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Northwestern University
Susan Phillips and Indira Ramen.left

Thought Experiments

A conversation with neuroscientist Indira Raman and medievalist Susie Phillips.

If you didn’t know them, you might assume they had little in common. 

Indira Raman is a neuroscientist. She studies the “Morse code” of the mind: the electrical and chemical signals that brain cells create to encode and transmit information.  

Susie Phillips is a medievalist, fluent in the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare. She is fascinated by the history of books and the ways that “mischievous talk” shaped the social world in medieval and early modern England.

In a parallel universe, the two might never have met. They might have remained deep within their realms, Raman in her laboratory and Phillips with her texts, never guessing at the surprising ways their disciplines
intersect and overlap. 

But in this world, they did. And they haven’t stopped talking, teaching and exploring together since. 

Northwestern is a big place, even for faculty. How did you two find each other? 

SP:The first time we met, we were on a panel on mentoring hosted by The Graduate School. I was there to represent the humanities, and Indira was there to represent the sciences. I expected that we would all stay in our separate silos. But as soon as Indira started talking, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. She spoke about learning as a process of discovery — as a kind of living by your wits — and then she quoted an Antonio Machado poem — in Spanish. And she was funny. And I thought to myself, “Is she sure she isn’t a humanist?” (Laughs.) “And how have we not met before?” We seemed to have way more in common than we ever would have imagined.

IR:So afterward, we got to talking about how we approach our disciplines, and we found out that we manage the tension between teaching content and encouraging creativity in similar ways. And then some time later, I sent Susie an absurdist piece I had written a few years earlier about what it might have been like if Shakespeare had had to write a grant proposal to obtain funding to write Hamlet. I’d been working on my own grant proposal at the time and was getting frustrated, feeling constrained by the format. I tend to laugh my way out of frustration, and so I started imagining, “What if every creative endeavor had to pass through peer review?” And that’s how I wrote the piece. So after I met Susie, I sent her the parody — which is actually a critique of the critiquing system — just for fun, because I thought she’d get it. 

And then what happened? 

IR:A few weeks later, I got an email from her. She started by saying, “By the way, I loved your Shakespeare piece, and I’ve been talking about it with some colleagues.” And then she went on to say, “And now the Chicago Humanities Festival wants us to perform a conversation at the festival about the science-humanities dialogue. Here’s the title they proposed: ‘A Neuroscientist and a Humanist Walk Into a Bar.’ Are you game?” Let’s just say I was surprised.

SP:So naturally, with a title like that, she called me wondering what this was all about. 

IR:It was a great title — irresistible — but complicated, because they had sort of given us the punch line and we had to come up with a 45-minute conversation to be the joke. But working with Susie sounded like fun, so we decided to do it.

SP:It seemed like a great opportunity to explore our common ground — a creative way to find out where our sense of connection came from.

IR:Yeah, and figuring that out was our experiment.

So how did you do that?

SP:We started meeting about once a month, talking about whatever was going on in our academic lives — the ideas that excited us and the frustrations that drove us mad — and we found that all of our conversations kept coming back to a few key thoughts. And it was so satisfying to recognize that there was a pattern in our experiences and our perceptions.

IR:Right. At Northwestern we move in very different circles, but all of our conversations kept returning to similar things. And we found our common intellectual space.

And what is that? 

SP:We’re united by the narratives that we tell in the classroom and how we use those narratives to help students get to the next level …

IR:… and help them become aware of how they think, learn, discover and explore. 

I can’t think of two areas more disparate than Chaucer and neuroscience. 

IR:It’s true that the subject matter that we teach doesn’t overlap. 

SP:But the values and beliefs behind what we’re doing overlap almost completely. As we like to joke, both of our fields are absolute conversation-stoppers: “What do you do?” “I’m a medievalist.” Cue the sound of crickets chirping. 

