brain imaging; the ‘difference in differences’ error; dance company ‘scientist in residence’; ‘Any Qualified Provider’; and more (see PDF for full version)

A celebration of the living brain

Psychology’s ongoing love affair with the brain scanner has been quantified by a 20-year review of the ‘brain imaging’ field by the Wellcome Trust, a major funder of the area. Research output in brain imaging has grown faster in experimental psychology than in any other discipline, bar computer science and AI, the review shows. The percentage increase in experimental psychology between 1989–93 and 2004–08 was 3119.05 per cent, faster than the increase in the neurosciences (772.84 per cent), clinical neurology (372.08 per cent) and psychiatry (187.87 per cent). Clinical psychology showed a 504 per cent increase over that time period, the seventh fastest rise in brain-imaging output.

The review Human Functional Brain Imaging 1990–2009 lists the 20 most highly cited researchers in the field of brain imaging, with Chartered Psychologist, Professor Emeritus Chris Frith at UCL and Aarhus University listed in fourth place. Other psychologists in the list are John Gabrieli at MIT, Mark D’Esposito at the University of California, Berkeley and Randy Buckner at Harvard. BPS Fellow Professor Trevor Robbins at Cambridge University is among three case studies highlighting achievements by Wellcome Trust-funded researchers.

Psychologists are also lead authors or collaborators on many of the major brain-imaging breakthroughs highlighted by the review, including Eleanor Maguire’s (UCL) studies on taxi drivers and on the neural representation of space; research by Chris Frith into amygdala function; research by clinical psychologist Mathias Pessigilione (INSEAD) into reward-seeking behaviour and dopamine-dependent prediction error; Trevor Robbins’ and Barbara Sahakian’s (University of Cambridge) research into brain abnormalities associated with psychological disorders; Andy Calder’s (University of Cambridge) work with children with conduct disorder; and Adrian Owen’s (now at the University of Western Ontario) research into the detection of awareness in patients in a persistent vegetative state.

The tone of the review is noticeably celebratory with a focus on breakthroughs and achievements, and the role the Wellcome Trust has played in them. Brain imaging is credited with contributing considerably to our understanding of the ‘living brain’ over the last 20 years, and with ‘providing new perspectives in the cognitive neurosciences’. There’s no discussion of some of the field’s key controversies, such as the paper published in 2009 by Ed Vul and colleagues, in which they raised concerns about the alleged widespread use of inappropriate statistical practices by elements of the brain-imaging community (

The review highlights the strength of UK research in brain imaging, second only to the USA and Germany in terms of research output throughout the 20-year period. It also discusses challenges for the future and makes recommendations, including: a need to shift gears via more solution-focused, ‘grand-challenge’ thinking, akin to the Large Hadron Collider project in physics; it calls for broad cross-disciplinary training and leadership; a refinement of existing technologies to improve spatial and temporal resolution; an international frontiers meeting (‘to identify the current step limiting factors and work out what the goals and targets for brain-imaging research could or should be’); it says there’s a need for more partnerships with pharmaceutical companies; and more involvement of clinicians and larger sample sizes, to aid the translation of findings into clinical benefit.

Christian Jarrett

The ‘differences in differences’ error

In science, the difference between significant and non-significant need not itself be statistically significant. As Rosnow and Rosenthal said more than 20 years ago, ‘Surely God loves the 0.06 nearly as much as the 0.05?’ So why do many researchers, when making a comparison between two effects, fail to report the statistical significance of their difference?

That was the question asked by psychologist Sander Nieuwenhuis (Leiden University, the Netherlands) and colleagues, in September’s Nature Neuroscience (PDF via ‘Our impression was that this error of comparing significance levels is widespread in the neuroscience literature, but until now there were no aggregate data to support this impression. We therefore examined all of the behavioral, systems and cognitive neuroscience studies published in four prestigious journals (Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience and Neuron) in 2009 and 2010 and in every fourth issue of the 2009 and 2010 volumes of the Journal of Neuroscience.’

