As students and young professionals by now we have come to realize how working with other people is essential for the completion of many goals in the pursuit of scientific relevance. Sometimes it is through the insight, know-how and/or dedication of others that we can push forward a project that was stuck at a roadblock. So how do scientists in the field of psychology collaborate with other scientists and what strengths and disadvantages they may have in a team of researchers with diverse backgrounds? The following piece attempts to outline some such possible opportunities and hurdles.
As technology is progressing, so is the wealth of human knowledge, ever increased by the innovations among the array of tools science employs in its quest of exploring the world around us and the world within us. The field of psychology is certainly no exception, benefiting vastly by any meaningful and accurate new mode of exploring, documenting and making sense of the human experience. These tools can vary from pure products of scientific creativity – such as coming up with a new experimental design or bettering an existing one – to complex machines employed by psychologists – an example would be an fMRI machine or a PET scanner. In theory, the very use of an fMRI scanner can already be seen as an interdisciplinary undertaking, employing developments in physics, chemistry and engineering that went into the aforementioned scanner’s invention, refinement and construction. The conclusions driven by the data that a machine such as this one can compute are sometimes the subject of often very meaningful criticism, yet it remains one of many examples that can be given to the beneficial influence of advances in vast number of disciplines on the development of the field of psychology. We should not forget that using these advances would often be indeed next to impossible without the collaboration and know-how of specialists outside of our own field.
It is clear that researchers and specialists outside the domain of psychology can often be extremely valuable in our scientific efforts, more so than machines. Working within a team of scientists with different background in an interdisciplinary field or striking up a collaboration in a multidisciplinary group can often pose many hurdles, but it is also very rewarding. Curious about how psychologists contribute to science and knowledge while teaming up with researchers from other fields? Here are some ideas:
- In Neuroscience: The very obvious first pick in this list, neuroscience is “a branch (as neurophysiology) of science that deals with the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, or molecular biology of nerves and nervous tissue and especially their relation to behaviour and learning”, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It is an exciting, fast-developing science that is markedly interdisciplinary, where advancement is often derived from the collaboration between scholars who can provide in-depth knowledge and analysis on phenomena relating to the brain that occur on several different levels – molecular, cellular, behavioural, cognitive. While psychologists play a substantial role in this field, answers to questions posed within the vast array of sub-disciplines of neuroscience, such as neuroaesthetics (the empirical study of the experience and perception of art) or neuroeconomics (a field that tries to shed light on the decision-making processes in an economic context) can only become clearer when the questions asked are explored by researchers with different backgrounds in science. The opportunities for leadership are great for psychologists within this field and the pronounced attention given to neuroscience offer a great medium for communicating valuable scientific contributions to a vast audience.
- Psychology and Physics: The convenient name “psychophysics” does not refer to this match – it was assigned to the study of physical stimuli and their impact on our sensations back in the middle of the XIXth century by the influential Gustav Fechner. It is however true the physicist Seiji Ogawa contributed enormously to recent finds in psychology by discovering a principle of imaging the brain that later gave rise to the fMRI scanners, mentioned earlier in this text, but that there are some other recent, more direct and curious interdisciplinary fields between them. Is it a daring subject, yet some academics draw parallels between quantum mechanics and psychology (Gabora, 2012) and even go further in an attempt to make sense of the mind-brain interaction by creating a “new framework, unlike its classic-physics-based predecessor, is erected directly upon, and is compatible with, the prevailing principles of physics.” (Schwartz et al., 2005). If not entirely acceptable, such ideas are at least worth considering for the novel perspective they give the reader.
- Psychology and History: The historians and psychologists both study the human condition and the human experience. Professionals and academics in both fields strive to unfold the narrative and in that they have to be careful and very precise. Knowing that it is interesting that academics see an “an underlying tension between the disciplines of history and psychology. The story of their relations […] is one of suspicion, misunderstanding, and occasional flashes of hostility.” (Runyan, 1988). Still there is an (admittedly controversial) field of science devoted to the cross between the two, called, unsurprisingly, psychohistory (neurohistory is another such field, focused on uncovering hints of our ancient history through clues drawn from evolutionary assumptions and using modern humans’ experiences as models for recreating the experiences people throughout history might have had). Employing neo-Freudian theories and concepts, this study deals with the description of psychobiographical case studies or making sense of the description of events such as mass hysteria. It is nonetheless an interesting source of innovative, albeit often rightfully challenged, insights into the motives, emotions and challenges individuals and societies faces throughout the ages and can help fill gaps in a purely historical analysis of the events of the past. Furthermore working with people involved with sociology, anthropology, political science, etc. can facilitate an even broader spectrum of insights that can be communicated back to the academic world, creating a more multidisciplinary, instead of interdisciplinary, take on the subject.
The above list covers but a few possible collaborations possible for psychologists and is meant as a starting point and hopefully inspiration for the students interested in working with people involved in other fields of science. Certainly there are limitations to interdisciplinary research that should be kept in mind though. A very obvious one is choosing the right journal and agreeing on the order of authorship. Some questions that might pop are: What weights in most? How to choose the most appropriate journal if the topic I am working on is hard to classify within the context of a single discipline? Is there a degree of elitism attached to certain sciences that creates issues to psychologists working in interdisciplinary teams? Dr. Suzanne Johnson, former president of The American Psychological Association argues that indeed creating an interdisciplinary team as a researcher within the field of psychology is often hard and merely getting a your own slot in such a team can be made difficult by futile factors among which the aforementioned elitism (Johnson, 2012). On the other hand, psychologists may often find some advantages when it comes to working in an interdisciplinary team – the ever present interest of society in some of the latest developments in psychology means that “psychological science is among the most frequently cited of the sciences and the impact of this research extends far beyond our disciplinary borders” (Cacioppo, 2007). Taking into account the usual deeper understanding of group processes and honed mediation skills via education and extensive literature covering these subjects, coupled with their sound scientific background, researchers within the field of psychology can make for good leaders of multidisciplinary teams and indeed help facilitate better interdisciplinary research efforts that can reach broader audiences. Not only does it push the frontiers of science, but working with researchers in other fields often pushes our own – an experience that can often hardly be found without taking the chance of doing such work.
Cacioppo, J. (2007). Better Interdisciplinary Research Through Psychological Science. Observer, Vol. 20, No. 10. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2007/november-07/better-interdisciplinary-research-through-psychological-science.html
Gabora, L. (2012). Does It Make Any Sense to Apply Quantum Mechanics to How People Think? Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mindbloggling/201203/does-it-make-any-sense-apply-quantum-mechanics-how-people-think
Johnson, S. (2012). Increasing psychology’s role in interdisciplinary science. Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 43, No. 2. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/02/pc.aspx
Runyan, W. M. (1988). Psychology and Historical Interpretation. USA: Oxford University Press
Schwartz, J., Stapp, H., & Beauregard, M. (2005) Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology: a neurophysical model of mind–brain interaction Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B June 29, 2005 360 1458 1309-1327; doi:10.1098/rstb.2004.1598 1471-2970