3652 days

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user Earl. Click for source.Mind Hacks is exactly 10 years old today. Here’s the first post where Matt announced that the book had started shipping.

This is the 4950th post and Mind Hacks has been going for 3652 days which means we’ve published an average of 1.4 posts a day, every day, for the last 10 years.

Apart from the blog posts there were two memorable occasions when we were featured in the mainstream press. Both were fittingly, slightly unusual.

Tom was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for leading a cognitive science safari through the streets of Berlin. A reporter accompanied him through the urban jungle and reported back from the pioneering trip through unexplored cognitive territory.

On a slightly different tack, an article in The New York Times featured my psychosis research. Curiously, it was put in the Fashion and Style section, which was most likely a mistake, although sometimes I catch a look at my well cut corduroy slacks and think maybe it was really due to my daring autumn look and stylistic joie de vivre.

Apart from those moments, we’ve mainly spent the rest of the decade at our laptops alternately flicking between PubMed and Google News, grumbling about people not linking to the original study and tapping out diatribes when people make unjustified inferences from neuroanatomical findings or limited behavioural data.

I suspect the next ten years might be somewhat similar.

Spike activity 28-11-2014

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

The Pentagon publishes their plan for future war and they seem to have ripped off the plot from 1980s Rogue Trooper story lines.

The Scientist has a basic guide to imaging white matter with diffusion MRI. Next week in The Scientist: Collar up or collar down? We explore the latest lab coat trends.

Neurons light up Times Square for Midnight Moment – and they look amazing. Photo in New Scientist.

xkcd wins the internet with this cartoon simply entitled fMRI. Don’t miss the mouseover.

US regulators move on thought-controlled prosthetics, reports Nature – as soon as they can relax enough move the cursor. Mind Hacks – your number one source for brain-computer interface gags. Don’t miss our Christmas selection.

Mosaic Science asks whether hospital design can affect our recovery. With some fascinating answers.

Retroreport has a good video report on Sybil and the multiple-personality disorder hysteria that swept America in the 1970s.

A group of historians are identifying and memorialising unmarked graves of patients from an abandoned asylum in the States. Touching article and video report from The New York Times.

The wrong sort of discussion

The Times Higher Education has an article on post-publication peer review, and whether it will survive legal challenges

The legal action launched by a US scientist who claims that anonymous comments questioning his science cost him a lucrative job offer has raised further questions about the potential for post-publication peer review to replace pre-publication review.

The article chimes with comments made by several prominent Psychologists who have been at the centre of controversies and decried the way their work has been discussed outside of the normal channels of the academic journals.

Earlier this year the head of a clinical trial of Tamiflu wrote to the British Medical Journal to protest that a BMJ journalist had solicited independent critique of the stats used in his work – “going beyond the reasonable response to a press release”.

John Bargh (Yale University) in his now infamous ‘nothing in their heads’ blogpost accused the open access journal PLoS of lacking “the usual high scientific journal standards of peer-review scrutiny”, and accussed Ed Yong – laughably – of “superficial online science journalism”. He concluded:

“I am not so much worried about the impact on science of essentially self-published failures to replicate as much as I’m worried about your ability to trust supposedly reputable online media sources for accurate information on psychological science.”

Simone Schnall (University of Cambridge) is a social psychologist whose work has also been at the centre of the discussion about replication (backstory, independent replication of her work recently reported). She has recently written that ‘no critical discussion is possible’ on social media, where ‘judgments are made quickly nowadays in social psychology and definitively’.

See also this comment from a scientist when a controversial paper which suggested that many correlations in fMRI studies of social psychological constructs were impossibly high was widely discussed before publication: . “I was shocked, this is not the way that scientific discourse should take place.”