Nieuwenhuis and his team found that 31 per cent of the papers described at least one situation in which the researchers might be tempted to make the error. In 50 per cent of these cases the authors used the correct approach: they reported a significant interaction. ‘In the other 50 per cent of the cases, the authors made at least one error of the type discussed here: they reported no interaction effect, but only the simple main effects, pointing out the qualitative difference between their significance values.’

The authors report that the error of comparing significance levels is especially common in the neuroimaging literature. Perhaps swayed by this, a report on the paper by columnist and medic Ben Goldacre for The Guardian initially included several references to psychology and psychologists. This sparked a defence of the discipline on Twitter, with psychologists such as Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (University College London) commenting that ‘Psychologists tend to be better at testing for interactions than other areas of neuroscience. It’s drilled into us.’

The Psychologist contacted Nieuwenhuis for his views. ‘It’s hard to say where psychology ends and neuroscience starts,’ he commented, ‘but I think we can safely say that less than 25 per cent of the authors of the reviewed articles were trained in psychology. So most people who made the error were trained as neuroscientists (or biologists, etc.). We also found that the error was more common in the lower-level neuroscience disciplines, which are far from psychology. Finally, it is our impression that the error occurs much less often in the psychology literature that we read for our work, although we haven’t reviewed that literature.’

However, Nieuwenhuis did also say that the paper was partly inspired by an article in the American Statistician that discusses the occurrence of this type of error in the social science literature. The authors of that article, Andrew Gelman and Hal Stern, did say that ‘As teachers of statistics, we might think that “everybody knows” that comparing significance levels is inappropriate, but we have seen this mistake all the time in practice.’

The piece by Ben Goldacre (see was later amended ‘to make clear that the Nieuwenhuis study looked specifically at neuroscience papers, not psychology research’.

Jon Sutton

fMRI evidence in court

In a first for her country, an Italian judge has commuted the sentence of a woman convicted of murder following the submission to court of brain-imaging and genetic evidence. Stefania Albertani pleaded guilty in 2009 to murdering her sister and burning her corpse, for which she was sentenced to life imprisonment. According to Nature, a cognitive neuroscientist subsequently called by Albertani’s legal defence has demonstrated that she has structural brain abnormalities compared with 10 healthy controls, including in the anterior cingulate gyrus (implicated in inhibition) and insula (associated with aggression). A geneticist also provided evidence that the woman has genes predisposing her to violence, including a version of the MAOA ‘warrior’ gene, meaning that her body produces lower levels of an enzyme involved in regulating neurotransmitter levels. Based on this, the judge reduced Albertani’s sentence to 20 years.

Psychological studies suggest brain scan evidence may be particularly influential. For example, a paper published earlier this year by the late David McCabe found that mock jurors were more likely to find a defendant guilty if they were presented with brain-imaging evidence suggesting he had lied, as opposed to polygraph or thermal evidence, or no lie-detection evidence (

Christian Jarrett

Bridging the great divides

Simon Riches reports from a Royal Institute of Philosophy event

A wide-ranging group of speakers gathered at this conference in Bristol to address what is undoubtedly one of the most fundamental conceptual issues at the heart of psychology and the social sciences: Can science provide an account of our ‘lived’ conscious experience?

Most of the talks focused on this key issue and, refreshingly, sought to bridge the great divide between the analytic and continental camps of contemporary philosophical thought. But significant time was also devoted to expounding the giants of the phenomenological tradition, such as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Rudolf Bernet (Leuven), Dermot Moran (UCD) and Thomas Baldwin (York) provided detailed accounts of these thinkers’ work. And there were also forays into the work of related historical figures like Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger. More traditionally analytic approaches were displayed in Michelle Montague’s (Bristol) discussion of mental content and James Lenman’s (Sheffield) critique of naturalism as manifested in experimental ethics.

