Every fraction of every second in our world is dictated by billions of interactions. Air particles collide and vibrate as they crash into lungs like waves on the shore. Muscles contract and relax rhythmically to coordinate each breath. Conversations in different dialects create a cacophony of voices.
People weave themselves around one another on foot, in cars, and on trains. Each specific interaction requires an infinite amount of previous interactions, allowing time to seamlessly rush forward — allowing the world to exist.
Each academic discipline is focused on a particular type of interaction — those between states, people, syllables, sounds, cells, and atoms — with specific laws that describe these interactions. However, no matter how hard we try to deconstruct an interaction, there are always properties that arise only when each component is working together as a whole — an emergent property that cannot be attributed to any single participant in the interaction, greater than the sum of its parts.
The elusiveness of deconstruction is partly what makes our world so complex. Single neurons do not have consciousness or self-awareness in the same way that a single letter does not hold meaning in isolation. Emergent properties are seen at every level: chemical, atomic, environmental, societal, and even inter-societal.
My previous academic specialization taught me how to predict interactions between particles, waves, and energy that give rise to large-scale motions and physical properties. Now, I study the interactions of neurons, chemicals, and molecules that give rise to behaviours and thoughts. After switching fields, I realized how much my specialization shaped the lens through which I viewed the world.
I started this project to better understand how people in different disciplines make sense of the world. I decided to conduct interviews with six of my friends from various academic backgrounds to find out how they deconstruct the social world. Through this process, I quickly noticed that many of the conversations I was having were centred around interpersonal interactions.
I was curious about the criteria each person considered when building a connection with another human being. I also wanted to know how they interpreted their relationships with other people. So, I delved further into this idea.
First, I asked my friends to describe their educational backgrounds.
Camilla Rasmussen and Mijia Murong both came from medical backgrounds. Rasmussen has both an undergraduate and master’s degree in molecular biomedicine from the University of Copenhagen. She focused her thesis project and courses on neuroscience. Murong was a health sciences student specializing in global health and is now a medical student training in research methodology on the side.
Murong described how medicine is not solely dictated by science and that she was taught to integrate science with “personal expertise and experience, [along] with a human aspect of medicine.” For instance, physicians need to consider “what the patient wants, what the patient’s family wants, and the patient’s beliefs and culture” when making decisions about health.
Georgia Thomas and Chris Lygouras both studied physics. Thomas completed a co-op undergraduate program in physics and started her PhD in medical engineering and medical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lygouras has a bachelor’s degree in physics and is pursuing his PhD in condensed matter physics.
Lygouras was drawn to the discipline because of its “simplicity but also… [because it] can be used to predict things about the world and understand the world.” His perception of how the world can be explained using physics changed throughout his education.
“At first, I think I was attracted to physics because of how it can explain very intuitive things,” Lygouras said. “And then when I got into it more, it was interesting to see how our intuitions can be completely wrong.”
Katarina Mioc did her undergraduate degree in physics and is studying high school teaching. In terms of teaching, she emphasized a few key qualities. “Knowing how to communicate with people was key,” she said. Mioc said that empathy and patience were valuable as well.
Sydney Cook completed her undergraduate degree in sociology and is working on her master’s in sociology. She described how greatly sociology has influenced her perception of the world and even how she interprets herself. She noted that sociology is about questioning everything.
“The idea of social constructivism [is that] everything we understand in the world is built by us at some point,” Cook said. This means that everything is context-dependent, which is an idea that has reshaped Cook’s understanding of why and how the world is the way it is.
“Doing sociology in my undergrad completely changed my worldview,” she said.
Next, I asked each of my friends to list the qualities they value in others.
Murong primarily values friends who have a strong moral compass and are consistently people she could rely on. She also respects people who are “good to people that are not just their friends.”
“I think that’s also a really important quality, seeing that they treat everybody fairly and with kindness,” Murong said.
Lygouras also values kindness, as well as people who care about others and “can empathize with people.”
