Can Psychology Be an Empirical Science?

By Neuroskeptic | January 2, 2016 8:24 am

In a provocative new paper, Norwegian psychologist Jan Smedslund argues that psychology “cannot be an empirical science”. Smedslund is a veteran of the field; his first paper was published in 1953.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, philosophy, science, select, Top Posts

Sleep Deprivation Alters Brain Connectivity

By Neuroskeptic | January 1, 2016 5:47 am

Missing out on a night’s sleep causes “robust alterations” in the functional connectivity of the brain, according to a new paper just out in Neuroimage.

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Martyrs to Science? When Research Participants Die

By Neuroskeptic | December 29, 2015 4:40 am

In a short piece for the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, Susan E. Lederer discusses what happens when research participants die in the course of medical research.


Lederer opens by noting that in the 1950s, little outrage greeted the reports of deaths among volunteers. For instance:
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, history, papers, select, Top Posts

Only 2% of People Will Return A Christmas Card From A Stranger

By Neuroskeptic | December 20, 2015 6:26 am

neurochristmasIf you got a Christmas card in the mail from a complete stranger, would you send them one back?

Surprisingly, this isn’t a purely hypothetical question. Social psychologists have used Christmas cards from a stranger as a model to research the ‘reciprocity norm’ – the expectation that you should return a favor, and help someone who helps you.

In 1976, researchers Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott sent cards to a random sample of 578 Americans. Overall, they found that 20% of the recipients sent a card back – with rates being higher if the card they received was higher quality, or if they lived in a rural area. Twenty four years later, Kunz (2000) replicated his Christmas card study, again finding that 20% of strangers responded with a card.

But now, social psychologist Brian P. Meier reports a very different finding. He sent cards, hand-signed with his name and address, to 755 Americans randomly selected from a directory. Only 2% of them sent him a card in return! From 20% to 2% seems like a dramatic decline in Christmas good cheer. Perhaps this is why Meier titled his paper Bah Humbug: Unexpected Christmas Cards and the Reciprocity Norm.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, select, Top Posts

The Case of the Bishop’s Brain

By Neuroskeptic | December 17, 2015 6:33 am

In an unusual new paper, a group of German neuroscientists report that they scanned the brain of a Catholic bishop: Does a bishop pray when he prays? And does his brain distinguish between different religions?

The researchers were Sarita Silveira and colleagues of Munich, and they used fMRI to measure brain activity in “a German bishop aged 72 years”. He’s said to be “an eminent representative of the Catholic Church in Germany.”

I assume he removed his mitre before entering the scanner.

the brain of a bishopSilveira et al. had the bishop perform some religious-themed tasks, but the most interesting result was that there was no detectable difference in brain activity when the bishop was praying, compared to when he was told to do nothing in particular (i.e. the resting state).

The authors say that “For the resting-state scan, the bishop was instructed to keep his eyes closed without falling asleep and not to think of anything in particular.” Then he was asked to pray: “The bishop was asked to keep his eyes closed and to continuously pray in his mind the ‘Our Father’ prayer” Each condition lasted 10 minutes.

It turned out that there were functional connectivity did not differ between the resting and the praying periods. This led Silveira et al. to the somewhat cryptic conclusion that “a highly religious person may pray always – or never.”



Perhaps this is not so surprising. The brain’s resting state networks are active whenever we’re not performing a ‘task’. But mentally reciting the well-known Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) is unlikely to be a demanding task for a Bishop, or for any Catholic really.

I mean, even I, an atheist, can still recall that prayer verbatim because I went to a church school twenty years ago. I could mentally recite it for 10 minutes, but I wouldn’t really be ‘praying’, just reciting. Perhaps Silveira et al. should have scanned Richard Dawkins as an atheist control group.

The authors also acknowledge that “Our interpretation of the absence of effects is partly based on accepting the null hypothesis of nonsignificant effects… the absence of evidence does not imply the evidence of absence.”

ResearchBlogging.orgSilveira S, Bao Y, Wang L, Pöppel E, Avram M, Simmank F, Zaytseva Y, & Blautzik J (2015). Does a bishop pray when he prays? And does his brain distinguish between different religions? PsyCh journal, 4 (4), 199-207 PMID: 26663626

CATEGORIZED UNDER: fMRI, papers, religionism, select, Top Posts

PubPeer and Anonymity in Science

By Neuroskeptic | December 12, 2015 10:40 am


anonymity_scienceEarlier this week Times Higher Education (THE) published a very interesting piece called Should post-publication peer review be anonymous? It takes the form of an exchange of open letters between the organizers of PubPeer, an online forum which allows scientists to post anonymous comments about any published paper, and Professor Philip Moriarty, a physicist at the University of Nottingham (wh0 has been featured on this blog before).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, ethics, select, Top Posts

A Paradigm Shift for the Motor Cortex?

By Neuroskeptic | December 11, 2015 5:56 am

Many people will be familiar with this rather strange image:


It’s a depiction of the motor homunculus, which is essentially a “map” of the body located in the brain. The image shows how different spots of the primary motor cortex control different parts of the body.

So, for instance, the spot I’ve highlighted in red corresponds to the muscles in the thumb. If you were to stimulate this spot, say using an electrode, it would cause the thumb to twitch. By stimulating different points and seeing what happened, the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield first mapped the motor homunculus in 1937 and this account has become the orthodox view of how the motor cortex is organized.

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False Positive fMRI Revisited

By Neuroskeptic | December 7, 2015 5:58 pm

A new paper reports that one of the most popular approaches to analyzing fMRI data is flawed. The article, available as a preprint on arXiv, is from Swedish neuroscientists Anders Eklund et al.


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Do Bilingual People Have a Cognitive Advantage?

By Neuroskeptic | December 4, 2015 12:54 pm


For years, psychologists have been debating the “bilingual advantage” – the idea that speaking more than one language fluently brings with it cognitive benefits. Believers and skeptics in the theory have been trading blows for a while, but matters recently came to a head in the form of a series of papers in the journal Cortex.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: FixingScience, science, select, Top Posts

Real Data Are Messy

By Neuroskeptic | November 27, 2015 6:29 am


Over at the sometimes i’m wrong blog, psychologist Michael Inzlicht tells A Tale of Two Papers.

Inzlicht describes how, as associate editor at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, he rejected a certain manuscript. He did so despite the fact that the peer review reports had been very positive. The article reported 7 studies, all of which found nice, statistically significant evidence for the hypothesis in question.

So why reject it? Because, to Inzlicht, it was just too good to be true. Real data just aren’t that consistent, suggesting that the results had been made more consistent through p-hacking, selective reporting, or other biases. So he did not accept the paper, and told the authors his concerns.

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No brain. No gain.

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