computer out window 254x300 A Yale Professors One Man Rampage Against PloS, the Internet and a Belgian Research GroupJohn Bargh, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University has written a blog post that’s currently receiving a thorough dressing down by the academic community. The title of the blog post, “Nothing in Their Heads” is a scathing ad-hom attack on a research group that failed  to replicate his research. The opening gambit is an attack on, well the entire academic community.

“Scientific integrity in the era of pay-as-you-go publications and superficial online science journalism.”

It’s like a lesson in how to alientate your audience. “Superficial online science journalism” apparently refers to Ed Yong’s critique of his research. Yong isn’t exactly a light weight, as well as his Discover magazine blog he writes for New Scientist and Nature and has a stack of awards for his quality of writing and integrity. Before writing his article Yong even requested Bargh’s opinion but Bargh refused to give it. Thereby explaining why Yong’s critique may be ever so slightly superficial in this instance (Update 11/03/08: Yong has now published a full reply to Bargh’s blog containing a reply from a member of the team that created the replication).

Bargh’s argument is tainted from the offset with a rambling attack on the most revered, open access, not for profit academic journal (PLoS), claiming because the replication was published there that it is “essentially self-published”. PLoS have replied in the comments clearly proving this attack to be completely factually deficit. It’s worth noting that the open access PLoS is by no means alone in charging it’s authors. A great proportion of leading journals are pay as you go publications” (as Bargh puts it) so this argument is invalid, not to mention weirdly juvenile coming from someone in Bargh’s position. The only difference is that other publishers that actually are profit making are just less up-front about charges, describing them as “colour” charges when there is often sod all printing going on. The Journal of Neuroscience for example charges $1000 per image (assuming you like your hard work portrayed in colour rather than appearing as something from the dark ages of Xerox). That’s on top of a $980 publication fee. By any standards PLoS is cheap relative to it’s competition, it even offers to waive the fee for any reason, no questions asked.

After you’ve waded through the school yard bullshit, if you’re still reading that is, the actual argument at hand is academic in the extreme (so I won’t paraphrase it here). If you take the time to read it, Bargh’s case is monumentally ironic. Besides the discussion on priming at hand, Bargh’s paper focuses on “rudeness” and “elderly stereotype”. It’s almost like Bargh is trying to parody himself as a rude old professor clinging on to a sinking ship, a casualty of post-publication review, open science and all the good things to come of it. You couldn’t make it up. If you do a search on Psych File Drawer you’ll discover this isn’t even the first failed replication attempt of Bargh’s experiment.

Psych Study replication 300x57 A Yale Professors One Man Rampage Against PloS, the Internet and a Belgian Research Group

Free database of psych studies and their replication status

To me this debate highlights an issue at the very heart of science that is often neglected in Psychology. Science gets interesting when science gets replicated.


Doyen S, Klein O, Pichon CL, & Cleeremans A (2012). Behavioral priming: it’s all in the mind, but whose mind? PloS one, 7 (1) PMID: 22279526

Bargh, J. Chen, M. Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of Social Behaviour: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology :

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A big thank you to all my readers, especially those of you who have contacted me to show your support. Your words really do mean a lot, they are what keeps me going. I write this blog without profit, purely for fun and out of a desire to support rational thought and a factually based, unbiased sceptical outlook on the media’s representation of science, drugs and psychology.

Share the love A Christmas Message From Neurobonkers

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I don’t accept donations, so if you wish to thank me this Christmas please give a donation to one of my favourite charities, Headway provide excellent and essential rehabilitation for those who have had brain injuries. Sense About Science who take great legal risks by fighting quackery and making the fruits of science available to everyone. Amnesty International who fight globally for human rights and are in particular need of support at the moment as a result of the continuing rise of oppressive regimes around the world.

Happy Christmas1 A Christmas Message From Neurobonkers

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Thanks again and a Happy Christmas and New Year to all!