But the key issue for much of the three days was to get to the heart of this conflict between naturalism and phenomenology. Clearly certain terminological issues need to be settled in order to anchor this debate. Galen Strawson (Reading) quipped that having read fellow speaker David Papineau’s (KCL) entry on naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he learned that naturalism had been used in so many ways throughout history that it had come to mean almost anything. There is a broad methodological definition that construes naturalism as the view that philosophical thinking is continuous with natural science; however, when cast against the phenomenological tradition under discussion here, naturalism can be understood as the more specific claim that the scientific method has the resources to account for our ‘lived’ conscious experience – a commitment that underpins contemporary experimental psychology.

Controversies over this claim resonate particularly throughout the social sciences – a point highlighted by conference organiser Havi Carel (UWE). As a consequence, issues in the philosophy of medicine and health were a recurring theme, from Fredrik Svenaeus’ (Södertörn) discussion of naturalistic and phenomenological theories of health to Matthew Ratcliffe’s (Durham) account of the ‘sense of unreality’ in cases of serious mental illness. The key question here is whether there can actually be such a thing as a scientific explanation of one’s lived experience of illness. As Svenaeus pointed out, the tough question for a naturalist is to say what diseases really are – in terms of how they impact on people’s lives. Construed here as a polar opposite to naturalism, the view would then be that only the phenomenological tradition gets to the heart of what health and illness really are. As Moran explained, real science will then need to recognise how it must coexist with the real world of human beings.

And yet many contributors sought to carve out a path that could be occupied by both phenomenologists and naturalists. Re-evaluating naturalism, Strawson argued that ‘false naturalists’ seek to deny ‘the most natural fact’: conscious experience. He pointed out that not even Quine denied the existence of conscious experience. As Strawson and Papineau debated these issues in the ensuing discussion it emerged that very few recent thinkers – Dennett aside – actually want to deny this phenomenology. The key question then is whether the sciences can account for it. The crux of this issue seemed to arise in Papineau’s challenge to Dan Zahavi (Copenhagen) to provide an account of the phenomenology in question that could not be accounted for by his naturalist position. This unresolved issue continues to make this a fascinating debate.

Simon Riches is a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry

Choreography with scientific insights

The Rambert Dance Company has appointed Nicky Clayton, Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge University’s Department of Experimental Psychology and newly admitted BPS Fellow, as their first Scientist in Residence.

Nicky previously worked with Rambert on ‘Comedy of Change’, a piece based on evolution. A new work, ‘Seven for a secret, never to be told’ uses her research on corvid cognition and behavioural development to present the world as seen through the eyes of some mischievous children. Her extensive knowledge of the behavioural development of children, particularly the role of play in enriching cognitive development, firstly through imitation and then reinvention or innovation, has given the creative team valuable insight.

As Scientist in Residence, Nicky will influence choreography with her scientific insights. ‘My knowledge of science is used to develop the themes that inspire the movements that we incorporate into the pieces. I combine my knowledge of dance too to ensure I’m thinking of big picture concepts that can work for movement. I’ve used ideas from animal behaviour, birds and evolution for “Comedy of Change” and ideas about children and corvids for “Seven for a secret”. The ideas are inspired by movements, behaviours and mental processes; some are mimicked – Jon Goddard’s solo in Comedy was based on the bird of paradise’s courtship dance – other ideas are more conceptual, based on mental processes.’

As well as working on new dance pieces, Nicky will develop educational workshops in which children gain understanding of scientific themes through their own experience of learning some of the choreography. She and Rambert’s Artistic Director Mark Baldwin are also writing a book about their collaborative process, and will present a series of talks, the next on 2 October at the Royal Society Festival of Literature and the Arts.

See YouTube at for a film about Nicky’s work.

Ben Watson

Any qualified provider

Psychological therapies in primary care are among the list of services to be opened up by the NHS in England to ‘Any Qualified Provider’ (AQP), including charities and other organisations, from April 2012, the Department of Health (DoH) has announced. The development is intended to increase patient choice and drive up standards through competition. Alternative providers must meet minimum standards to offer NHS services and will compete on quality of care, not price, the DoH says, as they will be paid a fixed tariff.

