Perception: Stories about tricks of the mind

This week, we present two stories from science journalists about the ways the ways we perceive -- or misperceive -- the world around us. 

Part 1: When science journalist Eli Chen begins to have doubts in her relationship, she tries to control her feelings using neuroscience.

Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio, as well as the producer of The Story Collider's shows in St. Louis in partnership with the public radio station. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, WHYY’s The Pulse and won Edward R. Murrow and National Federation of Press Women awards. Her favorite stories to cover often involve animals or robots. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where she concentrated in science and radio reporting. She is @StoriesByEli and echen@stlpublicradio.org.

Part 2: Just out of journalism school, Shannon Palus takes a public relations internship at a nuclear energy lab in Idaho.

Shannon Palus's writing has appeared in Slate, Discover, Popular Science, Retraction Watch, and many other publications. She's a staff writer at Wirecutter, a product review website owned by the New York Times Company.

 

Episode Transcription

Part 1: Eli Chen

It was about a year and a half ago and I was sitting on a balcony in a small beach town in Delaware, and I was looking up at the moon. I was looking up at it because, that night, people around the planet would be able to see a rare lunar eclipse.

Lunar eclipses, they happen often enough when the earth comes in between the sun and the moon, but not often do they happen at the same time as when the moon comes closest to the earth. When the moon is in this position it looks larger to us and that’s why we call them super moons.

Total lunar eclipses are just amazing to watch anyway because light from the sun bends around the edges of the earth in a way that refracts red light onto the moon, and that’s why we call them blood moons.

The last time there's this super moon-blood moon combination was in 1982 and I didn’t exist then. The next one will take place in 2033 and by then I'll be in my forties, which I can’t imagine right now.

I wasn’t observing this eclipse alone. Sitting next to me was my boyfriend whose balcony I was sitting on. And for the sake of this story, I’m going to call him Adam.

Adam and I had been dating for about a year and we had this sort of dynamic where I'd babble on about Mars and bacteria and all of the beautiful things you can learn from bat carcasses, just things that a public radio science reporter does stories about. I mean, I do what I do because I don’t know how to quite turn off that switch of talking about weird things all the time. That’s just who I am.

I remember he told me once that he knew he liked me from the day we met not just because he found me attractive but also because I did a lot of talking, and there aren’t many girls in Southern Delaware who look or talk the way I do.

I liked Adam because he chose his words carefully and I tend to like guys who are a little reserved because, frankly, they're a lot less annoying. And, for the most part, he let me be my weird self, which was important.

But I was also strangely drawn to his nervousness around me. Usually, I’m the one who’s feeling awkward and nervous around other people. I have crippling social anxiety and it was new for me to be on the other side of that.

So we’re sitting in the balcony, we’re watching the moon turn red, and this is something that doesn’t take place in fifteen minutes. It took hours. I think we were sitting out there for at least a couple of hours. Nonetheless, Adam stayed up with me. He took charge of adjusting the controls on the telescope, which he was very good at doing.

Rarely in my life has there been anyone who’s been willing to spend that much time with me. You know, growing up, I always felt like I was a burden to other people. But as the moon turned red that night and as we watched the eclipse through the telescope lens, I remember thinking I’m not going to find anyone better than this.

A little time passed and I got offered a job in St. Louis to continue being a public radio science reporter. Adam and I were dying to get out of Delaware so we eagerly packed up all of our things and we left the state and we moved in together.

About eight months after we moved here, I interviewed a cognitive psychologist who studies romantic love from the brain. So she had invited me to watch some experiments where she was recording the brainwaves of people who had recently fallen in love. I sat down with her a couple of times to ask her why she studies what she studies. The way she saw it, love is a way to understand how the brain works. Love is a very powerful motivator. It can sometimes make us do really irrational things.

This researcher was really interested in learning how our thoughts influence how much we love other people. She had published some research that said that thinking positive thoughts about say your partner, your spouse, would help you feel more in love with them, and thinking negative thoughts about, say, someone who had broken your heart would help you feel less in love with them. To me, and I don’t think I’m alone here, that seemed fairly obvious.

But then she threw out this example. She said, “Say you're in a committed relationship and you find that you’ve fallen in love with someone else. You could attempt to try and control love by thinking positive thoughts about the person that you think you should be with and negative thoughts about the person you shouldn’t be with.” Immediately I thought that would really suck to be in that situation.

But I was also skeptical because relationships are complicated, people are complicated, so I asked her if this would actually work in a real-life situation. She said her research showed that it could work in the short term and that, over the long term, you'd have to keep exercising those thoughts regularly to work.

I left her office thinking who’s got time for that, but I also thought it would never happen to me because I thought things between me and Adam were good. I had also become really close with his friends and family and there's a lot of talk about getting married down the road.

