May 12, 2017
THE ECSTASY FACTOR
Professor Brooke Kroeger
NYU College of Arts and Science
Undergraduate Research Conference
Address to Participants, May 5, 2017
For this group, there is surely no need to enumerate all the many great and good reasons to engage in an act of research, to set out on a path of discovery. But today I want to talk about one good reason you may have overlooked. The potential of the research act to occasion the experience of ecstasy.
I turned to the psychologist and philosopher Neel Burton to explain the term. Ecstasy, he tells us, in an article in Psychology Today, is the pinnacle of euphoria, an intense elation or positive feeling, especially one that has “an abstract or expansive quality.” In a state of ecstasy, boundaries dissolve and the ego merges into all of being itself.
This is not a common feeling. True, certain substances can induce it, as can several psychiatric or neurological disorders. But Burton explains that ecstasy also can emerge from less potentially fraught experiences. He cites encounters with beauty, art, music, love, orgasm, and exercise and the emotion-producer that is our subject today: Triumph, specifically, for our purposes, the triumphs that can come from engaging in a full and passionate commitment to an act of research. I promise you this is true, because it is my repeated experience over decades of committing to the endeavor. I also know it is true for some of you, because I reported it out. Perhaps it is true for many others of you as well.
What image does the word triumph conjure for you? I think of moments of exultation, of overcoming odds, of the exhilaration at the end of exhausting effort, of hard-won victories; of the unbridled joy that even the smallest achievements along the research road can bring. One of the many great things about research is that achievement can mean many things. It can be the conceptualization of a project’s design, the success of the plan of attack. Obviously, it can mean actually meaningful results, but maybe it comes with just the flash of an amazing insight at some point along the way. Any of these have the potential to spark an experience of ecstasy.
This is true in art and it is true in science. Scenes from two books come to mind: From fiction: I think of the riveting passage in the AS Byatt novel, Possession, when the hapless young scholar, while plowing through fragile pages in the archives, discovers drafts of a letter by the subject of his research that no other scholar has ever even touched. From nonfiction: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. When, in 1951, after 30 years of trying, two researchers at Johns Hopkins find a sample of cancerous tissue that that could survive and reproduce indefinitely outside the human body. I think of those researchers and then the researchers who came in their wake, who used those cells to help make scientific strides from the Salk polio vaccine to advances in space travel. And what about what the author experienced, the science journalist Rebecca Skloot, who heard mention of the HeLa cell line in a community college science class and began to wonder about its origins, about the person from whom these cells were extracted, about that person’s life, her family, her descendants and what they knew or didn’t know about her immortality. Imagine how Rebecca Skloot felt when the Lacks family agreed to let her into their lives to tell their story.
Professor Karen Adolph used the word “hair-raising” to tell me about the discoveries that have come out of her Infant Action Lab, including one that gave the lie to the long-held belief that infants walk to arrive at a destination. It turns out that they will take just as many steps and travel the same distance in an empty room.
A student of linguistics, Shaquille Sinclair, experienced such a feeling not in the act of researching why certain words come to us as so offensive, but because of the sheer freedom he was granted to create the project and have control over his question, unconstrained by his mentors. “I had the opportunity,” he told me, “to ask myself what I care to know more about.”
Sally Buttars is hot on the trail of really understanding the nature of bacterial spores. Ecstasy for her sprung from putting all the pieces together, when she apprehended, she grokked, I would say, the ins and outs of her research and how what she had learned in her science classes could be applied in a research context. “Even though my study requires additional data to confirm my results,” she said, “I feel as if I was able to contribute to the scientific community.”
The great elation for Gaurika Mehta did not come from translating into English some 60 pages of a Hindu devotional text. It came from analyzing the mechanisms of gender and ritual performance in the text and developing those into models applicable in her field of female-ness and ritual adaptation.
In Journalism Honors class last year, the topic of Danny Costa-Roberts was the malaria drug mefloquine and the brain damage it can cause that has frequently been misdiagnosed as PTSD. It’s a pretty abstruse issue to explain to a reader, Danny recalls, so for the better part of a year he was in search of someone whose personal history illustrated the problem. The ecstatic breakthrough came when he at last found that person, a veteran who fleshed out Danny’s story, giving “Mefloquine Mondays,” in Danny’s words, “vividness and gut-level plausibility.”
For Larson Binzer, ecstasy came twice: first, as she realized that no one else had ever investigated how sexual traffickers recruit from inside prison walls to augment their stables of prostitutes, and again, when she realized that the prison system’s online “Facebook” of incarcerates has become a key tool for traffickers. In addition to the publication of “The Prison Pipeline” in our online magazine, Shoeleather, her piece ran as a three-part series for In Public Safety.
This year in Professor Robert Boynton‘s class, Omri Bezalel got a key source to open up to him, to explain not only how but also what really motivated her in a way that allowed her to convince a wary Israeli public to support a lopsided prisoner exchange.
And Avi Gross had his giant YES moment when he found just the right pilot project in Vancouver to illustrate the latest public effort to reduce harm for opioid abusers.
I have more good news for you on this front. Burton tells us that once ecstasy has been experienced, it is possible to have aftershocks of that extraordinary emotion and that they can be triggered by so simple an event as hearing a bird song. I can confirm this. My own years rummaging around in archives have produced so many ecstatic episodes that I can summon one of those fabulous feeling aftershocks—and this happened just last Friday—from setting up a new printer and getting the wireless WiFi to connect to it after only three tries without any help.
The real payoff is even greater. Burton turns to another great researcher, Albert Einstein, to explain. Ecstasy, Einstein says, is “the mystic emotion,” “the finest of which we are capable,” “the germ of all art and all true science.” Now who wouldn’t want to be part of that? My advice? Stay inspired. There’s much in it for history and civilization and there’s much in it for you.