Celebrating a decade of Mind Hacks

Tom Stafford and Vaughan Bell marked their blog's birthday and BPS Public Engagement and Media Award with an event in London. We report and look back at their contributions for us.

Tom Stafford and Vaughan Bell marked their blog's birthday and BPS Public Engagement and Media Award with an event in London. We report and look back at their contributions for us.

The editors of a popular blog covering psychology and neuroscience news and views, www.mindhacks.com, are to receive the 2014 British Psychological Society’s Public Engagement and Media Award.

The Award recognises the work of psychologists who, either directly or through the media, have made an outstanding contribution to raising the profile of psychology with the general public.

Mindhacks.com was established in 2004 by Dr Tom Stafford (BPS Fellow, University of Sheffield) and Matt Webb (technology entrepreneur, Interconnected.org) as a group blog with the aim of making research related to the mind and brain accessible to the general public. Dr Vaughan Bell (also a BPS Fellow, University College London / South London and Maudsley NHS Trust) quickly emerged a driving force behind the blog, authoring many popular posts and still writing for the blog today.

Vaughan Bell

The blog has a wide international audience, reaching thousands of people using content informed by academic research. On its most popular day it received more than 100,000 unique visitors. Readers are given the opportunity to keep up to date with the latest research, which is accompanied by objective critiques and an indication of the wider context.
It was described as ‘riveting’ by Scientific American, who gave it a 2005 Science & Technology Web Award. In August 2014 the site was recommended by the Journal of the American Judges Association who said it is ‘consistently entertaining and often has legal relevance’.

Tom Stafford

Commenting on the award Claudia Hammond said: ‘When mindhacks.com started there were few psychology blogs. So it has helped define a blossoming culture of online commentary on psychology research and maintains an internationally recognised profile within that culture. Mindhacks.com has remained independent, with no advertising and the writers work unpaid in their spare time. Their work is licensed under a “Creative Commons” copyright licence, meaning that it can be republished freely.

‘I’m constantly impressed by the quality of the site, and see it as a crucial way of obtaining critically considered information about psychological research. Their blog posts are always evidence-based and well-argued, and often provide a counterpoint to more sensationalist coverage in other outlets.’

On winning the award Tom Stafford said: ‘Vaughan Bell deserves the credit on this one for his insight, humour and intelligence, he writes the bulk of our posts. It’s really pleasing that this is the first time a blog has been nominated for this award and the first time one has won. It recognises that public engagement isn’t all about a single charismatic figurehead. The thing that’s always drawn Mind Hacks is finding the everyday angle on things, how can we see these phenomena outside of the lab.’  

Christian Jarrett and Alex Fradera at the Society's Research Digest blog are both alumni of the Mind Hacks book and contributed to the blog in its early days. Digest Editor Christian says 'This award is richly deserved. Tom and Vaughan were among the first to see the potential of blogging as a way to bring psychology and neuroscience to the public. Both of them have an incredible knack for uncovering fascinating developments and they routinely cut through controversies in the field with wit and eloquence. Here's to the next ten years of Mind Hacks!'

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Vaughan and Tom held a Mind Hacks live event in London last night. The Grant Museum of Zoology – the 'room of death', as Tom Stafford put it – was the venue for a gathering in the style of the blog itself, intelligent and entertaining. 

First up was Professor Sophie Scott (University College London), on the science of laughter. Laughter is primarily an affiliative and social behaviour: we laugh because we like, love and want to be with people. But recounting a tale of a group of teenagers pranking her at Ipswich railway station, Scott demonstrated how laughter can send the message 'We are in two different groups – we will mark that by laughing at you.' Nietzche once said only humans laugh, because we are the only species who understand tragedy. But Scott pointed to work by Jaak Panksepp on rats to counter this. They will 'laugh' when tickled, and eventually even when the tickling researcher enters the lab.

