While everyone else rings in the New Year by commemorating the best and brightest of 2012 in formulaic Top Ten lists, The Neurocritic decided to wallow in shame. To mark this Celebration of Failure I have compiled a Bottom Ten list, the year's least popular posts as measured by Google Analytics.
Methods: The number of pageviews per post was copied and pasted into an Excel file, sorted by month with each month placed into a different tabs. Then the total pageviews for each post was prorated by month, to give an estimate of monthly views.
Results: The posts are listed in inverse order, starting with #10 and ending with #1 (least popular).
Fig. 1 (Molnar-Szakacs & Overy, 2006). Model of the possible involvement of the human mirror neuron system in representing meaning and affective responses to music. ... The shared recruitment of this neural mechanism in both the sender and the perceiver of the musical message allows for co-representation and sharing of the musical experience. Music notes from ‘The Lady Sings the Blues’ by Billie Holiday and Herbie Nichols.
The previous post examined the relationship between music and empathy, including the emotional connection that can occur between musician and audience. My thoughts on the issue were originally inspired by a quote in the book Rat Girl, a memoir by musician Kristin Hersh:
...We'd play what the audience felt and feel it at the same time and they'd feel it reflected back to them in sound and we'd all care about each other's stories and clouds of feeling and ... good luck with that I think miserably through my stage fright, trudging past the knitters, hippies, junkies, drunks, painters and psychos.
Molnar-Szakacs and Overy (2006) suggested that these profound human experiences are mediated by activity in the supercharged mirror neuronsystem (Fig. 1).2 Although the box and arrow model is lacking in explanatory value, the hypothesis raised two questions: (1) Are musicians more empathetic? and (2) Do they engage the mirror neuron system to a greater extent than those without musical training?
Are Musicians More Empathetic?
Self-absorbed rock star stereotype aside, it would be difficult to determine causality if this were the case. Do more empathetic people choose to take up music (à la the tortured artist), or does musical training make one more empathetic?
The best way to address question #1 is to look at those undergoing musical training. One such study reported that a 9 month-long program of musical group interaction (MGI) increased emotional empathy in 8-11 year old children (Rabinowitch et al., 2012). The MGI program consisted of musical "games" that seemed [to me, at least] designed to increase empathy, rather than musical prowess: entrainment games to be as rhythmically coordinated as possible, imitation games to repeat the musical phrases or gestures of the previous participant, and other games that called on the constructs of shared intentionality and intersubjectivity.
with a passive control group that received no training, an active
control group engaged in a verbal storytelling and drama version of
group interaction that didn't involve music, singing, or gesture. It's
notable that 33% of all children did not play a musical instrument
(which included singing), so the study didn't really ask whether musical
training per se can make you more empathetic. Nonetheless, there was a p=.054
level interaction of time (pre- vs. post-training) and group (MGI vs.
both controls, who did not differ) on the self-report measure of empathy
[which might have resulted from a higher pre-training empathy in controls, along with less improvement].
However, the MGI and control groups improved to an equivalent extent on
an emotional face matching task, also designed to measure emotional
empathy. While it's probably beneficial for children to engage in these
group activities, we do not yet have a positive answer to question #1.
Do Musicians Show More Mirror Neuron Activity?
This question has a trivial element to it: of course a trained violinist will have a greater understanding of the movements and sounds involved in Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, so you'd expect differences in brain activity somewhere to reflect this.
There are at least two studies potentially relevant to question #2 (Chapin et al., 2010; Babiloni et al., 2012). In neither case, however, do we need to invoke the existence of the mirror neuron system.
In the first, BOLD signal changes in response to two different versions of the same musical piece (Chopin's Etude in E major) were compared in an fMRI study (Chapin et al., 2010). One version was an expressive piano performance with dynamic stimulus fluctuations, and the other was a synthesized "mechanical" version. In addition, the participants had varying levels of musical training: 7 were experienced (mean 9.2 yrs training) and 7 inexperienced (0.7 yrs training), with 7 more thrown out for various reasons. These are very small groups by modern fMRI standards.3
Participants rated their emotional arousal and emotional valence while listening to the pieces before and after scanning, but not during the fMRI experiment. The combined arousal and valence ratings were not consistently correlated across the two time points, so making inferences about what the participants were feeling during the experiment is dicey.
The fMRI results showed different activation patterns according to the main effects of performance type and musical experience (shown below). Mirror neuron-ish areas (inferior parietal lobule, inferior frontal gyrus but too anterior) showed greater activation for the expressive piece in both groups (A), but these regions didn't differ as a function of musical experience (B).
Fig. 4 (Chapin et al., 2010). fMRI ANOVA results. Brain activations (F-maps) showing a significant main effect of a)
performance type (F (1,24) > 7.19, corrected p < .02), SCG =
subcallosal gyrus, PHG = parahippocampal gyrus, vACC = ventral
anterior cingulate, FPC = frontopolor cortex, DMPFC = dorsal medial
prefrontal cortex; and b) main effect of musical experience, BG =
basal ganglia, vStri = ventral striatum.
