From the Research Digest

The latest selection from the Society's blog.

Seduced by superfluous neuroscience

It seems as though neuroscience is particularly popular and seductive. Not only is the discipline enjoying some eye-spinningly massive new grants, there are also ever more brain-branded products (like brain games and brain drinks), there are new disciplines like neuroleadership, and there’s a growing obsession about the brain among many journalists, many of whom invoke brain science in odd contexts.

This atmosphere has led to a near-consensus among commentators that there is something distinctly persuasive about neuroscience. In fact, besides anecdotal argument, there is little solid evidence to suggest this is true (and some that it’s not). A landmark paper from 2008 showed that images of the brain are particularly compelling, but this effect has failed to replicate.

Another key study, also from 2008, demonstrated the seductive allure of neuroscience – participants found circular explanations for psychological phenomena more convincing when they contained superfluous written neuroscience information. Unfortunately, this study had issues. For example, it’s possible the addition of the neuroscience information simply acted to conceal the circularity of the explanations.

Enter Diego Fernandez-Duque and his colleagues. Across four studies, they asked dozens of US psychology students to rate the quality of short explanations (some were sound, others were circular) for psychological phenomena such as ‘face recognition’ and ‘emotional states’. The main take-away is that when superfluous neuroscience information (i.e. information that offered no further insight) was added to the end of these explanations, the students rated the explanations more highly. The students with superior analytical skills were just as prone to this effect. The students’ religious and other philosophical beliefs (such as their endorsement of mind–body dualism) also made no difference.

Fernandez-Duque found the convincing influence of superfluous neuroscience information applied both to good-quality and circular explanations. However, the additional presence of brain imagery did not add to the appeal of the explanations, thus confirming recent failures to replicate the allure of brain pictures.

It’s not just that extra, spurious neuroscience information made psychological explanations more convincing by making them longer. The addition of superfluous social science information did not increase the students’ ratings of the explanations. Neither is it simply that neuroscience is seen as a ‘hard science’ adding weight to purely psychological explanation. When the researchers tested the addition of superfluous chemistry-based, maths, genetic or physics information (i.e. science disinclines also considered ‘hard’ or prestigious), this did not lead the students to rate the explanations of the psychological phenomena more highly (this despite the fact that, on their own, these extra superfluous snippets were considered just as high quality as the extra neuroscience information).

The researchers say all this suggests there is something uniquely convincing about neuroscience in the context of psychological phenomena. They believe the most plausible reason is that psychology students endorse a ‘brain-as-engine-of-mind’ hypothesis – that is, they ‘assign to neuroscience a privileged role in explaining psychological phenomena not just because neuroscience is a “real” science but because it is the most pertinent science for explaining the mind’. That the students who endorsed dualist beliefs (seeing the mind as separate from the brain) were just as wooed by superfluous neuroscience information somewhat undermines this interpretation.

It will be interesting to test whether these findings hold true for the general public, and for people in other cultures for whom the brain might be considered less important. If the allure of neuroscience is found more widely, it’s a worrying situation. As the researchers explain: few, if any, mental phenomena have single causes. ‘As such, infatuation with any single source explanation – whether it is the brain or something else – may impede humans’ progress to find and accept more complete explanations.’ cj


Autistic children’s sensory experiences, in their own words  
In Autism

Children diagnosed with autism often have distinctive sensory experiences, such as being ultra-sensitive to noise, or finding enjoyment in repeated, unusual sensory stimulation. However, much of what we know about these experiences comes from the testimony of parents, researchers and clinicians. Now Anne Kirby and her colleagues have published the first report of autistic children’s sensory experiences, based on these children’s own accounts. As the authors say, ‘children's voices are still rarely heard or taken seriously in the academic arena,’ so this is an innovative approach.

Twelve autistic children aged 4 to 13 were interviewed in their homes. The children’s autism varied in severity, but they were all capable of conducting verbal interviews. The researchers used a range of techniques to facilitate the interviews, such as playing family video clips of the children to prompt discussion of specific episodes. Kirby and her team said their first important finding was to demonstrate the feasibility of interviewing young children with autism.

