2017 – my year so far

Nothing like a long-awaited vacation. My wife and I take our yearly two-week vacation in September. Although it is a bit late, we enjoy the timing as most summer spots are still warm but have few tourists and low prices. This year we are in Francesca’s hometown of Marostica, Italy, for not one but TWO weddings. It will be a true test of my self-discipline to not gain several kilos on this trip!

That being said, phew am I ready for some vacation. The later date means that as the summer stretches on, my work ethic flags a bit and I become prone to take more and more staycation days. I really believe this mid-summer lethargy is some kind of holdover from grade-school conditioning; the body just cannot forget the joy that is the first day of summer vacation. And I do believe that to avoid becoming repetitive, creative, passionate work requires long periods of rest and enjoyment. And so, I’ve had a fun summer of travelling, building collaborations, and putting pieces in place for new projects and applications.

Overall, this has been a busy, if somewhat odd year. Most of the first half was taken up by my first ever fellowship-level grant application. In 2016, I had just found my publishing stride, seemingly clearing one item of after another off my desk. Publishing finally felt ‘normal’, like a part of the job with manageable known-knowns and known-unknowns. I even enjoyed it. And of course, there was a much needed, although transient period of enjoying the feeling of accomplishment. It is nice to have a stable of new papers across a spread of journals and think, ‘well, that is dinner for the next few years secured’. It was in the midst of this semi-tranquility that I realized the end of my long and luxurious post-doc was looming near. Suddenly I would have to do something entirely new; the complexities and uncertainties of applying for start-up funds for my first lab made me again feel like an anxious graduate student.

Of course, my first attempt took ages, was rife with errors, and was overly complex in almost every way. Grant writing, like everything, is really a learning process; I wish I had applied for more smaller grants in my postdoc, just to better prepare me for the process itself. Writing papers does not really train you for this task, which is much more ‘sales’-oriented. And it doesn’t feel very productive. Here you are pouring out an amount of work which could easily produce 2-3 new papers in itself, into an endeavor which is overwhelmingly likely to be a failure. It feels a bit like taking all of your hard-won momentum and dumping it into a bin labelled ‘unlikely hopes and dreams’.

But in the end, it really was worth it, at least for me. Even if the outcome itself is uncertain, just the process of collecting all of your achievements under one banner will strengthen and clarify your view of yourself as a professional. More importantly, having to think in a highly unconstrained, big picture way will force you to find the strongest themes within your research. Nevertheless, the process of comparing yourself to the best of one’s peers is quite emotionally draining, and doubly so when one is worried about losing steam on their research.

And then you submit it. 2-3 months of writing, years of planning and dreaming, all boiled down to one button-click submission. And then you try to go back to your research agenda for the year; it’s important to not to let the hot irons cool too much while you are out begging for seeking funding. This is where I am now; awaiting a massive decision, while still trying to forge on with my ongoing research. And we’ve got some terribly exciting new projects and collaborations in the works this year, ranging from my first ever registered report, to big-data fueled investigations of brain-body connectomics and a new computational neuroimaging task, which we’ll be scanning in both MEG and fMRI. I’m really looking forward to the new challenges, techniques, and discoveries this year will bring.

And that is the thought that keeps me going! I know that, even if I am unsuccessful in my quest for funding, I will always find a way to pursue these questions.  Because it is what I do, and what I live for.

Next post: the year to come! I’ll give some teasers about the different projects we are currently working on. Also, in the next weeks I’ll be overhauling this website to give more information about my research, and also plan to start blogging my backlog of recent publications.

The future of neuroconscience and me

The past two years have been a crazy ride. We’ve seen a seeming upheaval of the political world that has shook most of us to our core. Along the way, our social networks have also changed. Sometimes it feels as if we are all reeling along. When I started this blog, I had the perhaps naive view that I was initiating a nexus of some kind of hivemind. Indeed, my research has benefited massively from this blog, and from all of your amazing input and interaction. For a while, all was good. My following grew, I blogged frequently, and it was all quite rewarding. But, when the network started to go mad with current events, perhaps I went a bit mad too. Somewhere along the way the plot was lost. Was neuroconscience my research, a livestream of it, or a hub for my particular flavor of research interests? I must admit that somewhere along the way I lost the plot. The result, I think, has been an increasingly less coherent stream, and my blogposts sputtering down to nothing. I need to find my voice again, and to do that, I think I need to begin splitting out the various streams of my public outreach, research, and personal-is-political daily life. I’m not exactly sure how best to do that, but that didn’t stop me from starting neuroconscience in the first place.