NHS psychological services are already being offered successfully by alternative providers in some parts of the country, according to the DoH – for example, Oxfordshire Mind (affiliated with the nationwide Mind charity) provides a county-wide IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) service called ‘Talking Space’. In Hull and East Yorkshire, a local Mind service and Relate offer employment advice as part of the local IAPT pathway.

The AQP development is a political hot potato, and commentators like Baroness Shirley Williams have raised their concerns in the media about an expanded role for the private sector in the NHS. In September, Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chair of the BMA, wrote a letter to all MPs about the wider Health and Social Care Bill going through Parliament, in which he said there ‘is an inappropriate and misguided reliance on “market forces” to shape services’. The AQP policy in particular, he said, ‘has the potential to destabilise local health economies if not carefully managed’.

Chair of the Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology and Deputy Chair of the Professional Practice Board, Professor Peter Kinderman (University of Liverpool), told The Psychologist he finds it worrying that psychological therapies are in the front line of AQP, especially when many psychologists continue to have anxieties about the consequences of NICE guidelines, the IAPT programme and overlapping competencies with other professional groups.

‘But, as this rolls forward,’ he said ‘we will have to manage the process…we should work closely with both central government and local commissioners… I don’t think we’re opposed to change – most psychologists have been calling for radical change for many years – but we do need to ensure that the “any qualified providers” are genuinely and properly “qualified”. That – as we’ve seen from IAPT – needs careful and authoritative oversight. In these tight financial circumstances, and with a government explicit about competition and efficiency, it’s all to easy to see quality lapse. We mustn’t permit that to happen.’

The Department of Health website has a list of frequently asked questions about Any Qualified Provider:

Christian Jarrett


News in brief

The chatbot known as Cleverbot (see, created by British artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Rollo Carpenter, has been credited with passing the Turing test at a tech festival in India. Named after computer scientist Alan Turing, passing the test (considered a benchmark in AI) requires that judges are unable to tell whether a typed conversation was held between a human and computer or between two humans. At the Techniche festival, 59.3 per cent of the audience thought Cleverbot was a human. Cleverbot learns by interacting with humans on the internet.

In a related development, students at Cornell filmed what happened when two versions of Cleverbot chatted to each other (see


Alzheimer’s Disease International has published World Alzheimer Report 2011, with a focus on early diagnosis and intervention ( On the basis of a systematic review of the literature, the report authors Professor Martin Prince, Dr Renata Bryce and Dr Cleusa Ferri at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, say that early therapeutic interventions (psychological and pharmacological) can be beneficial. ‘It is simply not true that there is “no point in early diagnosis” or that “nothing can be done”,’ the report says. ‘Some of these interventions may be more effective when started earlier in the disease course.’ Despite this, the report estimates that ‘28 million of the world’s 36 million people with dementia have yet to receive a diagnosis, and therefore do not have access to treatment, information, and care’.


A report published jointly by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the ESRC, Homeless Link and Complex Lives has highlighted the large proportion of homeless people who have a history of mental illness, childhood trauma and drug and alcohol problems ( The findings are based on interviews with hundreds of homeless people. The authors of Tackling Homelessness and Exclusion: Understanding Complex Lives have called for greater recognition of the impact a troubled childhood can have; for drug and mental health services to recognise the role they have to play in preventing homelessness; and for greater coordination between agencies to meet the individual needs of clients.


London-based performance artist Bobby Baker has been honoured with Mind’s book of the year award for her Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me (Profile Books; reviewed in the December 2010 issue). The book features drawings by Baker created over a 10-year period, during which she experienced mental and physical illness. There are also essays, including one by her clinical psychologist daughter Dora Whittuck. Judge Fay Weldon said: ‘I think there’s a sea change with this year’s entries into a kind of acceptance about the possibilities and the future people with mental health problems can have.’

Christian Jarrett


BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber