Unconventional Wisdom

Now that I have a chance to think back on APA convention, I wanted to share a few impressions with my fellow psychologists, both those who attended and those who didn’t.

Cultivated serendipity: The first is a return to the challenge of unification that I discussed in my first post. I think one way that we can each address unification, and try to help make psychology stronger, is not just by strengthening our own science, or our own practice, or our own subdiscipline, but doing what we can to understand others in psychology. As I move further on in my career, I realize how difficult this can be. It is downright uncomfortable to sit in a session outside my subdiscipline, with unfamiliar assumptions and vocabulary. But if we force ourselves to think about how our discipline relates to what might at first seem strange, we can be struck with interesting connections. These serendipitous realizations can be tremendously and unexpectedly rewarding, but we need to be in the room to have them. I had several moments like this. One was on the morning of the last day, after the presentation of Margaret Tarampi, a psychologist who first trained and practiced as an architect, then changed careers into cognitive psychology. Dr. Tarampi had described condominiums in Japan which had been directly inspired by the work in neuroscience finding that enriched environments cause neurogenesis. Tarampi noted in her presentation that this was perhaps not the best research to guide architecture (the research compared cages that had essentially nothing in them to cages that had just a few things for the mice to do), but that architects had found the neuroscience (new brain cell growth!) much more compelling than psychology research. During the question period, in an offhand way, Tarampi mentioned that architectural photos almost never have people in them. I thought this was a fitting example of how a discipline like architecture could use psychology but clearly does not.

Slide from Margaret Tarampi of lofts designed by Arakawa and Gins

Slide from Margaret Tarampi of lofts designed by Arakawa and Gins

Impact at small sessions: Like at any conference, I went to a few sessions which were very sparsely attended given by junior colleagues. As I look into an audience of 10 or 15 (or sometimes five, as I have on occasion as a presenter), I sometimes feel downhearted. The presenter has often spent months on the research, weeks on the presentation, and days of nervousness and anxiety, and a small audience can leave one wondering if was worth all the trouble. While we may have an ethos of “only the quality of the science matters” in science, nothing confirms that status matters (and you don’t have it) like an 8 a.m. session with an empty room. But in these moments, I am happy to be in the audience myself, and I remind myself that even small audiences can yield great connections and can sometimes be the spark of collaborations. I saw this happen during several question periods, as questioners revealed themselves to have an expertise that complemented that in the presentation. Whether it was an ecologist curious about the psychological work in biophilia and the cognitive benefits of nature, or a sleep researcher interested about the role of sleep deprivation in the obesity associated with poverty, or even my own thoughts inspired by the history of the five senses, or how touch and movement are inextricably linked.

Take home messages and “positive psychology:” As a graduate student attending my first conference, I can remember sharing an elevator with a senior professor in my department, and sharing my youthful ebullience and eagerness at this session or that. He grumbled, “Oh, that’s nice you’re excited, I hate this conference, and actually, most conferences” or something to that effect. Although I had a good time at that conference, I could start to see what he meant. Sessions that looked absolutely fascinating to me on paper would all too often turn out to be mumbling through PowerPoint slides with tables and 10 pt font, or incoherent, or not about what they said they were about at all. In the past, those sessions would make me disappointed and get me down as I felt my time was being wasted. But as time has gone on, I have come to have a more positive outlook on these sessions. I try to take what I can from them, even if it is a reminder of what not to do and a single useful example. This positive psychological outlook has helped me get more out of conferences, and not dwell on those sessions that are not as useful or interesting as others.

I hope that you readers were able to find something useful in my blogging, too. Thanks for reading.