Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Paranoia and the Destruction of the Soul

I wanted to write a happy post today since I'm in a really good life-mood (research mood is low-level fatalistic tending towards zen acceptance), but I've been thinking about paranoia a lot lately. A good friend and colleague is having a really hard time in lab because they feel like slices of their project are being given away without their consent. And they are right, the project is hard to partition in the first place, and there are three bright, invested individuals working on it at the same time. However my friend has made particular innovations, and is uniquely qualified to do some things, that they had suggested in the first place. This slicing and dicing has been going on for nearly two years now.

Enter full blown, pull out all the stops paranoia. Behaviour-altering, mind-bending paranoia. I won't share reagents, I'll never discuss a good idea in lab again paranoia. It's getting to the point where they are saying and doing things I don't think are characteristic or believable, and they are morphing into human jelly. And I just want to stand up and scream at them to stop it. I have tried to bring up the subject more gently and constructively than that, but an unavoidable side-effect of paranoia is that one perceives judgment and betrayal in what everyone says. So what do I do?

I think paranoia is the single most destructive emotion one can give in to. I know this regarding emotion from deep personal experiences; and regarding work from having been scooped three times in grad school. I have worked with many brilliant and paranoid people, and the one thing that always leaps out at me is the amount of energy they waste in spinning their paranoid wheels. It is such a waste of all that brilliance, all those (rapidly diminishing) neurons firing salvos of negative emotion. It drains you, makes you bitter, changes you in fundamental ways, alters your equation with everyone you work with, and is utterly pointless in the end.

It is both insulting and patronizing to tell someone they are being paranoid when they feel, legitimately or otherwise, that they are being deprived of what is rightfully theirs. However protecting one's territory can go too far, and when that line is crossed, it really messes things up. Academic research as it is today relies on the goodwill and respect of one's peers, and paranoia and its close companion suspicion, are the surest way to erode all goodwill and respect that anyone has for you. And in the end, it destroys your own self-respect, and no paper is worth that.


post-doc said...

This is very true and important so I hope you find a way to share this wisdom with your friend. I know it's hard and I do feel badly for him/her, but it does sound like paranoia is making a bad situation worse. All too common, but always rather sad.

Mad Hatter said...

This is a really interesting post. I think another destructive effect of paranoia is that it isolates the person who is feeling persecuted from friends (like you) who are trying to help. Having said that, I can also understand how having pieces of one's project torn away would make someone bitter and resentful. Hope things get better for your friend.