Thursday 6 October 2016

Deep science (more on patient brooding) - a draft essay for comment

7th October 2016: Review version online at:


Deep science, creative science: Patient brooding versus evidence-reason based techniques


Abstract It may seem odd to assert that patient brooding and waiting for imaginative validation is the proper way of doing science; after all, most professional scientists and philosophers believe that the essence of science is ‘evidence’ derived from observations and experiments, synthesized by some kind of logical and rational method. But personal experience, history and theoretical considerations all suggest that a prolonged state of ‘patient brooding’ is the hallmark and prerequisite of ‘deep science’; a practical necessity for the most creative and significant breakthroughs.


Looking back over the thirty years since I published my first papers; it is clear that there are a few publications that I regard as deep science (that is significant, creative and valid science) – and these were the product of what I would term ‘patient brooding’ and an intuitive-imaginative validation. These writings continue to please me, seem to be valuable, and are a source of personal satisfaction.

However, on the other hand, there are publications that – while honest, in a negative sense of not being dishonest - seem to have been ‘manufactured’ (or ‘squeezed-out’) by the mere application of technique (‘scientific method’). These include things like summaries of data that I had collected and didn’t want to ‘waste’ – and which I vaguely hoped ‘might be useful’ to someone-or-other, sooner-or-later; ideas that I regarded as potentially ‘stimulating’; favours to colleagues; and theories that had been assembled (like a mosaic) from cited bits and pieces of other people’s evidence and ideas…

These publications I am retrospectively not so pleased with. At best I regard them as part of a learning process, stepping stones to something valid that came later; but sometimes they were merely careerist place-holders or tokens. It may seem odd to assert that patient brooding and waiting for imaginative validation is the proper way of doing science – or at least deep science; after all, most professional scientists and philosophers believe that the essence of science is ‘evidence’ derived from observations and experiments; synthesized by some kind of logical and rational process.

Even those ‘Popperians’ (followers of philosopher Karl Popper: 1902-1994) who regard science as driven by hypotheses, tend to emphasise that the crucial aspect is the ‘testing’ of hypotheses; with this process being conceptualised as a matter of stating clear predictions and performing rigorous evaluations; with prior criteria (preferably quantitatively defined) set-out for passing or failing each test. Some regard this as the ‘scientific method’ – and infer that if the method is not followed, then the activity is not really science…

Nonetheless, from personal experience I have concluded something very different, and almost the opposite; which is that in practice - and inevitably - evidence is so slippery and contextual a phenomenon as to be at best controversial and at worst almost worthless when taken in isolation; and much the same applies to what are regarded as the ‘proper’ processes of logic or reason. In sum; evidence and logic are not ‘objective’; and when regarded as such they become profoundly misleading. More is needed.

The problem, if it is really a problem, is that science does not and cannot itself validate science. Science is inevitably based-on a restricted, partial and biased set of assumptions – that is its strength, but it is also an unavoidable constraint. Science is therefore embedded in a larger world; and the validity of science depends utterly on relating science to that larger world.

So any assertion about how science ought to be conducted must be taken from outside of science – and such assertions are ‘metaphysical’ in nature. That science is based on metaphysical assumptions has been denied by theory since the days of the ‘logical positivists’ about a century ago (who regarded metaphysics as strictly non-sense), and is denied in practice by many or most practising scientists, who typically refuse to acknowledge any non-scientific assumptions, or fundamental constraints to the validity and applicability of science (and who regard metaphysics as sheer nonsense).

I don’t propose to go into the specifics of the wide-ranging metaphysical assumptions of science; indeed, I do not think these assumptions are well understood, neither are they easy to summarise, and certainly they are not widely agreed-upon. But rather I want to suggest that in the practical life of a scientist they have their impact in the activity I have dubbed ‘patient brooding’. In particular, I propose that patient brooding is the hallmark and necessity of pretty much all significant creative science.

I will analyse the phenomenon of ‘patient brooding’. Firstly ‘patient’. This word is intended to convey that the pace of insight cannot be forced. The scientist must wait for imaginative validation of his work and ideas; and he must be prepared to wait for as long as it takes. This is necessary, because it is only in the imagination that ‘the whole person’ is brought to bear on the matter in hand. I regard the imagination as the most complete form of cognition; since imagination includes the emotional and the implicit, as well as the rational and factual.

