Nostalgia For Being A Researcher Of The Mind

Rachel & Andy Near Santa Cruz 1986I have been reading the memoir called On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks for the past few days and it is bringing up lots of tears for me. I usually read just before bed so after I have read a few chapters, I find myself lying there in bed wondering what is going on for me. So today I decided to write free form and see what comes up. This is my stream of consciousness rambling to try to make sense of why my emotions are being rocked by this wonderful book.

I was first introduced to Oliver Sacks work when I was in college and working on my psychology degree at UC Berkeley. I had just discovered the field of cognitive psychology and I loved everything that I studied about mind and cognition and perception. Basically, I couldn’t get enough of anything having to do with how we perceive and understand the world. I was intrigued by case studies of people with different neurological issues and brain disorders because their behavior shed so much light on how the brain processes information and creates the reality we know as consciousness.  I cherished my audiotape of a patient with Korsokoff’s Syndrome that I got from a post-doctorate candidate while I was at Berkeley. I carried that tape with me through seven years of grad school at UC Santa Cruz then on to Oberlin College where I played it to students as part of my course on memory and cognition.

I hadn’t really thought about cognition in great depth much in the past few decades. I’ve been in such applied fields of market and media research for so long that intellectual conversations and thought experiments and simply reading research about the cognitive field hasn’t been my focus. Although I began in cognitive psychology, I became very specialized very quickly and went on for my PhD in the subfield of cognitive psychology called psycholinguistics.  And though I loved studying how we process and understand language and to this day I am still so enamored by language and words and meaning, as I am reading Oliver Sacks book, I am reminded that I am very drawn to deep intellectual and philosophical questions of how we process information and create our conscious experience of the world. Sure, language is part of that process so I am pretty sure that is what led me down the path of psycholinguistics. But now so many years later, I guess I miss the pondering and theorizing and discussion of mind, brain and consciousness more than I had realized.  Apparently I still love that stuff!

One of the interesting aspects of reading Mr. Sacks’ memoir is his description of meeting and or corresponding with others neurologists and psychologists and others related field specialists. So many of the names he mentions were so important to me in my earlier days. Francis Crick was one such name. At a young age, I was fascinated by human biology and Watson and Crick’s work unraveling the DNA strands. I still have my slim paperback The Double Helix by James Watson that my mom gave me in 1976. Dr. Sacks describes visiting Francis Crick while he was at the Salk Institute in San Diego. I cried buckets. I remember when I visited UC San Diego and The Salk Institute quite a few years after I had gone to grad school at UC Santa Cruz. I was in such awe of that location because I had read so many papers by people who had or were currently associated with those wonderful institutes. Had I gotten into UC San Diego, I am sure I would have gone there for grad school. But I didn’t and I did get into UC Santa Cruz and went down a different path. Don’t get me wrong—I have no regrets. I loved my psycholinguistics research and training and I am happy with all that I have done since then.

Nonetheless, there is still a yearning in me to—I am not certain what for—perhaps to have a long conversation with someone about the field, perhaps just read some more, perhaps walk the hallowed halls of the great institutions where this research has and is being conducted. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I am sure that a big part of this is simply nostalgia. Nostalgia for being a young researcher. Nostalgia for being at a university. A craving for thinking about and philosophizing about mind and consciousness. Whatever it is, I am profoundly impacted by it and can’t figure out how to discharge my deep need. My plan at this point is to just keep reading. Read whatever is calling to me and see where it goes. Frankly it needn’t go anywhere other than to fulfill whatever craving I have to ponder and wonder and be amazed by the complicated thing called brain and the strange and perplexing phenomenon called consciousness.

XOXO Rachel

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