Neuroconscience

The latest thoughts, musings, and data in cognitive science and neuroscience.

Category: Talks

PubPeer – A universal comment and review layer for scholarly papers?

Lately I’ve had a plethora of discussions with colleagues concerning the possible benefits of a reddit-like “democratic review layer”, which would index all scholarly papers and let authenticated users post reviews subject to karma. We’ve navel-gazed about various implementations ranging from a full out reddit clone, a wiki, or even a full blown torrent tracker with rated comments and mass piracy. So you can imagine I was pleasantly surprised to see someone actually went ahead and put together a simple app to do exactly that.

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Pubpeer states that it’s mission is to “create an online community that uses the publication of scientific results as an opening for fruitful discussion.” Users create accounts using an academic email address and must have at least one first-author publication to join. Once registered any user can leave anonymous comments on any article, which are themselves subject to up/down votes and replies.

My first action was of course to search for my own name:

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Hmm, no comments. Let’s fix that:

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Hah! Peer review is easy! Just kidding, I deleted this comment after testing to see if it was possible. Ostensibly this is so authors can reply to comments, but it does raise some concerns that one can just leave whatever ratings you like on your own papers. In theory with enough users, good comments will be quickly distinguished from bad, regardless of who makes them.  In theory… 

This is what an article looks like in PubPeer with a few comments:

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Pretty simple- any paper can be found in the database and users then leave comments associated with those papers. On the one hand I really like the simplicity and usability of PubPeer. I think any endeavor along these lines must very much follow the twitter design mentality of doing one (and only one) thing really well. I also like the use of threaded comments and upvote/downvotes but I would like to see child comments being subject to votes. I’m not sure if I favor the anonymous approach the developers went for- but I can see costs and benefits to both public and anonymous comments, so I don’t have any real suggestions there.

What I found really interesting was just to see this idea in practice. While I’ve discussed it endlessly, a few previously unforeseen worries leaped out right away. After browsing a few articles it seems (somewhat unsurprisingly) that most of the comments are pretty negative and nit-picky. Considering that most early adopters of such a system are likely to be graduate students, this isn’t too surprising. For one thing there is no such entity as a perfect paper, and graduate students are often fans of these kind of boilerplate nit-picks that form the ticks and fleas of any paper. If comments add mostly doubt and negativity to papers, it seems like the whole commenting process would become a lot of extra work for little author pay-off, since no matter what your article is going to end up looking bad.

In a traditional review, a paper’s flaws and merits are assessed privately and then the final (if accepted) paper is generally put forth as a polished piece of research that stands on it’s on merits. If a system like PubPeer were popular, becoming highly commented would almost certainly mean having tons of nitpicky and highly negative comments associated to that manuscript. This could manipulate reader perceptions- highly commented PubPeer articles would receive fewer citations regardless of their actual quality.

So that bit seems very counter-productive to me and I am not sure of the solution. It might be something similar to establishing light top-down comment moderation and a sort of “reddiquette” or user code of conduct that emphasizes fair and balanced comments (no sniping). Or, perhaps my “worry” isn’t actually troubling at all. Maybe such a system would be substantially self-policing and refreshing, shifting us from an obsession with ‘perfect papers’ to an understanding that no paper (or review) should be judged on anything but it’s own merits. Given the popularity of pun threads on reddit, i’m not convinced the wholly democratic solution will work. Whatever the result, as with most solutions to scholarly publishing, it seems clear that if PubPeer is to add substantial value to peer review then a critical mass of active users is the crucial missing ingredient.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Quick post – Dan Dennett’s Brain talk on Free Will vs Moral Responsibility

