Since moving to New York City, I alternate my routes as I walk home from campus each evening simply to enjoy the varying aromas, music, markets, languages, and people of the city—even if just for a moment.
A Tale of Two Avenues
Along Lexington Avenue, ranks of small shops, spice stores, and ethnic restaurants always seem to be filled with patrons, while sidewalks are continuously populated by food couriers and their wares as I stride by. Bollywood pop leaps out from restaurants, sharing a foreign and yet familiar New York vibe with the sound of traffic humming in the background. Segments of the pavement are covered with leaves floating off the trees with colors as vibrant as those on my mountain hikes. A delivery person crosses the street while pulling carts laden with black-and-yellow plastic containers full of groceries. A psychic reader sets her small round table on the sidewalk looking bored but eager for someone to sit and have a chat, while harried parents push strollers past her as their bright-eyed toddlers curiously peek out. Doormen sweep fallen leaves and debris from building entrances into dustpans, occasionally pausing to greet a passerby.
One block west, along Park Avenue, is my alternate route home, which is often when rush hour traffic is intense, and the city lights start shimmering for the night. As autumn is waning and making way for winter, trees along the street are thinning out and bending in the wind. The forlorn cries of distant ambulances or police sirens combined with the shining skyscrapers create an electrifying sensation. Upscale restaurants blend with bakeries, coffee shops, and drug stores—all with large, decorated windows silently reflecting pedestrians in a mixture of exhaustion and end-of-the-day relief. Tourists lugging large shopping bags mix with businessmen and -women lost in their own world—having active conversations with their EarPods, furrowing their brows as they walk while staring at their phones—oblivious to commuters streaming from the 6 subway train exit.
I enjoy my walks home. They bring back glimpses of that magical feeling I had when I first arrived in New York in my early twenties—and I never got over that mystic charm of the city where just one block over can feel thousands of miles away.
Most of you likely walk the same avenues I do but undoubtedly have a completely different experience. In fact, my descriptions may seem strange and peculiar to you.
We See What Our Minds Want Us to See
Recent advances in neuroscience and research in human consciousness suggest that we interpret the world around us according to our own internal model—that is, we pay special attention to the aspects of our environment that reinforce that model while ignoring much of the rest. As Michio Kaku said in his book The Future of the Mind, “Human consciousness is a specific form of consciousness that creates a model of the world… This requires mediating and evaluating many feedback loops in order to make a decision to achieve a goal.” Part of that goal has to do with survival: our brain simply cannot process vast sensory information without some form of prioritization.
What this means is that my alternate paths home, a mere one block apart from each other, not only create scenes that feel completely different for me—perhaps emotionally shaped by experiences from my youth—but that if you were to follow the exact same paths, your experiences would be distinct to you, shaped by how your brain reviews your past, mediating and evaluating what is in front of you as orchestrated by your sensory input.
You may say, “Okay, this is all very interesting, but where is he going with it?” Let me make it a bit more relevant. I argue that what we experience on our walks home extends not only to every facet of our day-to-day life but to the entirety of our lives as well.
Appreciate Complexity and Our Fallacies
Socrates said more than 2,000 years ago, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” By first recognizing the subjectivity in how our conscious minds operate and make sense of life around us, we can start to appreciate the complexity of the world we live in, which is far more multifarious than our sensory-driven self realizes—but each of us has the illusion that we understand our surroundings in their entirety, while we never did.
Harvard cognitive neuroscientist and well-known author Steven Pinker said, “I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.” It is a gift because our consciousness made us human, and it is fragile partly because each of us maintains a filter for our surroundings shaped by our own internal model. Understanding our limitations and fallacies is a critical first step “to know thyself.” Then, if we are curious and diligent enough, we can expand the capacity of our mind and continue to grow as we age.
As an academic, I would argue that education is about preparing and setting up the receptor—or the mental framework—for a lifetime of enrichment and learning. The more we learn, the more we are able to appreciate the beautiful complexity around us—and in us. Let me expand on that idea.
