Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Oct 18 2016

The Hawthorne Effect Revisited

Published by under Neuroscience

It’s always more complicated than you think. If there is one overall lesson I learned after 20 years as a science communicator, that is it. There is a general bias toward oversimplification, which to some extent is an adaptive behavior. The universe is massive and complicated, and it would be a fool’s errand to try to understand every aspect of it down to the tiniest level of detail. We tend to understand the world through distilled narratives, simple stories that approximate reality (whether we know it or not or whether we intend to or not).

Those distilled narratives can be very useful, as long as you understand they are simplified approximations and don’t confuse them with a full and complete description of reality. Different levels of expertise can partly be defined as the complexity of the models of reality that you use. It is also interesting to think about what is the optimal level of complexity for your own purposes. I try to take a deliberate practical approach – how much complexity do I need to know?

The Hawthorne Effect

The distilled narrative of what is the Hawthorne Effect is this – the act of observing people’s behavior changes that behavior. The name derives from experiments conducted between 1924 and 1933 in Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago. The experimenters made various changes to the working environment, like changing light levels, and noticed that regardless of the change, performance increased. If they increased light levels, performance increased. If they decreased light levels, performance increased. They eventually concluded that observing the workers was leading to the performance increase, and the actual change in working conditions was irrelevant. This is now referred to as an observer effect, but also the term Hawthorn Effect was coined in 1953 by psychologist J.R.P. French.

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Oct 04 2016

Review – Brain Training Games Don’t Work

brain-gamesYesterday I wrote about the literature on so-called “power poses” – the notion that adopting certain poses make you feel more confident and powerful, and therefore change your behavior in certain ways that may be advantageous. Over the last decade psychologists have built up a literature which they claim supports the conclusion that power poses work.

However, a reanalysis of the data suggests that the evidence is flimsy, and in fact may be entirely an illusion created by p-hacking (essentially, loose research methodology).

The primary proponent of power poses, Amy Cuddy, has already built a career on the idea, topped off with a popular TED talk, and so far is sticking by her conclusion. Meanwhile, one of her coauthors, Dana Carney, has already jumped ship and stated publicly she does not think the power pose effect is real.

Brain Training

Today I am going to tell a very similar story, this time about brain training games. Over the last decade psychologists have built up a literature which they claim supports the conclusion that playing certain “brain games” will make you smarter in general, and may even stave off dementia.

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Oct 03 2016

Doubt About Power Poses

powerpose1underwoodIn 2012 psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a TED talk about “power poses.” This was the result of her recent research, which found that adopting “expansive” postures, such as standing with your hands on your hips, makes you feel more powerful, and this feeling translates into action, such as taking more risks.

Cuddy and her coauthors are serious psychological researchers, but the result was pop-psychology and self-help gold. The self-help industry in particular loves tricks that they can argue will help people succeed at some goal. This is because the public wants the tricks – the easy shortcut that can reach a goal without all the hard work or that can give you an edge over others.

But of course we have to ask the hard question: is the effect real?

Power Poses and P-Hacking

Recently one of Cuddy’s coauthors, Dana Carney, published a statement in which she details why she no longer believes that the power pose effect is real. (There are a number of individual effects here, including internal psychological changes, behavioral changes, and outcome changes, but for brevity I will simply refer to power poses, also called expansive postures, and the power pose effect.)

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Aug 18 2016

Diagnosing Mental Illness in Presidential Candidates

Published by under Neuroscience

trump-duh-e1453305835771CBS News Sunday Morning contributor Nancy Giles says that, in her opinion, Donald Trump is “clinically insane.” I have to wonder how “clinically insane” is different from regular “insane.”

I think the implication here is that this is a real psychiatric diagnosis of insanity, and not just a colloquial use of the word, like “that’s crazy.” Giles is implying that Trump has a mental illness, not just that she vehemently disagrees with his attitudes and temperament.

Meanwhile, there are conspiracy theories on the right about Clinton’s health and her “bizarre behavior,” with wild speculations about seizures and Parkinson’s disease.

A recent editorial on Medscape Psychiatry by Nassir Ghaemi asks a very interesting question, Is Psychoanalyzing Our Politicians Fair Game?

Armchair vs Professional

There is a range of behaviors going on here, and to some extent they need to be considered separately. Ghaemi was writing exclusively about psychiatrists (and to some extent psychologists) and their duties to patients, the profession, and as citizens.

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Aug 12 2016

Augmented Reality and Mental Workload

fNIIRSVirtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications are already here, but they still have not hit the steep part of the curve. We appear to be right at the beginning. We are about to experience the rapid adoption and experimentation with this new technology, and it will be interesting to see what applications become popular, and how people end up using these technologies. This is like predicting prior to the iPhone what smart phone apps will be popular.

For background, VR involves wearing goggles that fill your entire field of vision, so that you appear to occupy an entirely virtual world. When you physically move your head, your virtual perspective changes accordingly, so you can actually look around your virtual world.  Wearable devices like gloves are used to manipulate the virtual world.