But there was an interaction between performance type and musical training, with experienced participants showing greater activation for the expressive piece in the too-anterior-for-mirror neurons IFG and the inferior parietal lobe. Importantly, activation in the mirror neuron-ish areas related to tempo changes in the expressive piece did not differ according to musical training:
An unexpected finding of this study was that, for all participants, the tempo fluctuations of the expressive performance correlated with dynamic activation changes in brain regions that are consistent with the human mirror neuron system, including bilateral BA 44/45, superior temporal sulcus, ventral PMC, and inferior parietal cortex, along with other motor-related areas and with insula.
Thus, the ability to perform a piece of music did not make a difference in the mirror neuron system BOLD response, so we do not have a positive answer to question #2. 4
Do Emotionally Empathetic Musicians Show More Mirror Neuron Activity?
Finally, the study of Babiloni et al. (2012) actually asked a third question: do trained musicians with more emotional empathy show greater mirror neuron system activity while watching their own performance, compared to musicians with a lower emotional empathy score?
The participants were the members of three internationally renowned saxophone quartets (n=12) who played a classical music piece by Domenico Scarlatti while their EEG activity was recorded. They also watched a video of their own ensemble performance while EEG was recorded.
Fig. 1A (Babiloni et al., 2012): Overview of the four musicians playing in ensemble during simultaneous EEG recordings.
The participants completed Baron-Cohen's Empathy Quotient Test (EQT) to assess emotional empathy ("emotional contagion" - the ability to mirror an emotional response observed in another person and to experience it vicariously) and cognitive empathy (perspective-taking or theory of mind). Skipping over all the technical details to the bottom line, emotional empathy scores correlated with the degree of alpha wave desynchronization over a "mirror neuron" area in the right inferior frontal cortex during observation of their own performance:
Results showed that the higher the empathy quotient test score, the
higher the alpha desynchronization in right BA 44/45 during the
OBSERVATION referenced to RESTING condition. Empathy trait score and
alpha desynchronization were not correlated in other control areas or in
EXECUTION/CONTROL conditions. These results suggest that alpha rhythms
in BA 44/45 reflect “emotional” empathy in musicians observing own
Finally, we have a winner! The answer to question #3 is yes. Granting all the authors' assumptions and disregarding the relatively low n (for now), a higher emotional empathy score was associated with greater cortical activity in a mirror neuron area when a musician observed his own saxophone performance (as indexed by the percentage reduction, or desynchronization, of EEG alpha power).
Did this have anything to do with their proficiency in playing with a musical ensemble? Probably not, but it might have made their music more powerful. Many punk musicians, for instance, were not very proficient, but their music was very emotionally intense and resonated with listeners.
ADDENDUM (Dec 30, 2012): An important condition that was not included in this study is the observation of OTHER sax ensembles. Although watching one's own performance includes self and close colleagues, a true test of empathy would be to watch the performance of OTHERS. Watching a video of yourself involves a distinct memory of playing the piece, as well as emotions related to self-consciousness (e.g., pride, modesty, embarrassment at a minor slip, etc.).5
ADDENDUM #2 (Dec 31, 2012): An anonymous commenter said that the EEG paper is totally bogus due to major unavoidable artifacts and to the uncertainty of EEG source localization. I address these technical problems and limitations in a subsequent comment.
...people should be able to touch one another and feel each other's pain. Physically, like you should be able to touch someone's cheek and feel
their toothache; and emotionally, if you move someone, touch them
deeply, you have to take responsibility for that depth of feeling and
care about them.
Some have suggested that synesthesia for pain is mediated by (wait for it...) mirror neurons! But Hersh actually does have color-music synesthesia. E major is red, for instance. And this: "New song is done. It's burgundy and ochre with a sort of Day-Glo turquoise bridge—another tattoo on this pathetic little body." (ibid, p. 90).
2 The human mirror neuron system extends well beyond the traditional ventral premotor and inferior parietal areas of monkey neurophysiology fame.
3 The scanner is a very noisy environment, and in case you're wondering the authors used a sparse temporal sampling technique to increase the signal and to avoid interaction of the scanner noise with the music.
4 Five of the seven experienced participants were trained pianists. They were unfamiliar with this specific piece, but I'm assuming they have the ability to perform it themselves.
5 This was pointed out to me by Sandra Kiume of Channel N.
Babiloni, C., Buffo, P., Vecchio, F., Marzano, N., Del Percio, C., Spada, D., Rossi, S., Bruni, I., Rossini, P., & Perani, D. (2012). Brains “in concert”: Frontal oscillatory alpha rhythms and empathy in professional musicians NeuroImage, 60 (1), 105-116 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.12.008
Chapin, H., Jantzen, K., Scott Kelso, J., Steinberg, F., & Large, E. (2010). Dynamic Emotional and Neural Responses to Music Depend on Performance Expression and Listener Experience PLoS ONE, 5 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013812
I've been reading the book Rat Girl, a memoir by musician Kristin Hersh, who started the band Throwing Muses in 1980, at the age of 14 (along with Tanya Donelly, Leslie Langston, and David Narcizo). The book recounts an eventful year in her life (1985-86) when, among other things, she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her band is signed to record label 4AD.
