Lifestyle, personal

The scientist’s brain and the artist’s heart

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer and biochemistry professor
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Growing up I always followed my head. I thought I was a scientist. I was academic. I got good grades. I was a textbook INTJ personality type, emphasis on the introversion and being led by thoughts instead of feelings.

I liked Spock. Logic would give me the right answer. I didn’t get on well with other kids. I fell into the stereotypes of a science nerd. I wrote stories and drew characters but I was terrified of sharing them. I didn’t think this made me an artist, just an amateur with a nerdy hobby, a kid who spent her free time reading and writing.

Art and English lessons hurt because I didn’t want to share what I’d created (low self-esteem does that to a kid). Science was easier: less sharing, less teamwork, only rights or wrongs. Less vulnerability.

As a teenager, I followed my head because feelings hurt, and my head was more rational. My heart wasn’t ready, didn’t know what to believe, didn’t yet know what it valued or believed in or loved. Smart choices, good jobs, good grades: those things made sense. That would be how I carved out my life. How I became something I could be proud of.

I fit the stereotype of a science nerd so well I never questioned my identity as a scientist. I slipped easily into the role of the logical, rational, science nerd. Spock was my favourite, and I loved Sherlock Holmes.

So I set about following my head’s roadmap to success. I stopped studying English literature, probably my favourite subject, much to the aching of my heart, because my head told me maths and chemistry and biology were going to “get me places”. I was a scientist. Not an artist. I followed my head.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

While I was studying biochemistry, I started to wonder if science was for me. I thought science was interesting, and genetics fuelled my imagination. But my heart hurt, and I knew this wasn’t going to be my future. I wasn’t even that good at biochemistry. I wasn’t even the scientist I thought I would be: I’m bad at remembering facts, better at solving problems, but what I liked the most was creating. Making something. So what could I make? What was I bold enough to share?

My head told me to start a blog (my head told me it would be good for my career), and it kept my heart happy too. I’d missed writing. I spent more time blogging and writing in my last 2 years at uni than I did studying. I found a new angle on science, one that felt more creative, more like me. My heart’s happiness kept the cogs in my head turning.

Then it was time to leave university. Armed with a new way to make science more creative, I nearly studied journalism. But still, it wasn’t quite right, my head was scared, my heart was uncertain.

My head told me to study computer science instead, because I liked programming and web design, and my head knew this could “get me places”. I followed my head’s judgement, and I was lucky, because my heart liked it too. It took a while, some mis-steps, some course corrections, but eventually, my heart caught up, realising that there was creativity to find here too. I started designing, making layouts, animating web pages, creating pictures with code.

I also found writing again, through stories and blogs.

Throughout my life so far, the idea had been there. That I liked to create things, that my heart wasn’t happy as a scientist, even though my head knew it was a good idea. But the thing about being young is that every choice feels huge and everyone tells you to make the smart choices, the “right” choices, and your heart’s so conflicted and new and confused, that it’s not always in a position to help you. Your grades are good, so they tell you to study science, “be a doctor”, and you don’t realise what else is out there for someone with your strange brain.

Now, I’ve realised that if I don’t pay attention to my heart, my head starts to suffer too. It’s hard to think when your mind’s filled with fog, when your heart wants to be anywhere but where it is. Even scientists need to listen to their hearts.

What I’ve discovered is that my heart wants needs art: it needs feelings and empathy, equality and safety, and childish excitement, games and fun, and imagination.

“I love learning. I love history. But there’s history in everything. Every building, everybody you talk to. It’s not limited to libraries and museums. I think people who spend their lives in school forget that sometimes.”

Tak, a character in Becky Chambers’ ‘A Closed and Common Orbit’

These days, for the most part, my head agrees with my heart. It wants other things too, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It wants puzzles and problems, complexity and challenge, wants to achieve something great and quantifiable, so that it can understand its worth.

As it turns out, I’ve found a way to combine what my heart and my head need. Nowadays I’m a front-end software engineer, solving problems with code, but it also designing, and empathising, and most importantly, creating. Making websites not to write something clever, but to make something for the people who use them.

In my spare time, I write, silencing my head’s perfectionism while my heart pours out its feelings into fiction. I’ve decided to learn to draw, and I like designing web pages and silly animations. Things my head never thought it would say.

Sometimes it’s still a battle between the two, but I think I’ve found a way to keep them both happy. The scientist’s brain and the artist’s heart.

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

Neil Gaiman, fantasy author

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