In this post we’re going to take a break from my research. Instead, I’m going to subject you to my crackpot theories of psychology.
This post is called “Why Scientist Can’t Run Daycares”. But I’m just assuming that other scientists are like me. So maybe a better title would be “why I can’t run a daycare”.
What prompted this post? Well, you should know that I have a 3 year old daughter. She’s the joy of my life, a true delight to be around. And yet I find that when I spend the whole day with her, I’m absolutely exhausted at bedtime. But on days when I work on my research all day, I experience no such fatigue. By the end of those days, I usually feel invigorated.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on why this is. I’ve come up with a formula to explain my exhaustion. At the end of the day, my mental fatigue is inversely proportional to the average time between thought interruption.
For this to make any sense, I need to backtrack a bit. I need to tell you how my brain works. My brain is like a villain in a kids cartoon. Left to its own devices, my brain likes to monologue. By this, I mean that my natural tendency is to get lost in a single thought for hours (sometimes days).
My brother-in-law, Greg, has a word for this. He calls it the “Blair stare”. When I’m lost in an inner monologue, my eyes glaze over. I achieve a near vegetative state. The outside world ceases to exist.
Apparently, this is my brain’s preferred state. I could do it all day and not feel fatigued. In fact, my job as a scientist is to get lost in thought — to engage in the “Blair stare” — as much as possible.
But this ‘skill’ (if you can call it that) does not transfer well to spending time with a 3 year old. My daughter is busy learning about the world, discovering new things constantly. She asks a million questions every day. My mother tells me I was the same way.
So my day with her goes like this. My daughter asks me a question. I answer. Then my brain starts to monologue. I really can’t control it. It’s just what happens. Then 30 seconds later (or less) she asks a different, unrelated question. My brain goes “hey, I’m monologuing here. You’re asking me stop this thought and start a new one. I don’t like this!”
But, being a good dad, I stop my brain and answer the question. And so it goes all day. The result is, at the end of the day, complete exhaustion. My brain wants long, uninterrupted thoughts. When I spend the whole day with my daughter, the mean time to thought interruption is about 30 seconds. My brain protests.
I have no idea how other people’s brains work, but I assume many scientists share my need for long periods of uninterrupted thought. Here’s Richard Feynman talking about how he shirks responsibility so he can do physics without interruption:
To do high, real good physics work you do need absolutely solid lengths of time, so that when you’re putting ideas together which are vague and hard to remember, it’s very much like building a house of cards and each of the cards is shaky, and if you forget one of them the whole thing collapses again.
… So I have invented another myth for myself—that I’m irresponsible. I tell everybody, I don’t do anything. If anybody asks me to be on a committee to take care of admissions, no, I’m irresponsible, I don’t give a damn about the students—of course I give a damn about the students but I know that somebody else’ll do it—and I take the view, “Let George do it,” a view which you’re not supposed to take, okay, because that’s not right to do, but I do that because I like to do physics and I want to see if I can still do it, and so I’m selfish, okay? I want to do my physics.
So here’s my thought experiment. Can you imagine putting scientists like Richard Feynman in charge of a daycare? They’d get lost in thought, plotting how to use the combined power of the Earth’s radio telescopes to take a picture of a black hole in a distant galaxy (scientists just did this). Meanwhile the children set fire to the building. Parents might complain.
Sometimes I lament that more people don’t think like scientists. This is usually prompted by the latest depressing data about climate change. But the truth is that the human species may not have survived if everyone was like me. Today I’m a scientist, lost in thought and oblivious to the world. One hundred thousand years ago there was another word for people like me: lion fodder. Some fool sits on the Serengeti staring at the sky, wondering why it’s blue. Meanwhile a lion approaches and finds an easy lunch.
It remains a mystery how this type of character trait could evolve. Think of the extremes. People like Paul Erdős, the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century. Erdős was a mathematical genius, but he supposedly couldn’t do even the simplest household task. He lived his life essentially as a ward of the mathematical community. The mathematicians of the world hosted him in their homes and supported his (famously bare-bones) material needs. And in return, he churned out theorem after theorem. In the modern world, we celebrate Erdős’ contributions. But would they have been useful in our ancestral environment? Doubtful.
Here’s an interesting possibility. What if minds like Erdős’ were a freak mutation that crept up in a small portion of the population. Suppose it served no advantage for the group (or even for the individual). Instead, the natural caregiving instinct of the rest of the group kept these people alive. The prehistoric scientists were the runts of the litter, kept alive by the grace of others. In hindsight, this seems to have paid off for the human species. But this may just be dumb luck.
These are half-baked ideas, but they make me celebrate people who don’t think like me. I am grateful for people whose minds constantly have a dialogue with the world, rather than monologue internally. These are the people who are born caregivers. They find great pleasure in the constant stimuli of young children. We should celebrate this diversity in the human mind.
The funny thing is that we talk a lot about celebrating diversity, but we don’t really walk the walk. If we did, we would pay the caregivers of the world a decent salary, on par with engineers and doctors. They are, after all, in charge of the future of humanity. But we don’t do this. Instead, the caregivers of the world are paid poorly.
And what really gets me going is how neoclassical economists rationalize this poor pay. In neoclassical economics, pay indicates one’s contribution to society. So the daycare worker who earns a pittance of a CEO’s pay — she just gets what she contributed to society. Apparently that’s not very much. And the stay-at-home mother of three? Well, she earns nothing because she contributes nothing.
The principles of neoclassical economics sound positively scandalous when you say them this way. And that’s why economists never do. They hide their ridiculous assumptions under a thick fog of math.
I want a theory of income that does justice to the caregivers of the world. These people earn a pittance of a CEO’s pay not because of any difference in contribution. No, it’s about power. CEOs have it. Caregivers do not. We need theory that recognizes this fact and studies it empirically.
I would say more, but you see, I’ve caught myself monologuing … and my daughter is playing with matches. And that’s why scientists can’t run daycares.
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