As a few people have asked me to give some impression of Dan’s talk at the FIL Brain meeting today, i’m just going to jot my quickest impressions before I run off to the pub to celebrate finishing my dissertation today. Please excuse any typos as what follows is unedited! Dan gave a talk very similar to his previous one several months ago at the UCL philosophy department. As always Dan gave a lively talk with lots of funny moments and appeals to common sense. Here the focus was more on the media activities of neuroscientists, with some particularly funny finger wagging at Patrick Haggard and Chris Frith. Some good bits where his discussion of evidence that priming subjects against free will seems to make them more likely to commit immoral acts (cheating, stealing) and a very firm statement that neuroscience is being irresponsible complete with bombastic anti-free will quotes by the usual suspects. Although I am a bit rusty on the mechanics of the free will debate, Dennett essentially argued for a compatiblist  view of free will and determinism. The argument goes something like this: the basic idea that free will is incompatible with determinism comes from a mythology that says in order to have free will, an agent must be wholly unpredictable. Dennett argues that this is absurd, we only need to be somewhat unpredictable. Rather than being perfectly random free agents, Dennett argues that what really matters is moral responsibility pragmatically construed.  Dennett lists a “spec sheet” for constructing a morally responsible agent including “could have done otherwise, is somewhat unpredictable, acts for reasons, is subject to punishment…”. In essence Dan seems to be claiming that neuroscientists don’t really care about “free will”, rather we care about the pragmatic limits within which we feel comfortable entering into legal agreements with an agent. Thus the job of the neuroscientists is not to try to reconcile the folk and scientific views of “free will”, which isn’t interesting (on Dennett’s acocunt) anyway, but rather to describe the conditions under which an agent can be considered morally responsible. The take home message seemed to be that moral responsibility is essentially a political rather than metaphysical construct. I’m afraid I can’t go into terrible detail about the supporting arguments- to be honest Dan’s talk was extremely short on argumentation. The version he gave to the philosophy department was much heavier on technical argumentation, particularly centered around proving that compatibilism doesn’t contradict with “it could have been otherwise”. In all the talk was very pragmatic, and I do agree with the conclusions to some degree- that we ought to be more concerned with the conditions and function of “will” and not argue so much about the meta-physics of “free”. Still my inner philosopher felt that Dan is embracing some kind of basic logical contradiction and hand-waving it away with funny intuition pumps, which for me are typically unsatisfying.

For reference, here is the abstract of the talk:

Nothing—yet—in neuroscience shows we don’t have free will

Contrary to the recent chorus of neuroscientists and psychologists declaring that free will is an illusion, I’ll be arguing (not for the first time, but with some new arguments and considerations) that this familiar claim is so far from having been demonstrated by neuroscience that those who advance it are professionally negligent, especially given the substantial social consequences of their being believed by lay people. None of the Libet-inspired work has the drastic implications typically adduced, and in fact the Soon et al (2008) work, and its descendants, can be seen to demonstrate an evolved adaptation to enhance our free will, not threaten it. Neuroscientists are not asking the right questions about free will—or what we might better call moral competence—and once they start asking and answering the right questions we may discover that the standard presumption that all “normal” adults are roughly equal in moral competence and hence in accountability is in for some serious erosion. It is this discoverable difference between superficially similar human beings that may oblige us to make major revisions in our laws and customs. Do we human beings have free will? Some of us do, but we must be careful about imposing the obligations of our good fortune on our fellow citizens wholesale.

Uta Frith – The Curious Brain in the Museum

It’s not everyday that collaborations between the humanities and sciences lead to tangible fruits- but I’m excited to share with you one case in which they did, with surprisingly cute results! Leading development psychologist and Interacting Minds Research Foundation Professor, Uta Frith recently gave the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2010 Henry Cole lecture. Below you will find the power-point slides from this talk, in which she discussed the relationship between her recent work on social learning and the experience of a museum. Interestingly, a film maker was inspired to put together the following short film, “The Curious Brain in the Museum.” It’s a very well done film and a fascinating look at the museum through Uta’s eyes.

Here are the slides from the talk:

And the resulting video:

In this short film, specially commissioned as part of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary celebrations in 2010, Professor Uta Frith FRS and her young companion, Amalie Heath-Born, find out just what goes on inside our brains when we view the treasures on display at London’s world-famous Victoria and Albert Museum.

“The human mind/brain is exquisitely social and automatically responds to signals sent by other people. These signals can be artfully designed objects, and these can come from people long in the past. The art and design that is embodied in the object can evoke in the brain different streams of imagination: how it was made, the value it represents, and the meaning it conveys. The human mind/brain has ancient reward systems, which respond to, say, stimuli signaling food to the hungry, but also respond to social stimuli signaling relevance to the curious. This makes for a never ending well spring of spontaneous teaching and learning. Education in the museum environment is perfectly attuned to the curious mind.”  Uta Frith (2010)

You can read more about the event and the film on the Royal Society page.

