Involuntary Perfection Paralysis
By David Carmel
Those who suffer from this particular intellectual ailment seem unable to produce original creative work, despite being neither physically nor mentally incapacitated. On the contrary, they typically possess a keen intellect and a thorough understanding of the scientific method, as well as in-depth knowledge of their chosen field and more-than-adequate technical capabilities. Ironically, these merits are the source of their predicament, as these individuals are able to foresee all too well, before embarking on any actual research, the myriad problems and obstacles likely to arise in a new project, as well as the careful measures that will be required to avoid them. And being aware of the enormity of even the simplest enterprise, and of the painstaking, meticulous effort it will require, they seem unable to bring themselves to begin where less farsighted individuals would just take the plunge.
Paralyzed perfectionists are genuinely fascinated by nature, thinking up new research questions frequently and effortlessly. Having come up with something they would like to figure out, they happily embark upon planning the appropriate study with which to do so. An idea for a simple and elegant experiment will be quickly followed by an insight regarding a necessary control. And then another control that is just as vital. And another. Before long, the once-elegant design will have undergone an exponential explosion of experimental conditions, as the line between self-evidently required controls and those that are merely nit-picking is forgotten, along with the fundamental insight that no single study can ever settle a question conclusively.
Weighed down by the complexity of the task ahead of them, the perfectionists either let an inordinate amount of time and effort be consumed by arranging the perfect experimental setup, which is never completed to their exacting criteria; or they decide that some minor stumbling point cannot be overcome and thus abandon the entire project; or finally, they may progress to a more severe manifestation of the disorder: The Great Procrastinator. In this advanced stage of the disease, they are unable to give up on a project, but equally unable to begin the Sisyphean struggle of living up to their own standards.
Paralyzed perfectionists find themselves repeatedly incredulous when they read, often in prestigious journals, research results they consider disastrously flawed. They know exactly how they would have carried out the research properly, but fail to see that if they were the ones doing it, the work would never get done at all, let alone published.
Tragically, the paralyzed perfectionists’ grasp of methodology and experimental logic makes them a Mecca to their peers, who often consult them on difficulties with their own projects. The sound advice they provide has the dual effect of leading their colleagues to wonder how it is that the perfectionists have yet to gain wider recognition, while the perfectionists, for their part, grumble that only some of the issues have been addressed and the studies in question still lack sufficient rigor. Peers with a reasonable sense of proportion, however, go on to carry out these studies, getting them published and acknowledging the remaining unresolved problems in the discussion sections of their papers. The perfectionist ends up with the dubious distinction of being, in any given room, the cleverest person who hasn’t actually accomplished anything.
David Carmel uses the methods of cognitive neuroscience to investigate how the human brain creates consciousness. After a few years as a postdoctoral fellow at NYU, he started his own lab at the University of Edinburgh in 2012, and recently moved to Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He would like to think this piece is not autobiographical.