Next, science journalist and blogger Ed Yong took aim at oxytocin, the 'poster child for how science can be twisted by imagination and alliterative soundbites'. Sure, the molecule can make wombs contract before birth, trigger the release of breast milk and turn neglectful prairie voles into caring ones. But can it boost trust, and basically make humans 'like you, but better'? Yong fears that those who advocate it as some sort of wonder drug of human goodness have probably only read the abstracts of the scientific papers they cite. There are contextual effects (it only impacts on certain people in certain situations), and it can also have a 'dark side'. The hype around oxytocin exploits vulnerable people, with some parents buying it in an attempt to treat their child's autism or depression. Yong railed against studies which are little more than 'poxy little happy clappy kumbaya stuff', only looking for positive effects so unsurprisingly finding them. 'It comes down to salesmanship and a desire for a simple panacea', he concluded.

Also targetting brain myths was Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (UCL), who is concerned by how the use of neuroscience in education is flourishing. Companies sell products supposedly based on neuroscience findings, and schools spend their hard earned and limited budgets on 'brain exercises' whose effects could be achieved by just having a break or doing something new. Blakemore puts this down to the seductive allure of neuroscience, the finding that people are more likely to find a bad explanation convincing if it comes with random brain words attached. Why do we need to frame things in such terms, Blakemore wondered. 'I challenge you to produce a single finding in neuroscience that has implications for education that we didn't already know from psychology or education', she said. 

Bringing the cake to the party was Neuroskeptic, 'from the internet'. 'Birthdays are deadly; try to avoid them', was his advice, pointing to a range of research on the topic. For example, in Canada you are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD if you are one of the younger children in the school year; and in women, death rates are higher just after your birthday. 

Thankfully alive and flourishing, the seed for mindhacks.com was sown – as so many are – over a bottle of red wine, more than a decade ago. Tom Stafford took the audience through the history and pre-history, including the book of the same name. Taking one example of a way we can 'mind hack', taking the experiments scientists do and 'open sourcing' the experience, Tom showed how we can use the way our eyes and minds adapt to the dark in order to make that nocturnal trip to the loo that little bit easier. 

Tom then handed over to Vaughan, pointing out that of more than 5,000 blog posts over the years – more than 2.2 million words – Vaughan had written 96 per cent of them, so he deserves all the credit (or 96 per cent of it at least). The climax of the evening was left to Vaughan and Neuroskeptic, acting out the sex scene from Susan Greenfield's novel 2121. You really had to be there. 

The Greenfield novel is a dystopian view of what happens when there's too much internet. Let's hope that Vaughan and Tom don't heed her warning, and that these true pioneers of public engagement in psychology continue to inform and entertain for many years to come.

In next month's issue, look out for a 'Head to Head' between Vaughan and John Cromby (winner of the Society's Book award) on understandings of mental illness. In the meantime, why not enjoy some of Vaughan and Tom's past contributions to The Psychologist and Research Digest?

Vaughan Bell:

Beliefs about delusions (August 2003)

Through a Scanner Darkly: Neuropsychology and psychosis in Philip K. Dick's novel (August 2006)

Cultures of chemically induced hallucinations (September 2014)

Emergency response in Madrid - Vaughan Bell interviews Theresa Pacheco Tabuenca (April 2010)

Psychology to the rescue: Living with ambiguity (for the Research Digest, November 2011)

The most important psychology experiment never done: Hiring private detectives to investigate paranoid delusions (Research Digest, October 2007)

The bloggers behind the blogs (for the Research Digest, 2010)

Vaughan's regular 'Beyond boundaries' column for The Psychologist

Tom Stafford:

Psychology in the coffee break - student competition winnner (July 2003)

Tom Stafford meets Vilayanur Ramachandran (November 2004)

Tom talks to Ian Florance about careers (August 2012)

Isn't it all just obvious? (February 2007)

Psychology to the rescue: Avoiding bystander apathy (for the Research Digest, November 2011)

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