Dealing with Failure

When the hits come, they really come hard.

I’m dealing with some significant personal/professional failures this month.

I put in for two federal operating grants this past year: one from NSERC to fund my basic cognitive science work on learning and memory and one from SSHRC to fund some relatively new research on mindfulness meditation. I worked pretty hard on these last fall.

And today I found out that neither were funded.

This means that for the first time in a long number of years, my lab does not have an active federal research grant. The renewal application from NSERC is particularly hard to swallow, since I’ve held multiple NSERC grants and they have a pretty high funding rate relative to other programs. I feel like the rug was pulled out from under me and worry about how to support the graduate students in my lab. I can still carry on doing good research this coming year, and I have some residual funds, but I won’t lie: this is very disappointing.

The cruelest month, the cruelest profession.

It’s often said that academic/scientific work loads heavily on dealing with failure. It’s true. I’ve had failed grants before. Rejected manuscripts. Experiments that I thought were interesting or good that fell apart with additional scrutiny. For every success, there are multiple failures. And that’s all just part of being a successful academic. Beyond that, many academics may work 6-8 years to get a PhD, do a post doc, and find themselves being rejected from one job after another. Other academics struggle with being on the tenure track and may fail to achieve that milestone.

And April really truly is the cruelest month in academics.  Students may have to deal with: rejection from grad school, med school, graduate scholarships, job applications, internships, residency programs. They worry about their final exams. Faculty worry about rejection from grants, looking for jobs, and a whole host of other things. (and at least here in Canada, we still have snow in the forecast…)

Why am I writing this?

Well, why not? I’m not going to hide these failures in shame. Or try to blame someone else. I have to look these failures in the eye, own them, take responsibility for them, and keep working. Part of that means taking the time to work through my emotions and feelings about this. That’s why I’m writing this.

I’m also writing, I guess, to say that it’s worth keeping in mind that we all deal with some kind of stress or anxiety or rejection. Even people who seem to have it together (like me, I probably seem like I have it together: recently promoted to Full Professor, respectable research output, I’ve won several teaching awards, written a textbook, and have been a kind and decent teacher and mentor to 100s of students)…we all get hits. But really, I’m doing fine. I’m still lucky. I’m still privileged. I know that others will be hurting more than I am. I have no intention to wallow in pity or fight with rage. I’m not going to stop working. Not going to stop writing, doing research or trying to improve as a teacher. Moving forward is the only way I can move.

Moving on

We all fail. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

From a personal standpoint, I’m not going to let this get me down. I’ve been in this boat before. I have several projects that are now beginning to bear fruit. I’ve had a terrific insights about some new collaborative work. I have a supportive department and I’m senior enough to weather quite a lot. (thought I’m not Job, so you don’t have to test me Lord!)

From a professional standpoint, though, I think I know what the problems were and I don’t even need to see the grant reviews or committee comments (though I will be looking at them soon). There’s only one of me and branching off into a new direction three years ago to pursue some new ideas took time away from my core program, and I think both suffered a bit as a result. That happens, and I can learn from that experience.

I’ll have to meet with my research team and students next week and give them the bad news. We’re going to need to probably have some difficult conversations about working through this, and I know this will hit some of them hard too.

It might also mean some scholarly pruning. It might mean turning off a few ideas to focus more on the basic cognitive science that’s most important to me.

Congratulations to everyone who got good news this month. Successful grants, acceptance into med school, hired, or published. Success was earned. And for those of us getting bad news: accept it, deal with it, and progress.

Now enjoy the weekend everyone.

 

River Water

A simple metaphor

I’ve been reading a lot about privilege, gender, and colonization. I will not even try to pretend to be an expert in this area. But I was thinking about how I am often unaware of my own life and its privilege and the role of luck and chance in all of our lives. The following metaphor / parable is what I came up with. It’s a bit of a clumsy analogy, but I thought it worked on a simple level for me.

We are like rivers

A river flows in the direction that it flows because of many things. Although some rivers are fast, or slow, or deep, or wide, they are all made of the same water. And really, a river is nothing more than water flowing along a course that was created by the water that came before it: the water that created the channel, the water that created the canyon, even the water that is downstream, pulling the river along its course.

The river doesn’t know this. It cannot know the struggles of the earlier river-water that moved the rocks. It cannot know the ease with which the earlier river-water flowed down an unobstructed path. It cannot know that the earlier river-water was obstructed and damned or if a melting glacier helped the earlier river-water to speed its course and deepen its channel. It cannot know that all rivers eventually stop flowing and that all river-water becomes part of the same sea.

