Science in general

An ode to participants

[klik hier om in Nederlands te lezen]

I’ve been a PhD student at the MPI for 18 months now, and in that time I have tested 147 different participants in 4 different experiments here, and an extra 23 in another experiment in London. That’s about nine and a half times a month, which falls somewhere between the number of times I go to the gym and the number of times I just watch TV eating biscuits (I’ll let you decide which is which).

That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of times that I’ve been saying “Thanks for doing the experiment” and that’s a lot of times that I’ve forgotten whether it’s de experiment or het experiment. That’s a lot of times I’ve inflicted post-rock on my participant while setting up the electrodes. That’s a lot of times I’ve heard the same stimuli, to the point where I almost feel more familiar with the voice of the woman who recorded the words than the voice of my own girlfriend. That’s a lot of times that I’ve said “press the left button if the word is correct, and press the right button if the word is wrong”, so much so that it’s become burned into my mind and I can’t say it without feeling like I’m singing it. That’s a lot of conversations where I ask things like “So, are you a student here? What do you study? Is my experiment more fun than my office mate’s experiment? [it definitely is]”. That’s a lot of conversations where participants ask things like “are you German? Oh, you’re British, I thought your accent sounded German. How long have you been in Nijmegen? Can you say Scheveningen? [I sort of can, yeah] Is the UK really like Geordie Shore? [it sort of is, yeah]”. I appreciate the Dutch practice, although I hope there won’t be many situations in daily life where I have to tell people “please read and sign the consent form before we go any further” or “don’t worry, this won’t actually electrocute you”.

The really funny thing is the disparity in how each of us sees the experiment. To my participant, it’s a strange, maybe slightly boring, task that takes about an hour. It’s not a bad way to earn a bit of beer money, it’s two drinks at the Cultuur Café on campus, maybe three if they settle for Jupiler instead of something actually nice, and there was that two hour gap between lectures that afternoon anyway. It’s pretty forgettable. A week later, my participant vaguely remembers doing my experiment, but not really what it was about, apart from that it had some Japanese words in it and there was that bit where I turned the electrode impedance check on and that weird swimming cap thing made their head light up like a Christmas tree, and there was something about how blinking made their brainwaves go funny.

To me, though, it’s everything. My career completely depends on the research that I do, and the research that I do completely depends on the kind people who turn up to do these strange, maybe slightly boring tasks, even though it’s 9am and it’s raining outside. I have talked about the results from my experiments all over the place, from a beautiful old room in the KNAW in Amsterdam with oil paintings of 18th century Dutch writers on the walls, to a wooden boat on the river in Tokyo from which my supervisor could see a fireworks display and where I tried to hide the fact that I’d spilled shochu down my shirt.

Without my participants, I would have never seen any of this; without my participants, I wouldn’t be able to do the job that I love (or the job that I think is frustratingly terrible, if you’re asking when I’m cleaning gel out of electrodes with a toothbrush or if there’s a typo in my code that I just can’t find). The department blog often talks about the research that we do at MPI, and some of it even makes the national news. This can make the scientists involved seem like the most important part… but I hope you appreciate that behind every MPI study is a scientist who is quietly very grateful for the bemused participants who do their experiments. Especially the ones who still turn up at 9am when it’s raining outside.

[this blog was originally written for, the Dutch-language blog for the Neurobiology of Language department at the MPI for Psycholinguistics]


One thought on “An ode to participants

  1. Pingback: Een ode aan proefpersonen | het talige brein

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