When is expectation not a confound? On the necessity of active controls.

Learning and plasticity are hot topics in neuroscience. Whether exploring old world wisdom or new age science fiction, the possibility that playing videogames might turn us into attention superheroes or that practicing esoteric meditation techniques might heal troubled minds is an exciting avenue for research. Indeed findings suggesting that exotic behaviors or novel therapeutic treatments might radically alter our brain (and behavior) are ripe for sensational science-fiction headlines purporting vast brain benefits.  For those of you not totally bored of methodological crisis, here we have one brewing anew. You see the standard recommendation for those interested in intervention research is the active-controlled experimental design. Unfortunately in both clinical research on psychotherapy (including meditation) and more Sci-Fi areas of brain training and gaming, use of active controls is rare at best when compared to the more convenient (but causally ineffective) passive control group. Now a new article in Perspectives in Psychological Science suggests that even standard active controls may not be sufficient to rule out confounds in the treatment effect of interest.

Why is that? And why exactly do we need  active controls in the first place? As the authors clearly point out, what you want to show with such a study is the causal efficacy of the treatment of interest. Quite simply what that means is that the thing you think should have some interesting effect should actually be causally responsible for creating that effect. If you want to argue that standing upside down for twenty minutes a day will make me better at playing videogames in Australia, it must be shown that it is actually standing upside down that causes my increased performance down under. If my improved performance on Minecraft Australian Edition is simply a product of my belief in the power of standing upside down, or my expectation that standing upside down is a great way to best kangaroo-creepers, then we have no way of determining what actually produced that performance benefit. Research on placebos and the power of expectations shows that these kinds of subjective beliefs can have a big impact on everything from attentional performance to mortality rates.

Useful flowchart from Boot et al on whether or not a study can make causal claims for treatment.
Useful flowchart from Boot et al on whether or not a study can make causal claims for treatment.

Typically researchers attempt to control for such confounds through the use of a control group performing a task as similar as possible to the intervention of interest. But how do we know participants in the two groups don’t end up with different expectations about how they should improve as a result of the training? Boot et al point out that without actually measuring these variables, we have no idea and no way of knowing for sure that expectation biases don’t produce our observed improvements. They then provide a rather clever demonstration of their concern, in an experiment where participants view videos of various cognition tests as well as videos of a training task they might later receive, in this case either the first-person shooter Unreal Tournament or the spatial puzzle game Tetris. Finally they asked the participants in each group which tests they thought they’d do better on as a result of the training video. Importantly the authors show that not only did UT and Tetris lead to significantly different expectations, but also that those expectation benefits were specific to the modality of trained and tested tasks. Thus participant who watched the action-intensive Unreal Tournament videos expected greater improvements on tests of reaction time and visual performance, whereas participants viewing Tetris rated themselves as likely to do better on tests of spatial memory.

This is a critically important finding for intervention research. Many researchers, myself included, have often thought of the expectation and demand characteristic confounds in a rather general way. Generally speaking until recently I wouldn’t have expected the expectation bias to go much beyond a general “I’m doing something effective” belief. Boot et al show that our participants are a good deal cleverer than that, forming expectations-for-improvement that map onto specific dimensions of training. This means that to the degree that an experimenter’s hypothesis can be discerned from either the training or the test, participants are likely to form unbalanced expectations.

The good news is that the authors provide several reasonable fixes for this dilemma. The first is just to actually measure participant’s expectations, specifically in relation to the measures of interest. Another useful suggestion is to run pilot studies ensuring that the two treatments do not evoke differential expectations, or similarly to check that your outcome measures are not subject to these biases. Boot and colleagues throw the proverbial glove down, daring readers to attempt experiments where the “control condition” actually elicits greater expectations yet the treatment effect is preserved. Further common concerns, such as worries about balancing false positives against false negatives, are address at length.

The entire article is a great read, timely and full of excellent suggestions for caution in future research. It also brought something I’ve been chewing on for some time quite clearly into focus. From the general perspective of learning and plasticity, I have to ask at what point is an expectation no longer a confound. Boot et al give an interesting discussion on this point, in which they suggest that even in the case of balanced expectations and positive treatment effects, an expectation dependent response (in which outcome correlates with expectation) may still give cause for concern as to the causal efficacy of the trained task. This is a difficult question that I believe ventures far into the territory of what exactly constitutes the minimal necessary features for learning. As the authors point out, placebo and expectations effects are “real” products of the brain, with serious consequences for behavior and treatment outcome. Yet even in the medical community there is a growing understanding that such effects may be essential parts of the causal machinery of healing.