All the river can know is it that it is flowing now: flowing quickly or flowing slowly; constrained or unconstrained, oblivious to its own history even as its present course and identity are shaped its history.

We are like rivers in this way. We flow along in our lives, making progress, confronting obstacles, and not always knowing the full context of our our life course.

We should try to understand

But we can try to know more that the river knows. Even as we try to live in the present, we can try to understand how the past shaped the channels and canyons of our life-course. We can see how our current circumstances might make it easier or more difficult depending on the obstacles that previous generations faced. We are the beneficiaries to the sometimes arbitrary circumstances that favoured or did not favour those who came before us. We may also carry the burden of the circumstances imposed on those who came before us. Those of us whose lives flow though clear cut channels may not always realize that we’re travelling a path with fewer obstacles, because those obstacles were removed long before us. We receive these benefits, earned or unearned, aware, or unaware.  But people whose paths are or were constrained or obstructed are often all too aware of the impedance. And like a river that was once blocked or dammed, the effects of the obstruction can be seen and felt long after the impedance was removed.

But we’re all the same river-water, flowing to the same sea. But we don’t all take the same course. We would do well to be aware of our privilege and to understand that we may not all have the same course to travel…but we still have to travel to the same place.

Be mindful of your own trajectory. Be mindful of others.

And help when you can.

 

A Curated Reading List

Fact: I do not read enough of the literature any more. I don’t really read anything. I read manuscripts that I am reviewing, but that’s not really sufficient to stay abreast of the field. I assign readings for classes, to grad students, and trainees and we may discuss current trends. This is great for lab, but for me the effect is something like me saying to my lab “read this and tell me what happened”. And I read twitter.

But I always have a list of things I want to read. What better way to work through these papers than to blog about them, right?

So this the first instalment of “Paul’s Curated Reading List”. I’m going to focus on cognitive science approaches to categorization and classification behaviour. That is my primary field, and the one I most want to stay abreast of. In each instalment, I’ll pick a paper that was published in the last few months, a preprint, or a classic. I’ll read it, summarize it, and critique. I’m not looking to go after anyone or promote anyone. I just want to stay up to date. I’ll have a new instalment on a regular basis (once every other week, once a month, etc.). I’m doing this for me.

So without further introduction, here is Reading List Item #1…

Smith, J. D., Jamani, S., Boomer, J., & Church, B. A. (2018). One-back reinforcement dissociates implicit-procedural and explicit-declarative category learning. Memory & Cognition,46(2), 261–273.

Background

This paper was published on line last fall but was just published officially in Feb of 2018. I came across it this morning and I was looking at the “Table of Contents” email from Memory & Cognition. Full disclosure, the first author was my grad advisor from 1995-2000, though we have’t collaborated since then (save for a chapter). He’s now at Georgia State and has done a lot of fascinating work on metacognition in non-human primates.

The article describes a single study on classification/category learning. The authors are working within a multiple systems approach of category learning. According to this framework, a verbally-mediated, explicit system learns categories by trying to abstract use a rule, and a procedurally-mediated, implicit system learns categories by Stimulus Response (S-R) association. Both systems have well-specified neural underpinnings. These two systems work together but sometimes they are in competition. I know this theory well and have published quite of few papers on the topic. So of course, I wanted to read this one.

A common paradigm in this field is to introduce a manipulation that is predicted to impair or enhance one of the systems and leave the other unharmed in order to create a behavioural dissociation. The interference in this paper was a 1-back feedback manipulation. In one condition, participants received feedback right after their decision and in another, they received feedback about their decision on the previous trial. Smith et al. reasoned that the feedback delay would disrupt the S-R learning mechanism of the procedural/implicit system, because it would interfere with the temporal congruity stimulus and response. It should have less of an effect on the explicit system, since learners can use working memory to verbalize the rule they used and the response they made.

Methods

In the experiment, Smith et al. taught people to classify a large set (480) of visual stimuli that varied along two perceptual dimensions into two categories. You get 480 trials, and on each trial you see shape, make a decision, get feedback, and see another shape, and so on. The stimuli themselves are rectangles that vary in terms of size (dimension 1) and pixel density (dimension two). The figure below shows examples of range. There was no fixed set of exemplars, but “each participant received his or her own sample of randomly selected category exemplars appropriate to the assigned task”.

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They used a 2 by 2 design with two between-subject factors. The first factor was category set. Participants learned either a rule based category (RB) in which a single dimension (size or density) creates an easily-verbalized rule, or an information integration category (II) in which both dimensions need to be integrated at a pre decisional stage. This II category can’t be learned very easily by a verbal rule and many studies have suggested it’s being learned by the procedural system. The figure below shows how many hundreds of individual exemplars would be divided into two categories for each of the each of the category sets (RB and II).

