Matthew Wieder

Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Can we "engineer" our own interests through repeated exposure?

This week in my Bioelectricity class we learned about muscle contraction and how individual muscle twitches build on each other until tetanus (complete contraction of the muscle) is reached. Muscles are made up of small individual contractile units called sarcomeres which when they contract by themselves change the length of the muscle and produce a force that is negligible. However, when the sarcomeres contract in unison, the tension force produced is great enough to allow us to perform all of our normal day to day activities.

We also had a discussion in class about science education and how to get more young people excited about science -- often times in class there was a certain interaction with a role model who provided key influence either in a positive or negative direction.

This led me to think about the idea of life changing experiences. Is it ever a single experience, a specific interaction with a teacher or other role model that leads us to the career choices we make or, are we more influenced by the small events and sets of circumstances that "sum up" and provide this life altering influence?

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    Mar 29 2012: Great question! Engineered experiences do, I think, lead to the evolution of interest. I answer in the context of my experience with TED. It began online and evolved into attending a TEDx event. This inspired me to organize a TEDx in my city. I ended up going to the first of many TED Conferences where one small sentence changed what I realized was possible in human interactions - a small sentence which was a result of other interactions that started with bits (watching TEDTalks) that together impacted my interets so much that i drove 2 hours to that first TEDx and have now adopted "ideas worth spreading" as a daily philosophy.

    That small sentence is "So what inspires you?" and it is the first thing one stranger said to me at TEDGlobal. That just..doesn't happen. But it did. And from there something changed. Many little things changed. I began slipping little curiosities into conversations and experimenting with interactions. I began to realize that I can catalyze a conversation into a meaningful exchange if I open up and do the uncomfortable, asking questions that encourage others to go deeper than a chat - to really share who they are, what they are passionate about and why.

    This generates interest engineering. Before you know it you'll be writing philosophical emails to great minds and getting thoughtful responses. You will discover new ideas as those minds link you up with people and ideas you never knew existed. If you explore ideas you love with friends old and new and particularly explore who it is with whom you interact, you will find that engineering interest is two fold and can be instigated both internally and by others. Curate conversations.

    Seriously, try saying "what inspires you?" more often. Or ever. It takes guts. They'll give you a perplexed look and then you'll set fourth into a splendid conversation, bits of which may change who you become. And maybe you'll be that person who inspires interest in others. You're well on the way :)
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    Mar 29 2012: Small events have lesser and lesser effect on us as we grow older as we lose our physical & psychological elasticity. So while those small events may nudge us toward/away from something as children, it's the more dramatic singular interactions/events that take us in a new direction as adults.

    How to get more young people excited about science? We have to remind ourselves that all children are born researchers/experimenters. We disrupt their exploration & discovery of the world by giving them theories and continue to spoon-feed ever more complicated theories without showing the connection to the world in terms of applications. How about a "Discovery Education" model. Students come to class and have to solve a real-world problem like how much paint they have to buy to color the room or what the height of a building is (using sunlight & proportions).

    If we want science, we have to let students re-discover the theories/formulas. It is absolutely possible that some of these students may develop some new formulas in the process that we haven't considered yet. As for repeated exposure, sure, as during childhood.
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      Mar 29 2012: Cal,
      I definitely agree that there is a certain period in a persons life when they are most susceptible to influence by experiences. As we get older we become more and more set in our ways, more sure of our likes and dislikes. If we desire that more students in the United States will take interest in math and science it is imperative that we find out exactly when this critical stage in a person's life is so that we can give them the most positive experience in the sciences at this point, hopefully setting roots for a future career in this same field. The greatest way is through great teachers, who take interest in the students successes and failures causing the students to take pride in their own studies in the same way, and opening their eyes to the incredible accomplishments that have occurred in the sciences, inspiring them for the future.