The first steps have been underway for sometime. I’ve already redesigned my this website into a neuroconscience ‘blog’, and a more standard ‘here I am’ academic webfront. My blog will continue to be a collection of rants, thoughts, and musings on all things cogneuro and beyond. My twitter stream @neuroconscience shall become a more content-focused, curated stream of my favorite links, media, and research. Maintaining a high signal-to-noise ratio will be a paramount goal. As usual, this will follow the whims of my ADHD-driven interest; my personal thoughts, political rants, and similar will now be posted exclusively from my new ‘personal’ account @micahgallen. Here you can get my unfiltered voice, all the random musings, and especially loads of navel gazing. In case you are curious, the g stands for ‘galen’, my middle name. I know some of you thought better to keep it all in one, but I believe many who once came to my feed for useful and interesting content are being turned away by the volume and lack of organization in my tweets. My personal account will collect the chaos; neuroconscience will return to the ‘good ‘ol days’ when it was a highly curated stream. And who knows, someday maybe we’ll be joined by a lab account…

Enjoy!

Micah/@neuroconscience

Some post #MarchforScience thoughts.

See the bottom of this post for a collection of great #MarchForScience tweets, images, and my livestream of the London march!

Foremost, thanks to everyone who came out and stood up to show their support. I think it is hard not to look at the worldwide crowds and feel an up-welling of pride and hope. If nothing else the feeling of solidarity, and of sending a loud message that we will not accept a post-evidence society, is well worth the efforts of the organizers and marchers. I just wanted to try and write down a few thoughts I had about the marches, which I’m sure are shared by many others.

Yesterday I think many of us saw, first hand and for the first time, that Science has real people power. Like any other special interest group, we can band together and organize to amplify the reach and influence of our message. Ultimately science requires the creation of a space that is free from politics, and the creation of that space is itself a political act. It is my hope that yesterday planted the seeds of organization that can grow into a movement. We can’t except the general public to stand up for us; it is indeed time to work to ensure a society where science and evidence-based policy flourish.

That being said, I’m sure many of you are also wondering what, if anything yesterday will really achieve. I also have the worry that these marches may ultimately act as another form of ‘slacktivism’, exorcising our anxieties while ultimately achieving little. I can’t speak for the worldwide marches, but I did feel that more could have been done to try and carry the momentum forward. It is a bold first step for scientists to put aside their self-assumed neutrality and stand up for their own cause. At the London march you could feel an almost palpable unease or cautiousness in the march yesterday. It was perhaps the most quiet, calm, and reserved political march i’ve ever participated in – and of course, also a lot of fun. Ultimately if we are going to effect change, this can only be the first step. We need to begin to organize into effective political action communities that can lobby on our behalf.

This also means addressing some of the infighting that arose during the course of the organization of the march. Science cannot turn a blind eye to diversity, or our own issues therein. Effective political action requires building a broad based progressive movement that is inclusive and champions a set of values that does not exclude persons of color, LGBT, or other minorities. I recognize that there are already growing pains; many scientists feel science should inherently be apolitical. But what we’ve seen is that, our work will be politicized no matter what stance we take on it. My hope is that the marches yesterday will embolden us to reach out to community organizers, to build a strong and evidence based movement for political reform. Let yesterday be the planting of a seed, from which a thousand flowers may bloom.


Here are some fun tweets and links from the march:

Clearly DC scientists had a blast! Love this video.

Amazing turn out in Seattle:

Sine game on point:

DC:

Truth!

Amazing aerial shot:

20k marchers in Philly!

Hello, my name is Science!

Updates to site – CV & publications – and future plans

It’s grant writing season! I’m currently working on some fellowship applications, as it’s time to spread my little wings and attempt to fly. This means i’ve finally given some much needed love to this site. Out is the old bio page (which was incredibly outdated), in are a new up-to-date list of publications by year and updated CV (with supervised students!). I need to do some deeper revisions – since I don’t blog anymore i’d like to convert this to a more traditional academic website with the blog as a secondary tab. But for today this at least does the bare minimum. You can stay up to date with our latest publications here:

https://neuroconscience.com/micah-allen/publications/

and my cv is here:

https://neuroconscience.com/micah-allen/

Although this year will be primarily about funding applications (some incredible projects we are planning.. cannot wait to share!), we will also have some stuff underway including an exciting extension of our eLife paper on arousal and confidence, and some new research exploring inter-relations between effective connectivity, mind-wandering, interoception, and sleep (not all together 😛 ). This summer I will also attempt to finally preprint our long in-prep paper on the noise induced confidence bias so stay tuned for that!

