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.

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