know me at all came up to me at a prophetic conference and said “Did you do a PhD in science?” He didn’t know anything about me, so obviously I said yes I did do a PhD in science, and he said “God wants you to know that it’s not all over. The problem’s still there, and it doesn’t matter when you go back.” First of all, that’s amazing because he knew nothing about me. But what was even more special and amazing about that was the fact that I had been saying to God, “I’m assuming that it’s all over because I will have been out of research for seven years”, and now you’re telling me that it’s not all over and the problem’s still there. It makes me feel like I’m actually going to go back into this area of Huntington’s probably, which I loved. So it was so nice and reassuring to know everything that I’d invested in – it wasn’t just completely to be handed over and dismissed and never looked at again – that actually something that I do care about I can go back to and invest in more. And the whole, “It doesn’t matter when you go back” – one of the other questions I’ve been saying to God was, “It’s clearly the longer I leave it the less likely I am to go back”, and everyone has repeatedly said “It’s career suicide taking yourself out”. So it’s God saying, “because I’m in it, it doesn’t matter when you go back, because I will be the one making the way and opening that door”. Since then ,I’ve met with my boss, and he’s said, “Whenever you want to come back, just give me a little bit of warning to sort out funding, but we’ll make it happen”. To me that means a lot, because I realise that even though you do go through seasons in life where you do what God is showing you to do, and you go through seasons where he’s saying, “now give it all up, let it go, do it for me”. I did really feel like I was obedient. I let it all go, and now I feel like God’s saying “Well done for letting it all go and being obedient, but actually I am going to give it back to you one day”. That’s very encouraging for me.

So do you still read those, enjoy those quirky stories about the brain on the side?

I do! I am following all kinds of journals on twitter, and on instagram about the latest discoveries and I do really… I love reading about what is happening in the world of science, and especially the world of the brain, and I still want to grow in my understanding of it.

Dr Anna Goodman studied neuroscience at St Andrews University, and continued her studies into a PhD and beyond with Roger Barker (a former Faraday speaker) at the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair in Cambridge. She is currently working at home, as the mother of Fin (5) and Rafe (3c), and is married to Daniel Goodman. She is a member of City Church Cambridge, where Daniel heads up the leadership team. Anna loves drawing portraits, photography, and all things creative.

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