Saturday, August 22, 2015

Peer Into the World of Academic Publishing: Part II

When last I blogged, I was giving an overview of peer review. This time, I'm back with some examples from previous reviews I've received.

Peer review is a little like grading. Some teachers/professors give really clear, helpful feedback and offer strong explanations for why you earned the grade you did. And, well, some teachers/professors don't.

However, in this case, the stakes are higher, because journals have (often physical) limitations on how many papers they can actually select. Even as more journals become online-only and open source (free to read), there are still usually limitations on how many articles they will include within a given volume (to refer to the publishing year) and issue (the individual copies of the journal published throughout the year - for instance, a monthly journal would have 12 issues).

Peer review helps to keep that field of eligible articles lower. Unfortunately, there is little training for reviewers and reviewers themselves rarely ever get feedback on the reviews they write. So the nonsensical stay nonsensical, the terse stay terse, and the cruel stay cruel. Hopefully this also means that the good stay good.

But this may not be the case. Peer review brings with it few perks. It doesn't pay. It doesn't (always) increase your chance at getting published in a journal. It can be time-consuming and thankless.

Why then do we do it? It is seen as "service" to the profession, something people are strongly encouraged to do. People usually include journals they've reviewed for on their C.V. It can lead to bigger and better things, like being on the editorial board of a journal, which brings many perks. And it can be rewarding in other ways.

Part of my motivation for reviewing is that it feels good to give feedback to others, with the goal of helping them improve. And, though I've received some awful reviews, I've also received some really amazing ones - reviews that weren't always positive, but were always helpful. Reviewing is a way to give back.

Here are my thoughts on peer review - what is is and what it is not:

1. It can be very subjective, but that doesn't necessarily mean reviewers are wrong.

Reviews can be extremely vague and contain language like "I didn't like..." or "X didn't work for me..." It can be frustrating, when you're presenting information about a scientific study, providing detail on aspects of the study so people can objectively critique, to hear mere opinions with no concrete examples. Still, that doesn't mean the reviewer is wrong. For instance:
When I first read this, I was really frustrated. It gave me no guidance on how to write the paper differently. The introduction was written in a [background on a topic, hypothesis on that topic] format, so I didn't understand how a) the intro didn't lead to the hypotheses and b) to rewrite so that the leading was better. It didn't tell me what variables were unclear, or perhaps on the flip side, what variables were clear, so I could focus on the remaining ones. And the other reviewers had no issues with the introduction.

But after I got over my frustration and started reading the paper, I realized that I could use this feedback to improve. It's easy to think that reviewers are overly critical and to ignore their feedback. Actually digging in and getting what you can from it is challenging, but it can be very rewarding. So I reworked the intro, and you know what? The paper was much better as a result. It was accepted, and is now one of my most cited papers.

2. Reviews can range from inspiring to demoralizing, sometimes both in a single review.

My favorite example of this is the highly positive review that ends with "reject":
Once again, it's easy to get annoyed. But keep in mind that not every paper fits a particular journal. You might have written an excellent qualitative paper, but if you submitted it to a journal that only publishes quantitative work, you're likely to get a review just like the one above.

3. It can expose reviewer bias about topics, methods, analysis approaches, and even academic disciplines.

As a mixed methods researcher, I do a lot of work that is either partially or fully qualitative (that is, results not expressed in numbers, but narratives, that use methods like interviews and focus groups). Without fail, I seem to get one reviewer who does not get qualitative research, and does not like qualitative research. Here are some of my favorite examples of such:
You heard it here first, folks: quotes aren't results.
And then there's this great example from Shit My Reviewers Say demonstrating bias against an entire discipline:
4. It can make you laugh or cry - choose to laugh.

I think this is just good advice for life. If this is part of your job, you can't let every bad review get you down. It helps to find some humor in the situation. For instance, as I work on my revision, I use the Word comments feature to show where a change is needed based on a reviewer comment. I occasionally put snarky comments alongside. Obviously those are deleted before I resubmit. But they make me laugh so I keep doing it.