Possible outcome of a training experiment, in which the control shows no dependence between expectation and outcome (top panel) and the treatment of interest shows dependence (bottom panel). Boot et al suggest that such a case may invalidate causal claims for treatment efficacy.
Possible outcome of a training experiment, in which the control shows no dependence between expectation and outcome (top panel) and the treatment of interest shows dependence (bottom panel). Boot et al suggest that such a case may invalidate causal claims for treatment efficacy.

To what extent might this also be true of learning or cognitive training? For sure we can assume that expectations shape training outcomes, otherwise the whole point about active controls would be moot. But can one really have meaningful learning if there is no expectation to improve? I realize that from an experimental/clinical perspective, the question is not “is expectation important for this outcome” but “can we observe a treatment outcome when expectations are balanced”. Still when we begin to argue that the observation of expectation-dependent responses in a balanced design might invalidate our outcome findings, I have to wonder if we are at risk of valuing methodology over phenomena. If expectation is a powerful, potentially central mechanism in the causal apparatus of learning and plasticity, we shouldn’t be surprised when even efficacious treatments are modulated by such beliefs. In the end I am left wondering if this is simply an inherent limitation in our attempt to apply the reductive apparatus of science to increasingly holistic domains.

Please do read the paper, as it is an excellent treatment of a critically ignored issue in the cognitive and clinical sciences. Anyone undertaking related work should expect this reference to appear in reviewer’s replies in the near future.

Professor Simons, a co-author of the paper, was nice enough to answer my question on twitter. Simons pointed out that a study that balanced expectation, found group outcome differences, and further found correlations of those differences with expectation could conclude that the treatment was causally efficacious, but that it also depends on expectations (effect + expectation). This would obviously be superior to an unbalanced designed or one without measurement of expectation, as it would actually tell us something about the importance of expectation in producing the causal outcome. Be sure to read through the very helpful FAQ they’ve posted as an addendum to the paper, which covers these questions and more in greater detail. Here is the answer to my specific question:

What if expectations are necessary for a treatment to work? Wouldn’t controlling for them eliminate the treatment effect?

No. We are not suggesting that expectations for improvement must be eliminated entirely. Rather, we are arguing for the need to equate such expectations across conditions. Expectations can still affect the treatment condition in a double-blind, placebo-controlled design. And, it is possible that some treatments will only have an effect when they interact with expectations. But, the key to that design is that the expectations are equated across the treatment and control conditions. If the treatment group outperforms the control group, and expectations are equated, then something about the treatment must have contributed to the improvement. The improvement could have resulted from the critical ingredients of the treatment alone or from some interaction between the treatment and expectations. It would be possible to isolate the treatment effect by eliminating expectations, but that is not essential in order to claim that the treatment had an effect.

In a typical psychology intervention, expectations are not equated between the treatment and control condition. If the treatment group improves more than the control group, we have no conclusive evidence that the ingredients of the treatment mattered. The improvement could have resulted from the treatment ingredients alone, from expectations alone, or from an interaction between the two. The results of any intervention that does not equate expectations across the treatment and control condition cannot provide conclusive evidence that the treatment was necessary for the improvement. It could be due to the difference in expectations alone. That is why double blind designs are ideal, and it is why psychology interventions must take steps to address the shortcomings that result from the impossibility of using a double blind design. It is possible to control for expectation differences without eliminating expectations altogether.

Intrinsic correlations between Salience, Primary Sensory, and Default Mode Networks following MBSR

Going through my RSS backlog today, I was excited to see Kilpatrick et al.’s “Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training on Intrinsic Brain Connectivity” appear in this week’s early view Neuroimage. Although I try to keep my own work focused on primary research in cognition and connectivity, mindfulness-training (MT) is a central part of my research. Additionally, there are few published findings on intrinsic connectivity in this area. Previous research has mainly focused on between-group differences in anatomical structure (gray and white matter for example) and task-related activity. A few more recent studies have gone as far as to randomize participants into wait-listed control and MT groups.

While these studies are interesting, they are of course limited in their scope by several factors. My supervisor Antoine Lutz emphasizes that in addition to our active-controlled research here in Århus, his group at Wisconsin-Madison and others are actively preparing such datasets. Active controls are simply ‘mock’ interventions (or real ones) designed to control for every possible aspect of being involved in an intervention (placebo, community, motivation) in order to isolate the variables specific to that treatment (in this case, meditation, but not sitting, breathing, or feeling special).  Active controls are important as there is a great deal of research demonstrating that cognition itself is susceptible to placebo-like motivational effects. All and all, I’ve seen several active-controlled, cognitive-behavioral studies in review that suggest we should be strongly skeptical of any non-active controlled findings. While I can’t discuss these in detail, I will mention some of these issues in my review of the neuroimage manuscript. It suffices to say however, that if you are working on a passive-controlled study in this area, you had better get it out fast as you can expect reviewers to be greatly tightening their expectations in the coming months, as more and more rigorous papers appear. As Sara Lazar put it during my visit to her lab last summer “the low-hanging fruit of MBSR brain research are rapidly vanishing”. Overall this is a good thing for the community and we’ll see why in a moment.