Augmented reality is similar, but instead of immersive goggles you wear transparent glasses (like Google Glass) or use a handheld device with a camera (like Pokemon Go) which overlays virtual information onto the real world.

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Aug 09 2016

Making the Non-Existent Disappear

Hieronymus_Bosch_051If I told you I could make something nonexistent disappear, you probably would not be very impressed with that as a magic trick. However, magic is all about misdirection. If I could make you think you saw an object that was never there, and then make it disappear, that could be quite impressive.

Psychology and Magic

Increasingly psychologists, neuroscientists, and magicians are converging upon a model of how our brains construct our perceptions of reality. Magicians actually had a head start as they have been working out practical ways to fool human perception for centuries. Psychologists started taking note in the late 19th century, but really have only been seriously examining the techniques of magicians in the last decade or so. Psychologists now routinely use magic tricks as part of experimental setups.

The basic picture that has emerged is that our sensory perceptions have both bottom-up and top-down components. The bottom-up components are essentially using the raw sensory input and constructing an image from that, then passing that construction on to higher brain levels that interpret the image and give it emotional meaning. Top-down construction works the opposite way, with the higher brain areas communicating their expectations to the primary sensory areas and influencing their construction.

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Jul 25 2016

A Tougher Turing Test

exmachinsert5In 1950 Alan Turing, as a thought experiment, considered a test for telling the difference between a human and an artificial intelligence (AI). If a person had an extensive conversation with the AI and could not tell them apart from a real person, then that would be a good indication that the AI had human-like intelligence.

This process became known as the Turing Test, and every year various groups administer their version of the Turing Test to AI contestants. The test has limits, however, and is generally considered to be too easy. It is also dependent on the skills of the human questioner.

Parsing Language

A recent AI contest used a different approach, the Winograd Schema Challenge (WSC).This is one of many alternatives to the Turing Test that are being explored. Here is the format of the challenge:

  1. Two entities or sets of entities, not necessarily people or sentient beings, are mentioned in the sentences by noun phrases.
  2. A pronoun or possessive adjective is used to reference one of the parties (of the right sort so it can refer to either party).
  3. The question involves determining the referent of the pronoun.
  4. There is a special word that is mentioned in the sentence and possibly the question. When replaced with an alternate word, the answer changes although the question still makes sense (e.g., in the above examples, “big” can be changed to “small”; “feared” can be changed to “advocated”.)

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Jul 05 2016

A Psychiatrist Falls for Exorcism

demon_1John Mack was a Harvard psychiatrist who famously fell for his patient’s own delusions. He came to believe that some of his patients were actually abducted by aliens. He was never able to provide any compelling evidence of this, just their testimony. Despite being a professional in mental health, he lacked the skeptical skill set necessary to see his errors.

We now have another very similar case – a Yale trained psychiatrist, Richard Gallagher, who has fallen for his patients delusions that they are possessed by demons. His editorial in the Washington Post is stunning for its utter lack of skeptical awareness.

I am sometimes questioned by well-meaning but confused scientists who do not understand the role that scientific skepticism plays in society. Isn’t science itself enough? Aren’t all scientists skeptical, or at least they should be?

What they miss is that skepticism is a real and deep intellectual skill set that works with science. It includes specialized knowledge that is not necessarily acquired during scientific training. There are frequent examples of this, and Gallagher’s article is now a prime example as well. He hits almost every true-believer trope there is. Ironically he has created a classic case study in the need for scientific skepticism.

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Jun 21 2016

The Improbability Principle

strawberrymoonPeople generally suck at statistics. Our innate sense of how likely something is does not accord very well with reality, especially for large numbers.

But don’t worry, this just means you have to think a little harder about how likely things are. David Hand writes about this in his 2014 book: The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. This is making the rounds again in the media because of the recent “rare” astronomical events.

Yesterday the Summer Solstice coincided with the Strawberry Moon – the first full moon in June. The last time this happened was in 1967. Recently we have seen “rare” transits of Mercury and Venus across the sun.

These events are not that rare, and I really don’t see what the fuss is all about (I guess the media is desperate for anything they can hype.) Don’t get me wrong, I love astronomical events, it is their rarity that I think is overhyped.

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Jun 13 2016

Stem Cell Treatment for Multiple Sclerosis

ms cortex-above-ventriclesThere has been a lot of reporting about a new stem cell treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS). The results are genuinely interesting, even exciting, but preliminary and need to be put into perspective.

MS is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, affecting the brain and spinal cord. Actually, it is a category of several diseases that are largely defined clinically, such as relapsing remitting MS and chronic progressive MS. These distinctions are meaningful because they do predict response to certain existing treatments. Relapsing forms of MS tend to respond to chronic immune modulating drugs, while progressive forms tend not to respond.

The immune system in MS patients is faulty, targeting the myelin around axons in the brain and spinal cord. Myelin is the insulation that allows axons to conduct. When the myelin breaks down due to inflammation this slows conduction, and if severe enough can even stop it completely. Symptoms depend on where these inflammatory lesions occur in the nervous system. If a motor pathway is affected, then weakness will result.

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