Sasha Sagan talks to astrophysicist SARAFINA EL-BADRY NANCE about the way we bring the world into our awareness and keep it there.

We’ll also hear from USC neuroscience researcher MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG about the unexpected ways we achieve this everyday process.


SASHA SAGAN: So here we are, there’s all this external information in the world. And somehow, we have to get it into our brains. What’s the best way to get information that is elsewhere in the world inside of us?

ASTROPHYSICIST SARAFINA EL-BADRY NANCE: If I were to do another science, if I were to go back to school and study something else, it would be neuroscience. The way that we process information and somehow make meaning out of it, and then conduct our lives accordingly. It’s fascinating and sort of unbelievable.

SASHA SAGAN: There’s so much information and we manage to take the pieces that sometimes are the most relevant sometimes aren’t. And what we hang on to and what we let go…My dad would mute the commercials on TV because he was so afraid of a jingle taking up space in his brain.

SARAFINA: I think that that’s one of my fears, too! I have a finite amount of space in my brain. And I have to choose what goes inside of it. And sometimes I don’t have a choice. The jingle thing is a great example of that, because it really is subconscious. And somehow it gets embedded in your brain and you’re like oh my god, this is there forever, and I can’t get rid of it.

NEUROSCIENTIST MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: There is this artificial kind of wall, which, you know, which is a useful wall in science, but is limiting us in the application of science to society. We’re working too hard to try to maintain two separate systems, we teach kids all the things they need to know. And then we worry about their social-emotional learning separately, right? If you just sit back and let those be the same thing, so that the process of thinking about things is invoking dispositions and appetites for thinking more, that becomes the emotional “feeling of thinking.” And that subjective feeling of thinking is what we call purpose, curiosity, interest, depending on how it takes shape.

I kind of think about this like the Copernican revolution and where we understand the solar system. You can describe with the Earth as the center, this thing goes by and those and those things go by from east to west. And sometimes they go a little lower, a little higher. And, you know, we can make great predictions. But sometimes things go crooked, or sometimes go flying by in the wrong direction. And we’ve no idea what to do with that, right? And then you have to add extra stuff to your model to be able to accommodate all these, all these apparent, you know, apparent ways in which the model has been violated. But if you suddenly reframe the entire space so that the center is actually not us, and realize that we are actually going around something bigger also, all the sudden, the need to, to retrofit all of the small instances where things don’t work the way you predict falls away, because the core model is different.

I think we need to do that in society around the way we understand the subjective, holistic experience of people. And the way in which those experiences are the core of how they interact, how they make sense of the world, how they make decisions about the world, how well they are, how they learn in school, how they approach a new subject. If you just refocused the center of the conversation, all of a sudden these fixes would resolve themselves.

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