I took my first class in cognitive science seven years ago, in a grey-looking classroom contained by two sets of even grayer doors, located in the basement of one of my university’s older buildings and sterilized on the inside by fluorescent lights that flickered intermittently. The mind, I was taught, is a computer that processes inputs to yield outputs. What we see, for instance, is the final product of many layers of processing done by the visual system in the brain. Sounding out words on paper can be thought of as the culmination of two processes, one where familiar words are retrieved from a mental dictionary, and another where new words are pronounced according to their spelling.

As a cognitive science major, much of the material I learned—the workings of illusions and aphasia and color blindness, phantom limbs, the relationship between mind and brain—was based on knowledge gleaned from isolated case studies of individuals who had suffered from a very specific mental and/or physical impairment. Such findings were informative of the underlying neurological processes in a human: studying a person who had lost her ability to read written English but not her ability to understand spoken English might shed light on how the brain deals with language. Taken another way, learning about how the computer works can often only be achieved when we study parts that do not work normally. To me, such studies disregarded the nuances of those who were labeled as cognitively different. Would these individuals be perceived only in terms of their differences? Learning did seem to lead to awareness of some kind, but I was not sure how to translate textbook knowledge into helping these people who exhibited the behavior we learned in school.

I ultimately, however, came to realize that my initial reaction to these classes was limited in scope. The difficulty, as with many of the psychological sciences, and certainly in medical fields, is that we can only begin to more effectively help these individuals—to develop better treatments, technologies, and/or medicines—by distancing ourselves emotionally. What I did not comprehend at the time, however, was that one key component in reintegrating these individuals into society is personal relationships, ones where they are not treated with tiptoes and/or with pity, but rather as friends and equals, as co-workers, as confidantes.

That is, what was not explicitly mentioned in the many cognitive science papers I read for class was the uncountable number of hours that grad students and professors spent advocating for the people described in their case studies. Researchers thus formed lasting friendships with these individuals, and many times worked with hospitals, schools, and workplaces to ensure that they could still live normally in society. Along with their academic musings, my professors would stop to speak fondly of the people they worked with. There was an engineer who had an accident and could no longer recognize numbers but could still do math. Students designed for him a calculator based on a different set of symbols, which allowed him to go back to his job. There was another girl, fifth grade at the time, who had not been able to recognize letters for the last few years. They found she could see letters when a line was drawn through them, and the professor worked with her school to provide her with a customized set of materials. Upon relating this experience in class, my professor smiled.  “We did it; we did it. She can read again.”

Indeed, such experiences enabled me to better understand what exactly awareness entails. There exist so many different flavors, each appropriate for a different situation. Knowing what corresponds to a given mental disorder differs significantly from reading a personal blog or watching videos of the interactions between doctors, patients, and their families; and these video and Internet interactions, like talking to someone on Skype versus in real life, are still a far cry from actually being there. Relatability can, it seems, only be effectively gleaned when we have answered a call to action. The form of this call to action differs from person to person, whether it is through volunteering at a clinic, through developing a new drug, through reading firsthand accounts, or simply through listening. Only then can we overcome the awareness of simply understanding a list of facts, and attain at least a glimpse of the reality, the actual experience.

Alane Lim has a double degree in Cognitive Science & Chemistry and is a grad student studying Materials Science at Northwestern University. You can find her on  LinkedIn & Twitter