5. Some of the feedback will be helpful and some will be completely ridiculous.

I tried to find my very first peer review and sadly, couldn't locate it. But one comment was so ridiculous, I remember it (maybe not verbatim). The reviewer stated that my study contained serious methodological flaws. Said reviewer could not readily identify these flaws but knew they were there because I "did not confirm my hypothesis."

Okay, to repeat something I tell my Research Methods students again and again: You do not critique the validity of a study based on its findings. You critique based on its methods.

As for the part that implies a good study should confirm its hypothesis - yeah, I'm not even going into what's wrong with that. So I'll just sum up what would ultimately end up being a multi-part blog post rant with some choice phrases: scientific method, type I error, the tentative nature of scientific findings.

6. There will be times, when reading a review, that you will wonder, "Did they even read the **** paper?!"

And you know what, maybe they didn't. Or maybe they skimmed it. Or maybe they did actually read it, and weren't able to absorb this information after one read. Because most of your readers if the paper is published will probably also just read it once and absorb what they can from it, feedback from this kind of reviewer is actually very helpful.

7. It can make you a better writer, if you let it.

When you're writing or talking about something you know a lot about, you sometimes take certain information for granted. Most of the time, when we communicate about a study we're conducting, it is with other people involved in the study. But when you write up your findings for publication, you're addressing a new audience: people who know nothing about what you did and who may know very little about a topic.

Receiving peer reviews help highlight that information you may have taken for granted. Over time, with experience at revising based on reviews, you get better about thinking of what information your reader would want to know. This makes you a better writer, at least in terms of scientific writing.

8. Any given review is just one person's opinion.

So don't let bad reviews get you down. At the end of the day, it's just one person's opinion. My favorite example:
This comment was about one of my most cited papers. I receive emails 1-2 times a month and requests on Research Gate 2-3 times a month asking for a copy. I like to think its contribution is more than just small.

But this goes both ways - any good review is also just one person's opinion. You shouldn't let bad reviews eat away at you. But at the same time, you can't simply ignore bad reviews and listen only to the good ones, because the good ones are opinions too, opinions that might not be shared by very many people. Take what you can from both.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Peer Into the World of Academic Publishing: Part 1

Writing research articles is a big part of my job, as well as a necessity in getting grant funding and/or certain jobs. A big part of writing articles is dealing with reviewers and determining how to revise an article based on those reviews. In fact, at the moment, I'm working on two revisions.

But it occurred to me that the world of peer-review publishing may seem a bit foreign to some, so I thought I'd write today about what peer review is, why it's so important, and what it's not. This is going to be a long post, so I'll be dividing it up. I'm also planning to share (in a not-too-distant future post) some of my favorite reviews, many of which are - believe it or not - pretty demoralizing. Perhaps one of the best things I've developed as part of this job is thicker skin when it comes to criticism of my writing and understanding of research.

Because both of those things have been challenged in this crazy research world. That's right, I've been called a bad writer and a poor methodologist. Sometimes for the same article that another reviewer calls well-written and meticulously planned. Everyone's a critic.

No, really - in the world of academic publishing, everyone is a critic, or at least, has the potential to be. (Dying for some funny reviews now? Check out Shit My Reviewers Say.)

In scientific fields, especially careers funded by grants as well as at certain types of universities, there is an expectation to publish research results. We in academia/research call this "publish or perish." And it can be pretty brutal.

For the moment, we'll skip over the need to come up with research ideas that grant reviewers like in order to do research to begin with, and move straight to writing research up for publication. After research is complete (and yes, sometimes while research is in progress, if we have early results to share), we begin writing scientific articles that talk about the research we did, how we did it, and what we found. At some point during the writing, we begin thinking about what journal we think would be most likely to publish our paper.

And if you're like me, you have a second, third, even fourth option, because reviewers.

After the paper is complete, we submit it to our first-choice journal. It goes to an editor, who usually reads over the article to make sure it's the type of paper they would want to publish, and also to ensure the article is in the right format, and often to make sure it contains no author information, if the journal uses double-blind peer review. Then he or she selects reviewers to contact about reviewing the paper.

As I said, at some journals, the reviewer(s) receive the paper with no author information. We call this double-blind because the reviewers don't know who wrote the article and the authors don't know who reviewed the article. This allows us all to remain cordial with each other at conference happy hours.