Of course, I hope to return to blogging eventually, but at least it was a gangbusters year for publications. If you are craving some neuroconscience writing, go check out one of the ten papers we published!

Thanks as always to everyone who motivates our research.

Yours always,

Micah Allen aka neuroconscience

A Researcher’s Guide to the #Resistance

Note; the bottom of this post will be continuously updated with resources and action links. Please add any useful resources in the comments, to be added to the list.

 

This topic needs no introduction; if you are not already aware of the crisis and political turmoil I’m not sure this document could reach you anyway. This is for the woke scientist, scholar, and other academics ready to fight fear with resistance. I’m not exactly sure how to best arrange this document but it must be written. My goal is less to review the state of affairs, of which I’m sure you are aware, but rather to provide concrete tips and guidelines so that you can break free from ‘oh-dearism’ and leap into action.

With that in mind, lets break this down into a few sections:

  1. No action is too small.

On the progressive left, particularly among intellectuals, we have a history of infighting over which action is the best action. While I think there is merit to our culture of critical thought and inquiry in a democratic society, we are now past the time where such a response is enough. Fascism is at our doorstep and we must organize together any coalition of those willing to rise up. This means that no act of resistance is too small. I know from my interactions that the majority of academics are seriously worried about what they see in the daily news. We know that democratic principles are under serious threat, but we’re unsure of how to respond. The academic life is a rat race, and few feel ready to dedicate hours of their day to a cause whose efficacy of which they are unsure.

But this is exactly the attitude that our opponents are counting on. They are happy for us to share the latest outrages within our filter bubble, knowing we are too caught up in our daily lives to translate that outrage into action. With this in mind, it is imperative that we embrace any action. Intellectuals and academics have important skills to contribute to resistance; as the tenders and growers of knowledge we have a social duty to speak out against fascism. What we face now is nothing less than an existential threat to our craft and culture.

It is with this in mind that I earnestly beseech my colleagues and collaborators to cast aside doubt and one-upmanship. In times like these, you can’t condition your voice and action on the probability of success. Instead we need to organize together and present a unified resistance to Trumpism.

Of course, we have all busy lives to attend to. Our professional and personal commitments do not pause as we attend to Democracy. So I urge everyone to seek out the causes and actions with lie closest to their home and heart. Don’t waste time asking if your action is likely to succeed. If you feel strongly about the gagging of scientists, then join a pro-science march. Write to your MPs and professional societies asking them to publicly denounce such activities. Whatever the causes – women’s rights, social justice, the abuse and discrimination of people of color – leap into action with whatever help you can give. These movements need your talents; they need your thought, your code, your data, your critical thought and skills at debate. Your ability to communicate complex ideas in useful packages. They need these things as much if not more than your time and money – although you should also not hesitate to join the common foot soldier in standing up. Everyone’s rights are under threat, which brings me to my next point – the resistance must blossom everywhere.

  1. Neo-fascism is a global movement; the resistance must also be

Make no mistake; the current wave of authoritarian politics is not constrained to any single nation. It neither begins nor ends with Trump. Certainly in Europe there are far right movements springing up like weeds in every corner of the continent. As such the movement to resist must also be global. We must show our politicians that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere, and that we will not stand for appeasement.

In eras gone past, the academic ‘intelligentsia’ played a critical role in shaping democratic reform movements. Such movements require leadership, critical thought, writing, and other such skills, which are the tradecraft of the academic. Today globalism has spread our kind far and wide around the globe. Most of us have too few local ‘resistance’ contacts. Do you know who your local union leaders are? Or where to go to work with women’s rights groups? Many of us are expatriated from our home countries, and may feel unsure if it is our place to fight in local political movements. As an American, should I join ant-Brexit movements? Should I vote in local politics? Or is this an intrusion?

The global nature of today’s oppression means that our resistance must also be global. This is tricky because ultimately we can all have the most influence in our local communities. If we are to unite together and defend Democracy, we must overcome our isolation and build a global movement with one cause celebre’; the defense of freedom. We must connect our global ties with our local leaders, to rouse the slumbering giant of the concerned majority. To do so it is vitally important that academics, scientists, and researchers reach out to their local communities and work to build politically active networks.