      As for your comments about changing the structure of current education model, your views seem to be very in line with Ken Robinson (TED talk listed in related talks above) that in some ways the current educational system squelches the creativity of students.
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        Mar 29 2012: Thanks Matt. Yup, I'm with Ken. We certainly are way overdue for a process of redefining education & schooling. One of these redefinition ought to be who is a (great) teacher. As you say, they play a very critical role. A teacher ought to LOVE the subject s/he is teaching & continues to be a student of that subject all his/her life. Students have to be infected with that love for long-term engagement.

        Also, there's a precedence in the history of the American culture that we can learn from & perhaps reuse. They were comic books & science fictions. I think an argument can be made that a boom in sci-fi post-depression and comic books post-WWII helped the US get a man in the moon. The connection is this, the adults who eventually got us there were able to do it because they grew a passion for science as children living through those eras. For this generation, it may not be either of those mediums but how about a science based RPG or electronic lego like http://littlebits.cc/thebits presented at this past TED?

        As for hitting that critical period, I say hit'em with all we got at 9th or 10th grade as they come into high school. It gives them a bit of time to think & prepare for what to pursue at university
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          Mar 31 2012: I think 9th or 10th grade is too late. I am convinced that many children's aversion to mathematics begins in grade school when it is often introduced as a subject in which imagination plays no part. Mathematics as a field is a wonderland of puzzles, often with multiple valid approaches. I think if mathematics were introduced so as not to stifle childrens interest in it when they are still little, we would see very different outcomes in mathematics and in career directions.Adolescence also is a crucial period for the forming of identity, as kids try to figure out where they fit socially and within the big picture of the world. If science were represented with integrity during adolescence, by which I mean it would be taught as it is- an experimental discipline, young people would have a much more valid picture of the adventure that field actually is rather than a sterile view.In short, I think experiences of subjects in early life likely matter a great deal- not just seeing the subject but seeing it represented with integrity.
          This is not simply a matter of schools. Children hear messages from adults in their lives like, "I could never do math," often delivered with a laugh. This sort of cue is potentially destructive.
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          Apr 2 2012: Cal and Fritzie,
          I completely agree with you regarding the educational system. It has become so standardized and rigid that there is no room for creativity or passion. It reminds me of "A Mathematician's Lament," a book by Paul Lockhart in which he describes the problems of the math education and curriculum (Link below). To demonstrate his point, he compares it to a fictional society in which art is taught in elementary school by memorizing colors and brush techniques, without students ever actually painting something original until college or beyond. In math, and in many other subjects, students are so bogged down with the rules and specifics of it that they never get the opportunity to experiment and enjoy the subject. If we were to present math, science, or other "boring" subjects in a fun way starting at a young age, perhaps kids would have a positive outlook reagrding them.
          Link to an except of A Mathematician's Lament: http://www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf
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          Apr 3 2012: Cal and Fritzie,
          I also completely agree that it is necessary to create the spark for loving to learn (not just science and math) at a young age. However, I do believe that even if the spark is there, most people are forced to be "pragmatic" when it comes to their career choice. I see so many bright students, especially engineers, choose to go into non-engineering and non-research fields simply because the pay is much much better. As Fritzie said, this mentality comes from hearing so many people claim how they were never good at math or put much effort into their school work and still were able to succeed. What does it say about our culture that we reward Hollywood actors and overlook scientists completely. Entertainment is a form of art and art in itself is a beautiful creation of the human mind, but at the same time, so is science which is sadly, continuously undermined. It may be a bit off topic, but I thought I'd post a link to a poem that has spoken to me ever since I came across it in a book. Titled "Pretty Good" by Charles Osgood, I feel it completely reflects what our educational system is currently like: http://holyjoe.org/poetry/osgood1.htm
  • Mar 29 2012: I took it by the title, to relate to the psychological field, for example reciting a mantra to change behaviors, which are a result of perhaps negative events in a persons life, the most significant event is being born, where and when, and all of them have their implications for the future. When you start following a vocation, that would be a mix of chances, your past experiences, and the choices that you make. Teachers are important for guidance - as equally is the pupils temperament, everyone is different, some with a chip on their shoulder some seem to glide through life without a problem. I would say to your question, the big events ARE more important than the small, but the fable says the tortoise beats the hare.
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      Apr 4 2012: Amy, I liked very much your explanation. Would you please, tell me more about your experiences? Have you done this often? How? Thank you.
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    Apr 3 2012: A month ago I addressed the school administrators on enhancing the science program in our rural area. I volunteered to make a styro model of the solar system and hange it in the halls, to develop science games and experiments for all grades, to develop vocabulary lists for all grades, to make posters of science tool and equipment, to use metrics and be conversant in metrics as well as standard measurments, to have 5th and 6th grade students mentor lower grades, and make a science club available. If we do dancing raisins for little kids we can make it fun. Fun things get taken home to brothers, sisters, mom, dad, and grandparents. Fun things invite more fun things and spreads like the common cold. My plan is to expose them to next years vocabulary and terms this year so they never struggle. As I am a volunteer and the cost of materials cheap I hope to raise the science score average considerably by making the higher grades mentors to the lower grades. Being a mentor will influence them to study the material thourghly to teach the lower grades. These kids will enter high school knowledgable in the language, methods and a natural curiousity with these tools success in math and science is within sight. I have put my proverabal money where my mouth was. It is time to stop all the talk and get into the game. We can sit the sidelines and be intellectual snobs and complain loudly as failure looms or we can get involved. The choice and the future are yours. Best of luck. Bob.
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    Apr 1 2012: I was feeling depressed and sort of listless with no good hobby to fill my spare time with. One day I anounced to my wife, lets become baseball fans. I had no exposure to it, no history with it, but we started going to see games in Oakland and before you knew it we were both fans. So I would say , Yes.
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    Apr 1 2012: Yes, a broad exposure to TED does this - good luck
  • Mar 29 2012: Steven Pinker's research points towards the conclusion that our career decisions are largely based on genetic influences. The twin studies show pretty significant similarities between twins who were raised in different environments.
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      Mar 29 2012: For those who have not heard of the twins study the website can be accessed at http://twins.wjh.harvard.edu/