The common theme is a lack of faith in the uncontrolled scientific discussion that now happens in public, before and after publication in the journal-sanctioned official record. Coupled, perhaps, with a lack of faith in other people to understand – let alone run – psychological research. Scientific discussion has always been uncontrolled, of course, the differences now are in how open the discussion is, and who takes part. Pre social media, ‘insider’ discussions of specialist topics took place inside psychology departments, and at conference dinners and other social gatherings of researchers. My optimistic take is that social media allows access to people who would not normally have it due to constraints on geography, finance or privilege. Social media means that if you’re in the wrong institution, aren’t funded, or if you have someone to look after at home that means you can’t fly to the conference, you can still experience and contribute to specialist discussions – that’s a massive and positive change and one we should protect as we work out how scientific discussion should take place in the 21st century.

Link: Simone Schnall’s comments in full: blog, video

Previously: Stafford, T., & Bell, V. (2012). Brain network: social media and the cognitive scientist. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(10), 489–490. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.08.001

Previously What Jason Mitchell’s ‘On the emptiness of failed replications’ gets right, which includes some less optimistic notes on the current digital disruption of scholarly ways of working

Distraction effects

I’ve been puzzling over this tweet from Jeff Rouder:

jeffrouder

Surely, I thought, psychology is built out of effects. What could be wrong with focussing on testing which ones are reliable?

But I think I’ve got it now. The thing about effects is that they show you – an experimental psychologist – can construct a situation where some factor you are interested in is important, relative to all the other factors (which you have managed to hold constant).

To see why this might be a problem, consider this paper by Tsay (2013): “Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance”. This was a study which asked people to select the winners of a classical music competition from 6 second clips of them performing. Some participants got the audio, so they could only hear the performance; others got the video, so they could only see the performance; and some got both audio and video. Only those participants who watched the video, without sound, could select the actual competition winners at above chance level. This demonstrates a significant bias effect of sight in judgements of music performance.

To understand the limited importance of this effect, contrast with the overclaims made by the paper: “people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance” (in the abstract) and “[Musicians] relegate the sound of music to the role of noise” (the concluding line). Contrary to these claims the study doesn’t show that looks dominate sound in how we assess music. It isn’t the case that our musical taste is mostly determined by how musicians look.

The Tsay studies took the 3 finalists from classical music competitions – the best of the best of expert musicians – and used brief clips of their performances as stimuli. By my reckoning, this scenario removes almost all differences in quality of the musical performance. Evidence in support for this is that Tsay didn’t find any difference in performance between non-expert participants and professional musicians. This fact strongly suggests that she has designed a task in which it is impossible to bring any musical knowledge to bear. musical knowledge isn’t an important factor.

This is why it isn’t reasonable to conclude that people are making judgments about musical performance in general. The clips don’t let you judge relative musical quality, but – for these equally almost equally matched performances – they do let you reflect the same biases as the judges, biases which include an influence of appearance as well as sound. The bias matters, not least because it obviously affects who won, but proving it exists is completely separate from the matter of whether the overall judgements of music, is affected more by sight or sound.

Further, there’s every reason to think that the conclusion from the study of the bias effect gives the opposite conclusion to the study of overall importance. In these experiments sight dominates sound, because differences due to sound have been controlled out. In most situations where we decide our music preferences, sounds is obviously massively more important.

Many psychological effects are impressive tribute to the skill of experimenters in designing situations where most factors are held equal, allowing us to highlight the role of subtle psychological factors. But we shouldn’t let this blind us to the fact that the existence of an effect due to a psychological factor isn’t the same as showing how important this factor is relative to all others, nor is it the same as showing that our effect will hold when all these other factors start varying.

Link: Are classical music competitions judged on looks? – critique of Tsay (2013) written for The Conversation

Link: A good twitter thread on the related issue of effect size – and yah-boo to anyone who says you can’t have a substantive discussion on social media

UPDATE: The paper does give evidence that the sound stimuli used do influence people’s judgements systemmatically – it was incorrect of me to say that differences due to sound have been removed. I have corrected the post to reflect what I believe the study shows: that differences due to sound have been minimised, so that differences in looks are emphasised.

Wankers and prankers on the suicide hotline

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user kev-shine. Click for source.The New York Magazine‘s new Science of Us section has an interesting review of a new documentary on hotlines – whether they be for suicide support or phone sex.