Below she describes the intense empathic connection between the band and their music and their audience, which struck me as a profound (and idealistic) way to live:
Our band was started on these two bullshit principles -- well, they're more like bullshit wishes, but here they are: 1. That people should be able to touch one another and feel each other's pain. Physically, like you should be able to touch someone's cheek and feel their toothache; and emotionally, if you move someone, touch them deeply, you have to take responsibility for that depth of feeling and care about them. So it isn't just pain we should feel in each other -- happiness should seep out of pores, and clouds of jealousy and all the different kinds of love and disappointment should float around us. We could walk in and out of people's clouds and know what they're feeling. That'd be the kindest way to live on planet earth. 2. That maybe our essential selves are drunk -- not wasted, just kinda buzzed enough to let go. If we were always a little tipsy, we'd be light, nonjudgmental, truthful. Our hang-up'd be shaken off, there'd be no second-skin barriers to honesty. Oh, and also no hangovers. We figure if those two things are true, then it'd be OK for a band to sound like we do: sorta painful and a little out of control. We'd play what the audience felt and feel it at the same time and they'd feel it reflected back to them in sound and we'd all care about each other's stories and clouds of feeling and ... good luck with that I think miserably through my stage fright, trudging past the knitters, hippies, junkies, drunks, painters and psychos.
It's hard to maintain that level of emotional empathy without collapsing from the weight of pain and joy and exhaustion. One would need superpowers to hold up under such unguarded transparency and depth of feeling.
mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and
others. I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons". -- MIRROR NEURONS AND THE BRAIN IN THE VAT by V.S. Ramachandran
Even the most ardent reductionists might be at a loss when contemplating how to reduce profound human experiences to a map of hemodynamic or electrical changes in the brain. But don't despair! Of course we should all know by now that music's ability to transmit emotion and elicit empathy is mediated by mirror neurons (Molnar-Szakacs & Overy, 2006):
It has recently been proposed that music is best understood as a form of
in which acoustic patterns and their auditory
representations elicit a variety of conscious experiences (Bharucha et al., 2006).
Here we review some recent evidence on the neural basis of musical
processing in relation to two other modes of communication,
language and action, both of which have been described
as supported by the human mirror neuron system. We hypothesize that
the powerful affective responses that can be provoked
by apparently abstract musical sounds are supported by this human mirror
neuron system, which may subserve similar computations
during the processing of music, action and linguistic information.
So the magical mirror neuron system is responsible for understanding very diverse types of stimuli (music, action, and language) and for evoking concomitant emotional responses to them. Such accounts always extrapolate from single unit recordings of mirror neurons in ventral premotor area F5 and inferior parietal lobule of monkeys to fMRI results in humans. In monkeys, a mirror neuron increases its firing rate when the animal performs an action, and when the animal watches someone else perform the action (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010). As far as I know, no one has recorded mirror neuron activity directly from inferior prefrontal or parietal regions in humans.1
This is not to say that mirror neurons do not exist in humans, just that the scope of the human "mirror neuron system" has expanded beyond recognition into an unfalsifiable theory: 2
"Now wait a minute," said Professor Patricia Churchland[as paraphrased by Prof. Greg Hickok in Talking Brains]. "If mirror neurons are all over the brain then don't they lose their explanatory power? Aren't we now just back to our old friend, the How Does the Brain Work Problem?"
The ubiquitous idea that mirror neurons “cause” us to feel other
people’s emotions can be traced back to the original context in which
they were discovered – the motor cells in the monkey brain that
responded to the sight of another person performing an action. This led
to the suggestion that mirror neurons play a causal role in allowing us to understand the goals behind other people’s actions. By representing other people’s actions
in the movement-pathways of our own brain, so the reasoning goes, these
cells provide us with an instant simulation of their intentions – a
highly effective foundation for empathy.
biggest and most obvious problem for anyone advocating the idea that
mirror neurons play a central role in our ability to understand other
people’s actions, is that we are quite clearly capable of understanding
actions that we are unable to perform.3
But this general line of reasoning raises the following questions: (1) Are musicians more empathetic? and (2) Do they engage the mirror neuron system to a greater extent than those without musical training?
We'll examine these questions in a subsequent post...
I think the mirror neuron folks have a serious problem on their hands:
there is apparently no empirical result that can falsify the theory. If a
mirror neuron shows up in an unexpected place, it is a new part of the
mirror system. If a mirror neuron's activity dissociates from action
understanding, it was not coding understanding at that moment. If damage
to the motor system doesn't disrupt understanding, it is because that
part of the motor system isn't mirroring.
3Some have even claimed that mirror neurons can account for "certain listeners' misattribution of anger in the music of avant garde jazz saxophonists" (Gridley & Hoff, 2006). Is this because these listeners cannot play avant garde jazz saxophone?