      Trevor,
      While I agree with the idea that intelligence is affected by genes, and in this way will influence the opportunities available to different individuals, I feel that individual experiences in different subjects can have long lasting impressions on a particular student necessarily leading them to specific career paths. For example, a student who receives good grades in math is more likely to enjoy math and continue on with it in college and then in his/her career. Conversely, someone who may have had a bad experience in a math class, called out for a wrong answer etc. in elementary school may do everything in their power to then avoid math at all costs. So while genes may be a start point, I feel personal experiences come into play thereafter.
      • Mar 29 2012: The study you linked to isn't one of Pinker's studies, it's a study from a dissertation he supervised about the genetics of language. The studies he referred to in this video, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/steven_pinker_chalks_it_up_to_the_blank_slate.html, show much more similarities between genetically identical twins. As for the math situation, those who do better on math usually get better grades. One or two classes with a hard teacher aren't going to change someone's predisposition, probably. I'm not saying that genetics is the only determinant of career path, I'm saying that it's probably the main one.
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          Mar 29 2012: Sorry for the wrong link, however, I think they both make the same point. As for the case of math, I am in no way discrediting the idea that genetics play a role, and who knows in most cases it may very well be that genes play the largest role. However, I have experienced at least one situation where one of the smartest students in my class, (who up to that point excelled in math as well as every other subject) had one bad interaction with a particular teacher and from then on had a negative view of their capabilities in the subject pushing their interests in a totally different direction. While this is likely the exception and not the rule, I find it intriguing that certain experiences given proper timing can have substantial effects on ones interests.
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          Mar 29 2012: Trevor, Pinker credits chance more than genetics...
          "..two different bodies of research with a similar finding. What it suggests is that children are shaped not by their parents over the long run, but in part -- only in part -- by their genes, in part by their culture -- the culture of the country at large and the children's own culture, namely their peer group -- as we heard from Jill Sobule earlier today, that's what kids care about -- and, to a very large extent, larger than most people are prepared to acknowledge, by chance: chance events in the wiring of the brain in utero; chance events as you live your life."

