Let’s talk about science the way we talk about art

I’ve recently watched myself turn into the type of science communicator I hate, dreading an inquiry I should be jumping to answer:

What’s your research about?

Theoretically, this question gives me the opportunity to do two things I greatly enjoy: talk about myself and talk about the science that I’m most interested in. But recently, I’ve been finding myself freezing up when it’s asked, unable to inject my response with the clarity and enthusiasm that I frequently judge other researchers for failing to express.

In a typical conversation, I start my response with something vague so that I can at least attempt to gauge my audience’s interest level: I’m interested in how people learn, so I’m looking at how attention and memory processes interact. This answer is okay — it’s short and understandable, but it doesn’t exactly inspire the type of excitement I want my work to evoke.

Still, I usually only start to feel really bad about myself when the next question is asked: So what’s the goal of that type of research?

At this point, I usually say some combination of the following: to develop interventions to boost learning and memory in kids who struggle with school, to redesign learning environments to maximize educational efficacy, to attempt to close the learning gap between individuals from low and high socioeconomic backgrounds.

These are the answers that nag at me — even though I do hope to contribute to those goals, I’m not designing interventions, I’m not studying real-world learning environments, and I’m not currently involved in work advocating for evidence-based changes in education policy.

So what am I doing? Well at the moment, not much, since I’m just settling into a new lab. But the type of work I’ll likely be pursuing over the next two years will involve understanding how the neural networks that underlie visual attention contribute to subtle changes in perceptual processing that may influence the formation of long-term memories. I do believe this type of basic science work will eventually contribute to helping people learn more effectively, but it feels crazy to justify my pursuit of it in this way; if my primary goal is to close socioeconomic gaps in education, then I should be working to put interventions that we already know work — like full day, comprehensive preschool services — into practice.

That’s not to say that more research isn’t needed; again and again, advances in basic science contribute to positive developments in the real world. But I hate that basic science has to be justified in terms of its future utility, when I believe that research does good things for the world right now, as it’s pursued, published and disseminated, before it finds its way into policy and practice.

Learning about the way people learn has dramatically changed the way I think; it’s (literally) given me a glimpse inside other people’s minds, and made me come to appreciate the differences in how individuals experience the world. Sometimes, when I’m walking down the street, I remember how crazy it is that my brain can coordinate the activity of my feet and my head and my eyes such that I can walk and take in the world around me, noticing the things around me that may be important to my goals and ignoring the sights and sounds I know are irrelevant, all (usually) without falling flat on my face. I know the argument that studying science enables people to enhance their enjoyment of walking around may not be particularly persuasive, but I still believe scientists need to take a page out of the book of the humanists and artists who defend their disciplines on the grounds that they enrich the human experience despite their lack of obvious practical value.

We need to treat science more like art. I want to tell people that I’m studying attention and memory because I want to make a contribution to a body of knowledge that I think is beautiful, empowering, and fun. I’m pursuing cognitive neuroscience research because I want my work to make a tiny dent in a field that continuously makes me feel grateful to be alive and gives me hope about humanity’s potential.

Recently, as scholars have begun to worry that the humanities are in decline, many people have launched defenses of the study of literature and art based on the practical skills and economic gain such study can lead to. They want to justify the pursuit of art using the arguments that have typically been used to justify science. As we start thinking about the benefits of the arts more in terms of how we have traditionally thought about the benefits of the sciences, let’s also start thinking about science in the way that we have traditionally thought about the arts.

We should be celebrating great scientific journal articles for the same reason we celebrate great novels and songs. We should be lauding scientific ideas not just for their practical value, but also for their power to make us happy, to prod us to question what it means to be alive, and to encourage us to reflect on the complexities of the world we inhabit.

Whether or not the “science as art” framework provides enough of a justification for me to feel morally okay pursuing cognitive neuroscience research is a question I struggle with. I feel like I’m not being totally honest when I tell people that the primary goal of my research is to enhance educational outcomes, but should I just change the way that I explain my work? Or should I change my work itself so that I am answering more directly applicable research questions, putting effective programs and policies into practice, or making money to contribute to more beneficial endeavors?

In the mean time, without forgetting about the real-world problems to which I aim to contribute, I want to stop myself from sounding like an amateur piece of science journalism and overselling the practical benefits of my work in the lab.

There are other aspects of research worth celebrating.