Molnar-Szakacs, I., & Overy, K. (2006). Music and mirror neurons: from motion to 'e'motion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1 (3), 235-241. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsl029
Are you incredibly stressed out by last minute Christmas shopping? Can you feel your heart race and your blood pressure rise as your evil competitor swipes the last MONSTER HIGH® SWEET 1600™ CLAWDEEN WOLF® Doll out of your hands? Well try shopping with coupons!
That's right, Paul Zak and coupons.com have scientifically proven that coupons make you happier and more relaxed:
Researchers from Claremont Graduate University (CGU's) Center for Neuroeconomic Studies have discovered evidence to suggest that coupons can help make shoppers happy and relaxed.
Their new study, “Your Brain on Coupons: Neurophysiology of Couponing” is the first known scientific research performed in a laboratory setting measuring the physiological and psychological effects of coupons on the human body. The study, expected to be formally published in the coming months, is based on research conducted by Professor Paul Zak and his team, who are widely credited for popularizing neuroeconomics and studying the effects of hormone oxytocin.
And the study has found a solution for the challenge of creative gift giving: no more racking your brain for a personalized selection for your spouse. Coupons are even better than Christmas presents!!
Zak’s team looked at the neurologic effects of couponing to find out
what really happens when people receive a savings offer, such as a
coupon or coupon code. They found that oxytocin, a hormone that is
directly related to love and happiness, spikes when people receive a
coupon, and, in fact, increases more than when people receive a gift.
The data shows that coupons make consumers happier and more relaxed,
underscoring that the holidays don’t have to be as stressful as people
“The study proves that not only are people who get a coupon happier,
less stressed and experience less anxiety, but also that getting a
coupon—as hard as it is to believe—is physically shown to be more
enjoyable than getting a gift,” Zak said. “These results, combined with
the findings of other research, suggest that coupons can directly impact
happiness of people, promote positive health and increase the ability
to handle stressful situations, all of which is particularly valuable as
we head into the holiday season when stress levels tend to be at an
Be sure to quote this surprising finding when your father expresses disappointment upon opening his present and discovering coupons to save $1.50 on Hershey's Simple Pleasures, $3.00 on (1) AXE holiday pack, and 50¢ off Pampers. He's out of touch with his own body, which clearly exhibits greater joy with these beauties than if he had received that highly coveted Titleist 910D2 driver.
Oxytocin is the Love Hormone
And we all know that oxytocin is directly related to only love and happiness, right Ed Yong? 1
Coupons.com has conveniently provided a sneak preview of these exciting results, well in advance of their publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Isn't that what Open Science is all about?? 2
During the study, some participants received a $10 coupon while
grocery shopping online while others did not. The findings resoundingly
show that women3 who received coupons during the study had significantly
higher levels of oxytocin and dramatically reduced stress. Key findings
Higher Oxytocin Levels. Up 38 percent, this
marked response is higher than levels associated with kissing, cuddling
and other social interactions related to this hormone that is known to
be associated with happiness.
Decreased Stress. Coupons were associated with
reductions in several different measures of stress in the heart, skin,
and breathing in those who received a coupon over those who did not.
Respiration rates fell 32 percent compared to those who did not get a coupon.
Heart rates dropped 5 percent from 73 beats per minute to 70 beats per minute.
Sweat levels on the palms of the hands were 20 times lower for those who received a coupon.
Find Your Happy Place. Those who received coupons were 11 percent happier than those participants who did not get coupons.
This was measured by participants rating how happy they were
on a scale from 1 to 10 at the end of the experiment. This research,
coupled with existing data, shows that happiness is dependent on a
person’s physiological state and that social activities that relax us,
like coupons, make us happier.
Previously in The Neurocritic, I've written about how Professor Zak used to have a more circumspect view of oxytocin, calling out the Liquid Trust folks for their hyperbole (see Paul Zak, Oxytocin Skeptic?). Not any more...
What happened in the last few years? Was it the TEDification of
academic media success and book deals? Repeated use of the first person
singular when referring to work done by a multitude of people?
"...The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity details how I discovered a brain chemical, oxytocin, that makes us moral."
But really, with only a few more shopping days left before Christmas, who can resist the seductive allure of Your Brain... on Coupons? 4
BONUS! Special offer for readers of The Neurocritic! Use coupon code OXYTOCIN at checkout for 10% off everything in the AllTheFrills shop. Have a happy, relaxed day!
In 1930 the Manteno State Hospital received its first 100 patients and by the end of 1985, the hospital was closed and remaining patients were sent elsewhere. For over 50 years Manteno State Hospital was an institution that cared for the mentally and physically ill, the developmentally disabled and veterans of various wars. With a peak population of over 8,000 patients, Manteno State Hospital was a self contained city with little reliability on other municipal resources.
