Hmm :). I’m so glad to have the opportunity to sit down and write out my thoughts—last week was a busy one, but filled with great conversations. Cambridge is unique in that sense for me, even considering the remarkable schools I’ve been a part of! Everyone at Cambridge is very impressive, and startlingly diverse in their backgrounds. But what I think really makes it special is the openness that people have. There’s a profound openness to new people and their experiences, which drives this intense focus people have when meeting each other and their curiosity in comparing new cultures to their own. And I’ve never seen or experienced such focused curiosity whenever someone is explaining a new idea.
Generally, I hate debating—I never feel like it’s worth it. I’ve felt for a long time that people come in with their own opinions and that’s unlikely to change by discussing it, especially since much of these are gut reactions rather than logical arguments anyway. But here, for the first time, and for multiple conversations—I’ve come out having learned something, having changed an opinion, having reached a conclusion I would not have come to in my own head. And I can see it happening to other people when they listen to me as well. There’s such a profound willingness to listen to others that I haven’t ever seen before, and it just makes the world that much bigger.
I find that most conversations I have are about people relating to each other—yeah, oh my goodness, I empathize with the emotions you’re expressing in that story, yes, the weather’s been so crazy, oh, that sounds like a fun day. They’re about drawing on your own similar experience and projecting it back and forth onto the story someone is telling you. You don’t gain any substantial information—I still work out my opinions in the privacy of my own head, and if it’s one of those conversations where I’m not feeling connected to you but am grilling you for details on your work in an effort to salvage the conversation (a questionably useful strategy—people usually walk away from me looking kind of dazed / annoyed) I gain some hard facts. Building connections with people and collecting hard facts is useful.
But there’s something so special, so beautiful, about talking to people and gaining a new story, a new way to think about the world, a new list of hard facts with the accompanying interpretation. A glimpse into a story not your own, a glancing shot at another mind and how they see the world. It’s hard to do—it’s hard to describe a perspective that’s fundamentally different from someone else’s, because people view any information through the lens of their own experience. So a listener has to relate to the speaker in one respect, to fill in all of the details of what the speaker isn’t saying based on their own lives. And then that listener has to be so, so open and focused and intensely curious to reach beyond what they know and try to figure out, in the context of how the speaker thinks, what they mean. To not just grasp the ideas (which is hard enough) but to see why the story is being told the way it is, to understand how the speaker thinks, and then to incorporate the speaker’s method of generating these new ideas into one’s own thinking. To not just add what the speaker says to the context of one’s existing thoughts, but to add a new way of thinking about the world. Making the world that much bigger.
My favorite book for a long time has been “Ender’s Game”, by Orson Scott Card. There’s a sentence in there that reads: “It made Ender listen to what people meant, rather than what they said. It made him wise.” For as long as I’ve loved this book I’ve been trying to figure out what that sentence means. And I think this is it—listening not to new facts through the lens of our established filters, but listening for the foreign perspective of how another person sees the world.
My mother may be scoffing at me right now—she’s forever telling me to stop being defensive, stop reacting whenever she says anything, because I take what she says, immediately apply it to whatever situation in my life I think she’s referring to, and start arguing. She wants me to listen to her underlying point, not the specific example she uses.
But that’s hard. It’s hard trying to understand the ideas—because people don’t actually say many words; listeners have to infer a heck of a lot during a given conversation based on their common experience. It’s hard to think of why someone’s saying what they are—and that’s very important in generating a response, which has to be done in a reasonable amount of time. And if you’ve somehow got that far, have an intuition for what they’re saying and why they’re saying it, THEN you can go in and think about how they see the world, how it’s a unique perspective, and how it’s just as beautiful as your own and should be thoughtfully considered. And that’s part of Ender’s Game, too— “I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.” But to reach that far, to have the interest to go that far, it requires time, attention, dedication, and above all, a profound openness. An incredible degree of respect for others coupled with an intense need to learn about them. And by learning through each individual, one learns about the world, better than what we could come up with on our own. Each mind suddenly holds a key to making the world that tiny bit bigger. A bigger world.
Discussion, then, becomes a valuable means of learning. I’m not good at it—when someone says something I don’t think has merit, or I disagree with, I typically dismiss all of their subsequent opinions entirely. If they’re long-winded or otherwise hard to follow, they similarly lose my respect and I don’t try to dig deeper. This isn’t to say that I no longer respect them as a human being—I’m quite happy to continue with first-level interactions, relating experiences and learning hard facts from them. I just lose my openness, my willingness to really try to understand where they’re coming from. I don’t think this is an uncommon phenomenon. (I’m also less open when I’m tired, distracted, or stressed. I don’t think this is particularly uncommon either.)
But Cambridge is an uncommon place. Our lab recently heard a speaker whose work I didn’t find particularly novel. I shut down about halfway through the presentation. But my supervisor, and others in my lab, had valuable questions in the end. They had picked out the most useful things in the talk and were able to comment on them. They’d picked out the things that would improve the work most if fixed and brought them up. They were better scientists than I, more open than I, and when you’re in that kind of environment, when you realize you aren’t stepping up to the plate, it’s a jolt of awareness. I know why I didn’t have those kinds of questions—I’m young, I’m still having trouble evaluating what’s good science or not, so I’m holding tight to whatever conclusions I can draw—but it’s somewhere to move in the future. It applies to my work.
It applies to my life, too. At one point, some friends and I were debating points in neuroscience, and I had checked out because one of the debaters had previously given some erroneous data and more annoyingly wasn’t letting me talk. (I do get irrationally annoyed when people won’t let me butt in with points when I want to make them. See a post a while back about my thesis defense :).) But my other two friends were paying such close attention, really trying to get at what the debater was saying, and so I checked back in. And I still wasn’t doing it well, wasn’t fully understanding where the debater was coming from, but I had much more of a sense than when I was dismissing him entirely. Openness spreads. It’s something that runs across the community, across each of the people you’re with, and for me, it’s been an eye-opening experience. To realize that this is what I need to work on next, to make myself a better learner, and to contribute to everyone else’s learning around me.
I’ve been talking about communication in the sole perspective of information gathering, which I know is somewhat eccentric. (And how rare it is to know this! I’m not very good at having access to whether my thought frameworks are different from those of other minds’.) I can’t really help it much though—at this point in my life, I’m hopelessly entangled in my own brain :). Recently, I went through many of the compliments people had given me over the years, to figure out what strengths I should emphasize in my personal statements for grad school. It was a really heart-warming night with a lot of flailing and thankfulness. The strongest point that came back, again and again in various forms, was love of, and dedication to, learning. So that’s how my approach to conversations arise, and why I care now—because I’ve discovered that there’s this whole other dimension to learning that lives in other peoples’ heads. And it’s amazing, and exciting, and I look forward to pushing myself to get to that highest level, of truly understanding and incorporating different perspectives. Someday I might even be able to write these thoughts through a point-of-view that’s a bit less practical-weird (… also came up in these letters :)) than my own :).
*Smiles at the screen* All right, I’m done :). I have to say, that went nowhere near where I thought this post would go! It still amuses me, every time, when I get to writing or talking and suddenly realize I have things to say. Thank you so much for reading—and questions and comments are extremely welcome, as always. Please comment if you’d like to chat— independently-or-not from all of this, I love interacting with new people: teaching, listening, and hopefully learning from them more and more.
Thanks so much for reading :). I might squeeze another post in this week, but if not, happy first week of November!