Thursday, September 29, 2016

Self-Appointed Destructive Critic


by @bahniks - click on image for a larger view


By now, those of you familiar with the “methodological terrorism” controversy (PDF) are probably sick of  it. I won't go into any detail, other than to say that disagreements between the communities of (1) traditional psychologists who respect the current peer review process, and (2) reformers who advocate replication, post-publication peer review in social media, and alternate modes of dissemination, have been heated. In a nutshell, are the new media bad for science or good for science?

Here, I'd like to examine some ideas in isolation from their source(s). This is to avoid the appearance of an ad hominem attack and to maintain a civil tone. Ultimately, we may learn that abusive argumentation and incivility are less common than expected. Or not well-defined, at least.


Ad Hominem (Abusive) Argument.

“Attacking the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself, when the attack on the person is completely irrelevant to the argument the person is making.”

Does this really happen all that often?1 Does questioning someone's motives for maintaining the status quo constitute an ad hominem attack? If a researcher receives widespread media attention for their findings, can we find fault with their public statements, or is this ad hominem too? Off-the-cuff remarks on Twitter are the most likely place for attacks that meet the “abusive argument” definition. We should avoid it, or else it supports the trash-talk allegations.


Tone.

What is the appropriate tone for online debate? Who decides? Adults have criticized the language and attitudes of youth since the beginning of time. One person's funny irreverent witticism is another's destructo-criticism.

I know I've been misunderstood. A lighthearted spoof with a bold red disclaimer (and advance apologies) was interpreted as sneering, ridiculing, and bullying (of a very senior figure). Another post, Spanner or Sex Object?, wasn't meant as methodological fetishism (so to speak). Some might say the images were objectionable, but they were included along with substantive critiques of the findings and their interpretation, not of the authors.

In the the wider world of the internet, there's no doubt that the level of hostility, trollish behavior, abusive threats, racism, and sexism have risen dramatically (just ask Leslie Jones about her Twitter experience). Let's hope that we can monitor our behavior and filter out mean spirited, personal attacks.


Peer review is more civil.

Like many others, I've suffered from the tone of anonymous peer review at journals.  My very first review as a graduate student was one paragraph long. “The current work doesn't add to the literature, it detracts from it” (or something like that). The decision was made on the basis of only one reviewer. One paragraph. Overly harsh.

That was real encouraging. Enough to drive a fledgling researcher out of the field, eh? “Don't take it personally” is the recommended mantra. Don't take it personally. Don't take it personally.


Destructo-Critic



I'm very proud to have been appointed Destructive Critic by an admired giant in the field - Max Coltheart!


Arguably, I am the first destructo-critic, given that I started The Neurocritic blog back in 2006. This was well before the current replication crisis in social psychology.2 My inaugural entry critiqued an fMRI paper on empathy, followed by posts on lie detection, HARKing,3 media sensationalism, ubiquitous anterior cingulate and insular activation, the insufficiency of fMRI for explaining qualia, mind reading, and anonymous peer review. I didn't notice any ad hominem attacks back then. Have I become more snarky over time?

As Neuroskeptic wondered, when the critics of critics don't name names, how are we to know who are the objectionable ones, and who are the ones aiming to improve the field? Perhaps it's time for some self-examination, and that's true for stakeholders on both sides of the fence. My aim has always been to improve the field I love. Or else, why would I have persisted for so long?


Self-Destructive Critic

In real life I am my own harshest critic. It's a pernicious and intractable element of my disease. I never apply the same standards to other people. I always try to frame criticism (whether in person or in anonymous peer reviews) in as positive a light as possible. “It might be better if the authors tried this...” Try to find the positive elements. Most people would say I'm very considerate.

In real life I am a self-destructive critic of the self. And this is my truth.


Footnotes

1 I can think of one notable exception, a very high profile public figure in the UK... and even then, much of the criticism is of her views.

2 It's mostly called The Replication Crisis in Psychology, but the strong focus has been on social psychology. Neuroimaging research (fMRI) has come under fire as well. Initiatives for data sharing (e.g., OpenfMRI and Neurovault and the fMRI Data Center well before that) and reproducibility are on the rise.

3 Hypothesizing after the results are known (Kerr, 1998)


Further Reading

Promoting open, critical, civil, and inclusive scientific discourse in Psychology

The Day the Palm hit the Face

Some thoughts on methodological terrorism this one is particularly indispensable

Weapons of math destruction

Terrorist Fiske Jab: On “Destructo-Criticism”

“Methodological terrorism” and other myths

We talked to the scientist at the center of a brutal firestorm in the field of psychology

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Coming Soon: The Neural Correlates of Procrastination


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Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Neural Lace Tour


Stevie Nicks and Elon Musk finally together in this stunning collection...

