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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: 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.

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