The Manteno Project maintains a detailed timeline of events, including the 1939 Typhoid Fever Epidemic (which killed up to 60 patients), the 1957 initiation of "Art-O-Rama", the severe bed shortage of 1960, charges of immorality in 1966 [despite those charges the hospital went coed the very next year], and finally the MSH Scandals [and revelations] of 1970's:
Experimental surgeries on patients without consent in 1950s
Chinese-speaking patient kept in custodial care at MSH because no one could speak his language
High percentage of deaths among patients and charges of sexual assaults
Nearly 50% of all admissions are "voluntary" alcoholic patients
“Gennie” was committed to MSH, by her parents in 1944 at the age of 25 when she had a “disagreement about where she would live“.
She had previously completed 3 years of college at the University of
Illinois, majoring in chemistry and suffered from episodes of
By 1950, “Gennie” was placed in a research ward at MSH where she was “experimented on”
involuntarily. This was not uncommon at MSH even though I find nothing
stating that it was ever officially proclaimed a “research hospital”.
(At Elgin State Hospital, they conducted “human radiation experiments“.)
According to the *Tribune article, in 1955 she was lobotomized:
“On February 18, 1955, the chart noted: “Has had extensive
neurosurgery with bilateral extirpation of most of frontal and temporal
lobes. . . . Now mute, totally dependent on commands for functioning of
everything from toilet urges on up. To be given an experimental course
of (electric convulsive therapy) to see if any affective change can be
For the rest of Ms. Pilarski’s life, she was schlepped about from
ward to ward and nursing home to nursing home. It was at one of these
nursing homes, at the age of 80, that she died, a ward of the state.
For the last 20 years of her life she was “incapable of any kind of human interaction” and spent her last days “buried under her bedclothes or roaming the halls of her nursing home, drooling and babbling“. . . .
* DRIVING HER CRAZY IT’S TOO LATE TO HELP GENNIE PILARSKI. BUT WE
CAN MAKE SURE THAT NO ONE NOW UNDER OUR CARE WILL SUFFER HER FATE, by
Patrick T. Murphy, Cook County public guardian.. Chicago
Tribune. Chicago, Ill.: Nov 15, 1998. pg. 1
A desire to tell the truth about Genevieve Pilarski, and to commemorate her life, led to the gennie messages, an art project by Kristyn Vinikour. The story was told in a dramatic fashion using a friend who posed as Gennie, with words painted on her naked body. Although not explicitly stated, it seems the artist had access to Gennie's medical records or to previously written accounts (perhaps that Chicago Tribune article?) that used the psychiatrist's notes as source material.
her admission, a physician noted that Gennie
was neat, clean, tidy. Extremely quiet, but
friendly and agreeable, cooperative in ward
and routine. Later, he charted "No active
signs of pathology."
This contrasted with progress notes from a later point in time, after 40 insulin coma treatments and 14 bouts of electroconvulsive therapy.
Are happy people responsible for fewer accidents? Should positive psychology be a mandatory module in high school Driver's Ed classes? Taken together, a new paper in the 2012 Christmas issue of BMJ and a recent TEDx talk tell a potentially interesting story about happiness, car crashes, and mind wandering. Let's see how this dangerous idea holds up to scrutiny.
Driving and Daydreaming
It seems rather obvious that distraction is not good for driving, regardless of whether the offending diversion is from external or internal sources. Daydreaming (now known as "mind wandering", its more formal and scientific-sounding name) is a very common state of mind while driving. We'll often travel 10 miles down the road without being aware of our surroundings at all. But does this make us more prone to accidents? Galera et al. (2012) asked this question in a study designed to determine who was responsible for a motor vehicle accident (a "responsibility case-control study"). In other words, was the driver in question responsible for the auto accident? And what were they doing at the time?
The authors interviewed 955 patients in the emergency room at Bordeaux University Hospital within 72 hours of a motor vehicle accident. They used a standardized instrument to determine if the patient was at fault (8-12 = responsible; 13-15 = contributory; >15 = not responsible). Notably, eyewitness reports were not considered. The interview protocol is described below (Galera et al., 2012):
During the interview, patients were asked to describe their thought
content just before the crash. ... Each thought was
classified in one of the following categories: thought unrelated to the
driving task or to the immediate sensory input, thought related to the
driving task, no thought or no memory of any thought. To capture the
intensity of the thought when the mind was wandering, the participant
filled in a Likert-type scale (0-10) for each thought, answering the
question: “How much did the thought disrupt/distract you?”
Scores were then categorized into three levels of mind wandering:
mind wandering with
highly disrupting/distracting content (unrelated to the driving task or
to the immediate sensory input)
mind wandering with little
disrupting/distracting content (unrelated to the driving task or to the
immediate sensory input)
none reported (no thought or no memory of any
thought or thoughts related to the driving task)
Also considered were possible confounding variables such as age, sex, season, time of day,
vehicle model, amount of sleep (less than 6 hrs was considered sleep deprived), and use of any psychotropic drug
in the previous week (sleeping pills, anti-seizure medications, and drugs for various psychiatric disorders). Blood alcohol level was obtained from the medical record. Sources of external distraction were assessed (e.g., use of a mobile phone, texting, grooming, eating, watching TV, etc.), as was mood or emotional valence at the time of the crash (pleasure-displeasure on a 9-point Likert scale).