Elon
You have the limbic system, 
the cortex 
and a digital layer above the cortex 
that could work well and symbiotically with you



Stevie:
Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions
I keep my visions to myself

--Dreams, Fleetwood Mac




Stevie:
I need you to love me
I need you today
Give to me your leather
Take from me
My lace

--Leather and Lace, Stevie Nicks


Elon:
If you assume any rate of advancement of AI,
um.......
we will be left behind
by a lot

--We are already cyborgs | Elon Musk | Code Conference


Stevie:
It's only me
Who wants to wrap around your dreams and...
Have you any dreams you'd like to sell?

--Dreams, Fleetwood Mac


Neural Lace

The concept was first thought up by Iain M. Banks in his Culture novels. In these novels, a neural lace is a mesh-like device that would be implanted in a person directly through the bloodstream, controlling the release of certain neurons using the power of thought.

Musk’s version of the neural lace doesn’t work exactly like that. Musk’s lace seems to be a mesh that would allow such AI to work symbiotically with the human brain. Signals will be picked up and transmitted wirelessly, but without any interference of natural neurological processes. Essentially, making it a digital brain upgrade. Imagine writing and sending texts just using your thoughts.


Stevie:
And the days go by
Like a strand in the wind
In the web that is my own

--Edge of Seventeen, Stevie Nicks


Elon:
You have a digital version of yourself
a partial version of yourself
online
in the form of your e-mails and social media
and all the things you do...

--We are already cyborgs | Elon Musk | Code Conference


Stevie:
The clouds never expect it
When it rains

--Edge of Seventeen, Stevie Nicks


Elon:
We're IO bound
particularly output bound

--We are already cyborgs | Elon Musk | Code Conference



Stevie:
Heartless challenge
Pick your path and I'll pray

-- Gold Dust Woman, Fleetwood Mac


Elon:
Something
I think
is going to be quite important
— I don't know of a company that's working on it seriously —
is a neural lace



Stevie:
Give to me your leather
Take from me
My lace
Take from me
My lace
Take from me
My lace 

--Leather and Lace, Stevie Nicks


Scientists Just Invented the Neural Lace

A group of chemists and engineers who work with nanotechnology published a paper ... about an ultra-fine mesh that can merge into the brain to create what appears to be a seamless interface between machine and biological circuitry. Called “mesh electronics,” the device is so thin and supple that it can be injected with a needle — they’ve already tested it on mice, who survived the implantation and are thriving. The researchers describe their device as “syringe-injectable electronics,” and say it has a number of uses, including monitoring brain activity, delivering treatment for degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, and even enhancing brain capabilities.



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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Pain, Synesthesia, Aging, The Dress, and more


Vote for your favorites in the 2016
Brain Awareness Video Contest!




You can submit up to two votes for The People's Choice Award. You don't need to be a member of the Society for Neuroscience.

Deadline: September 30, 2016.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Music from Your Brain



The journal Brain has a new review on the history of converting the electroencephalogram (EEG) into sound (Lutters & Koehler, 2016). The translation of data into sound, known as sonification, has been applied to brain waves since the 1930s. In addition to early scientific and medical applications, sonification of the EEG has been used in the field of experimental music.




In 1965, physicist Edmond Dewan and composer Alvin Lucier collaborated on Music for the Solo Performer:

Sitting on a chair, eyes closed, Lucier’s brainwaves were recorded from his scalp, amplified and channelled to numerous loudspeakers scattered around the room. As the amplified alpha rhythm was below the human audible range, the loudspeakers were put ‘right up against’ various percussion instruments, which were then activated by means of vibration. While Lucier attempted to refrain from mental activity, percussion sounds slowly started to fill the room, which were suddenly disrupted when he opened his eyes, engaged in mental exercise, or when his attention was drawn towards sounds from the audience (Kahn, 2013).





The article also reviews more contemporary translations of EEG activity into music:

By the end of the century, advances in EEG and sound technology ultimately gave rise to brain–computer music interfaces (BCMIs), a multidisciplinary achievement that has enhanced expressive abilities of both patients and artists (Miranda, 2014).


Image credits:

Edmond Dewan and his brainwave control system (1964). From Kahn D. Earth sound Earth signal: Energies and Earth magnitude in the arts. Los Angeles: University of California Press; 2013. p. 96. Image courtesy of Brian Dewan.

Lucier practicing brainwave control in the Brandeis Music Studio (1965). From Kahn D. Earth sound Earth signal: Energies and Earth magnitude in the arts. Los Angeles: University of California Press; 2013. p. 91. Image courtesy of Alvin Lucier.


