Tuesday, 8 February 2011

One frequent criticism of psychological research is that much of it is inconsequential. That it produces little more than 'cool' illusions which, although illuminating how are minds work, are little more than party games. Often this may be true, but it neglects to see the influence such illusions have on wider science.

Take for example, the rubber hand illusion. This appears, on the face of it, as little more than a clever psychological trick, a clever illusion that has little merit above its novelty value.

The illusion consists of a subject sitting at a table, with one arm placed on the surface in front of them and the other obscured from view. In its place, a rubber hand is placed, which may be somehow connected to them via a fake sleeve, to make the illusion more convincing. Here is an example of how the setup looks.

The experimenter then begins to either tap or stroke the rubber hand, while simultaneously doing the same motion to the real hand in synchrony, which remains out of sight of the subject. After a few minutes of synchronised stroking of the artificial and the hidden hand, the subject should begin to associate the artificial hand as their own. This occurs to such an extent that even after the experimenter stops stroking the real hand, the subject still 'feels' the sensation when the rubber hand is stroked.

Watch the rubber hand illusion

When people see this illusion, it can be quite fascinating and certainly a novelty, and is probably quite eery for the subject. A skeptic, however, may question the practical application of such an illusion, and then no doubt begin to harp on the money being wasted in social science research.

However, an interesting new piece of research caught my eye, and I feel it highlights exactly how clever trickery such as this can influence other fields of research.

The research, described here, involves attaching a prosthetic arm to an amputee. The remaining nerve endings, which had previously projected to parts of the missing limb, are rerouted to a patch of skin on the remaining portion amputated arm, via a process called reinnervation. Stimulating different parts of this patch of skin will create the impression that the amputee is being touched on various parts of their missing arm.

Where this becomes clever, and where the influence of the rubber hand illusion comes in, is in the design of the prosthetic arm. The prosthesis is fitted with an intricate system of pressure sensors, which communicate with a 'robot' in contact with the innervated patch of skin. When the prosthetic arm is touched, it in turn stimulated the nerve endings which would have corresponded to that part of the amputated arm. So, for example, if the prosthetic arm detects pressure on the thumb, this is relayed to the nerves which previously projected to the real thumb, which are now situated in the proxy patch of nerve endings.

As with the rubber hand illusion, the brain quickly begins to adopt the prosthetic arm as part of the body. However, unlike the rubber hand illusion, the prosthesis can be used by the amputee to carry out the tasks that you and I take for granted, such as manipulating objects, hold and carrying items, and presumably if this technology becomes more sensitive in the future, can become increasingly sensitive to touch.

In future, this technology could be combined with other revolutionary technology, such as other new prostheses that can be connected directly to the brain, as described here. Although each technology is in its infancy, we could be very close to the ability to replace missing limbs with new ones which are naturally controlled by the brain, and retain the sensitivity to touch, as with the real thing.

Next time, then, you hear somebody dismiss a bit of psychological research as a novelty, or as a clever but useless trick, spare a thought for the influence this may have on other fields of research.

Thursday, 27 January 2011


You might be wondering where I've been. Well, so am I.

Last time I wrote on these pages I had just handed in my thesis, and in doing so, completed my masters. It turns out that I did rather well, and ended up passing with distinction, which was a wonderful surprise. My former supervisor and I are looking to submit our results to a journal for publication, and I shall keep you posted on our progress. It will be my first publication, and so the whole process of submission, peer review and revision is as alien to me as it probably is to you.

Next up is the PhD application process, which will of course be hugely fun. I have already applied for a couple, and already had one rejection. I am not too disheartened, though, because the one that rejected me was, for neuroscience, the cream of the crop, and massively competitive. When I, eventually, get accepted onto a programme, I will be sure to chronicle my experiences here, hopefully a little better than I did on my masters.

I shall leave you with a little reading material, that hopefully you will find enthralling. The royal society recently published a series of articles on neuroscience, with topics ranging from the technical methods by which neuroimaging works, to some of the ethical quandaries of studying brain function. The whole selection can be found here.

One article that I found particularly accessible for a non-scientific audience was 'The scope and limits of neuroimaging' by Professor Geraint Rees (director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, where I researched my thesis). It gives a great introduction to some of the key themes of my masters course, namely the various different methods used to image the brain, their strengths and their weaknesses. The article can be found here.

Anyway, that is enough from me. I'll be in touch.

Saturday, 28 August 2010


At about 4pm on Friday the 20th of August, if you were anywhere in the vicinity of central London, you may have noticed an audible collective gasp; a long and satisfied expulsion of anxious tension. This was the moment that my masters drew to a close, as each and every student on the course handed over their thesis, the fruits of nine months hard slog, before promptly retiring to either the pub, or to bed. In my case, the latter was my chosen option, having spent the entire previous evening, night, morning and afternoon tweaking, redrafting, and desperately trying to get the darn thing printed in time. I did, with five minutes to spare.

In the end, I think I turned in a really good piece of work. I hope so. It has certainly had a lot of praise from the two individuals who will be marking my work, which can only be a good sign. As an extra bonus, it looks likely to be published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, which will be a huge boost to my fledgling career.