The imagination of a scientist (after – it goes without saying - sufficient and appropriate education and experience) contains not just the evidence which he knows he knows; but imagination (over time, and with attention) brings forward especially that evidence that he most needs and values; discarding that which is irrelevant and unreliable (this happening, to the extent of his personal scientific ability and judgment).

This ‘trained-imagination’ of a scientist is not just logical and rational, but includes all kinds and types of thinking – such as emotions of euphoria or well-being, angst or despondency; gut-feelings; the discernment of the heart and so on – these being the kind of ‘sensations’ that creative people report experiencing as evaluations of their own performance. In sum, patient imagination, over time, will bring to bear the total scientist upon his subject. What then of ‘brooding’?

What do I mean by that? By ‘brooding’ I intend to convey that creative science is about reflecting on relatively broad themes – and not about answering very specific and pre-defined questions. This breadth is necessary because a highly specific question will nearly-always pre-judge the answer too narrowly to include the valid answer. The brooding means that the creative scientist is seeking the correct question, at the same time as he is seeking the correct answer – and the valid question and the valid answer both come at the same time.

What happens while patiently brooding? This is surely unpredictable, and must vary case-by-case, person-by-person. But as the most extreme example of my experience, I spent some 15-20 years brooding on the twin questions: What is the cause of melancholia (or endogenous depression)? And why are antidepressants effective? During that long time (during which I worked at many other things) the pieces of the jigsaw making-up what eventually became the answer came gradually, a piece at a time. (This was published as The malaise theory of depression in Medical Hypotheses, 2000; 54: 126-130.)

For instance, I learned of the depressant effect of glandular fever from my own experience as a student; about the pain relieving effects of antidepressant from my medical training; I met patients with disseminated cancer and autoimmune disease who had depressive symptoms while a junior physician; I encountered depressed patients who complained of ‘feeling ill’ while I was a trainee psychiatrist; I read of the immune abnormalities in depression during my doctoral studies; I read the idea that recovering from depression was similar to recovering from influenza in a book I found in a second-hand shop on holiday; while studying evolutionary psychology I encountered the theories of Antonio Damasio concerning the nature of emotion; and so forth…

Because I was alert and interested, these and other clues were noticed and remembered, until they crystallised in a particular ‘eureka moment’ in 1999 – after which I spent some further brooding time checking the predictions and implications, and my own state of conviction; before proceeding to publication.

Another term I have used above is ‘intuition’. This simply means introspection, looking-within – and taking it seriously. A creative scientist who (after patience) is rewarded by an insight, then needs to develop the ability to look within himself, and to become aware of the content of his own imagination. To become aware of this imagination in an explicit form is one step, the next is to take what is perceived and make it into a linguistic form which can be communicated to other people.
Communication may be in such forms as a conversation, seminar, lecture, letter, paper, monograph, a textbook...

Patient brooding cannot be faked, forced or contrived; although deliberate it is a spontaneous consequence of strong and sustained inner motivation. In sum, it is the antithesis of expediency and careerism – and the apotheosis of dedication to truth and knowledge. It is a personal vocation from within; not just ‘a job’, to which you are allocated.

But – having said that evidence and logic are inadequate - why should patient brooding be regarded as a valid method of seeking truth in science, or indeed in any other domain of human activity?

In answering this, firstly it must be made clear there is absolutely no guarantee that patient brooding will yield deep science. It is not a ‘truth-machine’ – and its value depends on the individual scientist’s capability, circumstances, efforts and luck. Secondly, patient brooding ought to include science and logical, rational thinking – they certainly are a part of the ‘recipe’ for valid science.

Following on; thirdly, the special quality of patient brooding is that it recognises that creative science does not know exactly where it is going, nor how. We do not know in advance what evidence is important, nor what evidence is false, misleading or fake; we do not know how to set-about formulating an answer nor what kind of an answer needs formulating.

And fourthly, the idea of patient brooding places the individual scientist at the heart of science. One reason that creative science cannot be captured in an algorithm is that it is done by people, not computers. Computers may be patient, but they cannot ‘brood’.

From surveying the history of human achievement, it looks as if every significant breakthrough in knowledge about which details are known – whether in science or any other difficult human activity – seems to have been preceded by a prolonged search, and this search is relatively wide-ranging with respect to subject and methods.