Now let us turn to the paper at hand. Kilpatrick et al start with a standard summary of MBSR and rsfMRI research, focusing on findings indicating MBSR trains focused attention, sensory introspection/interception and perception. They briefly review now well-established findings indicating that rsfMRI is sensitive to training related changes, including studies that demonstrate the sensitivity of the resting state to conditions such as fatigue, eyes-open vs eyes-closed, and recent sleep. This is all pretty well and good, but I think it’s a bit odd when we see just how they collect their data.

Briefly, they recruited 32 healthy adults for randomization to MBSR and waitlist controls. Controls then complete the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) and receive 8 weeks of diary-logged standard MBSR training. After training, participants are recalled for the rsfMRI scan. An important detail here is that participants are not scanned before and after training, rendering the fMRI portion of the experiment closer to a cross-section than true longitudinal design. At the time of scan, the researchers then give two ‘task-free states’, with and without auditory white noise. The authors indicate that the noise condition is included “to enable new analysis methods not conducted here”, presumably to average out scanner-noise related affects. They later indicate no differences between the two conditions, which causes me to ask how much here is meditation vs focusing-on-scanner-noise specific. Finally, they administer the ‘task free’ states with a slight twist:

“”During this baseline scan of about 5 min, we would like you to again stay as still as possible and be mindfully aware of your surroundings. Please keep your eyes closed during this procedure. Continue to be mindfully aware of whatever you notice in your surroundings and your own sensations. Mindful awareness means that you pay attention to your present moment experience, in this case the changing sounds of the scanner/changing background sounds played through the headphones, and to bring interest and curiosity to how you are responding to them.”

While the manipulation makes sense given the experimenter’s hypothesis concerning sensory processing, an ongoing controversy in resting-state research is just what it is that constitutes ‘rest’. Research here suggests that functional connectivity is sensitive to task-instructions and variations in visual stimulation, and many complain about the lack of specificity within different rest conditions. Kilpatrick et al’s manipulation makes sense given that what they really want to see is meditation-related alterations, but it’s a dangerous leap without first establishing the relationship between ‘true rest’ and their ‘auditory meditation’ condition. Research on the impact of scanner-noise indicates some degree of noise-related nuisance effects, and also some functionally significant effects. If you’ve never been in an MR experiment, the scanner is LOUD. During my first scan I actually started feeling claustrophobic due to the oppressive machine-gun like noise of the gradient coil. Anyway, it’s really troubling that Kilpatrick et al don’t include a totally task-free set for comparison, and I’m hesitant to call this a resting-state finding without further clarification.

The study is extremely interesting, but it’s important to note it’s limitations:

  1. Lack of active control- groups are not controlled for motivation.
  2. No pre/post scan.
  3. Novel resting state without comparison condition.
  4. Findings are discussed as ‘training related’ without report of correlation with reported practice hours.
  5. Anti-correlations reported with global-signal nuisance regression. No discussion of possible regression related inducement (see edit).
  6. Discussion of findings is unclear; reported as greater DMN x Auditory correlation, but the independent component includes large portions of the salience network.

Ultimately they identify a “auditory/salience” independent component network (ICN) (primary auditory, STG, posterior Insula, ACC, and lateral frontal cortex) and then conduct seed-regression analyses of the network with areas of the DMN and Dorsal Attention Network (DAN). I find it highly strange that they pick up a network that seems to conflate primary sensory and salience regions, as do the researchers who state “Therefore, the ICN was labeled as “auditory/salience”. It is unclear why the components split differently in our sample, perhaps the instructions that brought attention to auditory input altered the covariance structure somewhat.” Given the lack of motivational control in the study, the issues in this study begin to pile onto one another and I am not sure what we can really conclude. They further find that the MBSR group demonstrates greater “auditory/salience x DMN connectivity”, “greater visual and auditory functional connectivity” (see image below). They also report several increased anti-correlations, between the aud/sal network, dMPFC and visual regions. I find this to be an extremely tantalizing finding as it would reflect a decrease in processing automaticity amongst the SAL, CEN, and DMN networks. There are some serious problems with these kinds of analysis that the authors don’t address, and so we again must reserve any strong conclusions. Here is what Kilpatrick et al conclude:

“The current findings extend the results of prior studies that showed meditation-related changes in specific brain regions active during attention and sensory processing by providing evidence that MBSR trained compared to untrained subjects, during a focused attention instruction, have increased connectivity within sensory networks and between regions associated with attentional processes and those in the attended sensory cortex. In addition they show greater differentiation between regions associated with attentional processes and the unattended sensory cortex as well as greater differentiation between attended and unattended sensory networks”

As is typical, the list of findings is quite long and I won’t bother re-stating it all here. Given the resting instructions it seems clear that the freshly post-MBSR participants are likely to have engaged a pretty dedicated set of cognitive operations during the scan. Yet it’s totally unclear what the control group would do given these contemplative instructions. Presumably they’d just lie in the scanner and try not to tune out the noise- but you can see here how it’s not clear that these conditions are really that comparable without having some idea of what’s going on. In essence what you (might) have here is one group actually doing something (meditation) and the other group not doing much at all. Ideally you want to see how training impacts the underlying process in a comparable way. Motivation has been repeatedly linked to BOLD signal intensity and in this case, it could very well be that these findings are simple artifacts of motivation to perform. If one group is actually practicing mindfulness and the other isn’t, you have not isolated the variable of interest. The authors could have somewhat alleviated this by including data from the additional pain task (“not reported here”) and/or at least giving us a correlation of the findings with the MAAS scale. I emphasize that I do find the findings of this paper interesting- they map extremely well onto my own hypotheses about how RSNs interact with mindfulness training, but that we must interpret them with caution.

Overall I think this was a project with a strong theoretical motivation and some very interesting ideas. One problem with looking at state-mindfulness in the scanner is the cramped, noisy environment. I think Kilpatrick et al had a great idea in their attempt to use the noise itself as a manipulation. Further, the findings make a good deal of sense. Still, given the above limitation, it’s important to be really careful with our conclusions. At best, this study warrants an extremely rigorous follow-up, and I wish neuroimage had published it with a bit more information, such as the status of any rest-MAAS correlations. Anyway, this post has gotten quite long and I think I’d best get back to work- for my next post I think I’ll go into more detail about some of the issues confront resting state (what is “rest”?) and mindfulness (role of active controls for community, motivation, and placebo effects) and what they mean for resting-state research.

edit: just realized I never explained limitation #5. See my “beautiful noise” slides (previous post) regarding the controversy of global signal regression and anti-correlation. Simply put, there is somewhat convincing evidence that this procedure (designed to eliminate low-frequency nuisance co-variates) may actually mathematically induce anti-correlations where none exist, probably due to regression to the mean. While it’s not a slam-dunk (see response by Fox et al), it’s an extremely controversial area and all anti-correlative findings should be interpreted in light of this possibility.

If you like this post please let me know in the comments! If I can get away with rambling about this kind of stuff, I’ll do so more frequently.

My response to Carr and Pinker on Media Plasticity

Our ongoing discussion regarding the moral panic surrounding Nicolas Carr’s book The Shallows continues over at Carr’s blog today, with his recent response to Pinker’s slamming the book. I maintain that there are good and bad (frightening!!) things in both accounts. Namely, Pinker’s stolid refusal to acknowledge the research I’ve based my entire PhD on, and Carr’s endless fanning of the one-sided moral panic.

Excerpt from Carr’s Blog:

Steven Pinker and the Internet

And then there’s this: “It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people.” Exactly. And that’s another cause for concern. Our most valuable mental habits – the habits of deep and focused thought – must be learned, and the way we learn them is by practicing them, regularly and attentively. And that’s what our continuously connected, constantly distracted lives are stealing from us: the encouragement and the opportunity to practice reflection, introspection, and other contemplative modes of thought. Even formal research is increasingly taking the form of “power browsing,” according to a 2008 University College London study, rather than attentive and thorough study. Patricia Greenfield, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA, warned in a Science article last year that our growing use of screen-based media appears to be weakening our “higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.”

As someone who has enjoyed and learned a lot from Steven Pinker’s books about language and cognition, I was disappointed to see the Harvard psychologist write, in Friday’s New York Times, a cursory op-ed column about people’s very real concerns over the Internet’s influence on their minds and their intellectual lives. Pinker seems to dismiss out of hand the evidence indicating that our intensifying use of the Net and related digital media may be reducing the depth and rigor of our thoughts. He goes so far as to assert that such media “are the only things that will keep us smart.” And yet the evidence he offers to support his sweeping claim consists largely of opinions and anecdotes, along with one very good Woody Allen joke.