  1. We must organize and unite.

To overcome this isolation, which breeds inaction, we must organize. Today’s academic is woefully isolated. Many of us have moved continuously from state to state. This means that our local networks are typically impoverished, but our global networks are quite rich. We must shore up this weakness, while also capitalizing on our strengths. This means we need to start talking amongst ourselves, in the workplace and outside it. Don’t just stand at the water cooler saying ‘oh dear, it’s really all quite terrible, isn’t it’? This only contributes to the feeling of paralysis. Instead, take literally any action that builds a community around you. Organize a local action group at your university. Build a Facebook group around your international network. Find a cause that excites you and dedicate an hour or two a week to working with them. Go to marches! Marches are an important way to build community. Once you find a group of people dedicated to the resistance, offer your services to them. They are likely to be desperate for people with professional skills.

  1. Any resistance is effective resistance

Now you have probably already asked, but what can I really do? Will it really matter? I know how easy it is to fall into despair. After Brexit and the Trump election, I felt a deep darkness as never before. The triumph of fascism and radical capitalism seemed inevitable. I wallowed in self-pity, watching the unending tide of bad news, shouting ‘I told you so!’. This is totally ineffective and will make you and your colleagues feel horrible.

Here is the thing. Resistance is not about winning and losing. It’s about standing up for a moral cause; about drawing a line in the sand and saying: “here I will go no futher”. To paraphrase MLK Jr; “if you do nothing out of fear, then you are already dead inside”. History will judge us for the action we take in the coming weeks and months. Are you going to wait until someone drags a friend or coworker out of bed? Would you be more likely to stand up and fight knowing that the boots of fascism have been just past your door?

Now is the time to stand. And as an academic you have many ways to fight. Chances are you’ve been through at least a decade of advanced training in skills which are vital to any democratic movement. So shake off the chains of defeatism and DO SOMETHING! Your resistance, no matter how small or focused, sends a message to your friends and colleagues. It tells the oppressed that no, you will not stand idly by as they are persecuted. Trust me; you will sleep better and breath more easily with each and every action you take.

  1. Self-Care

As a researcher/scientist/academic, it is likely that you were already on the edge of burn out before our world imploded. For your resistance to be sustained, it must be self-nurturing. While marching and acting can be an effective way to retain a feeling of control, it must also be moderated by self-care and practical constraints. This means regulating your information intake and being disciplined about how and when you resist.

A few practical tips; reward yourself for effective action. If you go to a march, or write an essay on the evils of fascism, also take time out to relax. Read a good book, play some videogames, go for a walk. Take time to remember what it is you are fighting for. This goes double for social media. By this point is probably clear that Twitter, Facebook, and similar outlets are going to be a never ending stream of bad news, as well as an organizing hub for the resistance. While it’s vital that you participate in these forums and remain well-informed, you can also easily burn yourself out. Set specific times of the day when you take in the latest news and social media, and other times when you turn off these inputs and work on your own things. Again, if you are engaged in concrete action, there is no reason to feel guilty about taking time for yourself and your work.

  1. Use your time wisely – do not feed the trolls

While it might be an effective way to blow off steam, I recommend avoiding the pro-Trump/Brexit/Le Pen trolls entirely. I know this isn’t easy for most of us, as we want to believe that free debate and the exchange of ideas can solve most of the world’s problems. The issue is that, we are also fighting an unprecedented information war. Remember that 2.5 million more people voted for Hillary than for Trump. We have the moral high ground here; we’re fighting against fascism, and they are fighting for it. Not only is it unnecessary to convince these people, it is almost certainly impossible. What we need now to is build an effective resistance; the authoritarians will either realize the error of their ways and join us, or be judged by history accordingly. And the sad truth is, many of these accounts are likely fake, ‘astroturfed’ trolls being paid to support the radical right agenda. It just isn’t worth your time and energy; research suggests arguing with these people may actually strengthen their resolve. This also applies to the far-left; those who voted for Jill Stein because Hillary was ‘the same as Trump’. We need to be focused on turning out the moderate, silent majority, who are appalled at what they see in the news but have no idea how to stop it.

  1. Concrete action

 Hopefully by now you are on your feet, ready to act. So what CAN you do? First, you need to choose a domain of resistance. The best thing you can do is to find forms of sustainable resistance. You can’t go out and lose your job; this only reduces the longevity and depth of your possible action. The first step to effective action is therefor to select a cause, which is geographically and morally closest to you and your heart. This will help you build local roots and a community from which to grow your action. It will keep you motivated and prevent the tendency towards defeatism. We are all only human; for a resistance to be sustained it must come from a wellspring of the heart. It should enrich and grow your wellbeing, not sacrifice it[1].

