I never knew I wanted to be a scientist.
When I was a child, I voraciously read and, more than that, watched. Listened. For large swaths of time, too, I did nothing. (But stillness is not idleness.) I would sit in silence and inspect my own mind. Instead of disassembling radios (like Richard Feynman), or conducting chemical experiments (like Oliver Sacks), I observed and dissected my own thoughts. Without stirring, I wandered through fields of association. I stumbled on abstractions. Feelings –like wind, like rain, like sun– enveloped me. When my external reality was harsh and frightening, I quietly, secretly retreated to this inner world.
More fascinating than anything I learned in school, particularly more fascinating than anything I learned in science, was my own mind, which, unremarkable as it was, was limitless—existing outside the realm of time and space and physical rules of governance. Newtonian physics did not – could not – encumber (weightless!) feelings. More interesting than the material vastness of intergalactic space was this psychic vastness within me. (But where does it reside?)
I looked for the personal, the psychic, everywhere. At that time, the novel was a natural habitat for my inquiries, where the author gave me what I wanted—access (if not entirely unobstructed) to the inner lives of others. Films wrought dynamic psychological portraits, landscapes. I probed the personal, the psychic, further and further until I gradually became dissatisfied with my instrument: too blunt and imprecise were my words!
The humanities offered beautiful, intricate descriptions of the mind — in striking relief. But gradually, I found the explanations specious. I grew tired of subjectivity, disillusioned with the limiting lens of interpretation and criticism. This window offered spectacular vistas, yes, but the view felt distorted and indefinite, incomplete.
I longed for empiricism and objectivity. In psychology, ostensibly, I found them. When I came to appreciate that the brain mediates all human experience, I was stricken with awe at this strange–and yet, again, in many ways unremarkable—organ. How could all of the world be contained within and spring forth from this mass of tissue? At the intersection of psychology and neuroscience, I devoured facts, data, evidence that could be Observed and Quantified. I found–I then believed–the rigor I sought. The explanations offered felt veridical. They resonated with the more logical, exacting, empirical part of myself that had compelled me toward science — toward answering why we really do the things we do, what really drives us and comprises us.
But again my eyes grew weary. I strained to see what, originally, had led me here. Where is the richness, the softness, the infinitude of human experience? The rigor of science had stiffened it, had resolved and done away with the complexity and paradox of the human spirit, had made it finite, had petrified the living project of becoming into a lifeless scientific object. Not all truths are rational, lawful, provable or even articulable. Meaning is not just uncovered but is actively constructed.
I am learning that from no window can one peer all of humanity; no lens is sufficient for capturing the vastness, and richness, of human experience. There are different ways of looking onto the world, of discovering and creating meaning and truth. These differences, ambiguities, tensions, I exalt.
I’ve never known I want to be a scientist. I suspect I never will.
Jennifer Lenow is a graduate student in Cognition and Perception at New York University. She studies how people make decisions. Unfortunately, this research program offers her absolutely no guidance with regard to her own decision-making.