We find our way

Hey all!

I don’t have as much to say today, so hopefully that will translate into this post being marginally shorter :). And then I could do some more work, or alternatively sleep! It still amazes me that I love all the various forms of work and play that I do every day. I’ve never been in a situation where all of the activities I engage in so perfectly match what I’d ideally like to be doing. So that’s the first point I have written down: I’m grateful for the life that I’m leading.

Usually when I’m hanging out in a subculture of people (academics live in various bubbles) I feel like I’m missing out on the larger population. In other words, “having broader experiences” is a huge hanging sign in my head labeled SHOULD BE DOING, and we all know how much I’m motivated by “should be”s :). But this is the first place where that idea—that I should be interacting with various types of people to better empathize with others—is being washed out. Because everyone is so lovely here. Everyone is so improbably lovely.

Everyone thinks. They think about everything; give anyone any topic and you’ll get a consistent, considered analysis. People listen, and they’ll change their opinions—they’ll evaluate your arguments and make you change yours. They’re sensitive—the neuroscience graduate students have been making visible efforts to improve the culture and will call each other out on behavior. They’re open and don’t feel threatened by new things; they’re welcoming to newcomers. They’re helpful and energetic; they all work very hard. There’s this unifying thread that we’re all in this together and to help each other. People are respectful, accomplished, modest, fun, skilled, enthusiastic, empathetic. I don’t want to leave this subgroup: I want to say here forever.

Here’s where the expectation is to say “I fit in”, or even “I can be more me”, and there’s some truth to that. In this group, I’m not labeled as an “intellectual” (it is literally an expectation) and people don’t call my way of thinking “[too] practical”. Everything can be unabashedly linked to science here, and that’s another common thread that is so self-evident you forget that the whole world doesn’t share this. There are in fact a lot of self-evident expectations that make me forget how unique this group is. What’s most striking to me is the expectation of competence across the board: reading, writing, speaking, independence, people skills, skill acquisition, openness, respectfulness, thoughtfulness, hobbies, giving. More than anything, I feel like I’m ready to be here, that like everyone else I’ve worked on these skills for years. That these were hard expectations to meet up to, but everyone’s worked on their weak points to get here, and we’ve all adequately prepared.

Returning to the “being more me” point, however, the strangest part is that I feel like I’m expanding. I was talking to a friend today, telling them: “Yeah, I feel like we are the conglomeration of things we talk about with various friends.” And they paused, walking down a footpath in the sunlight, and said: “I disagree.”

Their point was that far more than what we talk about, we are how we react to incoming information. “That’s much more what I think of when I think about ‘Monica’.” They smiled. “And it gives me better predictions.” They were referencing a conversation yesterday in which I said that I define “who I am” by whether people can make good predictions about my future actions. (As a tangent, I’ve seen this sort of behavior in all sorts of people here—they’ll hear how you describe your framework, and then they’ll use those words and structure with you the next time. I don’t know if I do this, but it always makes me feel special when people put forth the effort, and it’s happened to me with three different people since I’ve arrived.)

And that idea, that we are how we process information, seems much more true to me. Because that hasn’t changed enormously since I’ve gotten here, but so many frameworks have changed.

I’m now still learning new things but at a decreasing pace, which is kind of a relief. When I got here and started being expected to keep up in philosophy discussions, I scrambled to assemble enough of a framework that I’d be able to build on it and not look like I was blindly stumbling around. Then I was expected to contribute to discussions on cognitive representation, which was freeze-inducing until I figured out how it connected to my previous body of knowledge. In deep learning discussions I’m still pretty much lost—it’s too technical, I can’t always reference back to the principles of machine learning—but things are coming along. With things like modeling, how to design experiments, and how to think about problems, I’m getting an immense amount through osmosis, through applying my previously-acquired skills and receiving mildly-stated corrections.