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The second factor was feedback. After each decision, you either received feedback right after you made a decisions (0Back) or you received feedback one trial later (1Back). This creates a heavier task demand, so it should make it harder to learn the RB categories at first because the task creates a heavier working memory load. But it should interfere with II learning by the procedural system because the 1-Back disturbs the S-R association.

Results

So what did they find? The learning data are plotted below and suggest that the 1Back feedback made it harder to learn the RB categories at first, and seemed to hurt the II categories at the end. The 3-way ANOVA (Category X Feedback X Block) provided evidence to that effect, but it’s not an overwhelming effect. Smith et al.’s decision to focus a follow up analysis on the final block was not very convincing. Essentially, they compared means and 95% CIs for the final block for each of the four cells and found that performance in the two RB conditions did not differ, but performance in the two II conditions did. Does that mean that the feedback was disrupting the feedback? I’m not sure. Maybe participants in that condition (II-1Back) were just getting weary of a very demanding task. A visual inspection of the data seems to support that alternative conclusion as well.  Exploring the linear trends might have been a stronger approach.

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The second analysis was a bit more convincing. They fit each subject’s data with a rule model and an II model. Each model tried to account for each subject’s final 100 trials. This is pretty easy to do and you are just looking to see which model provides the most likely account of the data. You can then plot the best fitting model. For subjects who learned the RB category, the optimal rule should be the vertical partition and for the II category, the optimal model is the diagonal partition.

As seen the figure below, the feedback did not change the strategy very much for subjects who learned the RB categories. Panel (a) and (b) show that the best-fitting model was usually a rule based one (the vertical partition). The story is different for subjects learning II categories. First, there is way more variation in best fitting model. Second, very few subjects in the 1-back condition (d) show evidence of the using the optimal rule (the diagonal partition).

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Conclusions

Smith et al concluded: “We predicted that 1-Back reinforcement would disable associative, reinforcement-driven learning and the II category-learning processes that depend on it. This disabling seems to have been complete” But that’s a strong conclusion. Too strong. Based on the modelling, the more measured conclusion seems to be that about 7-8 of the 30 subjects in the II-0Back condition learned the optimal rule (the diagonal) compared to about 1 subject in the II-1Back. Maybe a just handful of keener’s ended up in the II-0Back and learned the complex structure? It’s not easy to say. There is some evidence in favour of Smith et al’s conclusion but its not at all clear.

I still enjoyed reading the paper. The task design is clever, and the predictions flow logically from the theory (which is very important).It’s incremental work. It adds to the literature on the multiple systems theory but does not (in my opinion) rule out a single-system approach. But I wish they had done a second study as an internal replication to explore the stability of the result. Or maybe a second study with the same category structure but different stimuli. It’s incremental work. It adds to the literature on the multiple systems theory but does not (in my opinion) rule out a single-system approach.

Tune in a few weeks for the next instalment. Follow my blog if you like and check the tag to see the full list. As the list grows, I may create a better structure for these, too.

 

Presidential Power Pose

The president at work

As much as I don’t want to write about US presidential politics, I was struck by a photograph that was released officially by the Office of the White House of the president hard at work during the government shutdown. As you can see, it is a staged photograph of the president sitting in the oval office at his desk on the phone. The photo has been mocked on line, but I’m not really interested in mocking any more.

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The president seem small and ill-at-ease in this official photo.

The first thing that struck me, was how small he looked. I am not a fan of the current US president, but he never struck me as a small person. In fact, many people commented during the 2016 election on his body language.

During the campaign

In the following picture, one that has also been seen by millions of people, candidate Trump is seen glowering and looming over candidate Hillary Clinton.  He appears aggressive, ready to attack (not in a good way).

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Candidate Trump looms and glowers over Hillary Clinton.

In other debates in appearances, he commanded attention. During the Republican convention, I even commented to friends that I thought he was going to win the election. He stood up there, absorbing the crowd energy, and fully in control of the vibe (so much so that I felt uneasy for days afterward). In other campaign rallies, for better or worse, he commanded attention. An attribute no doubt honed and developed in the aggressive world of NY/international real estate development, casinos, pageants promotion, and reality TV. You don’t have to be a fan is his to notice this.

