From Neuroscience To Literature: An Interview With Professor Laura Otis Part Two

In Part Two of our interview with Laura Otis, we ask her about diversity, her inspirations and her opinion on the next generation.

In this part two of our interview with Professor Laura Otis we delve into the personal and social challenges faced by scientists, where Professor Otis looks for inspiration while writing fiction,. 


You have also spoken about physiology, engineering and literature having a closeness. Can you explain this?

In Networking, I wrote about how scientists trying to figure out how nervous systems worked and engineers trying to build telegraph networks took inspiration from each other’s images, metaphors, and ideas.

My father was an electrical engineer, and it wasn’t until I saw your question that I realized how growing up hearing about his work might have led me to the ideas in Networking. He helped to design and maintain the particle accelerator and other equipment at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

I used to hear from my father how some of the scientists conducting experiments treated the engineers as their servants, which made me angry.

Engineers build the infrastructure that enables human survival, and although they sometimes have to bracket the philosophical or basic-science “Why?” in order to do so, everyone benefits from their work.

Engineers, physiologists, and fiction-writers share some essential questions: “How does this work?” “How can I make this happen?” There is a pragmatism to all of these fields. In the physiology course I took as a neuroscience student, we were taught to think of human bodies in terms of circuits, pumps, and fluid mechanics.

Everyone knew that these were just approximations, but the calculations that they enabled saved lives.

Fiction-writers are pragmatists, too, in the ways that they build with language. I had always sensed this, but when I earned my Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction, I was able to appreciate the “engineering” of brilliant writers such as Toni Morrison more than I ever had as a literary scholar.

As a result, I am focusing on the “how” in my research and teaching more than I ever have before. As a writer myself, I keep asking, “How can I find the right words to help a reader imagine something like what I’m imagining?” 



Another area you are well known for is writing about the diversity in the thought process of people. Please tell us more about this.

As psychologists continue to analyse all the different skills covered by the term “thinking,” it is likely that other kinds of cognitive styles will emerge.

Because I’ve moved among different fields, I’ve come across people who experience thinking in strikingly different ways.

I have noticed a tendency for people to believe that everyone else thinks the way they do – not in the sense of sharing the same ideas, but in structuring their thoughts visuo-spatially, verbally, or through algorithms or movements.

The shift was most disturbing when I moved to graduate school in comparative literature, and my professors told me confidently that thought was language. Some were so sure of this that they believed people who thought they were thinking in some other way were deluding themselves.

My writing students, 18-year-old engineers-in-training, did not all agree with these professors. It bothered me that someone could presume they knew more about someone else’s thought experiences than that person did him- or herself. To deny the validity of someone else’s experiences is to deny that person’s humanity.



Eventually, this indignation drove me to write Rethinking Thought, for which I interviewed about 30 people from diverse fields (scientists, an engineer, painters, poets, literary scholars, a singer, a computer programmer, and a flamenco dancer, including Temple Grandin and Salman Rushdie).

I asked them questions about how they thought they thought, such as “What sense do you think predominates in your memory?”

People’s beliefs about how they think don’t necessarily reveal anything about the physiological or biochemical mechanisms underlying thought, but my study did show how greatly people vary in the ways they imagine, remember, plan projects, and solve problems.

As psychologists continue to analyse all the different skills covered by the term “thinking,” it is likely that other kinds of cognitive styles will emerge.


 Facing Challenges

What are examples of personal and social challenges that scientists face?

In a practical sense, scientists face an enormous challenge in obtaining funding for their work. Those who don’t work for industries have to spend a lot of their time and energy applying for grants to keep their labs running, with the threat of running out of funding hanging over their heads.

I wish that governments worldwide would invest more resources in scientific research because the scarcity of funding can affect which lines of experimentation scientists decide to follow.

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Turning The Page: Professor Laura Otis

In the best-case scenario, a question that a group of scientists wants to answer coincides with a line of research a government organization wants to fund–and of course, most grant proposals are peer-reviewed by fellow scientists.

But this system can exclude unusual, or sometimes even basic-science research questions with no immediate practical purpose or application. Obtaining financial support for the work one wants to do is the greatest challenge most scientists face.

On a broader, more human level, scientists have to deal with unrealistic social stereotypes of them. Roslynn Haynes’ book, From Faust to Strangelove (1994) analyses harmful stereotypes of scientists as evil alchemists, wild-haired introverts out of touch with reality, and cold, uncaring intellectuals.

These stereotypes from literature and film have no basis in fact, but they still influence the ways that scientists are viewed. In reality, scientists are human beings like people in every other profession.

Cell biologist Jennifer Rohn created and runs the valuable website, which publishes and reviews realistic fiction about scientists’ everyday lives.


Facing Stereotypes

In the U. S., these stereotypes have led to the association of scientists with the “liberal elite,” privileged people out of touch with ordinary people’s lives.

This view is completely unrealistic. Since the 19th century, science has offered a way for smart people to improve their lives economically, and many scientists were first-generation college students.

I doubt that these stereotypes occupy most scientists’ minds as much as the quest for funding does, but these views can be demoralizing and drain their energy.


Finding Inspiration

Where do you look for ideas when you write fiction? Are there any personal observations or experiences in your books?

A great deal of the material in my fiction comes from my own experiences, observations, and thoughts, but writing means recombining them so that they take on a new life.

It’s like sewing a patchwork quilt, with elements of everything I’ve ever lived, seen, or heard suddenly emerging to form their own pattern.

My novels don’t carry messages, but I do write to call attention to injustices that bother me, such as abuse, classism, and snobbery.

I wouldn’t say that I look for ideas. I just live my life, and sometimes images and thoughts spontaneously coalesce to form a pattern. It can happen while I’m washing dishes, taking a shower, or untangling my hair.

Usually the pattern involves a relationship among people, and once I hear them talking to each other, I can’t wait to write.


The New Generation

How do you view millennials and Generation Z since you are in close contact with them? In addition to other attributes are they also more tolerant and altruistic compared with the previous generations?

It encourages and humbles me to see how much more generous and socially responsible young people are now. 

When I read the resumés of students today as I prepare to write letters of recommendation for them, I am amazed at how hard they are working to help people other than themselves.

From everything I can see as a professor, people age 15-30 are much more motivated to serve other people than they were in the 1970’s to the 1990’s, when I was that age.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to speak for people other than myself, but my friends and I thought almost entirely about our schoolwork, our grades, and what colleges and graduate schools we could get into.

From what I remember, it hardly entered our minds to work at a food pantry, hospital, nursing home, or tutoring service. We weren’t motivated by greed but more by fear–fear of failure and disappointing our parents by not doing well academically.

It encourages and humbles me to see how much more generous and socially responsible young people are now. I suspect that throughout time, older people have accused younger people of being selfish, lazy, uncaring, etc., but I think this is pure propaganda.

The students I’ve taught have been considerate and caring and open to a world that extends far beyond themselves.


Other Chances

If not neurosciences and literature, what would you do?

I have wanted to write stories and novels since I was six, and as I get older, the need to write fiction is becoming ever stronger.

I also love music and am passionate about singing, and I’ve written songs. I don’t have any illusions that I could support myself by writing fiction or creating music, but if I hadn’t studied science and become a literature professor, I might have tried to support myself as a free-lance writer or translator, since I also love languages.

When I stop teaching someday, I hope to devote myself to fiction-writing and music full-time.

Want to hear more from Professor Laura Otis? Head to part one now.

From Science to Literature: An Interview with Professor Laura Otis



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