I am halfway through my junior year in college. I’m still having trouble assimilating this, as I still remember sitting in the car with my dad, right outside my dorm room the start of my freshman year. It was not long after my brother had graduated from college. He told me, almost nostalgically, “In a blink of an eye you’ll be graduating too, you know?” I had nodded absentmindedly; I was more worried about my soon-to-be roommates and the new life I was going to have to adjust to. But, in the blink of an eye, 2.5 years of college have gone by and I’m baffled as to how it all went by so… fast. It’s easy to dismiss your parents’ nostalgic comments about time flying by, but you begin to know how they feel when you feel the fleetingness of time yourself.
Every semester in college has brought me its own challenges; within the classroom, in the club(s) I was immersed in, among the groups of friends I made, and in the adjusting to living away from home as a young adult. Each semester has brought unprecedented challenges, each leaving lasting impressions in my psyche. I am grateful for these experiences, but also scared about the new knowledge I have unraveled around me. I have answered lifelong questions I’ve had as a child, only to find newer and more complicated ones. College has done little to solidify my identity; if anything, it has created even more disturbance in myself. But despite the trials I’ve had to face, I am hopeful.
The following are some of the classes I took this semester in college. I was lucky to get into all the classes I wanted to enroll in, and they made me fall even more in love with my majors, psychology and cognitive science.
Developmental psychology: This class took us on an odyssey about the developing years of a human life, from the moment the baby is in the womb to the crucial first years of their life. As a psychology class, we read a lot into the research of how and why we behave the way we do at certain stages in our lives. It turned out to be a surprisingly enlightening class, as I not only learned a lot about myself and my behavior as a child, but it also allowed me to be more compassionate of other, younger children.
I learned that we use infant directed speech (aka baby talk) when talking to babies not only to aid their linguistic development, but also because that’s what we have learned to do evolutionarily; in the “hunter and gatherer” era, our voice was a way to coax our babies to listen to us, especially when we couldn’t physically do so in times of danger. This may also explain why we also use baby talk with our pets – even though we clearly know they will never learn our language the way a baby does.
I also learned that, as teenagers, we are inevitably plagued by the so-called imaginary audience phenomena, wherein we believe that we are the center of a story and everyone is paying close attention to us. This really helped explain why I felt so self-conscioius whenever I was out anywhere public as a teenager – and it also helps rationalize why I sometimes feel that way even now.
Psychology of sleep: I learned the detrimental, sometimes even long-lastingly so, effects of sleep-deprivation. We delved into research on the different types of sleep-deprivation, its interactions with drugs, alcohol, and mental illnesses, and came to the solid conclusion that sleep has survived the trial of time because it is, unarguably, essential to our health and survival. There is no way to fight against sleep and no way to compensate for it with anything other than sleep. Sleep drugs that are marketed to help you sleep better cannot induce natural sleep – which is the only kind of sleep that is restorative for our system. We also explored the theories of dreams, from Freud’s interpretation that they were censored versions of our repressed wishes (oh, Freud) to the idea that they serve to help us forget some memories in order to make room for new ones. We learned of really interesting cases like Kenneth Parks, a kind man who drove nearly 13 miles, let himself in the house of his in-laws, and brutally killed his mother-in-law. He was asleep during all of this, and turned himself to the police station once he realized what he had done.
There is so much research about sleep and why we need it, and the detrimental and sometimes even deadly consequences of sleep deprivation – yet we still fight against it. I find that, especially among teenagers or college students, there is some sort of pride associated with sleep deprivation, “yeah, I don’t really need that much sleep” or “I’ve only been sleeping 5 hours this past week.” Gee, if you knew that your lack of sleep now significantly makes you perform worse on daily tasks and could even affect your risks of irreversible illnesses like Parkinson’s – you would think twice about it. It baffles me why we fight against something that is so essential, so important to our existence.
If sleep were a drug, it would be a multimillion dollar industry. It is what sustains our livelihood, our health, our most essential systems to function as a healthy and happy human being. Yet, we treat it like a burden. It baffles me.
Health psychology: This class basically delved into research dealing with mental health and simply the psychology of the medical field. It brought to light research that showed significant implications of depression, anxiety, social support, and other mental health related factors on our immune system, cardiovascular health, as well as predictors of future diseases. It was incredibly enlightening and relieving to see the medical field start to operationalize mental health factors into their research.
