Luke Robert Mason: You’re listening to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.
On this episode I speak to scientist and author, Dr Camilla Pang.
Science has been my mother tongue when people weren’t, in that it moved with me and my thoughts no matter what place I was. No matter how happy or sad or lost I was, I knew that at least where I stood, it was there around me.
Dr. Camilla Pang, excerpt from interview.
Camilla shared her insights into living with autistic spectrum disorder, how she uses scientific principles to better understand human beings and why she considers her neurodiversity to be a superpower.
This episode was recorded virtually, using Skype.
Luke Robert Mason: Dr. Camilla Pang, your book covers a range of scientific concepts and then applies them, metaphorically, to what it means to be human. You go as far as describing the book—and the book is Explaining Humans—as an instruction manual for human beings. Can you tell me why you feel you needed to write this book?
Dr Camilla Pang: When it came to me writing it, it wasn’t something that I always had in mind. Much like all best things in life, they happen by accident. When I was writing it, it was purely just for my own clarity. Gathering my observations to try and figure out: What was going on? Why didn’t I fit? I felt it was a kind of dysrhythmia I felt—with my species—and I was just very curious. When I realised that I didn’t get all the information from science books that I read, I then realised that I needed to write down my own and then put them on a piece of paper. It was a very impulsive, reflexive process, that I didn’t even attribute to me being a writer.
So therefore, when I started actually writing the book and putting it into this contextualised format, the thing that prompted me most was when I was writing my PhD
thesis, and I chose biochemistry because I wanted it to encapsulate all sides of science to understand what was around me. When it came to the leap, so to speak, was when my sister—she was getting a bit of FOMO. She was like, “Oh, I want to do everything, blah-blah-blah.” you know. Just normal stuff. And then I was like, “Well, you can do that, just network theory.” She was like, “What?”, and I was like “Well, duh?”—and so I didn’t actually realise, ’cause I always felt behind. I just realised that everyone had these calculations in their head, and so I thought, oh, maybe someone will find this useful. Also, most importantly, to shed light on people who are neurodivergent and that we always feel behind. Oh actually, we’ve just got to a solution.
Mason: You describe in the book as having a cocktail of things that make you neurodiverse. So for people who might not know, could you just explain some of the diagnoses that you have, that changes the way in which you navigate your life?
Pang: Basically, if we’re going to go all formal about neurodiversity, I’d have autistic spectrum disorder—and everyone’s got their own preconceptions about that. So hold fire on that one because they’re all different. Also I’ve got ADHD. Also I’ve got generalised anxiety disorder. Those aren’t just things that are in your larder and come out now and then. They’re there 24⁄7. It’s not like: Oh, it’s Friday, ah brilliant. On the weekend, I’m just going to be normal. It doesn’t happen that way. You can have a panic attack at 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning when you had so much planned. It’s quite unpredictable. This has been the work of my lifetime: to know what my patterns are.
When it comes to neurodiversity—in my case, autism—it’s very much about obsession with routine, with detail, with following things through and to be able to have quite prosaic routines that people don’t really think are important, but actually they are because all these things that humans live through naturally and kind of just swim through automatically don’t happen. It’s not something that we have any direction on. So that can meet a lot of panic attacks.
In terms of ADHD, it means that you can be quite impulsive, and all these things. You’re like, “Oh, well, if you’re impulsive, then why aren’t you shouting at me, why aren’t you doing this?” Sometimes it doesn’t come out that way. It comes out on doing things, like information that enables you to follow things through.
Anxiety is just…I mean, if I’m going to glam it up, it’s probably just trying to simulate every possibility so that you know what you’re doing, because it could be anything.
Mason: This idea of neurodiversity features throughout the book, and you describe yourself as someone who is very neurodiverse for all of the reasons that you’ve just described. I just wonder for anyone who doesn’t know, what is neurodiversity, and how does that differ from being this thing called neurotypical?
Pang: I think neurodiversity is something that a lot of people…I mean, I say everyone’s neurodiverse. It’s like saying we’re all biodiverse. It’s just the extent to which we can hold it in better and our tolerability at the system—or vice versa. It’s mainly the vice versa, because it’s about you. If you’re going to the beat of your own drum, how much are you challenged by that? That is not a fault of yourself. But when it comes to having cabin fever, as someone who’s neurodiverse, you’ll often feel like you’re not seen. You’ll often feel like you have something to say, but you can’t say it in the way that it should be said. There’s lots of shoulds that we have to do, especially as we get older, and expectations. A lot of people who are neurodiverse find it hard to deal with boundaries. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a bad thing if you’re trying to make everyone the same shape.
Mason: Well, I mean, you go one step further and you actually see your—and I’m gonna quote from the book—your cocktail of neurodiversities as a superpower. In what way are they a superpower, Camilla?
