Gratitude

“I’m not worried,” my Dad says, as we’re discussing my long term career, “you’ll be just fine.”

It was a refreshing ounce of optimism in the seemingly constant storm of negativity surrounding careers in academia. Almost every time I open my browser I’m confronted with countless articles recounting the rigorous years of training with low stipends and almost no benefits facing young scientists. But my Dad – not worried.

My parents are East Coast blue collar through and through: my Dad, a third generation Italian-American jumping from one IT job to the next, and my Mom, an Irish-American who was adopted as a baby and works tirelessly as an underappreciated daycare provider. They’re remarkably loyal and caring parents, who want the best for each other and me, their only child.

To them, success means a steady paycheck doing work that doesn’t drive you insane. For some, that might be a low bar. At one point in my life, I also thought it was. I thought I’d do better. You know, move to the big city and make the big bucks, show them that I could make it. I’m still a Ph.D. student, and in many ways, I already feel like I have.

I work in a field that encourages intellectual curiosity, grants independence, and forces me daily to learn something new. Each morning, I walk into a starkly beautiful building filled with individuals pushing the limits of human knowledge; it sounds like a charity advertisement, but it’s also true. I’m surrounded by lab mates who enthusiastically debate whether animals dream or if dolphins have consciousness, often over a delicious locally crafted beer. When I enter lab, I tackle technical, intellectual, and practical problems, and I often leave defeated. Still, I hold onto the moments when I stand triumphant – take that, MATLAB! – remembering that every job has its own brand of frustration.

There are many issues with the academic track and multiple ways in which it could improve significantly. Although the promise of job stability in the form of tenure is a serious bonus, it’s a status that few with a doctorate achieve. Still, that sort of job stability is a concept that is essentially unattainable for most Americans. And the unreliability of funding is a whole other story, but again, that’s not a situation that is unique to academia.

In my parents’ eyes, a post-doctoral position is a job where I can explore and challenge myself, while making enough money to pay the bills. They see that I’m happy doing this work, which is considered a bonus in an era of rampant unemployment.

In my daily life, I refuse to dwell on the things I would change; spirals of pessimism are addictive and brutal. It’s not cognitive dissonance, it’s optimism. Keeping in touch with the benefits, as well as the drawbacks, is important in academia, just like any other job. I’m hoping to have a few more decades with a steady heartbeat, and I’d like that heartbeat to quicken with excitement, not anxiety.

 

I Loved Lucy – And I’m A Neuroscientist

When I first saw the trailer for Lucy, I felt like every astrophysicist must feel when yet another space-based movie enters theatres: miffed and very, very nervous. In a neuro-doped world ridden with misinformation, I wasn’t ready for more poorly-researched brainporn. I am glad I held my breath though, because as it turns out, this movie is completely self-aware, and as a result, pretty fantastic.

First things first – it’s not a high-action thriller, as the trailer might suggest. Lucywas written, directed, and filmed by French filmmaker Luc Busson, who has had quite a prolific and varied career. But this movie is more The Fifth Element than Taken; and I highly recommend watching the former before you watch this film. Once you appreciate his style (if you’re not familiar, think a slightly more odd Tarantino), you can recognize the weird, brilliant things he accomplishes in this movie. Each scene has a gem in it: a rich bad guy performs surgery, gets blood all over his face and hands but not on his crisp silver suit; Lucy calls her mother in the middle of getting stomach surgery and explains that she misses breastfeeding; finally, Lucy meets “Lucy,” i.e.australopithecus afarensis, in a completely ridiculous remake of The Creation of Adam. And then there’s the completely absurd science, packed with largely fabricated statistics about brain power, the space-time continuum, and quantum physics.

Besides the quick cuts to Discovery Channel montages and quirky, but not openly comical scenes that slowly, slowly make you realize you should be laughing, I think this movie might have actually done something positive for the public understanding of neuroscience. Yes, I know every informed person out there is rolling their eyes and going, “ugh, the 10% myth was so 1960’s” – but that’s the point, aren’t we beyond it? Aren’t we so far beyond believing this myth that we can listen to Morgan Freeman tell us that earlier species only used 5-8% of their cerebral capacity, and that dolphins use more of their brains than humans, and knowingly smile? I sat through Morgan Freeman’s lecture – given to a room full of enthusiastically-nodding scientists, and laughed. Because we should laugh at what a ridiculous idea it is.

Of course, being able to realize the humor here is contingent on knowing that the 10% thing is indeed a myth. Well, thanks to this movie, it’s now very explicitly out there that believing in the 10% myth makes you a complete fool. Almost every review or summary points out that it’s based on a long held neuroscience myth:

  • “It’s a fallacy, long rebuffed by science, that humans use only about 10% of their brain power.” – Time
  • “That human beings use only 10 percent of their “cerebral capacity,” is a complete falsehood, incidentally.” -The Atlantic
  • “So let’s start with the enticing premise of Luc Besson’s “Lucy,” starring Scarlett Johansson: Human beings only use 10 percent of their brain capacity. Imagine what it would be like if we could access all of it? Well, wow. It would be sort of like … nothing new. Because, it turns out, in real life, humans pretty much DO use their whole brains. DARN!” – ABC News

Ultimately, many people missed the joke and accompanying insights, and the reviews for Lucy have ranged from “beyond-the-pale sloppy” (The Atlantic) to “truly, madly deeply watchable” (NPR). I attended the movie with a cognitive scientist and a psychologist, and we all loved it. Defenders of science: don’t go into this movie with swords drawn, just sit and enjoy the ridiculous humor. Once you suspend belief – in the same way you suspend belief for anything remotely fantasy – the movie becomes all the more enjoyable.