But there are also things that were kind of simmering underneath the surface, things that I thought were issues that naturally came up when you're with someone for an extended period of time and especially when that person moves halfway across the country to be with you.

Basically, I've been harboring a lot of guilt that I was here pursuing this glorious science public radio career while he was attending community college with kids half his age and waiting tables at a really dysfunctional restaurant.

I had come home from work a lot and immediately just start complaining about things that happened that day and that happened over and over again to the point where he said that he had enough of it and that he didn’t want to hear about it anymore and I should be grateful to have the job that I have. It’s a valid point, but it made me feel terrible and it also made me feel alone.

So bad feelings like that were building up in the weeks and months, actually, before I interviewed this psychologist. A few short weeks after, I realized that I had fallen in love with one of my friends. This was a friend who I felt like I could talk to and share things that were happening in my life without feeling bad about it. I didn’t have to prod him to be receptive to the things I was talking about. So there were times where we’d get into these long conversations about feeling a little lost in life. When I spent time with him, the loneliness I was feeling would recede only a little, but just enough to matter.

When I realized what was happening, I thought about what the psychologist said and I tried to redirect my thoughts. I thought, “This is stupid. Adam does so much for me. He moved here for me, he loves me unconditionally. I should be lucky to have him. And crushes will come and go and my friend will always just be a friend.”

I even forced myself to think about what our apartment would look like without all of Adam’s books and posters and Lego spaceships and I tried to focus on how devastating that would feel. But I really underestimated how much stress I was under in my professional and personal life and how much that was making it impossible to control the feelings I was having about these people.

Eventually, Adam and I got into a huge fight and that led quickly to the end of our relationship. I finally admitted that I didn’t think I was in love with him anymore and a large reason why I was with him was because I didn’t think anyone else would have me. That was a feeling I couldn’t change. He said it was the cruelest thing that anyone ever said to him. In less than a week, he packed up all these things and he left St. Louis.

Since then, I've tried and am still trying to figure out what love means to me. I never expected to have feelings for anyone else and I never expected to hurt Adam the way I did. I also never expected to feel so relieved, actually, when he up and vanished from my life.

There was a while where I was wondering if I was just some horrible, messed-up, awful, selfish person, but my friends, who were so supportive during this time, they kept telling me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of the way I feel, that everything I’m going through just means that I’m human.

I started to think that maybe I shouldn’t try to control love. Maybe I should just accept my feelings as they are.

Recently, I remembered this one time that Adam and I were walking along the beach in Delaware and the moon looked unusually large that night near the horizon. I tried to take a photo of it with my phone, but the moon ended up looking small and I was disappointed that my phone couldn’t convey the size of the moon I had seen. Adam said something about how it’s really our minds that make the moon look big to us and that our perception is actually based on an illusion.

At first, I was annoyed that my brain was responsible for tricking me in this small way, but then I saw it as a chance to learn something new about myself and that there's something to appreciate about the curious ways that our minds and our bodies are wired to give us the experiences that we never expected to have.

Part 2: Shannon Palus

So when I was a senior in college I applied to maybe a dozen or so journalism internships at big outlets in big cities. Places like Slate, Scientific American, Popular Science, New Scientist, and I was rejected from every single one. I spent memorable afternoons crying in my bathtub. I was living in Montreal and studying physics and my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, that feeling of being chased by a wild animal even though you're technically perfectly safe. I really wanted to be a writer and I felt like nobody else thought that I could do that.

I had vague plans to move back to Philadelphia and live in my parents’ attic and make a go of it as a freelancer, finding work on my own and submitting things on spec. That seemed kind of appealing but it just seems like it took a little bit more confidence than I had at the time.

So when a few days before my final final exam I found an internship position that had not yet found an intern, I took it. And at the beginning of June I was on a plane headed to Idaho Falls, Idaho, to work at a nuclear energy lab.

It was a public relations internship, which meant that I'd be writing press releases about human factors researchers designing better control rooms for dangerous things and prepping scientists for TV spots. I was going to talk about new kinds of fuel. And all of that sounded really interesting to me.

I like science. I’d studied physics. This stuff was cool, but I didn’t want to be doing PR. I didn’t want to be writing inevitably one-sided stories for an institution, and I didn’t want to be living in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to be in, like, New York or Boston or something.

But, overall, it just felt sort of more safe. It felt safe to say yes to this, to not have to strike it out on my own. And further, I'd be staying with a couple in Idaho, someone my mom knew from college, so I'd have like Idaho parents of sorts to take care of me and make sure I was all right.

My first day of work, I met my co-writing intern, Allie, who immediately put me at ease. She was wearing black, pointy high-heeled shoes and bright red lipstick and I was like, okay, right. Big cities do not have a monopoly on glamor.

