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 247. 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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Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry text and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).


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