Full Disclosure: A study published last month discovered that the inclusion of the word “love” in appeals for donations doubled the numbers of donations. This post is somewhat of a benevolant experiment, please do say if you think the use of the word love above led you to donate (you won’t get a refund, I would just be chuffed to find out). If you experience hoards of student fundraisers in the streets this Christmas telling you that they love you, now you know why! (Wow, now I feel like a right old Scrooge for letting that slip, so why not humour me, share the love and give a present this christmas to someone who needs it).


Guéguen, N., & Lamy, L. (2011). The effect of the word “love” on compliance to a request for humanitarian aid: An evaluation in a field setting Social Influence, 6 (4), 249-258 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2011.627771 (PDF)

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researchblogging 2 New Brainwave Products, Can You Spot The Fraud?This week two new brain computer interface (BCI) based products have hit the headlines, one is a hoax. I’ve placed the adverts for both below, see if you can figure out which one is a real project.


Project Black Mirror
The developers of “project black mirror” claim to have developed a BCI that can control an  iphone using Siri.

The developers of “Neurowear” claim to have developed a pair of wearable rabbit ears containing a BCI that moves based on your mood.

But, can you tell which one is an elaborate hoax?

(Watch the videos, check out their websites but don’t scroll down until you’ve made your guess.)

Flying Saucer Hoax 2 New Brainwave Products, Can You Spot The Fraud?

An elaborate hoax

Believe it or not, it turns out that the project that is a hoax is actually the mobile phone device “project black mirror“. This is clear for a number of reasons:

1. EEG can not yet be deciphered anywhere near the extent necessary to achieve a wide range of commands based simply on imagined words. At the moment it is only possible to assign commands based on cues such as our emotions or imagined movements of different parts of the body. Even then, there is a very long way to go before we can achieve significantly more commands than can be counted on one hand.

2. On the “project black mirror” page the group make the blunder of describing the device as an ECG instead of an EEG. An ECG is an electrocardiogram which measures activity from the heart while an EEG is an Electroencephalograph which measures activity from the brain, by definition, a necessary component in any BCI (the brain, that is).

3. On the “project black mirror” page the group describe the device as measuring signals in the range of 0-5v. EEG signals are approximately one millionth of that range! (“microvolts” not “volts”.)

4. The chip board in the “project black mirror” video isn’t properly attached.

5. In the “project black mirror” video, on the laptop screen there is an animation of the matrix code, presumably instead of an EEG output.

As @Interaxon has pointed out, this is a rather sad trick to play because it devalues the work being done by genuine BCI researchers and raises expectations to an unrealistic level. That said, progress is being made. Only this week a breakthrough study was published in the Lancet that demonstrated using EEG that 19% of patients diagnosed with being in a vegative state could respond using BCI.

“Three (19%) of 16 patients could repeatedly and reliably generate appropriate EEG responses to two distinct commands, despite being behaviourally entirely unresponsive (classifi cation accuracy 61–78%)”

(Cruse et, al, 2011) [Open access PDF via The Lancet]

This is a major step forward, demonstrating clinically that there really is potential for us to communicate using the many different BCI packages in development around the world with those that currently have no way of communicating whatsoever. This really is a noble goal and one that we are, right now, witnessing being achieved for the first time. Conversely, the “Project Black Mirror” video appears to be attempting to capitalise on this by applying to crowd-fund their “project” using Kickstarter. This is at best a poor thought out hoax and at worst a blundering attempt to commit a major fraud.

Now, there is one  question left to answer and that is…

“What about the BCI rabbit ears?”
Well, it seems that this project may well indeed be genuine. The concept itself is certainly scientifically grounded and empirically demonstrated (Coan, et al. 2004) [Open access PDF]. As for the product, well if there is someone bonkers enough to create it then there would be no reason why it would not be technically possible. And that, it would appear, there is.

NB: This is not an endorsement of the “neurowear” product. I have seen no published data and the apparent use of one electrode suggests the device would be vulnerable to confounding facial movements (See my critical post on the Emotiv’). That said, they certainly aren’t the first group to come up with an attempted wacky implementation of BCI and they certainly won’t be the last.

