mind-wandering makes you unhappy. or is it this iPhone application that asks your whereabouts when you finally conclude with your date?

I’ve been thinking to this post and the introductory one for the last 5 days. When walking and when on the bus. I also let my mind imagine how it would be to kiss this man I am currently fancying. I think I also thought back to my best friend’s visit and smiled to that. Surely I am unhappy. Indeed according to a paper by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert (published in Science about two weeks ago), “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. The second I finished reading about this in the Harvard Gazette, I had to check out the paper itself. There was a blatant conflict between my own experience and the results. I am a mind-wanderer by essence; my mind doesn’t even wander but skips, bounces. But I feel fully happy about this. Moments where my mind wanders, e.g. on the bus, are most often prepping for my work or some blog posts. While walking I love sometimes escaping into a fantasy where I would kiss this charming man. I mean, what else is there to do than mind-wander when you walk? Is that such a costly process that I need to stay focused? And when I am grooming, what’s the harm if I mind-wander? I have had many ideas in the shower; and, as much as for walking, I don’t think brushing my teeth needs that much of my attention. In short I was very sceptical.

Plus, I have always had a hard spot for Science. I found a bit paradoxical that to publish in this journal, you have to neglect what is precisely one of the scientific pillars, i.e. replicability. Science papers have to be so short that it is hard to fully grasp the method and not to finish your reading with many questions. I know that there is no perfect paper and that we will always forget a detail that will interest one and one only reader. But really, unless you are an expert in the very precise topic of the paper, it is generally hard to follow. And Science is a generalist journal: if I decide to venture myself in reading a paper in, let’s pick randomly, the Journal of Applied Physics, I will expect to have difficulties because the targeted audience in that case is a specialist audience. But if I am reading a generalist journal, I expect it to be more accessible.
In the meantime I must admit that I am pretty bluffed when a Psychology researcher gets a paper in this journal without using fancy imaging methods, which is the case here. Except for the use of iPhones to collect their data, this study is very much pen and paper Psychology. As for the length constraint, I must also say that Killingsworth and Gilbert dealt very well with it. They did a very good job in writing a very clear paper, and the questions it raised are actually not due to a lack of information.

So what about the study, its results and their interpretation? I think many psychologists recognize, more or less consciously, that customs and traditions often exist because of a psychological reality. For example, as the authors noticed here, many philosophies and religions recommend living in the hic et nunc [the here and now]. If there is some psychological common sense in those traditions, the recommendation would be here because living otherwise, i.e. mind-wandering in the past and/or the future, is not adaptive. So they decided to verify this and to look for a relation between happiness and mind-wandering.
For this they used a pretty cool method, very innovative and avoiding the usual problems that come when you ask people about their experience afterwards rather than during (e.g., report of a reconstructed experience rather than the real one). This method also gave them access to a very large sample of participants, widespread on the age range, living all over the world, and doing all kind of jobs. An iPhone application was sending participants questions, from time to time and randomly. Sometimes they were asked about their happiness first (on a 0 to 100 scale), and in any case they had to indicate what they were doing (among 22 pre-determined categories of activities) and if they were thinking to something else (with four options, no; something pleasant; something unpleasant; something neutral).
Using this technology they observed a very high rate of mind-wandering, higher than found previously. Using an iPhone application was definitely a nice idea: it is not only trendy but also efficient in collecting what seems to be better data. So, almost half of the time (46.9%), people were thinking to something else than their current activity, and no activity, except sex, was exempt of this (mind-wandering occurred at least in 30% of the samples for each other activity). This rate was only slightly influenced by the nature of the activity. Even more importantly the pleasantness of the mind-wandering had almost not to do with the nature of the activity, whereas the mind-wandering had an effect on the happiness. The more you mind-wander, the less happy you are, whatever activity you are supposed to do (i.e. even if you are doing something pretty boring, such as grooming). To be precise, it looks like unpleasant and neutral mind-wandering were driving the effect, as those two types had an effect on happiness but the pleasant mind-wandering had no relation to happiness. In other words, the effect is driven by the non pleasant mind-wandering, and instead of saying that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, I’d rather take note that a mind wandering to pleasant topics won’t be happier but won’t be more unhappy either.

