Somedays my brain just don’t work

My amusing friends might say “most days” or “did it ever”

Sometimes its easy to forget that thinking is actually hard work, thinking is hard, hard thinking is hard and it can be exhausting. As scientists, we are ideally trained in critical thinking, in tearing apart our own ideas and then trying to reconstruct them and put them back together again. In finding something that might lead to that ‘Eureka’ moment – though in my experience ‘Eureka’ moment is usually more ‘huh?, I don’t understand that’ moment.

Now granted not all scientists do this or do it very well, we see some of them in the news, but I would argue most scientists and people I consider to be *good* scientists do engage in critical thinking and engage their own self critiques. But not always, one of the things I am perpetually annoyed with is ‘received wisdom’ statements in papers, the sort of ‘it is well known that….’ line that when you go back through the references it isn’t actually well known at all, its just someone that is *important* has said they think “it might be possible that…” and those people that reference said great person think – well he MUST be right because it is Professor Blah that said it. Personally, I am often worried I have gotten something wrong in my analysis, over looked something basic in my papers, sometimes to the point of mild obsession that isn’t healthy – and my colleagues can tell you – somewhat annoying. This is part of the reason I am such a fan of peer review, it helps with a sort of ‘double check’.
But I digress…

Thinking is hard work – critical thinking is even harder, but sometimes especially in light of the current climate in research in the UK, I don’t really feel like thinking counts as real work.

You have to do it but where is the balance, we have to write papers and as anyone knows, to write a nice paper you have to actually think about what you are saying and think about what your data means and then put it into context with the current literature.

Currently, scientists are supposed to be doing ‘more with less’ – which means that activities such as teaching (which requires prep and indeed critical thinking if you are going to be good at it), admin tasks (fill in for yourself how much thinking you are required to do on committees) while at the same time doing more ‘high impact’ research – which is internationally acclaimed. As another aside international acclaimation is not so easy to achieve even IF you have international level research. There is so much literature out there and unless you actively promote your work (which not all of us have time to do) it sometimes it goes unseen – for years, even if the work is in high impact journals – and sometimes people become internationally acclaimed after their deaths (Lie algebra) – and then there is the what exactly is ‘excellence’ question –

Regardless, what all of these activities require is critical thinking and critical thinking or any kind of thinking takes time.

Now some of you may not have noticed but in many research institutions morale is pretty low at the moment, people are losing their jobs, those that are left have increasingly more teaching to do, and I, at least, am trying to write grants and publish as much as I can so that when the next round of cuts come I am safe. I feel an inordinate amount of pressure to be safe; I have a feeling that I am not the only one. But again all of this requires thinking, if I am going to have ‘high impact’ science and good papers and grants.

Its also not always easy to think under pressure – and I don’t mean in a someone is firing at you in your foxhole kind of way but rather a constant groaning stress of ‘I need to get this paper out’ ‘I need to get a grant’ ‘I need to be REF ready’ ‘I need to …. ‘ fill in the blank – which yields little time for thinking and even when you have the time you have to stop worrying and think.

And sometimes, well, even though I know I have to do all these things and they are indeed pending and constantly in my mind – sometimes my brain just don’t work.

How do we find time to breathe?

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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6 Responses to Somedays my brain just don’t work

  1. Heather says:

    I count one of the great blessings of my new life since last summer, the unexpected fact that I have landed in a laboratory where my peer-who-is-nominally-my-boss and an esteemed collaborator, both knew about this attitude:

    >I don’t really feel like thinking counts as real work.

    and said to me, separately, “take the time to really think about what you want to do in the context of this project.”


    Also, I guarantee you that thinking is hard work. I do more of it at the desk than in the lab, though; it’s like planning a complex reception or actually executing the hors d’oeuvres – both have their pleasures, but it is definitely more difficult mentally to do the former. The reason I know this is because: when I’ve really been working at my desk (as opposed to commenting on blogs and the link) I get ravenously hungry.

    Too bad I couldn’t do a typical hour’s work (and another typical Internet surf hour as a control) inside a PET scanner. It would prove my point.

  2. j0ns1m0ns says:

    Great post. Finding the time to think is something I also worry about increasingly as my diary fills more and more with meetings, lectures, deadlines etc etc. I am simply not very good at saying “Oh good, I have an hour before my next meeting, I’ll do some thinking now.” Or rather, I can say it, but not a lot of good thinking tends to get done under those circumstances.

    I find the only way is to get out of the office, away from all distractions, and go for a long walk somewhere. Ridiculously though, I have to fight against my own sense of guilt that I am somehow “bunking off” by doing that, that I’m wasting time that I should be spending filling out the next waiting form. I’m my own worst enemy…

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  4. It is not good for my sleep that the best time of day I find to think – because it is the time I am not besieged by emails, committee work or other distractions – is when I am trying to drop off. As long as I can still remember those crystal clear thoughts I had around midnight the next day that’s fine. Unfortunately, too often that isn’t the case, merely a general lingering feeling that I did have a useful thought, only now it has disappeared again.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    I feel sometimes that I am, literally, “going on bloody stumps”, and oxygen seems like a luxury. We are expected to “do more with less”, but really–I could almost handle that if it weren’t for what seems like a parallel massive increase in day-to-day bureaucracy. More online courses of this and that and the other, more silly e-mails and waste-of-time meetings and commitments with which it is a “Mitzvah” (good deed in Hebrew and Yiddish: ask Henry, he used “Tzores” (troubles) in one of his recent posts…) to extract oneself.

    In short–I feel your pain!

  6. cromercrox says:

    I read this excellent post and composed a long, thoughtful reply, but my computer eated it. Sorry.

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