Monday, September 12, 2022

Answer: How can you find answers to those mysterious and inarticulable questions you might have?

Curiosity prompts us to find answers... 

DALL-E, "thinking hard in the style of Picasso"

.. .especially with questions that sometimes start as vague feeling that something doesn't quite fit, or that this isn't what I expected.  

As you've probably noticed, not all of these feelings are clear, crisp, and simple to articulate.  

Sometimes you need to figure out how to move from an inarticulate sense of a question to something that you can say aloud.  

This step--the conversion from an internal wondering to an externalizable question-about-the-world is often tricky.  Sometimes we internally censor ourselves before letting the transformation happen, sometimes thinking that this question is too dumb or that I can't figure out how to ask this thing... 

This week's Challenge has a couple of these questions, and the goal has been for us to figure out how to overcome our lack of language (that is, an inchoate feeling), get past this and pursue a search strategy to get some answers.  

1. When I wake up in the middle of the night, my head sometimes feels "fuzzy" or somehow strange and different--a little as though my brain isn't working quite right. I assume that this happens to everyone. If I stay up for a while, it goes away.  And of course, when I awaken properly (at a reasonable time), I don't have this feeling at all.  Challenge:  What is this feeling called?  Is there even a term for it? Does it really happen to everyone?  (Really, does it happen to you too?)  

Here the question is vocabulary--what do you call this feeling?  That is, what queries should you do to figure out what I mean when I write " head feels fuzzy or somehow strange and different."  

That's a pretty vague description, but the problem is a common one: I'm feeling something very distinctive, and my power of language is inadequate to express what's going on. 

As you can imagine, this is a common, common, common problem.  It happens so often in libraries that librarians have a term for this kind of conversation, it's a reference interview--that is, when you chat with a librarian and together work towards a clear understanding of what you really want to understand.  Often, the patron might not ask the question that's really on their mind, or they'll just not have the language to describe what they're actually looking for.  (Here's a book about conducting a reference interview.  Pro tip: Search for a used version of this expensive book before you buy.)  

Several SRS readers translated my "head feels fuzzy" into queries about: 

     [ what is the feeling of groggyness called ]   (remmij)

     [ name feeling sleepy when awakening midnight ]  (Ramón)

     [ what is grogginess ] (krossbow)

     [ waking up in the middle of the night feeling a bit out of it ] (mateojose1)

While my first search was: 

     [ head feels fuzzy after awakening ] 

Oddly, the first few results after my query talked about feeling dizzy upon awakening. Not quite what I was looking for.  But then the results talked about "brain fog" and "sleep inertia," both of which are similar to what other readers found.  

In particular, the SRS Regulars and I found sleep inertia to be a useful search phrase.  (Or, as remmij pointed out, it's a useful concept handle, or what I have called a "nugget" in other posts; both are short phrases that capture an idea efficiently.)  

If you search for [ sleep inertia ] you'll find a wealth of articles--and if you search on Google Scholar for [ "sleep inertia" ] you'll get a bunch of high quality articles that are mostly from the medical sleep research world.  (Example, "Waking up is the hardest thing I do all day" from Sleep Medical Review journal.)  

But a fascinating paper is an overview of the entire topic, by Tassi, Patricia, and Alain Muzet. "Sleep inertia." Sleep medicine reviews 4.4 (2000): 341-353.  Here, sleep inertia is described as lethargy, brain fogginess, and reduced level of cognition.  That seems pretty close to what I'm experiencing.  

Included in this overview is a comment that ".. sleep inertia at the population level suggests that difficulty awakening is a common experience.”  So I'm not alone in this feeling of grogginess just after awakening, especially after a deep sleep.  

2. I remember reading a paper many years ago about the psychology behind why people often can't talk very accurately about why they did something.  This comes up most often in psychology studies when people are asked "why did you do that?" and ask for an explanation.  People will give explanations about why they did something, but they're often not very accurate.  Challenge:  What is this effect called?  Can you find a scholarly article about why people are so bad at giving such explanations?  

 The trouble with this Challenge is that the words are so commonplace.  Searching for: 

     [ why can't people explain why they did something ] 

gives you a lot of varied results.  They're SO varied that it's hard to find something that's useful.  As I mentioned, I seem to remember that this was a psychology paper, so I turned to Google Scholar to do a few searches, hoping to zoom in on the psych literature.  With my Scholar query of: 

     [ explanation of behavior in psychology ] 

which led to lots of wonderful papers about how people really are not great at explaining their own behavior. But none of them were quite what I was looking for... In a typical reference interview situation, only after looking around did I realize that I was looking for a particular paper--one that's well-known to social psychologists.  

Of course, the big problem here is that I don't really have a starting point--I don't have very specific language to use in my search.  Searching for something like "explanation of behavior in psychology" isn't very focused--after all, isn't that ALL of psychology?  I don't have anything like a "concept handle." 

So--and I realize this might feel like cheating, but it's not--I ended up sending email to several of my social psychologist friends and asking this (slightly tuned) question:  "What's that classic paper in social psychology about why people can't explain their behavior very accurately?"  (And yeah, that's a terrible query for Google... but it works really well with friends who know you.)  

