Last year, Ilse van de Groep read around two books a week. “It was obviously a Covid year,” she says, and they also included audio books, but she is a reader. When she started her PhD in 2018, she set herself the goal of reading at least one book a week. Since then, it’s become a habit. “If you teach yourself to grab a book – at the station, in the train, whilst waiting for something – reading doesn’t depend on motivation anymore. Of course, I like to read in a flow, but that doesn’t happen every day. For those moments, it’s useful to build a system around you, so that you get a step further every day.”

Ilse van de Groep is doing her PhD at Erasmus Sync Lab (Rotterdam), Brain and Development Research Center (Leiden University) and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry & Psychosocial Care (Amsterdam UMC). After her research master in Social and health psychology at the University of Utrecht, she worked as a research assistant at the Experimental Psychopathology lab in Utrecht. She will submit her thesis in December.

Free will

As a PhD student, she studies the development of antisocial behaviour in a person’s life. She seeks psychological and neurobiological explanations for why some people with antisocial behaviour get back on the right path, while others don’t. In one of the books that made an impression on her, Great American Novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck (translated in Dutch as Ten oosten van Eden), a similar question is asked: how much influence do you have on your own life?

In East of Eden, two brothers compete for their father’s love. One son is the father’s favourite, leaving the other feeling rejected, and he subsequently sleeps with his brother’s wife. Did he have another choice? “Sometimes people interpret neuroscience in a deterministic way by assuming that someone with a deviant brain will display deviant behaviour only as a result thereof. The message of the book is more comforting – just like in real life, the brothers’ fate is not set in stone. They may have a biological vulnerability, but they can influence their lives.”

Reading behaviour

Number of books a year: 102 (the previous year 70)

Main motivation: Entertainment, curiosity and evoking emotions

Favourite genre: Modern literature

Last book read: Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

The passage of time

However, it is not in fact this message which made an impression on Van de Groep. The small moments in between evoked various emotions in her: sympathy, amazement, empathy, aversion. “I like to really delve into a character’s psychology and follow how they and their social relationships develop over time.”

The story of the brothers from East of Eden doesn’t stop at their generation. The twin sons of one of the brothers experience the same struggle. If you really want to understand a character in the book, you in any event also need to know the life of parents and ancestors. That’s another thing that Van de Groep enjoys. Like a detective, she unravels the family structures.

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Farmers, fishermen and a resistance heroine

Researching family trees is therefore a hobby of Van de Groep. She has traced her mother’s family back to 1370. Now she knows that one of her ancestors, Trijn van Leemput, was a resistance heroine against the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. There’s a statue of her on the Oudegracht in Utrecht. “Otherwise, the stories are more mundane, stories of farmers and fishermen.”

Her grandmother started researching the family tree. When Van de Groep used to stay with her, she was fascinated by the objects and associated stories. Later she decided to research her father’s family tree too. She saves photos and makes notes in an online system, ‘very nerdy’.

“It’s fun to keep going back a step further in time and to find out where you come from,” she says. “Sometimes it makes me realise that I live in luxury, also as a woman. Also interesting are the parallels of history with the current time, like the time of the Spanish flu and Covid. A family tree brings history to life and that teaches me about the everyday life of yesterday and today.”

Daniel Grimmelikhuijzen Verslonden – Ronald van den Heerik

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