I was initially annoyed at the fact that the documentary puts both of these in the same category but it’s based on the interesting premise that hotlines – whether for mental health, sex or supporting members of a particular marginalised community – often involve the common component of lonely people reaching out to connect with a stranger, briefly, through conversation.

I don’t know how good the documentary is, I haven’t seen it, but interestingly the review was by an writer who himself had worked on a mental health support lines.

As a result the piece has some wonderfully insightful points about the emotional experience of working as a telephone support counsellor. I was really struck by this section:

Hotline mentions the masturbators, at least — cretins who call up and simply breathe heavily into their phones as they do their thing (at Samaritans, I never had to deal with them because they’d hang up and call back until a female picked up the phone). But the film doesn’t delve into other common experiences volunteers go through, such as how it feels to listen to and empathize with a desperate-sounding 12-year-old girl for seven devastating minutes, only to hear her — and the friends who have apparently been in the room with her the whole time — crack up with laughter, revealing her whole soul-crushing story of sexual abuse to have been a prank.

The problem is, after you’ve hung up angrily on the masturbator or the slumber-party pranksters, your phone is inevitably going to ring in another minute or five, and you have to somehow return to that place of empathy and openness, because the next person who calls may really need your help. It’s a strange sort of emotional bombardment, and Hotline missed an opportunity to unpack it a bit.

In the support hotline world, these callers are known as ‘wankers and prankers’ and they are surprisingly common. You probably wouldn’t imagine that people phone up suicide hotlines to whack off or wind people up, but it is common enough that most services have specific procedures to deal with these nuisance callers.

Many of these lines have a policy where the hotline attender doesn’t hang up on the caller, because people with the most disordered ways of accessing the services might be the ones who need it most.

To deal with this, some services have a specific person each shift whose job it is to listen to persistent masturbators. When they call they can just ask for ‘Julie’, or some other code name, and be passed on to the designated nuisance call monitor, who listens out for any signs that the person has something relevant they want to discuss.

This reduces the number of times people in the front line have the emotionally jarring experience of going from distressed suicidal people to ‘wankers and prankers’, meaning they’re better able to be open and empathetic for people who need it, and are less emotionally drained themselves.

It’s a strange corner of the mental health support world which has to overcome the foibles and dysfunction of social behaviour for which it was never designed to address.
 

Link to review of Hotline documentary.

Explore our back pages

At our birthday party on Thursday I told people how I’d crunched the stats for the 10 years of mindhacks.com posts. Nearly 5000 posts, and over 2 million words – an incredible achievement (for which 96% of the credit should go to Vaughan).

In 2010 we had an overhaul (thanks JD for this, and Matt for his continued support of the tech side of the site). I had a look at the stats, which only date back till then, and pulled out our all time most popular posts. Here they are:

topten

Something about the enthusiasm of last Thursday inspired me to put the links the top ten posts on a wiki. Since it is a wiki anyone can jump in and edit, so if there are any bits of the mindhacks.com back catalogue that you think are worth leaving a placeholder to, feel free to add it. Vaughan and I will add links to a few of our favourite posts, so check back and see how it is coming along.

Link: Mind Hacks wiki

Spike activity 21-11-2014

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

Wall Street Journal on The Future of AI: An Ubiquitous, Invisible, Smart Utility.

A list of the 100 most followed psychologists and neuroscientists on Twitter compiled by the BPS Research Digest. And a mixed bag it is too.

Student Science has a fantastic how-to on how to build a sensory homunculus based on data from your own body.

Is There a Link Between Mental Health and Gun Violence? asks The New Yorker. Next to bugger all, says the research.

Neuroskeptic has an interesting post on how brain structure – behaviour findings might not replicate in brain scanning. Lots of good comments.

Pavlov. What an asshole. The New Yorker covers the little known story behind a psychology legend.

When Bad Things Happen in Slow Motion. Is there more to our experience of time than the foibles of memory? asks Nautilus magazine.

Science reports on a new finding of a genetic link to male homosexuality.

Interesting New Scientist piece on how altering the auditory feedback from our contact with the environment can shape perception of ourselves.