Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Christmas, Gifts, and the Gifted.

I was originally going to post some photos from a recent celebration the School of Psychology had, but I stumbled upon an article that I thought was far more interesting. Nature’s website reports that Kim Peek passed away yesterday, 23 December, 2009. Kim had some amazing abilities, like being able to read two pages of a book at once - the left page with his left eye and the right page with his right eye.

Not only could Kim read two pages at once, but he could do it in about 10 seconds, and could read even if the book was upside down. As if that’s not enough, Kim retained about 98% of the information he read, and could recall any bit of information from any of the 9000 books that he had ever read!

Brain scans performed in the 1980’s showed that Kim was missing a corpus collosum - the membrane that connects the two halves of the brain. (If you’re interested in pictures of the brain scan, check out this article.)

These skills didn’t necessarily make Kim’s life easier. In fact, Kim was quite disabled and, when he was only a few years old, his parents were encouraged (but didn’t) admit him to a mental hospital and forget he existed. His motor and social skills were poor, and his father had to care for him 24 hours a day.

In the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman played a character based on Kim Peek. Not only did the writer win an Oscar for this movie which he later gave to Kim, but the movie seemed to help Kim’s social skills. Kim himself said that he couldn’t look people in the eye until he met Dustin Hoffman.

Below, I have embedded part one of a five part documentary on Kim Peek that I encourage everyone to watch. As inspiring as Kim’s abilities were, to me Kim’s father, Fran, is also hugely inspiring. Fran showed amazing patience with his son, and his love and care for Kim is obvious in the documentary.

At the risk of finishing on a sad note, Fran’s Christmas will likely be a lonely one this year. But thanks to Fran’s love and constant nurturing of his son, the world got to meet Kim Peek and witness some of the brain’s amazing abilities. Thank you Fran for sharing your and Kim’s lives with the world - it was truly a gift.

Regardless of whether or not you celebrate Christmas, everyone from the UQ Psyc Blog would like to wish our readers a fun, relaxing and safe break!

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What does it take to do a PhD?

Students often ask me whether I think they could do a PhD, or whether they should rather do a Masters, go clinical, etc… I got my PhD in Psychology two years ago, in Germany, and won a couple of dissertation prizes and so I guess you could say I was a successful PhD student. However, more importantly, I was a very happy PhD student. I didn’t do a Masters etc., but I can maybe tell you one or two things about the PhD. Obviously, what I’m going to say isn’t valid for every University, Department, or even every Psychologist at UQ, and your potential PhD experience will depend a great deal on your supervisor, but hopefully I can give you an impression of whether or not you would have a good time doing a PhD.

In general, I think, you’ll have a fantastic time as a PhD student if you’re cut out to be a researcher, that is, if you think, act and work like a researcher. What does it take to be a researcher? Here are some of my ideas – very subjective and idiosyncratic, obviously, but maybe it’ll help you.

First, researchers don’t have anybody who works out their schedule for the day, they have no direct supervision, no boss to tell them what to do. You, as a PhD student, will have your own project, and you’ll be ultimately responsible for the progress. There will be a million things you need to know (both knowing how and knowing that), but no one to teach you. Supervisors may be helpful or they may be a hindrance. You may have to seek advice from others, and teach yourself one or two things without anybody helping you. Do you believe that you can learn without a teacher? Or do you even like learning new things autonomously? That’s really essential. Another important factor is: Can you discipline yourself, and do the things that are necessary, instead of only the things you like best? That’s important for your progress.

Second, successful researchers usually come in two broad flavours: critical or creative. Have you ever been praised for your critical or creative thinking? Have you ever excelled in a course where this was demanded? If not, don’t despair. If yes, that’s a good indicator that you have what it takes to be a researcher (because our prime job is to extend the current knowledge pool).

Third, there’s a reason that the most successful researchers often seem to be absent-minded: They are really involved with their research, they think about their project all the time. They often put in more hours than just 7, 8 hours per day, and when they go home, they take their research with them. Are you capable of working 12-14 hours a day? Are you prepared to work on a weekend? Have you ever been really involved with a topic, up to the point of becoming real fanatic about it? That’s a great plus.

With motivation and discipline, you can obviously learn everything that’s required to do research. However, one important thing is writing skills: If you don’t have good writing skills, it’s going to be difficult for you. You may overcome these difficulties, but it probably won’t be much fun. So you may be off better choosing another good job instead of researcher/PhD student: No reason to make it harder for you, right?

Hope this helps!!! Cheers, Stefanie.
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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sense and Sensibility

I am very fortunate to share an office with an awesome group of guys. Our office is known as ‘The Cave’ for the simple reason it is located deep in the dingy basement of the psychology building, down the hall from where experimental ‘participants’ are kept. We all realise the importance of enjoying the environment you work in (even a psychology basement) and have created the concept of office ‘vibe’, which simply aims to increase the inhabitants’ satisfaction with their working environment. When you walk into The Cave you can tell the place has vibe. Office members should aim to uphold vibe and never quash it.

The Cave inherited an old whiteboard that was just taking up space. Clinton, senior Cave inhabitant, remembered what an old designer friend had done with their disused whiteboard, and so the Sensibility Graph was introduced. Sensibility is a measure of how sensible someone is, or of how much sense they are making. The graph is quite simple, each office member is represented by a different coloured line. Time, in days, is along the x-axis and sensibility is along the y-axis, so the higher on the graph someone
is, the more sensible they are.

The graph has been going for a couple weeks and up until this point it has just been a bit of a laugh; office members would decide whether someone was being sensible or not and arbitrarily decide by how much. But let’s get serious here, we are scientists after all! This measure of sensibility needs to go through the rigor of the scientific process!