It has been funny to see how people react to others who don’t understand what’s going on. I’m working with a postdoc in one of my projects, and they explain so smoothly that you didn’t even know you didn’t know anything. They won’t say: “have you heard of…” or jump in midway through the jargon. They’ll just say, “and I was thinking about this,” and start from the beginning of whatever psychological story they’re telling, and ten minutes later you’ll be sitting there asking them questions and nodding along, and they’ve just conveyed a good few papers, or body, of literature while you feel like you were just having a “look at this cool thing!” conversation.

What’s more typical is this: the story begins, I look confused, we’ll stop and ask what I know, backtrack around for a while, then return. A more advanced version of this technique is to not even initially start the story. I know someone who begins with: “Have you heard of…? How about…? All right,” and then they’ll launch. It’s certainly very efficient this way, even if I usually feel like an idiot. On the other hand, this is a very useful way of knowing what topics I should be aware of.

I encountered an approach earlier which I haven’t seen in a while. In this case, they started telling the story, I looked confused, they asked “do you know what … is?” I said no and then they briefly explained. The story continued and I looked confused again, and from that point on they continued on but kept on eying me uneasily. It was one of those situations where things were compounding on each other: when I’m completely lost I usually don’t ask questions, without prompting they didn’t know if they should try to explain things again using different terms, they weren’t backing up for me so I was feeling completely out of my depth and like questions really wouldn’t be in order, and I’m sure they were just feeling uncomfortable. General rule to self: when someone looks confused in a one-on-one conversation, even if you think you’re explaining something simply, just go on and try it again even if they’re sort of smiling and nodding along. There was fault on both sides for this one. Eh. We’ll get it sometime.

The above case was a reminder that there are some fields and frameworks I want to understand that I don’t have the language for. This rationality thing has been the same situation—new terminology to sit with the cool kids—but I now have a reasonable idea of the most common words and ideas, so from here it’s just building on the scaffolding. There’s a lot of construction work that’s been going on in my head—new approaches and organization of material and terminology—but like I said, completely new things are now being built at a decreasing rate. It’s less stimulating in some ways, but it’s nice to be able to put things into an existing framework rather than try to infer out commonalities in real-time from scratch.

On the other hand, I recently had a conversation with some computer science undergrads, and completely held my own. I told this to a friend: “I’m now at the level of CS undergrads!” and they laughed at me and congratulated me on my progress. And when I tried to engage said undergrads on philosophy, it turns out that I now know more than them as of three weeks ago. Life’s a crazy place, you know. Lots of changes.

And then I was sitting at a roundtable where I was telling a bunch of mixed CS undergrads / grads about how we measure neural signal in the brain. This was one of those rare situations in which I was by far the expert in the topic for the audience, so I got to hold forth on all sorts of things in a way that I haven’t been able to do for ages. I hang out with a bunch of neuroscience majors usually, so anything I have expertise in at least two other people have something to contribute. For a half an hour, it was kind of a fun feeling: it’s such a novelty, here.

Finally, I went to a talk by someone in Prof. Nancy Kanwisher’s group, and it felt like a tremendous relief. I was trained by Prof. Kanwisher with regards to neuroimaging, so hearing a lecture by someone who was covering complicated material in the context of how I usually thought about neuroimaging was a treat. Things slot very nicely when you’re building on one perspective. I kind of feel like I should change schools every year or so so that I can have this immense wrenching sense of “how in the world am I supposed to integrate this new knowledge” every year. But I fear that this is one of the biggest jumps for me: that there are completely new domains of knowledge around, but that I’m getting a lot of the larger ones in my area of interest now.

(Another postdoc sent me a paper and references for a new project. These references are textbooks on game theory and decision theory. I’m tremendously excited, and also: wait, I’ll have time to read two textbooks in the near future?)

So I’m me, in terms of information processing (my language is going to become so much more information-processing oriented. I can already see the changes). But I’m expanding me, because I have all of these new ways of thinking about ideas as well as ideas to apply my existing frameworks to. It kind of feels like when I was learning machine learning for the first time—but I’m less lost because I have some intuition or background for everything, and it’s more widespread because I’m not just learning academically.

