By Talia Bank ’23

Michelle Tong is a professor of neurobiology. She studies how long-term memories are formed and how they persist.

Q: Any standout books you’ve read recently?

A: I’ve been reading Inciting Joy by Ross Gay. He makes a case for living with joy, which he explicitly distinguishes from positivity. He invites us to consider the underappreciated wisdom in the feeling of joy. And, in contrast to how in recent years we’ve been stewing in sorrow and helplessness as a society, there’s profound power in joy.

Q: What’s one of your all-time favorite reads?

A: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. It is a silly, young adult, historical fiction about a person who grows up in the Caribbean and because her family has passed she has to move to Massachusetts to live with her Puritan aunt. What spoke to me was the way it captured the feelings of otherness and outcast-ness I felt as a kid.

Q: What book is crucial to understanding your academic niche?

A: In her book How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett challenges the idea of a static and innate emotion system. She advances a theory that emotions are actually constructed in the moment from these core memory systems that are integrated across the whole brain—that our experiences and emotions are really constructed through what we learn. It’s a really great book because it highlights just how dynamic and vibrant our nervous systems are!

Q: What’s something you love to read that we might not expect?

A: I like to read lyrics. I like music where the artist is very attentive to how the music and their lyrics are playing together, not just in terms of the timing but also how artists cite one another. For example, in Kendrick Lamar’s The Heart Part 5, he makes an allusion to a Jay-Z song by rapping those lyrics in the style of the Jay-Z song. I really like noticing those things.

Q: What one book would you recommend to everyone at Macalester?

A: James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street. We get to see a Baldwin that has had it with America and pulling no punches with his critiques. Not that he was known for being gentle before. What I find beautiful in this book is this tiny passage where he alludes to how his political views were changed by having finally fallen in love.

November 1 2023

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