Have you ever tried your hand at Rubik’s cube?
It’s hard to imagine this. But Andreas Roepstorff, sitting in front of me in a corner office with a view of the Nobel Park in Aarhus, was once a little boy sitting in a small cage with his legs crossed on the pedestrian precinct in Fredericia. He was holding a coloured plastic cube in his hands, and was twisting and turning it round and round. Many years have passed, and today he’s sitting on a white chair in his office in Aarhus. His hands are empty – or are they? Actually they aren’t empty at all. He’s got his hands full of all kinds of projects.
Andreas Roepstorff has an international reputation as a professor of brain and cognition research. He’s got two Master’s degrees: an MSc in biology, and an MA in anthropology. And he feels equally at home in the worlds of science and the humanities. He’s a mixed bag of tricks, explains a friend who went to the same school as Andreas (Skærbæk School) from the second grade onwards. Andreas’s father was a protein chemist, and his mother was a sociologist. And even as a boy, Andreas was quite familiar with the concept of Man as both a biological and a creative being. His younger brother is a sociologist, and his younger sister is an artist. He’s the director of the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University, which creates new knowledge about human interaction. Here are a few more details: he’s 47 years old and lives on a small farm with his wife, who’s the director of the Trapholt art museum. They have six children ranging in age from 4 to 18. Did that help to understand the man a bit better?
Twisting the cube in one direction
It might help even more if we flash back into the past and think a bit more about the contrast between science and the humanities that has always been a part of him. Because there was never any doubt that he would end up at a university. As a boy he had a hugely inquiring mind, but as a young man he found it difficult to decide where his main interests lay. It was hard to choose between the humanities and science. “My staff file at the studies administration office must be pretty bulky, because there aren’t many corners of the university I haven’t explored,” he explains with a smile. He started by signing up for chemistry/biotechnology, and at one stage he was actually registered for three different degree programmes. But he was never in any doubt that the university was where he belonged. The only question was whether it should be the humanities or science. “I switched between the two many times. First one side of the coin, and then the other. At one stage it got really complicated because I felt marginalised whichever side I chose. My approach to anthropology was regarded as scientific, and my approach to science was regarded as humanistic. But I needed to be highly qualified in both disciplines – otherwise none of it would have made much sense to me,” he explains. He applied for two different Master’s degrees, and initially his request was turned down. But he refused to give up, and he also refused to compromise on his academic objectives. In the end he succeeded.
Twisting the cube in another direction
He ended up by finishing two different theses within four weeks, and graduated with a Master’s degree in two subjects. In one sense, he had now discovered exactly where he belonged. With one foot firmly planted in both camps, standing at the interface between them. Between anthropology and biology. And at the interface between the humanities and science. Then he got involved in a research project in which his double academic profile proved useful. One research project followed another. And that’s still the case. He’s done research projects inside and outside laboratories. He’s been involved in research in locations as far flung as Greenland, Lithuania and the UK. He’s done basic brain research and studied how knowledge becomes knowledge. Or as he puts it: “There have been times in my life when brain scans were important, or when fish in Greenland were important, or when nationalists in Lithuania were important. But there’s always been a red thread running through my work”. All these different projects share one common denominator: the knowledge that everything is related. “It’s like when I’m working on texts, graphs or figures, for instance. Suddenly I spot the connection that brings them all together.” He snaps his fingers as if to underline the point. “Things that seemed vague and incomprehensible at first suddenly fall into place, and you can see the system that governs them. It’s hugely satisfying. It’s that feeling you get when the penny drops. And if you’re right, then everything else must fit together too.”
