A Lebanese neuroscientists’ story of coincidence, serendipity and finding the exact right book in Paris.

Recorded next to a campfire at a wedding in Powys.

Transcript

I’m going to tell you a story and when it finishes, it’s not going to be the end. It’s just something that kind of affected my job, and how I think about things.

So I’m from Lebanon, and I went to live in Paris to do my masters in psychology and then my PhD in neuroscience. And it was before Christmas. It was my first or second year in Paris, and I wanted to go back home for Christmas, spend Christmas with my family. And I wanted to buy gifts for my family. I work a lot on pseudoscience and coincidences, and how our brain invents an order in the world to make it make sense. Because the world doesn’t really make sense. And our brains are storytellers that build stories about the events that happen in our lives to make them make sense, even if they don’t. So for example, I don’t know you’re dating someone. And you’re thinking about that person and they call you. And you’re like “Oh, I was just thinking about you, we’re soulmates. This is so amazing.” But then all the times you think about the person and they don’t call you, you don’t say “I’m thinking about them and they’re not calling me, maybe we’re not made for each other.” We only remember the things that are salient for us. And we can kind of just put aside when it’s not.

So I was working on these kinds of things, how we build order out of randomness, so that we can handle the world and make it make sense and be able to live every day. Otherwise we’d go crazy. And I wanted to buy a book for my dad. And I had a patient at the hospital and it wasn’t going very well because she was feeling very down and I couldn’t leave and I was so late. And I hadn’t eaten. So I went out from the hospital to go get a sandwich and then go back to see the patient. And I was really sad and I knew that I’m going to stay late enough that I won’t be able to get the book for my dad. But I couldn’t like leave the patient to go get a gift. And I thought that I’d just tell him that “I couldn’t get you the gift”.

So I went to grab a sandwich and on my way back there was this old lady with like a shopping cart. And she’s looking around, kind of lost. And I had just come from Lebanon, and I was like, I want to help everyone and talk to everyone in the streets and everything. So I go up to her and I say “Do you need anything? Are you looking for something?” And she’s like “Yes, I’m looking for the hospital.” And this is the hospital where I work so I said “Oh, then why don’t you walk with me? I’m going there and I’ll take you and tell me which building you want to go to.” It’s a big hospital, it’s one of the biggest hospitals in Europe. So she’s like “Oh you’re so nice” and she starts walking with me. When we get to the door of the hospital, I tell her “Yeah, the hospital is here.” And she’s like “Oh, I just remembered that I have to go somewhere else. But do you read?” And I go “Yeah I mean, I read, I know how to read.” So like “I bought a book for my nephew and he has it already. So I think I’m going to give it to you.’ So she puts her hand in the bag and gives me the book that I wanted to buy for my dad. The exact same one that I wanted to get him. What are the odds? So I go like “Thank you”. So I take the book, and then she just turns around and leaves.

So when this happened, and I tell it to people, they’re like “You see? Wow, it’s amazing…” etc. And this story actually kind of set me on course, to what I do now, which is understand how our brain can make sense. Because after this story, it’s very easy to start to believe like, I was wrong and things happen. But then – and this is maybe the more sciency part – if you think about all the times you’re on the street, and all the people that you meet, and all the people you talk to. The odds of this happening are actually quite high. They’re not that low. Because you interact with a lot of people. But this is where this story kind of helped in my thinking. That someone for example that believes in, I don’t know, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, or… But when I was reading it, I was like “This is the meaning of life! Like we have to read the signs of the trees and the wind…” And if someone believes this, and then something like this happens to them. And it could, I’ve been alive for 34 years almost, and it has happened only once. Which is quite a good ratio I mean, it is quite a rare event.

But when you think about it, we are 7 billion people on the planet. So every day, there’s 7 things that have a one in a billion chance of happening, that happen. Which is, one in a billion is quite little. So if someone was thinking in terms of The Alchemist and things like this ; for them that’s the ultimate proof to believe it. You need one apparently extraordinary event to have someone change completely their thought process. So the first thing this story had… One it was magic and I really appreciated it. So I learned how to appreciate ordinary things without it being supernatural to enjoy. Second it helped me understand how much context is important. Because depending on your mental framework, you can change how you interpret whatever happens with you.

And the third thing is that now whenever I’m in a library, I try to buy someone a book. So I actually randomly buy books for people. If I go for example to a bookstore and I see someone looking at books and I don’t know, if I feel like they can’t afford it or they’re looking… For example I read comics, and someone, a young Christian, I don’t know… 14 or 13, is getting a volume of a comic I try to buy them the next one. I just like, I literally follow people in a bookstore and if I see that they have number one, I get number two and I stand in line behind them. And then I go: “This is yours.” I usually give it and leave, because I don’t want people to feel like bad or as if they owe me something. So I just like give them the book, I don’t say anything and I just walk away.