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