However, this class also brought to light the essential difference between Western and Eastern medicine. Western medicine is very much concerned with science and research; if something can’t be proven, it doesn’t exist. Eastern medicine – or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), at least – is more concerned about the human knowledge that has been passed down for centuries. A lot of what is practiced by TCM hasn’t changed much over the years, because the foundations were built long ago. Western medicine changes every few years of research or so. Each has its benefits and flaws, and each treat the human body differently. Taking this class allowed me the pleasure to see how Western medicine may be approaching the field in a more holistic and individualized way, but it also highlighted that it will stick to its scientific, research-based approach. This seems to be the dominating approach even in Eastern medicine in the modern day now, but I have strong belief in TCM and the foundations that we have built centuries ago. There are things that can’t be explained by theories or proven by research; and most importantly, science is only true until it is proven otherwise. It doesn’t withstand the test of time as well.
Introduction to linguistic science: Basically, an introductory course to linguistics. Phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics – yeah, I am still somewhat baffled by these terms myself. But they essentially break down languages to their very basic units, and through these units we were able to compare languages and how they came to be. Something that really fascinated me was sociolinguistics, and how the very specific language that we learn can determine how we see ourselves and others.
Let me explain with the famous example of the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Martin was a black high school student who was shot to death by an adult of mixed race. Rachael Jeantel was on the phone with Martin right before he was killed, yet her testimony was completely dismissed and ridiculed. She was a speaker of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which has some variations from the English that is generally regarded as standard. The court couldn’t understand her – perfectly spoken – English because it wasn’t in the dialect that they knew and because they didn’t have an AAVE interpreter at the time. The court ended up misinterpreting and dismissing Rachael’s testimony because… well, because it was a tragic form of racism. Who are we to decide that our language, our dialect, is superior to others? Why is it that when one form of dialect is deemed as “standard,” the others suddenly become inferior, less-than? The truth is, language is a social construct.
This class really opened my eyes to the nuances of language and its power to shape our thought. As a Taiwanese person who grew up in a foreign country, I felt conflicted when I started learning Simplified Chinese (which used in China) instead of Traditional Chinese (used in Taiwan). I felt an unspoken sense of duty to stick to my roots, but also compelled to learn what the majority considered to be “standard.” I studied abroad at an intensive language program in Beijing where they taught me the “standard” way to speak Chinese, which really showed me how much of my Taiwanese accent stood out to others. It confused me for a long time, but this class showed me that no language is superior to another. It is only regarded so because we made them so. But every language and every dialect is valid. I may be learning Simplified Chinese now, but I still cherish and value Traditional Chinese, and am striving to be able to use both interchangeably, depending on where I am.
Cognitive psychology: This class was at the intersection of my two majors: psychology and cognitive science. It was another research-based class where I learned about myriads of theories about the human mind and behavior. It wasn’t so much depth as there was breadth, but I was surprised by how much the topics we covered unleashed new thoughts and novel ideas within me. One idea that really resonated with me was mental imagery, visualizing an experience in your head. This is particularly important for experienced athletes, musicians, or artists. When I played the cello back in high school, I would notice that the best players would often fall into trance-like states while they rehearsed musical pieces with their imaginary instruments, or just in their heads. Mental practice became just as important as physical practice – but only for those who were experienced, who had memorized the movements of their artistry so finely and so accurately. Mental imagery might very well be what distinguishes the mediocre from those who excell, because the latter are basically living half their lives immersed in their art. Amazing. I had known this phenomenon all along, but finally putting a term on it felt really good.
This semester’s classes showed me that my majors’ classes are essentially consolidating years of solid research and evidence for the theories that have been proposed thus far. It has shown me that most studies are valid until proven otherwise, which means that new research will need to be done continuously. It showed me that most people who study these majors do end up pursuing a research position in a subfield that they’re passionate about, because research is the overarching foundation. It further proved that I have no interest in pursuing such career; while my majors are both considered STEM at my university, I see them as more holistic studies of the human mind. I am excited to see what I will learn in my remaining semesters as an undergraduate, but even more excited to see what I choose to do with all this knowledge.