When my second-grade teacher asked what we had done over the holiday, everyone's hands shot up. The kids picked ahead of me told the class how they had gone hiking, or visited relatives. When my turn came, I simply announced that my father and I had just returned from Belgrade (the capital of what was then Yugoslavia).
Everyone gasped. No explanation was needed. I'd been to the game. The European Champions Cup basketball game, that is, in which, two nights before, our local team, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, had defeated the team from Moscow. This was 1977, and the win was not only a major sports achievement but also a political victory. It was celebrated in the streets all night, and the players received a heroes' welcome when they got home. I regaled my class with stories of having witnessed the game's events firsthand, and of how we celebrated with all the other fans lucky enough to be at this historical event. Even the teacher looked at me with envy and admiration.
Of course, I hadn’t been anywhere near Belgrade. I spent the holiday at my aunt’s place, less than an hour’s drive from home, and saw the game on TV like everyone else.
Had I simply been after some sort of secondhand glory? Or had I tricked myself into believing my own story?
Why did I lie? I remember the events clearly, but have no recollection of what went through my mind. Had I simply been after some sort of secondhand glory? Or had I tricked myself too, somehow losing touch with reality and, however briefly, believing my own story? Could the lie have been so much better than the truth that telling it somehow became the path of least resistance?
Maybe. Your guess is as good as mine.
Later that day, after school, I was playing with a bunch of friends in the playground next to our apartment building when my dad got home from work. Up till then I was enjoying my newfound celebrity status. But when my friends saw my dad get out of his car, I knew what was coming.
They all ran to him, surrounded him, and started telling him what a great dad he was. When he asked why, they all said, “Because you took David to Belgrade for the game.” And sure enough, my dad, ever the dork, responded, “Huh? No, I didn’t.”
I tried, with a desperate “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” look, to save the situation: “Yes, Dad, you know, we flew to the game with your miles.”
My dad looked at me, and by now I could tell that he wasn’t just being slow. He said again, quietly this time, to me, “No. We didn’t.”
I was only seven, but I somehow knew I’d remember this moment for the rest of my life.
I was only seven, but I somehow knew I’d remember this moment for the rest of my life. I probably wouldn’t have put it into quite these words at the time, but I suddenly understood that the truth mattered to my dad, and that it was important to him that it should be important to me. I don’t think he minded that my imagination had gone a bit overboard—I didn’t get punished or have to endure a serious talk afterward or anything. But trying to make the made-up stuff stick, adding details to the house of cards, getting other people involved—these things, I realized, went way beyond what was acceptable. I’d love to say acquiring an appreciation of truth, however embarrassing it was at the time, set me on the road to becoming a scientist, but obviously it isn’t that straightforward. Back then I was mainly relieved that none of my friends told on me to our teacher. But keeping the facts straight did become important to me. And this would play a major role in my decision, over twenty years later, to apply to graduate school.
The problem with grad school was that idealizing truth is one thing. Actually being able to run technically complicated experiments is quite another.
So I’m nearing the end of a mediocre—and I’m being charitable—first year of grad school. I’m okay in the theory department, but I’m doing cognitive neuroscience, where psychology meets brain research, and my chosen field requires technical skills that I simply don’t possess. It turns out that to investigate the brain and mind, you need to know how to program computers and deal with tiny electrodes, giant magnets, and gruff technicians. Who knew? At my highly competitive institute, everyone else seems to have been born with an instinctual knack, which I lack completely, for programming functional MRI analysis software.
Okay, so it’s a bit unfair to expect a first-year grad student to be completely on top of things, but the person I’m comparing myself to is Helen, the star student of my year. She’s a bit late to join the program, arriving a semester after me, and she is preceded by quite a buzz. She did her master’s with a leading European researcher, who apparently said she was the most promising student he’d ever had; and her master’s thesis got published in Nature magazine—which is a bit like someone from a beginners’ fiction writing workshop selling a story to The New Yorker. And, of course, when she arrived she turned out to also be exceptionally beautiful. How beautiful? Well, at our institute it was a Christmas party tradition to play the Secret Game, where everyone writes a “secret” about themselves (in other words, something they are very proud of and want everyone to know) on a note, and the notes are pulled out of a hat one by one and read out, and people have to guess who wrote each one. That year, when the secret “I paid my way through undergrad by working as a lingerie model” was read out, everyone knew immediately whose it was.