Pang: Basically, a lot of people when they hear me say that the superpower…I just want to firstly say that I’m not trying to trivialise mental health as if it’s some kind of next turmeric latte. That’s not the case at all, okay—because a lot of people have said that. A superpower in the sense that if you just get rid of all the expectations, if you just get rid of the shape of the system of what we should be doing in a certain context, to be able to be creative, this whole freedom that a lot of people think, “Oh, if only I was like this.” To be able to live based on instinct and impulse and what you want to do is a very brave thing to do. People who are neurodiverse naturally feel that they have to do that. It’s not something that they choose. So for example, I had to write this book. It’s not something that I planned, and to be able to follow your life so instinctively, also regardless of what’s thrown at you, and to still pursue what you want, and to be alive in that regard is actually a superpower in itself. There’s many other different features I can talk about, but I think that’s the main one, is to go by your own instincts.
Mason: You said you felt like you had to write this book. Did you have to write this book for yourself, or to help communicate some of your diagnoses to both your friends and your family?
Pang : Initially, I didn’t…when I wrote it for myself, I didn’t realise I was actually writing it. I was just collecting stuff to make sense of what’s going on. But also, I think inadvertently, it’s my way of…I wrote this book—in hindsight—for my mum. She just wanted to understand her own child and I couldn’t figure out how to do that in any other way that was neurotypical, AKA, “Mum, this is what’s happening, blah-de-blah.” It doesn’t happen that way, especially when you’re a kid and you’re trying to find your outlet.
So over time, I wanted to make this book for her and be like, “This is what happened.” I want to reassure mums out there and other people that it’s not just, “Aww, she’s got autism.” It’s more like, “Oh, okay. I can see that that’s what’s going on. I’ve learned something from that as well.” You know, it’s different.
Mason: And the way you help other people, sort of, understand these things is through scientific metaphors. So to better explain that, each chapter in the book uses a different form of science to explain the ways in which you navigate your own reality. I wonder, why science? Why is the scientific metaphor so useful in helping you to understand some of these things?
Pang: It was the only olive branch I could cling onto that was evidence based. It was law based, it was data driven, it was an objective, bottom up principle that I could hold onto and find my direction in my thoughts and my decisions, and also benchmark myself against other people so that I might know how to manoeuvre. It wasn’t a comparison thing. It’s more like, “Okay, what’s going on?” It was a clarity measure. I think a lot of the time, a lot of people have actually said to me, “Oh, why don’t you just read psychology?” No, that’s up here. That’s all wavy, it’s still based on a postulate that you’d need a social nuance to understand.
For me—this is my type of autism—some people like reading psychology and they get it straight away. With me, I didn’t. I just didn’t feel like…I didn’t taste it. When it came to science, it was intuitive to me because it was something that I could see directly. Even just looking at birds flying as a science and the art behind that I thought: Ah yeah, that’s how I feel on a Thursday. It’s just, it’s just something that I’ve always connected with and to be able to connect people to science, which is an alien subject to quite a lot of people—I just wanted to kind of bridge that gap.
Mason: I mean, what’s so clear in the book is that you are a self confessed science nerd and I just wonder what is it about science that gives you so much joy?
Pang: Yeah, I’m a bit of a science nerd. But when it comes to science, science has been my mother tongue when people weren’t. It moved with me and my thoughts, no matter what place I was, no matter how happy or sad, or lost I was. I knew that at least where I stood, it was there around me, in different scales and different forms. That was actually very reliable. It was like, “Okay, we got you.” You can find inspiration from any detail, and model that uncertainty based on something that is concrete. To be able to have that, I guess, I wouldn’t say friend, but it’s a support that is just reliable. When you make the most of what’s around you, because you feel like you deserve to be there—that was what science did for me.
Mason: In the book, it feels like you’ve turned your life into a science experiment. Would that be fair to say?
Pang: A little bit. So, yeah, basically, is the answer.
Mason: I mean, what are some of the results of that scientific experiment?
Pang: Basically, I try and experiment every three to six months with a parameter in my brain to see just out of curiosity, and also for self improvement, it’s nice to do. It’s like a debugging of code. It’s always evolving. It’s always adding, and then you’re like: Oh, no, that’s gone wrong. Why has it gone wrong? I don’t remember what I did. So quite a lot of the time it’s trying to get out of that rut. But in getting out of that rut, you come up with a solution that no one else has before, because no one else has done these experiments. They just feel them and they don’t really associate what they’re doing with how they feel when they’re stuck.
So I feel every chapter is an experiment. I’m first of all modelling: Oh, if I model like that, does that mean that? It’s my way of predicting what’s happening and finding routine in the day. This last year, I’ve been trying to affect my parameters in my brain to be more normal. To be less impulsive, to be less ADHD. Just to taste what that’s like, and how to get people more ADHD. So it’s boring, basically. Sometimes it’s very boring, because you’re trying to be normal all of the time.
