Friday, June 24, 2011

There is a code that research psychologists stick to when communicating with the general public. It's characterised by the strict use of certain phrases (e.g. "participation is voluntary and anonymous") and the strict disuse of others (e.g. any reference to people as guinea pigs or other rodents). This code is necessary to protect the delicate sensibilities of those uninitiated in the ways of psychological research and, more importantly, to avoid scaring off potential participants.

Take 'participants' - a case in point. When communicating with the public, you speak of 'participants'. Not 'subjects', not 'bloody first years' and certainly not 'lab rats'. And you don't offer your participants compensation. The very thought would have former Human Research Ethics Committee members rolling in their graves. What you offer is a 'small travel reimbursement' or, if your participants are undergraduate psych students, course credit.

Because my participants, like high-functioning autistic children, people with congenital hearing impairments and adults who were born in China, immigrated to Australia between the ages of 8 and 10, speak Mandarin daily and oh yeah, have a Lebanese mother, are a Special Population and therefore a Very Precious Commodity, I have to be more cautious than most in my choice of words. Any mention of brains, cognitive processes or, God forbid, 'experiments' will have every musician in a six mile radius running for cover. So in my recruiting efforts, instead of asking people whether they want to 'participate in an experiment', I ask whether they'd like to 'help out with some research'. I'm 'doing a study', I say (never 'conducting' one), on expressive piano performance. At the end of the day, I get a musician in the door, and they get to leave having never heard the terms 'trial', 'test' or 'time series analysis'. It's a win-win situation.

Unspoken words will eventually bubble up to the surface, though. It's a simple fact of life. To ensure that this doesn't happen under unfortunate circumstances, when speaking with each other, we researchers take pains to be as un-politically correct as possible.

So it's not surprising that conversation this week centered around zapping brains. We had a couple of TMS experts in giving us training in the fine art of brain zapping. TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) involves using a magnet to induce an electrical current in the brain, causing either temporary disruption or stimulation. Basically, you hold a magnet to someone's head, press a button, and depending on where the magnet is, they might twitch or temporarily lose the ability to speak. I zapped a couple brains. Had mine zapped too. My nose twitched, I jumped and everyone laughed.

I'm going to help my friend practice his brain zapping techniques next week. He needs to be proficient in finding the motor cortex before he starts running participants. And more importantly, he needs to get all talk of 'zapping the bloody first year lab rats' out of his system first.

No comments: