The Transparent Psychologist

Bringing transparency to neuroscience, including recent advances in clinical psychology, human brain imaging and cognitive science. De-bunking myths and critically evaluating research. Exploring how the public interacts with neuroscience by examining popular coverage in the media.

Month: April, 2013

Interview with Dr Jake Fairnie from MiniManuscript.com

Biography and Introduction

Dr Jake Fairnie was born in Bristol. He now lives in London and completed his BSc in Psychology in 2009 at University College London (UCL) with First Class Honours. He went on to study for a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, under the supervision of Professor Nilli Lavie, based in the Attention and Cognitive Control group at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN).

Dr Jake Fairnie

In his spare time he produces short films. His film ‘We Didn’t Start the scanner’ (www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDDzJv3DqXw ) won the ‘ICN Brains on Film’ competition in 2012, as well as the ‘Guerilla Science Eat My Sci Short Film’ competition in 2012.

He completed his PhD earlier this year, and has since been working on MiniManuscript.com, an exciting new project that he co-founded and that he has kindly agreed to talk to The Transparent Psychologist about!

MiniManuscipt.com Interview 

Leila Jameel = LJ

Dr Jake Fairnie = JF

LJ: Congratulations on completing your PhD! So tell me about your research interests…

JF: I’m deeply fascinated by human perception. More specifically the way in which our brains cope with the overwhelming amount of sensory information in today’s hectic world. For instance, we can be distracted by our name in a distant conversation at a party; an attractive individual in the street; or a spider on a dashboard. Yet at the same time, we fail to notice a magician’s sleight of hand, the touch of a pickpocket, or even (as in one experiment) a ‘moonwalking gorilla’ set up to infiltrate a basketball game.

LJ: You are the co-founder of MiniManuscript.com. Tell me about it; what is it and what does it do?

JF: MiniManuscript.com is the only free, openly editable online database of article summaries. Users can post, read and discuss condensed versions of scientific publications and related online content such as YouTube videos and podcasts. The site allows students and the academic community to examine a large amount of literature in a short space of time. I guess MiniManuscript.com is a bit like Wikipedia but for academic literature.

LJ: It sounds great. What prompted you to set up MiniManuscript.com?

JF: MiniManuscript.com was born out of something that Dr Anna Remington (a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and the other co-founder of MiniManuscript.com) and I found ourselves doing when we began working together in the Attention and Cognitive Control group at UCL. Students and academics spend a huge amount of time reading literature and as we worked in a similar area of research we quickly realised that we were reading the same publications. So we created a shared online document where we would write summary versions of articles we’d read allowing us to cover twice the material in the same amount of time. It struck us that this should happen on a global scale: imagine how much time could be saved if the whole academic world worked together in this manner! MiniManuscript.com was born.

LJ: How is an article summary different from an abstract?

JF: An abstract is the author’s subjective interpretation of the paper (e.g. ‘This is the first paper to report the impact of cellphone use on visual awareness’) and can sometimes be misleading. As with newspaper headlines – it can appear to be one thing, and then you get to the end, and realise it’s another! However, MiniManuscript text summaries focus on the raw facts, such as what they did and what they found (e.g. ‘30% of individuals failed to notice an unexpected salient object, this increased to 90% for individuals that were engaged in a phone conversation’). One colleague summarised MiniManuscript as: “open platform for re-writing the abstract.” I really like that way of looking at it, even if it doesn’t paint the full picture of what MiniManuscript offers.

MiniManuscript.com saves people time by making it easier to work out whether a research paper is really relevant. Given the premium placed on Twitter-style brevity nowadays and the limited capacity of the brain, it is highly valuable to have a resource that encourages people to focus on the relevant information and not to dwell on the irrelevant details. We think MiniManuscript.com could not have come at a better time for the academic world!

LJ: So is it just for the academic community, or can it be used by the general public?

JF: MiniManuscript.com is completely free and open for anyone to view any of the content (note that you’d need to sign up for a free account in order to contribute). We have no restrictions, exclusions or paywalls. Given that the site contains summaries of academic publications, we are currently focussed on spreading the word within the academic community, but we welcome anyone who wants to take a look and contribute!  We believe that there can be benefits from having an open dialogue with people from a wide range of disciplines. Our ethos is that scientific knowledge should be shared in the most efficient, open and connected way.

In fact, MiniManuscript.com text summaries are not only beneficial to researchers (in allowing them to assess a large amount of information in a short space of time), but also to journalists, dyslexics and people who do not speak English as their first language.

LJ: Do you think there are there any risks or drawback to using MiniManuscript.com?

