Hello all 🙂
Last two months have been slow and uneventful but also taxing mentally. Research wise little is happening but I did have a great afternoon introducing school children to some cool psychological phenomena 🙂
Research is slow right now: i’ve been stuck getting a particular test to work and it’s putting up much resistance. Annoyingly, until it’s finished I can’t move on. So I’ve been stuck with two options: push on, endlessly trying, or axe it, losing around a third of the results…not a great ultimatum to be honest. My adviser made a few suggestions and I realised that I was trying so hard to keep things precisely the same that I was potentially doing so at the expense of any data at all! Over the last 6 weeks I’ve been making those tweaks and slowly but surely things are improving. I’ve managed to whittle it down from 23 samples to 2 which is great and we’ve decided on a cut off of those 2 (losing two points is far better than almost half of the experiment!). It’s picking up but it’s just been a grind.
Regarding “the grind” I’ve really been feeling a complete ‘meh’ lately. I guess it’s mental exhaustion…but it shows as difficulty getting motivated and a gradual loss of interest. I don’t mean that I’m behind on things, nor am I planning on quitting, but things have gone on long enough without a sense of reward that I’m becoming both demotivated and tired of the situation. I look forward greatly to the end of the experiment with all of the numbers in a spreadsheet and then telling my own little story but for the now I’m struggling. I spoke to a colleague about my concerns and they gave me a few tips (more on this next) which have helped in some ways; to be honest, I probably just need to implement a few more of their suggestions.
The Continued Importance of Talking to People
I’ve talked about this a few times but now I’m really learning just how important talking to people is. Learning to be a good researcher brings a multitude of challenges, a lot of which are personal. Simply talking about them is helpful, whether you’re venting or getting help with your struggles. For example…
When I started struggling in 2015 I began to regularly meet with my secondary/pastoral supervisor. We talk about how academia works, how our research is going, and personal struggles both in and out of our professional lives. This has been endlessly helpful, providing time to escape from the stress; it is also refreshing to hear similar stories for more senior researchers. A simple talk with my adviser helped tweak my current research challenges. It can be a great relief because you get stuck and feel like you’ve done everything you can but then a simple suggestion can shake things up. Talk to them. That’s what they’re there for.
There are a number of people in academic environments and best of all is that there are people like you: PhD students. I have a very friendly colleague who has recently finished and I turned to them for advice. Explaining that the fatigue of the experiment is crushing my enjoyment and motivation (and a few concerns regarding my focus) they talked me through a few things. Firstly, they questioned my interests and helped me realise they are more focused than I thought they were. They’re still quite broad but in a manageable way. Secondly, they suggested focusing on what’s coming from this experiment: what is it I want to find out? I guess that’s what I’ve been doing all along but in a ‘when this finishes it’ll be done’ way rather than a ‘when this finishes I’ll know this’ way. Lastly, they suggested trying to reinvigorate myself by combining my love of learning in general with my topic: rather than reading in a very focused way, how about reading about the peripheral aspects of the topic? It’s a fair point. I’ve been so focused on finding very particular papers lately that it’s become functional rather than enjoyable reading. I’ve started building a map of the key narrative of my research linked with all of the peripheral aspects and from there I’m going to start reading more widely 🙂
Lastly, another colleague is having a very rough time and I have had the opportunity to be there for them. They’re struggling badly at the moment: research hasn’t finished, their money runs out soon, they’re writing papers, their health is deteriorating, they’re struggling to find jobs, family issues etc. It’s all just culminating on them at once and it’s making life very hard. We have coffee every week or so and just talk about what’s been happening both in and out of research. It’s a good break from the grind and a time to vent.
Overall the message is clear: talk to people. Everyone has something to say and experiences to share. Nobody has it easy moving through academia and the worst thing you can do is isolate yourself. People are there to help, let them.
Outreach! It has been a while since I did any of this. There was a summer school at the university whereby school kids did activities in 6 different academic schools. Five of us from psychology demonstrated some interesting psychological phenomena.
Firstly, there was the basketball video (have a watch before moving on). Two teams are passing basketballs between them. One in black and one in white. You are told to count the number of passes made by the white players and for your answer at the end. Did you do it? Then you are asked about the gorilla…a lot of people then gasp and question gorilla?! Re-watching it without counting the passes makes it much harder to miss. So what’s going on here? Focusing on how many times the white players pass the ball not only taxes your brain but also tells it to only pay attention to human sized white objects. The gorilla just looks like a member of the black team!
Secondly, the McGurk Effect. In this a person speaks and you watch twice: once normally and then your eyes shut twice. Most people hear “fa fa” first time and “da da” second time. What’s happening? It’s the same video! Your brain takes the information from your eyes and your ears to tell you what’s presented. However we are not used to hearing “da” whilst watching the mouth movement of “fa” and the brain gets confused. It has to decide which piece of information is more important and goes with the visual. Your eyes literally tell your ears what to hear! Pretty cool hey? There are similar versions with other combinations of sounds too!
Thirdly, we had a taste test. You are given four differently coloured drinks and asked what you think they are and which is your favourite. Overwhelmingly, the red one is cherry, the green apple, the blue bubblegum or raspberry, and the clear one lemonade. The secret? They’re all lemonade, but why? You bring to the table the experience that something fizzy and red is cherry but if it’s green it’s apple so the expectation actually changes how you perceive the drinks. Similar has been done with wines when experts interpreted whites loaded with red food dye as reds!
Lastly, the Stroop test. You are given a list of coloured words and asked to say which colour they are. For example: red, blue, yellow, green, purple. Then you are given a similar but slightly different list: blue, green, red, yellow, purple. Now do the same. and say the colour of the words. This time you’ll be noticeably slower. The actual words are interfering with your ability to identify the colour!
What these simple phenomena demonstrate is that how we perceive the world involves integrating many bits of information. It could be prior experience and expectation, what you see and hear, see and taste, or when trying to filter out the important parts of a scene. What you’re left with is the brain making the best guess as to what is going on and sometimes it gets it wrong!
That’s all from me. The next two months will be finally getting on to the last chunk of my testing, building up my extended research map, and designing some educational resources.
Thanks for reading 🙂