July has been a refreshing DProf month for researching and reading. I have now completed two sets of pilot interviews. The first set were people known to my supervisor. They weren’t totally in my area but they were really valuable for learning about the interview process. Apart from valuable research information, they also gave feedback on the process and logistical aspects. The second set of pilots were with two neuroscience Professors who responded to my invitation email – 2 from 35 invitations isn’t bad.
My learning so far: The embedded link to Skype-for-Business isn’t as user friendly as I thought but I need to use it as the recording facility is reliable. With 3 out of 4 interviewees struggling with it initially I’ll need to put in some simple guidelines on connecting to it. Actually, I could do a side piece of research on the profile of who can and can’t easily use the link in the invitation! I reckon you can all guess which stereotype finds it easiest as it’s the one I think we’d all guess it to be when it comes to being tech-savvy.
I also refined opening the interview by reiterating the invitation email and situating my research in the coaching of change-hesitant coachees. The latter helped me focus the conversation much better so I am glad I was forced to get my head around it. In fact, both the Professors referred to it which helped to guide and anchor the discussion.
Everyone was very generous with their time. Having asked for just 20 minutes, all gave around 40-45. I was very grateful for that as 20 minutes on this topic only just gets people warmed up. I am going to regret it when I type up the transcripts though. I have found that initially the conversation is quite conceptual and I have had to push it down in to ‘So how does that actually happen in the brain?’. I then noticed a little pause – almost of surprise – and then they give me what I am really looking for and talk about a variety of mechanisms and caveats. I am really pleased that I read that Neuroscience textbook last year as it made the conversations much easier.
There are two things I have really loved about having these conversations so far: Firstly, it is just a conversation where ideas are given, explored and questions are proffered and answered. As someone commented, it must be nice not to have to talk in words of just one syllable – so right (lol). Secondly, they are very down to earth people and are clear about the constraints of their research and how animal research is difficult to use for hypothesizing about human aspects. A refreshing change from all the neuro-hype.
On the down-to-earth and refreshing reading side, my supervisor recommended ‘Neuro’ by Rose and Abi-Rached. A very different book as it is about the history of neuroscience blended with a critical review of some of its emerging themes, directions and assertions. It picks up on some of my favourite themes – medical hypes that have little foundation, neuroscience as court evidence, lab settings affecting experiments that deal with the brain and the blurring of the use of the words ‘the self’. Although I need to be careful here otherwise I might undermine the very research that I am conducting but it does bring home that neuroscience is a very interpretivistic science at the moment. (A useful reference for my Chapter 3 claims on epistemology and methodology.) One of the sadder facts is where it says that most research aimed at helping with mental illness has in fact not generated many new medical practices. Thus we are still using drugs from many years ago as they are the best we have.
Another book, which will provoke outcries, is called ‘How emotions are made’ (Lisa Feldman-Barrett) although I enjoyed it. Basically, she is differentiating between us labelling something as ‘fear’ verses it being a collection of responses due to a stimulus. It is the same as LeDoux where he splits apart the feeling of fear from the threat response. Part of their thinking is that a mouse, for example, has a threat response but we don’t know if it feels fear as we can’t ask it. We tend to ascribe fear to the mouse through our interpretation of what we see it doing but that is us ‘humanising’ things. What was fascinating is that she talks about more recent research verses older research on archetypal emotional faces. Effectively it appears that the older research which concluded that there were universal emotional faces which everyone recognised isn’t entirely true, well not true at all if you concur with Lisa. Here it links back to the ‘Neuro’ book and Lisa talks about how the research wasn’t actually as ‘clean’ as it espoused.
She believes that we learn during childhood that a certain collection of responses are labelled as ‘fear’ or ‘joy’ or ‘sadness’ and that the actual reactions for a feeling are quite diverse: Think of different joy responses such as a big smile or wide-eyed and open-mouthed. She feels that the standard faces are unusable just as the average family having 2.4 children is fairly meaningless. She also covers how feelings affect the decisions we make (don’t get a court appearance just before lunch/ make sure the interviewer holds a warm drink) and our behaviours which is worth a read. She also discusses how much the brain uses concepts to group things together such as colours in a rainbow. Most of us see it as 6 distinct bands when really it is a gradient. Russians view it as 7 distinct bands as culturally they view light blue as a different colour to dark blue, as green and blue are viewed differently. This she suggests makes colour a cultural thing not a reality.
This links nicely to an article discussing how children beat computers on some tasks and how far computers have yet to go.