Mioc, Thomas, and Cook identified kindness as a key quality that they admire in people as well. Mioc emphasized the importance of people who would stand by you no matter what. “Despite… what happened prior, they’re still willing to be there for you,” she said. Thomas described kindness as “a willingness to help other people… even if it is a disservice to yourself.”
Cook also acknowledged loyalty as an important aspect of friendship, defining it as “standing by someone and supporting them.”
When describing her friends’ impact on her life, Rasmussen called it a safety net. “Just like knowing that they have my back if it’s a wrong decision — I feel like it’s the safety net that makes me then stand by whatever I decided.”
Then, I asked each of my friends how people with the qualities they value have impacted them.
“I’m constantly reflecting on the fact that my friends make me a better person,” Murong answered. “I learn so much about being a good human being through my friends… I think I would be very unstable and unsteady without the trusting friendships that I have.”
Murong is also interested in social justice issues and spoke on the role her friends play in helping her understand societal problems. “If I read about a social issue… I oftentimes have a bunch of thoughts around it that are contradicting and confusing… Friendships have always offered me a space to unpack that,” she explained.
Mioc observed that she has come to value relationships a lot more as she has gotten older. “My friends… make me want to put my life before anything else,” she said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have survived [university] if it weren’t for the relationships I had.”
Thomas said that her friends have impacted her as well, noting that a few people have “completely changed [the] trajectory” of her life. “A really large part of that is the people you surround yourself with,” she said. “There have been times when I was in kind of bad head spaces or going through a rough time in my life. People with those qualities definitely helped me out… showing me that I was allowed to make mistakes and allowed to accept them and move on.”
Thomas, Rasmussen, and Cook also explained how their friendships have encouraged their own self-reflection. “[They motivate] me to try harder… [and] do better in the things that I feel I can be better at,” Rasmussen said.
Cook explained, “When I see qualities in somebody else that I admire, I reflect a little bit on whether or not I do that and then try to emulate that more.”
Going into this interview process, I expected to see correlations between the ways each of my friends were taught to interpret interactions in the world — through their field of study — and how they ultimately perceived social interactions. Based on the varying qualities valued in their own fields, I expected a wide variety of answers to the qualities they valued in others.
All of these expectations were quickly obliterated when I delved into this project. In general, my friends valued people who consistently support and stand by them. They talked a lot about how their friendships motivate them to be better people and to develop certain qualities in themselves.
Although the similarities between my friends’ responses were unexpected, they were also very eye-opening for me. They revealed something fundamental about human relationships: they are irreducible — complex.
When creating these questions, I was trying to deconstruct relationships and human beings down into attributes and qualities. Instead, I realized that everyone I talked to valued similar human qualities and described their interactions in a universal language, regardless of their discipline. Even if we use different lenses to see this world, what we look for remains largely the same.
I think this took me by surprise because I recognized how unique and different each of my own friendships with them are. I expected each of my friends to have different values and to interpret their relationships very differently.
But people aren’t that simple. They aren’t defined by predictive laws. Many of my friends identified that they did see many aspects of the world differently because of their educational training, but the way they thought about relationships seemed to be independent of their education.
The values each of my friends attributed to their deep relationships — the fundamental constants and laws that govern these human interactions — were overwhelmingly uniform. The uniqueness of each relationship instead came from the emergent properties of the interaction. Friendships are unique precisely because they are complex and cannot be reduced to constituents.
This project made me reflect on all my friendships and how they have influenced me. It made me appreciate how complex relationships are and how valuable and profound they can be. I tried to deconstruct relationships, yet, ultimately, I realized that it is their inherent irreducibility that makes them so influential.
The basic values that each of my friends had were the foundation for the relationships they cultivated. But the impact of each friendship was a result of the interactions between all the intricacies in the relationship.
Friendships are irreducible. The emergent properties of friendships are what give us the space and freedom to learn. They encourage us to keep improving — to continuously reflect on who we are and grow into ourselves.