Professor Otis, from neuroscience to literature, if not rare, it’s entirely uncommon. Please tell us about your motivation and journey.
Even before I could read and write, I wanted to create stories. Once I learned to read, I passionately loved novels.
My parents pushed me strongly in the direction of science, though, because they feared that I wouldn’t be able to earn a living if I studied literature. My father was an electrical engineer; and my mother, an elementary school teacher.
When my father was young, he had wanted to become a freelance writer even though he had studied physics, but he gave up when he saw that he wouldn’t be able to support himself by writing.
My mother went to a girls’ private school where she didn’t have the opportunity to study maths or science, and she wanted me to be able to do what she couldn’t.
I did love biochemistry, especially anything involving membrane proteins, and I enjoyed working in labs. I majored in biochemistry as an undergraduate and went straight from there to a PhD programme in neuroscience, but then I ran into trouble.
As an undergraduate, I could go to classes on Spanish poetry and art history in the morning and work in a lab in the afternoon, but things looked different when I had to focus on science all the time.
I grew increasingly depressed to the point that I cried all the time and could no longer work. I knew that I had made a mistake and was in the wrong place, but I felt so guilty about letting everyone down, I didn’t know what to do.
There wasn’t any moment of epiphany or sharp-edged transition. The transition period was messy and horrible, but with help from my professors and my parents, I withdrew from the programme, applied to study literature, and found a path where I could use my abilities better to make a contribution.
In retrospect, what I realised is that it’s all right to do something because you love it.
You’ll probably do more for other people that way than if you force yourself to do something that appears more useful.
Doing something because you think that you should just doesn’t provide strong enough motivation.
I’m glad that I invested the time that I did to learn about how nervous systems work, and I am still using that knowledge in my research today.
I’m just able to do more for other people by focusing on language, literature, and music, which are my passions.
Bottling It Up
In your last book Banned Emotions you talk about not suppressing emotion. How does re-appraisal work better?
In what I wrote about suppression vs. reappraisal, I was describing the emotion regulation studies of psychologist James J. Gross and his colleagues at Stanford University.
In behavioural and physiological experiments, they have found that when people are shown disturbing images (a picture of a wounded arm, for instance), they perform better on cognitive tests if they are either asked to reappraise what they’re seeing in a positive way (that the picture is being used to teach medical students, for example) or are allowed to respond naturally, than if they’re asked to suppress (avoid from showing) any emotional response to what they’re seeing.
Gross’ group’s most interesting finding is that when people worked in pairs with other participants they didn’t know, not only did the people asked to suppress their responses show an increase in blood pressure; their partners did as well.
These results suggest that forcibly suppressing emotions such as fear, anger, and disgust harms the health of the people around the suppressor as well as the suppressor.
The problem with this research on emotion regulation is, who gets to say what the best interpretation of an emotion is?
Who, beyond the person feeling the emotion, should be able to say what the emotion means?
If a person feels angry and frightened because they are in an abusive relationship or belongs to a social group that is oppressed, and they attribute the emotions to the fact that they are being mistreated, what correct, alternate appraisal is available?
In the US, there is tremendous social pressure, especially on the people who hold the least social power, to blame themselves, rather than social injustice, for their suffering.
This social philosophy of attributing responsibility to the individual serves the interest of those who hold the most social power.
If expressed rather than suppressed or reappraised, the negative emotions of oppressed people could provide the impetus to change the social injustices that benefit some at the expense of others, which is why some of the most powerful people try to ‘ban’ these emotions.
Organic Memory is another great book of yours. Please tell us about this and can memories actually be inherited?
Memories can’t be inherited unless you define memory in such a broad, metaphorical way that it represents any kind of trace of anything, which is what some 19th Century scientists and creative writers did.
I became fascinated by the way 19th Century novelists and biologists tried to define memory and heredity in terms of each other: they didn’t know the mechanisms through which either process worked, so they tried to define one in terms of the other and call it knowledge.
I saw deadliness in this epistemological move because it locates memories ‘in’ human bodies in a way that can serve ethnic and racial stereotypes.
This thinking is still around, even though the biological theories that supported organic, or inherited memory (the inheritance of acquired characters, and the notion that ontogeny (individual development) recapitulates phylogeny (evolutionary development).
Sometimes the organic memory idea can seem harmless or funny, such as the time a friend’s father laughed at me because I couldn’t tell whether a bowl was made of silver or pewter. “Isn’t this supposed to be in your breeding?” he asked.
I am part English, and I think he was referring to that. Ethnic generalisations and stereotypes do an injustice to every individual against whom they’re directed, however.
You can’t presume that a person knows something because of his or her ethnicity.
People learn what they’re taught and what they observe. They do not inherit knowledge.
So in Organic Memory, I examined the roots of an idea I thought was dangerous and interrogated how and why it was so persistent.
On the other hand, with the rise of the epigenetics field, evidence is accumulating that interactions with the environment can influence organisms (including people) from one generation to the next.
This occurs not because of changes to sequences of DNA base pairs but because of changes in DNA processing, such as methylation, relations with associated proteins, and folding.
These processing changes can affect the expression of genes over time.
Epigenetics indicates not that people can inherit memories or knowledge but that certain kinds of persistent environmental experiences may affect gene expression in people’s children as well as in their own bodies.
I don’t recommend making a metaphoric move and saying that this means memories can be inherited.
Another book of yours, Lacking in Substance, what inspired it? Does it also contain your self-portrait to an extent?
The title of Lacking in Substance came from a comment my father made about my novel, Auf Wiedersehen.
He said that the first chapter was “lacking in substance”, and I got so mad that I wrote a whole new novel, using that phrase as the title. If this was the kind of criticism aimed at motivating someone, it worked!
I drive by myself on long road trips around the United States, and the landscapes and route depicted in Lacking in Substance are based on a trip I took in 2005.
The main character, Carrie McFadden, has a lot in common with me (writing teacher, former scientist), but the adventures she has on her way across the country never happened to me. My trip was much more routine.
Lacking in Substance comes closest to my life in the way it explores the relationship between life and fiction.
The fictional character that Carrie is creating, Teresa Ramírez, becomes so real that their lives become indistinguishable.
In one incident, Carrie is almost medicated and forcibly interned in a hospital because she says that she can hear her characters talking. Lacking in Substance is about the experience of writing as much as it’s about loving someone who doesn’t want your love.
Pictures: Professor Laura Otis and Shutterstock
Look out for the second part of this interview with Professor Laura Otis soon. In the meantime, why not check out this interview with a European organisation aiming to stop FGM.
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