With that in mind, here are some concrete ideas for how you can best resist:

  • Write. As an academic, you likely have a talent for thoughtful and persuasive writing. Write letters to your local newspaper, your political representative, on your blog, on facebook. Don’t just spread alarmism; state with force your opposition to concrete policies. Advocate for clear and decisive action. Lobby your representatives frequently and let them know that you and your colleagues will be voting and donating in kind. If you are an academic of prestige or status, then don’t leave that part out. Use your voice to provide the movement with clear and concrete leadership.
  • Call. Right now, go find a phone number for your local representative. If you are in the US, it’s important that you call your specific reps even if they are not from your party. It is important not just to call once, but also to call repeatedly. Set a schedule to make a phone call once a week, to give your representative an earful. If they are democrats, insist that they refuse to give a single inch to the GOP. If they are GOP, let them know loudly that you will disagree with their actions. Before calling, consider reading this excellent guide which can help you understand how to make your voice heard most effectively. Calling and/or writing to your representative is an easy way you can make a difference, and it doesn’t need to take more than 15 minutes a week.
  • Organize. Reach out to your local movement of choice, and get out there and help them. It isn’t enough to just tweet and share. These groups are desperate for help in a variety of ways, at least some of which you are probably skilled at. They need slogans, leadership, debate, and good writing copy. You could for example dedicate one week a month to lending some expertise to these groups. At the very least; march. It shows solidarity and helps us all feel less alone. Don’t forget to also write and lobby your existing scientific organizations; if enough of us pressure our professional societies to take a stand, it can have a massive effect.
  • Code. Are you a data scientist? A web developer? A social media socialite? This is the 21st century. Our resistance doesn’t have to just take the form of just calls and letters. Chances are your technical skills are in high demand. Web apps to organize; OPSEC documents to protect activist privacy; data science to analyze and optimize resistance. Our opponents are winning in part because they are using data science and social media to overwhelm traditional outlets. Your ability to process, analyze, interpret, or communicate data can be invaluable.
  • Donate. Choose at lease one professional organization and consider making a monthly, recurring donation. My choice is the ACLU as they have already shown an ability to fight Trumpism in the judiciary. But there is no shortage of causes needing your help. Attenant to the above, consider also getting in contact with local organizations to see if you can offer concrete help.
  • Teach. As an academic, you have a lot of experience teaching to an audience. Within the boundaries of your university ethics, use that podium for good. Get your students to consider the ways they can become politically active. Chances are you university has local political clubs (e.g., anti-war, pro-privacy, environmental) who are in need of your sponsorship or leadership. If not, consider starting one. Your critical thought and rhetorical skills can help motivate the youth to the streets and polls.
  • Vote. There is still a chance to stop this at the ballot box. But only if we get out there and help opposition parties. We must stop infighting and start supporting politicians who resist. The tea party effectively stymied Obama, one of the most popular politicians in recent history, by implementing a simple, unified vision for resistance. Any politician who worked with Obama, they primaried. Any GOP member who voiced a strong opposition, they supported. We must adopt these techniques. Any politician who shows any hint of appeasement must be opposed. You should consider getting involved in your local political groups, to maximize your impact on your local MP/representative/etc. Start a facebook group of people you know, to make sure you are all voting in local and midterm elections. We must fight fire with fire, and the best way to do this is to democratically stymy pro-fascist movements from the ground up.
  • Science. As a scientist, just sharing your data with the public is an act of resistance. The authoritarians seek to control the very flow of information itself. Reaching out to share your data and scientific knowledge is thus a powerful form of resistance. Use whatever data you have to back up the movement. Remember that we must always keep the high ground of truth on our side.
  • Create. Use your creativity to write poetry, speeches, to paint pictures of resistance. Craft t-shirts and colourful poster art. A resistance is sustained by it’s art; in this time of need we must unleash our most creative instincts in the fight for democracy.

 

  1. The future, and closing thoughts.

Many of us likely feel some degree of guilt; how could we have let this happen? There is no doubt that we became so caught up on the daily machinery of productivity that we have become complacent. But it is never too late to act; so long as one remains free to do so. There will be a time for careful debate and self-incrimination. It speaks volumes that many of us are only now awakening to the dire situation of civilization. We owe people of color, gay and trans, immigrant and all oppressed an apology for our complacency. But do so standing side by side with them in the #resistance. Now we must act together, in hopes of retaining our freedom to dissent.

Ultimately, we must look with hope towards the future. No matter how dark the headlines come, we must know that we will stand together in solidarity. Each day look deep inside and stoke that fire of resistance; know that our goal must not only be to push back the darkness of fascism, but to stem the wound from which it arose. We must build a better society, together.


