Cocktail-Party Neuroscience

By Neuroskeptic | September 11, 2012 6:17 pm

“That’s all very well, but what about the real world?”

This, or something to this effect, is a stock criticism of much of psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Studies of human behavior and brain function under carefully controlled laboratory conditions don’t tell us much about everyday life, the argument goes.

It’s a serious point. But a group of neuroscientists have now sought to dispel such worries in rather spectacular fashion. With the help of some nifty wireless headsets, Alan Gevins and colleagues of San Francisco took electroencephalography (EEG) out of the lab and organized an EEG party – allowing them to record brain electrical activity from 10 people as they chatted and drank vodka martinis. An electroencephalorgy one might say.

This is perhaps the only time in history that scientists have admitted, on record, to getting drunk with their research funding.

Pics or it didn’t happen? They have pics:

And more:

The odd device held by the girl in blue is an alcohol breathalyser, which brings us onto the purpose of the study, which was to measure the effect of alcohol on brain activity.

The authors first measured the effect of alcohol on brain alpha, beta and theta band activity under standard lab conditions, and then checked to see if the results translated to the party. They did, surprisingly well in fact (although the whole thing relied on a multivariate model of the kind that make purists suspicious.)

Still, only 40% of the party data was deemed unusable due to electrical artifacts caused by participants speaking, swallowing, chewing and so forth, which is pretty good, and suggests that real-world EEG could be much more feasible than many neuroscientists would have predicted (given how annoying these sources of noise can be even under lab conditions I’d have guessed it would be more like 90%).

Now I’ll make an admission: when I first read this paper, I was cynical. I felt sure it was some kind of advert for the authors’ products, probably the nifty wireless EEG caps they used. “Oh very clever,” I thought. “You run a wacky study, it goes viral, and you get free advertising. Well, it’s worked on me, but I’m going to call you out on it.”

However, the authors were one step ahead, because the paper assures readers that:

The authors are employed by the San Francisco Brain Research Institute and SAM Technology which are 100% supported by competing research grants from the U.S. Federal Government… The organization only performs research and offers no services or products. None of the authors perform consulting work. It is very unlikely that any corporation, investor, etc. would find it commercially worthwhile to buy or license the technologies that the authors have made to do their research.

OK then.

ResearchBlogging.orgGevins A, Chan CS, and Sam-Vargas L (2012). Towards measuring brain function on groups of people in the real world. PloS one, 7 (9) PMID: 22957099

CATEGORIZED UNDER: drugs, EEG, funny, methods, papers
  • Emilie Reas

    As a former researcher at SAM Technology, I was a “subject” in this cocktail party study. Let me reassure you that the study … or what I can remember of it 😉 … was not only the most fun science I've conducted, but that the lab really does hold the highest standards for their EEG data processing and analysis. I've been curious to hear the scientific community's response to the study and certainly appreciate your positive feedback. Thanks for another great post!

  • Dan

    Seems like a perfect setting to study auditory source separation: the original “cocktail party problem”! (

  • omg

    Looks like a farewell get together at work. Bob is leaving for greener pastures.

    I'd like to see the day scientists pull off a real party.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Emilie Reas: Thanks! It does sound like a blast – I wish I'd been there…!

  • petrossa

    Reminds me of the time the a US government funded research team came to the netherlands to study the effects of stoned driving. They used a highway under construction so they had miles and miles to drive stoned as a bat all wired up.

    Must have had a ball

  • skm

    I'd like if they provided instructions on creating and setting up the hardware used in the cocktail party condition.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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