Education and Complexity
On the surface, we acknowledge contrasts and complexities through our senses, but we might not fully understand exactly how or why. In order to appreciate the mosaic, if not motley, world around us, we must realize that what we see is only one aspect interpreted by our brain. Education is what helps us understand that our environment—as we experience it—is just a fraction of what actually exists and that we can expand our perceptions through a few basic skills:
- Listening Carefully. One immediate realization of our own limitations is that none of us, no matter the level of our knowledge and intelligence, is able to think alone and consistently reach complete and sound conclusions—rational decisions and insights emerge from interacting with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives and who can spot our fallacies. In fact, a significant component of learning is comprehending other people’s insights, differentiating them from our own, and then synthesizing and internalizing them into our own mental repertoire—learning how to learn is among the skills we try to hone through education.
- Going Deep. Students often ask me for advice such as, “What should I focus on when I am in school?” One of my answers, “Go deep and get really good at something.” Anyone can become an expert by focusing intensely on a tiny bit of the world, then using that ability as a lens to expand their understanding of other ideas or points of view. Whether it is economics, psychology, politics, or mathematics, almost any system of knowledge can be our portal into the labyrinth of wisdom that helps us to discern the complex world around us.
- Exposure, Exposure, Exposure. As with the popular health phrase “We are what we eat,” we become what our minds are exposed to. In addition to “going deep” intellectually, expanding our experiential base is fundamental to a high-quality education. In particular, exposure to art, music, athleticism, and other cultures improves our ability to see the full context of our world and the emotional underpinnings of human nature. Since our mental model is mostly built from past experiences, developmental neuroscience confirms that our exposure to different activities and ideas can influence and expand brain circuitry, which translates what has happened and predicts what will happen next. This process continues to shape us well into adulthood.
- The Power of Reason. With all the knowledge, learning, and exposure, the ultimate yardstick for education should be our students’ ability to reason—that is, the ability to think critically, to discern causation, to adjust their beliefs with new evidence, and to make rational choices. As Steven Pinker said in his latest book, Rationality, “Just as citizens should grasp the basics of history, science, and the written word, they should command the intellectual tools of sound reasoning… [T]ools of reasoning are indispensable in avoiding folly in our personal lives and public policies. They help us calibrate risky choices, evaluate dubious claims, understand baffling paradoxes, and gain insight into life’s vicissitudes and tragedies.”
The World May Not Work in the Way We Presume
Previously, I shared that my late father was a physics professor who frequently said, “The world often does not work as it appears, nor in the way we presume.” He explained to me, through many stories, that our presumptions can be powerful blinders that deceive us. A good example is guilt by association—the origin of prejudice and bigotry. The famous phrase “Deaths through drowning are most common when sales of suntan lotion are highest” can help us appreciate that correlation is not the same as causation.
I often think of my father’s advice as the fundamental idea of education. We are living in a world inundated by soundbites where oftentimes opinions and half-truths are disguised as facts. To overcome the human tendency of jumping to conclusions based on the way we presume or are biased by the limited knowledge we have, it is important that we restore the basic respect and appreciation for the complexity around us.
It is more important than ever to be careful and patient, not take anything for granted, and do the work to gain a comprehensive understanding—all while never jumping to conclusions without carefully examining the facts. And if that is not enough, we must keep an open mind and always be willing to be corrected by our fellow human beings.
I always appreciate President Wu’s blog posts that get me thinking.
Thank you for sharing these perspectives of the city life. It adds much more color to the environment.
Such an excellent subject for a blog! We all need to be more aware of the value and limits of our own subjective perspectives. It also reminds me of the “My Commute” essays my students wrote in my History of NYC course. Using all five senses (like the 19th-century travel writers we read), they all gave an account of their journey to campus. The goal was to “notice what you notice” and appreciate the uniqueness of our own historical moment.