Essentially, our project set out to examine what happens when a specific sound becomes behaviourally important. Numerous studies on animals have shown that when a target frequency is paired with an electric shock (to make it behaviourally significant) the area of the brain which ‘looks out’ for that sound gets bigger. What isn’t understood is how this affects the ability to perceive that tone.

We paired a target frequency with a shock, like the animal studies, and participants had to discriminate between the target frequency and other frequencies, some very close and some much further from the target. If, as the animal studies suggest, this leads to an expansion of the target representation on the cortex, will the participants get better at telling the target frequency from tones that are very very close to the target?

The answer, is yes. When subjects were being conditioned with the shock, they became much better at telling apart tones that were very close in frequency. This effect happened rapidly, and did not occur when participants were not being conditioned.

The neuroimaging results also indicated that there was greater brain activity in response to the frequency that was paired with the shock, compared to all other tones. This would fit with the expanded representation demonstrated in the animal studies.

So what? What does all this mean? Well, firstly, we have demonstrated that the human brain begins to adapt and change to our environment within minutes, something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Secondly, studies like ours help us to understand the basics of more complex mechanisms, which future studies will elucidate further. How does early musical training produce a child genius? How are our sensory memories stored, and what does this tell us about memory as a whole? What are the limits of the brains ability to change itself, and how can we use this information to treat brain damage or stroke? All these bigger questions will need a basic foundation to expand upon, and studies like ours, which may in isolation appear trivial, can provide the basis for these foundations.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Finally, some rest.

Lectures - finished.

Coursework - completed.

By pure chance, it turns out that my research project supervisor is out of the country this week, the week immediately after my final coursework assignment was handed in, meaning that I have had an entire week with absolutely nothing to do. It has been total bliss.

Starting on Tuesday we should hopefully be in a position to start the research. Initially we will pilot the equipment on ourselves, in order to check everything is in working order. Then we go live and begin testing our participants, and we are hoping to complete the bulk of the research in two or three weeks, provided we can keep a steady stream of particpants coming in and out of the lab.

Obviously I shall keep you up to date with our progress!

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

I have noticed a worrying trend in my academic career - they always leave things on a downer.

My last lecture on the MSc was on the subject of depression.

When I did my undergraduate degree, our final module was on the psychology of ageing, which was structured in a chronological way so that we ended up covering the cheery topic "bereavement, loneliness and dying".

My final essay topic for the MSc? "Has research into the biological basis of depression had any impact on its treatment?"

Hmm, am I subtly being set-up for a lifetime of professional disappointment?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010


I am currently attempting to steer myself through the penultimate essay on my MSc course, which unfortunately is proving to be without a doubt the hardest essay I have ever had to write.

It's about 'the functional role of brain oscillations', and is quite interesting at the same time as being obscenely dull. Essentially, I am writing about how there has always been a bias toward examining where in the brain things are processed, but now there is loads of evidence to suggest that observing when the brain works it's magic are just as essential.

It turns out that brain cells oscillate - the electrical activity they display is not random, it has a rhythm. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, but huge numbers of brain cells actually oscillate together - they become synchronised in their activity, and are extremely accurate (to under a millisecond).

To complicate matters, the frequency at which they oscillate, the speed of the rhythm, varies across different parts of the brain, and also varies for different activities. So we have clusters of cells all 'wobbling' together, at a certain frequency, and other clusters all doing the same at a different frequency.

These oscillations are the brain waves you may have seen on TV, when people are made to do experiments wearing funny electrodes on their head, which produces squiggly lines on a monitor.

So, as I said - the timing of brain activity is equally as valid a field of study as the physical layout of the brain. Neuroscientists are easily seduced by fancy looking brain images, and this may go some way to explain the bias towards the where, but this has meant out knowledge of the when is now lagging behind.

Anyway, its horrifically complicated in places, and the afore mentioned bias in the research means its patchy and inconsistent, and this essay is proving to be a real challenge. But then, I knowingly chose what I thought was the hardest question, as it is potentially the one that may be of must use to me in my future research, so I think I made the right decision in picking this essay.

Still, another 1,500 words to write by Friday, and I stupidly signed up for a two day course starting on thursday...

Better get oscillating!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Nearly there....

Coursework deadlines:




Introduction to cognitive neuroscience

2,000-3,000 word written essay

12 February 2010

Structure and measurement of the human brain

2-hour unseen written exam

15 January 2010

Experimental design and statistics


Announced in class

Methods I: lesion approaches

Two 1,000-1,500 word written reports

Report 1: 18 December 2009

Report 2: 12 February 2010

Methods II: neuroimaging

Two 1,000-1,500 word written reports

Report 1: 26 March 2010

Report 2: 9 April 2010

Current issues I: fundamental processes

2,000-3,000 word written essay

9 April 2010

Current issues II: elaborative and adaptive processes

2,000-3,000 word written essay

23 April 2010

Current issues III: translational research

2,000-3,000 word written essay

7 May 2010

Research project

10,000-12,000 word written dissertation

20 August 2010