IR:And I’m a cellular electrophysiologist, which is a real party killer (laughs)

SP:It’s true — our subject matter can seem daunting to undergraduates, and they often look a little anxious on the first day of class. My task as a professor is to make the material accessible and to help all my students, no matter their background or experience, conquer the things that they find intimidating and practice the skills that they find most difficult. It’s something that Indira and I have in common and that we talk about a lot. We both ask ourselves: In a classroom full of students, how do you teach every student at their own level? 

IR:You’re talking about having that awareness, that real consciousness of each student’s experience.

SP:A personal connection. 

IR:So that you know the intellectual trajectory of each student in the class. 


IR:As I often remind myself, a teacher can’t make you into something you’re not. A teacher can only make you into the best of what you already are. And that’s really what students are coming to us for. So on the first day of class, I always think, “Every one of these students is hoping that something good is going to happen in this class. And it’s my job to help each of them realize that good thing.” That hope flares up in them, whether they state it or not, and my goal is to find that flame and feed that fire. And I find that to be the beautiful work of teaching. And Susie does too, right? 


IR:So we connect on that. Because I often find that students come in carrying some kind of ideal in them, and too many aspects of our current world tend to rub away that bloom and replace it with things like cynicism and careerism and formulaic approaches to learning. Or they make information seem like something to be acquired and possessed, rather than appreciated and used. 

So how do you correct for that? How do you teach and inspire? 

IR:Well, I’m in science for the aesthetics of it, but what I try to achieve in the classroom is more than just an indulgence in that beauty — even though appreciating the beauty of one’s own discipline can itself confer a sense of purpose. But if I can start by showing students that it’s OK to marvel at the exquisite way in which brain cells transmit information, then it somehow confers a sense of possibility — that there might be something yet to be discovered. It’s a sort of inspiration that propels you forward so that you can see. And then we have a new frame of reference, and we can talk about the material for what it is and what matters about it.

SP:Both of our disciplines — neuroscience and medieval literature — can be daunting subjects for students to approach. But that difficulty also creates an opportunity for us as teachers. When I teach Chaucer, for example, I have to help students get past the difficulties of the language. But Chaucer’s English is actually a great leveler. Northwestern students have all kinds of different skills when they arrive here, but almost no one has any experience with Chaucer. Everyone’s kind of a novice. So everyone can experience what it is to stumble and grow and learn. And from that place, I can push all the students, no matter what their skills are, past where they think they can go, so that they never stand still as thinkers or writers or scholars. 

Technology plays such a large role in the classroom these days. Has that changed your approach to teaching? 

SP:There’s a lot of conversation right now about the scalability of education — virtual classrooms, reaching as many people as possible with as little cost. But the virtual is the opposite of what we’re interested in. For Indira and me, it’s about the particular and the present. 

IR:It’s about watching a group of faces and thinking, “That person isn’t getting this concept, but that other person is really fired up by it.” 

SP:Let’s say that I’m teaching students how to do a “close read” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I can start with a broad question, asking them to summarize the poem in their own words, and then I can tailor my follow-up questions to the students’ individual skills. If one student has very little experience with poetry, I can help him hone his analysis by challenging him to go into greater detail in his explanation. Whereas if another student has a real facility with poetry, then I can push her to draw sharper conclusions, to make something exciting out of all of her interesting observations. That way, everyone is moving forward, even if they’re all in different places. 

IR:In other words, there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach. 

SP:There can’t be, because each experience in a classroom depends on the chemistry of the people who live in that moment. 

IR:Right, and we’re watching those students’ minds changing. For me, that is neuroscience. In fact, I started studying neuroscience because I wanted to understand the language of the brain, to crack the code of this amazing structure that apprehends the world and lets us reach one another. 

SP:And exploring that drive to communicate and understand is at the heart of the course we’re planning to teach together. 

Can you tell us more about that course?  

IR:It’s called Thought Experiments: Ways of Knowing in Neuroscience and the Humanities.

A class about thought itself? 

SP:Our idea is to think from two radically different disciplinary perspectives about how the mind works. 

How will you explore this? 

IR:We’ll read science and literature, and see what each has to teach us! 

