Musings on why I am a researcher

The other day I watched a film called Frequencies with my husband and daughter. It was all about a world in which people emitted some sort of frequency – high, low or in between. It wasn’t entirely clear whether these were sound frequencies, light frequencies or some other kind of frequency, but go with it for a moment. Someone with high frequency should not meet someone with low frequency because this was dangerous (I’m not absolutely sure why). But in the story a young man (low frequency) fell in love with a young woman (high frequency) and with his friend (average frequency) set about finding a way they could be together through using specific words to adjust frequencies. I won’t tell you what happens in the end as it will spoil it for you, should you wish to check it out.

The thing is that both my husband and my daughter accepted the film and all its ideas at face value, enjoyed it and for them the experience ended when the film ended. But I had questions. So many questions! I was trying too hard to understand the film and trying to work out what was going on and what the ending really meant, etc. As usual, my daughter rolled her eyes and my husband said it was only a story and I was over-analysing it. This is a theme I covered in an earlier post (Musings on curiosity) and it has led me to consider whether my brain is wired in a different way from that of my husband and daughter and whether this is the reason that I am a researcher.

I question everything. It’s quite irritating for other people, I think. I ask for details that I don’t really need to know, but I feel I need them in order to understand things fully. I have been told in the past that I have some slightly Aspergic traits and maybe this is one of them, as my brain keeps whirring round and round a problem or a question until I have all the facts and details I need to solve it or answer it. Even when it really isn’t important and when the information will not necessarily enrich my life or anyone else’s. It’s a compulsion. It’s like the five-year-old inside me who always asked ‘why?’ never went away.

The recent coronavirus press briefings from the UK government, with their supply of PowerPoint slides, do nothing but leave me with questions. I have to spend time afterwards searching the internet for the detail they lack – detail that I fully appreciate is not wanted by everyone and that would not necessarily be appropriate for a public broadcast that is trying to reach a very wide audience. The lack of detail frustrates me as I feel I need it to understand fully. Other viewers are, I’m sure, quite happy with the information imparted or unhappy with it for reasons of their own. The graphs don’t always display well on my TV – the edges are missing. This may just be my TV, but it means I can’t read the axes or the titles. Sometimes the graphs are not fully explained; the information is glossed over perhaps because the detail is considered too much for a general audience. Information we were used to being given is now no longer offered and the way things are counted or displayed changes occasionally. Acronyms go unexplained and sometimes there’s just too much information on one screen – I have to pause the briefing so I can examine it more carefully before the call for the ‘next slide, please’. It got to a stage back in the summer of 2020 when I couldn’t watch the briefings any more because they simply created too much work for me online afterwards to find out all the details that were missing.

But do I really need to know all that detail? Do I really need to spend time searching for it? Do I really need to understand all the ins and outs of the pandemic data to that extent? Probably not. The actual impact on my life is minimal. As long as I and others get the main message the details are most useful to those advising the government and those making the decisions.

My natural tendency to detail and research also ruined my teenage attempt to listen to the Top 40 every week. All the other girls at school listened to this countdown of top pop songs every week and I wasn’t interested. I liked heavy metal and there was never any of that in the Top 40. But in an attempt to be like the other girls and to understand why they liked it, I did listen to the Top 40 countdown for a few months. But I kept a record of all the songs and artists, kept graphs of their movement up and down the charts (I had to limit that to the Top 10 as it got too big) and noted how long the songs were in the chart, etc. I spent two hours every weekend frantically taking notes and drawing graphs. I filled reams of paper and had to keep it all in a lever arch file. I kind of missed the point and didn’t really listen to the music.

Maybe this is why I like research. It is never an effort for me to ask questions. It is never a chore for me to go into detail, to follow an idea through to its conclusion or to read several articles on the same subject but from slightly different viewpoints. It is never boring to collate or analyse data, to make graphs and charts, to draw conclusions. I can spend hours sitting in silence, just thinking about things, mulling them over, considering possibilities, making connections. It’s the way I’m made. Just don’t go to the cinema with me if you expect me to leave the building without asking questions. And don’t give me a novel or let me watch TV if you don’t want to hear my analysis of characters’ motives and my theories about what might be happening off screen afterwards. I’ll drive you mad.

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