Slides from my recent Interacting Minds talk

Slides for my Zombies or Cyborgs Talk



Zombies or Cyborgs?

On March 9th, I will be giving a talk in collaboration with my colleague Yishay Mor at the London Knowledge Lab. See below for links and the abstract of my upcoming talk

Upcoming talk @ the London Knowledge Lab

“[Social networking sites] are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity”.
-The Baroness Greenfield

“Just as I might use pen and paper to freeze my own half-baked thoughts, turning them into stable objects for further thought and reflection, so we (as a society) learned to use the written word to power a process of collective thinking and critical reason. The tools of text thus allow us at multiple scales, to create new stable objects for critical activity with speech, text, and the tradition of using them as critical tools under our belts, humankind entered the first phase of its cyborg existence”
– Andy Clark on the 1st Technocognitive Revolution, Natural Born Cyborgs

While some present the dawn of the social web as a doomsday, we believe that social media technologies represent a secondary revolution to that described above by cyborg cognition theorist Andy Clark. Trapped within this debate lies the brain; recent advances in the neurosciences have thrown open our concept of the brain, revealing a neural substrate that is highly flexible and plastic (Green and Bavelier 2008). This phenomenal level of plasticity likely underpins much of what separates us from the animal kingdom, through a profound enhancement of our ability to use new technologies and their cultural co-products (Clark and Chalmers 1998; Schoenemann, et al. 2005; Shaw, et al. 2006). Yet many fear that this plasticity represents a precise threat to our cognitive stability in light of the technological invasion of Twitter-like websites. By investigating how the brain changes as we undergo profound self alteration via digital meditation, we can begin to unravel the biological mysteries of plasticity that underpin a vast array of issues in the humanities and social sciences.

We propose to investigate functional and structural brain differences between high and low intensity users. Due to the what we view as a primarily folk psychological or narratological nature of SNS usage, we will utilize classical Theory-of-Mind tasks within the functional MRI environment, coupled with exploratory structural and functional connectivity analyses. To characterize differences in social networking behavior, we will utilize cluster-analysis and self-reported usage intensity scales. These will allow us to construct an fMRI task in which the mentalistic capacities for both real world and Facebook-specific friends are compared and contrasted, illuminating the precise impact of digitally mediated interaction on existing theory of mind capacities. We hypothesize that SNS usage intensity will positively correlate with functional brain activity increases in areas associated with theory of mind (MPFC & TPJ). We further suspect that that these measures will co-correlate with structural white matter increases within these regions, and collectively, with default mode network activity within high intensity users. Such findings would indicate that digitally mediated social networking represents a novel form of targeted social-cognitive self stimulation.

Micah Allen (neuroconscience) is a PhD student at √Örhus University, where he is working in collaboration with Interacting Minds and the Danish Center For Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN). His PhD focus is within Cognitive Neuroscience, specifically on the topic of Cognitive Neuroplasticity or the study of how biological and cognitive adaptation relate to one another. His research examines high-level brain plasticity in response to spiritual, cultural and technological practices, organized under the concept of ‘neurological self stimulation’. This research includes longitudinal investigations of meditation, structural connectivity, and default mode brain activity. Micah’s research is informed by and integrated within philosophies of embodiment, social cognition, enactivism, and cyborg phenomenology.

The Interacting Minds (im.net) project at Aarhus University examines the links between the human capacity for minds to interact and the putative biological substrate, which enables this to happen. It is housed at the Danish National Research Foundation’s Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN), a cross disciplinary brain research centre at Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital. CFIN does both basic research – e.g. on brain metabolism, neuroconnectivity and cognitive neuroscience and applied medical research of different neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, dementia, stroke and depression.


Cognitive Science in Pozna≈Ñ, Poland

I recently had the pleasure of being invited as a guest speaker for the annual Poznan Cognition Forum, a Polish graduate conference in the cognitive sciences. Before I summarize the academic aspects of my trip, I think it’s worth sharing my experience exploring Poznan. As this post is a bit long I will split into two parts, the first relating my general experiences in Poland and the second summarizing my talk.

