Month: October 2016

The Positive Stimulation Series – Part 2: Why is Research Boring?

I think the fact that research is so boring to most people is the reason why researchers themselves are not regarded as universally interesting or popular people. Their output only caters to a bunch of nerds that seem to get off on the same topic. Which is why their only source of entertainment is conferences. Research is behind the scenes stuff. Our world has improved phenomenally thanks to scientific research, but Nobel Prize winners and other prominent researchers are not popular figures because they simply don’t elicit that kind of hair-raising, laugh out loud, visceral emotion. When the average person hears about research, the reaction is something like, “Cool. Thanks”.

I think back to this lecture by Professor Brian Cox on how the universe works. I found it interesting – but why? At the time, I thought it was his public speaking skills that made the difference. He was able to simplify very complex topics and make them relatable to laypeople. But now I wonder – was there something more to it? Did I like the lecture not because of the way he delivered the speech, but because of the way I felt? Is relatable learning a form of positive stimulation?

When you can connect the dots and learn something new, that’s a good feeling. Not as good as comedy or sport, but it still registers as stimulation. Lack of learning stimulation explains why kids disengage from school when it isn’t making sense to them. Instead, they seek stimulation from other, less academically productive sources like games or friends. To be honest, it’s what I did also, to an extent. And now that I think about it, most of the positive stimulation I derived from studying for all these years came from the pleasure of fast comprehension. It can explain why I sometimes feel down about the PhD – because I’m no longer at the top of my game when it comes to learning. I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall, and it’s the most demotivating feeling. That’s why so many of us procrastinate – because we don’t want to be in a state of negative stupor. We naturally seek out those activities that make us feel good, and like we’re working towards something positive. So while this Wait But Why post on procrastination is very relevant to me, I can also add that my willingness to stick at a task and achieve a state of flow is related to my mental capacity to exist without positive stimulation for more than a few minutes.

Perhaps the lesson I can take away from this is that the difference between persistent people and procrastinators is that persistent people are better prepared to withstand long periods without even the smallest pieces of positive stimulation to sustain them, in the knowledge that their sacrifice will gain them ultimate positive stimulation in the long run. No pain, no gain. The weak ones break the diet regime and reach for the pizza; the strong ones suffer in the short term, even if that short term can last for years. It’s like the two marshmallow experiment about delayed gratification.

It is an important realisation to understand that a PhD is naturally not as stimulating due to its inherent nature (some people find it highly stimulating, but that’s because they’re passionate about the topic itself). In my case, I think I was more attracted to the high I derived from academic achievement. Other highs, like writing and listening to music, were merely hobbies. A career in those fields was out of the question. I guess over time, things changed for me. I began to develop and grow in other fields. I derived more and more positive stimulation from activities that were deemed financially unproductive. As I began to enjoy those activities more and more, I guess I liked research slightly less, particularly in the second half of my PhD. To add to my woes, emotional trauma halfway through my studies severely reduced my tolerance for negative stimulation. It fuelled my craving for good feelings. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – after such a horrible upset, positive stimulation is the best medicine – but now, as I consider myself mostly recovered and now find research fascinating and fulfilling, it is time to wean myself off this drug. Because that’s what it is – an addictive drug. When you look at poor people living in developing countries, you can see that they have never experienced the high doses of stimulation to which we in the Western world are accustomed. As a result, they live with less and are actually happy with less. The same goes for previous generations. This brings us to the existing movements around minimalism and mindfulness. These concepts teach us to derive pleasure and stimulation from simpler things. It’s all about reducing the dose of drug that takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions, and learning to stay calm and conscious of our individual goals. Positive stimulation is something like a legal drug that drives the entire world. Whoa.

The Positive Stimulation Series – Part 1: The Business of Positive Stimulation

I had a thought the other day about what makes people beloved, successful or popular on any scale. I think the answer is positive stimulation. Think about it; our lives would be dull as heck if we didn’t engage in activities that make us feel they are worth living. That’s why we enjoy entertainment in all forms, and love those that entertain us. Of course, stimulation can be negative also, but even experiencing the bad times can help us appreciate the good. I think it is possible to become very popular over time if you become a supplier of positive stimulation.