Resources for the Resistant Academic (continuously updated):

Organizations Worth Donating To – consider a recurring 5$ donation! That cup of coffee can help sustain the fight. 

https://www.aclu.org/

https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

https://www.rescue.org/

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/

http://earthjustice.org/

https://www.splcenter.org/

 

Staying safe when resisting:

https://greenandblackcross.org/guides/

https://www.resistancemanual.org/Resistance_Manual_Home

https://greenandblackcross.org/guides/key-advice/

https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/a-practical-guide-to-political-protest

Surveillance Self-Defense:

https://ssd.eff.org/en

View story at Medium.com

Practical guides to resistance:

https://www.indivisibleguide.com/

http://www.salon.com/2016/11/23/robert-reich-how-to-resist-donald-trumps-first-100-days_partner/

https://www.resistancemanual.org/Resistance_Manual_Home

Weekly action Checklist:
http://jenniferhofmann.com/home/weekly-action-checklist-democrats-independents-republicans-conscience/

Excellent tool to organize daily calls to your representative:
https://5calls.org/

How to be your own light in an authoritarian crisis:
https://thecorrespondent.com/5696/were-heading-into-dark-times-this-is-how-to-be-your-own-light-in-the-age-of-trump/1611114266432-e23ea1a6

Rules for a Constitutional Crisis:

View story at Medium.com

A Trump Resistance Guide

http://olel.weebly.com/blog/trump-resistance-reference-guide

Impeaching the president – a primer:
http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3404&context=penn_law_review

An activists guide to exploiting the media

http://www.safecom.org.au/monbiot-media.htm

Useful media and tweets:

 

Data for Democracy – a great portal for data scientists who want to resist

https://twitter.com/data4democracy?lang=en

Upcoming Marches

The march for science:

https://www.facebook.com/marchforscience/

https://twitter.com/LDNsciencemarch

Huge anti-brexit march:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/28/stop-brexit-campaign-biggest-uk-biggest-protest-march?CMP=share_btn_fb

Meet the scientists affected by the Muslim Travel Ban:
http://www.nature.com/news/meet-the-scientists-affected-by-trump-s-immigration-ban-1.21389

Resistance Leaders – must-follow voices:

https://twitter.com/sarahkendzior

https://twitter.com/JuddLegum

https://twitter.com/Kasparov63

Operational Security (OPSEC):

http://www.citylab.com/crime/2017/01/are-police-searching-inauguration-protesters-phones/514244/

 

A resistance playlist – for when you need some moral building resistance songs!

[1] Note that this only applies in some case. If the brown shirts are coming for your neighbor, you may have to choose between submission and self-sacrifice. It is important to decide now how you will act in this seemingly absurd, but not improbable scenario. But for now I urge you to take effective and sustainable action, for all is not yet lost.

Unexpected arousal shapes confidence – blog and news coverage

For those looking for a good summary of our recent publication, several outlets gave us solid coverage for expert and non-expert alike. Here is a short summary of the most useful write-ups:

The eLife digest itself was excellent – make sure to fill out the survey at the end to let eLife know what you think of the digests  (I love them).

via Arousing confidence – Brains and Behaviour – Medium

As you read the words on this page, you might also notice a growing feeling of confidence that you understand their meaning. Every day we make decisions based on ambiguous information and in response to factors over which we have little or no control. Yet rather than being constantly paralysed by doubt, we generally feel reasonably confident about our choices. So where does this feeling of confidence come from?

Computational models of human decision-making assume that our confidence depends on the quality of the information available to us: the less ambiguous this information, the more confident we should feel. According to this idea, the information on which we base our decisions is also the information that determines how confident we are that those decisions are correct. However, recent experiments suggest that this is not the whole story. Instead, our internal states — specifically how our heart is beating and how alert we are — may influence our confidence in our decisions without affecting the decisions themselves.

To test this possibility, Micah Allen and co-workers asked volunteers to decide whether dots on a screen were moving to the left or to the right, and to indicate how confident they were in their choice. As the task became objectively more difficult, the volunteers became less confident about their decisions. However, increasing the volunteers’ alertness or “arousal” levels immediately before a trial countered this effect, showing that task difficulty is not the only factor that determines confidence. Measures of arousal — specifically heart rate and pupil dilation — were also related to how confident the volunteers felt on each trial. These results suggest that unconscious processes might exert a subtle influence on our conscious, reflective decisions, independently of the accuracy of the decisions themselves.

The next step will be to develop more refined mathematical models of perception and decision-making to quantify the exact impact of arousal and other bodily sensations on confidence. The results may also be relevant to understanding clinical disorders, such as anxiety and depression, where changes in arousal might lock sufferers into an unrealistically certain or uncertain world.