Needless to say, I am completely unable to talk to Helen.
By the end of the year, I’ve managed to put together one very basic experiment: I’m going to use functional MRI to examine brain activity while people experience motion-induced blindness.
Motion-induced blindness is fascinating. It’s one of those really simple things that are also deeply weird, so it’s strange that it was only officially discovered in 2001. If you have a stationary dot and the background around it (which can be anything, even another bunch of dots) moves in a coherent way, and if you don’t look directly at the dot but keep it in the periphery of your visual field, after a few seconds it will seem to disappear. It’s not really gone, but you stop seeing it. Making the dot really bright only makes it disappear faster. (An extreme implication of this could be that we might all routinely miss stuff when other things in our visual field are in motion.) At the time, we had no idea how the brain does this, which brain regions are involved, and why on earth the visual system would behave this way: Is the brain overwhelmed by all the movement? Or maybe the ability to detect motion—such as a tiger creeping toward us in the savanna grass—is so important, that when faced with enough of it the brain gives it such high priority that it just ignores any additional object that isn’t moving? Or perhaps the brain tricks itself into believing that if the whole background is moving, then the single dot is probably some blemish in the eye, like a floater, and not a real object?
Maybe. We actually don’t know the full answer to this day.
So the idea for my first experiment is that I will put people in an MRI machine, show them a motion-induced blindness display, have them press a button whenever the dot disappears and see how their brain activity changes at that point.
This is all fine, but now I actually need to do it. This means programming software for a bunch of things like making the background move, following the viewers’ eye movements and collecting their keyboard responses. It’s a couple of days’ work if you know what you’re doing, but it has taken me most of my first year.
I’m finally ready. Well, almost. Running an MRI scanner costs eight hundred dollars an hour, so before taking my experiment there I need to “pilot” it—meaning run it on a few people outside the scanner, just to see that everything works as it’s supposed to: the dot disappears, the computer records the keyboard responses, and so on. At the institute, we usually run experiments like these on each other, working under the (hopefully reasonable) assumption that the brains of neuroscientists are representative of human brains in general. So I intend to simply ask a few friends to sit in a small testing booth, look at the display, and hold down a button whenever the dot disappears.
And then I have a lightbulb-above-the-head moment: I can ask Helen to do it! If it’s an academic, professional sort of exchange, I might be able to remain coherent. So I grab her —not physically—after a seminar, manage to get through my request without being too distracted by her deep blue eyes, and she’s really nice and forthcoming and says she’d be happy to do it. Score!
Two days later we’re in the small testing booth. I show Helen the setup, explain what to do, and start up the computer program that controls the experiment. I ask her to come find me in my office, which is just down the hall, when she’s done. The experiment is supposed to take half an hour, so when thirty-five minutes go by and she hasn’t shown up, I go back to see if everything’s okay.
The testing room is actually a suite, with a small control room just outside the testing booth. There’s a computer monitor in the control room that mirrors Helen’s screen so that I can observe the experiment. It shows me everything that’s on her screen. Helen, who has been running her own experiments in a different room, obviously doesn’t know about this monitor: At first all I see is that the experiment has indeed ended—the dot and moving background are gone, and the screen shows the desktop, on which I’ve left open the Windows folder containing all the files related to the experiment. I’m just about to open the door to the booth and ask for her thoughts on the experiment—maybe we could discuss them over coffee? —when I see a new folder being created on the desktop. Helen names it “temp,” and then quickly copies all my files into it. She proceeds to bury her new folder in an obscure directory.
I have never before directly witnessed someone stealing from me, which might explain my reaction: I run straight back to my office. Helen comes by two minutes later, and the thought crosses my mind that she might mention wanting to take a look at my computer code. But she doesn’t say anything about it. She just asks if I could return the favor by running in one of her experiments the following week. And I agree.
