I wonder why I wonder.
I wonder why I wonder why
I wonder why I wonder!
The poet: Richard P. Feynman. The occasion: an undergraduate philosophy term paper at MIT. A great work of poetry? Perhaps not. An example of profound thinking and the ability to render a complex process in a way that is engaging, easy to follow, and evoking of an I could do that, too feeling? Absolutely. And that, in a nutshell, is the great man’s genius.
Richard P. Feynman was the physicist who could, it seems, also be anything else he chose to be: a musician (who played the frigideira in a Brazilian samba group and even performed during Carnaval), a composer (who co-wrote and performed music to an award-winning modern ballet), an artist (who, as Ofey, had a one-man show), a specialist on Mayan hieroglyphics (who lectured on the codexes of the ancients and could spot a fake before the experts themselves)—and most of all, always, a profound thinker, who wondered not only about the world around him but about the him the world was around. Who not only wondered why, but then immediately, why he wondered why, and then, why he wondered that. How did his mind work? How did it get to wherever it traveled, and could he find a way to trace it?
Feynman had written his wondering poem in response to an open-ended philosophy theme. His question of choice: how does the stream of consciousness end, when you go to sleep? Not something we typically ask ourselves—and not the easiest or most obvious question to tackle.
He was nothing if not a conscientious scientist. To answer his own query, he began to observe himself as he fell sleep. Each night, he would watch to see what happened, and then in the morning, record his observations. And every afternoon, he would do the same thing, pulling down his shades and observing himself as he napped. At the end of four weeks, he was ready to hand in his theme. But, he noted, there was a problem: the problem of introspection. The experiment could never be a clean one; he couldn’t be both subject and observer, for in observing, he necessarily upset the unobserved status quo, the sleep process that would have taken place without his observational interference. What would the end of consciousness be like if he just let it end? There was no way to know. Introspection inherently disturbed the object of introspection itself.
Introspection was, of course, the purview of one of the great minds of the prior century—whose life overlapped with Feynman’s for 21 years, enough for the younger man to have graduated from MIT and gone on to pursue his graduate degree at Princeton—Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and the idea that introspection was and could be a viable, useful, and perhaps even essential tool of scientific inquiry—specifically, inquiry into the human mind.
At the time, the idea was a radical one. Freud was beginning his work in an era when the study of the mind was focused almost exclusively, in the realm of science, at least, on the study of the brain and its physical structures. Find how our brains connect, and you find how we think. Philosophers had, of course, ventured further, but theirs were mere speculations and thought experiments, not actual lines of plausible inquiry. Freud, despite his negligible philosophical background, united the two approaches and asked: why? Why do we think the way we do? What are the original, root causes? And how do those causes play out in our external thoughts and behaviors?
Today, we think nothing of the term subconscious or unconscious. We don’t think twice about thought processes, thinking, and the interplay of knowable and unknowable forces in our minds that give rise to emotions, behaviors, and effects that we can’t always explain. The vocabulary of psychoanalysis and introspection has become so ingrained in the popular conception that it is difficult to remember just how revolutionary were Freud’s thinking and his approach—instead, we tend to remember only his incorrect theories of sexuality and the excesses of many of his followers. But the revolution in thought that he started? That, as often as not, is all but forgotten.
It’s hard to remember the days of Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, the heyday of the behavioral school of psychology where we were nothing but our actions, when what we did was enough to infer the totality of what we were and what was going on inside our heads (if we were silly enough to want to go that far down, for what did it really matter?). Or the grip that Franz Joseph Gall’s phrenology, the study of the mind through the external shape of the head, had on the popular mind—an idea that seems preposterous today that was embraced by such otherwise profound thinkers as Mark Twain and George Eliot. Freud went where no self-respecting scientist had allowed himself to go. He abandoned the physical laboratory, the world of external proofs, for the one of internal observation and conjecture. When he attempted it, introspection as a way of doing actual science—the idea that we could self-report on internal events, write down those reports, analyze them, and see general patterns emerge that would somehow shed light on our way of being and could even help us be better—was as new as it was unorthodox.
Feynman’s own relationship with psychoanalysis was an ambivalent one. But remarkably—or remarkably if you think of him in the guise of twentieth-century cutting-edge physicist, a scientist with few parallels—Feynman didn’t dismiss it out of hand, or even make fun of its ideas or its implications. Instead, he recognized it for what it was: a way of getting at those most interesting questions of consciousness that were beyond the reach of pure scientific method. Introspection may have been flawed, but at least it attempted to do what no other tool could even begin to accomplish. And so, Feynman played along gamely, and even seriously considered the possibilities.
