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Matthew Wieder

Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

TEDCRED 50+

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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: 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 :)

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