A very nice thing in this paper is that they tried to determine the direction of the relation. The very first objection coming to mind before reading the paper is indeed that it is because one activity makes them unhappy that people mind-wander. But Killingsworth and Gilbert thought about this and tried to counter-argue with some time-lag analyses. According to them those analyses support that mind-wandering is the cause of people’s unhappiness. I admit it is convincing: I read the supporting material, and clearly there is no relation between previous unhappiness and mind-wandering whereas there is one between previous mind-wandering and unhappiness. But here is my problem: how can mind-wandering from two days away, or 10 maybe, influence my happiness right now? Do I even remember when I mind-wandered last week, and to what? On the other hand, if the time passed between each observation is really a counter-argument, surely there should be no relation at all, in any direction. Yet I still have difficulty to see some sense here. If at least the relation was between two samples of the same activity, you could imagine how the context would remind you mind-wandering on the previous time, or even how the delay accumulated in your activity is due to the previous episode of mind-wandering. But here I really can’t picture on what the relationship would rely.

Now, that said, I have a few quibbling points to defend and some more serious concerns. Choosing the iPhone as a recruitment tool, that’s quibbling matter, but you’ve got to ask the question. Are iPhone users like the general population? I am joking but I am only half-joking. iPhone users are surely very much similar to any other man/woman from a Western country when we consider them globally. However, when it comes to the use of their time, it might matter that they own an iPhone. Beyond the obvious trendy features, iPhones, as any smart phone, are also very useful to get yourself organized and efficient. Or very good at giving the illusion that they are. Therefore smart phone users, including iPhone users, might buy them because they are keener on using their time properly. And mind-wandering might make them feel like they are wasting this precious time. What I would like to know is how people using simpler phones would answer being asked the same questions. It would not be really that difficult to reach them in the same online manner: text messages could very well be sent instead of reminders from the application (although admittedly there would be some recruitment work to do that you don’t need to do with smartphones applications, which people choose to install). If differences show up between users of different types of phones, you might wonder if a negative attitude towards mind-wandering is actually not what is found in Killingsworth and Gilbert’s study. One might oppose to my point here that the population seems to cover every age and profession, and that different professions and age should be expected to have different attitudes towards mind-wandering and “wasting” time. But this diversity regards actually the overall population. We don’t know much about the population of interest here, those who had to rate their happiness. ¾ of them are living in the USA, the gender ratio is pretty balanced, but what is their age range, what are their jobs? They were picked randomly, so surely it shouldn’t matter but I am not sure why I am told this information about the overall sample but not about the sample of interest.
More importantly, I also would like to know their culture and their religion. I don’t actually really want to know about it, but I think that should be included as controls. Especially the religion: if you are following a tradition urging you to live in the moment, surely mind-wandering could make you more unhappy. And to accept that it is because of the cost of mind-wandering that a philosophy / culture banned it, you want to be able to exclude that one particular philosophy / culture made mind-wandering undesirable in the first place. In other words, you want to know if the chicken or the egg was here first. Philosophies, especially religious philosophies, have many reasons to find mind-wandering undesirable. For example it might be, or at least seem to be, easier to keep control on a mind that pays attention. But they might have controlled for it as well. That is typically the type of thing I assume researchers did but I cannot be sure because the format of publication imposed to cut on words.

