Riding the Grad School Motorcycle

From my journal, October 2013, about one month after I began grad school:

This morning when my alarm went off I was deep in a dream – a rare experience for me. I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and my learning method was just to go for a ride on the highway. As I was picking up speed on the ramp, I yelled to my dad’s friend, on a motorcycle beside me, “How do I shift gears?!” His reply: “With your hands.” That much I knew. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, maybe “with your hands” is an adequate explanation of how you shift gears. Since I’ve never driven one, just knowing I had to use my hands did not seem like useful information.

I was puzzled by where this dream was coming from until I remembered that today was my day to lead a seminar discussion on 120+ pages of material that I barely grasped. A little like learning to ride a motorcycle by just speeding ahead and giving it a try. The advice to shift “with my hands” is also pretty analogous to the advice I’ve gotten since I’ve started grad school. The answer may as well have been: “figure it out.” Luckily, the negative consequence of not figuring it out is much harsher in my dream than in real life.

On top of Trinity Mt at 300ft by Craig Howell. CC

Maybe this dream was some unconscious way of coping with my stress, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But almost 3 and a half years later, I still really like the analogy. The whole point of academic research is to uncover knowledge that is currently unknown by anyone. With that task, it’s often hard to give concrete advise on how to do things. People can give vague advice like shift with your hands (or find a work-life balance or communicate your science clearly), but those pieces of advice are often followed by the question how? and that answer is more elusive. That can be stressful.

But it can also make research so much fun.

Choose your own framing.

Healing words

One of my favorite recurring themes is the power that language has over our cognition. Lots of research has been devoted to words’ healing powers, and today I’m thinking about that because I turned to writing, as I often do, as a way to cope with my own inner turmoil.

In empirical studies, participants who write about negative events tend to have fewer negative feelings after the event than those who don’t write or who write about something irrelevant. And when I think about the most stereotypical demographic of diary writers, I think about middle school girls, who are often bursting with angst and turn to writing as an outlet.

Even when I look back on my own journals, which I’ve been keeping since I learned to write (though the spelling in my first few may suggest that I hadn’t quite learned yet), it sort of seems like my life has been one drama-filled roller coaster ride. On the contrary, my life is quite steady. If it were a roller coaster, it would be one of those for kids ages 5 and under, whose hills and valleys are barely existent. But at the end of a fine day in which I went about my routine and nothing notable happened, I don’t have the desire to write. I’m drawn to my journal during times of stress, times in which I’m trying to make sense of what’s going on in my world, ameliorate some situation, or put an event behind me. Subconsciously, it seems, journal-keepers must know the therapeutic power of their words.

A page from my second grade journal. On this day, I was very excited because my teacher, whom I adored, had been sick and absent for a few weeks, and this was the day she came back.
A page from my second grade journal. On this day, I was very excited because my teacher, whom I adored, had been sick and absent for a few weeks, and this was the day she came back.

Recently, one study reported that writing about traumatic events may also have a physically therapeutic effect. All participants gave small skin biopsies that left a wound on their arm, and their wounds were photographed every 3-5 days until they were healed, and all had a writing task that they completed daily. Seventy-six percent of the participants who wrote about traumatic events were completely healed after 11 days, while only 42% of the participants who wrote about their plans for the next day were healed. While it’s only one of many studies that shows a link between state of mind and physical health, the fact that writing can produce such a measurable healing effect is pretty neat.

This is also interesting in the context of another article that talks about the use of diaries in European ICUs. Many patients, especially in England, are given diaries to keep while in the hospital, and those who are unable to do so often have family members who keep it for them. Not only do these diaries help people piece together their often blurred hospital experiences after the fact, but they also seem to help reduce the emotional stress that might linger after an experience in the ICU.

Since so many studies focus writing’s potential to help purge negative emotions, I wonder what the possible effects of writing about positive events and feelings might be…