Damian Cruse, Srivas Chennu, Camille Chatelle, Tristan A Bekinschtein, Davinia Fernández-Espejo, John D Pickard, Steven Laureys, Adrian M Owen (2011). Bedside detection of awareness in the vegetative state: a cohort study The Lancet : 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61224-5

Coan, J., & Allen, J. (2004). Frontal EEG asymmetry as a moderator and mediator of emotion Biological Psychology, 67 (1-2), 7-50 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.03.002

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rb2 large gray Trip or Treat?If I were to tell you that there is a free, safe and legal way to trip this Halloween you’d probably tell me I was mistaken and you’d probably be right. However, there is a trick you can do to touch upon the experience of visual distortion present in a psychedelic trip without consuming a single microgram of psychoactive material.

bloody mary face twirl Trip or Treat?

My own amateur "artist's impression" of the bizarre effect

The surprisingly simple method has been used since the dawn of time by civilisations ranging from an early Hindu denomination, who worshipped in front a candle lit mirror to medieval England where legend told of a witch that would appear if you stared in to a candle lit a mirror while repeating “Bloody Mary” thirteen times“. Last year the phenomenon was empirically tested by an Italian group who published their spell binding results in the journal Perception (open access PDF). I’ve created a very short interactive display below which explains the simple method used and the startling conclusions. (Click here to view in full screen)

I’m intrigued to find out how people experience the illusion when viewing another persons face as this is something that really doesn’t seem to have ever been studied. It’s actually been claimed that Scientologists do the face-to-face version of this trick when brainwashing new recruits but that’s all I’ll say on the matter until I’ve got a stronger legal team (OK – make that “a legal team”.)

So give it a go and let me know what happens, just don’t forget the tale of narcissus who was driven to insanity by his own reflection (perhaps the earliest recorded reference to the effect).


narcissus reflection Trip or Treat?

Narcissus mesmerised by his reflection

Caputo GB (2010). Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion. Perception, 39 (7), 1007-8 PMID: 20842976

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Nature Scitable Featured1 Scientists successfully reconstruct the minds eye for the first time as a video output A group at Berkeley has just published (£) the first successful attempt to reconstruct colour video imagery from the mind using an fMRI brain scanner. The results are startling, encouraging and a little bit scary.

The method used, called fMRI, is known for its high spatial resolution (3D imaging ability) but notoriously low temporal resolution (measurements with respect to time – effectively a slow shutter speed). In the past, this has been a barrier to research on the visual cortex because of the incredibly high rate of information processing in the visual system. However, scientists have recently developed a new MRI encoding method that allows for the modelling of brain activity in the visual system at a faster rate. In the experiment conducted by the Berkeley group, participants were shown 7,200 seconds of random colour video clips one time only, while their brains were scanned using the novel fMRI sequence.  From these scans, researchers were able to create a “dictionary” of brain activity in the visual system.

Brain visualiser 1 Scientists successfully reconstruct the minds eye for the first time as a video output

The method with which the dictionary is filtered to produce video output

After a dictionary of brain activity in the visual system was created, the participants watched a fresh unseen video from YouTube while undergoing a brain scan. This resulted in video outputs that resembled the new YouTube video shown to participants. The output appears as a collage of flickering pixels that reminds me of a cross between the paintings of prosopagnosia sufferer Chuck Close and the imagery in A Scanner Darkly.

chuck Scientists successfully reconstruct the minds eye for the first time as a video output

Chuck Close (Self Portrait)

The correlation between the videos shown to the participants and the output imagery in the collage-like videos (below) is pretty astounding especially when considering there is zero overlap between the clips used for calibration and the clips used to test the system.

The study authors suggest that the method used in this paper could eventually lead to the generation of video output from participants experiencing dreams or hallucinations. Watch this space! What was once a field reserved firmly for science fiction may fast be becoming a reality.

Listen to an NPR interview with the researchers here:

Nishimoto S, Vu AT, Naselaris T, Benjamini Y, Yu B, & Gallant JL (2011). Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies. Current biology : CB PMID: 21945275

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