Emotion and the Scientific Method

There was an article in today’s Observer in which four scientists from different disciplines talk about how in various ways they all get a bit emotional about their science. The aim appears to correct “the mistaken view that scientists are unemotional people”. It’s quite an interesting piece to read, but I do think the “mistaken view” is very much a straw man. I think most people realize that scientists are humans rather than Vulcans and that as such they have just as many and as complex emotions as other people do. In fact it seems to me that the “mistaken view” may only be as prevalent as it is because so many people keep trying to refute it.

I think anyone who has worked in scientific research will recognize elements of the stories discussed in the Observer piece. On the positive side, cracking a challenging research problem can lead to a wonderful sense of euphoria. Even much smaller technical successes lead to a kind of inner contentment which is most agreeable. On the other hand, failure can lead to frustration and even anger. I’ve certainly shouted in rage at inanimate objects, but have never actually put my first through a monitor but I’ve been close to it when my code wouldn’t do what it’s supposed to. There are times in that sort of state when working relationships get a bit strained too. I don’t think I’ve ever really exploded in front of a close collaborator of mine, but have to admit that one one memorable occasion I completely lost it during a seminar….

So, yes. Scientists are people. They can be emotional. I’ve even known some who are quite frequently also tired. But there’s nothing wrong with that not only in private life but also in their work. In fact, I think it’s vital.

It seems to me that the most important element of scientific research is the part that we understand worst, namely the imaginative part. This encompasses all sorts of amazing things, from the creation of entirely new theories, to the clever design of an experiment, to some neat way of dealing with an unforeseen systematic error. Instances of pure creativity like this are essential to scientific progress, but we understand very little about how the human brain accomplishes them. Accordingly we also find it very difficult to teach creativity to science students.

Most science education focuses on the other, complementary, aspect of research, which is the purely rational part: working out the detailed ramifications of given theoretical ideas, performing measurements, testing and refining the theories, and so on. We call this “scientific method” (although that phrase is open to many interpretations). We concentrate on that aspect because we at have some sort of conception at least of what the scientific method is and how it works in practice. It involves the brain’s rational functions, and promotes the view of a scientist as intellectually detached, analytic, and (perhaps) emotionally cold.

But what we usually call the scientific method would be useless without the creative part. I’m by no means an expert on cognitive science, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a strong connection between the “emotional” part of the brain’s activities and the existence of this creative spark. We’re used to that idea in the context of art, and I’m sure it’s also there in science.

That brings me to something else I’ve pondered over for a while. Regular readers of this blog will know that I post about music from time to time. I know my musical tastes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but bear with me for a moment. Some of the music (e.g. modern Jazz)  I like isn’t exactly easy listening – its technical complexity places a considerable burden on the listener to, well, listen. I’ve had comments on my musical offerings to the effect that it’s music of the head rather than of the heart. Well, I think music isn’t an either/or in this respect. I think the best music offers both intellectual and emotional experiences. Not always in equal degree, of course, but the head and the heart aren’t mutually exclusive. If we didn’t have both we’d have neither art nor science.

In fact we wouldn’t be human.

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12 Responses to “Emotion and the Scientific Method”

  1. Roger Butler Says:

    What do you think of Domenico Vicinanza’s sonification of data from the ‘Higgs Boson’ event ? This has been prominent in the press. I am including it as an example in my presentation to Cardiff Astronomical Society’s next meeting ‘Astronomy and Music – twin spheres’.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    The paradox (although it’s not really one) is that science is a passionate activity – you simply can’t do it if you are not passionate about it – but this passion is not allowed to show in the write-up; also it is not obviously correlated with personality type.

    “I’d be willing to bet that there’s a strong connection between the “emotional” part of the brain’s activities and the existence of this creative spark”

    I’ll be more specific. I wouldn’t be surprised if human creativity stems from an upgrade of the part of the primate brain relating to sex.

    I think that am responsible for the comment on this blog that modern jazz seems to be of the head rather than the heart. I wrote those words to try to further the debate, as I frankly don’t like modern jazz but wanted to say something rather than just grumble or admit the virtuosity (which is not the point). I agree that “the best music offers both intellectual and emotional experiences” but for me modern jazz offers *only* the former. Some say the same of Bach, but they presumably have not heard the slow movements of his violin concertos, or the loud bits of his organ works in which he seems to be doing exactly what Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple aim for.

    • telescoper Says:

      We can agree to differ about Jazz, but I certainly agree about Bach. I simply can’t understand people who find his music unemotional. Everything is there, from the deepest grief to the highest elation.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I am told by an organist friend that Bach even goes atonal, nearly 200 years before Schoenberg, in the most emotional moments of the Matthew Passion, presumably at the Crucifixion.

      • telescoper Says:

        Really? I’d like to know more about that! The St Matthew Passion is a colossal work, each part of which is as close to perfection as it is possible to imagine. The cumulative effect is overwhelming.

        Apparently Bach was a superb improviser, and he basically invented the walking bass lines often used in jazz…

      • telescoper Says:

        Ps. A friend of mine (a pianist) once showed me the sheet music for the three-part inventions. I asked him if they were as hard to play as they looked. He said “No. Much harder.”

  3. Roger Butler Says:

    When someone suggested to Carl Sagan that the complete works of Bach should be the only music on the gold disc, part of the Voyager mission, Sagan remarked that that would be just showing off !

  4. [...] Emotion and the Scientific Method. There was an article in today's Observer in which four scientists from different disciplines talk about how in various ways they all get a bit emotional about their science.  [...]

  5. I think I’d have to say the pop cultural idea of the unemotional or the anti-emotional scientist is still pretty current, with possibly the exception that when it gets to his field he’ll start enthusiastically bubbling over about whatever relevant exposition might be needed. The Big Bang Theory gets criticized for many things, but none of them that I’ve heard was “nobody can believe Sheldon’s a scientist”.

  6. I think that the emotional part and the mental part of the scientific method work together as well. I like the correlation you made between the similarities of the scientific method and music! The was that music is thought about , put together, played with until it sounds right , and the put out for others to judge (listen to) is just like the scientific method. Scientists and artists both have a creative mind and have to experiment and think outside the box to create something worthwhile. I agree that scientists have to have a sense of creativity but I also understand that when doing an experiment or having focus can cause a lot of stress and I think that stress comes from the pressure of the drive to succeed. Regarding students not thinking out of the box and only focusing on the method, I think that’s false. A lot more of the science classes (high school/college) are doing a lot more of the critical/creative thinking to engage the minds of young scientists. In a way that use of critical thinking in my opinion is much more frustrating than following a guide line such as the scientific method.

  7. [...] a quick rehash of an old post by way of a follow-up to Sunday’s blog about Emotion and Creativity which touched on the negative stereotypes sometimes used to [...]

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