The thing is, it isn’t like the code is a great secret or anything. I would have been happy—proud, actually—to give it to her if she’d asked. People around me are always asking each other for bits of code. Getting asked is an indication that they think you know your stuff, and nobody has ever asked me for mine. So running back to my office, I guess, was not only my way of postponing having to deal with this; it also let me hang on to the hope that Helen would ask for my code, albeit retrospectively, so that I could magnanimously bestow it on her.
In science, it’s not enough to do something interesting—you have to do it first.
A few days go by, and I’m torturing myself about what to do. Beyond my hurt feelings, there’s the practical consideration—Helen is way ahead of me on a whole bunch of things, and she could go ahead and wrap up her own version of the experiment in a fraction of the time it would take me. This is a problem because in science, it’s not enough to do something interesting—you have to do it first. There’s no glory in replicating someone else’s findings. And glory is a major motivation for scientists.
Motivations aside, there are rules—and one of them is that you’re not supposed to take credit for (or just take) someone else’s work. I’m fairly certain that what Helen did falls into the category of scientific misconduct. I don’t want to just let it slide, but despite the fact that we’re grownups, and misconduct is a serious issue, something prevents me from going to either of our advisers and, well, telling on her.
So after a few days of indecision I do something I haven’t done in a long time: I call my dad and ask for his advice.
My dad isn’t an academic. In fact, he never finished high school. But he doesn’t need to think very long before saying, “So you don’t want to complain about her. But you don’t want to let her get away with it, either. You really only have one choice. You have to talk to her.”
So I do. The next day, Helen pops into my office to get me to fill out some questionnaire related to her experiment. It only takes a few minutes, and when I’m done I hand it to her and say, “You know, Helen, I’m happy to share my code. But I really do prefer to be asked.” I think she freezes for a fraction of a second, but I’m not sure. Then she replies, “What do you mean?” and I realize I’m going to have to be explicit: “I was in the control room when you did my pilot. The monitor there mirrors the one inside. I saw you copying all my files.”
She responds immediately: “Oh, I’m not going to do a motion-induced blindness study.” This, I think, is a strange response. She isn’t denying my accusation, but she’s not admitting anything either. I say, “That’s not the point. If you wanted to use my code, you should have just asked for it.”
Is this how ambition works? Worse, is this how success works?
I look straight into Helen’s eyes as I say this. It’s partly about not shying away from the confrontation, but there’s more to it: I’m hoping to get some insight into why someone so clever, so talented, so way ahead of me, would do something like this in the first place. Is this how ambition works? Worse, is this how success works? Or could the environment of our fast-paced, super-competitive institute be so overwhelming that it turns anything you can do to get ahead into the path of least resistance?
Maybe. Your guess is as good as mine.
Helen just says, “Oh. Oh, sorry. It’s fine. That’s fine.” Which, I guess, is an apology of sorts, even if she hasn’t quite taken responsibility for any wrongdoing. She repeats, “I’m not going to do that experiment,” and I figure that’s all I’m going to get.
Helen never did run a motion-induced blindness study. Neither did I—it turned out to be very difficult to make the dot disappear for long enough to see reliable activity changes in the brain, and I eventually got turned on by a different project. I did manage to get through grad school, and I’m doing okay. Not nearly as well as Helen, who is now a very successful professor. Whenever I see her published work, my mind can’t help wandering back to that moment in my office: looking into her eyes and realizing I won’t find an answer there; understanding that she probably couldn’t give me one even if she wanted to, any more than my seven-year-old self could; and wondering how the same blue eyes that had looked so deep only minutes beforehand could somehow become so completely opaque. I see nothing.
David Carmel is a cognitive neuroscientist. He spends his days trying to figure out how the brain creates consciousness, and his nights trying to remember why he ever thought he could accomplish this.
Art on first page by Joe Wierenga.
Thanks to Yoram Bonneh for allowing us to use his demo of motion-induced blindness on page three.