Does Only One Side of My Brain Work?

Or are we more complicated than we give ourselves credit for?

“I could never do that, I’m so bad at math.” This is what I hear all the time from people working in non-technical fields when they find out I’m getting a master’s degree in mechanical engineering while working for a software company.

Many of these people seem to view math and engineering as areas of knowledge that are out of reach and impossible to understand. They seem to believe that people who work in these fields possess inherent personal qualities that others simply don't have. I often hear this from people who work in social sciences like psychology—which makes me shake my head, as human emotion and cognition are far more complex and less understood than physics.

But what the people who think they could never do what I do usually don’t know is that, in addition to being an engineer, I’m also an artist. I love to write, paint and imagine things that break the known laws of the universe and get down to the human heart. Just as many people assume that math and science are not something they are equipped to do, plenty of people who work in my field, and to whom math comes very easily, have told me that they wish they were creative.

Before my current job, I worked in robotics and got to do some hardware design—a perfect marriage of art and engineering specs. It baffles me that so many people divide the world of math and engineering from the world of art, as if a person can only do good work in one or the other. Here’s my view: I don’t think anybody is actually as bad at one or the other as they think they are. They’ve just been taught that if one comes more naturally, they can't also be good at the other.

I once spent a long time working on an ancient (1973) VW Bus because I wanted to learn to fix and maintain it (and also because those crazy beasts are great to ride around in). Buying this particular vehicle was a questionable choice in hindsight, since I had no idea what I was doing. I experienced the frustration of having a car that didn't run, but I also learned a lot as I replaced the entire electrical system, put together a new ignition, took apart the fuel line, and poked around the engine until it, well, almost turned over.

This harebrained project taught me about myself too, reminding me that I love getting dirty and poking around machines. (Also that I have very little patience and hate reading wiring diagrams.) I love the mechanics, the messiness, the discovery and imagination involved in building something beautiful. Machines are as beautiful to me as paintings, but I view neither as more artistic or technical than the other. (That might sound ridiculous, but think about the mechanics of different brush strokes, mixing colors correctly, letting paint dry and scraping it off in the right spots, and filling in all the regions of a canvas with the right angles and textures). But as I excitedly tried to tell people how I felt about this, waving my hands with glee and rubbing engine oil off my fingers, I was usually met with quizzical expressions and blank nods. In a way I feel like I have to know two languages, Engineer and English. Though I consciously switch between the two, each really contains the other.

A friend once said to me, "I think you have a technical mind and an artistic soul." I received it as a great compliment, but at the same time it got me thinking, once again, about how I sometimes feel like I straddle a border between two different worlds. Engineers often scoff at the abstraction of art; artists think they could never understand engineering. Where does this leave me, as I try to be true to both of these parts of myself? And what do I do when they appear to be at odds with each other?

What I have discovered through wrestling with these questions is that these parts of me need each other.

The artist, without the meticulous order and computational structure of the engineer, goes a little haywire and tries to create things that make absolutely zero sense. Or things that don’t hold up to the slightest external force, like a card castle easily destroyed by the slightest breeze. (The artist is also responsible for my desk looking as if my scrap paper bin and a library had a dance party. My engineer side is the one who heaves a great sigh, shakes its head, and re-organizes everything into neat piles so that I can actually find what I need.)

Yet the engineer, without the imagination and speculative wonder of the artist, gets easily bored by the repetitive motions of crunching numbers and taking integrals. That repetition is how I end up staring at pages of physics books with my head tilted slightly to one side until the Greek letters start to wiggle, as if by reading the equation upside down it will become more exciting. My engineer brain needs my artistic heart to connect it to the bigger picture behind the math, to enjoy the rhythm of the symbols as their own form of poetry, and to remember that what seems black and white usually isn’t.

These two worlds I find inside of me are not so far apart, and not so independent, as most people assume—and perhaps this is true of more parts of ourselves than we imagine.

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