A future project of our pre-pub Friday afternoon festivities (known as Crafternoon) will be to work on the Sensibility Graph and the measure of sensibility so that is scientifically sound. Perhaps the most exciting idea will be assigning values to the graph (why didn’t this occur to us earlier?) and statistically testing people’s sensibility. We could ask questions like:
  • Are people more/less sensible on a Monday compared to other days?
  • Is one person more/less sensible that others?
  • Do large-scale meetings have a positive or negative effect on sensibility?
Updates to come :)

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Genuine magic, supernatural powers or something else??

Last semester I was given the exciting, albeit at times challenging, responsibility of tutoring statistics to a class of first year psychology students. While a large slice of the course, believe it or not, was dedicated to teaching various statistical techniques and their theoretical underpinnings a small and as I see invaluable component of the course was assigned to beating the scientific method into the students.

Having not studied first year stats myself in over four years and possessing only an average knowledge of statistics at best, teaching this class was a daunting task: thrust upon me was the responsibility of spiking the students’ interest in science and psychology and equipping them with the critical thinking skills necessary to battle the tidal wave of misinformation and pseudo-science that threatens to consume society.

A key principle taught to the students in this course is “Occam’s razor”. Occam’s razor simply means that the simplest explanation or strategy is more often than not the best one. This probably seems intuitive to a lot, if not most of you, but we humans appear to have an unprecedented tendency to construct wild and complex explanations to account for the simplest of phenomena. Are unexplained lights in the sky inhabitants of an extra-solar planet scanning our planet for intelligent life, as this "reputable" news source would suggest or is there a simpler, more plausible explanation? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Below is a short video of what I think to be a cool “magic” trick. Any ideas on how they do it? There was no camera cutting or special effects. Stop for a second and ask yourself, is there a simpler explanation to the illusion other than “magical powers beyond the realm of reality”? If, like me, you prefer to apply logic and reason, resist the temptation to go here (scroll down for the answer of how this is done) until you have had a fair attempt at working it out yourself.

With great knowledge comes great responsibility (something like that) and I was determined not to fail in transforming my cohort of psychology students into agents of science. I can only hope that I succeeded to some extent, and my now ex-students are at this very moment employing their new found critical reasoning skills (aided by a healthy dose of scepticism) to make an impact as young scientists.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Devil's in the Detail

Just before Christmas in 1985 two teenagers, James Vance and Raymond Belknap, were smoking pot, drinking beer and listening to heavy metal music by Judas Priest. Raymond was first to rest the shotgun below his chin. He died instantly. James followed but survived with serious injuries.

What's this got to do with psychology you ask? According to Gary Greenwald, a christian fundamentalist preacher, backwards messages in rock music are satanic and can influence young people to a sinful life of sex and drugs. Judas Priest were subsequently sued for $6 million by the young men's parents for inserting the subliminal backwards message into the song that provoked the suicide attempt. Psychology proved them wrong.

On my recent trip to North America I visited the University of Lethbridge in Canada. I met a professor named John Vokey and spent some time working in his lab.

It was John who was asked to serve as an expert witness and to assist in the defence of Judas Priest. He conducted an experiment where he created a bunch of backwards messages, Psalm 23 from the bible for example, and asked people to identify the properties and the content of the messages.

He found no evidence that participants were influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by the semantic content of backward messages. His results suggest that the backwards messages people hear arise from active construction on their part.

In other words, people are very good at finding patterns in the noise of our environment so we hear and see things (faces, voices, etc.) that aren't really there. The effect is known as Pareidolia and is especially strong when someone tells you what to listen out for.

The case against Judas Priest was dismissed thanks, in part, to John (but Satan probably played some part too). See if you can pick John out from the heavy metal band in the picture below (click here to see the answer -- you may be surprised).

Matt Thompson

Judas Priest with Professor John Vokey

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Things about the brain you don’t really need to know....

Last night I hosted a trivia night at the annual Queensland Brain Institute Cognitive Neuroscience lab retreat at Stradbroke Island, and below are a few of the questions that I asked the 21 trivia players. Have a go at answering them! You can scroll down the bottom of the post to see the answers.

1. How much of your body’s energy does your brain use?

2. Awakenings is a film about Oliver Sacks and how he awakened about 20 patients from a catatonic state with a then experimental drug. Name the drug.

3. Which ex-Playboy playmate thinks that vaccinating children gives them autism?

4. What’s the name of the Hitchcock film that shares its title with a disorder that might arise from a problem with your semi-circular canal?

5. Which Hollywood star has publicly labeled psychiatry and psychology as a “pseudoscience”, because he “knows the history of psychiatry”? (The star uses the terms psychiatry and psychology interchangeably although they are quite different.)

6. Which internationally renowned UQ-based researcher might you find photographed with owls?

7. Apart from being a bad actress, what is Drew Barrymore’s affliction in the movie 50 First Dates?

8. True or False? A recent study found that, when lost, people really do walk in circles.

9. *Fight Club spoiler alert* In Fight Club, how does Edward Norton’s character cure himself of dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder)?

10. Which of the following researchers does not belong with the others: Freud; Skinner; James; Seligman; Milgram?

Don’t be disheartened if you found it difficult - I managed to stump even some senior researchers! Here are the answers:

1. 20% was the answer I accepted for trivia (but I can't find the source I used), although this site suggests it's more like only 10%!
2. L-Dopa
3. Jenny McCarthy
4. Vertigo
5. Tom Cruise
6. Professor Jack Pettigrew
7. Anterograde amnesia
8. True!
9. He shoots himself in the head (and survives!)
10. Milgram is the odd one out. According to a review in 2002, the first 4 authors are the most cited psychologists of all time. Milgram came in down the list at #45.

Of course, if you disagree with any of my answers or want to suggest your own for any reason, please leave comments using the comments option at the bottom of this post!
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