Shortly before this scene took place, Dr. Fist was heard shouting, "Say 'regression to the mean' one more time! I dare you!'"
It also, supposedly, makes academic publishing an equal playing field. The world-renowned scholar in X does not get to use her name to get published, and the brand new grad student studying X does not have to worry that no one in the field has heard of him (yet).

The reviewers read the article and make their recommendations to the editor of whether it should be 1) accepted without revision (HAPPY DANCE!), 2) accepted pending revision (Happy dance!), 3) revise and resubmit without guarantee of acceptance (Um, happy dance?), or 4) reject (...).

Good reviewers will also provide some feedback to the authors, letting them know why the reviewer made this decision and how the paper could be improved, whether it is resubmitted to the same journal or submitted somewhere else.

But nothing says a reviewer has to give feedback. And some are very terse. I have received two reviews, I suspect from the same person (different articles, but submitted to the same journal a year or so apart), that totaled 4 sentences. In one of these cases, the paper was invited for a revision, so I had to make what I could of those 4 sentences, but base most of my revision on reviewer 2, who was one of the most awesome reviewers I've ever had.

If the article is rejected, researchers will often still read reviews and take what they can from them before submitting to another journal. Of course, some don't. And in small fields, it's quite likely that they'll get the same reviewer again (I've seen it happen). But as you may have noticed, the peer review itself can be very subjective. Though some journals have various criteria they ask reviewers to consider, they are still asked for their final decision using the four categories above. They could give the paper high marks on everything and still pick reject.

I'll go into more specific details about peer review in my next post, but I realized that, at this moment, you might be wondering, "So what's the point? Do we publish articles to show our smarts, impress granting agencies and HR departments, and satisfy our vanity of seeing our name in print?" Well, yeah. But that's not all!

Think back to school, especially science classes - the textbook probably discussed various laws, theories, observed relationships, established principles, etc. You learned how gravity works. Why we have magnetic fields. Why when a stranger does something mean, he's an asshole but when your friend does something mean, she must be having a bad day (we call this the fundamental attribution error).

These bits of information come from research. But the research doesn't go straight from the scientist's mouth to the textbook company's ears. It has to be disseminated in some other way, often publication.

Over time, people read that publication, and do more research on the topic. That research gets disseminated. Finally, when something has been pretty strongly established and becomes well-known in a given field, it makes its way into textbooks. And, more importantly, it becomes part of common practice.

Treatment for high blood pressure - that comes from research. The optimal color for a fire truck - research. Cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness - you guessed it, research.

These are applied topics, of course. A lot of research is what we would call basic (establishing and testing theoretical principles), but basic research - such as research determining what causes high blood pressure - can lead to applied research. Basic research helps us to understand an underlying mechanism, and applied research helps us to use that mechanism to make changes in our world.

As I've blogged about before, science is what gives us the quality of life to which we've become accustomed. Researchers have a duty to share their work to help build the evidence base, and inspire additional research. Of course, peer review can also stand in the way of sharing work. More on that in my next post.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Beware of the Trolls: A Typology and Diet Guide

The Internet has given many things to our society - the ability to find information on just about anything (though not always accurate information); a way to communicate with friends, family, and random strangers; and of course, a new way to piss people off. I'm speaking on Internet trolls, who likely were the second species created by the Internet, the first, of course, being the species who says "First" in the comments section of just about anything.

Like the Hodors of the Internet, they can only say their own name. We should feel sorry for them. Fortunately for all, this species is easily recognizable and, like the rest of humanity, "mostly harmless."

Trolls, on the other hand, are a diverse species, some more recognizable than others. My goal in today's blog post is to tell you about the different types of trolls and their favorite foods, so that you can deprive them effectively if you'd like them to go away (or at least, leave you alone).

The Infallible Troll
Regardless of what you are discussing, this troll possesses limitless and relevant knowledge about it, and is never wrong. At least, according to them. These trolls often embody what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect; this occurs when people with low levels of knowledge of a topic rate themselves as being as competent as people who are very knowledgeable about a topic. Essentially, they do not know enough about the topic to actually know what competence looks like, so they wildly overestimate their abilities. However, if you don't know much about the topic, you may not be able to tell that this person is not an expert because, well, see Dunning-Kruger effect.