Mason: I mean, looking at some of the scientific metaphors you use, one of them is something we cover a lot on this podcast, which is the idea of machine thinking and AI. In one of the first chapters of the book, you look at human thinking and you try to see how it’s very similar to machine thinking. What can computers teach us about how we make decisions?
Pang: In terms of the computer teaching us how to make decisions, you can learn so much. So, for example, in the first chapter you’ve got boxes and trees. These are just two data structures that I feel are most representative of the extremes of people in terms of how they make decisions. I feel like the computer has actually a lot more freedom to explore than a human. It’s quite a juxtaposition to see, because I see the transition as humans and naturally kind of a volatile, unpredictable, chaotic, creative creatures—because that’s what’s gotten us so far. Then we’ve got this kind of machine that we’ve made just based on pure logic. What we’re actually trying to do is make humans more singular, and computers a lot more creative. We can teach about how we treat computers, our attitudes towards the superiority of computers compared to our own species. So I think on that level, it can teach us a lot about how we’re treating humans and our chain of thoughts and how highly we regard them in comparison to technology.
Humans are far more complex than AI, and I know that’s a very obvious thing to say but I think that needs to be reiterated. I remember learning machine learning and deep learning and all that stuff in a book, and I expected something really novel. I was like, Ah this is gonna be a great afternoon. It’s gonna be amazing. I read and I thought, I don’t really feel like it’s anything that I haven’t done before. Then my friends were like, “Ah, you sound so arrogant.”. I went, “No, I just don’t feel like it’s anything new, because it’s all based on what everyone’s thinking. But we’re trying to ramp up the basics of human psychology to make it scalable and hope that it would create a difference.”
Mason: In the book you look at AI as a useful way to understand your own thinking, and because of your diagnosis of ASD you often would do this thing called box thinking which, as you say in the book, limited your understanding of the world. So what is box thinking? And what did AI teach you about how to overcome box thinking?
Pang: Okay, so box thinking is—I guess in adult terms—all the shoulds. What you should do. So you have different boxes that you live by if you’re a child. You try and find evidence based on “Okay, that number plate, therefore today is going to be a good day.” That’s why it sometimes doesn’t make any sense, because you don’t know what boxes to look for. You just know what you see and you’re trying to stitch things up and hope and hope that it’d create direction to your day. But as an adult, we have shoulds, which are actually boxes based on other’s expectations and realities. What that can do is be a bit of a comparison game. It can be useful in some regards and help us make a decision. If we’re in limbo then we won’t move anywhere, so what it helps us do is be like: Okay, where am I? What am I doing? and then from there you can kind of funnel your way through. But you’ve got to be careful because you don’t want to end up starting from a place of narrow perception.
Then tree thinking, which is a different way of looking at the day based on the data you have, and then you kind of work your way upwards. So that’s kind of an unsupervised algorithm.
So you let the data lead the crystallisation of thought, where the box thinking is just like solution driven, you know. Everything else is wrong.
Mason: So Camilla, in the book, you describe how you go from someone who was very comfortable with box thinking to being able to do unstructured and sometimes messy and random thinking—and you did that through using the concept of a decision tree. Now firstly, what is a decision tree, and why for you personally was it a useful tool to change the way in which you made decisions?
Pang: Okay, a decision tree is basically being able to see a point in space and time. So an event or a data point—anything—and not just to take it at face value. Not: That is the only solution, but to think about it in terms of its vicinity, and what that means for any possible solutions. So for example, with box thinking, I used to like: I need to do this routine at this time, because if I don’t, then I’ll have chaos because if I didn’t have this box, everything would be chaos. That’s why I did it. Because you’re lost in the ocean. I loved the sense of security I had when it came to routines, when I was like very little. From that, that’s why I was a box thinker. But then I realised in teenage years, you collect all these boxes, and then you’re kind of in a room full of boxes that all look the same. So you can’t separate the kitchen from the living room from the play area. It’s a bit like quarantine.
But when it came to the decision tree, it enabled me to kind of put the boxes relatively to each other. So I considered all the things that were important to me, but I could tackle them cluster at a time. So when you get all the boxes, you make a tree. So based on how they’re closely related, and then from that you get a kind of tree the tree diagram. You’ve got the things that have something in common, then you’ve got the things that are very different and divergent—and it’s very nice to see how they are related because then you have more room in your head and you can kind of transverse between, and not feel as anxious.
Mason: On reading that chapter and learning that there’s different ways of thinking, many neurotypical people may look at that and go, “Well, surely that’s obvious. I’ve never really thought about my thinking before.” And have you had that sort of response to those sorts of chapters—people who’ve gone, “Oh, wow, okay, this is not something I’ve ever needed to think about in this way.”?