The major finding was that mind wandering with highly distracting content was associated with a significantly higher likelihood of crash responsibility than if the driver reported no mind wandering. Also significantly related to responsibility were the expected factors of alcohol use and sleep deprivation, as well as the "emerging risk factors" of external distraction [which seemed expected to me], negative affect, and psychotropic medication use (see figure below - click for a larger view).
Fig. 1 (Galera et al., 2012). Odds ratios for responsibility for road traffic crashes, adjusted for age, sex, season, time of the day, and location.
Thus, internally distracting thoughts were clearly associated with a greater risk of causing an auto accident, with a higher odds ratio than for external distraction and even alcohol use. But what are we to make of the association with negative affect (a "displeased" mood)? Do happy drivers make better drivers??
Matt Killingsworth gave a talk at TEDxCambridge (MA) about mind wandering and happiness, based on results obtained from an experience sampling study in thousands of people. An iPhone app and a web-based reporting system (trackyourhappiness.org) were used to record the data, and the findings were published as a short report in Science (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).1
Participants were randomly cued by the app to answer questions about their current state of happiness (“How are you feeling right now?” rate from 0-100), their current activities (“What are you doing right now?” report one or more of 22 activities), and whether they were mind wandering (“Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” one of four options: no; yes, something pleasant; yes, something neutral; or yes, something unpleasant).
Results suggested that the participants were less happy when they were mind wandering, and this difference was significant for neutral topics and (not surprisingly) for unpleasant topics.2
Crucially, the authors postulated that mind wandering caused unhappiness, even though the data were correlational in nature.3 In fact, other studies have shown the opposite: that negative affect can lead to mind wandering (Smallwood et al., 2009, 2011). This would make sense, for example, in cases of depression (rumination) and anxiety (excessive worry).
Mindfulness Training for Happy, Safer Drivers?
Or should it be the Driver's Ed module on positive psychology? OK, I'm being a little ridiculous here, although this might make a good topic for an Onion talk. Correlation does not equal causation, and we don't know whether the emotional valence of "displeasure" in the Galera et al., 2012 driving study was anger or unhappiness (or disappointment, embarrassment, fear, etc. for that matter). What we do know is that self-reported internal distraction, rated retrospectively after an accident, was higher when the driver was responsible for the accident than when they were not at fault. Now all we need is a trackyourhappiness study for drivers to get accurate, moment-by-moment experience sampling. Oh, wait...
1 Although this was not mentioned in the talk... Perhaps it had something to do with the large discrepancies between some of the variables that were stated in the talk vs. published in the journal article (e.g., the frequency of sampling was "over the course of a day, minute to minute in some cases" in TEDx vs. a minimum of once a day and default of 3 times a day in Science, Supporting Online Material):
Next, participants were asked to indicate the times at which they typically woke up and went to sleep, and how many times during the day they wished to receive a sample request (default = 3, minimum = 1).
2 Participants were mind wandering 46.9% of the time: pleasant topics in 42.5% of samples, unpleasant topics in 26.5% of samples, and neutral topics in 31% of samples.
3 In the Science paper, they explained it thusly: "time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence,
Galera, C., Orriols, L., M'Bailara, K., Laborey, M., Contrand, B., Ribereau-Gayon, R., Masson, F., Bakiri, S., Gabaude, C., Fort, A., Maury, B., Lemercier, C., Cours, M., Bouvard, M., & Lagarde, E. (2012). Mind wandering and driving: responsibility case-control study. BMJ, 345 (dec13 8) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.e8105
Killingsworth, M., Gilbert, D. (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330 (6006), 932-932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439
We all know that the mere presence of a brain scan image or a neuro-prefix adds instant credibility to any news story, right? And that the public (i.e., undergraduates) is easily swayed into believing in bogus psychological findings if accompanied by pretty colorful brains? Well countme in! But wait...
Neuroscience Fiction Fiction?
The day after the high-profile Neuroscience Fiction article by Dr. Gary Marcus appeared in The New Yorker, a stealthy blog post in Brain Myths summarized an unpublished paper (Farah & Hook, in press, PDF) that refutes this notion.1
Are Brain Scans Really So Persuasive? New evidence suggests the allure of brain scans is a myth Published on December 3, 2012 by Christian Jarrett, Ph.D A pair of psychologists at The University of Pennsylvania have
highlighted a delicious irony. Sceptical neuroscientists and journalists
frequently warn about the seductive allure of brainscan images. Yet the idea that these images are so alluring and persuasive may in fact be a myth. Martha Farah and Cayce Hook refer to this as the “seductive allure of ‘seductive allure’” (PDF via author website).
Most of their evidence against the "seductive allure" is from unpublished data described in their in press article (which we can't evaluate yet):
Two series of as yet unpublished experiments have failed to find evidence for the seductive allure of brain images. Michael, Newman, Vuorre, Cumming, and Garry (2012, under review) reported a series of replication attempts using McCabe & Castel’s Experiment 3 materials. Across nearly 2000 subjects, a meta‐analysis of these studies and McCabe & Castel’s original data produced a miniscule estimated effect size whose plausible range includes a value of zero. Our own work (Hook & Farah, in preparation) has also failed to find evidence that brain images enhance readers’ evaluation of research in three experiments comprising a total of 988 subjects.
