Career Info and Some Anecdotes

When I was a teenager in Copenhagen I wanted to be a writer.  I had written books and stories since I was a child.  Of course, no one read my stories.  But eventually I got a few things out, three collections of poetry, a young adult novel and a childrens' book about Charles Darwin.  However, I didn't make any money.

So, I decided to concentrate more intensely on my studies in biochemistry and neuroscience.  I also decided to add some linguistics and philosophy to the mix.  You know, I thought it might be a good idea to add a little fun to the chemical analysis of compounds and sometimes tedious studies of neurotransmitters, pig livers and brain receptors.  I did my neuroscience research in two labs, one at Novo Nordisk and one at the National Hospital in Copenhagen (Rigshospitalet).  I eventually finished my degrees in all three areas.

But now I was facing a difficult decision. Where should I do my Ph.D., and should I concentrate on philosophy, linguistics or neuroscience?  I chose cognitive linguistics. Went to Buffalo to study with Lenny Talmy.  He is an amazing man.  He is practically blind.  We taped our term papers for him. He couldn't see me, but for some strange reason he thought I was bold (not bald).  He always referred to me that way. I also took semantics, syntax, phonetics, phonology I and phonology II, and a course on discourse markers (fun stuff on the expression "you know" and the like).

The linguistics department and the philosophy department were located in the same hallway at the time.  So, I ran into the eccentric British professor Barry Smith. He would later be the one to teach me how to write philosophy by going over the endless number of drafts I would send him on an endless number of topics.  We had met before in Copenhagen.  I had hoped to take come courses with him.  At the time he was teaching Husserl and metaphysics.  I took a couple of them as electives.

One fatal day when John Searle was visiting the department and we were attending a big dinner event, Barry somehow convinced me that I should switch to philosophy. I ran the idea by one of my undergraduate teachers in Copenhagen, Per Aage Brandt. He told me to pick up Kripke's Naming and Necessity. Since the philosophy in Copenhagen, for the most part, had a rather continental approach, I hadn't really studied Kripke a whole lot. Professor Brandt told me to go home and read it all at once, and if I was fascinated and just couldn't stop reading, I should switch to philosophy. If, on the other hand, I was kinda bored, I should stay with the linguists. I read it and was fascinated. I switched to philosophy, got my degree, got a job and the rest is history.

That is, except for the pig story that played a major role in making me think twice about doing experiments on animals (now my experiments are on humans). Here is the story: For many years I was severely sickened by bacon, meat balls and pork cutlets. This was years before I became a vegetarian. It wasn’t the taste of pork or bacon as such.  I didn’t mind bacon-flavored ranch dressing too much.  It was the thought of ingesting pork, particularly processed pork and bacon.  I never sought psychoanalytic treatment for my condition but the cause of my disgust became painfully clear to me one day where I was taking a grand tour down memory lane.  During my biochemistry and neuroscience studies in college, I was once required to cut open a pig that was under anesthesia and take out its liver, so we could use the receptors in the liver for testing neurotransmitters. The exercise was part of my degree requirement.  As I entered the room, the pig was lying on a table with its tummy facing the ceiling. It looked like it was sleeping.  There were marks from a pen on its skin.  I realized the marks indicated where I had to cut.  The technicians gave me a scalpel and told me to cut the pig open and find the liver.  I was nauseated but not ready to sacrifice my career by running out the door screaming.  With shaking hands I cut open the pig.  “Now find the liver”, the technician cried.  I put my Latex-covered hands inside the pig’s tummy and grabbed something. “That’s it”, the technician yelled into my ear.  “Now, pull it out and detach it”.  I did what she said.  “Then put in it in the blender”.  I turned around with the liver and the blood covering my hands and lap coat, spotted a kitchen-like blender, dumped the liver into it and turned around.  Two technicians took over the blender.  I still recall the awful sound.  As I turned around, the pig’s tummy was still open and bloody.  “Aren’t you going to stitch up the pig?”, I whispered. “What for?”, the  technician stated rhetorically.  “Are you going to kill her?”, I peeped, feeling tears coming on.  “What do you think?”, the technician replied, “You think a pig can live without a liver?”. “No”, I squeaked, “Can I at least saw goodbye to her?”.  “She won’t hear you”, the technician replied indifferently.  I threw my arms around the bloody pig’s neck.  A few minutes later, the technician announced that she had administered the drug that would euthanize the pig.   I put my mouth close to the dead pig’s ear and whispered “Sorry, little pig.  I deeply regret what I did”, secretly wishing she could hear me and would forgive me for my terrible sin.  It was at that moment I decided to go into philosophy (well, maybe not quite but it makes the otherwise true story better).

Now I use human subjects instead, mostly synestetes, you know, those super-interesting people who taste music, hear people touching them, see numbers as colored, and the like.  I am not really a synestete, except with respect to negative emotions.  Since I was a child I have had vivid visual images in response to fearful or uncomfortable thoughts.  The images take the form of highly wrinkled bluish-greenish paper moving around in an irregular pattern.  Sometimes the images consist in large quantities of quickly presented irregular and wrinkled pieces of bluish-greenish cloth moving around very quickly.  Not all of my uncomfortable or fearful thoughts are associated with this sort of phenomenology but the occurrence of this kind of phenomenology is a sure sign of uncomfortable or scary thoughts.  The visual phenomenology gives rise to further changes in my body.  The images themselves create anxiety and nervousness.  When I was a child I used to be deadly scared of the moving wrinkled paper and cloth in my head.

I also do a fair amount of freelance writing, and I still write poetry.  End of story.  My main site is here.  It contains links to some of my other sites.