Favorite food: Hot topics that most people don't actually know a lot about, though any topic with a relevant Wikipedia article is fair game.

The Humorless Troll
This troll is best identified as the person who either doesn't get the obvious joke or finds it offensive. It does not matter whether the humor is embedded in the original post or brought up by another commenter. The Humorless troll is not amused and wants everyone to know it.

Favorite food: Sarcasm (even if they don't realize it).

The Absolutely No Absolutes Troll
This troll can be found anytime someone uses absolutes, such as "never" or "always." Or even if you didn't, but kind of implied it. These trolls can be found discussing exceptions to rules, including describing themselves to show how they are exceptional and different from the rest. The "Not all men" trolls belong to this group.

Favorite food: Absolutes or implied absolutes. Honestly, any statements that aren't caveated and couched are likely to attract these trolls.

The Chaos Troll
The most disorganized and incomprehensible of trolls, the Chaos troll likes, well, chaos. This troll will argue the other side of any issue - vehemently - simply to get a rise out of people. They are easiest to recognize when they are spouting off nonsensical conspiracy theories.

Favorite food: Opinion-laden posts. It doesn't really matter what the opinion is.

The Master of Disguise Troll
This cunning troll reels in its victims by pretending to be a representative of some group, often a brand, or a celebrity. A recent example of such a troll can be found here. Other examples include countless fake celebrity Twitter accounts. These trolls generally lead short but very active lives; they often do not go away on their own, but are instead taken down when a real representative of the group learns about them. Do not attempt to take these trolls out on your own. Instead, take a screenshot, send to the group in question, and let them assemble the hit squad.

Or, if you're entertained by these trolls - and let's face it, it's hard not to be entertained by them when you aren't their target - just sit back and watch.

Favorite food: Pretty much any kind of reaction to their comments. The one potential exception is realizing that they are in fact a troll - if you get the joke, you might take all the fun out of it for them.

The One-Upper Troll
Whatever the subject of a post or story has done, this troll has done it better, worst, faster, slower, more often, never, etc. This troll is most identifiable by its constant use of self-relevant language (e.g., I, me, my), often multiple times in a single sentence.

Favorite food: Personal stories and anecdotes, especially about triumphs or defeats.

The Parenthood Troll
Nothing you have done or dreamed of doing is as meaningful as becoming a parent to this troll. This troll finds ways to drop references to parenthood and children, and how these things are better than anything else, in any comment. It should be noted, however, that while there are many parents online, very few are Parenthood trolls. How can you tell the difference? Belittling other people's accomplishments as "nothing compared to having children" might make you a Parenthood troll. For example:

Unsuspecting Victim: Just scheduled my dissertation defense! Almost done!!
Parenthood Troll: I thought finishing grad school was the best thing to ever happen to me... until I had children.

Favorite food: Discussions with people who say they do not want kids.

The Just World Troll
This troll is recognizable by its use of the phrase, "got what he/she/it/they deserved." Just World trolls believe that only good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people; this logic goes both ways, in fact, so that if they read a story about bad things happening to someone, they will assume that person is bad (and deserved it). That is, however, as far as their use of logic goes.

Additionally, they may also be recognizable by their use of distancing language - words that make the person or people in a story seem different from this troll, and potentially from the rest of humanity. For example: "that woman" (emphasis on that) or non-human terms.

Favorite food: Comments from people who have been through the same thing, as well as comments about the same terrible thing happening to said troll.

The Religious Zealot Troll
A close relative of the Just World troll, this troll believes that bad things happen to bad people because they are being punished by a wrathful deity. They may also be found wishing that bad people would be punished, and referencing how and when that might occur. Note: A person who believes in a higher power and states such may not necessarily be a Religious Zealot troll. The characteristic of this type of troll is forcing their belief system onto the situation, the individual(s) involved, and/or the other commenters.

Favorite food: Religiously-charged topics, such as abortion, are a delicacy to this type of troll.