Pang: Yeah, every chapter—which is kind of nice in a way. I think that’s one of the things I wanted to do with the book. It’s not that I wanted to challenge people, but for them to help recognise themselves in the book, and then associate the different principles and be like, “Ah hang on a minute, I’m a bit of a tree today—I feel a bit lost. I feel a bit everywhere.” That’s great to recognise that. To attribute the scientific analogy, or model—because that sounds more cool—which is the same thing. It’s knowing what’s happening. That’s one of my problems, sometimes, to this day. I could be hungry but not realise I need to eat. I could be cold but not realising to put a jacket on. It’s just helping tag the feeling to what you need. I think every human has that.
Mason: How have other people who describe themselves as neurodiverse—who might have similar diagnoses to yourself—how have they found the book and what sort of feedback have you had from other neurodiverse individuals who’ve also had these issues with describing how they navigate their lives?
Pang: Yes, I’ve had some really positive feedback, which is really good because it’s always a bit risky, putting yourself out there and not knowing who’s going to connect. When it comes to—especially neurodivergent people—because you don’t know the degree of overlap. Even though you feel the same, they might see it differently. What I’ve tried to do in this book is make sure that the scientific principles are things that everyone can see and map to, to do the process that I did. So the responses have been great. They’ve connected with it on a level like, “Oh, you took the words out of my mouth.”…“I’m so glad this exists.” It’s been lovely, this connection. It’s nice to have that.
Mason: I want to look at some of the ways in which you think about human connection itself, because as well as looking at AI in the book, you look at some biological processes. In one chapter of the book, you go as far as saying there are parallels between proteins and people. So, what are some of those parallels, Camilla?
Pang: It all comes down to the fact that we’re all evolutionary modules where our structure—so our form—and our behaviour, are ultimately determined by our genetic sequence. This is true of proteins and true of humans. When it comes to our role in society, we interact with others. We can also adapt to different types of modularity that can evoke different cellular responses. What I really like about proteins…so for example, if I was a bit more of a normal child, I would have maybe picked up a Barbie. That’d be ideal, if a girl picked up a Barbie—that’d be perfect. I could attribute a personality to her. Then I could be like, “Ah, my Barbie says this.” But actually, I didn’t really know how to do that. All I knew is how proteins were variable, much like how humans are variable. I thought, well, this makes sense. I developed a king of affinity—no pun intended—to proteins modelling dynamic behaviour of humans.
In the book, I mention different types of proteins in the cell that are responsible for cell signalling. From that, I kind of looked at the different personalities in a clique. So, when you go into a group of people, they aren’t just all one blob. There’s lots of different people. The people on the outside who are probably more friendly and that actually spoke to me. Then the ones in the middle who are kind of like “We don’t really want to speak to you.” because…I don’t know why. But I never understood this hierarchy. I realised that this hierarchy wasn’t just, you know, “Oh this is more important than that.”. It was a hierarchy because every layer had a different role. We need that diversity in order to make things happen. We need a cellular response.
So we’ve got receptor proteins which I equate to a psychological model—quite a well known one. But even with psychological models, such as Myers Briggs, that’s actually quite limiting, because that assumes that you can only be one thing in one context, but actually no. Protein models are better, because they can have many functions in many different contexts. I equate that to cancer evolution, which is a far more successful model than any four-letter metric.
Mason: Throughout the book, again, you use this idea of a scientific metaphor. But you always focus, seemingly, on the hard sciences of physics, of biology and of chemistry—rather than approaching some of these understandings of what it means to be human through the traditional lens of psychology, and neuroscience. So, why the hard sciences? Was that just because of the environment you were growing up in, because of the fact that you, as a young Camilla, would read all of these hard science books as opposed to neuroscience and psychology books? Do you think if your obsession as a younger individual was on psychology and neuroscience, this book would have been completely different?
Pang: So if I picked up a neuroscience book first, I would have then wanted to know the root cause and the deterministic laws that made things happen. So that is why I picked it up—because it was a bit like science gave me the basic ingredients for me to make it my own and the most flexibility in being able to model the things that I didn’t understand. So when it came to the other sciences—I’m not dissing any science. I mean, it all comes down to physics, maths and chemistry. So if I picked up a psychology book, it’s very nuanced, and it’s very high level. And I didn’t really know what that meant. It was almost like eating a ready meal. And you’re like, I don’t really taste it. Whereas if you have the raw ingredients, such as the sciences, you can then be like, Oh, yeah, that’s that. Oh, yeah, that happens because of that. You can attribute cause and effect and response in a very clear way.
Mason: That was directly in relation to who became your heroes as a younger child. I know, Stephen Hawking had a massive impact on your early thinking. I just wonder, what was the impact of Stephen Hawking on the way in which you thought about the world?