But in the “at work at the desk” photo, he seem so very small. Much smaller than his actual size (6’2” or 6’3” depending on who you believe). The desk is too big for him, too consequential. Even the hat seems too large. He appears to be diminished. I don’t think you need to oppose the president to notice this. He really does seem to be making himself smaller, or is unable to make himself appear big enough.

Body language never lies

Body language is a fascinating subject, it’s the domain of ethnologists , comparative psychologists, and social psychologists. Our body language often conveys things that may be at odds with spoken language. It often gives away something that we may wish to conceal. Our body language is the link to the more primitive self. The inner ape that often is concealed and covered over by culture, language, and society. In the president’s photograph, the body language reveals a man who does not belong, who is out of place, and possible knows he is too small for the role.

Unlike the president’s spoken language, body language doesn’t lie.

The Creation Myth and Fear of Resting

Western Sunrise
The sunrise at Western University, as seen from my 7th floor lab.

November 30, 2017

I feel very unfocused lately, and I think I know why. When I was writing my two grant proposals in October, I really felt like I had control of my ideas. I felt like I knew what I was working on and what I wanted to be doing with my research program, my graduate student, and trainees. This is a great feeling and I was filled with the satisfaction of not only working hard on the proposals but also of having so many ideas and projects that I wanted to pursue. I could not wait to get started on some of the new projects.

But right after they were submitted, I rested. This seems natural, for course, for I’d worked hard and wanted to celebrate a job well done and relax a bit. Also I had just undergone a minor surgery, so some recovery time was needed. But a week later, I needed to turn to other things that Required my attention, and before I realized what had happened, I was overwhelmed with our departmental job searches and my office and lab’s move to the new building. My research ideas, having been developed and nurtured in the NSERC and SSHRC proposals, languished from the inattention.

That is, I worked. I seemed to have it together, I rested, and it all seemed to slip away.

It was like the 7th day.

In the creation myth in Genesis, God worked hard to create the universe and then he rested. And then right after that, right after sitting back, looking with satisfaction at what he’d done, and cracking open a divine beer, he seems to lose focus…humans took over, they started killing each other, and he can’t really seem remember why he created us in the first place, or what his plan is. He takes it out on us. He starts to clearly resent his work…he keeps coming back to it every so often, but the magic is gone. He rested and lost focus.

I think this is a metaphor that is often unexplored in the Bible (or maybe it is interpreted this way, I’m really not up on Bible scholarship). The creation myth can be seen as a story about what happens when you rest on your laurels and stop working on something. You step back and get caught up in other things and you lose you train of thought. The ideas fade, they take a back seat, and it can be so difficult to get back in control, that you risk starting to resent the ideas.

I think that’s the underlying theme in Genesis: God rested and the universe took a back seat. It got out of hand and he never quite got it back the way he wanted. He started to resent the work and even tried to destroy it.

The inevitability of forward motion.

I’m not trying to say I’m God here, but I am supposed to be in control of my research program. And there are times when I’m in the middle of working on a project, or paper, or grant that I really think I can see the big picture. I can glimpse a bigger vision for my research on cognition, concepts, and categories. I think I’ve created something worthwhile. But damnit, if I step way for a week and get caught up in a PhD defence, or faculty hiring, committee work, or the like, it can be so hard to put things back together.

And the lesson in Genesis seems to be: you can’t. You can’t put it back in that pristine state. But you can’t give up either. You have to let the ideas work themselves out. You have to come back and not be afraid to admit you made a mistake. Sometimes you start over or learning new skills. You may have to look at things from a new perspective while realizing that you can’t ever get back to the garden.

I’m not a religious believer… but I think there’s still a good lesson here: Even the divine creator has trouble keeping it together after a break.

The Infinity: Email Management and Engagement

It’s a cold and rainy Sunday morning in November. I’m drinking some delicious dark coffee from Balzac’s.

My wife and I are each working on different things and taking advantage of the relative morning quiet. I’m at the kitchen table working off my laptop, listening to music on my headphones, and working on overview material: looking at the emails I have to respond to. I criticize myself for procrastinating, which is in itself an extra layer of procrastinating.

Email is the engine of misery

I take a look at my work email inbox. It is not too bad for a professor. I keep it organized and the inbox contains one those things that need a reply. But there at 59 messages in there that I need to reply to;  four of these have been awaiting a reply since September. Even while I write this, I’m feeling a real sense of anxiety and conflict. On the one hand, I greatly desire to spend hours slogging though the entire list and trying to deal with backlog. I’d love to look at INBOX = 0. I think that would make me feel great (which is a strange belief to have…I have never had INBOX = 0, so how do I know it would make me feel great?) Even an hour could make a good dent and dispense with at least 2/3 of the messages.