The Silver Lining Troll
This is the sneakiest of all trolls. They are very difficult to recognize, and even if you feel their comments are annoying, you feel bad being annoyed by them because they're just so... positive. Do not be fooled. These trolls find the positive in anything, even the most frustrating, heinous, or nonsensical acts. Their comments tend to be long and, on the surface, thoughtful. But there is a passive aggression just beneath the surface, camouflaged by saccharine sweetness. They may, in fact, be an off-shoot of the chaos trolls, because they enjoy being contrarian, but have adopted the whole "flies-honey" approach.

Favorite food: Topics that would annoy or enrage 90% of the population.

The Grammar Troll
This type of troll defines stupid as "imperfect grammar." Though most people would agree that proper grammar is important, they generally recognize that even poorly written statements may have some truth to them, and that a single typo does not nullify an entire post. Not so with Grammar trolls, who long ago developed a defense mechanism that causes them to disbelieve anything containing typos, subject-verb disagreement, and/or incorrect punctuation.

Favorite food: "Your" when you mean to say "you're." See also: their, there, and they're, and sentences ended with prepositions.

The Self Promotion Troll
This troll is limited in communication, mostly speaking in links to their website/blog/webcam and the statement, "Please visit my..." They may be an off-shoot of the "First." They may also be spambots, computer programs who imitate Self-Promotion trolls; however, neither real nor bot Self-Promotion trolls are likely to be capable of passing a Turing test.

Favorite food: Unmoderated message boards.

The Skeptical Troll
This type of troll is most recognizable for the phrase "I don't believe..." Though skepticism is an admirable quality, the Skeptical troll disbelieves even the most well-established information. Multiple stories and photographic evidence are unlikely to convince this troll, who must see things with his/her own eyes.

Favorite food: Speculation.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Movie and TV Tropes, Constellations, and A Chance of Meteors

I started thinking last night of all the movies and TV shows that contain cutesy scenes about pointing out Cassiopeia. Or any constellation, really, including made-up ones. Just a few scenes I could think of...

A Beautiful Mind

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (aka: best show of all time)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
I've never been particularly good at identifying Cassiopeia or most constellations. My favorite constellation is Orion, which you can see during the winter. It's very recognizable and bonus: one of the stars is a red supergiant named Betelgeuse.

Of course, last night, being able to identify Cassiopeia became important. I decided to watch the Perseid meteor shower, which occurs every year in late July to mid August. It is so-called because the meteors appear in the sky near the constellation of Perseus, which is close to Cassiopeia; in fact, an article I read said to find Cassiopeia, then find Perseus, then enjoy meteoric goodness.

It also said look Northeast. So I looked Northeast. I might have found Cassiopeia. Meh, who knows?

The best time to watch this meteor shower is in the hours before dawn. Since I am usually dead to the world at that time, I opted instead for late evening. This is the time to catch earth-grazers, meteors that graze the earth's atmosphere and leave a long trail as they burns up. I saw two, including one really spectacular one that went across the sky.

This is only my second meteor shower and the first one I witnessed on purpose. The first was serendipitous. I was driving in Kansas City, my old stomping grounds, when I saw a light fall from the sky. I thought, "Cool, meteor." Then I saw another, and another... I can't remember when this was, but I remember the sight.

I'm hoping to watch again next year and maybe even try to make early morning my viewing time. Obviously, staying up until dawn is much more fun than waking up early. So preferably not a work day. Bonus if I can get away from Chicago and the light pollution to do it.

Earth-grazingly yours,

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Don't Think About That: Chicken Sandwiches, White Bears, and Coping with Unwanted Thoughts

For one of my recent blog posts, I wrote about inspiration and touched upon some of the nonconscious processes that influence our behavior. It seems a common misperception that, outside of clinical psychology, psychologists don't believe in the existence of nonconscious processes.

This may be thanks in part to the strong influence of early behaviorists, who could only study behavior that was outwardly expressed (rather than "internal" behaviors, such as thought), and therefore took the radical perspective that activities within the brain are irrelevant, and perhaps even nonexistent. (The founder of radical behaviorism, B.F. Skinner, who I've blogged about many times, once likened cognitive psychology to creationism.) However, nonconscious processes are key concepts throughout psychology, because so many influences on people occur outside of their awareness.