          Matt, regarding the math analogy, I'd re-order the sequence of events that instead of good grades leading to liking math, it's more likely in majority of the cases that students like a subject so they study it hence gets good grades in that subject. But I get your point and agree that environment plays a role & we can do something about that whereas we're not ready yet to splice a math DNA into anyone :)
  • Mar 29 2012: I have been strongly influenced in my desire to be a teacher by one I had in high school. Not so much by one particular incident as by the whole tenor of her approach to dealing with me. I was a difficult student with a troubled personal life. Her continued interest in my well being made a lasting impression on me and has lead to my going back to school at the age of 42 with the goal of becoming a high school teacher myself. This is not an easy field to enter.
    The series of interactions that we had all feedback on each other to have a cumulative effect on me. And I, in turn, may end up influencing someone else one day
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      Mar 29 2012: Hi Jean-Baptiste,
      One of the most influential teachers I ever had was one I had in high school as well, who took an interest in my future career and pushed me to apply to a summer program teaching recombinant-DNA techniques. Seeing what could be done in the lab as compared to peeked my interest and I have continued working in labs over summers ever since. I guess this could be considered a single experience that changed my thinking, however, I feel that my experience in the class taught by that teacher primed me for the experience I would have over the summer. I wonder if under different circumstances, the same summer experience would have had as great an impression.
  • Apr 4 2012: Not an answer to give without considerable thought. And not cut and dried one way or the other. From my own experiences I can state influences of small events and/or sets of circumstances led me to "life altering experiences" exceedingly more often. I can't recall ever being 'led' or even influenced by a teacher unless a negative provocation would apply. But other role models influenced me in more profound ways, though, only when I was a young adult (late teens).
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    Apr 4 2012: I don't think it's an either or situation. I think it's what the individual experiences and how they interpet that experience which leads the individual to make a choice. There are many factors that may or may not contribute to a decision.
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    Apr 3 2012: I feel that we really do can engineer our own interests through repeated exposure. But then again, even just one exposure could possibly do it. Watching how the children in Greg Gage's cockroach beatbox video react is proof. They seem genuinely enthralled by his display. And I feel that this extends into this idea of engineering interest. For instance, how do people start getting into beekeeping? I can't imagine one day a person gets up and decides to do so. It takes exposure to these instances and experiences in order to gain an interest. Little things that might seem nothing at first may end up playing huge roles. It might not be as enthralling as a cockroach's electrical stimulation. But I feel that it is possible to go through life experiencing small things that wind up influencing your interests.
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    Apr 3 2012: I think the answer to the question is both! I think single larger events in life has more impact when it comes to life altering influence. People seem to settle to the environment, that's why the summing of small events usually just gets ignored and forgotten. On the other hand, drastic events that shake up the world usually make people realize the situation they are in or the ideas that has been sitting long in their heads. The spark can also bury a seed in their mind and slowly grow into something influential enough.
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      Apr 3 2012: Yu-An,
      I also agree that it is a combination of the two. Although the small events might not have as much of an impact immediately, because of the elongated exposure time that we have to them, they could also have the same effect in the long run. By having only one specific experience, it might be disregarded after a certain time period. However, I also see why those are important. If there is one big event in life which changes your outlook towards something, and therefore causes you to avoid/cherish it more, that could also provide a life altering influence. This seems to happen in the education system with subjects such as math and science. If a student is put down by the teacher over one subject through negative reinforcement, the student might purposely avoid and lose interest in that subject.
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    Apr 2 2012: I have tried to engineer my interests, and have done quite a bit of experimentation which eventually totally worked. Best result: finding someone who loves whatever it is I want to love, and just talking with them about it! I would inevitably start to share their perspective. And really it stuck! I had no desire to go back to my original opinion. In that sense it was a very 'one person only, one event' type of thing.