My biggest concerns are also due to the format I believe. There are several distinctions that should be made to have more precise data. I am sure they thought about it, and a full discussion would let us see this. But it is short and I don’t get the satisfaction to read that the authors foresaw where I am going to argue. First distinction of interest: were participants thinking about something in the past or something in the future? If their mind-wandering was mostly based in the past, I can see how they felt they were losing their time and consequently how they felt unhappy. The examples of me mind-wandering were mostly proactive and oriented towards the future. I use my time on the bus to prepare my mind to my day of work or to what I am going to do once at home. I also use it towards building up my interest for this man, so that one day I might actually get proactive. If we had data about the past / future nature of the thoughts, we could perhaps observe a different pattern where people would be OK to mind-wander if it is future-oriented, because it is somehow constructive.
The second distinction I would like to see is within the activities. Some of them are too general in my opinion. Commuting especially is not the same if you are driving or in public transport. When you are driving, whatever the nature of your thoughts, they hinder your attention. If you are on the bus, as I said before for walking, there is not much you can do except thinking. Is being on the bus really an activity, I don’t think so. Thinking to something precise while being taken to work is an activity, and thinking to something else would be the mind-wandering bit. Here a methodological question comes up too. When asked if they are thinking to something else, are participants considering that primary mind-wandering is the something else? Or do they consider they mind-wander only if, while for example eating and already thinking to something, their thoughts jump to a secondary topic? It does not seem like participants were given a clear instruction of what is mind-wandering. Killingsworth and Gilbert define it as “stimulus-independent thought”, but what if to participants the stimulus is their thinking, not eating, not walking? So in those cases where the activity is not really the stimulus, what would make them unhappy is actually getting unfocused from their mind-wandering by unwanted thoughts.

Last point will bring us back to method. What was the instruction? Did participants think that they were supposed to report what they were doing at the moment they saw the notification or when they actually received it? I know it is a bit stretched to wonder if they did not get confused by the instructions. But the case of the sexual activity raises questions. Who can seriously believe they stopped to answer to the notification? From this activity only, we can assume that they decided to answer to the questions according to when the notification was sent, not treated. Or at least answered differently from one activity to another. If so, the whole point of using an iPhone application to have online, ecological data is partially missed.
And since we are talking about the sex category and about ecology, the social desirability is obviously a problem: people are not exactly ready to tell they are not enjoying their sex life, let alone that they mind-wander during sex. This is especially true nowadays, where sexual happiness is projected as key to global happiness by the media. But if you have a quick Google search, you’ll see that sometimes people mind-wander during sex. Oh yes, in this case, they are surely not happy to mind-wander, but it happens nevertheless. Not that I want to be over-precise in the technical details, but seriously, if you are a woman, that’s very easy to be here without being here.

I am pretty aware this post is far too long; I have written paper introductions shorter than this (I even suspect this post to be longer than the paper it is commenting). I promise to work towards conciseness; that will be the personal benefit of the blog writing, making my wordy Frenched English more, well, English (understand ” more straight to the point”). But let’s say this is my mind wandering on paper (sort of). And I am happy about it.
The real conclusion might be pretty boring. This paper was a good paper. Almost each of my points may exist only because the authors did not have the space to go further and highlight themselves the potential alternative explanations. Despite the limits in length they still managed to address the most important of those alternatives. I might have sounded angrier that I am actually. I am angry, no doubt about this, but not at the authors. I am angry at how general media gave echo to these results without questioning them. Mind-wandering doesn’t make you unhappy. Unpleasant and neutral mind-wandering does, pleasant mind-wandering has no effect, and we don’t know how the past / future orientation of your mind-wandering might influence these feelings. Let’s research be developed before reaching general conclusions please. We are not even sure those feelings are not due to having an iPhone that asks you what you are doing when you have sex….

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439

French researchers, bite your own nose. please.

In a very predictable way I managed to find myself an opportunity to postpone/procrastinate my first post, although almost ready. But the letter that French researchers are receiving those days from the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres is making me too mad to be left without immediate comment. The Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres is part of The Institute of France [Institut de France] — which fosters also the more well-known French Academy [Académie Française] — self-nicknamed as the “Parliament of Scholars”, and it is essentially interested in Humanities.