JF: There are no drawbacks or risks to MiniManuscript.com. Users can opt to remain anonymous; all we require is that contributors provide their academic status. This protects anyone that might be frightened of causing upset with their comments. Our discussion threads are a great platform for debate (which is the basis of good science) and we want to encourage as much participation as possible.

LJ: I think anonymity is great, as it will encourage people to be free and open about their thoughts. But, with anonymity may also come risks…how do you moderate the forums?

JF: We have a couple of ways to moderate the forums on MiniManuscript.com Users can flag other users, or their comments (like on Facebook) which notifies the MiniManuscript team with a high priority marker. This provides an initial safety barrier. Within the comment thread there is potential for people to be abusive, but that is not the aim. The aim is to talk about the research openly.

LJ: What are your long term plans for MiniManuscript.com? What do you think its impact and role will be?

JF: We believe that MiniManuscript.com can become an accepted tool in the world of research. The site is particularly helpful in the preliminary stages of scientific projects (e.g. literature reviews, grant proposals, publications) and the discussion threads provide a great platform for post-publication peer review. We are creating a more efficient, open and connected culture within academia.

We want to evolve the site’s functionality around our users. Twitter is a great example of what I mean by this. When Twitter was first launched, the hashtag symbol (#) was just a keyboard character like any other. However, the founders quickly noticed that people were using the symbol to mark keywords or topics in their Tweets. The site soon began hyperlinking the hashtags and added trending topics to the homepage. Similarly, we are paying close attention to MiniManuscript users, and aim to build functionality around them.

LJ: On that note, what are your thoughts about open access?

NB Open access refers to the open and free availability of publicly-funded research outputs. Historically readers or institutions have had to subscribe to specific journals or publishers in order to access research papers. However, the culture is changing and many journals are ceasing to charge readers and are going ‘open access’.

JF: MiniManuscript.com approaches the open access debate in a radically different way. It’s not only about financial access, it’s also about conceptual access, making sure that ideas in papers are easily understood. We can all be guilty of using unnecessary jargon, and this is particularly apparent in scientific writing. In a MiniManuscript text summary only the bare essentials of a paper are outlined. This promotes an environment where potentially complex concepts are explained in their most simple terms, and thus making the concept more accessible.

LJ: How is MiniManuscript.com funded?

JF: So far we have managed to sustain the site through institutional grants. We won the UCL Bright Ideas Award 2012 and the Shell LiveWIRE Grand Ideas Award 2012 that provided the seed capital to develop, launch and promote the website. While advertising is brilliant and keeps much of the internet free, it is distracting – and distraction is the enemy of efficiency. So we are doing all we can to avoid it.  Keeping MiniManuscript.com free from charges and adverts does mean that we rely on sponsorship and donations to keep going.

LJ: Fantastic!

On a lighter note, tell me an interesting fact about yourself?

JF: U2 once flashed my name up on screen at Glastonbury… it is a long story!

(www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=L3Lh5elQFuQ ).

LJ: And finally, what are your plans for the future?

JF: I’m keeping my options open at the moment, so Mystic Meg would have a tricky time with me…!

LJ: Many thanks for talking to me. I hope MiniManuscript.com is a success!

Neuromarketing: The Future?

These days it seems everyone has jumped on the ‘neuro’ bandwagon. While this huge explosion of neuroscience is very exciting it is difficult not to be skeptical, and a little concerned, by some neuro-related claims… Here I explore neuromarketing, asking what is it, and what the implications are for science and society? Can we really be sure its claims stand up to the test? And, if so, is it even a good thing?

What is Neuromarketing?

The term ‘neuromarketing’ was invented by Ale Smidts is 2002, and describes a new field of marketing research that aims to study consumers cognitive and emotional responses to marketing stimuli. Researchers in this field use neuroimaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or electroencephalography (EEG), to measure changes brain activity when participants posing as consumers view adverts or make decisions. fMRI measures changes in blood flow, which is thought to provide an indirect measure of brain activity. The underlying assumption is that when an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases. EEG records electrical activity along the scalp, which is thought to be associated with neurons (brain cells) communicating with one another. The aim of utilising techniques such as this is to try to understand how and why consumers make decisions, and which parts of the brain may underpin this.

 

Coca-Cola or Pepsi: Can Cultural Information Bias Our Preferences?

There is some evidence supporting marketing’s ability to alter consumer behaviour. Pepsi and Coca-Cola are very similar in chemical composition, yet consumers maintain a behavioural preference for one over the other. In a 2004 study by McClure and colleagues participants were given the “Pepsi Challenge”, a blind test of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, whilst their brains were scanned using fMRI. In one condition participants did not know which drink was which; here 50% of participants chose Pepsi. In this condition, activity in a region of the brain associated with reward (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) was found to predict participants’ preference for Pepsi or Coca-Cola. In a second condition participants were told which drink was which; now 3/4 said that Coca-Cola tasted better! Interestingly, their brain activity also changed in this condition. Areas of the brain associated with high-level cognition and memory (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and midbrain), were also recruited when participants sampled Coca-Cola, but not Pepsi. The authors suggested that participants may be relating Coca-Cola to their previous experiences and memories associated with it. The results were argued to indicate that preferences may be biased by cultural information.

