I am so excited to be reading and sharing Jon Lieff, MD’s newly published book, The Secret Language of Cells: What Biological Conversations Tell Us About the Brain-Body Connection, the Future of Medicine, and Life Itself. It’s a special moment when I work with someone, sometimes over the course of several years, and suddenly their book arrives in the mail. The book is born and I can hold it in my hands.

Meeting Dr. Lieff

Jon Lieff, MD and book coach Lisa Tener

I met Jon Lieff, MD at Harvard Medical School’s CME publishing course and was immediately awestruck by his ideas about cellular communication and understanding of life and consciousness from that perspective. Here we are in 2012.

I met Dr. Lieff at Harvard Medical School’s CME publishing course when my colleague, Rusty Shelton, and I taught an advanced workshop on blogging and one on social media. Dr. Lieff attended and over the years his blog “Searching for the Mind” became quite popular for scientists, researchers, doctors, science enthusiasts and students looking to understand how cells communicate within us, within various species of life and interspecies.

Dr. Lieff scoured the literature and learned the esoteric nomenclature of various fields of microbiology, neuroscience, immunology, genetics and molecular biology to understand and translate research that was hard for people outside highly specialized fields to understand. Hence, scientists who wanted to learn about research beyond their disciplines turned to “Searching for the Mind” for new information. Dr. Lieff’s goal, however, was to take what he was learning and come up with a theory of cellular communication in the form of a book for anyone with interest in understanding these burgeoning fields of research.
I had the honor and pleasure of working with Dr. Lieff on his book proposal and remained at the ready to lend support when he needed a sounding board, to bounce ideas around and to share the good news as it came in—a top agent, a publishing contract, etc.

The Motivation for Writing a Groundbreaking and Interdisciplinary Book About How Cells Communicate

secret language of cellsLisa: What do you hope your readers get out of The Secret Language of Cells?
Jon:  A new way of looking at biology and medical science that will lead to greater understanding of health and disease and a possible new definition of life.
Lisa: When you first came to the Harvard Medical School CME Publishing Course, what were you working on and what were your goals of attending?
Jon: I was researching the concept of mind as an integral aspect of nature. Trying to see if current science supports this idea. It is clear that there is no region of the brain that accounts for our subjective experience, or mind, and another problem is that mind transcends individuals to include shared concepts, such as  science and culture. But, it wasn’t at all clear how this subject could be approached for a book.  So, after taking the course for three years, I was still in a muddle about what to do.

The Start of the Blog, Searching for the Mind

Lisa: How did you end up writing an award winning blog that is read by researchers/scientists and science enthusiasts alike and which has been featured alongside blogs from preeminent institutions like MIT and Stanford?
Jon:  From the course I realized that I had to first research a range of topics and the best way to do that was to start a blog and website. The idea was to enlist comments and reactions from scientists and interested people as I wrote a blog post approximately once per week for five years.

Growing a blog into a book

Lisa: And having such an engaged group of readers commenting on your blog must have helped immensely in knowing your readership and writing a book for them. Can you share a bit about the initial idea for the blog and how the blog itself evolved over time, and then how it grew into the book, The Secret Language of Cells?
Jon:  My original notion was to explore the human brain, animal brains including birds, bees, ants, plant behavior, and microbe behavior. There were sections for the concept of what theories of mind might be based on basic science.  After several years it became clear that not just neurons and microbes were having signaling conversations but that everywhere I looked cells were signaling to each other.  It became clear that this is how biology works.

The Research in Writing The Secret Language of Cells

Lisa: This is clearly groundbreaking and incredibly exciting. How much research went into writing this groundbreaking book?

Jon:  In order to show how ubiquitous cellular communication is, I spent years writing a blog post each week. The posts were summaries of complex review articles in the top journals of microbiology, neuroscience, immunology, genetics, and molecular biology.  I basically translated these articles written in almost impenetrable jargon into English.  This went on for years until I had enough information for a thorough review of the subject in the form of a book.
Lisa: I can’t even imagine how many hours that must have added up to, and the brain power that went into translation!

The Publishing Path and Book Proposal

Lisa: What were the biggest challenges in writing The Secret Language of Cells?
Jon:  The most challenging part was getting it published, which is where you came it. Your help was instrumental in clarifying my thinking about all the necessary issues that need to be addressed in writing a book proposal.  While writing the proposal took me away from the basic science, it made me think more about how the book could be organized, and how it could be marketed. But even then, getting an agent and book contact were challenging.
Lisa: In my experience, many, if not most, authors hit challenges which, in the end, contribute to make the book better. They feel frustrating at the time, though!