Careful analysis of the transcripts from the interviews revealed three key themes. The first of these – ‘normalising’ – showed how the children considered many of their experiences to be just like other people’s, as if rejecting the notion that there was something distinct or odd about their behaviour, and also showing a certain self-consciousness (contrary to existing research that suggests self-consciousness is impaired in autism).
Interviewer: What about things you don’t like to touch or feel on your skin?
Child: Um, sharp stuff.
I:    Sharp stuff? [smiles] Yeah, exactly.
C:    Um, like most people do
I:    Yeah
C:    Um [pause], hot stuff.
I:    Yep.
C:    Like, burning hot, like pizza that just came out of the oven.

I:    Do you have a favourite thing that you like to eat?
C:    Uh, pizza.
I:    Yeah? When it’s not too hot, right?
C:    Right. That's what most people say.

The children also expressed satisfaction at learning to cope with problematic sensory sensitivity – such as a dislike of brushing hair. ‘What's different about having your hair brushed now?’ the interviewer asked. ‘That I look beautiful,’ the 13-year-old replied. The children appeared motivated to adapt to their sensitivities, so as to participate in normal daily activities. The researchers said this is contrary to past findings that suggest people with autism don’t want to be ‘neurotypical’ (perhaps such feelings can emerge later).

Another theme was the methods the children used to recount their experiences, including using anecdotes, demonstrating (e.g. by imitating the noise of the car engine, or mimicking a disgust reaction), by repeating their own inner speech from particular experiences, and, in the case of two children, by using similes. On that last point, one child likened eating spinach to eating grass, another likened loud voices to a lion's roar. ‘The use of simile as a storytelling method seemed to suggest a sort of perspective-taking that is not expected in children with autism,’ the researchers said.

The final theme concerned the way the children frequently talked about their sensory experiences in terms of their responses to various situations and stimuli. For example, the children spoke of their strategies, such as covering their ears, watching fireworks through a window, and watching sport on TV rather than in the arena. They also told the interviewers about their uncontrollable physical reactions, such as the pain of loud noises or teeth brushing. When he hears loud music, one little boy said: ‘It feels like my heart is beating, and um, my, uh, my whole body's shaking. Mmm and uh, and my eyes, uh, they start to blink a lot.’ The children's reactions were often tied to their fear of particular situations or objects, such as inflated balloons. It feels like ‘the unknown is gonna come,’ said another child.

The study has obvious limitations, such as the small sample and lack of a comparison group, so we can’t know for sure that children without autism wouldn't come up with similar answers. However, the research provides a rare insight into autistic children’s own perspective on their sensory worlds. ‘Through exploration of how children share about their experiences, we can come to better understand those experiences,’ the researchers said, ultimately helping ‘how we study, assess, and address sensory features that impact daily functioning among children with autism’. cj


People are overly optimistic about the benefits of optimism 

In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

‘It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.’ The sentiment articulated here by psychology pioneer William James is currently in vogue, if its preponderance in self-help books, motivational posters, and memes is anything to go by. But are we pinning too much on positive thinking?

A research team led by Elizabeth Tenney asked participants to guess how much a given task is affected by optimism, then compared this to how people actually fared when they were feeling more or less optimistic. So in one instance, ‘task completers’ attempted a maths task, having been given false feedback that told them, based on their training performance, they were likely to do well or poorly, thus influencing their optimism. ‘Predictor’ participants then guessed how the completers would perform, knowing that these people didn’t differ in calibre, only in the artificial feedback they’d received. Predictor participants expected the optimistic completers to do significantly better than those feeling pessimistic, but the reality is they didn’t.

