Straight Talk from a Noted Brain Doc, a Mensan

Norwegian neuroscientist brings plainspoken language to her brain talks and writings

Dr. Kaja Nordengen

The following is one in a series of interviews with Mensans from around the world. These “Perfiles” are republished from Omnia, the magazine of Mensa Spain, this one appearing in the April 2017 issue.

Norwegian neurologist Dr. Kaja Nordengen, author of the bestselling scientific divulgation Your Superstar Brain: Unlocking the Secrets of the Human Mind (first published in Norwegian in 2016) became in 2014, at 26, the youngest female medical doctor in Norway. She is not only a medical doctor and writer, but she has also given TED Talks about the brain’s workings. Full of energy and determination, she has achieved much, and there is undoubtedly plenty in store for her in the future. She has graciously agreed to give us some of her time in order to answer our questions.

José Beltrán Escavy: Who has been your inspiration in life, the people you look up to? Who has had the strongest influence on you?

Dr. Kaja Nordengen: It was, and is, first and foremost my parents. I am still amazed at their capacity. I must also mention Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, the protagonist of the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s children’s book of 1981.

Ronja was the toughest girl I knew; she fought for what she believed in and took independent and brave choices, although she was only 10 years old. When it was carnival in kindergarten, I dressed like her, while the majority of the other girls dressed up as princesses.

As an adult, it is my closest research partner, Cecilie Morland, and, of course, Norway’s Nobel Prize winner in medicine or physiology in 2014: May-Britt Moser.

You followed a somewhat unorthodox path of studies when you entered university, jumping ahead for certain subjects.

You probably refer to my completion of a Ph.D. in neuroscience when I was only 26 years old? That was possible because I started at med school directly after high school, and because I knew that I wanted to work with the brain from the start, I decided to follow subjects in neuropsychology next to the first semester of my medical studies.

In the second half of my first year as a medical student [still 19 years old], I started doing brain research at the university. In my second year I attended an M.D./Ph.D. program, which gave me the opportunity to complete all mandatory doctoral courses. Hard work made it possible to defend my doctoral thesis at the same time as my medical internship.

My interest in the brain made the hard work feel like a hobby, not a duty.

What impelled you to become a neurologist?

I have been fascinated by the brain as long as I can remember. Mom always used to find answers to all the questions I had, but I gradually discovered that there were no answers to my brain-related issues. “Where does thought start,” for example. That awakened my curiosity, and I decided to work with the brain when I was about 9 years old.

When I asked my parents what I could be if I were to work with the brain, they replied “neurologist.” I did not know what it was at first, and it actually took several years before I realized that it was a specialization for doctors — and that I therefore had to be a doctor first.

Sometimes professional women have told us that, when carrying out their jobs, they find that they end up having to prove themselves and excel more than the men in their field in order to be considered worthy of their position. Have you had that kind of experience?

I know that many unfortunately experience this. Personally, I cannot say that I have experienced that kind of mentality from colleagues. When I worked as a neurosurgeon, I experienced, however, several times that patients automatically assumed I was a nurse and not a surgeon, just because I was a woman.

Today, women still tend to be a minority in the scientific fields. What could be done to encourage more women to enter these fields and develop professionally in them?

I do not think there is one answer to how to get rid of gender discrimination in the workplace. I think there must be many small steps toward a more equal society in general in order to achieve the goal of getting rid of this in the workplace.

Tell us about your book.

I write about the brain in the same language I use when I share all the interesting things about the brain to friends and family without scientific background. I write about how our brain works, how it makes you who you are. It learns, it falls in love, and it interprets complex patterns. But the brain also causes you to make bad choices and reward addiction. In this book, you will learn why our brain does as it does.

In your opinion, how much do we really understand our own brains and their functioning? And, of the things that we do not know, which one is the most relevant?

Our knowledge about the brain has increased tremendously in just the past 10 years, and there are new groundbreaking discoveries every day. Nevertheless, much remains to be discovered and understood. I think the understanding of mental illnesses will increase impressively during our lifetimes. All [that is] psychological is, after all, physical. Everything happens in our brains.

You have also given a TED Talk. Tell us about your experience with that.

Just as the book is a great way to spread knowledge about the brain to the public, TED Talks are also a great way to highlight the revolution now happening in brain research. TED events are incredibly professional, and I was regularly coached by communication specialists for a long time before the event.

What is, in your opinion, the most important line of research being carried out in the field of neurology at the present moment?

In the present moment, I will say research to find and stop progression of dementia. Or, as a well-known Norwegian professor said: For what good do we have cancer-free 90-year-olds with healthy hearts running around without knowing where they are going or who they are?

What is the most interesting thing you have ever done in your career?

I must admit that I love brain surgery. Every time I see the human brain, I must stop for several seconds in veneration.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow your steps into a career in neurosciences?

Never think that you are not good enough. Just start working with your passions. It is not expected that you should know everything from the start; as long as you are interested and work hard, you will reach far.

Looking back, what would you say has been the best moment of your life?

I would say right now. Every time my daughter smiles at me. And especially the mornings, when she talks, laughs, and uses me and my husband as climbing frames.

Where do you see yourself in the future, 10 or 20 years from now?

I hope I am a researcher and a consultant neurologist in a neurological department with professional, prying colleagues who are defensive on patients’ behalf.

If you had not become a doctor, what would you have done with your life?

I loved math, chemistry, and physics, and can still miss these (especially math), so it must have been a civil engineer.

How did you learn of Mensa, and what made you try to be part of the organization?

In the application process to my first doctor job, they used parts of an IQ test, and I found the tasks exciting. That increased my interest both for Mensa and IQ tests. When I was about to write a chapter about intelligence in Your Superstar Brain, I decided to take a test and enrolled in Mensa as background research.

Can you tell us in a few words what does Mensa mean for you?

Mensa is for me an organization where people with similar mental capacities can meet each other regardless of other differences, such as education, color, or gender.

What has Mensa given you?

I have not been very social in the local branch yet, but I greatly appreciate those I have met so far, not to mention the membership magazine with both news and puzzles.

What is the most important thing that people should know about you?

If I first do something, I do it 100 percent.