Trial 1: Post-Mortem
I’ve finished my first 30-day trial for Way of the Scholar! Each day for the last 30 days, I’ve spent an hour reading a textbook or academic paper, and I developed three hypotheses about how the trial would change me. I predicted that reading would:
- continue to nurture my interest in neuroscience into a passion
- help identify the important questions in my field
- weed distractions from my workday
Today, I’ll be looking at each of those hypotheses in turn, and I’ll also talk about the structure of the 30-day trial in general, and how I plan to modify it for future trials.
Hypothesis 1: continue to nurture my interest in neuroscience into a
In the past thirty days, I’ve read hundreds of pages in neuroscience textbooks and papers. I finished more than 60% of the textbook I’m reading, and I also worked through several recent papers closely tied to the exact research I’m doing.
I’ve really enjoyed the majority of this reading, and I’m already starting to hunt for another textbook to read once I’ve conquered my current book. I want to continue this habit for at least several more months. I won’t be reporting on it like I have these past few weeks, but my reading has been incredibly helpful. I’m following conversations in the lab more easily, and many of the frustrations I experienced trying to read neuroscience papers before this trial have been explained into oblivion by my reading. As it becomes less frustrating, I’m growing more excited each day about investing a large part of my life into neuroscience.
In fact, I’ve started waking up earlier and with more excitement about the work ahead of me. Reading about the brain is a great way to start the day. Because of it, I’m seeing glimmers of love for this work and the sorts of questions neuroscience asks1. I’m even more excited by the fact that I’m ditching less valuable distractions so I can get back to the simulations I’m working through. Because I’m understanding the role my research plays in neuroscience, and science in general, the latest blog posts and IV drip of email seem far less interesting. That is, it seems that my reading is directly growing my productivity and passion.
Overall, this hypothesis has been confirmed. Most days, I found at least one fact that left me wanting to know more or continue studying. There are so many things out there to potentially capture our interest, and it seems that the deeper we dive into a field, the more we find. Learning to love a field is a lot of fun.
Another major, and related success, is that I’m understanding neuroscience a bit better. I am seeing more clearly the work that get done through neuroscience, and roughly where the field is at right now. My book is already 6 years old, and the data in it is probably 8-10 years old. A lot has happened since then. But, I’m still learning a lot.
Hypothesis 2: help identify the important questions in my field
I came up with a few very general questions this month, such as the following:
- How does the brain recruit neurons for specific tasks?
- How do axons grow/form strong connections and neural circuits?
- How does the brain decide when a stimulus is relevant?
- How can neurons play more than one role in the brain?
These questions are big and vague, equivalent to something like, “How can we build complete artificial intelligence?” Most of them popped up because of my reading, but I didn’t actively seek them out as I read. I was just reading for comprehension; my initial hypothesis was that important questions would be self-evident.
But, that hypothesis was wrong. I’ve mentioned several times here at Way of the Scholar that asking good questions is one of the three major activities of the scientist2. I’ve also argued that doing great science is hard. So, I shouldn’t have expected finding great questions to be as easy as reading my first textbook on the subject.
Good questions don’t just materialize from thin air, and you probably won’t find them reading an introductory textbook. Basic knowledge is a prerequisite to asking good questions, because good questions are soaked in context. But there’s more to science than just reading. You may come across interesting areas to search for questions, but actually finding them requires some work.
hypothesis 3: weed distractions from my workday
Even though I grew increasingly excited about what I was learning, actually focusing on my reading for an hour each day was difficult. I sometimes had trouble following even simple trains of thought, and I frequently confused different parts of the brain. It’s getting significantly easier to keep the more prominent brain areas separate from one another, but I continue to stumble over others.
So, the spillover effect I had predicted - that a focused hour of reading would lead to increased focus for the entire day - didn’t materialize. In fact, I often felt more inclined to distract myself once I’d finished reading and writing for the day. I rationalized it as ‘a nice break’. Perhaps I did need a break, but distractions don’t count as breaks. They count as anti- breaks. Your brain needs time to itself. Actually, I just saw a talk by Rich Hickey about problem solving for programmers, and the overwhelming theme of his message was that our brain needs alone-time. Without it, we just can’t solve significant problems on a regular basis.
Now, I have seen an overall decrease in the amount of time I spend on distractions in the past month. But, I’d contribute that decrease to having a tool tracking my time use at work, and making some headway on my research. I know I mentioned it earlier, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of progress, even slight progress, for eliminating distractions. It’s a huge motivating factor for me, because it keeps me engaged.
And, that’s the key to eliminating distractions: to be totally involved with something else. I’d guess you know how to concentrate pretty well on at least one thing. It’s what your friends are constantly dragging you away from while you sputter and protest, “But, I just needed 10 more minutes…” For me, it’s making things. I could be sewing, writing, programming, wrenching on a bike, or even baking, as long as I’m making something new. Once I’ve started, I totally lose interest in distractions, and time flies by. Beating distractions is easy - be engaged.
Notes on 30-day trials, generally
Overall, the 30-day trial format was a major success. The length was great, and reading now feels like a natural part of my day. The weekly updates were really helpful for me, and I was able to learns many more lessons about reading than I would have in just a week or two.
But, I do want to change a few things for my next trials. You might want to consider these changes, too, if you’re thinking about joining me for the next one or starting your own trial.
- Most future trials will be restricted to weekdays. I need a couple days each week to relax and retreat from work.
- The hypotheses for this trial were interesting, but not necessarily objective. I could twist them pretty easily, and base my findings on experiences and memories rather than any useful data. So, I’ll try to find something a bit more concrete for my next hypotheses.
- As I moved further into the trial, I began to see holes in my thinking and places I could revise it for better results. Since this next trial will probably last 6 weeks or so, I’ll allow myself to change it as I see improvements to make. I’ll stick with each configuration for at least a week, though.
This trial has been a great way to help kick off Way of the Scholar. I’ve not only learned about my field, but I’ve also experienced the varied relevance of information, the importance of building connections, and the absolute need for consistency. I’m excited about the small steps of progress I’ve made, and I’m eager for the miles ahead. I hope these reports have been useful to you, and if so, I’d love to hear about it.
Have a great day!
It helps that my current research involves a number of computer simulations, because I already know that I enjoy programming and computer science. Taking something I already love and mixing it with something I am learning to love makes the cultivation of this new passion easier than simply trying to cultivate both in isolation. It’s another instance of the importance of connections.↩
The other two are find good solutions to questions, and sharing both questions and solutions in a way that helps the world become a better place.↩