Pang: I just really liked the way that he wrote. His books were kind of like my Bibles, because they made sense to me. It was written in a way that was very clear. I mean, obviously, he was a scientist who knew how to communicate and that is really powerful because it enabled people to translate their own experiences into his own models. That’s what I wanted to do in my book. Also, he introduced me to the light cone. He’s also the scientist who made a big impact on me through reassuring me as a child, but also challenging me and me developing my own voice. There was one bit in his book that I had a bad, bad anxiety attack over. That is because the light cone—I mentioned this in my chapter on finding your goals. I mention quantum mechanics and the light cone, and how you kind of look at the future from now and the possibilities kind of branch out, like a cone. Then I was like, Well, what if I’m outside the cone? Why do I have to be inside that cone? And then I remember going down with this to my Mum’s, thinking, I don’t know what to do. What if I’m there? She goes, “That book would scare me too, darling.”
Mason: Camilla, What relationship do you have with the future? How do you, with all of your neurodiversity, think about the future?
Pang: This is quite interesting because it can change every day, every hour. I let myself be a bit malleable in that regard because it means that I’m not hell bent on having this, this and this. Because you don’t know. I mean, you could promise yourself: I’m gonna go to the gym tomorrow. And then you feel like you don’t want to and you’re like: Oh, wait a minute. So how can you plan ahead? I’m really bad at planning the immediate and I get really worried about that. Whereas in the long run, I know what I want to do. I know how I want to feel. I just try and work my way up to get into a point where I feel happy and content. So that’s what drives me. I don’t plan my future based on: Oh, I want to do this. I’m gonna do this. Because you just don’t know. It’s like trying to order food off of a menu in five weeks’ time. How do you know how you’re gonna feel?
Mason: How are you gonna feel next Sunday, even? We just don’t know these things until we’re in the moment. I mean, that throughout the entire book, was the most interesting thing for me. This relationship that you have with time and with planning, and with decision making. It feels like that’s something that, whether neurodiverse or neurotypical, all of us can have a better relationship with. How do you think we can have a better relationship with ourselves through understanding both our current self and our potential future selves?
Pang: I think it’s not being afraid to experiment. That sounds really cliche, but it literally is being able to take the judgement out and be a different person for a day. I feel like a lot of people are kind of hell bent on being consistent in every context for every person. That’s actually not biologically possible, given through homeostasis. So when it comes to
the relationship between yourself now and later, to promise yourself that you will do something because you want to—obviously at some point there might be housework and stuff—but when it comes to time, it’s man’s Achilles heel. So having ADHD has really tested this relationship, because you could end up being in a state of cabin fever, because you feel everything is pointing at you, and you have no time—which is why you’re impulsive. Then you can have time stretched from the next hour, and you feel like you don’t want to get anything done because you’re like: Well, I have loads of time. So to be ADHD and to have ADHD in that regard is actually something that I consider a superpower because it enables me to simulate week’s worth of living in the space of a day, which is why I had a panic attack this morning. But now I know a bit more about what I want.
Mason: Well, in a funny way, you’re one of those rare individuals who celebrates their inconsistency. Do you think all of us could learn something from celebrating the fact that sometimes we’re not the narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves?
Pang: Yeah, that’s completely the case. Yeah, I’m really glad that you said that because that’s kind of the message of the book. As much as there are laws just to help you find your way, that doesn’t mean you have to live by them and be consistent all the time, in every context, just so you can be OCD about it. I’ve got OCD, but that doesn’t mean I have it in the way in which I have to do the light switches. Mine’s more different. But when it comes to being consistent, just make sure that your values are consistent. You can wear blue eyeliner one day. If people attribute that to your personality, then it’s not your problem. You’ve just got to be able to do what you want, and make sure that your values as a person are consistent.
Mason: I mean, living in that way—it gives you a degree of freedom. In the book you go as far as saying that, sometimes, you’ve lived as if you’ve had, and I quote: Hashtag no filter. So what is the impact of living in that way been like for you? Has it proven itself useful? Has it proven itself to be a challenge, sometimes?
Pang: It makes you feel alive a lot of the time—everyday. You pick up every single sense and you respond as if you have so much data, and then suddenly you go outside and you’re like: Oh my god! and you get really impulsive. You’re like a child again. You’re literally like a child again, and it’s the best feeling in the world. But then you’re like: Oh wait a minute, I’m in Hyde Park, I can’t really do that. So I feel like a lot of the time we’re in an environment in which, as kids, we can do that. But as adults, for some reason, there’s a binary transition between: You’re not allowed to do that anymore. So I think a lot of people inherently have this, but we’ve been taught not to. So when it comes to dealing with no filter, it also means that I can take things quite literally at times. Especially earlier on when I wasn’t as sophisticated in my algorithms, per se. It meant that I just took things literally. It’s probably not the most diplomatic thing to say, but I don’t care. For example, history I found really hard because I took it really literally. I was like: I can do this really well, and I ended up mistaking the Nazi party for an actual party, because whenever I Googled it, it was just men with flags. I thought: This is it. You don’t have the nuances and that can sometimes lead to quite insulting remarks, but actually you mean well. Your intentions are pure.
