By Jared Martin
I have always loved science. In kindergarten, I asked Santa Claus for a microscope. In fourth grade, I showed up to class wearing a wetsuit and swim fins for a highly informative presentation on octopodes (yes, it’s octopodes, not octopi; octopus is Greek, not Latin). When not obsessing about octopodes, I spent much of my time reading — mostly poetry and speculative fiction. In the short biographies I read in my science textbooks, scientists were portrayed as exacting people who read history books in their spare time — not Harry Potter. They were precise, serious people who followed someone else’s script rather than writing their own stories. I was convinced I would never fit in as a scientist.
Armed with the unwavering arrogance of an 18-year old, I officially abandoned science when I submitted my college major to the registrar. I knew that there was no place for me in science, so I decided upon an academic track that would allow me to explore my creative interests within the structure of an academic discipline. I selected Romance Languages and Literatures with a focus on modern Brazilian poetry. (I still have five shelves stuffed with books to prove it, not to mention the folders stuffed with my own poor attempts at a poetic masterwork.)
I was particularly intrigued by poets who didn’t fit in. While living abroad in Brazil during my sophomore year of college and feeling out of place yet again, I became engrossed with the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop spent 15 years of her life in Brazil, and much of her work describes feelings of perpetual alienation and estrangement. I still feel a deep, personal connection to her poems. Nonetheless, when it was time to write my senior thesis on the Brazil-focused poems in her oeuvre, I discovered that literary criticism couldn’t address the kinds of questions I was interested in. I wanted to know how Bishop’s poems would have been different had she not suffered from chronic illness, or how the emotional tenor of her work would have shifted had she lived in Japan for 15 years instead of Brazil. Halfway through my senior year, I ditched my sputtering attempts at writing a thesis (and with it, any pretenses of graduating with Latin honors).
Confused about my future and looking for an easy A, I enrolled in an introductory social psychology course as an elective. I was eating Fruit Loops and wearing my pajamas one morning when I logged into the course website to watch Dr. Greene’s lecture on the science of emotion. He explained how the mind often constructs justifications for the body. When a person notices that their heart is racing and their palms are clammy — but they haven’t outrun a bear or climbed a mountain — they sometimes misattribute their physiological activation to something totally unrelated. This was shown in a classic experiment by Drs. Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer. When two people are injected with a stimulating drug (but only one of them knows it will jazz them up), the person with no explanation for his activation looks to the environment for an explanation. Less inventive scientists may have played a horror movie in the background, letting participants believe that a jump scare caused their sweaty palms; not so with Schachter and Singer. The environmental “cause” of participants’ physiological activation was someone euphorically hula-hooping and shooting crumpled paper into a wastebasket! In 75 minutes, Dr. Greene showed me one way in which I could be creative and also be a scientist: design imaginative experiments to address tricky research questions.
Some of the most innovative and influential scientists I know have creative talents. Dr. Julian Thayer, whose work details how the mind and body coordinate (and what happens when they don’t), is an accomplished jazz musician. Dr. Daniel Gilbert, who has shown how bad humans are at predicting what will make them happy, has published numerous non-academic works, including science-fiction novels. My own graduate advisor, Dr. Paula Niedenthal, whose work has uncovered the deep historical roots of cross-cultural differences in emotion and perception, is a talented cartoonist. Scientists come from many backgrounds, with talents and interests that don’t fit neatly into a standard mold. That means anyone can be a scientist: a musician, a story-teller, a cartoonist—or in my case, a mediocre poet.
Jared Martin is a postdoctoral scientist in Psychology at New York University working with Dr. Jonathan Freeman. His research explores how facial expressions can shape our social interactions. He still reads (fiction) nearly every day.