Observer Forum

A Multidisciplinary Manual

I agree that multidisciplinary research is likely to be part of the future of budding psychologists. However, the nature of the interdisciplinary activities portrayed in the recent article, “Crossing Boundaries” (Observer, May/June, 2009), were so unlike my many years in multidisciplinary research that I am impelled to comment.

The article makes a distinction between “true multidisciplinary work” and “other multidisciplinary efforts.” As I read it, such work involves “more than parlor games of pass the procedure…they ask completely different questions.” The examples of the “new fields” that have emerged from such efforts were “neuroscience, political psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology.” Specific examples cited interactions of members of departments of economics and psychology, political science and psychology, anthropology and psychology, and neuroscience and psychology. As near as I can gather, the primary activity was “exchanging ideas” and “learning more about the other disciplinary areas.”

From my experiences in the multidisciplinary arena, interactions between disciplines are less involved in exchanges of ideas and passing of methods. Rather they are applications of their own discipline’s methods to new problems posed. They resemble the efforts in building an aircraft or producing an atomic bomb.

I spent some 25 years in the multidisciplinary area of sleep research. I had been originally trained as an experimental psychologist in the neo-behaviorist tradition that was dedicated to “writing the laws of learning.” Like many of my colleagues, I used rats in my experiments. Some 10 years later it was becoming apparent that, although we may be able to write the learning laws of the rat, we were not going to capture human learning in our net.

By chance, I read a remarkable book that summarized the research on sleep through the 1930s. It was clear that it had been “hit and miss” on a wide range of topics with little or no systematic attempt at the prediction and control of sleep as a behavioral event or to consider conceptual organization in the area. I had access to a rat laboratory and ventured forth. I published my first paper on sleep in the 1957 Journal of Experimental Psychology reporting on the effect of three variables on the onset latency of rat sleep. The experiment revealed, not surprisingly, that sleep was systematically related to amount of prior wakefulness. It was this paper that got me invited to the first meeting of sleep researchers to form a society of sleep researchers in 1961. It is at that meeting that I became a member of an interdisciplinary community of researchers.

This meeting epitomized the multidisciplinary nature of sleep research. There was only one true sleep researcher at the meeting. He was an MD in the physiology department who had written the summary book on sleep that had attracted me to the field. The rest of us were from a wide range of disciplines and had become interested in a particular aspect of sleep that was relevant to our own area of training. There was a pediatrician who had been making careful observations of the developmental changes in the patterns of sleep. There was an endocrinologist who had become interested in the changes in cortisol levels during sleep. There were a half dozen researchers involved the burgeoning field of brain research who were trying to find the sleep/wake center and were responding to the new discovery of REM or dream sleep loci. There were psychiatrists interested in using the location of the REM or dream sleep as a clinical tool or better understanding of the emotional meaning of dreams. There were psychologists. One was a clinical psychologist who was at Walter Reed in a laboratory studying sleep deprivation. Several were interested in using awakenings from REM with certain dream recall to explore the meaning of dreams. And, if my recall is correct, one was studying the sleep of animals.

For more than two decades, I went to meetings and interacted with my colleagues from a wide variety of disciplines. These expanded to include bioelectrical engineers, chronobiologists, gerontologist, veterinarians, pharmacologists, and pulmonary physicians. It is my impression that the primary benefits obtained from these interactions was simply being in the presence of others who were as interested in sleep as you were and who had any good news about new funding resources. While we listened to each other’s papers and chatted about posters I spent most of our time with my psychological colleagues and others of similiar interests. We were, of course, always alert for more and better ways to measure our experimental variables. In short, I found few psychological ideas in a wide range of paper sessions like neurology, physiology, dreams, disease, biochemistry, or pharmaceuticals.

