Science Book a Day Interviews Jennifer Ouellette
Special thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self
Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer currently based in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of four popular science books for the general public: Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self (2014), The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (2010), The Physics of the Buffyverse (2007), and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics (2006). – From Jennifer’s Homepage
#1 – What was the impetus for Me, Myself and Why?
There’s an organic kind of progression to my books and this was no exception: it grew out of the research I did for my prior book, The Calculus Diaries. Specifically, this notion of disliking math because I wasn’t very good at it – I just wasn’t a “math person” – was a big part of the identity I’d constructed, the “story” I told about myself. Yet while working on that book, I went back and checked my high school transcripts and found I’d earned top marks in all my math classes. So where did I get this idea that I was bad at math? It became part of my personal narrative and yet it wasn’t really based on fact. And it had a profound effect on the choices I made, what I believed I could or could not do. I became very interested in exploring how we forge and shape our identities over time, and that led quite naturally to questions about the nature of the self. So after a career spent writing primarily about physics, I found myself delving into genetics, neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology and the like – although I did sneak a bit of physics into the book, too.
The other angle, of course, was my identity as an adopted child. It’s natural to wonder how much of the person I became stems from my biological parentage, and how much is due to the environment in which my (adoptive) parents raised me. As I discovered, there’s no easy answer to that, other than both contribute to varying degrees.
#2 – For the book you had your DNA sequences, underwent an fMRI and personality testing…among other things. What was the oddest thing you did in pursuit of writing this book?
I don’t think I did anything particularly odd; I just followed my curiosity. True, I built an avatar in Second Life to play with virtual identity, and dropped acid to experiment with how the boundaries of the self break down, but I don’t consider those things odd. Plenty of others have done similar self-experiments. But I did learn something useful from everything I tried – even when there was a null result, as with the fMRI brain scan. I participated in a group study – still underway, so no results as yet – instead of an individual study, which meant that while I got to see a pretty picture of my brain, that image told me very little about my Self. I did have very clear sinuses, though. Apparently that’s not always the case.
#3 – Much is made of the nature/nurture debate. What was your conclusion about this distinction? Is it useful?
One of the first scholars whose work I encountered on the whole nature versus nurture question was Evelyn Fox Keller, who basically says this is entirely the wrong question. And everything I learned subsequently drove that point home. It’s nature and nurture, not one or the other, and they are inextricably tangled up with each other – so much so that it’s very difficult to tease out how much each contributes to any given aspect of the self. It’s complicated even for a relatively straightforward trait like height, which is about 90% determined by one’s genes – except there is no gene helpfully labeled “height.” Instead, there are many genes that contribute in different ways to how tall a given person ends up being. Once you get into the realm of more complex traits and behaviors, it becomes even more difficult, since multiple genes interact with each other and various environmental influences to shape brain synapses and so forth. And we are constantly changing over time. So yes, in the end, while it can be helpful to pinpoint certain genes that contribute to certain traits, nature/nurture isn’t really the most relevant distinction anymore.
#4 – Reviews consistently praise your sense of humour when you write. Is this something you are conscious of? Is it part of your writing philosophy?
I wouldn’t call it a writing philosophy; it’s part of my natural voice as a writer. I have an irreverent streak, as well as a love for amusing stories and colorful characters. And because I frequently write about topics many people find intimidating, bringing a lighter touch to bear can make those topics seem less esoteric and scary to a reader encountering them for the first time. Science need not always be treated with somber gravitas.
#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?
I have something in the early stages but all I can say at this point is that it takes me back to my first love: writing about physics.