Right here I would like to point out the kind of leap Carr is making. I’d really like a closer look at the supposed evidence demonstrating  “our intensifying use of the Net and related digital media may be reducing the depth and rigor of our thoughts.” This is a huge claim! How does one define the ‘depth’ and ‘rigor’ of our thoughts? I know of exactly one peer-reviewed high impact paper demonstrating a loss of specifically executive function in heavy-media multi-taskers. While there is evidence that generally speaking, multi-tasking can interfere with some forms of goal-directed activity, I am aware of no papers directly linking specific forms of internet behavior to a drop in executive function. Furthermore, the HMM paper included in it’s measure of multi-tasking ‘watching tv’, ‘viewing funny videos’, and ‘playing videogames’. I don’t know about you, but for me there is definitely a difference between ‘work’ multitasking, in which I focus and work through multiple streams, and ‘play’ multitasking, in which I might casually surf the net while watching TV. The second claim is worse- what exactly is ‘depth’? And how do we link it to executive functioning?

Is Carr claiming people with executive function deficits are incapable or impaired in thinking creatively? If it takes me 10 years to publish a magnum opus, have I thought less deeply than the author that cranks out a feature length popular novel every 2 years? Depth involves a normative judgment of what separates ‘good’ thinking from ‘bad’ thinking, and to imply there is some kind of peer-reviewed consensus here is patently false. In fact, here is a recent review paper on fmri creativity research (is this depth?) indicating that the existing research is so incredibly disparate and poorly defined as to be untenable. That’s the problem with Carr’s claims- he oversimplifies both the diversity of internet usage and the existing research on executive and creative function. To be fair to Carr, he does go on to do a fair job of dismantling Pinker’s frighteningly dogmatic rejection of generalizable brain plasticity research:

One thing that didn’t surprise me was Pinker’s attempt to downplay the importance of neuroplasticity. While he acknowledges that our brains adapt to shifts in the environment, including (one infers) our use of media and other tools, he implies that we need not concern ourselves with the effects of those adaptations. Because all sorts of things influence the brain, he oddly argues, we don’t have to care about how any one thing influences the brain. Pinker, it’s important to point out, has an axe to grind here. The growing body of research on the adult brain’s remarkable ability to adapt, even at the cellular level, to changing circumstances and new experiences poses a challenge to Pinker’s faith in evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics. The more adaptable the brain is, the less we’re merely playing out ancient patterns of behavior imposed on us by our genetic heritage.

Here is my response, posted on Nick’s blog:

Hi Nick,

As you know from our discussion at my blog, I’m not really a fan of the extreme views given by either you or Pinker. However, I applaud the thorough rebuttal you’ve given here to Stephen’s poorly researched response. As someone doing my PhD in neuroplasticity and cognitive technology, it absolutely infuriated me to see Stephen completely handwave away a decade of solid research showing generalizable cognitive gains from various forms of media-practice. To simply ignore findings from, for example the Bavalier lab, that demonstrate reliable and highly generalizable cognitive and visual gains and plasticity is to border on the unethically dogmatic.

Pinker isn’t well known for being flexible within cognitive science however; he’s probably the only person even more dogmatic about nativist modularism than Fodor. Unfortunately, Stephen enjoys a large public following and his work has really been embraced by the anti-religion ‘brights’ movement. While on some levels I appreciate this movement’s desire to promote rationality, I cringe at how great scholars like Dennett and Pinker seem totally unwilling to engage with the expanding body of research that casts a great deal of doubt on the 1980’s era cogsci they built their careers on.

So I give you kudos there. I close as usual, by saying that you’re presenting a ‘sexy’ and somewhat sensationalistic account that while sure to sell books and generate controversy, is probably based more in moral panic than sound theory. I have no doubt that the evidence you’ve marshaled demonstrates the cognitive potency of new media. Further, I’m sure you are aware of the heavy-media multitasking paper demonstrating a drop in executive functioning in HMMs.

However, you neglect in the posts I’ve seen to emphasize what those authors clearly did: that these findings are not likely to represent a true loss of function but rather are indicators of a shift in cognitive style. Your unwillingness to declare the normative element in your thesis regarding ‘deep thought’ is almost as chilling as Pinker’s total refusal to acknowledge the growing body of plasticity research. Simply put, I think you are aware that you’ve conflated executive processing with ‘deep thinking’, and are not really making the case that we know to be true.

