A Nobel prize, kindness and behavioral activation

Richard Feynman, one of the most remarkable physicists of the past century, wrote in his autobiography that after the frantic years in which he took part of the Manhattan Project (during which he also lost his wife to tuberculosis), he had a hard time readjusting to “normal” life.

He began teaching at Cornell, an activity that he appreciated even if it wasn’t his main interest, but “when it became time to do some research, I couldn’t get myself to work. I was a little tired; I was not interested; I couldn’t do research! (…) I was convinced that the war and everything else (the death of my wife)  had simply burned me out”

Because of that, he rejected a number of job offers; he even rejected a special offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein and von Neumann were working, thinking: “The other offers had made me feel worse, up to a point. They were expecting me to accomplish something. But this offer was so ridiculous, so impossible for me ever to live up to, so ridiculously out of proportion. The other ones were just mistakes; this was an absurdity!” And this was a guy that was invited to work on the Manhattan Project when he was 24 years-old… I bet that if a psychiatrist would have heard him, he would have got a depression diagnosis.

But one day, two things happened.

First, the head of the laboratory at Cornell wanted to talk with Feynman, “perhaps [because] he overheard me talking about it, or maybe he just understood me (…). He said, in a serious tone, ‘Feynman, you’re teaching your classes well; you’re doing a good job, and we’re very satisfied.  Any other expectations we might have are a matter of luck. When we hire a professor, we’re taking all the risks. If it comes out good, all right. If it doesn’t, too bad. But you shouldn’t worry about what you’re doing or not doing’. He said it much better than that, and it released me from the feeling of guilt” .

The second thing… well, let him tell the story.

“Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to *play* with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing–it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t *have* to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment. So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the “Arabian Nights” for pleasure, I’m going to *play* with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling. I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate–two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?” I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is . . .” and I showed him the accelerations. He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?” “Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing”–working, really–with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things. It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate”.

It is fascinating for me reading this fragment, let me tell you why.

If we look closely, we can find two “moments”: first, an act of kindness from another human being (the head of the laboratory), which is basically saying “it is ok to feel that way”. Second: a sense of playfulness about the action. The excerpt is about how he got back in touch with positively reinforced activities. If you ever read about it, you’ll recognize the same principle behind any behavioral activation treatment: get in touch with valued activities (sometimes described elsewhere as activities that, for this person, are “intrinsically motivating” –or with the valued aspects of such activities-, and just focus on the first step. And then the next first step. And then the next first step.

Carl Lejuez, who developed a behavioral activation protocol, said it this way (approximately at least –I’m quoting by memory): “once you thought about your values and your goals, forget all about it, and just focus on the next step. That’s all what behavioral activation is about: getting, once again, back in touch with the world, and letting the life heal you (of course, when I said “life”, I’m saying the stream of contingencies controlling our behavior)”. Once Feynman connected again with what was reinforcing to him about physics (playing, discovering things, asking questions), the rest eventually came up, and that chain of events turned out in a Nobel Prize.

To me,  since I tend to have a “just get this thing going and let it fix it by itself” approach to therapy, Feynman’s is a beautiful story. That small, modest first step (just wondering how a plate wobbles in the air), can have enormous consequences and ramifications… provided it occurs in an adequate context: read again the brief talk with the head of the laboratory, is that acceptance/kindness/compassion (you name it) context what made the playfulness possible.

Sometimes, the best thing a therapist can have is some patience (sometimes not, but we’ll discuss that other day). Sometimes, the best we can do to help a person that is going through some rough times is to show some compassion, and encourage her to take a first step into the world again. Even if we are that person ourselves.

Would you believe it?, it even is empirically supported.

Note: Thanks to my lovely colleague Maarten Aalberse, who not only read the spanish version of this article using google translate when I published it, but he also encouraged me to write an english version of it… which he also reviewed  and polished!(because I have a very idiosyncratic approach to english language).

Thanks, bro 🙂