I wonder how I’ll come out in the end. Likely “more/too intellectual” and “more/too practical”, especially if I’m in an environment where these traits are encouraged. But I’m making changes where I’ve wanted to make changes, so I’m very happy to be where I am. A friend asked me: “Did people ever tell you to stop talking about social stuff?” I paused, and thought about it, and said, “No.” People didn’t tell me to stop because I didn’t talk about it. This blog has veered kind of rapidly in that direction: I might be wrong about this, but I have the sense that it was only after Wellesley, and a fair bit into last year, that it took on this social analysis / introspective bent so strongly. I was of the opinion until very recently that I’d never get to study social psychology in any formalized context. And moreover in my personal experience people generally haven’t approved of social psychology. (For the record, I’m basically going to be doing computational cognitive / social science in the future. There might be neuroscience, there might not. What I like best is interdisciplinary, though—the more fields a project can span the better.)

But people are accepting of those things here, and I’ve miraculously managed to glom onto an advisor who I think will keep me on track, and I like the changes that I’m making. It is interesting to me that I think I will become more foreign, or at least a more extreme version of myself, to some of my friends. And I bet I will become odder compared to the “normal” person, whoever we may define that to be. (My version is always this nebulous figure sitting next to me on a plane. But I often end up next to students, so this doesn’t quite work.)

I was considering whether this version of me could have appeared earlier. This harks back to family and friends. Some of my friends’ families kept them on a very short academic leash; others ended up where they did out of self-motivation. Some made friends of a certain type earlier; some took longer to find subcultures. I don’t think any of my previous friends challenged me scientifically as much as people challenge me here. They did in other ways.

A few other things that occurred. First, I was talking loudly with a friend (I have received word that I should pull a Taylor Swift and talk about people anonymously, so that everyone knows who they are, but not their names. I’m currently in the process of deciding if people should have codenames or not.) We were in a café, and I’m pretty sure we were discussing how moral psychology should be executed in machine intelligences. (…yeah, it’s different here.) A man at the end of the table then asked if we would like to consult on a book that he was writing. I let my friend take the helm and conduct all discussion, which they did forthrightly and firmly. I kind of looked on, amazed.

Another situation: I was standing outside of the Berkeley campus with a group of other students, when a woman came up to us and began ranting about America’s youths and how we weren’t supporting important causes. I always feel uncomfortable in these situations but just as certainly disengage (happily, I don’t usually get sworn at for ignoring people, but friends I have been walking with have.) The group I was with was paying attention and answering questions, however. And a part of me thought back to when someone else was telling me that if they ever had a chance to break into Facebook, they’d go and write the name of their most important cause on Zuckerberg’s wall. That’s basically what this woman was doing: her best recourse for making a difference was to convince people with more power than her that they should care. We were much younger than her.

I’ll finish with swinging things back to the Ivory Tower bubble. Sometimes I think about whether I should be sadder and angrier about events in the world more than I am. And I think, if I were not only going to feel this way but actually take action, that this would be a useful thing to do. But then I think about what I’m doing, which will impact the world in that it will generate new knowledge, and is what I’m good at, and what I’ve been working towards for a long time, and is mostly very fun and extremely improbable and a spectacular life, and I think: if I’m going to do nothing about societal problems, if I’m going to sit here in my bubble, the best thing I can do is to do good work and be grateful and happy in this ridiculously special life I have.

So I’m grateful and happy, and must find a way to use all the resources and training that have been gifted to me to make some change in the future. Encouraging science, definitely. Encouraging more future bubble-y youths, also likely, and hopefully I’ll also find something guaranteed to be broader-reaching, something about changing the way large groups of people think. I’ll figure it out—it’s on the list, and I’ve got quite a few years ahead of me and various ways to make a non-learning-of-knowledge (itself non-trivial* :)) difference. It’s good to remind myself of, though. Amidst all discussion of the robot revolution and immortality and interestingness, it’s good to remind myself that I’m very lucky and we’re here to make sure others are too.


*non-trivial in science-lingo means that it’s a hard problem



One thought on “We find our way

  1. Hi Mon!

    Glad to hear you are enjoying yourself and Berkeley is treating you well. 🙂
    Anyway, I referred to you in one of my recent blog posts. 😀


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