Mason: In many ways, it’s an interesting way to look at the world, with fresh eyes. Do you feel like you do that every single day, or every other week? Every other year? How is your approach to just navigating the world in general?
Pang: I refresh every time I walk into a different room. Honestly, I remind myself. But that means I don’t have any preconceptions. I’ve got no judgments. I see a person as a person, and also their social nuances, such as if they’re the CEO of something. I don’t be like, “Oh!”—I’m like, “Hi.” It’s literally a simple human process. So I just see a person as a human. And I think that is something that everyone secretly craves.
Mason: I mean, how can we do better at just seeing humans as humans?
Pang: Taking away all of the isms. Taking away any preconceptions, which, to be honest, I’ve tried to build and they’re not that great. They’re quite hard to model, because they change. It’s to be able to see a person or consider a person as a stem cell, which I use in my other chapter. They’re just a molten globule—you don’t know where they are yet—which is why I always give everyone a chance. I don’t assume that they’re going to be nasty, I just give every human a chance because they deserve to.
Mason: Some of those issues of dealing with other human beings come from fear. Again, in the book, you look at fear and you look at how to overcome fear and one of the ways in which you do that is to look at the science of light. Camilla, how can the science of light teach us about how to approach fear?
Pang: Well when I’m having one of my meltdowns, you are often blinded on every angle. You don’t know where to look. Every movement you make feels like it hurts, and you don’t know what to think. There are times where I feel like you want to separate all of this pressure into its component parts. You want to know why they are separated. What is it about them? What’s the nature of this thought, versus this thought that makes this one go this way versus this way? To be able to model that is something that I’ve done based on the refraction of light, and through a prism. A prism specifically, because you can it’s quite a nice diagram, you can see the white light going through and then all the things. It could be any kind of refractive material. But I choose a prism for this, because you can see how all the different kinds of wavelengths of light disperse, and the different colours and it’s really beautiful and it’s also not deconstructive at all.
But to be able to kind of make something out of what you felt was nothing and everything, is a very powerful process. For that I use the laws of photonics and light physics to help me think about light and dispersal. I’ve also noticed that light doesn’t refract on any object, it refracts on ones that are open to it. And the ones that are more opaque—they won’t refract. They won’t even let the light in, and therefore, they’re kind of clouded to it. I didn’t want to become that cloud, because I knew that that didn’t solve anything. I think that can be also attributed to people who are closed, because they’re fearing it.
You’ve got to let the light in. And that is actually quite a scary process in itself. But in my chapter, I say: Well, if you’re scared of this, then you know exactly where to start.
Mason: So in many ways, humans should learn to become prisms—is what you’re saying in that chapter.
Pang: Yes, for lack of a better word, and to notice the properties of a prison that enable it to make something beautiful out of something that quite frankly scares the life out of you.
Mason: Well, from light waves to other waves, you use wave theory to understand a multitude of things. One of those is how to achieve harmony in our lives.
Pang: You’ve got the human temperament, which isn’t just linear. It’s undulating beyond our own recognition. We often wonder why we’re responding a certain way, and to be able to feel on the same wavelength as something—not just on what we’re saying—but also in how we are on our energy levels, on our temperament, on what makes us tick. This is how I’ve kind of connected with different scientific theories. For example, if I’m like: Oh, hang on a minute, I’m looking at that, that model resonates with that. So to have that kind of, I guess, telepathy between different people, but also forms of nature, is something that I’ve always done. To be able to model it, to make people realise what they resonate with…
So for example, there are some people that you meet, that you don’t have to spend loads of energy getting to know or feeling a connection with, just because you know, they’re on the same level as you, and that is also to do with environment. You need to consider that in terms of the timeframe, and what makes you tick. For example, if I’m with someone who’s very much like me, we’re like, “Yay!” and then we’re like, “Ah, go away.” So there is a medium ground where you need to consider what wavelengths are constructive in making this euphoric sensation of connection, versus destructive, and what kind of drains your energy. So an environment which I don’t resonate with can make me realise I’m spending more energy being sane in that environment than if I was somewhere that I resonated with more.
Mason: It feels like in the book, there’s two types of explaining that you’re doing as a follow on from that. One is explaining human individuals, and helping us to explain ourselves better. The second one is explaining the collective and the relationship with other human beings. How do we better understand both individuals and the collective? Are these two different things, or is there some form of interrelationship there?
Pang: So one cannot exist without the other. But nevertheless, for some reason, the collective likes this whole homogeny, because it’s easier to handle. You know, it’s kind of lazy, actually. But it’s just something that people do to keep track of what’s happening. When it comes to the individual level, this is something that you have your own rights to live by, but there is definitely a tension. That’s because you have expectations of yourself as a person, but also they don’t necessarily adhere or fall in line with those of a collective, and it’s just your choice as an individual—and what that means to the species.