SP:We’ve chosen three literary texts — a Shakespeare play, an 18th-century novel and a 20th-century novel. We’ll study what each of them has to teach us about how to read, how to decipher language and how to think about thinking. 

IR:And from a scientific perspective, we’ll pay attention to how these writers managed to explore the way the brain works even without scientific terminology for what was happening.

SP:We’ve also selected some books by neuroscientists to provide the biological context for our discussions. What’s going on in the brain during decision-making, when you’re wrestling with one choice versus another? 

IR:And we’ll also talk about the physical substrate for reason, rationality and emotion, and we’ll link those ideas to literature and neuroscience. How does each of them address the questions we have about thought? 

SP:By bringing these two fields together in one classroom, we hope to model for our students what it is to think with a discipline other than one’s own. So while I’ll obviously teach Hamlet and The Sound and the Fury, I’m also going to be discussing my perspectives on the neuroscience readings. 

IR:And I’ll lecture from the perspective of a scientist reading the literary texts, as well as teach the basics of neurophysiology.

So you’ll both be teaching outside of your area of expertise. 

SP:Yes, we’re imagining the whole class as a “thought experiment.” We’re both teaching way outside our comfort zones, but at the same time we’re bringing our scholarly expertise and love of learning to bear on completely different disciplines. 

IR:I have no pretensions to be an English professor. But I can still be a thinker, and I can be conscious of how my experience as a scientist — when I am intentionally being a scientist — can direct what I notice as I read. For example, I’ve just reread Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I’ve read it before, but this time, with our class in mind, I read it from the perspective of a neuroscientist. I found myself paying attention to the fact that here are two sisters in a similar situation who differ in just one emotional attribute. And their experiences evolve in completely different ways because of that one difference. It’s a situation any scientist seeks and would want to investigate further — so in a number of ways, Austen’s novel actually gives us a way to think about the brain.

SP:I can’t wait to explore this in the classroom! You know, Hamlet is another work that is especially useful in thinking about the brain. The whole play is obsessed with thought rather than action. It takes up questions of madness and melancholy and their impact on the decisions we make. Hamlet is infamously indecisive and seemingly inconsistent in his contemplation — so much so that he can appear to have a different personality at different points in the play. And what’s more, in Shakespeare’s day, there were three different versions of the play — versions that make these inconsistencies even more pronounced. Who Hamlet is and what he is thinking just aren’t simple questions. But this isn’t just a literary effect: we’ve all experienced the pull of different identities within our brains while making a decision. This is something that comes across powerfully in David Linden’s book The Accidental Mind, one of the assigned readings for our class. The human brain is a “hot mess!” It’s inefficient, cobbled together — sometimes from competing entities — but amazingly functional nonetheless. (Both laugh.) We’ve invited David — a Northwestern Ph.D., by the way — to speak to the class. 

IR:And it’s clear from neurology that the brain is not really a coherent or even a homogeneous organ. We’ll read about that, too. Many elements are vying for dominance, and different parts can win out at different times. Some of these conflicts can lead to some very unusual manifestations of personality. What will be interesting to explore in our class is how some of these complicated traits that are finally being described biologically have long been detected by some of the great writers who have tremendous insight into human character. 

SP:I’m excited already. It’s this sort of exchange that we hope will be powerful in the classroom.

And for each of you as well. 

SP:Yes! For me, collaborative teaching is a rare and wonderful opportunity to go back to school, to learn about another discipline through a colleague who’s an expert in it. You get to watch someone’s craft as a scholar and as a teacher, and see how they go about communicating those ideas and their love of their field to spark excitement in a room.

IR:And it’s wonderful to find out that the things that one believes deeply from within one’s own discipline are actually generalizable ideas about thinking, learning, discovering, growing and being. Susie isn’t a scientist, she’s a medievalist. And I’m not any kind of humanist, I’m a neuroscientist. And yet, the need for making those categories disintegrates when you come down to what we’re trying to know and learn and think and do. That’s pretty exciting. It almost makes you believe that we’re onto something, right?    

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