    (What didn't work: repeat exposure, talking to someone who was really good at it but didn't love it. It sometimes worked to just put a good effort into liking it. ie smiling while I was doing it, being optimistic, looking for good things etc)
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      Apr 3 2012: Hey Sarina

      I feel the same way you do and I have had similar experiences. I have found that my interests have been reinforced by interactions with people passionate about what they do. They speak and act with such vigor. When someone believes wholeheartedly in something, it shows in their demeanor and behavior. Those are the particular things I look for in making certain decisions regarding my own interests. Just based on my own experiences, I feel that repeated exposure is the key to inspiration and to developing dreams. Repeated exposure results in big life changing decisions that drive us towards our passions. It is never one single event because according to John Locke, we are made of continuous streams of consciousness and not just one single event or body part. Though I do believe the first event that sparks our interests is important, it is just a start. We need more pushes in a certain direction to overcome any resistance and build up momentum.
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    Apr 2 2012: I think there are two question in this conversation: Can we create interests through reinforcement? And: should we create interest through reinforcement? Matt gives the example of interacting with a teacher or role model which potentially affects our career choices. However, the other way I see this is whether it is right for a teacher or role model to spark specific interests in people?

    This is a very gray area as we've all heard of tiger moms or helicopter parents who live vicariously through their children. They may have the best intentions but in the end, they may be doing more harm than good. In the end, I believe we need to teach ourselves and others to observe the intentions instead of the surface-level problem at hand. When we expose people to ideas, what are our intentions at the exposure? Do we want to force them to believe what we believe in? And as consumers of ideas, we need to understand why we are receiving information. Having a horrifying experience should not deter us from pursuing something, just like how we should not blindly believe in something just because of a positive experience.
  • Mar 29 2012: I think so. This is something social theorists have been studying for years (Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Erving Goffman especially). Because we can't have interests that lie outside of our frames of reference (we can't know or want to know something we've never heard of), by expanding these frames through acquiring new knowledge, having new experiences, etc. we can "engineer" our interests. Our interests will always be bound by the knowledge we have and the importance we place on the subjects in which we're interested (cultural, educational, economic capital), but by learning new things, we learn new ways of thinking and give ourselves new tools to create new interests.
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      Apr 1 2012: Hey Meggan,

      I think you bring up a good point. We can't know we are interested in something we don't know about, thus our interests arise in the set of things that we do know about. In the twin example, it may be true that we are genetically disposed to take greater interest in certain subjects over others. However, as Cal pointed out, the way this interest develops varies widely, and is largely related to culture.

      Suppose we are never exposed to something that we should genetically be inclined towards - then we shall never find out that we had a disposition towards it to begin with.

      With this information, it seems to me that we cannot engineer our own interests. If genes do carry these inclinations towards particular subjects, than I would say that we can't engineer our own interests, as our interests have already been engineered by our genes. What we can do is choose the pool of topics that we could potentially find interest in. If we inherently dislike a particular subject, I don't think we can genuinely force ourselves to like it.
  • Mar 29 2012: This was a topic of research for the Advanced Machine Learning course taught by Dr. Anand Rangarajan at the University of Florida. We surveyed people on several factors ranging from questions borrowed from the Myers-Briggs test to what websites they frequented. We did identify trends in how people with certain preferences and personality types chose a particular career. For example, the mechanical engineers in our dataset were more likely to build their own computers than their counterparts in computer engineering or any other career. People who severely disliked being alone were less likely to be in graduate school. Our dataset was tiny and may have had a heavy sampling bias. Also, the problem we were studying was slightly different from the one in this topic. Nevertheless, it did seem like it was often a combination reasons rather than a single predominant one that separated people belonging to different careers.
    • Apr 3 2012: Hi Sindhura,