This right now is actually quite an interesting time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because we’re kind of stripped of our own individual freedom of living our own lives, for the sake of the collective. So right now in quarantine, and lockdown, on an everyday basis, I’m like, I wish I could do this. But then I’m like, Well, actually, if I did that, I wouldn’t want to put others at risk. So this is probably why quarantine is so tiring—because we’re constantly in this battle between living our own individual lives and also wanting to make sure that the collective—as a species—survives.
Mason: Do you think in many ways, if we had a better relationship with ourselves and ourself, that we’d have a better relationship with the collective? Do you think issues with social breakdown really come from a breakdown of understanding ourselves?
Pang: Yeah, completely. Yeah, you need to have breakdowns to break down, because then how will you know a bit more about yourself? No, it’s true. I encourage it! Well I don’t discourage it—different. So for example, if I know that I’m stuck with something and there’s this tension between the shoulds and the collectives in my own individual mind—because we’ve got lots of different shoulds—we then need to reassess what’s going on. To be able to break down for example—or do this prism thing which often goes hand in hand—you need to break down what’s happening in your mind and what that means for your next course of action. To understand, because that’s ultimately what you want to do. You’re getting all
scared because you’re not too sure what to make of it. I think that’s something that a lot of people just need to do naturally—I call it debugging.
Mason: It goes one step further, because really what you’re talking about is empathy between human beings. You’ve attempted to understand empathy, yet again, through the use of scientific concepts. So could you explain a little bit more about your vision and view of how empathy works?
Pang: So empathy is summarised in one line: giving it a good go. This is something that I feel a lot of people don’t realise. They think empathy is all hearts and flowers and hugs, and all of that. But actually, it’s about being able to be like, What is going on? How can I help them? How can I help myself to help them? To be able to do that in a visible way. When people say, “She’s probably not empathetic because she’s got autism.” You’re like “No, you sound ignorant there, because you have no idea what I’m going through, and also it’s a generalisation.” I feel like there’s a kind of facade of what empathy looks like—as if it’s a one hit wonder. This is how it manifests.
Empathy is more of a process by which a human tries to understand what is going on. If they understand they can be like, “Okay, I can make that better for you.”
For example, if my friend was upset, I’d be like: She needs a hug. How do I do that? Google, how many seconds should I hug someone who’s crying? From that I kind of built up a way in which I could kind of extrapolate: Okay, she’s crying big time. Let’s just hug until she pulls away. So this isn’t because I’m cold hearted, it isn’t because I don’t know how to hug. It’s just knowing the nuances to make sure that that person is as comfortable as they can be.
Mason: Nuance is really the key. It feels like neurodiverse people can sometimes have trouble understanding those nuances. But what you’re doing is really highlighting those nuances through scientific models.
Pang: Um yeah. It highlights the nuances that I found difficult and from that, tries to break them down using scientific models. But there is more to it than that. The book is a foundation. It enables you to live up until a solid 25 year old but then you realise: Hang on, there’s more to life than that. You’ve just started, you’ve just got your utensils—what do you do with them? I think to be able to describe everything through the reductionism of science, it doesn’t really do life justice in how unpredictable it can be, and also how rich it can be in the senses, and also in the connection. So it’s a great start, but there’s a lot more to come.
Mason: You do such a wonderful job of translating all of these very human fuzzy processes to very hard science models. And as you said, that can sometimes feel a little reductionist. Do you think there’s still any place for wonder? Do you think science will eventually explain everything about what it means to be human, or do you think that there are some things we’ll never be able to explain through the scientific method?
Pang: Well, when you say, “Never be able to explain…”, to have that box of unexplainable things, we need to know what can be explained. So actually, we do both. You do that—so that you know where the gaps are and so that you can fall into it. This is one of the reasons why I like science, because it helps anchor me. I don’t want to model everything in life because I’d feel like it wouldn’t do it justice but also secondly—good luck with that—because out of all of these algorithms that I’ve done, I still don’t know the meaning of the word ‘fine’—and I don’t think any human does. So it’s all context, it’s all nuance—and it depends what you want to do with it.
I’ve gotten to a place where I understand some humans, and there are those that still challenge me, but it all boils down into those eleven principles in the book, which is why I made it that way. I’m like: Oh, that’s what you’re doing! If you’ve got 12 threads like a massive hairball, you can be like: That makes sense. You can see how they interact. I’m not reducing you down to one process; you’re a multitude, you’re a massive hairball. But that’s fine because I know how the interconnections are made. I wouldn’t want to reduce someone down to a specific principle.
Mason: Beyond the book, your work is in translational bioinformatics. In fact, that’s what your PhD is on. What is translational bioinformatics?