Challenges and Lessons from the book proposal process

What were some of the more challenging aspects of the book proposal process and what did you learn from it?
Jon: I had been hard at work writing about science, but then I realized I had to switch hats to write a business plan. I had written government grants many years ago, but hadn’t thought about marketing.  It was a very unlike my usual activity as a physician and as a science writer.
TwitterLisa: It helped that you had created a very engaged community on Twitter and Facebook, as well as your blog. You were able to draw from that for the marketing and promotion plan. You worked with a fantastic literary agent, Jeanne Fredericks. What advice do you have for authors in choosing a literary agent? What are some of the things that your agent did that were helpful?
Jon:  Jeanne “got it” immediately, whereas many others had found the topic somewhat confusing. She was helpful at every step, a great advocate during some difficult periods, particularly during the work with the publisher.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the editing my home was completely destroyed by fire along with all of our belongings. Somehow, after a month, I was able to get back to working with the editor, which involved finishing the book, copy editing, choosing pictures, and writing the Endnotes.
Lisa: Oh my goodness. I knew you were moving, but I didn’t realize it was because of a devastating fire.

Writing About Science for Lay Readers and Scientists/Researchers

Lisa: There is some very technical information in The Secret Language of Cells. How did you go about writing something that lay readers could understand yet capturing sophisticated science concepts?
Jon:  I tried very hard to avoid all jargon.  I wanted it to flow in English without any need to look up words.  I think eventually this was accomplished, but it took considerable work to do so.
Lisa: Yes, the research itself is so technical. I marvel at how you achieved this. Did you work with beta readers to get feedback on voice and content?
Jon: No I basically wrote it alone.  My beta readers were the thousands of people including many scientists and writers who commented daily on my posts on Twitter and Facebook.
Lisa: So, what I’m hearing is that the blog and your engagement on Twitter and Facebook is what helped you float the ideas and get to know what your readers responded to.

Promoting The Secret Language of Cells

publishers weeklyLisa: You’ve gotten a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and multiple interviews on NPR. What are you learning in the process of promoting the book now that it’s just come out?
Jon:  I am learning about using Twitter and Facebook to drum up interest. I had lectured years before and had done multiple radio and television program so this was not new to me.  My message seems to get clearer with each interview, now up six in the last couple of months.
Lisa: I have a feeling there are many more to come with such a groundbreaking message and book. What’s some of the feedback you’ve received on The Secret Language of Cells? Any surprises?
Jon:  Most people have given it wonderful reviews and endorsements.  One person reviewed it on Goodreads and gave it a three, while others gave it fives. I received two outstanding full reviews one from Publisher’s Weekly and one from Medium – The Straight Dope by David Wineberg. Mr. Wineberg understood the implications of the entire book and I’m grateful for his lengthy review.
Lisa: Yes, reviews can helps so many additional readers discover a book, and it’s especially exciting to see an in-depth review like that.

Building a Community / Author Platform

Lisa: What was your initial reaction when you first learned you needed an author platform to successfully publish a book?  What advice would you give to aspiring authors who do not have a platform?
Jon:  At that time, I knew my thoughts were too muddled for me to write  books, so, I didn’t really think about it.  I just started my website and blog, Twitter and Facebook, and wrote posts every week for years.  By the time I noticed what had happened, I had community of twenty thousand people interacting out the blog posts and book in a positive way.
Lisa: That is so impressive. A very engaged community. And many of those people are luminaries, some of whom provided endorsements and blurbs. You even ended up co-authoring a post with Marc Bekoff, an award winning ecologist (including a Guggenheim Fellowship), one of the world’s foremost experts on animal emotions and author of 30 books! It shows how persistence and passion can open doors when you follow your heart and mind together—in a pioneering way.

Creating a Title for a Book — and Knocking it Out of the Park!

Lisa Tener and Jon Lieff, MD, author of "The Secret Language of Cells" Lisa: I think that when I initially suggested the title, “The Secret Language of Cells” you were a little mixed on it. Can you share what went into titling the book, what concerns you had, and what made you decide upon it after some thought?
Jon:  Deciding on the main title, The Secret Language of Cells was actually easy, but developing the subtitle was more difficult. We went through many different iterations.  I think that you came up with “and Life Itself!” if I remember correctly. I am very happy with the final subtitle which accurately captures three of the most important aspects of the book, the body/mind connection, modern medical science, and the definition of life.
Lisa: An ambitious promise which The Secret Language of Cells truly delivers!

The Impact of  The Secret Language of Cells

Lisa: Do you think the book has the potential to influence research? If so, if we were to be really bold in imagining what this book could inspire, what might that look like?
Jon:  I hope so. While scientists are looking for signals everywhere in medicine today, I don’t think it is generally accepted that wide-ranging cellular conversations occurring all across the body are a largely untapped source for new medical treatments.  Also, I hope that for the younger generation of scientists, the book will introduce the notion of cells performing a form of intelligent activity.  This could actually change the way we view the definition of life.  Given all the new information about viruses, they also need to be included in the definition of life and this leads to an expansion of the definition of life to include information transfer.
Lisa: Mind blowing, really.

