Scientists are known for following their head rather than their heart, or so the popular stereotype goes. Most scientists themselves, however, tend to disagree with this portrayal. Indeed, a recent article published in The Guardian collected experiences from researchers across different disciplines in an effort to show that the pursuit of science can be quite an emotional rollercoaster, with ups and downs and everything in between. The fact that these articles even exist is a testament to the reputation of scientists as objective, logical drones who have, over time, learned to suppress their individualism.

This reputation has grown because of the rigid “scientific method” – a logical set of rules that allows us to identify and address research problems through cycles of careful experimentation and observation. The scientific method favours the analytical half of the brain over the creative and emotional counterpart. Although we become well acquainted with the scientific method in our graduate school years, learning how to run perfectly controlled experiments is hardly the reason we signed up in the first place.

What motivates us to spend the long hours toiling at our lab benches is the thrill of discovery – the rush of anticipation before a breakthrough. Gerald Edelman, known for his co-discovery of antibody structure, described the sensation of a novel observation as a “splendid, almost lustful feeling of excitement”. In contrast, the sinking feeling of frustration when an experiment, or even a project, fails to yield meaningful results can be devastating. These personal emotions accompany every step of the scientific process. Unfortunately, the influence of these emotions on the overall research process remains largely unappreciated.

The current domain of scientific research spares little room for personal expression, as illustrated by the nature of communication between fellow scientists. The language used in research papers is as precise as it is economical and follows the facets of the scientific method to a T. These articles are formulaic in their construction and are designed to deliver the most pertinent information as quickly and clearly as possible. A dedicated forum where researchers can share the more personal side behind scientific research has yet to be implemented.  Consequently, many of the creative insights behind published results are all but hidden in primary literature.

These creative ideas are driven by our emotions. Dr. Paul Thagard, director of the Cognitive Science program at the University of Waterloo, is of the opinion that emotional thinking plays a critical role in the context of investigation and discovery. Dr. Thagard suggests that various emotions underpin several crucial decisions during graduate school and beyond: Which scientific discipline appeals to me? Which existing research questions interest me? Where and how should I pursue these questions? Whereas our logical thinking helps us progress in our day-to-day bench work, the bigger decisions in our scientific careers require emotional input and self-trust.

As scientists, we may never shed our reputation for being analytical machines. But recognizing the emotional investment that we put into our work will undoubtedly help with our development as researchers, and more importantly, as people.

References:

Birney, Ewan. “Scientists and their emotions: the highs and the lows.” The Guardian 10 Feb 2013. Print.

Coles, Peter. “Emotion and the scientific method.” In the dark 10 Feb 2013. 31 Mar 2013 (http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/emotion-and-the-scientific-method/). Weblog entry.  

“Emotion in science and art.” Sci Art Sci 16 Sep 2012. 31 Mar 2013 (http://sciartsci.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/emotion-in-science-and-art/). Weblog entry.

Lefkowitz, Robert J. “The spirit of science.” J Clin Invest 82(2). Aug 1988: 375-378. Address.

Thagard, Paul. “The passionate scientist: emotion in scientific cognition.” The cognitive basis of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002: 230-250. Print.

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Michael Le

Managing Editor
Michael is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto studying how B cells diversify their antibodies to fight infections. He enjoys staying active, playing board games, and supporting his beloved Arsenal FC.

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