Media is a tool like any other. It’s outcome measures are completely dependent on how we use it and our individual differences. You could make this case quite well with your evidence, but you seem to embrace the moral panic surrounding your work. It’s obvious that certain patterns, including the ones probably driving your collected research, will play on our plasticity to create cognitive differences. Plasticity is limited however, and you really don’t play on the most common theme in mental training literature: balance and trade-off. Your failure to acknowledge the economical and often conservative nature of the brain forces me to lump your work in with the decade that preceded your book, in which it was proclaimed that violent video games and heavy metal music would rot our collective minds. These things didn’t happen, except in those who where already at high risk, and furthermore they produced unanticipated cognitive gains. I think if you want to be on the ‘not wrong’ side of history, you may want to introduce a little flexibility to your argument. I guess if it makes you feel better, for many in the next generation of cognition researchers, it’s already too late for a dogmatic thinker like Pinker.

Final thoughts?

Google Wave for Scholarly Co-authorship: excerpt from Neuroplasticity and Consciousness Abstract

Gary Williams and I are working together on a paper investigating the consciousness and neuroplasticity. We’re using Google wave for this collaboration, and I must say it is an excellent co-authorship tool. There is nothing quite so neat as watching your ideas flow and meld together in real time. There are now new built in document templates that make these kinds of projects a blast. As an added bonus, all edits are identified and tracked in real time, letting you keep easy track of who wrote what. One of the most suprising things to come out of this collaboration is the newness of the thoughts. Whatever it is we end up arguing, it is definetely not reducible to the sum of it’s parts. As a teaser, I thought I’d post a thread from the wave I made this morning. This is basically just me rambling on about consciousness and plasticity after reading the results of our wave. I wish I could post the movie of our edits, but that will have to wait for the paper’s submission.

I have an idea I want to work in that was provoked by this paper:

Somewhere in here I still feel a nagging paradox, but I can’t seem to put my finger on it. Maybe I’m simply trying to explain something I don’t have an explanation for. I’m not sure. Consider this a list of thoughts that may or may not have any relationship to the kind of account we want to make here.

They basically show that different synthesthetic experiences have different neural correlates in the structural brain matter. I think it would be nice to tie our paper to the (likely) focus of the other papers; the idea of changing qualia / changing NCCs. Maybe we can argue that, due to neural plasticity, we should not expect ‘neural representations’ for sensory experience between any two adults to be identical; rather we should expect that every individual develops their own unique representational qualia that are partially ineffable. Then we can argue that it this is precisely why we must rely on narrative scaffolding to make sense of the world; it is only through practice with narrative, engendered by frontal plasticity, that we can understand the statistical similarities between our qualia and others. Something is not quite right in this account though… and our abstract is basically fine as is.

So, I have my own unique qualia that are constantly changing- my qualia and NCCs are in dynamical flux with one another. However, my embodiment pre-configures my sensory experience to have certain common qualities across the species. Narrative explanations of the world are grounded in capturing this intersubjectivity; they are linguistic representations of individual sense impressions woven together by cultural practices and schema. What we want to say is that, I am able to learn about the world through narrative practice precisely because I am able to map my own unique sensory representations onto others.

I guess that last part of what I said is still weak, but it seems like this could be a good element to explore in the abstract. It keeps us from being too far away from the angle of the call though, maybe. I can’t figure out exactly what I want to say. There are a few elements:

  • Narratives are co-created, coherent, shareable, complex representations of the world that encode temporality, meaning, and intersubjectivity.
  • I’m able to learn about these representations of the world through narrative practice; by mapping my own unique dynamic sensory experience to the sensory and folk psychological narratives of others.
  • Narrative encodes sensory experience in ways that transcend the limits of personal qualia; they are offloaded and are no longer dynamic in the same way.
  • Sensory experience is in constant flux and can be thrown out of alignment with narrative, as in the case of most psychopathy.
  • I need some way to structure this flux; narrative is intersubjective and it provides second order qualia??
  • Narrative must be plastic as it is always growing; the relations between events, experiences, and sensory representations must always be shifting. Today I may really enjoy the smell of flowers and all the things that come with them (memory of a past girlfriend, my enjoyment of things that smell sweet, the association I have with hunger). But tommorow I might get buried alive in some flowers; now my sensory representation for flowers is going to have all new associations. I may attend to a completely different set of salient factors; I might find that the smell now reminds me of a grave, that I remember my old girlfriend was a nasty bitch, and that I’m allergic to sweet things. This must be reflected in the connective weights of the sensory representations; the overall connectivity map has been altered because a node (the flower node) has been drastically altered by a contra-narrative sensory trauma.
  • I think this is a crucial account and it helps explain the role of the default mode in consciousness. On this account, the DMN is the mechanism driving reflective, spontaneous narrativization of the world. These oscillations are akin to the constant labeling and scanning of my sensory experience. That they in sleep probably indicates that this process is highly automatic and involved in memory formation. As introspective thoughts begin to gain coherency and collude together, they gain greater roles in my over all conscious self-narrative.
  • So I think this is what I want to say: our pre-frontal default mode is system is in constant flux. The nodes are all plastic, and so is the pattern of activations between them. This area is fundamentally concerned with reflective-self relatedness and probably develops through childhood interaction. Further, there is an important role of control here. I think that a primary function of social-constructive brain areas is in the control of action. Early societies developed complex narrative rule systems precisely to control and organize group action. This allowed us to transcend simple brute force and begin to coordinate action and to specialize in various agencies. The medial prefrontal cortex, the central node, fundementally invoked in acts of social cognition and narrative comprehension, has massive reciprocal connectivity to limbic areas, and also pre-frontal areas concerned with reward and economic decision making.
  • We need a plastic default mode precisely to allow for the kinds of radical enculturation we go through during development. It is quite difficult to teach an infant, born with the same basic equipment as a caveman, the intricacies of mathematics and philosophy. Clearly narrative comprehension requires a massive amount of learning; we must learn all of the complex cultural nuances that define us as modern humans.
  • Maybe sensory motor coupling and resonance allow for the simulation of precise spatiotemporal activity patterns. This intrinsic activity is like a constant ‘reading out’ of the dynamic sensory representations that are being constantly updated, through neuroplasticity; whatever the totality of the connection weights, that is my conscious narrative of my experience.
  • Back to the issue of control. It’s clear to me that the prefrontal default system is highly sensitive to intersubjective or social information/cues. I think there is really something here about offloading intentions, which are relatively weak constructions, into the group, where they can be collectively acted upon (like in the drug addict/rehab example). So maybe one role of my narration system is simply to vocalize my sensory experience (I’m craving drugs. I can’t stop craving drugs) so that others can collectively act on them.

Well there you have it. I have a feeling this is going to be a great paper. We’re going to try and flip the whole debate on it’s head and argue for a central role of plasticity in embodied and narrative consciousness. It’s great fun to be working with Gary again; his mastery of philosophy of mind and phenomenology are quite fearsome, and we’ve been developing these ideas forever. I’ll be sure to post updates from GWave as the project progresses.

Snorkeling ’the shallows’: what’s the cognitive trade-off in internet behavior?

I am quite eager to comment on the recent explosion of e-commentary regarding Nicolas Carr’s new book. Bloggers have already done an excellent job summarizing the response to Carr’s argument. Further, Clay Shirky and Jonah Lehrer have both argued convincingly that there’s not much new about this sort of reasoning. I’ve also argued along these lines, using the example of language itself as a radical departure from pre-linguistic living. Did our predecessors worry about their brains as they learned to represent the world with odd noises and symbols?

Surely they did not. And yet we can also be sure that the brain underwent a massive revolution following the acquisition of language. Chomsky’s linguistics would of course obscure this fact, preferring us to believe that our linguistic abilities are the amalgation of things we already possessed: vision, problem solving, auditory and acoustic control. I’m not going to spend too much time arguing against the modularist view of cognition however; chances are if you are here reading this, you are already pretty convinced that the brain changes in response to cultural adaptations.

It is worth sketching out a stock Chomskyian response however. Strict nativists, like Chomsky, hold that our language abilities are the product of an innate grammar module. Although typically agnostic about the exact source of this module (it could have been a genetic mutation for example), nativists argue that plasticity of the brain has no potential other than slightly enhancing or decreasing our existing abilities. You get a language module, a cognition module, and so on, and you don’t have much choice as to how you use that schema or what it does. The development of anguage on this view wasn’t something radically new that changed the brain of its users but rather a novel adaptation of things we already and still have.

To drive home the point, it’s not suprising that notable nativist Stephen Pinker is quoted as simply not buying the ‘changing our brains’ hypothesis:

“As someone who believes both in human nature and in timeless standards of logic and evidence, I’m skeptical of the common claim that the Internet is changing the way we think. Electronic media aren’t going to revamp the brain’s mechanisms of information processing, nor will they supersede modus ponens or Bayes’ theorem. Claims that the Internet is changing human thought are propelled by a number of forces: the pressure on pundits to announce that this or that “changes everything”; a superficial conception of what “thinking” is that conflates content with process; the neophobic mindset that “if young people do something that I don’t do, the culture is declining.” But I don’t think the claims stand up to scrutiny.”

Pinker makes some good points- I agree that a lot of hype is driven by the kinds of thinking he mentions. Yet, I do not at all agree that electronic media cannot and will not revamp our mechanisms for information processing. In contrast to the nativist account, I think we’ve better reason than ever to suspect that the relation between brain and cognition is not 1:1 but rather dynamic, evolving with us as we develop new tools that stimulate our brains in unique and interesting ways.