Blogging and Social Media Advice for Authors

Lisa: To what do you attribute the popularity of your blog?

Jon:  Persistence and hard work.  I worked very hard at gathering new information that was astonishing to a wide range of readers and tried to make these dense scientific journal articles easy to understand.
Lisa: You started on Twitter as a novice. What role did Twitter play in the popularity of your blog and the ability to get some very impressive blurbs/endorsements of the book?
Jon: Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in gathering a following. Even though my numbers are smaller on Twitter, I engaged for years with many very influential tweeters and they became my support.  Even though I have only 3,000 followers, every day hundreds of thousands of followers are exposed to everything I write through my supportive colleagues.
Lisa: Any advice to authors or bloggers on engaging on Twitter?
Jon: Keep at it. Engage personally with comments, notifications, etc. Put out good content each day.  Every day I shared two new interesting science findings and two of my re-cycled blog posts on Twitter. While it took time, it paid off. I called it my homework.
Lisa: You do such a great job at that. I think it makes all the difference. That, and writing about something so fascinating in a way that non-scientists and scientists alike can understand—and integrating the ideas into pioneering theories about communication, consciousness and life.
Dear Reader, will you help me out? I accidentally ordered two copies of The Secret Language of Cells. Ask an inspired question of Dr. Lieff below or make an inspired comment and you’ll be entered in a contest to win a free copy of this groundbreaking book.

About the Author

"The Secret Language of Cells" author Jon Lieff, MD Dr. Jon Lieff graduated from Yale College and Harvard Medical, and specialized in psychiatry, and later geriatric and neuropsychiatry. He was a pioneer in geriatric psychiatry building the first geriatric medical/psychiatry hospital units, and the largest geriatric treatment network in New England (more than 250 nursing homes). Dr. Lieff is a past president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, the national subspecialty association. As president, he founded the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. You can find him on TwitterFacebook and his popular blog, Searching for the Mind. His book The Secret Language of Cells is published by BenBella Books.

13 Responses to Jon Lieff, MD on Writing and Publishing “The Secret Language of Cells”

  1. Kat says:

    If the definition of life was expanded to include information transfer then isn’t everything potentially alive? Since, arguably we read our environment for example (Latour,David Abraham’s). Then could vitality/life depend on the ability/depth of reading?

    • Jon Lieff says:

      Information transfer is part of the new potential definition not the complete answer — the definition also includes ability to use metabolism and replicate.

  2. Lisa Tener says:

    Thank you, Kat. Dr. Lieff just sent me his response: “Information transfer is part of the definition not the complete answer — the definition also includes ability to use metabolism and replicate.”

  3. Dr. Lieff’s commitment to writing a blog post every week for years paid off. This is so important to do, especially for nonfiction authors. A blog keeps a website dynamic, attracts traffic, and allows the author to interact with his/her readers. It’s as important as social media. And, of course, establishing an author platform is critical for all nonfiction writers. This is an excellent synopsis of what do to if you write nonfiction and hope to entice a traditional publisher.

  4. Geri Lafferty says:

    This book sounds fascinating and timely–given that we are all very conscious of what our cells are doing in the age of COVID-19. I will be putting this one on my reading list for sure.

  5. Lisa Tener says:

    Frances, you are absolutely right. When someone has an idea to write a book but has not worked at developing community, there is usually much work to be done. There are so many benefits to blogging–from getting feedback on your ideas, understanding how your readers think and want interests them, visibility, building a community, opportunities that come your way, and even SEO. It’s one of my biggest recommendations to aspiring authors. And Dr. Lieff is an example of someone who knocked that one out of the park by providing great value to his readers–information they could not get anywhere else, without having to read scientific jargon. It helps that he is both passionate about the subject and a voracious reader!

  6. Lisa Tener says:

    Geri, you will love it!

  7. James Zender says:

    Dr. Lieff, from your research have you reached a precise definition of “mind”?

    Also, how is communication between cells being measured and does this communication occur between cells of separate individuals?

    • Jon Lieff says:

       There is no exact scientific definition of mind that has been found. Also, there has been no proven place in the brain that coordinates subjective experience. Even the current definition of life is questionable.

      Communication among cells is observed as signal molecules and electric signals. Communication between cells of individual animals occurs with smell molecules, but microbes and plants communicate and microbes and human cells communicate in the same ways as cells do. 

  8. I’m so excited to read this book, as I’ve always been fascinated by cellular communication, especially as it relates to the mind. Thank you Dr. Lieff for sharing your passion for science with the world!

  9. Great interview with one of my favorite alumni from the Harvard Publishing Course. Congratulations on the new book, Dr. Lieff!

  10. Jon Lieff says:

    Thanks for your kind words. Let me know what you think of the book.

  11. Lisa Tener says:

    Dr. James Zender, you are the winner of the free book! I’ll email you separately!

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