This morning, in the daily bunch of mails delivered thanks to the RISC list (French-speaking mailing list for anyone interested in Cognitive Sciences, as defined very broadly), we all have been forwarded a letter from this particular institution. The geist was that there are more and more scientific conferences happening in France exclusively in English language and that it is actually unlawful. Well, a few French researchers, me included, know for having tried that you cannot write a dissertation in English if you aim to graduate from a French university. Master or Ph.D, it doesn’t make a difference. You have to preserve the French language according to the so-called Toubon law (1994). Since it is because the Toubon law imposes the use of French in every public institution, it is indeed logical to consider unlawful the use of English in scientific conferences, which most of the time happen in universities’ buildings and thanks to public money.

But they are nice and understanding people at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. They recognized that French researchers need to take part in international research, so they propose some compromises. First, French should be admitted as a language of submission. Well, why not? I am actually going to a conference in January, in French-speaking Switzerland, where I could have submitted in one or the other of my daily languages. I chose to go for English: I work in an English-speaking country and my supervisor doesn’t speak French; there was really no point for me to do it in French. And it was perfectly OK, because it was entirely up to me.
This is where the second proposition of this morning letter gets everything wrong. They suggest that French speakers when in a conference in France should have to present in French and if necessary could summarize their work in English or display a full translation. First I am not sure what they meant by “display a full translation”, but if as I suspect, they are speaking about having your slides in English while speaking in French, they need to read a bit of cognitive psychology to understand how costly it would be, both for the speaker and the audience. If you want to mis-communicate and make sure people don’t go away with a message, go for it. And even ignoring this problem, you cannot convey your entire message using only slides. Then let’s assume you would choose the reasonable version, a French talk with English abstract, you cannot expect to have comments/questions as relevant as possible from non-French speakers, based only on the abstract. If you want to miss this opportunity, that’s your problem, to each his/her own ambitions. But if I want my work to reach the largest audience as possible, I should be able to do it. If, to achieve this goal, I want to endure having to work in my second language (however easy it becomes with time, it will still be slightly harder), you should encourage me. Not pillory me.
Their third proposition is not better. Non-French speakers can communicate in English but should provide at least an abstract in French. You would like to deter foreign researchers to come to our international conferences, you wouldn’t proceed differently. I know exactly what those conferences would look like, I have been to one so-called international conference happening in French. It looks like a bunch of French meeting their Belgian, Swiss and Canadian cousins. And it is not appealing. Also, imagine if every country was doing the same: to go to this conference in Budapest, next January, please write at least an abstract in Hungarian. Next year, you should seek a Chinese translator because there is a pillar conference coming in Beijing.
They have an amazing supplementary point regarding publications, which obviously should be in French with English abstract or translation. Again it is not clear what they meant. If they are talking about publications related to conferences, you bite your own nose in the same way as with the talk. Non-French speakers interested in your research won’t be able to have a full grasp of it if you translate only an abstract. If they are talking about papers in peer-reviewed journals, that’s even worse, because I don’t know how you would be supposed to achieve both this goal and to maintain high standards of publication, as French researchers are more and more pushed to.

Last but not least, they justified this letter by arguing that “language is not neutral and conveys inevitably ways of thinking (…)”. Therefore “using only one language has an impoverishing effect”. What? Should I understand that the evolution is a process that happens slightly differently in French? I am very well in position to understand that translation is always the opportunity to lose some bits of concept, that’s actually one of the categories on my linguistic blog, but data are data. They actually argue this point from the Humanities perspective, but even there, as far as I know, history is history, because documents are documents. Anyway even within a same language, researchers draw different interpretations (and this in every field). There is only one topic where I used to think working in your own language only was OK, and it is linguistics. But actually you do not want to lose the benefits of a third perspective. A non-native linguist has the right to be interested in your language and s/he might have some interesting insights because of his/her experience in his/her own language.