Reference

Lutters, B., & Koehler, P. (2016). Brainwaves in concert: the 20th century sonification of the electroencephalogram. Brain DOI: 10.1093/brain/aww207

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Healing Prayer and the Brain: Not a Match Made in Heaven


Activity of the medial prefrontal cortex after psycho-spiritual healing (Baldwin et al., 2016).


Everything we do and feel and experience changes the brain. Psychotherapy, juggling, taxi driving, poverty, reading, drugs, art, music, anger, love. If it didn't we'd be dead. Why should prayer be any different? The trick is to accurately determine the structural or physiological changes that are unique to a specific activity. And when assessing the effectiveness of clinical interventions, how the changes compare to an adequately matched control intervention. Plenty of high profile studies have failed to do that, including a recent one on emotionally focused therapy.1 

I feel bad about criticizing a study on the neural correlates of healing prayers. I'm not one of those smug atheists who lord their intellectual superiority over the unwashed religious masses. Certain atheist organizations claim they're all about promoting scientific literacy and a secular worldview. But I think these New Atheists are detrimental to science literacy, since they alienate the vast majority of the population.

So why am I blogging about a prayer intervention for depression? It's not to sneer at the authors. And it's especially not to sneer at the participants, who were recruited from Houston-area churches. My interest is the unholy alliance between brain imaging and a psychological intervention with no control condition. As I've said before...
...neuroimaging studies of psychotherapy that have absolutely no control conditions are of limited usefulness. We don't know what sort of changes would have happened over an equivalent amount of time with no intervention. More importantly, we don't know whether the specific therapy under consideration is better than another form of psychotherapy, or better than going bowling once a week.

Healing Prayer, Trauma, and Forgiveness

This is especially true for a treatment that is based on faith and a strong belief that the intervention will work — a Christian form of prayer focused on forgiveness and psycho-spiritual healing (PSFH). A prayer minister “led the subject through three different phases: (1) a prayer of forgiveness for the perpetrator of the hurtful event; (2) a prayer of blessing on the perpetrator; and (3) a prayer to heal the emotional damage caused by the traumatic event.”



Study design for the 6 week healing prayer intervention (Baldwin et al., 2016).

The 18 participants had moderate to severe levels of depression on the Hamilton Depression Scale (HAM-D). Oddly, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not assessed before or after the intervention. This was a major weakness, given that the purpose of the intervention was to forgive the perpetrator of childhood abuse and to heal from emotional trauma. In this sense, PSFH is akin to more formalized psychotherapies such as forgiveness therapy.

It's no surprise that a non-randomized, unblinded prayer intervention in religious persons resulted in dramatically reduced HAM-D scores in the 14 participants who completed the study (11 of whom were available for a one year followup).


Who am I to criticize a practice that helps suffering people? I won't do that.

What I will do is point out difficulties in task design that make it nearly impossible to interpret some aspects of their fMRI study. The task used a symptom provocation paradigm using 3 key words to evoke memories of the traumatic event (15 seconds) and feelings of the traumatic event (15 seconds), separated by a 2 second blank screen.2 Is it possible to separate traumatic memories from the feelings they evoke, and to switch between them on such short notice? Certain therapies (such as prolonged exposure) are designed to do just that. The authors stated that anecdotally, this appeared to be the case here as well:
In this and our previous study, subjects frequently mentioned informally that PSFH results in a separation of the traumatic memory and associated feelings: while the memory remains intact, it no longer associates with traumatic feelings.


Activity of the precuneus to Bad Feelings was higher before psycho-spiritual healing (Baldwin et al., 2016).


It is, however, difficult to interpret a 23 voxel decrease in precuneus activity in 14 subjects as a reflection of such a complex therapeutic change, especially since this brain region is involved in both self-referential processing and episodic memory retrieval.

But to be even more fair, the authors listed ten caveats to their admittedly preliminary study.3 When all is said and done, how can this study reveal ANYTHING about the neural correlates of healing prayer?




Or in this case, nothing fails like a non-randomized, unblinded, not-placebo-controlled fMRI study of prayer. Or of any other intervention, for that matter.

Nothing-Fails-Like-Prayer image by Henry Ruddle


Footnotes

1 Johnson SM, Moser MB, Beckes L, Smith A, Dalgleish T, Halchuk R, Hasselmo K, Greenman PS, Merali Z, & Coan JA (2013). Soothing the threatened brain: leveraging contact comfort with emotionally focused therapy. PloS one, 8 (11).

Also see two blog posts by Dr. James Coyne.

2 These Bad Memory/Feeling blocks were also compared to Neutral Memory/Feeling blocks that evoked memories and feelings about a neutral topic (e.g., the weather). This is the pre/post contrast shown in the first figure of the post.

