"Overcoming self-doubt as an early-career researcher"
Updated: May 19, 2021
Interview in the context of the UNSW Women in Maths and Science programme
By Jean Hsieh and Dr Eliane Deschrijver
Eliane, you recently presented a new theory on how the brain understands other people in Psychological Bulletin. Following this, you were awarded the Best Paper Award by the Australasian Society for Mental Health Research and the Margot Prior Award from the Australasian Society for Autism Research. What is your relational mentalising theory about?
Some years ago, I started wondering about why we befriend likeminded people – and can be hostile against unlikeminded ones. This phenomenon has long been described in the field of social psychology, but why wasn’t there a theory about the brain that could explain this?
The dominant idea in social neuroscience is that in order to understand others we infer what other people are thinking based on the way they act, their facial expressions, etc. This is often referred to as ‘mindreading’ or theory of mind. I developed my relational mentalizing theory as an alternative for this: social behaviour may primarily be driven by conflict between own and others' thinking about the world. This conflict may be detected after mindreading, but just as well when listening to another’s speech. For instance, if you are talking about your boss whereas I am thinking about my cat, my brain can detect that we don’t find ourselves on the same page. The brain may then need to find a way to solve this conflict to reach a shared topic of thinking again.
This is important for understanding autism, which has long been tied to lacking theory of mind – in spite of autistic testimony that this is not the case. The data in autistic individuals suggests in my view that their social issues arise whenever their brain needs to solve mental conflict, after they have understood the other’s mental state first. Contrasting the ‘mindblindness’ idea, a lack of solving mental conflict may sometimes even lead to them being overwhelmed by the other’s thinking. Autistic people can experience more social ease when interacting with relatively likeminded people,hich may include other autistic individuals.
"If the human brain is trying to solve mental conflict in any social interaction, engaging with an individual that holds perspectives on the world far from yours may be effortful."
One can speculate that mental conflict in the brain may possibly lead us to have a proclivity to engage with likeminded groups, like religious and political ones. If the human brain is trying to solve mental conflict in any social interaction, engaging with an individual that holds perspectives on the world far from yours may be effortful. This can yield a different perspective on extreme beliefs too. People with conspiracy or unusual religious/political ideas may experience larger amounts of mental conflict just from living in a society with a moderate majority – which may lead them to coalesce in echo chambers online.
In the next few years, I will be testing this theory empirically. I’m welcoming collaborators and students who are keen to work on this to get in touch.
It is rare to see a paper in Psychological Bulletin published by two early career researchers. How did you go about this?
I met Dr Colin Palmer when I did a short research stay at his former lab during my PhD. Two years later, in 2017, he visited me in Belgium for a holiday. Colin is a vision scientist, not a social neuroscientist, but he was excited when hearing about my newest ideas for empirical research. He was convinced that they contained conceptual value as well, and encouraged me to develop them theoretically. Over the course of a week, he sat through many discussions to help me come up with an initial outline for a paper.
In 2019, I relocated to Australia to become a visiting fellow at UNSW in Sydney. I was incredibly lucky to land in the lab of Prof Clifford, Colin’s supervisor. They gave me all the time and freedom to develop my theoretical ideas. It also came with lots of opportunities to learn about vision science! I’m incredibly grateful for the support I have received by the lovely people at UNSW. Almost exactly one year after my arrival, Colin and I published our paper. My first single-authored paper, a follow-up, has just been accepted as well.
You are part of the UNSW Women in Maths and Science Champion programme. Why do you think more female role models are needed in science?
I have seen too many female early career researchers being discouraged when growing in scientific independence. For instance, I have been told off for ‘putting my career before science’ when I was voicing the aspiration of starting my own lab in the future via a grant. I observed male colleagues being encouraged, supported and even celebrated for having the exact same ambitions. When I obtained a prestigious fellowship via a proposal I had developed and written, I was urged to not attribute this to my own skill but instead to ‘randomness’. I couldn’t get my head around it: I had in the past heard a male colleague being referred to as ‘such a talented scientist’ for achieving this very thing. Authorship is always a tricky thing in science, but I have more often observed female early career scientists being challenged when starting to take ownership of their work and ideas.
One should always be careful with pinpointing any individual experience to implicit gender bias. Yet, broader patterns like these have been documented extensively under the umbrella of the double-bind problem in female leadership: When women behave in an assertive way, they are likely to be perceived as competent, but unlikeable. When caring, they are often liked but perhaps professionally overlooked. This pattern can become very visible in large datasets: my collaborators and I have recently published a study on the backlash female professors can receive for behaving counter-stereotypically. Especially in academic fields where success is primarily attributed to ‘innate talent', women are more likely to be underrepresented.
That being said, it is also obvious to me that women are often less self-assured. This is sometimes referred to as the confidence gap. To succeed, confidence matters as much as competence. I think it is the interplay of these phenomena that can sometimes be detrimental for retaining female scientists in academia. Female role models and their allies raising awareness about this can help pave the way.
You almost left science yourself at some point. What made you change your mind, and what are you doing differently now?
In part because of my personal experiences, I wasn’t convinced anymore that the academic world was for me, or that I was fit for this job. I was practicing 3 hours of yoga per week at the time. Even while I am not a spiritual person necessarily, I completed a month-long training in a spiritual center to become a yoga teacher. Unexpectedly, the experience was eye-opening for me: spirituality is one thing, being actively anti-scientific is something else. I now have a brilliant story about getting into a pretty intense argument on whether the brain can be involved in out-of-body experiences, in front of 200 yogis and spiritual leaders. I decided to give science a second chance after that, taking with me some insights into unusual beliefs - and I haven’t looked back.
"Whenever I apply for anything, I tell myself that my primary goal is to receive feedback to become better in what I do."
I slowly started working on my mindset in academia afterwards: By now, I don’t wait for external affirmation anymore to focus on the positives. Just completed my data-collection? I go and have a nice dinner. Finished writing a first outline? I reward myself with a walk in the park. I celebrate every little thing I achieve. Whenever I apply for anything, I tell myself that my primary goal is to receive feedback to become better in what I do. Any rejection then becomes a positive thing for reaching goals in the future instead of a personal threat, any acceptance a nice bonus. Science is in part a numbers game: this mindset can keep you from not applying for things you are qualified for out of a sheer fear of rejection.
Finally, what advice could you give to early career scientists?
There are many ways of succeeding in science, and many different ways of doing excellent research. What any supervisor teachers you is what has worked in the past for them – but other approaches may work better for you. Theoretical work is for instance not the easiest path when in social neuroscience, but it has been the right one for me regardless. Be brave enough to find your own path.
Look after yourself. You will likely experience anxiety at least at some point in your career, and that’s okay. Treat yourself with kindness. Make nurturing your mental health an integral part of your job and of your lab culture. Open up the conversation about this: holding each other accountable for some exercise once a week can go a long way.
The best mentors can be found all around you, including in your peers: Dr Colin Palmer, who pointed the way for me, defended his PhD only after I did. The people you admire the most often have a website: it can be enlightening to figure out what they did professionally to get where they are now.
Lastly, don’t worry too much about the future: you were talented enough to be admitted to your PhD programme. You will find a job afterwards, whether in science or beyond.