Is there a ‘basement’ for quirky psychological research?

Beware the Basement!
Beware the Basement!

 One thing I will never forget from my undergraduate training in psychology was the first lecture of my personality theory class. The professor started the lecture by informing us that he was quite sure that of the 200+ students in the lecture hall, the majority of us were probably majoring in psychology because we thought it would be neat to study sex, consciousness, psychedelics, paranormal experience, meditation, or the ilk. He then informed us this was a trap that befell almost all new psychology students, as we were all drawn to the study of the mind by the same siren call of the weird and wonderful human psyche. However he warned, we should be very, very careful not to reveal these suppressed interests until we were well established (I’m assuming he meant tenured) researchers- otherwise we’d risk being thrown into the infamous ‘basement of psychology’, never to be heard from again.

This colorful lecture really stuck with me through the years; I still jokingly refer to the basement whenever a more quirky research topic comes up. Of course I did a pretty poor job of following this advice, seeing as my first project as a PhD student involved meditation, but nonetheless I have repressed an academic interest in more risque topics throughout my career. And i’m not really actively avoiding them for fear of being placed in the basement – i’m more just following my own pragmatic research interests, and waiting for some day when I have more time and freedom to follow ideas that don’t directly tie into the core research line I’m developing.

But still. That basement. Does it really exist? In a world where papers about having full bladders renders us more politically conservative can make it into prestigious journals, or where scientists scan people having sex inside a scanner just to see what happens, or where psychologists seriously debate the possibility of precognition – can anything really be taboo? Or can we still distinguish from these flightier topics a more serious avenue of research? And what should be said about those who choose such topics?

Personally I think the idea of a ‘basement’ is largely a hold-over from the heyday of behaviorism, when psychologists were seriously concerned about positioning psychology as a hard science. Cognitivism has given rise to an endless bevy of serious topics that would have once been taboo; consciousness, embodiment, and emotion to name a few. Still, in the always-snarky twittersphere, one can’t but help feel that there is still a certain amount of nose thumbing at certain topics.

I think really, in the end, it’s not the topic so much as the method. Chris Frith once told me something to the tune of ‘in [cognitive neuroscience] all the truly interesting phenomenon are beyond proper study’. We know the limitations of brain scans and reaction times, and so tend to cringe a bit when someone tries to trot out the latest silly-super-human special interest infotainment paper.

What do you think? Is there a ‘basement’ for silly research? And if so, what defines what sorts of topics should inhabit its dank confines?

2 thoughts on “Is there a ‘basement’ for quirky psychological research?

  1. i’ve coauthored with someone who calls herself the ‘psychologist of love’ and has published on female orgasm etc. but I stick to trad cognitive topics.

  2. Interesting piece but I think you conflate two issues here (perhaps given away by the last paragraph “Is there a ‘basement’ for silly research?”)

    One is genuinely silly research – ESP, paranormal phenomena and so on – that have been fully discounted by many controlled studies. Perhaps you can include some of the solid research but trivial findings in here – IgNobel material – but I would argue this still has value that may not be widely recognised.

    The second is stigmatised research – things like sex, psychedelics, hypnosis, meditation, and so on. Stigmatised research is very different in that the phenomena are usually fascinating, good solid results exist but the area is under-researched, many scientists are fascinated with it in private, but don’t want to be associated with it in public.

    These are usually areas where interest in the phenomenon is more prevalent in fringe or pseudoscientific subcultures meaning researcher’s integrity can be easily threatened in public by simple association, even where no meaningful association exists.

    So is there a basement? Yes, but there’s also a closet, and de-stigmatising these research areas is essential because much of it, when investigated, has important implications for the wider science of human nature.

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