      I definitely agree that, in most cases, it’s not just one factor that pushes a person toward a certain career (or decision for that matter). Everything that happens to us, however small and insignificant, has the power to influence our thoughts and perspectives. Even when it comes to major decisions (such as choosing a career path), I don’t think that there is one factor that has a stronger influence on a person’s choice than all others. Ironically, if you asked someone why he or she decided to go to a given college or to choose a given career, most would give just one reason. Is this one reason the truth, though? Probably not. We might rationalize our choices in retrospect, but are we ever 100% certain that our rationalizations are the true reasons behind our actions? Essentially, our decision-making process is not too different from the process of muscle contraction in our bodies. Just as the different components of muscle have an (equally important) influence on muscle contraction, a variety of different factors have an equally important influence on every one of our decisions.
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          Apr 3 2012: Ariel,

          I too can relate to my experiences in my secondary education to answer this question. From when I was young, my parents pushed me toward math and science. This reflected to my experiences in the classroom, as I always favored math more than humanities.

          However, my school also played a huge role in this, as they separated students based on their mathematics abilities and humanities abilities. They pushed students to take honors and AP courses. Those who weren't pushed to felt as if they weren't suited for the material, and it may have held them back from pursuing that material. I was pushed to take AP's in math and science, but not in humanities. This made me more influenced to pursue an engineering path.
        • Apr 4 2012: It seems that a lot of what influences people's career paths is others' expectations of them. In a society in which executives are valued, it is no surprise to find many young adults interested in the business -- one's self-image is a strong factor in the selection of interests. In truth, the human psyche is very flexible and can take an interest to almost anything.
  • Mar 29 2012: It's a nice question, and I bet the answer is 'theoretically yes', since I assume neural pathways can be 'exercised' like muscles. But in practice, the levels of exposure are very different: a particular muscle must contract thousands of times more frequently than any 'interest' could ever reoccur spontaneously, so I doubt you could develop 'interest habit' in the same way you can develop 'muscle habit'. And if someone ever tried to artificially develop 'interest habit' - say subliminally - I bet other psychological processes/defenses would kick in - boredom or frustration or the discomfort of deja vu...
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      Apr 3 2012: I agree with you, Fiona, that in the absence of outside factors, under laboratory conditions, so to speak, there is no way to develop "interest habit" for the reasons you describe. However, we have to ask ourselves whether this translates into how we actually live.

      I think a big confounding factor, for instance, is nostalgia. For example, when I was a kid, I hated going to Hebrew school. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about, and I thought all this "God" business was bunk. As a young adult, however, I enjoy going back to synagogue and learning more about my Jewish heritage because it reminds me of an overall very happy childhood.

      Was this an active "Engineering" of my interests? I certainly didn't do it on purpose. But I think through similar associations, we can do something of the sort if we really choose to.
  • Mar 29 2012: I'm a student of behaviorism, which looks at the myriad influences on human behavior including genetics and our learned history of reinforcement and punishment. Behaviorism, in lieu of knowledge of specific genetic circumstances, would look to the history of the individual's exposure to an interest. Inevitably, both scenarios have probable influence on shaping the individual's interest, because each individual has such a unique history of reinforcement and punishment. While one individual may have initially been encouraged by a teacher, for instance, another individual may have simply learned he or she was capable in an area by task feedback and pursued subsequent and connected employment. Another individual could have had a combination of both scenarios. This is a question to be answered on an individual basis.
    • Apr 2 2012: I agree that the reason for a person’s career choice varies based on the individual and their history of reinforcement and punishment. It could be one big event, or the sum of many events that leads to a career choice.
      An example could be that Ken Jeong’s, a doctor who turned comedian, life changing influence was during a high school performance where he received positive reinforcement for being funny. His interest in performing comedy never seemed to leave him even when he received his MD, as he continued to perform in comedy clubs on the side which later led to his big break in acting. The repeated exposure he received in comedy clubs was positive, which certainly encouraged him to continue with his interest. Perhaps this is a case of the life altering influence being a combination of both big events and summing small events.
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/movies/ken-jeong-from-doctor-to-comedic-actor-with-a-hangover-in-between/2011/05/17/AFbRvt7G_story.html