As a liberal arts college, Quest succeeds in attracting many students who have no idea what to do with their life, and I was no different. Taking the foundation classes was great experience for me because I got to sample so many different subjects, link ideas between them, and experience how different disciplines viewed the same topic. During your second year at Quest you take a class called “Question” where you figure out what you’re going to be focusing on for the next two years. This can be a stressful time for folks like me who still aren’t committed to any one subject. I decided to pick my two favourite classes at Quest, World Religions and Neuroscience, and see if I could combine the two to form a meaningful question. After much research I came up with the broad question: “What is Belief”? I intended to look at a new field of science called neurotheology; researchers were using technology such as FMRI and SPECT machines to look at how religious experiences happen in the brain. To me, this subject was as fascinating as it was confusing and I was excited to explore it for the next two years.
As I entered my third year of Quest I looked at the course offerings and unsurprisingly there was not many classes that directly related to my question. I doubt neurotheology is a common course offering at most big schools never mind one with around 500 students (at the time). However, there was classes that I was interested in taking such as Comparative Cognition and Research Methods in Social Science.
In October I entered Comparative Cognition and one of the first things we were asked to do was to read the methods section of a scientific paper and point out flaws. Our small group trudged out to a breakout room and went over these methods line by line looking for mistakes. My group mates were highly critical of everything the scientists did: were the measurements precise, was there any bias, etc. I, on the other hand was prepared to give the authors the benefit of the doubt, these were scientists with PHD’s and specialties, who was I to tell them how to conduct their methods. While my group mates were tearing in to the paper I proclaimed “I think these methods are perfect”. My partner looked up at me from the paper and said bluntly “there is no such thing as perfect methods”.
I mention this occurrence in such detail because it was the start of a new way of thinking academically for me. Even after two years at Quest I was used to the comfortable illusion that experiments were carried out by professionals who rarely made mistakes, and if they did, it certainly wouldn’t be published. The rest of Comparative Cognition succeeded in further shattering this illusion and I was shoved head first in to a world where a scientific “truth” really meant: given a certain scenario with certain variables and certain participants (usually undergrad students), there is a blank percent chance that something will happen. Breaking this illusion was uncomfortable but it turned out to be a great place for me to enter my next class: Research Methods in Social Science.
One thing I forgot to mention about Comparative Cognition was that I was surrounded by geniuses. It was my first class at Quest that I was taking with mostly fourth years and they knew what they were talking about (or at least used enough big words to appear that way). Research Methods was no different and I felt that I was put in a group that for the most part, had already done some research. The premise of the class was to run a full research project start to finish, in the month we were in class: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion, the whole shebang. We were brainstorming research topics in the first week that related to our question and lo and behold I struggled to find something I could test. If I wanted to go the neurotheology route I’d have to find an FMRI/SPECT machine or conjure up a few hundred grand and buy one myself.
I thought about going the survey route and asking people about what their religions meant to them, but the level of subjectivity in that line of research is pretty high. I wasn’t interested in compiling a list of people’s opinions, I wanted concrete research that actually told me something.
This was a big decision point for me and I almost changed my question that very month, however, I decided to stick with my question and simply do an unrelated research project. My rational was that I was learning how to do research regardless and so if I did research later on about my question, I would still have all the lessons I learned in this class. I came across a topic through some sort of epiphany while I was listening to music and trying to read. Many students claim that they study better or worse while listening to music and I was interested in seeing how music affected memory. Specifically, I wanted to test whether or not music with lyrics was more distracting (resulting in worse memory) than music without lyrics. I had participants listen to “What Does the Fox Say” (sorry guys) with and without lyrics (as well as white noise for a control) while completing a spatial memory task. The task was timed so I could see how long it took to complete under these various conditions.
I then took the average of all the times for each condition and ran a one way ANOVA on the data. I got a p value of .93. For those of you without formal stats training, put simply, a p value is an indicator of whether your results are due to chance, or to the conditions you manipulated. My p value of .93 told me that there was a 93% chance that the variance of my data was due to chance. Essentially this means I found no effect of lyrical music or otherwise on spatial memory. Apparently at this stage it’s common for students to despair and then talk about how bad their methods were and how they are a failure of a human being. However, our teacher advised us to first look at the research and see why this may be the “correct” result. Like many things, the research on music and memory is all over the place and the jury is still out on whether it helps or hinders memory overall. Somehow, I did manage to find a study done in Japan with almost identical methods and very similar results to mine. It appeared that lyrical music may have a greater effect on verbal memory than spatial memory (I was testing spatial). I used this mess of research and the similar study from Japan to explore the claim that maybe I wasn’t a failure of a human being (p=.001)(that’s a joke). My methods were far from perfect so in the end I’m not sure whether that also contributed to my results, but it was great to explore the fantasy scenario that I had done everything right.
December finally gave me chance to jump into a class that was related to my question (The Science of Immortality), and better yet it was taught by a visiting star (google Jesse Bering for more info). This class was bent on exploring belief in the afterlife and the psychology behind beliefs of all sorts (supernatural or otherwise). This class was fascinating to me but it was slightly further away from the academic rigour I found in my other classes. Jesse and others had designed some awesome experiments to test aspects of faith but when it came time to explain why people behaved in a certain way it was back to plausible explanations with little concrete evidence. Overall I loved this class but it was challenging and frustrating to merge science with a topic as deep and as personal as faith. Evidence in the classroom offered by other students was often anecdotal in nature but I didn’t want to call them out on something so personal.
Thus ended the first semester of my third year and the academic journey that came with it. Tune in next week for a similar account of my second semester and to find out where my interests are currently.