Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

How I Broke Up With My Inner Therapist

By Justin Moscarello

At twenty I wanted to be a therapist.

The practical nature of this goal marked a departure from my early career ambitions, which included, but were not limited to: comic book artist, investigative journalist, and fighter pilot. Comics illustrator and reporter were actual goals that I nurtured and made sounds about pursuing, while fighter pilot stemmed from an illicit childhood viewing of Top Gun and had no serious intent behind it (though preteen me was very excited by the idea of a job with code names). Ultimately, I didn’t want to illustrate comics or report the news, and anyone who has ever met me knows I would not thrive in a military setting.

So: therapist. It suited me. My tendency to free-associate allowed me to find connections between seemingly unconnected things, which I thought could be useful in a clinical setting. I began to notice patterns in peoples’ stories, a structure underlying the seeming randomness of human behavior. I pictured myself smoking a pipe in a wingback chair, facing away from the reclining patient, Freud-style. “Doctor,” he or she would say, “you just blew my mind.” I would cock an eyebrow and puff on my pipe, inscrutable.

For a while I was happy with my sensible plan. I began informal preparations for my career, honing my skills as a listener and peppering everyday conversation with the tropes of talk therapy (“How did that make you feel?” and “Say more about that”). People generally like to talk, so I had ample opportunity to play-act at being a therapist.

I enjoyed it – for a while.

Unfortunately, complaints are an endlessly renewable resource. My tolerance for listening to them was not. I discovered that I lack the patience for the litany of human grievances, a fatal flaw for somebody hoping to spend a career fielding them. I abandoned my plan on the grounds that I would make a terrible therapist.

By now I was twenty-one and a junior. On the first day of fall semester, I found myself sitting in a Biological Basis of Psychology lecture. I had enrolled in a variety of unrelated courses as I looked for a new topic, but this particular class was required for a major chosen to further a career I no longer wanted. My expectations were low.

What followed were fourteen weeks of synapses and neurotransmitters, dendrites and axons and nerve impulses. The brain, I realized, had everything. There were billions of cells with trillions of connections between them, transmitting countless bytes of information. There were huge networks of neurons, computing everything from hunger to love to color, all of it in permanent darkness. There was nothing as fundamentally mysterious as a working brain. I found myself devouring the readings, eagerly anticipating each lecture. If I was struck before by the predictability of human behavior, I was now doubly struck by something deeper. The brains that drove human thought and action were built out of the same matter as everything else. Matter formed in a dense cloud of plasma, forged into heavy elements in the hearts of stars and then flung across the universe when those stars exploded, combining and recombining until it became… aware. Human experience is just a special condition of the same stuff that makes up the world around us.

The dawning insight I experienced that semester was a little like losing my mind. Schizophrenics poring over old newspapers find hidden patterns only they can see. They really do feel like they’re onto something big and secret. I felt the same way.

Only I wasn’t losing my mind, but gaining it. I was hooked.

Years later, I still am.

The story of all my previous aspirations ended like an episode of Scooby Doo, with my inner comic illustrator and ace reporter and fighter pilot ripping off their masks to reveal that they were neuroscientists all along. My inner therapist, already looking the part, only had to put out his pipe and put on a lab coat. My interest in those other things suddenly seemed tepid and silly, because I was only then discovering what it meant to be interested in something. Back then, I didn’t know what a career as a neuroscientist would involve. An endless period of time in school seemed likely, as did long hours and low pay. As plans went, this one seemed far less sensible than the last. But I didn’t care. That’s the nature of addiction.


After completing his postdoctoral fellowship at NYU, Justin Moscarello joined the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University as an assistant professor. He teaches behavioral neuroscience, runs a lab devoted to the neurobiology of learning and memory, and copes reasonably well with being a coastal expat deep in the heart of Texas.