Into the Folds
By Agata Bochynska
I knew I wanted to study psychology when I saw a picture of the human brain.
It was 2009 and I was a student in theoretical philosophy, fascinated by the big questions about our existence. Where do our thoughts come from? What controls our behavior? What makes us human? I was convinced that philosophy was superior to other sciences. After all, only philosophy could grasp the big picture, while other sciences only made small, isolated contributions to our understanding of human existence.
One day, a student sitting next to me in my history of philosophy class slipped me a flyer. I looked at her, and then glanced at the headline: “We would like to invite you to the first meeting of the Student Society for Neuropsychology.” I looked up, my eyes widening. She smiled.
“I heard you discussing some interesting points on how the human mind works last time in this class,” she said. “I think you might be interested.”
I looked back down at the flyer, my eyes landing on a picture of a big juicy human brain. I looked closer. The gray folds, slick and spongy, were all tangled together, creating a messy landscape of peaks and valleys. I stared at this landscape and wondered: Could this be where my thoughts come from? Is this what controls my behavior?
A long moment passed.
When I looked up, the student was still looking at me, awaiting my response. “Sure, I can come,” I said, shoving the flyer in my bag.
The next day, I found the classroom indicated in the flyer. The room was filled with chatting students, their conversations peppered with words like neuroscience, brain lesions, and synapses. The words in my academic world were like a different language: existentialism, logic, and phenomenology. I felt a sudden urge to run away. What was I even doing here?
I spotted a free seat across the room, by the window. I rushed towards it through the crowd, hoping that no one would try to be too friendly and start a conversation. I reached the seat without the need to talk about the neuro-stuff that I had no idea about.
Soon, the din became a murmur. Then the room went completely quiet. The president of the society stood up and approached the presenter’s stand. The first slide went up on the projector screen and the familiar gray folds filled my visual field.
“This is where all our thoughts are,” I remember the society’s president saying, as he pointed at the brain. I almost jumped on my chair. It was as if he heard all the questions in my head from when I was staring at the flyer.
My eyes were glued to the projector screen as the talk went on. Within an hour, I learned about the most recent advances in research on brain and behavior. But I wanted more. A few days later, I started attending the Introduction to Psychology class at my university. One year later, I became the president of the Student Society for Neuropsychology and soon after that, graduated with a degree in psychology. Over a decade later, I work as a researcher in psychological sciences, still trying to understand the secrets of the human mind. Even today, when I see a picture of the brain, I catch myself staring at its mysterious landscape of gray folds. “This is where our thoughts are,” I think. “This is what really makes us human.”
Agata Bochynska is a postdoctoral researcher at the Lab for the Developing Mind at NYU Psychology, working on the development of children’s spatial thinking and language. She is particularly interested in bringing together psychology, philosophy and linguistics to study the complex phenomenon of the emergence of a uniquely human mind.