What Is The evidence?

Neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have raised concerns about the credibility of the enterprise. Whilst interesting findings may be established in the lab, what does this mean for the real world? Seeing a region of the brain associated with pleasure light up when people are presented with a picture of a particular product they like, does not necessarily translate into these people going and buying the product, or altering their buying activity on the basis of a clever advert. On the other hand, studies like that of McClure et al. demonstrate the potential of successful brands and marketing campaigns to influence our behaviour, and perhaps even perception. But one of the aims of neuromarketing is to investigate our reactions before a product is even launched, during the development stages. It remains unclear whether neuroimaging provides any better data than other marketing methods for such endeavors (see Ariely & Berns, 2010). There seems to be a misconception that neuroimaging techniques provide a portal into consumers’ minds and behaviour. These techniques are undeniably useful, but the underlying technology is still developing, and so the data generated must be considered carefully.

Neuroethics of Neuromarketing

Consumer advocate organisations have criticised neuromarketing’s ethical scruples. Neuroethics is a new strand of neuroscience, which as the frontiers widen further and further, is asking exactly these kinds of questions. In a 2008 publication Murphy et al. outlined two possible types of risks associated with neuromarketing; firstly the protection of people directly involved in the research, and secondly the protection of consumer autonomy if neuromarketing is found to be effective in predicting consumer behaviour.

The first is fairly straightforward to solve, providing those running the studies do so in a regulated manner in accordance with neuroimaging conducted for scientific or clinical purposes. However, concern has been raised over the lack of current regulation (see Ariely & Berns, 2010). For instance, there remains unease as to whether neuroimaging information will be used to discriminate against individuals or particular groups. Furthermore, scanning a large number of individuals always raises the possibility of detecting clinically abnormal results, which demands skilled interpretation and may require referral.

The latter, protecting consumer autonomy, has been labeled ‘stealth marketing’, referring specifically to the tools of neuromarketing, which may in the future “provide sufficient insight into humans neural function to allow manipulation of the brain such that the consumer cannot detect the subterfuge and that such manipulations result in the desired behaviour in at least some exposed persons” (Murphy et al., 2008). Whilst this is not currently possible with the technology available, if it were developed Murphy et al. (2008) argue it “would represent a major incursion on individual autonomy”. Putting scientific issues to the side for a moment… If companies are dead set on influencing us subliminally by studying our ‘subconscious’ responses to products or advertising campaigns, then are we left vulnerable? Whilst this does not seem likely to happen any time soon, it raises concerns about the widespread use of neuroimaging techniques. And, if these technologies were developed begs the question; will we be able to make fully informed decisions about which goods we buy and why?!

Hope or Hype?

It seems that there is a lot of promise and interest in the field of neuromarketing, but also a lot of unknowns and potential risks. The work of those such as McClure et al., raises interesting questions about how cultural information becomes embedded in the brain, and how the marketing of ideas affects decision-making, relevant to both scientific researchers as well as marketers. However, whether neuroimaging provides an efficient tool to answer this question is yet to be shown.

Some have argued companies fixation with neuromarketing is a fad, and that it is too expensive to be rolled out in a big way. However, new enterprises such as that of NeuroSpire (www.neurospire.com), which aims to offer neuroimaging techniques to companies at a cheaper cost by turning it into a “DIY affair”(Lecher, 2013; see ‘Popsci’ reference for original article), may represent its future. Opposing this burgeoning business either on scientific or ethical grounds may be futile. Thus, it seems that scientists and consumer advocate organisations should seek to help companies to engage in neuromarketing in a safe and regulated manner.

References:

 

Ariely, D., Berns, G.S. (2010) Neuromarketing: the Hope and Hype of Neuroimaging in Business. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(4), 284-292. DOI: 10.1038/nrn2795.

Lecher, C. 2013. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-03/meet-22-year-old-inventor-helping-marketers-get-inside-your-head

 

McClure, S.M., Li, J., Tomlin, D., Cypert, K.S., Montague, L.M., Montague, P.R. (2004). Neural Correlates of Behavioural Preference for Culturally Familiar Drinks. Neuron, 44, 379–387.

Murphy, E.R., Illes, J., Reiner, P.B. (2008). Neuroethics of Neuromarketing. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 7, 293–302. DOI: 10.1002/cb.252.