Is there a ‘basement’ for quirky psychological research?

Beware the Basement!
Beware the Basement!

 One thing I will never forget from my undergraduate training in psychology was the first lecture of my personality theory class. The professor started the lecture by informing us that he was quite sure that of the 200+ students in the lecture hall, the majority of us were probably majoring in psychology because we thought it would be neat to study sex, consciousness, psychedelics, paranormal experience, meditation, or the ilk. He then informed us this was a trap that befell almost all new psychology students, as we were all drawn to the study of the mind by the same siren call of the weird and wonderful human psyche. However he warned, we should be very, very careful not to reveal these suppressed interests until we were well established (I’m assuming he meant tenured) researchers- otherwise we’d risk being thrown into the infamous ‘basement of psychology’, never to be heard from again.

This colorful lecture really stuck with me through the years; I still jokingly refer to the basement whenever a more quirky research topic comes up. Of course I did a pretty poor job of following this advice, seeing as my first project as a PhD student involved meditation, but nonetheless I have repressed an academic interest in more risque topics throughout my career. And i’m not really actively avoiding them for fear of being placed in the basement – i’m more just following my own pragmatic research interests, and waiting for some day when I have more time and freedom to follow ideas that don’t directly tie into the core research line I’m developing.

But still. That basement. Does it really exist? In a world where papers about having full bladders renders us more politically conservative can make it into prestigious journals, or where scientists scan people having sex inside a scanner just to see what happens, or where psychologists seriously debate the possibility of precognition – can anything really be taboo? Or can we still distinguish from these flightier topics a more serious avenue of research? And what should be said about those who choose such topics?

Personally I think the idea of a ‘basement’ is largely a hold-over from the heyday of behaviorism, when psychologists were seriously concerned about positioning psychology as a hard science. Cognitivism has given rise to an endless bevy of serious topics that would have once been taboo; consciousness, embodiment, and emotion to name a few. Still, in the always-snarky twittersphere, one can’t but help feel that there is still a certain amount of nose thumbing at certain topics.

I think really, in the end, it’s not the topic so much as the method. Chris Frith once told me something to the tune of ‘in [cognitive neuroscience] all the truly interesting phenomenon are beyond proper study’. We know the limitations of brain scans and reaction times, and so tend to cringe a bit when someone tries to trot out the latest silly-super-human special interest infotainment paper.

What do you think? Is there a ‘basement’ for silly research? And if so, what defines what sorts of topics should inhabit its dank confines?

Coming back from a long hiatus in blogging

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I’ve been crazy busy the past year, primarily mastering Matlab and fMRI statistics. It’s been  a good run and I’ve both collected and analyzed a ton of data. In just a little over a year, I’ve completed a longitudinal study of meditation, including two event-related paradigms, resting-state, DTI, high-resolution T1 anatomical data, and a bevy of physiological and behavioral data. On top of that, I collected a similarly broad dataset for my Varela-award study “The Neurophenomenology of Mindfulness: Meta-cognitive Awareness in Adept Contemplatives”. Finally I’ve written and published a first attempt at a broad-based model of social-cognitive action control, the “Pre-loading Model”.

It’s been a pretty intense year, but I’m excited to write-up and publish my results and you can be sure that I’ll be sharing them here first. I look forward to discussing some of the more intriguing bits, and am also excited by the specter of what looks like a fascinating post-doctoral project.

When I look back I can’t believe everything I’ve learned in the year gone. It feels like every inch of my gray matter has been packed with vital information regarding BOLD timeseries and their statistical analysis. Finally sitting down to write something other than code feels great; I can’t believe the way my perspectives and research interests have changed in absorbing all this new knowledge.

As I move from analyzing my data to writing it up, I hope to return to regular blogging, as I believe this is the best place to vent and develop my ideas, in a living and shared format. I’m not sure exactly what direction i’ll take Neuroconscience in the months to come, but I hope to be able to have fun sharing my ideas and experiences with the community.

Switching between executive and default mode networks in posttraumatic stress disorder [excerpts and notes]

From: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2895156/?tool=pubmed

Daniels et al, 2010

We decided to use global scaling because we were not analyzing anticorrelations in this paradigm and because data presented by Fox and colleagues66 and Weissenbacher and coworkers65 indicate that global scaling enhances the detection of system-specific correlations and doubles connection specificity. Weissenbacher and colleagues65 compared different preprocessing approaches in human and simulated data sets and recommend applying global scaling to maximize the specificity of positive resting-state correlations. We used high-pass filtering with a cut-off at 128 seconds to minimize the impact of serial autocorrelations in the fMRI time series that can result from scanner drift.

Very useful methodological clipping!

The control condition was a simple fixation task, requiring attention either to the response instruction or to a line of 5 asterisks in the centre of the screen. We chose this control task to resemble the activation task as closely as possible; it therefore differed considerably from previous resting state analyses because it was relatively short in duration and thus necessitated fast switches between the control condition and the activation task. It also prompted the participants to keep their eyes open and fixated on the stimulus, which has been shown to result in stronger default mode network activations than the closed-eyes condition.60

Good to remember: closed-eyed resting states result in weaker default mode activity.

To ensure frequent switching between an idling state and task-induced activation, we used a block design, presenting the activation task (8 volumes) twice interspersed with the fixation task (4 volumes) within each of 16 imaging runs. Each task was preceded by an instruction block (4 volumes duration), amounting to a total acquisition of 512 volumes per participant. The order of the working memory tasks was counterbalanced between runs and across participants. Full details of this working memory paradigm are provided in the study by Moores and colleagues.6 There were 2 variations of this task in each run concerning the elicited button press response; however, because we were interested in the effects of cognitive effort on default network connectivity, rather than specific effects associated with a particular variation of the task, we combined the response variations to model a single “task” condition for this study. The control condition consisted of periods of viewing either 5 asterisks in the centre of the screen or a notice of which variation of the task would be performed next.

Psychophysiological interaction analyses are designed to measure context-sensitive changes in effective connectivity between one or more brain regions67 by comparing connectivity in one context (in the current study, a working memory updating task) with connectivity during another context (in this case, a fixation condition). We used seed regions in the mPFC and PCC because both these nodes of the default mode network act independently across different cognitive tasks, might subserve different subsystems within the default mode network and have both been associated with alterations in PTSD.8

This paradigm is very interesting. The authors have basically administered a battery of working memory tasks with interspersed rest periods, and carried out ROI inter-correlation, or seed analysis. Using this simple approach, a wide variety of experimenters could investigate task-rest interactions using their existing data sets.

Limitations

The limitations of our results predominantly relate to the PTSD sample studied. To investigate the long-lasting symptoms that accompany a significant reduction of the general level of functioning, we studied alterations in severe, chronic PTSD, which did not allow us to exclude patients taking medications. In addition, the small sample size might have limited the power of our analyses. To avoid multiple testing in a small sample, we only used 2 seed regions for our analyses. Future studies should add a resting state scan without any visual input to allow for comparison of default mode network connectivity during the short control condition and a longer resting state.

The different patterns of connectivity imply significant group differences with task-induced switches (i.e., engaging and disengaging the default mode network and the central-executive network).