Another experiment used a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ task where task completers could study each complex image for as long as they wanted as they sought to pick out the figure hidden within. We might expect optimism to deliver results through sheer tenacity, and indeed the optimistic task completers did persist for about 20 per cent longer on the task. But this translated into a scant 5 per cent (statistically non-significant) improvement, not the hefty 33 per cent improvement expected by the predictors. Once again, people were shown to expect optimism to produce results in situations where the reality was otherwise.

A final experiment demonstrated that even when attention isn’t drawn artificially to people’s optimism, we still overrate its importance. Here, nine participants were each asked to estimate how 99 task completers had fared on a task, guided by character profiles of the completers, which included, among a host of other information, their level of optimism. Each profile characteristic gave participants more or less insight into the completers’ true performance: for instance, enjoyment of the test was a good, but not perfect, indicator that the person had performed well on the test. Participants were quite accurate in how much weight they gave to these cues – except for optimism, which they treated as a much more powerful factor than it truly was. This result suggests it wasn’t the way the earlier experiments were framed that led predictors to make too much of optimism; they are happy to do that all on their own.

This work doesn’t suggest that optimism is ineffective as a broad strategy for approaching life, or at helping us fulfil objectives at a broad scale. But it does suggest that we put more on the shoulders of optimism that it can bear. If you do badly at a test, rather than fretting that the cause was your negative mental attitude, it might be better to simply focus on your knowledge and approach. af


Most students struggle to take effective lecture notes – here are two ways to help them
In Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition

Sit in a university lecture and you’ll see most students scribbling away taking notes (or tapping away on laptops). Unfortunately, while note-taking ought to be beneficial in principle – by encouraging reflection on, and systematic organisation of, the material – countless studies have found it to have little to no benefit. It’s likely this is in part because of the way students take notes. Many simply record verbatim what the lecturer is saying.

Now the US psychologists Dung Bui and Mark McDaniel have tested two ways to help students take better notes. The first is to provide students with notepaper containing a lecture outline, with headings and subheadings of the material. The idea is that this eases the mental demands of taking notes.

The second method is to provide students with notes that contain illustrative diagrams – these go further than an outline and show the key components of a system, with labels explaining how the different parts interact.

Bui and McDaniel asked 144 undergraduates to take notes while they listened to a 12-minute lecture about car brakes and pumps. At the start, some of them were given a skeletal outline of the lecture, others were given an annotated diagram of the parts and steps involved in a car’s brakes. There was also a control group who were simply given a blank piece of note paper.

Afterwards, all the note papers and materials were removed and the students were distracted for half an hour with a word learning test. After this, the students were tested on their understanding of the first part of the lecture by free recall (that is, they were asked to type out as much as they could remember). Then they answered a series of questions on the same topic. Finally, they completed a test of their ‘structure building’ ability – essentially how good they are at forming a coherent mental structure out of information. For this, they read four passages of text and then answered questions on them.

Regardless of their own ability level, the students who received a lecture outline performed better at free recall of the lecture than the control participants. They also took more comprehensive notes. When it came to the specific questions on the lecture material, however, the lecture outlines helped high-ability students but not those with low structure-building ability. By contrast, both high- and low-ability students who received annotated diagrams performed better at free recall than the controls and at answering the questions, despite actually taking fewer notes. The researchers said this is probably because diagrams help students see the major components of a system and how they work together.

‘These two features in conjunction essentially provide a representation that can be directly appropriated for constructing a more complete mental model,’ they said.

Further analysis showed that the students given an annotated diagram, not only took fewer notes than the other students, but their notes contained a higher proportion of references to the cause-and-effect dynamics described in the lecture. This suggests the diagram helped the students to focus on extracting the most important information for understanding the topic at hand.

The researchers said their findings have practical relevance for lecturers who want to use learning aids to ‘help all students across the entire range of ability’. Of course, this study was about the teaching of a scientific topic, so it's not clear how the findings would generalise to other subjects. However, the researchers said that for topics for which illustrative diagrams are not practical, ‘perhaps other aids that help scaffold construction of a coherent mental model might be developed’. cj


- The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett and contributor Dr Alex Fradera.

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