And she just seemed so much more prepared for the world than I was. She told me that she had brought an entire extra suitcase with her to Idaho filled with gear for adventures, and she invited me on one that weekend.

That Saturday, she and Brad, whose name has been changed, picked me up in Brad’s car. Both of them had all this stuff, like backpacks with mesh so that you wouldn’t get sweaty and clips that clipped around your waist so, you know, the weight would be distributed. And in addition to hiking boots, sandals with webbing that you could also hike in, and sunscreen a first aid kit, and Brad had this water filter so we could drink from the stream.

My contribution to disaster preparedness was to bring a Kindle in case I got tired on the hike and had to sit down. I really liked the outdoors, but I'd spent the past five years indoors in Montreal studying and drinking beer.

So we drive to the trail head and recite our names into a guestbook so if anything happens the police can have a clue as to your last location, and we start walking.

There's one more danger in Idaho that we don’t really have in cities and that is bears. But Brad told us that probability is on your side. These things are pretty rare. Also, if you just talk and make noise, like be normal, they're more afraid of you than you are of them. So that’s what we did.

We had conversations about what we’d been studying at school and our hopes and dreams for this summer and beyond. And within a few miles of this hike, I've realized a new fundamental truth about the world, which is that Idaho is beautiful. Whoever does their PR, like the potatoes thing, it’s so much more than that.

The sky was big and gorgeous and there were small animals and trees. We had this trail mostly to ourselves. And I make it all six miles to the top of this mountain where there's this lake. It’s like Caribbean blue and a little island in the center. We take off our hiking shoes and we hold them and we wade out to the middle and we’re just basking in the sun. I feel like, okay, this wasn’t my first choice and I made this decision sort of out of fear, but it all worked out. It’s going to be awesome. Sometimes you don’t have to be like a brave person. I just felt so good.

And we hiked back and we make it back to the trail head and we’re still alive. We sign out of the guestbook and we drive to a campsite which, it turns out, is actually just like a little clearing in the woods. There's nobody else around.

We meet up with two other interns: a mechanical engineering intern, a nuclear engineering intern. The five of us cooked dinner on the fire. We watched the sunset. We put all of our food away because we’re responsible, and we fall asleep beneath the stars.

The next thing I remember is waking up to the sound of myself screaming. I was screaming. The mechanical engineer was screaming next to me. Next to her, the nuclear engineer was screaming. Brad had jumped out of his hammock and was in a defense stance, I think. I don't really know. I've never defended myself against anything. And he was going, “Huh-huh-huh. There was a bear.”

We didn’t get to the next step of what you're actually supposed to do once you see a bear. I was sitting there in my tent crawled up in a ball thinking about how my Idaho parents were going to have to call my biological parents and explain to them that I'd been mauled or watched someone be mauled. Allie was playing dead on the other site of the campsite but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know if that was the right thing to do anyway.

Eventually we all stop and Brad has whipped out his flashlight and is waving it around and he confirms to us that, yes, he has seen something but he doesn’t know where it went. This does not make me feel too much better so I sit there very still for as long as I can, and eventually I fall asleep because I’m so tired after hiking twelve miles after five years of being indoors.

When I wake up in the morning, I am so relieved to see sunlight. As I wiped the grogginess out of my eyes and think about how I’m going to get a cup of coffee out here, I realized something. I never actually saw a bear. Next to me, the mechanical engineer said she hasn’t seen a bear. Next to her, the nuclear engineer says he hadn’t seen a bear. Allie had thought there was an axe murderer that was after us, and Brad explains to us what he saw, which was nothing. He had been sleepwalking.

We had all been reacting to this thing that was happening in Brad’s head. It was just five of us sitting in the woods freaked out about nothing. It wasn’t how we were going to die, it wasn’t some phone call our parents were going to get, it was going to be an inside joke that would carry our friendship through the rest of the summer.

And it did. We went on weekend camping trips, we ate lunch together, we goofed off on trips to the nuclear reactor. I went home every day after work and hung out with my Idaho mom and my Idaho dad and drank wine and talked about science and it was awesome.

By August, the lab had offered me an extension on my internship and I had been applying to all those places, Popular Science, Nature, Smithsonian, rejection, rejection, rejection. And the lab offered to keep on through April with money, but I still really wanted to be a journalist. This time I didn’t want to say yes.

So at the end of August, Allie drove me to the Idaho Falls Airport and I got on a plane and I went to Philadelphia to an apartment where I was going to find a way to pay rent. I was going to have a desk in the corner and pitch stories and make things happen. I felt in my body just so afraid of that, so afraid that I was making the wrong decision, that my savings account was going to run out and my career was just going to plummet. But I knew the things that I’m afraid of sometimes are just in my head.