Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Who Pays For My Food

One of the great things about being at a major research institution is that you can always find work as a guinea pig. There are flyers all over the place, advertising this or that experiment, usually for $10 an hour, which isn't half bad for one-time easy unskilled work. I've been a subject in a bunch of different neuro/psych experiments, and it actually does a decent job of paying for my food. It's not steady work, but there are benefits to that -- I don't have to commit to anything major, it's not very many hours a week, I can schedule it around my own schedule, I get to look at what lots of different labs are doing.

Don't worry, I'm not imbibing dangerous substances while guys in lab coats watch to see if I break out in a rash or something. Most of what I've done involves looking at a screen and pressing buttons. The most biologically involved thing I've done is get fMRI'd.

I like to think of guinea pigging as "learning about experimental methodology from the inside". Reading the Materials & Methods section of a paper is really boring, and it's often hard to get an idea of what an experiment was actually like. Now that I've been through a bunch of experiments, I'm developing a sense for what a protocol will feel like from the subject's point of view, and I know something about how to design an experiment so it isn't agonizingly boring. I've also learned a bit about recruiting subjects. All of this, I hope, will come in useful when I start doing my own research, if I'm using human subjects. Or maybe even if I'm using monkey subjects -- they deserve a workable interface too, after all.

I have done a negotiation roleplay while thinking I was on caffeine. I have sat and read in a chair for hours while specialized earplugs play sounds in my ears and measure the echoes of my ear canals. I have identified grey shapes on colored backgrounds as quickly as I possibly can. I have described upwards of a hundred superballs. I have lain in an fMRI for two hours watching sentences full of made-up words. I have had my auditory and tactile thresholds tested and retested and re-retested.

(By the way, getting fMRI'd was actually quite nice. You're in the machine for two hours, and they want you to move as little as possible, so they take pains to make you comfortable, with padded head restraints and a foam block under your knees and a blanket. It was so comfortable that, after a while, it felt like my body was disappearing because it wasn't sending my brain any discomfort signals. Which was incredibly relaxing, but also trippy.)

The most exciting thing, though, has been when I'm actually interested in what the experiment was about, and when I can make contacts this way. A couple weeks ago, I spent a Saturday doing loads of different tests in a psycholinguistics lab. One of the experiments had me listening to ten minutes of sentences in a simplistic constructed language, trying to decipher where the word boundaries were. (Sound easy? Listen to ten minutes of sentences in a language you're not familiar with, then come back and tell me with a straight face that it didn't sound like a continuous stream of speech.) I was surprised to find a conlang being used in a serious research context, since I'd been given to understand that most linguists are dismissive of conlangs and conlanging in general. But I asked, and we got into a neat discussion, and then I asked if they were looking for undergrads, and they said yes! Exciting! More on this in a subsequent post.

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