Nurses are loved by the public because they bring light to a dark situation. Entertainers and sportspeople trigger feelings of excitement and release. A good friend or partner is regarded as someone that uplifts you and/or makes you laugh. Another interesting group is models. Fundamentally, they provide positive stimulation by allowing us to derive pleasure from their beauty. It’s like they’re walking works of art. But because they are also human, many of us seem incapable of mentally separating ourselves from them. We are sold the idea that we too can become similar works of art if we buy certain products. And that is simply not true. Human-driven art can be dangerous for this reason. Additionally, in this age of breaking down role definitions and stereotypes, we will ourselves to believe that we can be anyone and do anything. But I think we need to apply some limits here, or at least wait until the concept of art is redefined with general consensus before diving head first into a career that will belly flop because you simply don’t look the part, and won’t for some time. Of course, there are pioneers that clear the way – ethnically diverse lead actors and larger models – but I think what they are doing is providing a new kind of positive stimulation to growing audiences with increasing market power. At the end of the day, what we see in pop culture at this moment in time is what makes good business. So these pioneers have tapped in to a growing market. They are not social activists in my opinion (as much as they may purport to be) – they are actually shrewd businesspeople seizing opportunities. They offer a new brand of positive stimulation that connects more readily with certain groups of people. For example, when it comes to ethnic diversity on television, people of colour such as myself were deriving plenty of positive stimulation from ethnically homogeneous shows like Seinfeld. It’s just that with ‘ground breaking’ shows like Master of None, we are experiencing a new and exhilarating variety of positive stimulation. It resonates particularly with the ethnically diverse, but it is also refreshing for those who are not. And that is why traditionally unpopular faces have suddenly become so bankable. It’s not about social change and representation – all you have to do is follow the money.

On a related note, when you think about positive stimulation as a resource, social media activity can be appraised in a new light. Take the attention-seeking people that post mundane things or show themselves off. It’s about attracting attention for the purposes of validation, approval, and an appeal to the most basic of human needs – to feel wanted and loved. It is essentially a request for the ultimate form of positive stimulation. It’s emotional fuel; it’s what keeps us going. And these kinds of posts signify a deep hunger that calls for refuelling through donations of positive stimulation. Unfortunately, many of these ‘emotionally needy’ aren’t in the business of giving back, and if they do, it is not a fair trade. Thankfully, there are others that don’t publicly solicit positive stimulation, but by providing it to others, they receive it in turn. This creates a wonderful cycle of giving and receiving. And it’s what we should all aim for. After all, you wouldn’t accept presents without giving some too! The same attitude applies for emotional gifts.

Anyway, that’s my theory: people in the business of giving positive stimulation do well, because let’s face it, that’s what we’re all ultimately looking for. It makes us feel like life has some meaning and that it’s worth living. It can be in the form of good food, fun exercise, an emotive movie, shopping, socialising, or watching entertainers and sports. And some lucky people can actually derive positive stimulation from work, which may explain ‘workaholicism’ in some. It’s basically the old cliché about loving what you do expressed in a different way. I don’t think this cliché is the best way to state life’s aim, because it places a burden on individuals to 1) have the capacity and/or will to love something so fiercely and 2) dedicate their lives to it with abandon. I am one of those individuals that have felt the pressure and even a degree of guilt when I haven’t loved my work most of the time. It’s as if I’m incapable of love; lost and unhappy. But I don’t think that’s true. There are many things I enjoy, but I don’t think I could make a career out of any of them without becoming skilled in the craft first, potentially losing my identity and financial security in the process. This path is possible in the aspirational sense, but unlikely in the practical. As Elizabeth Gilbert said in her book Big Magic, it is foolish to give up your day job in pursuit of a distant creative dream, but at the same time it is important to remain in tune with what stimulates you, and cultivate your craft passionately and naturally without the burden of financial expectation.