Josh Rule

Trial 2: Day 11 - Choose Your Thoughts

neuroscience is like the wild west - by Wolfgang Staudt on

Today’s post is a progress report on my current trial. For 30 days, I’m setting aside at least 15 minutes each day explicitly for thinking about science and my research. Because I took time off over the holidays, today is day 11 out of 30.

Crystal in the Wild West

My principal investigator recently told me that neuroscience is a lot like the Wild West right now. There are few dominant theories and plenty of wide, open space for anyone to conquer, provided they have a few good ideas and the ability to execute them. He’s not the first neuroscientist to tell me that, either.

I’d guess that most relatively new fields share this trait and present a great deal of opportunity for developing scientists. It’s in exactly this sort of atmosphere that an experiment like this thinking time trial is most necessary. Here, I’m not just inching along a path that’s been pretty clearly set out by the work that’s come before me. My research actually bushwhacks a tiny trail into the unknown that may eventually become a main thoroughfare for the field (or it may be a forgotten path down which a lonely hermit lives…).

The incredible freedom new fields present requires extremely clear thinking to get much out of them. Because not much has been established, there’s also not much recourse when you run into problems. Regularly setting time aside to reflect on your work and how it relates to your field seems like a critical skill to develop1. I’m not saying it’s unimportant for established fields like physics or analytic chemistry, but it’s especially important for scientists in developing fields.

The Importance of Habits

I’ve noticed that the thinking itself is still pretty hard from day to day. I expect that good thinking will always be hard. Otherwise, someone else would have done it earlier.

But, it’s becoming increasingly automatic to actually take time each day for thinking. In fact, I’m beginning to set aside additional thinking time to consider things that aren’t tied directly to my research.

For example, an opportunity arose last week that, if it works out, will open up some great research for me, but will also require significantly more time. I quickly started outlining the pros and cons of the opportunity and asking myself some pretty tough questions about it. A few weeks ago, I doubt that I would have done anything like that. I probably would have worried a bit, quickly talked it over with my wife, and made a decision. I have a much clearer head about the decision I actually made because I took time to think through it more carefully.

This sort of reflective thinking is a skill requiring hard work over time to develop. But, setting aside the time to learn it is easy, and there’s lots of material on the web to help you learn how to do it. Leo Babauta’s ZenHabits has some great advice about habit formation, as does his site 6Changes. I also highly recommend Cal Newport’s thoughts on deliberate practice, churn rate, and the failed simulation effect.

Choose Carefully

I should warn you, though, that it’s especially important for this trial that you spend your time carefully. Choosing the right sorts of things to think about is crucial. For example, I spent my first two months at Way of the Scholar thinking mostly about being a productive and effective person. As a result, most of the posts discussed some aspect of being productive and effective generally. And, while that’s important, it’s not the reason I started Way of the Scholar. I’m here to talk about science and doing it unbelievably well. But, because I chose the wrong thing to think about, my brain was tied up with the wrong problems.

I’m noticing the same thing in this trial. I’ve spent the last eleven days thinking primarily about workflow and how I’m spending my time in the lab. As a result, I’ve made some helpful changes. But, my brain is spending its free time working through problems with how I spend my time, rather than through questions about my research2.

I’ve defaulted to what I know well, personal productivity, and not what I want to know better, neuroscience. What I know well is easy to think about. I’m basically tweaking and optimizing an already established routine based on a fairly deep pool of knowledge. What I want to know better requires moving through unknown territory. It’s more rewarding, but the unknown element also makes it seem much harder. It may not actually be harder, but it sure does seem like it.

So, for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be trying to think much more deliberately about my research.

I’m not exactly sure where to start, but I’ve got to do it. So, I’m going to start by thinking about three major questions:

  • What question am I trying to answer with this research?
  • Why am I trying to answer that question?
  • What information would most clearly answer that question?

My research picks up where someone left off before I arrived at the lab, so a good deal of the answers lie in my simulation code. But I haven’t articulated those answers myself very well, and I’ve confused myself several times while modifying the simulations. Explicit answers would be extremely helpful.

Next week, I’ll report back with what I’ve found. On Thursday, though, I’ll continue our series exploring the fundamentals of science and talk a bit about why someone might want to use their life advancing science.

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

  1. I’ve mentioned it before, but Richard Hamming did the exact same thing during the early days of computer science. He spent roughly 10% of his working time thinking about the future of computers, the sorts of tools people would need, and the sorts of things computers would and wouldn’t ever do. He claimed it was one of his most helpful practices.

  2. But, I’d guess that if I got my brain working on research problems, my spare time would be less of a problem, because I’d use it to work out solutions I’d thought of earlier.