However, one published paper did fail to find an effect of fMRI images on how participants judged the scientific reasoning and credibility of a fake news story titled, “Scientists Can Reconstruct Our Dreams” (Gruber & Dickerson, 2012).2 The study was designed to replicate the previous study of McCabe and Castell (2008) with some notable exceptions. Rather than using a bar graph or an ugly and cluttered EEG topographic map as the comparison images in separate groups, Gruber and Dickerson used:
...a fantastical, artistic image of a human head and a cyberspace-esque background with swirly lines. The final group was given an image from the popular science fiction film Minority Report in which three children’s dreams of the future are projected on a screen and used to prevent crime.
Very io9... But both studies did have a no-image condition.
The Gruber and Dickerson study also added additional questions to explicitly assess credibility and authoritativeness, in addition to whether the scientific reasoning made sense. Results showed that in all cases, ratings did not differ statistically across the conditions, including the fMRI vs. no-image comparison.
Hmm... Farah and Hook also debunked the study of Weisberg et al., (2008), which didn't use images at all but added neuroscience-y explanations to 18 actual psychological phenomenon. The problem was that the neuroscience-y paragraphs were longer than the no-neuroscience paragraphs. The author of the excellent but now-defunct Brain In A Vat blog had a similar objection, as explained in I Was a Subject in Deena Weisberg's Study:
So how does it feel being held up to the scientific community as an
exemplar idiot? Well, it’s a bit embarrassing. One of my coping
mechanisms has been to criticize the experimental design. For instance,
I think its problematic that the with neuroscience explanations were
longer than the without neuroscience explantions. If subjects merely
skimmed some of the questions (not that I would ever do such a thing),
they might be more likely to endorse lengthier explanations.
Perhaps the authors should have used three conditions
- psychology, "double psychology" (with additional psychological
explanations or technical terminology), and neuroscience (with
additional neuroscience). As it stands, the authors have strictly shown
is that longer, more jargon-filled explanations are rated as better -
which is an interesting finding, but is not necessarily specific to
He noted that the authors acknowledged this objection, but also that the conclusions we can draw from the study are fairly modest.
What does this mean for Neuro Doubt and Neuroscience Fiction and Neurobollocks? The takedowns of overreaching interpretations, misleading press releases, and boutique neuro-fields are still valid, of course, but the critics themselves shouldn't succumb to the seductive allure of seductive allure. But we must also remember that the most thorough critiques of seductive allure still await peer review.3
UPDATE 12/13/12: I had e-mailed to Dr. Deena Weisberg to get her response to the Farah and Hook paper. Here is her reply (quoted with permission):
I have indeed seen the paper that you sent and I think it's a very interesting piece of work. Like many other researchers, I was under the impression that images play some role in making neuroscience appealing, but I would be perfectly happy to be proven wrong about that. I think the case that Hook & Farah make is compelling, although we should reserve final judgment about what exactly is going on until we have more data in hand. I have a few minor points to add: First, I stand by the results from my 2008 study, which showed that neuroscience jargon can be inappropriately persuasive in the absence of images. I can't (yet!) claim to know exactly why this is the case, but something about neuroscience information does seem to be unusually alluring. That said, I completely agree with the argument that you and others have made about the with-neuroscience items being longer than the without-neuroscience items, although I would be surprised if length can account for the entirety of the effect. Obviously, more work needs to be done here, and again, I would be happy to be proven wrong. Second, it's possible that neuroscience images do have some effect on people's judgments, but perhaps the studies that have been done so far just haven't found the right dependent measure. Maybe images don't affect how credible someone thinks a finding is, but do affect how much they want to read a news article that contains that finding or provide funding for the research program, for example. Third, all of this suggests that it might be even more interesting to study the sociology of this phenomenon --- why do so many people think that neuroscience images are persuasive when they aren't? Happy to be in touch if you have any further questions, and keep up the good work on the blog!
I'd also like to quote this comment from @JasonZevin, which is relevant for the issue of not quite having the correct dependent measure yet: "...IMO the effect seems both real, and hard to produce in the lab."
3 I wrote to two of the authors of the original studies (Weisberg and Castel) to get their reactions, but haven't heard back. Very, very tragically, we cannot hear from Dr. McCabe (tribute in APS Observer, PDF). In retrospect, my latter inquiry may have been gauche, so I apologize for that.
Farah MJ, Hook CJ (in press). The seductive allure of "seductive allure". Perspectives in Psychological Science. PDF
Gruber, D. & Dickerson, J. (2012). Persuasive images in popular science: Testing judgments of scientific reasoning and credibility. Public Understanding of Science, 21 (8), 938-948 DOI: 10.1177/0963662512454072
Scientists have learned how to discover what you are dreaming about while you sleep.
