Turn and Face the Strange

One outcome of the brief period of “sabbatical” from my blog (if not from much else) is that I have had a chance to engage in a little self-reflection. And amongst many other epiphanies, it has dawned on me that I might be a tad capricious because in my spare time I do tend to get into slightly random things. It’s fun; I am not apologising for it. Just to give a flavour of the range, variety and general weirdness of these small obsessions, over the past few months I have become an armchair expert on projection mapping (kind of temporary graffiti), breeding butterflies (surprisingly difficult), and producing homemade kimchee (surprisingly easy, but time-consuming if you insist on growing your own cabbages).

kimchee projmap butter

These mini-obsessions are, I like to think, the eclectic consequence of an enquiring mind rather than an overactive intellectual thyroid. But, it also made me think, that it is rather sad that what is divergent is generally squeezed out of our intellectual lives these days – there’s little time or space (or incentive) in modern science to head off the beaten track for a while, to learn something new that can offer new insight to work and/or personal development as an academic. Being an academic scientist these days typically means mining a single seam, often for a whole career, and it rarely pays to look above ground. While you need to keep abreast of new work in your area, an open mind is only beneficial in so far as it is left just slightly ajar. Modern psychology, perhaps most modern science, all too often suffers from a closed-mind culture.

Thinking outside of certain boxes is high risk, generally not core business and seen, by many, as a dilution of the mission. It’s bunking off, spending your free periods smoking and fumbling behind the bike sheds when you should be getting down and dirty with the revised OCR chemistry syllabus. (Of course, as any millennial school child will tell you, “free periods” were rebranded into “study periods” long ago because, of course, we’re such slaves to linguistic nuance that the rebranding is enough to suppress even the most vigorous cravings.)

Often, what interests me most, is what is on the peripheries – the stuff I don’t know about.  And while I concede that my capriciousness is probably on another level – the psychology of kimchee, butterfly sex or projection mapping will probably not feature in major grant awards in 2017 – across science, more generally, something gets lost when intellectual enquiry becomes too narrow.

Indeed, one problem with much of current academic is that capriciousness is regarded as a weakness, not a strength.  It’s the anti-renaissance, and that is just wrong. Modern science, the REF, TEF, the emergence of dreadful registered reports, stultify and funnel research into silos and any engagement with the different, the new, the strange or the truly challenging is regarded with disdain. And while, increasingly, some funders do recognise the utility of the peripheries, more broadly the system militates against people exploring them. I wonder, how many Heads of Department and Deans will regard arts-science collaborations as a good use of their staff members’ time? Too often, in the past, I’ve heard fellow psychologists disparage other disciplines: ridiculing contemporary artistic, musical and theatrical interpretations of scientific work. Academics who want to explore creative, novel areas are told to focus on the real job. That’s rude, ignorant, and stifles innovation. In the end, it’s bad for science too.

artscie bethlem

I am going to try to open our minds a little and explore the links between science and art with gusto. This year, at IoPPN, we’ll be initiating an “Arts in Mind” scheme to explore creatively the links between arts, science and education. In fact, with initiatives like the Bethlem exhibitions, the forthcoming Manifestations of the Mind, and numerous other events, and a forthcoming student art exhibition we will continue our tradition of genuinely open, curious, inter-disciplinary, intellectual enquiry. It adds vibrancy (and a little joy) to the workplace but also it presents intellectual challenges in a world where inevitably there is often little room for thinking from the peripheries. If you’re lucky, I might bring along a couple of jars of kimchee or project a cascading façade onto one of the walls. Sadly, January is not a good time for amorous butterflies.

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