Pang: The translational part of it mainly refers to the fact that you’re bringing scientific principle and research and development into clinical practice. Translating it into a drug, basically. The bioinformatics part of it is basically biochemistry on the computer. So you can deal with lots of different data. You have a birds eye view of what science is when it comes to modelling it. You deal with data that’s on a cellular level, on a molecular level, on an atomic level—and it’s fantastic. This is one of the reasons why I chose it—because you have that freedom of scale that you can map in between.
When it comes to dealing with biological data, especially when you’ve got a lot of it in different labs, you can then bring it together. Especially in the age of big data, we need to be careful about what we consider. Especially if we’re going to do machine learning and decision making on it. This is one of the things that I work with now—I look at the cellular structure of the immune system and specifically, I was looking at dimensionality reduction. How can I gather and crystalise the most insightful point of this map, and use this as a reference for this diversity of the map? How do you capture a person in a four letter metric? It’s a dimensionality reduction.
When it came to me looking at the book and writing it as its own entity, I had to read quite a lot of bioinformatics papers in order to make sense of the structure, on how I’m going to write or assemble the book. It’s an assembly problem—it isn’t a writing problem. So I’m thinking about assembly but also dimensionality. At the time I was looking at dimensionality reduction to see how I crystalise the point I can obsess over, and then every other detail can float around that. For example, this chapter is this; this chapter is this; this chapter is this. That can be quite hard, especially when you’ve written so much stuff—it can be lots of different shapes. It’s a similar chain of thought as we’ve tried to train a computer to undergo dimensionality reduction from all of these different possibilities, and from that crystalise the most valuable options that represent the fidelity of the high dimensional space into something that we can act upon.
Mason: I love how you’ve used biological science as a way to structure the book. Not only is the book full of science, but the book has been structured thanks to your own scientific inquiry. Did you know you were going to end up working in some form of hard sciences? Was there a moment in your life where you knew that science was the thing that you wanted to pursue?
Pang: Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. I didn’t know what that looked like, though, so it wasn’t something that had an end goal in mind. I don’t often have an end goal in mind which is often a great thing, but also it can be annoying when you’re doing housework. I wanted to study the sciences because they help me and also they can evolve.
I felt it was great and I connected with it. Why wouldn’t you want to study something that you connect with, and also love to study? I was ready to be challenged by it. I was confident enough to feel that I could move on from it. To feel confident in something is a big driver to pursuing it as your career. There was so much that I felt behind on—this was something that I knew more of and something that I enjoy. When I did my PhD and the interview, they asked why I did a Masters, and I said, “I was ready for it.” That was something that really impacted my career choice—doing something that I love and something that I’m good at.
Mason: Do you think in some ways that your neurodiversity makes you a better scientist?
Pang: Oh it depends. I think in the lab, probably not so much because I forget which liquid and which tube. I’ve had to find the niche of science that I probably enjoy most and it at the pace that I think and won’t forget. So when it came to studying science, it was a bit of a battle between my love of science and the everyday reality of it. I liked standing in the lab but I get really bored by the centrifuge and then I forget what I’m doing.
When I’m coding, even though that has its own battles because coding languages are full of nuance, I enjoy the theory of it and the mathematics of it. The more certain a mathematical rule is, the less likely it is to represent reality. So I know that when I read it, there’s going to be something missing. But what is the gap? How can I fill that gap?
Mason: Now having read the entirety of the book and exploring all these different scientific concepts and how you’ve applied them to what it means to be human, it feels like I’ve enrolled at the Dr Camilla Pang University of Life. If the Dr Camilla Pang University of Life did exist, what courses do you think would be available to students?
Pang: It’s quite funny you say that because in my book I thought the University of Life was an actual university. I’d hope that I’d learn something like this, so how to be human. Why are you so confused? Am I allowed to do this? I think it’s breaking free of the laws of the institution in what we can and can’t do. Course-wise, it’s quite hard because the courses that are applicable to so many people have to be really vague, and I don’t like vague. I’d like for the people to have the opportunity to translate different fields of science or different fields of art and to see the connection between them. I don’t know the specific courses yet, or the curriculum, but I know the philosophy behind it would be to make people see that there’s an intersection between science and art, and they’re very much the same.
Mason: If there was one lesson that you want people to take away from reading the book, what would that be?
Pang: Go to the beat of your own drum, basically. If you’re going to try and tune into everything else, you’re going to lose sight of who you are. It’s making sure that the environment you choose—because you do actually have a choice, funnily enough—to make sure that your life surrounds what you resonate with. To know your own shape, basically, and not being afraid to do that. Even if it means you sitting on the table instead of a chair—go for it. Brilliant. Do what makes you tick.
Mason: On that hopeful note, Dr Camilla Pang, thank you for your time.
Thank you to Camilla, for sharing her unique perspective on what it means to be human. You can find out more by purchasing her book, ‘Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Relationships’—available now.
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