There was one exception from a new research area, chronobiology. One of my funding grants was from NASA and I went to work on problems that might have a “pay off.” It occurred to me that space flight was time free (i.e., not on a 24 hour schedule). Could I create a more efficient time schedule, say an 8-4-8-4 schedule, and how long would it take to adapt to such a schedule? When I began to manipulate sleep time schedules, it became quite clear that sleep was a very fixed and firm biological rhythm. I made a concentrated effort to study and learn from the researchers in the area of biological rhythms. Having emerged as an area of research at about the same time as sleep research, chronobiology was also a highly multidisciplinary enterprise.

Although I remained in the psychology department, my attendance at psychology meetings and conferences waned and was replaced by sleep meetings and conferences. I was no longer on boards and committees or elected to offices. Publishing in psychological journals and presenting papers at meetings was problematic. Sleeping subjects were of little interest to most areas of psychology. However, my research produced findings that were relevant to a wide range of interests. Examples were the role of sleep in shift work schedules and jet lag, the remarkable problems of sleep in the very young and old, the accident potentials arising from sleep deprivation. Sleep journals emerged, and research findings were relevant to a wide range of journals.

Funding sources shifted as my research from basic research to more applied research. This research did not fit into the classical review panels of psychological research at the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. I turned to other government agencies such as NASA and the Defense Department and, later, to the National Institutes of Health when a utilitarian outcome became an appropriate goal.

Occasionally, we would have interdisciplinary meetings as a group and would often have a presentation by a leading contributor from one of the disciplinary areas. I found most of these a waste of time. It was not that the findings were unimportant. Rather they were at the cutting edge of research in their area and this involved new and complex procedures and analyses. As a consequence, disentangling the findings from the procedures was too often overwhelming.

Depending on the area, I often found difficulty in making a connection with my own interest as a psychologist. I viewed sleep as independent variable or as a dependent variable. It was difficult to connect with sessions on neuropathology or dreams with individual differences or sleep deprivation. There limited differences between the sleep of males and females and even extended sleep deprivation have not demonstrated any remarkable effects on the central nervous system.

As a sleep researcher then, I remained an experimental psychologist. Sleep, like learning, was an intervening variable. Measures of the sleep response were systematically related to proximal and distal variables, and variations in sleep resulted in systematic behavioral effects. With several hundred papers, dozen of chapters, and seven books on research on sleep as a behavior, I know that I have contributed to a better understanding of sleep.

I do agree with the article that following the path of interdisciplinary research is a difficult one. A critical problem is that you are not likely to find a position in the most ideal setting for a research psychologist (i.e., a large university with a graduate program in psychology). There are perhaps 200 such sites with an annual need for probably 20 professors. The likelihood one of these positions matching your interests and training and not having applicants with higher qualifications is infinitesimal.

Second, you are going to have to decide which path to take and you are going to have to lead the way. You are going to have to determine the area of interest that psychological research may be applied to. Hopefully, you will determine this area of interest early in your graduate program (or before) so that you can shape you training appropriately. You do not have to invent these areas because there are plenty of pioneers out there.

Finally, do not expect to be recognized or interact with the psychological community. This community will be primarily centered in two arenas: the academe and the health professional settings, with these being exemplified by APS and APA, respectively. You will receive your awards and rewards from the areas of your research rather than this community. This is not all bad. If you are entering a relatively new area, you will find yourself competing for funds and recognition with other newcomers rather than already proven icons.

Do not be discouraged by these difficulties. I believe, as the article says, that interdisciplinary research is a “growing enterprise.” I also believe it is a favorable direction for the science of psychology to take. We are beginning to try to not only answer problems posed from within psychology, but also those posed by the broader every day world.

The problems of the world we live in are increasingly complex and challenging. They require multidisciplinary efforts and answers: for example, curing cancer (“The National Cancer Institute: A Hub for Psychological and Behavioral Sciences,” Observer, May/June, 2009), running clinical test trials in the pharmaceutical industry, and rehabilitating returning veterans, just to name a few. Go to it!

Observer Vol.22, No.9 November, 2009

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