In a sense patient brooding is the opposite of a ‘method’ – but if there is any consistent psychological strategy to deep science, then it is probably patient brooding.


Bryan_Cranstin said...

You will no doubt strongly disagree with me, Bruce, but it seems to me the common element here is 'suspension of will' (at least relatively).

You say many times - cannot be forced, not contrived, patient waiting, etc.

What you seem to be aiming at is a 'receptive' state that allows outside forces to work while you suspend your own will.

Not entirely, of course, you at least direct attention - but relative to modern science, the most notable element is that the element of self-will is drastically reduced. The level of control, direction, and self-will is, compared to modern science, scaled back.

It is, indeed, very Taoistic.

Naturally, this is exactly the kind of thing I would support :)

I definitely think your method is fruitful and significantly different - a while ago I read a good book about medical discoveries which detailed how the "top down" approach of extreme control and direction actually produced far fewer important discoveries than an approach which was far less forced, more "open", and more cooperative with outside forces like chance and serendipity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bryan "relative to modern science, the most notable element is that the element of self-will is drastically reduced. The level of control, direction, and self-will is, compared to modern science, scaled back."

I would say different but not scaled back - in a sense the will must potentially be sustained over a much longer period than is usual, and would continue despite lack of objective progress - but the will does not include the specific form of the answer.

Typically, modern researchers (eg. applying for grants) describe almost exactly what they expect to find ('targets'), and other kinds of result are not wanted or looked-for; and the timescale is usually less than three years.

"a while ago I read a good book about medical discoveries which detailed how the "top down" approach of extreme control and direction actually produced far fewer important discoveries than an approach which was far less forced, more "open", and more cooperative with outside forces like chance and serendipity. "

Yes, I am sure that is true - perhaps your book was James Le Fanu's Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine?

Derek Ramsey said...

Some editorial comments:

You lay claim to the term 'patient brooding' too many times (paragraph 1 and then twice in paragraph 10). Change "I have dubbed" to "of" in paragraph 10. You've already introduced the term in paragraph 1 and used it in paragraph 5, so there is no need to reintroduce it again in paragraph 10.

The opening I will analyse the phenomenon of ‘patient brooding’. Firstly ‘patient’. does not flow with the rest of the paragraph. If you were in front of a class it seems appropriate to say what you are going to say, say it, and then say it again. But in written form, this just seems needlessly wordy. If 'patient brooding' is a phenomenon, work that point into the description in the previous paragraph or put it on its own line if you absolutely need it. Start paragraph 11 as "Firstly, the word 'patient' is intended..."

Similarly, possibly change What then of ‘brooding’? What do I mean by that? to a simpler combination like "What then do I mean by ‘brooding’?"

What you mean by "imagination" is very clear in your mind, but I'm not sure if it will be in the minds of your readers. Your definitions of certain words tends to be highly nuanced. You associate creativity and imagination quite closely, but the dictionary definition does not do this explicitly.

I'm sure the term 'patient brooding' is fine, but I can't help thinking of a flock of birds in an animal hospital.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for comments - will post new draft when avaialable.

knifecatcher said...

Physicists describe James Clerk Maxwell's mathematical equations relating electricity and magnetism as beautiful and an inspiration.

Here's a quote:

The crucial role that Maxwell, in his short life of 48 years played in revolutionising physics is nothing short of incredible, and it is a shame that his fame isn’t greater. Perhaps we need invent an apocryphal story involving that moment of sheer inspiration, or perhaps he just needed wild hair and the ability to arrive seemingly from nowhere.

August said...

Attention deconcentration is a technique the Russians came up with. The deconcetration part refers to attempting to not focus on a particular point, but to sort of spread focus across the sensory field.

Unfortunately, there isn't much translated into English about it. It is also a very receptive and almost passive state of mind. I do hope someone translates the research into English one day.

Bryan_Cranstin said...

Yes, that is the book! A great book.

Touche, Bruce.

However, not following self-will - one of whose names is patience - is really an extended exercise of will, as is the via negativa generaly.

Good luck with your paper.

Derek Ramsey said...