Part 1: Exploring Poznań

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Before arriving in Poland, I did my best to educate myself with a brief trip to wikipedia. Although I knew that the country had once held an impressive empire, and suffered greatly in the two World Wars, I was shocked to learn that they had been under Russian Communism prior to 1980. I guess it says something about American education that I didn’t know this, and I was glad to enter the country slightly less ignorant than before. Overall, my trip was a lovely mixture of business and pleasure; my hosts were extremely gracious (more on them in a bit) and as the other talks were all in Polish, they were kind enough to show me around the city on my free time. Poznan is beautiful, a city rich in stunning architecture and cobble-stone city squares that left me breathless and curious to see more.

While it may have just been the abundant fog and my crash-course wikipedia history lesson, the best way I can sum my experience of Poznan is that she presents the viewer with an intriguing mixture of imperial and old wold grandeur, laced with a quaint yet quietly stern specter of the former Soviet presence. Something about the ghostly imperial streets and plain stone architecture gives one that feeling that Poland is not wholly a western nation. Probing deeper, I found Renaissance era castles and multicolored homes, interlaced with stunning baroque churches glittering with intricate gold adornments. It was first taste of a culture that struck me as both curiously and charmingly alien.

While I love Denmark, Danish architecture can be a bit minimal and homogenous, so it was refreshing to be in a country with a diverse mix of architectural styles and historical backgrounds. Completing the trip was my wonderful hosts, the organizers and attendees of the 5th annual Poznan Cognition Forum.

As astonishing as the mix of old world and modern imperialist cultures I found in Poznan, the group of dedicated young cognitive scientists seemed more impressive still. Here was a small group of perhaps 10 to 15 extremely dedicated, bright, and ambitious researchers who had taken up the charge of establishing one of Poland’s first and only cognitive science research centers. As they related IMG_2439their frustrations I could not help but think of my own early experiences trying to break into cognitive science and being told I was chasing a fools’ errand that could never result in gainful employment.

From what they told me, Polish research politics remain highly conservative, nationally isolated, and disciplinary in nature. Bartoz, a charming researcher who seemed an everyman of practical and academic solutions (of which many where needed from him during my short stay) related to me how himself and another dedicated researcher/organizer, Aga, had fought tooth and nail for the establishment of a cognitive science degree program that had required little more than cooperation between the philosophy and psychology departments at Poznan University which continued to be hostile and unsupportive of their endeavors.

The research community I found in Poznan did not reflect a group down on it’s luck- these bright young minds reminded me more of the Rebel Alliance before the battle of Endor than any remember-the-Alamo martyrs. Confident in their cause and self-sufficient in its’ needs- in some cases even going so far as to go around the administration of their university to secure funds and equipment for a state-of-the-art eye tracking research facility- these researchers seemed poised for success. Not only were they fully capable of dealing with these everyday issues, they were impressively contemporary in their mastery of cognitive science, demonstrating a familiarity with both phenomenological and empirical research that kept me on my toes throughout my stay. I can only hope to work with them again in the future, as they are both eager and fully capable of joining the global research community. If there is one thing Cognitive Science can’t have enough of, it’s the Poznan brand of genuine competence and sober passion.

Organizers!

Link to my Picasa Album of the trip:

Poznan Album

The Collaborative Mind: Poznan Slides

The Collaborative Mind

Neuroplasticity and Cybernetic Social Cognition

Here is the abstract for my upcoming talk at the Poznan Cognition Forum, entitled “The Collaborative Mind: Neuroplasticity and Cybernetic Social Cognition”.

“With the advent of multi-level findings demonstrating neuroplasticity in the adult brain, neuroscience is currently undergoing a decisive paradigm change. Although Ram√≥n y Cajal, the father of the neuron doctrine, first speculated that synaptic neuroplasticity might be the fundamental mechanism of learning, neurogenesis has remained a controversial hypothesis. Recent multi-method research has overturned this dogma, finding dramatic plasticity at cellular, cognitive, developmental, and axonal levels. I review these findings, arguing that neuroplasticity challenges traditional understandings of the mind and cognition while presenting an upcoming fMRI project investigating social-media, cognitive augmentation, and neuroplasticity.”

Stay tuned for links to my presentation, and pictures of Poznan!

Some choice graphics from the talk:

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