And within a day, a couple of them wrote back to say "oh yeah... you mean Nisbett & Wilson, "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes."  With that clue, I was able to find the object of my memory... 

Nisbett, Richard E., and Timothy D. Wilson. "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes." Psychological review 84.3 (1977): 231.

I wish I could tell you that I was able to use a clever trick to find the paper, but perhaps that's the point: Some searches really are hard, and the best path to finding the answer is to ask a friend.  (Obviously, it helps to have good friends with a wide basis of knowledge.)  

Note:  Krossbow did a great job searching for this found that he discovered an episode from the Hidden Brain podcast “You 2.0: How To See Yourself Clearly” which comments on psychologist Timothy Rice (the second author of the above paper) observation that “Psychologist Tim Wilson says introspection only gets us so far, and that we often make important decisions in life and love for reasons we don’t even realize.” This episode included additional resources (always worth checking) including a reference to his 1991 paper, “Thinking too much: Introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions.” Wilson, Timothy D., and Jonathan W. Schooler. "Thinking too much: introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions." Journal of personality and social psychology 60.2 (1991): 181.

3.  I know the word "colleen" is often used to refer to an Irish woman: for instance,"she's a lovely colleen".  Likewise, "shelia" is used in Australian English as a synonym for a woman, while in American English "jane" or "john" (Jane Doe, John Doe) often refers to a generic person.  Challenge: Is there a term for this idea, that some names are used as generic signifiers of categories of people?  Are there other names that are used in this way in English?  (Say, Indian English or Nigerian English.)  

I think I got pretty lucky in this search.  I started with queries like: 

     [ generic names ] 

     [ sheila colleen jane ] 

My hope was to find an article that discussed what such names are in general.  This is a bit like searching for collective nouns for different kinds of animals (as we've discussed before in SearchResearch "What's that group of animals called?"  

The big difference here is that, again, the search terms are all very plain and commonplace.  (There's nothing quite like "charm" for hummingbirds!)  

But after trying the general searches, I tried a different strategy, which is to choose a specific generic name (in the US, that would be John Doe) and I read the Wikipedia entry for John Doe.  Voila!  My search was the obvious: 

     [ John Doe ] 

In that article I learned that such names are called placeholder names.  In that article you can also read about other placeholder names.  Most interesting to me was that the legal terminology of Ancient Rome used the names "Numerius Negidius" and "Aulus Agerius" for hypothetical defendants in trials (much as John Doe and Jane Doe are used in the US).  

In other countries, Ashok Kumar has been used in court cases in India, as has the abbreviation N.N., commonly used in European legal systems, as an abbreviation for the Latin, Nomen Nescio ("I do not know the name").  

This article easily led me to Placeholder Names by Language, where I learned about names like Max Mustermann (German), or Jean Dupont (French), or  Matti Meikäläinen (Finnish), or Navn Navnesen (Name Nameson) in Danish,  etc.  

And one more click away is the Quora post about "placeholder names in your language."  

Oddly, none of these sources mention Sheila or Colleen as examples of placeholder names although the Wikipedia entry for Colleen tells us that it's a generic term for a young woman or girl, and the entry for Sheila says that socialist Sheila Chisholm was the probable source for the use of sheila as a generic term in Australia.  

So it seems there's a slight distinction, here, but one that I still haven't managed to discriminate.  So we'll leave this Challenge a bit open.  We know about placeholder names, but have found that not all placeholder names are spelled out in any master list!  

SearchResearch Lessons 

1. Search sometimes takes a few iterations. When searching for my grogginess upon awakening, it took a while before our queries got us to sleep inertia, but that was fairly straightforward, if it took a couple of steps.  The lesson is to keep searching a bit more deeply.  The answers are out there  

2. When searching for a concept with really common terms, it sometimes helps to call an expert.  We've talked about this idea before--this is one of the reasons that having a social network (OR knowing good librarians!) is so important in your quiver of SRS knowledge. In my case, a few quick emails got me the answer after HOURS of fooling around.  When in doubt, call a friend for help.  

3. Changing your search from the generic to the specific is sometimes a great strategy.  Note that in other posts we've talked about shifting from specific to generic--this is the opposite--shifting from generic to specific.  Here, I used "John Doe" as the specific instance of what I was seeking, and was able to learn about placeholder names.  

Sorry this answer took a bit longer than normal.  I spent a LONG time figuring these out, and was heartened to see so many quick, high-quality replies in the comment stream!  SRS Readers are the best!  Thanks for the conversation.  

Search on! 


  1. Hello Dr. Russell

    Thanks for the Challenge and even more for the Answer.

    It was a very interesting and different Challenge and learning and discovering new tools, subjects and articles that in no other way we could learn about or know is a great gift.

    About John Doe, yesterday while watching NatGeo program about Moon rocks stolen years ago ( FBI agent used N N to refer to the burglar. Today, searched for that and those two consonants have many uses. One in Latin is No Name. Also was how ñ was written before and many more.

    Interesting that NN is used when subject is not known and later John Doe can be used.

    I'll read the links you share today with us.

    Thanks again.