But at the same time, I want to ignore all of it. To delete all the email. I think about Donald Knuth’s quote about email. Knuth is a computer scientist at Stanford, who developed, among other things, the “TeX” system of typesetting. He has an entry on his website about email and indicted that he does not have an address.

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”

This quote, and the idea here, has been one of the things that I really aspire to. It’s one of my favourite quotes and a guiding principle…but I can’t make the leap. Like Knuth, I also write books, articles, and I try to get to the bottom of things. But it seems like I never scratch the surface because I’m always responding to email, sending email, Tweeting and engaging on social media. Deeper analysis never happens because I’m preoccupied with this surface. I feel trapped by this.

And yet, I cannot ignore the surface level. Engagement with email is part of my job. Others depend my responding. For example, I have a now retried departmental colleague who just never responded to email, and this was very frustrating to deal with. I suspect (I know) that others picked up the slack when he failed to be responsive. I have a current colleague who is much the same. So I don’t endorse blowing off some aspects of one’s job, knowing that others will pick these pieces up. I don’t want to shirk my administrative and teaching responsibilities, even if it means I sacrifice the ability to have dedicated research and writing time.

Give and Take

In the end, I am trapped in a cage that I spend hours each day making stronger. Trapped in a pit that I work ever longer hours to make deeper. The incoming email will not stop, but one could probably slow it down by not sending any email out, by providing FAQs on my syllabus about when to email, by delegating email to TAs.

The real question is, if I give less time to email, will it take less of my time away? If so, will I use that time wisely? Or will I turn to another form of distraction. Is email the problem? Or am I the problem?

The one “productivity hack” that you probably avoid like the plague

This past week, my office phone rang. It rarely does, and even when it does ring, I rarely answer it. I usually let the call go to voicemail. My outgoing voicemail says: “I never check voicemail, please email me“. And even if someone does leave a voicemail, it’s transcribed and sent to my email.

This is so inefficient, and self-sabotaging, given that I, like most academics, moan about how much email I have to process.

But this time, noticing that it was another professor in my department who was calling, I picked it up. My colleague who was calling is the co-ordinator for the Psychology Honours program and he had a simple question about the project that one of my undergraduate Honours students was working on. We solved the issue in about 45 seconds.

If I had followed the standard protocol, he would have left a voicemail or emailed me (or both). It would have probably taken me a day to respond, and the email would have taken 5-8 minutes for me to write. He’d have then replied (a day later), and if my email was not clear, there might have been another email. Picking up the phone saved each of us time and effort and allowed my student’s proposed project to proceed.

Phone Aversion.

Why are we so averse to using the phone?

I understand why in principal: it’s intrusive, it takes you out of what you were doing (answering email probably), and you have to switch tasks.  The act of having to disengage from what you are doing and manage a call is a cognitively demanding action.  After the call, you then have to switch back. So it’s natural to make a prospective judgement to avoid taking the call.

And from the perspective of the caller, you might call and not get an answer, then you have to engage a new decision-making process: Should I leave a message, call again, or just email. This cognitive switching takes time and effort. And of course, as many of us resent being interrupted by a call, we may also assume that the person we are calling also resents the interruption and so we avoid calling out of politeness (maybe this more of a Canadian thing…)

So there are legitimate, cognitive and social/cognitive reasons to avoid using the phone.

We Should Make and Take More Calls.

My experience was a small revelation, though. Mostly because after the call, while I was switching back to what I had been doing prior, I thought about how much longer (days) the standard email approach would have taken. So I decided that, going forward, that I’m going to try to make and take more calls. It can be a personal experiment.

I tried this approach a few days ago with some non-university contacts (for the youth sports league I help to manage). We saved time and effort. Yes, it might have taken a few minutes out of each other’s day, but it paled in comparison to what an email-based approach would have taken.

For Further Study

Although I’m running a “personal experiment” on phone call efficiency, I’d kind of like to study this in more detail. Perhaps design a series of experiments in which two (or more) people are given a complex problem to solve and we can manipulate how much time they can spend on email vs time on the phone. We’d track things like cognitive interference. I’m not exactly sure how to do this, but I’d like to look at it more systematically. The key things would be how effectively people solve the problems, and if and how one mode of communication interferes with other tasks.

Final Thoughts

Do you prefer email or a phone call? Have you ever solved a problem faster on the phone vs email? Have you ever found the reverse to be true?

Or do you prefer messaging (Slack, Google Chat, etc.) which is more dynamic than email but not as intrusive as a phone call?