Sam Wang is an associate professor, Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
Wang grew up in California and studied physics at the California Institute of Technology. Seeking his Ph.D. at Stanford University, he switched to neuroscience. He has worked at Duke University as a postdoctoral fellow and aided political leaders as a Congressional Science Fellow. After completing his postdoctoral studies, he spent two years at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., where he learned to use pulsed lasers to study brain signaling before coming to Princeton.
Wang, who has published more than 40 articles on the brain in leading scientific journals. His educational reach extends past the laboratory and classroom in his books, popular articles and efforts to convey neuroscience to interested nonscientists.
Question: How resilient are brains?
Sam Wang: Well, our brain’s abilities to think about a modeled world are double-edged. More than any other animal, we have the capability, it seems, to look into the future and to make plans for the future. And that’s basically because we got those tremendous cortex, especially a prefrontal cortex, that allows us to make these plans for the future. But at the same time, we are also limited.
We are remarkably bad at seeing the downstream effects of what our acts will lead to 5 years or 10 years down the road. We’re just not very good at that. And so, it’s difficult to judge whether some life decision you make today will make you happy a few years down the road. One way to get around that is to simply find someone who was faced with the same decision a few years down the road, a few years in the past and ask them, well, how did you feel after making that decision. And so, one thing you can do is to find people who face with the same challenge and then they can report accurately how it made them happy or unhappy. One thing about happiness that’s funny is that we are remarkably resilient in adapting to that.
So you might imagine that something like losing a limb would really affect one’s happiness. But studies have shown that losing a limb causes… You know, you’re less happy when you lose a limb but after a few years, you adapt that and it’s as if… almost as if you had not lost the limb in terms of your happiness. Some things never adapt.
Examples of things that never adapt out are losing a love one. If you lose your life partner, that makes you less happy and that doesn’t go away. Another thing that reduces your happiness in the long-term and never goes away is something that’s less serious, and it’s commuting. So it turns out that having a long commute makes you slightly less happy and you never get used to it.
Well, human beings are remarkably adaptable. Think of us as having come out of Africa, from this little valley, and then dispersing throughout the world and living in places like Finland and, you know, in Indonesia and the United States and all over the world.
It’s amazing how adaptable human beings are. And so, one thing that seems to be a very striking characteristic of humans including their brains is the adaptability, both by being clever and making tools and shaping our environments to be more satisfactory to us and also, adaptability in how we react to our environment. And so, one thing that seems to be a hallmark of our species is how good we are at that. And if you compare that with any other species, we seem to be very, very good. Our only close competitors might be cockroaches.
Recorded April 24, 2009.
A good half the time, I’m doing what I want to do, which is very rewarding. It’s like play.