I also talked in that post about when and where I get some of my best ideas - at night, often following a dream. Another place is in my car. This is not a good place to write down an idea necessarily, but I've recently begun using my voice-to-text feature on my phone to jot down thoughts, even full paragraphs, for whatever I'm writing. Recently, after having a bit of writer's block at my work computer, I was able to finish a paper I was working on during my drive home.

Today, as I was listening to the radio, I heard a commercial for Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich. While this may seem a strange inspiration for a blog post, I really enjoyed the announcer insisting that we not think about that tasty sandwich, because it reminded me of a couple of social psychological concepts I used in my dissertation research: thought suppression and ironic processes. These two concepts basically amount to the same thing with one key difference: conscious versus unconscious.

The basic premise of these two ideas is that being instructed not to think about something makes you think about it more. For example, to use one of the first examples in this research, try not to think about a white bear.

Or sex. Or a white bear having sex. (That was my intro psych professor's favorite example, so you can thank him for that image. Thanks, Dr. Flaherty!)

Or my favorite example: Don't look down. Really. Don't do it. People say this all the time, at least in movies, and the first thing the character does after hearing it is look down.

For example...

So why does this happen? Why does being told - or even telling yourself - to ignore something make you think about it more? As I said before, there are two potential explanations.

Ironic process theory states that when people are told to ignore certain information, two types of mental processes are activated. The first type, conscious processes, aims at reaching the desired mental state, by thinking about what the person has been told to think about (e.g., looking up). The second type, unconscious processes, monitors thoughts on the undesired mental state, by looking for thoughts on what the person has been asked to ignore (e.g., do not look down). In trying to not think about something, the person ends up thinking about it more, without even realizing it.

Thought suppression occurs when a person actively (consciously) tries to suppress a particular thought (e.g., do not think about looking down), causing the thought to become more prominent, especially if the information elicits strong emotions. In both of these cases, the individual is trying to avoid thinking about something, but ironic processes are unconscious while thought suppression is conscious.

These effects obviously have significance beyond "not looking down" or trying not to think about a tasty sandwich. They explain any number of intrusive thoughts: Worry. Fixating on life problems. Obsessing over an ex-boyfriend. Telling yourself not to think about it can often backfire. And if the issue is something that makes you very upset, the effect is even stronger.

So what works? There are a variety of methods, and which works best depends on the nature of the thoughts. If the thoughts are about a problem, think about whether it can be solved. If so, work on a plan for how to solve them and focus your mental energy on that. Then focus on carrying out the plan.

If there is no solution, or the potential solution is not adaptive (e.g., dealing with obsessive thoughts about an ex by trying to get back to together), the focus should instead be on coping and lessening the strong emotions associated with the thoughts. Distractions that take up mental energy in a positive way also might help. Talking to someone, especially a psychologist or social workers, can help you work through your feelings and identify patterns that make the thoughts more likely to occur.

More serious problems with unwanted thoughts might be a sign of an anxiety disorder, and talking to a psychologist or social worker, as well as potentially a psychiatrist for anxiety medications, might be a good idea. The indicator of whether something is a serious mental health issue is if it interferes with daily life. If the intrusive thoughts keep you from doing your job, paying attention in school, or maintaining relationships with friends and family, that's a sign that you should seek help.

Everybody experiences unwanted thoughts. Some are merely annoying, some are more serious. And it takes a lot more than telling yourself, or someone else, not to think about those things to stop them. Talk to someone. Start a blog. Or maybe just let yourself have that chicken sandwich.

Thoughtfully yours,

P.S. - I used these theories in dealing with ignoring inadmissible evidence in my dissertation. You can read more about it in my dissertation, available here.

Friday, August 7, 2015

When the King Makes Budget Cuts, the Arts are the First to Go: Pippin at the Cadillac Palace Theatre

Last night, I went to a spectacular production of Pippin at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago. Pippin is the eldest son of Charlemagne - though these characters are based on real people, Charlemagne and Pepin, very little of the plot is historically accurate. The show begins, after introducing a troupe of players (Magic to Do), when Pippin has finished university and returned home to begin finding his place in the world (Corner of the Sky).