The PNAS journal club also published a useful summary, including some great quotes from Phil Corlett and Rebecca Todd:

via Journal Club: How your body feels influences your confidence levels | National Academy of Sciences

… Allen’s findings are “relevant to anyone whose job is to make difficult perceptual judgments trying to see signal in a lot of noise,” such as radiologists or baggage inspectors, says cognitive neuroscientist Rebecca Todd at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who did not take part in the research. Todd suggests that people who apply decision-making models to real world problems need to better account for the influence of internal or emotional states on confidence.

The fact that bodily states can influence confidence may even shed light on mental disorders, which often involve blunted or heightened signals from the body. Symptoms could result from how changes in sensory input affect perceptual decision-making, says cognitive neuroscientist and schizophrenia researcher Phil Corlett at Yale University, who did not participate in this study.

Corlett notes that some of the same ion channels involved in regulating heart rate are implicated in schizophrenia as well. “Maybe boosting heart rate might lead people with schizophrenia to see or hear things that aren’t present,” he speculates, adding that future work could analyze how people with mental disorders perform on these tasks…

I also wrote a blog post summarizing the article for The Conversation:

via How subtle changes in our bodies affect conscious awareness and decision confidence

How do we become aware of our own thoughts and feelings? And what enables us to know when we’ve made a good or bad decision? Every day we are confronted with ambiguous situations. If we want to learn from our mistakes, it is important that we sometimes reflect on our decisions. Did I make the right choice when I leveraged my house mortgage against the market? Was that stop light green or red? Did I really hear a footstep in the attic, or was it just the wind?

When events are more uncertain, for example if our windscreen fogs up while driving, we are typically less confident in what we’ve seen or decided. This ability to consciously examine our own experiences, sometimes called introspection, is thought to depend on the brain appraising how reliable or “noisy” the information driving those experiences is. Some scientists and philosophers believe that this capacity for introspection is a necessary feature of consciousness itself, forging the crucial link between sensation and awareness.

One important theory is that the brain acts as a kind of statistician, weighting options by their reliability, to produce a feeling of confidence more or less in line with what we’ve actually seen, felt or done. And although this theory does a reasonably good job of explaining our confidence in a variety of settings, it neglects an important fact about our brains – they are situated within our bodies. Even now, as you read the words on this page, you might have some passing awareness of how your socks sit on your feet, how fast your heart is beating or if the room is the right temperature.

Even if you were not fully aware of these things, the body is always shaping how we experience ourselves and the world around us. That is to say experience is always from somewhere, embodied within a particular perspective. Indeed, recent research suggests that our conscious awareness of the world is very much dependent on exactly these kinds of internal bodily states. But what about confidence? Is it possible that when I reflect on what I’ve just seen or felt, my body is acting behind the scenes? …

The New Scientist took an interesting angle not as explored in the other write-ups, and also included a good response from Ariel Zylberberg:

via A bit of disgust can change how confident you feel | New Scientist

“We were tricking the brain and changing the body in a way that had nothing to do with the task,” Allen says. In doing so, they showed that a person’s sense of confidence relies on internal as well as external signals – and the balance can be shifted by increasing your alertness.

Allen thinks the reaction to disgust suppressed the “noise” created by the more varied movement of the dots during the more difficult versions of the task. “They’re taking their own confidence as a cue and ignoring the stimulus in the world.”

“It’s surprising that they show that confidence can be motivated by processes inside a person, instead of what we tend to believe, which is that confidence should be motivated by external things that affect a decision,” says Ariel Zylberberg at Columbia University in New York. “Disgust leads to aversion. If you try a food and it’s disgusting, you walk away from it,” says Zylberberg. “Here, if you induce disgust, high confidence becomes lower and low confidence becomes higher. It could be that disgust is generating this repulsion.”

It is not clear whether it is the feeling of disgust that changes a person’s confidence in this way, or whether inducing alertness with a different emotion, such as anger or fear, would have the same effect.