Dear French institutions, we, young researchers gone abroad, are not really tempted to come back. You might not understand why. But within our small community, we do. And you just proved our points.

a small tribute to scientific blogging and an introduction

I remember when I discovered the wonderful world of scientific blogging. I do not remember exactly how I stumbled upon the first post, but I perfectly remember the excitement. I was in my second year of Master in France, already fully aware of the benefits of the internet for academic purposes: keywords alerts, table of contents alerts, etc, the knowledge was right here, at the tip of my fingers. And this, for a nerd like me, was already a massive enjoyment.  You need to understand, I am French, in terms of technology and moreover in terms of academic development, we are always a step behind (the step may be smaller and smaller, but it is still there, and actually this blog is going to bounce on this gap). But the whole scientific blogging thing, that has really been a revolution to me. Publisher alerts feed you only of things in your very narrow field, if you set them up otherwise, you are going to drown yourself in a sea of emails. And you screen them yourself to decide what is interesting, or not. Scientific blogs who do proper blogging about peer-reviewed research give you the key to understand research which is a bit (or a lot, why not?) out of your own way. And they also kind of indicate a trend, signalling what others found interesting when screening their publisher alerts, and if a lot of people found a same paper to be of interest. Or controversial. They don’t replace your screening, because no one knows better than you what could feed your thinking, but they complement it. You’ll tell me, blogging about peer-reviewed research, that’s just putting journal clubs on the internet. But the sad truth is that us French researchers, we don’t do journal clubs. I am not kidding: the only time I heard some kind of journal club had happened in my former research group, it was thanks to my M.Sc. supervisor (the lovely Gaëlle Villejoubert) who, academically speaking, is as French as I am (i.e.  received her graduate training from a British university). So maybe the thrill I had when discovering scientific blogging was partly due to me discovering the greatness of presenting someone else’s research and discussing it. Still, it was thrilling.

So two years and a half ago, I started to follow a few (understatement for “a lot and religiously”) blogs. Thanks geeks of the world for the invention of the RSS feed and the RSS reader. This was the golden time when Dave Munger was feeding us daily (archives still here, at Cognitive Daily). Not that Dave has stopped giving us interesting food for thought, but as a cognitive psychologist, that was a perfect fit for me. Ed Yong was already in the picture too, and then the one who was broadening the most my horizon. As for Of two minds, they were kindly adding the salt of humour to my then starting academic life. When I moved to the UK, around six months later, I entered this fantastic world where journal clubs happened several times a week (in big departments). My research group had already one going on, and willing to bring my own touch, I proposed that our weekly meetings feed the flow of a scientific blog. It never took off. Put this on me not setting the example by publishing my first contribution to the journal club, too busy procrastinating and pretending I was over-busy. The truth is that, full of my very developed impostor syndrome, I was afraid to be lame.

During the second year of my PhD I had also watched myself taking less and less time to check scientific blogs. Yeah, at some point PhD students really start being busy. But after the summer, I attacked my third year with a typical “Oh crap! What am I going to do in a year from now?” scare, and I found myself looking for more procrastination tools. So I started using properly Twitter, mostly to be able to follow my favourite bloggers and Arts institutions / companies. Twitter is nicely perverse. When you are visiting a blog it is pretty easy to ignore the blogroll because unlike Twitter, it is not suggesting that you follow this one or that one based on what you favourite and publish. Very quickly I was following people whose focus is more on Science communication by itself and got interested. Maybe this made me pay more attention to the quality of science-related papers I have read from then. Or maybe my developing researcher self is becoming everyday more demanding and critical. Or more likely, the combination of the two is what made me having new urges of starting a scientific blog. Since September, I have been enraged by mainstream papers pretending to do scientific journalism far too many times. It is not just me projecting some kind of personal frustration. For myself I don’t know if English-speaking scientific journalism is having a crisis or if it has always been problematic, but there is a very palpable trend, this autumn, of scientists (in the broad meaning) losing patience with it. The nature of the crisis is wonderfully and hilariously summarized here by Martin Robbins, and the amplitude of the reactions are gauging the trend (more than 4 000 tweets and almost 700 comments!).

