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Q & A: Jennifer Ouellette

The author of The Calculus Diaries "finds herself"—with a little help from science.

Science journalist Jennifer Ouellette, who previously tackled the mysteries of physics and calculus in books like Black Bodies and Quantum Cats and The Calculus Diaries , has never shied away from big questions. In her latest book, she gets her DNA analyzed, her brain scanned, her personality tested, and more as she tries to chip away at what may be the biggest question of all: What makes us who we are?

You use some examples—like gender identity—to talk about how specific parts of the self form. How did that chapter come to be?

Gender identity and sexual orientation are right where behavior meets identity. There's your sexual orientation, your gender identity, biological sex, gender expression, social roles... How do we tease all those apart? You don't. The thing that always made me angry was all that "Women are just naturally bad at math," "Women aren't as logical as men; they're more emotional." I don't want that to be innate; I want it to be cultural. But in fact there's evidence that there are certain gender differences, even just from hormones. That was really hard for me to accept, but I was glad to learn that the further you get from reproductive behavior, the less significant those differences become. And you always have outliers.

Image: Jennifer Ouellette

Jennifer Ouellette

Do you think having been adopted makes these questions of identity especially salient for you?

Image: Jennifer Ouellette

Jennifer Ouellette

I thought everyone was adopted when I was a kid: You just go to the baby store and you get a baby. I didn't know anything about my biological parents until I was in college. When I looked at the description of my biological mother, I thought: "Damn, I'm just like her in so many ways." But there are certain character qualities, the things that are malleable, where I'm definitely a member of the Ouellette family. We're workaholics; we're overly stoic.

You viewed an fMRI scan of your brain. What did that add to the picture?

The most interesting thing I learned is just how useless my brain scan was for telling me anything about myself. In my first version of that chapter, my editor was like, "Really? You didn't figure out anything?" And I said, "Well, my sinuses are clear. I don't have a brain tumor. That's good news!"

It seems that your decision to try LSD as part of this exploration of the self ended up being pretty important.

Image: Book Cover: Me, Myself and Why
You suddenly feel as if you're dispersed and disembodied. You're still you, though, which I thought was fascinating. This gets right at that question of where identity comes from. It turns out you are not your body. Your body is an important part, but it's made of the same stuff as everything else in the world. That is really hard to get your head around, but it's easier after you've tried acid.

Image: Book Cover: Me, Myself and Why