Tag Archives: neuroscience

What’s Wrong With ‘Neurobabble’?

We know that irrelevant neuroscience jargon increases the persuasiveness of arguments, but why is the current trend of finding a neural explanation for much of human behaviour a dangerous thing?

In his warning against reductionism and trusting in neural explanations for largely psychological phenomena, Tyler Burge, Professor of Philosophy at UCLA, describes the three things wrong with “neurobabble” (emphasis mine):

First, it provides little insight into psychological phenomena.  Often the discoveries amount to finding stronger activation in some area of the brain when a psychological phenomenon occurs.  As if it is news that the brain is not dormant during psychological activity! […] Experiments have shown that neurobabble produces the illusion of understanding.  But little of it is sufficiently detailed to aid, much less provide, psychological explanation.

Second, brains-in-love talk conflates levels of explanation.  Neurobabble piques interest in science, but obscures how science works.  Individuals see, know, and want to make love.  Brains don’t.  Those things are psychological — not, in any evident way, neural.  Brain activity is necessary for psychological phenomena, but its relation to them is complex. […]

The third thing wrong with neurobabble is that it has pernicious feedback effects on science itself.  Too much immature science has received massive funding, on the assumption that it illuminates psychology.  The idea that the neural can replace the psychological is the same idea that led to thinking that all psychological ills can be cured with drugs.

via @mocost

Timed Exposure Can Be As Good As Practice

We know that deliberate practice is an important part of learning (and mastering) new skills–but what role, if any, does mere passive exposure play? Can relevant background stimulation help us to reduce the amount of effort and practice necessary to master a skill?

To answer these questions Jonah Lehrer contacted the authors of a recent paper studying exactly this and found that passive exposure can be as effective as practice, drastically cutting the effort required to learn.

These experiments […] demonstrated that listening to relevant background stimulation could be just as effective as slaving away at the task itself, at least when the subjects had practiced first. In fact, the scientists found that we don’t even have to be paying conscious attention to the stimuli – subjects still benefited from the stimulation even when distracted by an entirely unrelated task. […]

Yes you do have to do the task, just not for the whole time. The main result is that if you practice for 20 minutes, and then you are passively exposed to stimuli for 20 minutes, you learn as if you have been practicing for 40 minutes. You can cut the effort in half, and still yield the same benefit. […]

On a practical level, the present results suggest a means by which perceptual training regimens might be made markedly more efficient and less effortful. The current data indicate that it may be possible to reduce the effort required by participants by at least half, with no deleterious effect, simply by combining periods of task performance with periods of additional stimulus exposure.

Along with the obvious caveats (the study looked only at auditory discrimination tasks), the published article offers some practical clarifications:

Learning was enhanced regardless of whether the periods of additional stimulation were interleaved with or provided exclusively before or after target-task performance, and even though that stimulation occurred during the performance of an irrelevant (auditory or written) task. The additional exposures were only beneficial when they shared the same frequency with, though they did not need to be identical to, those used during target-task performance. Their effectiveness also was diminished when they were presented 15 min after practice on the target task and was eliminated when that separation was increased to 4 h.

The Science Behind Good Presentations

We know that cluttered presentations and those with paragraphs of text per slide aren’t good and that the 10/20/30 rule is a guideline generally worth adhering to, but why? Could there be a scientific basis for why some presentations are better than others?

Chris Atherton, an applied cognitive psychologist at the UK’s University of Central Lancashire, studied the influence of different presentation styles on learning and retention by conducting the following experiment:

Students were randomly assigned to two groups. One group attended a presentation with traditional bullet-point slides (with the occasional diagram) and the second group attended a presentation with what Chris calls “sparse slides”, which contained the same diagrams, but minimized the amount of text, and broke up the information over several different slides. Both presentations were accompanied by the same spoken narrative.

When both groups were later tested on the presentation’s themes, it was the group shown the sparse slides that performed “much better”. Atherton suggests that well-designed presentations are superior teaching tools and improve recall and learning for a number of reasons:

  • The limitations of working memory: even the students who did well in recalling themes, remembered only 6-7 themes out of a possible 30.
  • The visual and auditory cortexes are not being used as effectively as they could: the cluttered slides overload the auditory cortex as it is used for written and spoken language processing.
  • Extraneous cognitive load is minimised: the sparse slides may minimise extraneous cognitive load by creating fewer competing demands on attention
  • Better encoding of information (into memory): having to work a little bit harder to integrate the speaker’s narrative with the pictures might actually improve our storage of the information (up to a point).

via @finiteattention

Irrelevant Neuroscience Jargon Increases Persuasiveness

The addition of “irrelevant talk about neuroscience” makes a previously bad psychological explanation much more persuasive and acceptable.

Luckily experts are not fooled by this addition of spurious neuroscience, but as an in-depth look at the study shows, almost all non-experts (including neuroscience students) are fooled and persuaded by the addition of logically irrelevant neuroscience jargon to an argument:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without.

I first heard of this four-year-old study in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science; a book I mention often, and for good reason.

via @finiteattention

The Neuroscience of Comedy

There is one essential condition required in comedy: “some kind of incongruity between two elements […], resolved in a playful or unexpected way”.

That’s according to a fairly comprehensive article summarising the neuroscience research conducted to discover more about the phenomenon of why we find things funny (or not).

Of particular interest was how we react differently to certain types of jokes depending on our sex and on our personality type:

  • Women use more language-based decoding than men–this takes longer.
  • Extroverts receive greater neural rewards from comedy than neurotics.
  • ‘Experience seekers’ react to specific types of comedy more than others: they prefer ‘nonsense’ jokes to resolvable jokes (the latter is technically called “incongruity-resolution humour”).

The crux: a joke’s content seems to be secondary to how it is solved (neurologically speaking) if you’re targeting a certain audience:

Although you might expect the subject matter – music or politics, for example – to determine joke preference, [researcher Andrea Samson] found that it is the way a joke is solved that is most important. “The logic by which the incongruity is resolved matters most, in terms of what kind of person a joke appeals to,” she says.

via Arts and Letter Daily