A team of researchers led by Yukiyasu Kamitani of the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, used functional neuroimaging to scan the brains of three people as they slept, simultaneously recording their brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG).
NOTE: The image from Minority Report was not used in the actual Nature News article...
Will it strengthen the field of neuroscience? Or is it hurting its image in the eyes of the public? Or both?
Another article on the limits of neuroscience has appeared in a high-profile media outlet aimed at a general audience. In The New Yorker, NYU Psychology Professor Gary Marcus writes about What Neuroscience Really Teaches Us, and What It Doesn't. As usual, the focus is on the seductive allure of colorized brain images:
...Brain imaging, which was scarcely on the public’s radar in 1990, became
the most prestigious way of understanding human mental life. The prefix
“neuro” showed up everywhere: neurolaw, neuroeconomics, neuropolitics.
Neuroethicists wondered about whether you could alter someone’s prison
sentence based on the size of their neocortex.
And then, boom! After two decades of almost complete dominance, a few bright souls
started speaking up, asking: Are all these brain studies really telling
us much as we think they are? A terrific but unheralded book published last year, “Neuromania,” worried about our growing obsession with brain imaging. A second book, by Raymond Tallis, published this year, invoked the same term and made similar arguments. In the book “Out of our Heads,”
the philosopher Alva Noë wrote, ”It is easy to overlook the fact that
images… made by fMRI and PET are not actually pictures of the brain in
action.” Instead, brain images are elaborate reconstructions that depend
on complex mathematical assumptions that can, as one study earlier this
year showed, sometimes yield slightly different results when analyzed on different types of computers.
Last week, worries like these, and those of thoughtful blogs like Neuroskeptic and The Neurocritic, finally hit the mainstream, in the form of a blunt New York Times op-ed,
in which the journalist Alissa Quart declared, “I applaud the backlash
against what is sometimes called brain porn, which raises important
questions about this reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness
to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly
I wrote about Quart's op-ed piece in Meet The Neuro Doubters, where I tried to strike a balance between justified criticism of flawed studies and bad press releases versus trendy overhyped trashing of 'neurobollocks' and neuroscience research in general.Professor Marcus tries to maintain this distinction as well:
Quart and the growing chorus of neuro-critics are half right: our
early-twenty-first-century world truly is filled with brain porn, with
sloppy reductionist thinking and an unseemly lust for neuroscientific
explanations. But the right solution is not to abandon neuroscience
altogether, it’s to better understand what neuroscience can and cannot
tell us, and why.
The first and foremost reason why we shouldn’t simply disown
neuroscience altogether is an obvious one: if we want to understand our
minds, from which all of human nature springs, we must come to grips
with the brain’s biology. The second is that neuroscience has already told us lot, just not the sort of things we may think it has.
Judging from reaction on social media, the position of abandoning neuroscience can be seen as a straw man, but Raymond Tallis takes his neurotrash rather seriously; so do many liberal intellectual media outlets. The danger of professional neurocriticism is that it will be used by the anti-science crowd to discredit a reductionist enterprise.
...I am not a complete neuroimaging nihilist. For examples of this view, see Coltheart, 2006 and especially van Orden and Paap, 1997 (as quoted by Coltheart):
What has functional neuroimaging told us about the mind so far? Nothing, and
it never will: the nature of cognition is such that this technique in
principle cannot provide evidence about the nature of cognition.
So no, I am not a Jerry Fodor Functionalist.
I do believe that learning about human brain function is essential to learing about "the mind," that the latter can be reduced to the former, that fMRI can have something useful to say, and (more broadly, in case any anti-psychiatry types are listening) that psychiatric disorders are indeed caused by faulty brain function. But there's still a lot about
fMRI as a technique that we don't really know. The best-practice statistical procedures for analyzing functional images is obviously a contentious issue; there is no consensus at this point. Our knowledge of what the BOLD signal is measuring, exactly, is not very clear either [see the recent announcement in J. Neurosci. that "BOLD Signals Do Not Always Reflect Neural Activity."] The critics among us are not trying to trash the entire field of social neuroscience (or neuroimaging in general). Some of us are taking concrete steps to open a dialogue and improve its methodology, while others are trying to rein
in runaway interpretations.
And really, cognitive neuroscience is not the only guilty party here. All sorts of scientific findings are overhyped by the media, university press releases, even scientists themselves. Why do scientists do this? Because it's very difficult to get funding these days, and positioning one's basic research in mice as leading to an imminent cure for schizophrenia or autism is de rigueur. Then when it doesn't happen the public becomes disillusioned with science and politicians lobby for cuts in research funding.
I'll leave you with this cordial Twitter debate that concisely summarizes the problem.
Born in West Virginia in 1980, The Neurocritic embarked upon a roadtrip across America at the age of thirteen with his mother. She abandoned him when they reached San Francisco and The Neurocritic descended into a spiral of drug abuse and prostitution. At fifteen, The Neurocritic's psychiatrist encouraged him to start writing as a form of therapy.