The development of language massively altered the functioning of our brain. Given the ability to represent the world externally, we no longer needed to rely on perceptual mechanisms in the same way. Our ability to discriminate amongst various types of plant, or sounds, is clearly sub-par to that of our non-linguistic brethren. And so we come full circle. The things we do change our brains. And it is the case that our brains are incredibly economical. We know for example that only hours after limb amputation, our somatosensory neurons invade the dormant cells, reassigning them rather than letting them die off. The brain is quite massively plastic- Nicolas Carr certainly gets that much right.

Perhaps the best way to approach this question is with an excerpt from social media. I recently asked of my fellow tweeps,

To which an astute follower replied:

Now, I do realize that this is really the central question in the ‘shallows’ debate. Moving from the basic fact that our brains are quite plastic, we all readily accept that we’re becoming the subject of some very intense stimulation. Most social media, or general internet users, shift rapidly from task to task, tweet to tweet. In my own work flow, I may open dozens and dozens of tabs, searching for that one paper or quote that can propel me to a new insight. Sometimes I get confused and forget what I was doing. Yet none of this interferes at all with my ‘deep thinking’. Eventually I go home and read a fantastic sci-fi book like Snowcrash. My imagination of the book is just as good as ever; and I can’t wait to get online and start discussing it. So where is the trade-off?

So there must be a trade-off, right? Tape a kitten’s eyes shut and its visual cortex is re-assigned to other sensory modalities. The brain is a nasty economist, and if we’re stimulating one new thing we must be losing something old. Yet what did we lose with language? Perhaps we lost some vestigial abilities to sense and smell. Yet we gained the power of the sonnet, the persuasion of rhetoric, the imagination of narrative, the ability to travel to the moon and murder the earth.

In the end, I’m just not sure it’s the right kind of stimulation. We’re not going to lose our ability to read in fact, I think I can make an extremely tight argument against the specific hypothesis that the internet robs us of our ability to deep-think. Deep thinking is itself a controversial topic. What exactly do we mean by it? Am I deep thinking if I spend all day shifting between 9 million tasks? Nicolas Carr says no, but how can he be sure those 9 million tasks are not converging around a central creative point?

I believe, contrary to Carr, that internet and social media surfing is a unique form of self stimulation and expression. By interacting together in the millions through networks like twitter and facebook, we’re building a cognitive apparatus that, like language, does not function entirely within the brain. By increasing access to information and the customizability of that access, we’re ensuring that millions of users have access to all kinds of thought-provoking information. In his book, Carr says things like ‘on the internet, there’s no time for deep thought. it’s go go go’. But that is only one particular usage pattern, and it ignores ample research suggesting that posts online may in fact be more reflective and honest than in-person utterances (I promise, I am going to do a lit review post soon!)

Today’s internet user doesn’t have to conform to whatever Carr thinks is the right kind of deep-thought. Rather, we can ‘skim the shallows’ of twitter and facebook for impressions, interactions, and opinions. When I read a researcher, I no longer have to spend years attending conferences to get a personal feel for them. I can instead look at their wikipedia, read the discussion page, see what’s being said on twitter. In short, skimming the shallows makes me better able to choose the topics I want to investigate deeply, and lets me learn about them in whatever temporal pattern I like. Youtube with a side of wikipedia and blog posts? Yes please. It’s a multi-modal whole brain experience that isn’t likely to conform to ‘on/off’ dichotomies. Sure, something may be sacrificed, but it may not be. It might be that digital technology has enough of the old (language, vision, motivation) plus enough of the new that it just might constitute or bring about radically new forms of cognition. These will undoubtably change or cognitive style, perhaps obsoleting Pinker’s Bayesian mechanisms in favor of new digitally referential ones.

So I don’t have an answer for you yet ToddStark. I do know however, that we’re going to have to take a long hard look at the research review by Carr. Further, it seems quite clear that there can be no one-sided view of digital media. It’s not anymore intrinsically good or bad than language. Language can be used to destroy nations just as it can tell a little girl a thoughtful bed time story. If we’re to quick to make up our minds about what internet-cognition is doing to our plastic little brains, we might miss the forest for the trees. The digital media revolution gives us the chance to learn just what happens in the brain when its’ got a shiny new tool. We don’t know the exact nature of the stimulation, and finding out is going to require a look at all the evidence, for and against. Further, it’s a gross oversimplification to talk about internet behavior as ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’. Research on usage and usability tells us this; there are many ways to use the internet, and some of them probably get us thinking much deeper than others.

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.