Looking for the right colour combinations
Roepstorff has also spent time on things he never fully mastered. For instance, he has tried to learn to play the guitar – or rather, he has spent a lot of time learning how not to be a good guitar player. He has also run a half marathon, although he didn’t break any records. He likes cooking, but says he’ll never make a good chef. This might just be pure modesty, of course. Because his good friends say that he is a modest man by nature. He’s also honest when he looks back and says that his life as a boy could have included far more than books. If he met the young Andreas as a boy today, he would advise himself to look for more challenges by meeting people who were different from him. You could argue that this is exactly what he’s doing now. He certainly brings together academic areas and individuals from many different backgrounds. And according to one of his colleagues, this is one of his special talents. They also say that he has been graced with a special gift: he can make incredibly complex material comprehensible to the man in the street. And this is why he works so hard to explain things to other people. He often interrupts his thoughts by saying “No, let me start that differently.” And at one point he says “How shall I explain that?” followed by a moment of thought and then a sentence like: “I can’t know what’s going on in your brain. We don’t basically know whether the two of us perceive this situation in the same way. But people seem to be good at producing some kind of coordination between each other, and this takes place on multiple levels: physically, in our thoughts and in our words. When we talk or interact with each other, we get into a kind of rhythm or motion. It all gets a bit cryptic now, but coordinating things in this way helps us to realise that we’re not alone in the world.” Roepstorff would surely agree with the sentiment so famously expressed by E.M. Forster: “Only connect”.
Looking for the logic of the cube
Let’s turn the clock back to when he was just a boy. To the day he sat in shorts and a T shirt in a cage in front of a shop in Fredericia, with people walking past and looking at him with a mixture of admiration and curiosity that would (hopefully) inspire them to buy the cube he was fiddling with. That was the intention, at least. The cube looked easy to twist and turn in all directions. Rubik’s cube was very popular in the mid-Jutland area back in the 1980s. A cautious estimate says that more than 300 million Rubik’s cubes (either the real thing or copies) have been sold worldwide. Most people know exactly what it looks like. It was (and still is) one of the world’s most famous conundrums – you have to twist and turn all the sides until each side shows only a single colour. It sounds pretty easy, but word has it that there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 combination options – so sheer luck is not going to be enough! Roepstorff lay awake for a whole night thinking about the problem some time before sitting in his cage in Fredericia. He was trying to understand two sheets of A4 paper which had been given to him by a mathematician who was a friend of the family. He had never spoken to this mathematician, but wanted to find out what his logic had been. He wasn’t given any other instructions, and back them you couldn’t simply tap in “solution to Rubik’s cube” in Google. “In the end I understood his drawings and taught myself the routines you need, after which the solution was dead easy,” he explains. One of his schoolteachers had to treat the entire class to cakes on one occasion because Andreas was able to solve the puzzle in less than three minutes. A story that tells us at least two things: 1. there’s nothing wrong with the little grey cells that he’s got between his ears; and 2. human beings are capable of giving each other tools that help to shift the boundaries between them. Which may be exactly why he is now the director of the Interacting Minds Centre. An interdisciplinary centre which seeks to perform tasks that nobody can perform alone, and to give people the tools needed to change each other. Across the boundaries that divide them.
Finding the solution to the puzzle
That’s about it really. When I started this interview I had a relatively clear idea about what kind of portrait I wanted to write. But things changed along the way – which is what always happens when people meet. Roepstorff understood some of the questions I asked in a way I hadn’t intended, and some of his answers were extremely unexpected. I suppose this is because like Rubik’s cube, he is a pretty complex character. But you could probably say the same thing of all human beings.
Interacting Minds Centre
- A centre at Aarhus University that creates new knowledge about what happens to people when they interact with each other. What goes on in our brains and sensory register?
- About 40 researchers are linked to the centre, representing a broad range of expertise.
- Even though the researchers affiliated with the centre come from extremely different academic backgrounds, they share a common approach: curiosity and the willingness to break down traditional disciplinary boundaries, working together to reach a deeper understanding of human interaction.
- One of the fundamental questions that interests Andreas Roepstorff, a question that he is currently studying alongside other researchers at the centre, is what happens when people coordinate their activities, and what happens when this coordination breaks down.
Read more: interactingminds.au.dk
Professor Andreas Roepstorff