What Psychology Didn’t Teach Me

As a graduate student doing research in a psychology program, I’ve learned a lot about people. I’ve learned which chemicals make us feel certain emotions, the reason why we turn our music down when we’re trying to park our cars, the science behind the languages we speak. I’ve learned why some people like cilantro and some people hate it, when most babies learn how to recognize themselves in a mirror, and why I can’t see four feet in front of me without glasses.

Psychology has taught me so many lessons. But the most important lesson I’ve learned is that there’s still so much that we don’t understand.

When people first started studying psychology, they used to examine the shape of each other’s heads as a way to determine a person’s personality. They’d look at the lumps and bumps and map out an explanation of why someone was smart or arrogant or shy. Now we’re more sophisticated. We have MRIs and CT scans, we run tests and design models and make conclusions. We know what happens in our brains when we kiss someone, or when we’re scared, or when we cry. Instead of mapping ourselves out using the shape of our heads, we try to solve the puzzle of who we are using science and statistics.

But all of these tests and machines still can’t really tell us what makes us human. We can hypothesize all we want. We can run a million tests and create statistical models and determine with 95% certainty that x causes y, and that’s why your heart breaks into a hundred pieces when you hear the song that your ex-boyfriend used to sing to you in the middle of the night when you both couldn’t sleep. But that other 5%? We’ll never be able to capture it.

And you know what? THANK GOD. For so long, I wanted to understand every single thing about the world. I needed to know why we were here, how our minds and bodies worked, what comprised our soul, what happened when we died. I really, really needed to know what happened when we died. But I’ve figured out that the more I’ve learned, the less I actually know. I’ve accepted that these mysteries are actually a huge part of what makes life worth living.

Sure, we can say that we fall in love because being with other people was an evolutionary necessity, that our hormones are what make us feel like we need someone in our lives, that we decide to spend our life with a certain person because they fit what we’ve been conditioned to think is attractive. But there’s no test to figure out why you met this person at a coffee shop on a rainy Tuesday afternoon just because your bus was five minutes late and they decided that they needed an extra dose of caffeine that day. Call it coincidence or call it fate, but we can’t run a set of analyses to find the real answer.

We can say that we seek out spirituality and religion because humans inherently search for the answers to questions we can’t answer. That we want to feel connected to something greater than ourselves, just to feel a little less alone in an overwhelmingly enormous universe. But there’s no statistic to explain how someone keeps their faith alive after everything that life has thrown at them should have convinced them to give it up long ago.

Of course, I think that studying psychology is important, or else I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life doing it. Science is such a necessity in our lives — finding the answers to some of our questions has made us better people, helped us to help others, even allowed us to save each other’s lives. But sometimes, it’s even more important to remember that we might never get the answers to the questions that we’re the most curious about. We still haven’t figured out a scientific hypothesis to the meaning of life, let alone a way to test it. But maybe this mystery is what makes life beautiful, what makes life worth living.

Maybe someday we’ll run a test and find out with 95% certainty that what we think is the human soul is just a chemical reaction happening right in the center of our brains. If we do, I don’t want to know. I’m not here to know what souls are made of. I’m just here to figure out what makes mine happy, to find new ways to connect with other souls, too. I think that’s why we’re all here.

I hope that you find all of the answers that you’re looking for. I hope that you’re curious and excited and just so eager to explore everything this life has to offer in whatever way that you can. But I hope you remember that sometimes the true meaning is that we care enough to ask the question at all. Sometimes that’s the only answer we really need.

I hope these words find you when you need them most

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