Pippin does not seem to have a clear idea of what he wants to do with his life, beyond that he is "extraordinary" and he wants to have a fulfilling life. He tries on various "selves" over the course of the show: warrior, courtesy of some sibling rivalry with his half-brother Lewis - his time as a warrior ends after a discussion with a headless corpse; lover, after a discussion with his grandmother; revolutionary and then King, after some coaxing by the Lead Player; artist (until the arts budget is cut); and religious man (where he was "touched" but not by an angel). For each, Pippin seems to drift along, trying on these different identities, but never fully committing to them - in fact, even selecting these identities is not always his idea. The only decision he seems to make on his own is to run away and try something new, all the while insisting that he is "extraordinary" - so how could he possibly lead a simple, ordinary life? When nothing seems to be working, Pippin's existential crisis leaves him in utter despair.

The show echoes some of the struggles we all go through, of determining our identity and role in the world (see a previous post about this topic). According to Erikson's stages of development, this stage occurs during adolescence, about ages 13-19. Presumably Pippin is older than this by a few years, but it's quite likely that this stage may extend a little later for people who attend university before selecting a career and life goal. The Lead Player operates as the little voice inside Pippin's head, telling him he is made for great things and should never settle. The Lead Player even attempts to sabotage Pippin's relationship with a woman describing herself as "ordinary." But Pippin seems to find some fulfillment and meaning when he meets someone who needs him, and this helps guide him to his destiny.

As I mentioned, the production was spectacular. The story took place inside a circus tent, with the players doing complicated acrobatics, dangling from hoops and trapeze, and, in one scene, balancing on four stacked metal tubes. Pippin's stepmother, Fastrada, had two costume changes in one scene that each took only a few seconds. The actors all had a great time, interacting with the audience and ad-libbing. The show breaks the fourth wall very often, especially in Act 2, so the interactions with the audience - such as Charlemagne playfully chiding the audience for applauding Fastrada ("Don't applaud; you'll only encourage her... And don't applaud that, either.") - fit well with the tone of the show.

In one scene, Lewis was supposed to leap through a hoop the Lead Player held over her head, and he just barely missed. Staying completely in the character, the Lead Player said - as the orchestra kept playing - "Nope, we're doing that one again." Lewis returned to his starting position, the orchestra transitioned back to that point in the music seamlessly, and Lewis made the leap flawlessly to thunderous applause. As the Lead Player continued on with the show, she briefly paused and said to the audience, "You're welcome."

Under the surface, though, Pippin deals with a much deeper, even somber theme, about finding fulfillment and leading a good life - regardless of whether it is extraordinary or not - as well as the danger of letting perfect be the enemy of good. The light-hearted tone of the rest of the show allows Pippin (and the audience) to get so caught up in the fun, we almost miss when the action takes a darker turn.

I wish all of you could see this show. Sadly, the production closes on Sunday. But if you have the opportunity between now and then - yes, I know, not a lot of time - definitely check it out!


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Inspiration, Dreams, and Why Social Psychology is Awesome

After finishing up my time on a non-profit board, my plan was to fill that extra time with things I enjoyed - including writing. Unfortunately, as is often the case with "extra" time, it quickly gets filled with tasks. So I resolve, once again, to try to spend more time writing, including writing on this blog.

Many writers have clashed on the issue of inspiration - whether one should write only when "inspired" to do so, or whether one should write regularly as a practice, whether you feel like doing so or not. Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite authors, had a lot of advice for aspiring writers, much of which involved writing often, regardless of "inspiration." Isaac Asimov also wrote every day, and was very prolific as a result.

I know I should apply this logic to myself and basically make myself write regularly. But as I was pondering this issue of inspiration, I started thinking about when and where I get some of my best ideas. For me - and this is especially true of fiction ideas - I tend to be most creative at night, especially after I've woken up from a strange and inspiring dream. I'd say dreams are the source of some of my best ideas. (P.S., I've blogged before about head songs that I think come from dreams, in part.)

I started doing a little research into this and found a whole literature on dreams and creativity. For instance, dreams inspired Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Because of sleep's role in memory consolidation, it makes sense that sleep can have a positive impact on certain aspects of creativity, such as insight.