More editorial comments:

The dictionary definition of "brooding" includes a sense of unhappiness. From this "patient brooding" should mean that you always have that inner unhappiness when doing deep science until you hit that "Eureka!" moment. But the tone of this paper treats "brooding" as a more emotionally neutral reflection as in "I intend to convey that creative science is about reflecting on relatively broad themes" The multi paragraph description of your 15-20 year brooding is clinical. Besides the word itself, I don't get the sense that you felt dissatisfied, only that you lacked proper understanding that came gradually, almost without realization. If what you mean to say is "Deep science should leave the scientist (deeply?) unsatisfied, perhaps for a long period of time", then perhaps this should be stated explicitly. Alternatively, maybe "pondering" is a better word?

Another term I have used above is ‘intuition’. Actually you didn't. I did a search and that was the only instance of the term. Might want to fix that.

A more general observation is that your writing tends to be academic: abstract and emotionless. As reader who likes a balance of abstract and concrete, I found your treatment on creativity and imagination to be difficult without an example. I was reading it (especially paragraph 12) alongside the dictionary definitions and had trouble making sense of it. If I didn't read this blog regularly, I would have been completely lost. On the other hand your concrete brooding experience was right on point.

Derek Ramsey said...

I was not clear if you still wanted feedback here now that a copy has been posted on The Winnower. If you don't want me providing feedback, or don't find it useful, just say so (or delete the comment)!

continue to please me and a source of personal satisfaction. These are essentially the same thing, so just say it once (i.e. "continuing source of personal satisfaction").

However, on the other hand, .... Use one or the other, not both.

These publications I am retrospectively not so pleased with. Sentence ends with a preposition. Move 'These publications' to the end of the sentence.

Change evidence is so slippery and contextual a phenomenon as to be at best controversial and at worst almost worthless when taken in isolation to evidence in isolation is so slippery and contextual a phenomenon it is at best controversial and at worst almost worthless.. Remove "almost" if evidence can actually be worthless, since that would be worse than 'the worst'.

Firstly ‘patient’.. There is no matching "Secondly". You have an unrelated set of four ordinal adverbs towards the end of the article.

Mismatched term usage: intuitive-imaginative validation (para.1), imaginative validation (p.3&9), intuition (p.16).

General notes:

You end a number of paragraphs with "...".

You have a lot of sentences that use colons, dashes, and parenthetical statements. Some use all of these. They are not always used consistently and sometimes you use them when you should be using commas or periods.

ajb said...

Excellent analysis.

Andrew said...

Hi Mr. Charlton

With all due respect, I think you have two disciplines confused, epistemology and psychology.

The thought processes a scientist undergoes in making a discovery (psychology) is completely separate from the logic of scientific discovery (epistemology).

Patient brooding can help a man solve problems. I can't count the number of times I've had to fix something, failed to do so, reflected upon it, and then happened upon the solution. Patient brooding certainly helps a scientist understand the evidence and apply logic to it, but it is not a substitute for logic and evidence. Brooding may be the means to find the solution, but only via logic and evidence can you demonstrate the solution.

My two cents

Bruce Charlton said...

@Andrew S - I can see how you might get that impression, but if you read carefully that isn't a mistake I am making!

I am mainly talking about a different type and source of knowledge than the usual evidence from observations and from logic and reason. everyone knows how to access and use this kind of knowledge, so it doesn't need emphasis.

But I am saying there is a higher and more complete form of knowledge than these - and the 'imagination' is where this happens. So I am also describing the different way of doing science that potentially links to, or uses imagination - which is where patient brooding comes in.

The term epistemology is a loaded one - I believe that what is more often being done is better understood as metaphysics - in other words we should think in terms of the primary assumptions about reality that are implicit in types of human activity and discourse, rather than an epistemological theory of knowledge.

Ron Tomlinson said...

Andrew -- Bruce's "patient brooding" is how one may ultimately decide upon the logic and evidence needed to solve a problem, e.g. by determining what category of evidence is relevant to the problem or what new physical evidence must be sought.

Epistemology and psychology are two valid descriptions of the same process here. Popper's epistemology says that knowledge grows by conjecture and criticism. "Patient brooding" tells us how to make this happen in our brains.

By the way I think Popperians are confused about this. Some are blanket critics who try to criticise all new theories from the get-go (or think that they should). This would be like a brooding hen testing the fitness of her future chicks by rolling unhatched eggs from a height. In reality, any criticism at the incubation stage must be unintentional and implicit. Whatever *doesn't* appear in the imagination is implicitly criticised but we are hoping and aiming for something positive to appear.