3 To shorten and paraphrase the overly honest Limitations section of Baldwin et al. (2016):
  • the number of subjects was small (n=14) 
  • recruitment was largely done at churches, which might affect generalizability
  • individual minister effects could not be ruled out
  • there was no control population receiving an alternative therapy
  • only subjects who completed the study were included, which may have skewed the results
  • life events such as changing employment status, marriage stability, family, health, and economic changes were not assessed
  • possible confounding effects between the role of PSFH and intercessory prayer for the participants by others [NOTE: some of us may discount this as a confounder]
  • cannot rule out an effect of being exposed to the task in the MRI twice
  • demand characteristics participants answered worse at the beginning and better at the end to fulfill researcher’s expectations 
  • outcomes were rated by non-blinded observers

Reference

Baldwin, P., Velasquez, K., Koenig, H., Salas, R., & Boelens, P. (2016). Neural correlates of healing prayers, depression and traumatic memories: A preliminary study Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 27, 123-129 DOI: 10.1016/j.ctim.2016.07.002

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Monday, August 08, 2016

Scientific Study Shows Mediums Are Wrong 46.2% of the Time

Not a very good showing, eh?


In the study,
“Participants were asked to press a button if they thought the person in a photo was living or deceased. Overall mean accuracy on this task was 53.8%, where 50% was expected by chance (p < 0.004, two-tail). Statistically significant accuracy was independently obtained in 5 of the 12 participants.”

The abstract claims the participants showed better than chance performance, but even if we accept this level of accuracy at face value (so to speak), the mediums were wrong 46.2% of the time. Remember that before your next psychic reading.

And of course we should not accept the results at face value. Let's take a closer look at the paper (Delorme et al., 2016), which was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience



Actually, let's take a closer look at the authors first. Arnaud Delorme, Alan Pierce, Leena Michel,  and Dean Radin are all affiliated with the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), a parapsychology research institute in California. Dr. Delorme is also affiliated with UC San Diego. Along with Scott Makeig, he developed EEGLAB, a Matlab toolbox that's widely used to analyze EEG data. Delorme and Makeig (2004) has been cited 5738 times (as of this writing).

Why is Delorme doing parapsychology research?? He's a long-time Zen meditator, according to his IONS biography. Why is Frontiers publishing parapsychology research? Here's one opinion.


Dead or Alive?


Figure 1 (Delorme et al., 2016). Process involved in creating a group of photographs of “Alive” and “Deceased” individuals.


Photographs of known alive and dead people were selected from three internet databases: (D1) school portraits from 1939–1941; (D2) school portraits from 1962–1968; and (D3) politicians (US senators excluded) and businessmen. Why? Why use pictures of US Representatives and state politicians outside of California? Even though the subjects said they didn't recognize them, there could be a vague sense of familiarity with some of these faces.

Photos of 404 individuals were presented, and the 12 participants pressed keys to indicate “deceased,” “living,” or “do not know”. 1

The participants all “claimed to be able to experience feelings of vitality from facial photographs alone. ... They were required to have been performing professional ‘readings’ for clients...” THERE WAS NO CONTROL GROUP.  In other words, participants who did not claim any psychic or clairvoyant abilities were not included in this study. Thus, there was no way to know if the marginal ability to discern whether a person was alive or dead was based on mediumship.

And marginal it was. Basically, they were terrible at determining whether people in old yearbook photos were dead or alive. Terrible. No better than guessing. 2




Given the number of statistical tests, we should only consider values with *** (p<.001), of which there were two (out of 35 possible comparisons). Therefore, the evidence for mortality prediction (clairvoyance) should not be taken seriously, despite the authors' conclusion:
We do not rule out the hypothesis that subjects might have had access to information in ways that are not currently understood by modern physics and could potentially go beyond classical information delivered by facial features.

Paranormal physics do not apply to old photographs, however.

And the EEG data were equally unconvincing. The face-specific N170 component did not differ based on dead or alive, correct or incorrect. The earlier P1 component showed a small difference between correct and incorrect responses for the deceased only, but there was no good explanation for this (“Future research could assess if low-level visual image characteristics and attentional modulation were important factors in leading to this difference in electrocortical activity”).

The truth is out there, but this study provides no proof that the ‪#‎Supernatural‬ actually exists.


Footnote

The “do not know” responses were not included in the analyses, and we have no idea of how many such responses were recorded.

2 Oh here's a fun fact. S06 indicated that 90% of the people in the photos were dead.


Reference

Delorme, A., Pierce, A., Michel, L., & Radin, D. (2016). Prediction of Mortality Based on Facial Characteristics. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10.  DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00173




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