In the past I also had been, rarely but still, frustrated not to find blogs to comment a particular paper I was thinking worthy a post. Hence there was definitely some need for myself to start a scientific blog. I needed to shout to the world when science reporting was wrong and I needed to take responsibility of my own commenting desires. But to fulfil as well needs of others and guarantee myself a potential audience, I needed to find my own niche. So I thought the safest would be to start a French scientific blog: try a search for French blogs doing proper blogging about peer-reviewed research and you will quickly see it is a niche. If you go on Research Blogging, there is no French language option. That says it all. We have some sites doing science journalism, but there are certainly not too many. Let alone considering Psychology results and therefore placing Psychology as a Science. I think you can say there is only C@fé des sciences. This other one looked interesting in the first place, but they actually just “translate” papers without citing their source (here for example, exact translation of this; they did not even bothered changing the illustration). In my world it is called plagiarism. I think finding it was actually the moment when I snapped and stop hesitating to enter the game.

You need to understand that we French people we are not really good with science communication. We are excellent in “pop philosophy”, pretty much every day you can hear a philosopher on French TV or radio. Children have dedicated philosophy book series. And philosophy is a mandatory subject in our Baccalaureate, whether you’re having it in literature or in sciences. We are abstract thinkers, modelled since nursery school to reflect on life. Plus doing pop science would involve explaining to people that sometimes every case in a species is showing the same behaviour. In my nation of individualists, this is unbearable to hear. Especially in my field where the observed behaviours are those of human beings. We can admit that animals are predictable, ourselves not so much. I attribute to our strong individualism the fact that psychoanalysis is so much popular in France and influencing our archetype of the therapeutic relationship.

Maybe we are so bad at communicating about science also because of our secularism. There is no place for scepticism movements in France. There is no place for them because there is no need. Everybody admits evolution for example. Not that everybody understands it, most of us actually don’t get the logical consequences of admitting evolution. Most of us for example don’t realize that admitting evolution is admitting that we are that predictable because evolution underlies a lot of our behaviours. Admitting evolution is in contradiction with our individualist mind. That’s just another French paradox. We have many anyway, so one more or one less doesn’t really matter. And I doubt anybody can brag coming from a culture exempt of paradoxes, and being exempt of them as individual.

Blablabla… point was if there is no need for scepticism, there is no need to explain the scientific method and what makes good science. Therefore (and/or maybe for other reasons), we are terribly bad at communicating about science, in which we anyway generally don’t include Psychology. I checked, we have a few degrees in science communication, what those people become is a mystery because I don’t see any effects of this in French media. Maybe it is too early. So I am going to take the opportunity and try to do some blogging about peer-reviewed research in French. That will obviously be also the opportunity for me to place Psychology in the scientific mental world of French people. Massive ambition, I know. Since I work in English I am actually going to do it the wrong way, posting first in english and then in French. Research-related speaking is just not natural anymore for me in French. This mean I will have to try to do this crazy thing of maintaining the blog in a bilingual state. Although, I am lazy PhD student (oxymoron, I know) so I will start badly by not translating this introduction in French, at least right now.

And yes, I can hear those of you who know me, thinking: “She already has two blogs, this is insane”. Well it is a bit. But it is all related. What I hope to do is actually to comment papers that target questions raised in my life as an expat’ and my life as a bilingual and mother of a bilingual child. The exact same lives covered by the two other blogs. Exceptions will occur, obviously, mainly because the “navelist” motivation works also the other way round. Sometimes, instead of introspection prompting a literature search, a serendipitous literature finding speaks to my own experience, generally against. And it happens that researchers are just human beings too, therefore prone to the confirmation bias. It’s generally OK because we are reasonable enough to admit when the study is perfectly fine. But what do you want? We are empiricist, we need to see data before doing / thinking anything. What I won’t blog about is my own topic of research. Because you don’t want to hear about verbal probabilities, only 5 to 10 people in the world do. And more seriously because I review papers on verbal probabilities for my own PhD, so that would be boring to blog about them, easy-lazy and not challenging at all. And I love challenge.