Research and Intuition

So far I was very fortunate with my scientific long-term mentors and supervisors: both of them are kind, open, creative and stunningly intelligent. I could not wish for more. However, when asked about a role model, I would mention a person that influenced my take on research, during a time when I still was studying physics, probably more than others: Pina Bausch.

Pina Bausch was a dancer and choreographer who mostly worked in the small town of Wuppertal, Germany, where she developed her own way of modern dance. Her works are creative and inventive in very unexpected ways, and the way she explored body movements as a dancer struck me as surprisingly similar to what I think is research.

Research in its purest form is the exploration of the unknown, the discovery of what is not yet discovered, without a clear path ahead. The question that I’m working on in the broadest sense, “How does the brain work?”, enters the unknown very quickly as soon as you take the question seriously. How, in general, can we see what cannot be seen yet, how can we find ideas that do not yet exist?

Pina Bausch was a master in this art. Her craft was not science or biology but dancing. However, I think one can learn some lessons from her. It was typical of her to explore her own movements and to “invent” new movements, like wrist movements or coordinated movements of elbows and the head, or simply a slowed-down or delayed movement of the fingers. In regular life we use a rather limited and predefined combination of motor actions, and it takes some creativity to come up with movements that are unexpected and new but still interesting. One way to find new ways to move would be to consciously become aware of the own patterns and limitations and then try to systematically break those rules. However, Pina Bausch performed this discovery process in a different way. Her research was not guided by intellectual deduction or conclusion, but by her intuition. In 1992, she said:

“Ich weiß nämlich immer, wonach ich suche, aber ich weiß es eher mit meinem Gefühl als mit meinem Kopf.”

“Because I always know what I’m searching for. But I know it with my heart and with my feeling rather than with my brain.”

This might come over as a bit naive at first glance. Sure, an artist uses her heart, a scientist uses his brain, that sounds more or less normal, doesn’t it? However, when I saw Pina Bausch do this kind of searching, that is, when she danced, I was very impressed.

She seemed to rely on her intuition on every single moment of her explorations; and when I heard her talk about it (unfortunately, I’m only aware of interviews in German without translation), it was also clear that she did not have and did not need an explanation of what was going on. Most impressively for me, her way of exploring the unknown really struck me as similar to what is going on in a researcher, no matter the subject. What made her such an excellent researcher?

To me, it seems that the prerequisites of her impressive ability are the following: First of all, of course, a deeply engrained knowledge of and skill with her art, together with a honest care about the details. There’s no intuition without experience and knowledge. Second, an openness to whatever random things might happen and to embrace them, coming from the outside or her inside. Third, an acceptance of the fact that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing. Or, to put this differently, a certain humility in the face of what is going to happen and what is going on in her own subconsciousness. I believe that these are qualities that also make for a good researcher in science.

It also reflects my own experience of doing research (at least partially). Even when I was working with mathematical tools, for example when I was modeling diffusion processes in inhomogeneous media during my diploma thesis, I had the impression that my intuition was always a couple of steps ahead of myself. Often I could see the shape of the mathematical goal ahead of my derivations, and it would take me several days before I could bring it down to the paper.

Of course there are other ways to develop new ideas, and for some problems intuition also fails systematically (maybe complex systems?). And of course there are other kinds of research, for example the gradual optimization of methods, or the development of devices to solve a specific problem, or the broad and systematic screening of candidate genes or materials for a defined purpose.

These systematic and step-wise procedures are more predictable than “pure” research, and the grant-based scientific research reinforces this kind of research. In a grant proposal, there are typically a defined number of “aims”. The more clearly defined these aims are, the better the chances of the grant proposal to be accepted. This makes sense. It would be ridiculous to fund a project with loosely defined aims, especially if other, competing proposals have a clear and realistic goal.

However, this necessary side-effect of grant-based research narrows our perspective on a kind of research that can be more or less clearly described even before doing it. It narrows down also the way how we talk about research and about results. We do not directly encourage young researchers to use and develop their intuition, as if this had nothing to do with the scientific process. In grants and progress reports and talks and papers, we try to use very concise, precise language, sharp and clean as steel (often completed by pieces of superficial math that are supposed to demonstrate precision), not only when describing our methods – but also when describing results and when interpreting the results. This is not bad by itself, but it shapes also the way we think about research, and it can lead to a situation where we internally might reject ideas or results that do not satisfy the desired clarity and cleanliness in a first step.

I think that also researchers in “hard” sciences like neuroscience could benefit from a technique that uses intuitive thinking, and at least I have learnt a lot from the way Pina Bausch approached her subject of study using these techniques. Ultimately, understanding in neuroscience should always aim for descriptions in terms of words or math. But the way towards this goal does not need to be guided by these clear ways of thinking alone. From my experience, the power of intuition is only unleashed if we accept that we cannot really understand the process itself. Therefore, I see the humility that Pina Bausch showed towards her own intuitive thought process not simply as a virtue of a human being, but rather as a tool and a way of thinking that enables creativity.

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