You can find all the coverage for our article using these excellent services, altmetric & ImpactStory.

https://www.altmetric.com/details/12986857

https://impactstory.org/u/0000-0001-9399-4179/p/mfatd6ZhpW

Thanks to everyone who shared, enjoyed, and interacted with our research!

fMRI study of Shamans tripping out to phat drumbeats

Every now and then, i’m browsing RSS on the tube commute and come across a study that makes me laugh out loud. This of course results in me receiving lots of ‘tuts’ from my co-commuters. Anyhow, the latest such entry to the world of cognitive neuroscience is a study examining brain response to drum beats in shamanic practitioners. Michael Hove and colleagues of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig set out to study “Perceptual Decoupling During an Absorptive State of Consciousness” using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). What exactly does that mean? Apparently: looking at how brain connectivity in ‘experienced shamanic practitioners’ changes when they listen to  rhythmic drumming. Hove and colleagues explain that across a variety of cultures, ‘quasi-isochronous drumming’ is used to induce ‘trance states’. If you’ve ever been dancing around a drum circle in the full moon light, or tranced out to shpongle in your living room, I guess you get the feeling right?

Anyway, Hove et al recruited 15 participants who were trained in  “core shamanism,” described as:

“a system of techniques developed and codified by Michael Harner (1990) based on cross-cultural commonalities among shamanic traditions. Participants were recruited through the German-language newsletter of the Foundation of Shamanic Studies and by word of mouth.”

They then played these participants rhythmic isochronous drumming (trance condition) versus drumming with a more regular timing. In what might be the greatest use of a Likert scale of all time, Participants rated if [they] “would describe your experience as a deep shamanic journey?” (1 = not at all; 7 = very much so)”, and indeed described the trance condition as more well, trancey. Hove and colleagues then used a fairly standard connectivity analysis, examining eigenvector centrality differences between the two drumming conditions, as well as seed-based functional connectivity:

trance.PNG

seed.PNG

Hove et al report that compared to the non-trance conditions, the posterior/dorsal cingulate, insula, and auditory brainstem regions become more ‘hublike’, as indicated by a higher overall degree centrality of these regions. Further, they experienced stronger functionally connectivity with the posterior cingulate cortex. I’ll let Hove and colleagues explain what to make of this:

“In sum, shamanic trance involved cooperation of brain networks associated with internal thought and cognitive control, as well as a dampening of sensory processing. This network configuration could enable an extended internal train of thought wherein integration and moments of insight can occur. Previous neuroscience work on trance is scant, but these results indicate that successful induction of a shamanic trance involves a reconfiguration of connectivity between brain regions that is consistent across individuals and thus cannot be dismissed as an empty ritual.”

Ultimately the authors conclusion seems to be that these brain connectivity differences show that, if nothing else, something must be ‘really going on’ in shamanic states. To be honest, i’m not really sure anyone disagreed with that to begin with. Collectively I can’t critique this study without thinking of early (and ongoing) meditation research, where esoteric monks are placed in scanners to show that ‘something really is going on’ in meditation. This argument to me seems to rely on a folk-psychological misunderstanding of how the brain works. Even in placebo conditioning, a typical example of a ‘mental effect’, we know of course that changes in the brain are responsible. Every experience (regardless how complex) has some neural correlate. The trick is to relate these neural factors to behavioral ones in a way that actually advances our understanding of the mechanisms and experiences that generate them. The difficulty with these kinds of studies is that all we can do is perform reverse inference to try and interpret what is going on; the authors conclusion about changes in sensory processing is a clear example of this. What do changes in brain activity actually tell us about trance (and other esoteric) states ? Certainly they don’t reveal any particular mechanism or phenomenological quality, without being coupled to some meaningful understanding of the states themselves. As a clear example, we’re surely pushing reductionism to its limit by asking participants to rate a self-described transcendent state using a unidirectional likert scale? The authors do cite Francisco Varela (a pioneer of neurophenemonological methods), but don’t seem to further consider these limitations or possible future directions.

Overall, I don’t want to seem overly critical of this amusing study. Certainly shamanic traditions are a deeply important part of human cultural history, and understanding how they impact us emotionally, cognitively, and neurologically is a valuable goal. For what amounts to a small pilot study, the protocols seem fairly standard from a neuroscience standpoint. I’m less certain about who these ‘shamans’ actually are, in terms of what their practice actually constitutes, or how to think about the supposed ‘trance states’, but I suppose ‘something interesting’ was definitely going on. The trick is knowing exactly what that ‘something’ is.

Future studies might thus benefit from a better direct characterization of esoteric states and the cultural practices that generate them, perhaps through collaboration with an anthropologist and/or the application of phenemonological and psychophysical methods. For now however, i’ll just have to head to my local drum circle and vibe out the answers to these questions.

Hove MJ, Stelzer J, Nierhaus T, Thiel SD, Gundlach C, Margulies DS, Van Dijk KRA, Turner R, Keller PE, Merker B (2016) Brain Network Reconfiguration and Perceptual Decoupling During an Absorptive State of Consciousness. Cerebral Cortex 26:3116–3124.