Naturally, he soon became interested in dreams. He even taught himself to observe and later, control his own dreams as he was dreaming them (as a side note, it’s absolutely possible to learn dream control; nightmare therapy is largely based on it). His own questions differed substantially from Freud’s (What do I experience? Can I feel fear? Can I hear sound? Can I see color—and how sharp is my vision in general? Can I feel physical objects? Can I control and modify a dream’s direction? And where in the world are the inputs coming from, if my eyes are closed—and how are they becoming visual phenomena?). He was, after all, curious about the scientific aspects. But all the same, he gave serious thought to a friend’s proposition that dreams can be interpreted—and he even suggested that the more interpretations are talked about, the truer they become, as out mind begins to use symbols in the precise way that it has learned to hear about them during waking. It may be a self-perpetuating cycle, but it’s one with some merit.
Psychologist Walter Mischel—whose life, too, overlapped with Freud’s in the older man’s Vienna, where Mischel was born and lived up to the outbreak of WWII, just a few blocks away from the old home of the famed psychoanalyst—once told me that in his estimation, Freud got it about 50% right and 50% wrong, and what he got right, he got really right, and what he got wrong, he got spectacularly wrong. I don’t know what Feynman’s percentages were, but they certainly weren’t 100% right. He had erroneous theories, thoughts that went nowhere, ideas that didn’t pan out. He even describes some of those instances in his memoirs, like the time he presented an alternative classical theory of electron attraction at Princeton (which he termed the theory of half-advanced and half-retarded potentials), to an audience that included Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli, only to find, years later, that the theory didn’t hold in the quantum world, just as Pauli had said it wouldn’t.
But in this, Feynman had an obvious advantage over Freud: when his wrong ideas came up, he had a way of testing, of knowing for sure they were wrong. At some point, somewhere, something wouldn’t add up. Freud didn’t have that luxury. How could you ever know for sure, when you were dealing with the inner workings of the mind, and the mind alone? And in that sense, Freud had to be the more daring of the two. How frightening it must have been for a scientifically trained mind to abandon all of the objective metrics he had held so dear, to be a scientist who dared measure the immeasurable. How lonely to be the first in the field of the unobservable—or at least unobservable directly—mind, to have nothing to fall back on, no expert opinions to consult or experiments to run, no data save the data that you created yourself. Those who came after (Jung, I’m looking at you) needed no such audacity. Freud had already paved the way. And fundamentally, he was doing the exact same thing that Feynman would do, albeit in a different discipline altogether, after him: try to ask the most basic questions about the most basic phenomena of the world.
Freud and Feynman, the classic psychoanalyst and the quantum physicist, were far closer in both mind and spirit that it may seem at first glance. They shared those basic qualities that make the great thinker, the great scientist, the great researcher: a fundamental irreverence toward convention, toward the expectations of what they should be doing, and a boundless curiosity for doing exactly what they wanted to do and exploring exactly what they wanted to explore. A love of science and discovery. A profound wonder about the world around them. A sense of curiosity and fun that knew no bounds.
And ultimately, it was when Freud lost that sense that he got stuck, stuck in his old ways and staid theories, unable to move forward or continue to question the world he himself had created. Feynman retained it to the very end. But then again, he had more company.
Maria Konnikova, a writer based in New York City, is a doctoral candidate in Psychology at Columbia University, where she studies self-control and decision making. She is fascinated by the psychological insights that can be garnered from literature and feels that some of the best psychologists are to be found not in labs and ivory towers, but among the literary greats. Maria writes the Artful Choice blog for Big Think, examining the psychology of mindful decision making, and the Lessons from Sherlock Holmes guest blog for Scientific American. Before re-embarking on her academic career in 2008, she worked as a Producer for the Charlie Rose show on PBS, where she developed and produced the Charlie Rose Science Series. She received her AB magna cum laude from Harvard, where she studied government, psychology, and creative writing, and holds an MPhil in Psychology and an MA in Political Science from Columbia. Follow Maria on Twitter @mkonnikova.
Photo credits: Richard Feynman at Fermilab; Sigmund Freud, Max Halberstadt; Sweet dreams dreaming of snowhite and the seven dwarves, by Franz Schrotzberg. By Robertsan1; Water drop experiment, Nikhil Verma