Mind Mosaic

Biomedical charity The Wellcome Trust have launched a new online science magazine called Mosaic which is rammed full of mind and brain stories for its launch.

As part of their role is medical education, the idea is that they get writers to produce in-depth articles about science and then give them away for free (welcome to the barricades, do help yourself to a gas mask).

The launch issue has an interview with dandelion-haired cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, an excellent piece on whether it will ever be possible to understand Alzheimer’s disease, a 30-minute documentary about the science of normality (entirely focused on average white people as far as I could work out) and a brief article on the surprisingly complex science of keeping your brain off the pavement with cycle helmets.

There’s also some articles about other areas of science but I have blanked them from my memory.

Importantly, they’re publishing all their material under a specific creative commons license which means you can republish and re-edit the stories for your own blog or multinational media organisation for free if you wish.

They also asked a few people, including me, about some ‘Big Questions’ facing science and have put them up for a vote on their Facebook page (it’s like Twitter but with more baby photos apparently). If the question gets enough votes, they might commission an article on the topic.

My question was “Can we replace damaged brain parts with computational devices?’ (i.e. computers)” so if you’d like to see a Mosaic article on this and you use the Facebook, you can vote here by liking or leaving a comment.
 

Link to Mosaic.

What’s the evidence for the power of reason to change minds?

Last month I proposed an article for Contributoria, titled What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Unfortunately, I had such fun reading about the topic that I missed the end-of-month deadline and now need to get backers for my proposal again.

So, here’s something from my proposal, please consider backing it so I can put my research to good use:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes seem like people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures (Dan Ariely “Predictably irrational”, David McRaney “You Are Not So Smart”). This piece will be 3000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.

All you need to do to back proposals, currently, is sign up for the site. You can see all current proposals here. Written articles are Creative Commons licensed.

Back the proposal: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Full disclosure: I’ll be paid by Contributoria if the proposal is backed

Update:: Backed! Thanks all! Watch this space for the finished article. I promise I’ll make the deadline this time

Stroop: an unrecognised legacy

The man who discovered the Stroop effect and created the Stroop test, something which is now a keystone of cognitive science research, never realised the massive impact he had on psychology.

A short but fascinating news item from Vanderbilt University discusses its creator, the psychologist and preacher J. Ridley Stroop.

J. Ridley Stroop was born on a farm 40 miles from Nashville and was the only person in his family to attend college. He began preaching the gospel when he was 20 years old and continued to do so throughout his life. He spent nearly 40 years as a teacher and administrator at David Lipscomb College, now Lipscomb University, in Nashville….

According to his son, Stroop was unaware of the growing importance of his discovery when he died in 1973. Toward the end of his life, he had largely abandoned the field of psychology and immersed himself in Biblical studies. “He would say that Christ was the world’s greatest psychologist,” Faye Stroop recalled.

The task is very simple and relies on the fact that we automatically process word meaning when we see words. We don’t have to recognise each letter, consciously string them together, and ‘work out’ what word it is, it just happens straight away.

Stroop’s insight was to wonder what would happen if he asked people to do something that directly conflicted with this automatic processing.

So if I ask you to name the colour the following word is written in: blue; or name the colour this word is written in: red; you do it a little more slowly than naming the colour that these words are written in: blue, red.

This is because you have to inhibit or consciously ‘get round’ the word’s automatically recognised meaning.

This inhibition of automatic responses turns out to be a key function of attention and is heavily linked to the workings of the pre-frontal cortex.

There are many variations, all based on the fact that word meanings can relate to many different forms of psychological process, bias or experience.

For example, the ‘emotional Stroop‘ asks people to name the ‘ink colour’ of either emotionally neutral words (like ‘apple’, ‘soap’) and more emotionally intense words (like ‘violence’ or ‘torture’).

People who have been traumatised, will be more affected by these sorts of emotionally intense words and so they will identify the ‘ink colour’ of trauma-related words more slowly than when compared to non-traumatised people.

The same happens for people with spider phobia when they read spider-related words, and so on.

And because it allows experimenters to measure the interaction between attention and meaning, it has become a massively useful and popular tool.
 

Link to piece on the history of the Stroop task.

Interviews at the Frontier

The BBC Radio 4 Exchanges at the Frontier series has just concluded and it includes interviews with the likes of Kay Redfield Jamison and Human Brain Project leader Henry Markram. They’re all online as podcasts.

All the interviews are done by philosopher A.C. Grayling and for a BBC talking shop are remarkably good fun.

Even the non-cognitive scientists interviewed in the series may be of interest to mind and brain aficionados as one tackles how swarming behaviour emerges and another discusses the link between the economy and happiness.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is even in there, being his usual grouchy self, and it all makes for a fascinating series.
 

Link to BBC Exchanges at the Frontier podcast page.

Spike activity 28-02-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Can Baby Brain Scans Predict Later Cognitive Development? asks Neuroskeptic.

The Economist debates the difference between a dialect and a language.

Love with Robots. An interesting piece of graphic novel-esque reporting from Narratively about intimacy with digital beings and robots.

Interesting new neuroscience blog by computational neuroscientist Gabriela Tavares.

The Times Educational Supplement discusses whether brain scans will help the classroom teacher. Quick answer: they won’t, unless you are teaching about brain scans.

New Scientist has a piece on how the science of the chilli’s burn may be opening doors to understanding neuroreceptors and heat regulation.

Two species of human ancestors are found at an archaeology dig in the nation of Georgia as reported by Science News

The Independent has a piece on the curious and tragic phenomenon of ‘self-bullying’.

Internet trolls are also real-life trolls. The Headquarters blog on a study of internet bottom feeders.