REM (dream) sleep specifically is associated with increased abstract reasoning as well as increasing the strength of normally weak associations in the brain (see here). What that means is, two different things that your waking brain might not even see a connection between could become associated rather easily in a dream. Our brain does this kind of linking (neural networking) naturally, and it's a great way to learn new things - by connecting new knowledge you need to memorize to something you already know. Just as you can connect any actor to Kevin Bacon, you can connect any concept in your brain to another. Some connections are more direct than others.

Apparently one thing your brain does during REM sleep is play six degrees of "showing up to work without your pants." Or some such.

Of course, Freud and other psychoanalytic theorists would state that these strange juxtapositions are simply your subconscious trying to work out any conflicts you're having in your life. In fact, pretty much everything goes back to this idea of the subconscious, at least for psychoanalysts.

According to these theories, within your mind are three forces vying for control: the id, which operates on the pleasure principle (i.e., that feels good, keep doing it; that feels bad, stop doing it); the superego, which operates on morality (i.e., that feels good, stop doing it; that feels bad, keep doing it); and the ego, the conscious self who is just trying to pick the right feel goods to keep doing or stop doing and the right feel bads to keep doing or stop doing.

In case you would prefer a visual representation of the id, ego, and superego (respectively); Homer's id is clearly winning
When you dream, according to these theories, there are two types of content: manifest content, which is the literal subject of the dream (e.g., showing up to work without your pants), and latent content, which is the underlying meaning of the dream (e.g., you have issues with your mother, or maybe you like exhibitionism - I don't know, I'm a social psychologist!).

Of course, the interesting thing about all this theory is that social psychologists have come up with a variety of hypotheses and theories that explain many aspects of psychoanalytic theory. Putting some kind of idea in your head below your awareness that influences behavior? Priming. Attitudes that you swear you do not hold but that guide decisions, such as whether to trust someone of a certain group? Implicit attitudes. And of course, underlying meaning in your life and nonconscious sources of influence based on past experiences, temperament, and so on? Self and identity.

See also media effects, mob mentality, and ingroup/outgroup effects, just to name a few forces that influence you without you even realizing it. (Note: social psychologists prefer the term 'nonconscious,' rather than the psychoanalyst-laden term 'subconscious.')

Why do we need these little snippets of theory and hypothesis if Freud's and other psychoanalysts' theories can sum much of this up, in a neat, Oedipus-complex-themed package? After all, parsimony is an important aspect of science - the simplest explanation tends to be the best one, in the absence of evidence to support one over the other.

But that's the thing - the various social psychological theories outlined above have just that: evidence. Specifically empirical evidence, which is pretty important for science, something I've also blogged about before. In fact, psychoanalytic theories lack the basic ingredients that make them at all scientific: the ability to test these concepts (we call this 'testability') and, if they are false, demonstrate that (we call this 'falsifiability'). If there really are subconscious forces operating in your brain, trying to give you glimpses of what's really bothering you (latent content) but hiding behind symbolism (manifest content), how would we even begin to test this? After all, they're subconscious. But for social psychological theories, such as priming, we may know what evidence we would observe if priming happened and what we would observe if it isn't happening.

One of the key differences is whether the hypothesis/theory is nomothetic (describes a general pattern) or idiographic (describes a specific pattern, usually within a particular person). There are ways to test idiographic hypotheses, but it is more difficult than if you can generate a hypothesis that should apply to a group of people receiving the same intervention. You would just test to see if the group of people responded the way you expected.

These various social psychological theories lack a couple of things - 1) there isn't a unified theory that sums all this up in a neat little package and 2) other than the various findings outlined above in regard to sleep/dreams, there isn't really a good hypothesis/theory for the purpose of dreams. What you read above is descriptive with regard to sleep and dreams, but not predictive; that is, we haven't identified some key cause that would allow us to understand why we dream what we do and perhaps predict what people will dream, based on knowledge of the important variables. We don't even know what those variables are.

As I mentioned in my previous post linked above, scientific findings are tentative, pending better evidence and methodology. We may not completely understand dreams now, but perhaps will be able to in the future, as we expand on technology for studying the living, working brain.

For the time being, though, I'll be happy to take whatever inspiration my dreaming brain sends my way. But please, no more going back to high school dreams.

Dreamily yours,