Thank you, Vince. It is such a great idea to ask your students to write an essay about their commute as a way to reflect on the history of NYC. Must be enlightening to see the variety of experiences and observations from them!
I appreciate the reminder that reality is larger than our own perceptions of it.
I appreciate that Dr. Wu shares his deep thinking techniques with us. I’m not sure I totally agree with his thought that we should “always be willing to be corrected by our fellow human beings”. The use of the term “corrected” causes problems in his context. We must be careful not to “assume” that others who have explored and expanded their consciousness are on a higher plane and/or that their view of our world is superior. We all take different paths but we must be careful not to assume that one path is inherently superior and another is unworthy of consideration. I do agree, though, that we all need to keep an open mind to all ideas and all points of view, and to respect each other without categorizing and/or cancelling views that may differ from others. We all are on the same journey of life. In the end, we all become experts in exploring, interpreting, weighing and applying reason to our views.
Instead of “corrected,” maybe “modified” would be better. But they essentially mean the same. We are constantly reassessing, recalibrating everything, even if only slightly. Recall the phrase “revisionist history.” If Journalism is the first draft of history and the accepted, standard mainstream view of an event is the second, that does not make it true. Thus, over time, every aspect of history is revised. The Ultimate Truth? We are constantly searching for it, and not just in History, in every discipline, and in everything we think is true.
Thank you, George, for your comments. By saying “willing to be corrected” my intention was to describe a mental attitude of openness as you have clearly articulated. Perhaps a better choice of word is “calibrated,” as instead of one final state, it is likely to be an iterative process of revision and refinement as we gain more information and better understanding. Arthur has “correctly” pointed this out!
They say travel is broadening, and it is. But you can travel quite a bit just by walking different paths. We also traverse different paths by reading different books, listening to different news sources and by listening in class. Yes, academic freedom gives instructors the right to say what they want, but the exercise of that right can, at times, not just stifle dissent, but dissuade meaningful discussion and deliberation that all could benefit from. . . Be sure to walk up Park Avenue from 34th to 40th, the first week in May, when the cherry blossom trees in the middle of the traffic islands are in bloom on a sunny day and you will be amazed.
I walked both Lexington Ave and Park Ave to and from Baruch for 40 years and appreciated my long walks first to 23rd St. then to 18th St. and finally to 24th St. I recently walked this streets again on my way to and from a Baruch event and recognized how he area has changed and old familiar sights which I looked forward to seeing were no longer there. Instead there were new buildings, stores, restaurants etc. I realized that in my absence things continue to change and evolve and to feel gratitude to still b able to see and appreciate the new environment.
This is so whimsical and entertaining to read. Reminds me of the things I love about New York City too.
Understanding that what we “see” is not every detail but heavily influenced by our past experiences, the expectations derived from those experiences, and our current mood, is important because it allows us to understand why two people could experience the same thing in very different ways. My own research looks at this exact issue in the context of how students deal with negative feedback about their performance and how the motivations and expectations they have (from their past experiences and their current environment) can dramatically influence how their resilience following challenges.
Thank you, Jennifer. I am most appreciative of having a real cognitive neuroscientist joining in the conversation. Your research into how students deal with negative feedback about their performance and the influence on their resilience, is such a fascinating and important topic. I’d love to learn more about it from your research group!
As I began reading President Wu’s article, the poet in me celebrated the flow of his words as he reflected with joy upon what he experienced on his walk home. Then the analytic professor in me encountered his thoughts and knowledge about our vision (s) of daily life. His goal like ours is to educate, lead the students to light, by sharing his own experiences and learning. Right now, I’m going to share part of the article to Announcements on Blackboard for my students .
Thank you, Professor Leon, for joining in the conversation and for sharing this piece with your students. My hearty congratulations on your 2022 Kennedy Center Honors and the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music! I am honored that my essay resonated with you in some ways.
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