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Comment Nothing to see here; move along (Score 5, Informative) 290

I conduct research in a lab that uses EEG to measure a very different kind of processing, so it's possible I'm unaware of the relevant background literature (if indeed there is any), but the most charitable thing I can say is that it is impossible to draw any conclusions at all from the results as they are reported here.

Barnett talks about "neural engagement", but this is not a technical term. Googling around led to his patent on measuring so-called engagement. The relevant part is as follows:

“For example, if a movie was presented to a group of people, the measure of engagement could show the level of engagement the group (or a subset of the group) displayed in response to different scenes in the movie; the measure of engagement could also show how engaging the movie was overall. The method 100 preferably performs cross-brain correlations of neural data, calculated across pairs (a measure of neural similarity), as input for the measure of engagement. The method 100 additionally may function to provide a measure of engagement across small and precise time ranges. Understanding that one characteristic of engaging content is its ability to generate similar neural responses in different individuals, this preferably enables the method 100 to operate without the need to specify a model for the neural processes of engagement.”

So as far as I can tell, the fact that Trump generated higher levels of engagement means the EEG responses he elicited in viewers were more correlated with each other than were the EEG responses elicited by other candidates. This could potentially be interesting, but not without a process model explaining why. Even taking this associative, non-experimental method at face value, here's a plausible hypothesis that would render this result totally uninteresting: Everyone has seen and heard Donald Trump a lot. The same cannot be said for, say, John Kasich. It seems reasonable to me that frequent stimuli would be more likely to elicit common responses.

Maybe this hypothesis is correct; maybe it's not. The point is that without doing the hard work of showing they understand what their analytic technique measures, the results are totally uninterpretable. You can't even say that "Viewers weren't bored" without knowing what the correlations between the EEG responses of bored people would generate!

tl;dr: A poorly-designed and as-yet unpublished EEG study leads to an uninterpretable result that generated news coverage because readers like it when their latent beliefs are covered with a veneer of scientific acceptability.

(Professional quibble with the write-up: The term "lights up the brain" is neuroscientific slang used exclusively with methods like fMRI that tell you which regions of the brain are active. I know no neuroscientist who would say the brain is "lit up" based on an EEG reading.)

Comment Re:Many methods to speed reading (Score 1) 92

That's pretty cool. Most of my research focuses more on language production than on language comprehension and reading, so I'm happy to defer to someone who has more directly applicable experience looking at these kinds of questions.

Just a brief note: It turns out there's a whole body of research into the question of whether listening to text while reading it improves various measures of reading performance. (If you search for "listening-while-reading" on Google Scholar, you'll find a large number of papers, many behind paywalls.) Some seem particularly relevant to the questions raised above; e.g.:

Shany, M. T., & Biemiller, T. (1995). Assisted reading practice: Effects on performance for poor readers in Grades 3 and 4. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 382-395. doi: 10.2307/747622


Examined effects of assisted reading practice over a 4-month period with at-risk 3rd- and 4th-grade children. 10 subjects read basic materials orally and were assisted with word identification by a teacher. Nine subjects read while listening to a tape recorder whose speed they could control. Assisted practice significantly improved text reading rates and reading comprehension scores of both experimental groups compared to a control group, although gains in letter-naming speed, decoding, and reading speed for words out of text did not reach statistical significance. Listening while reading resulted in twice the amount of reading as the other method and led to higher scores on listening comprehension measures. Gains in reading comprehension were larger when there was a large pretreatment difference between listening comprehension and reading comprehension.

Comment Re:Many methods to speed reading (Score 4, Informative) 92

As someone who works in a lab that studies language use, I accept your challenge. :) (Full disclosure: The authors of the paper in question are friends and colleagues of mine.)

I'm not trying to be flippant, but I'm honestly not actually sure why your idea *would* increase reading speed. Many speed reading techniques are predicated on the idea that the problem with reading is subvocalization (saying words to yourself as you're reading them), and that one of the ways to improve reading speed is to eliminate subvocalization. Your idea sounds like it would try to speed up reading by speeding up subvocalization - a different approach, though perhaps a related one. But I think the premise that subvocalization is bad for reading - that it constitutes a bottleneck to be discarded - is akin to the idea that regressions (looking back in the text to words you've already read) are bad for reading, which is the idea that the paper in question tries to debunk. With the possible exception of people with certain kinds of reading disabilities, it's generally not the case that our eyes need to be trained to move faster: The biggest bottleneck is that your brain can only process so many words per second.

If you think about it, reading is an incredibly complex process. With every word you read, you have to look at a sequence of letters, figure out what they are based on their shapes, identify the corresponding word, retrieve its meaning, and integrate it into the context of the discourse. All of that takes time. Moving your eyes across more and more letters each second is not going to help you process the words any faster. Suggestions to the contrary are equivalent to saying that if a sink drains too slowly, you should add water to the sink at a faster rate. That contributes only to the problem, not to the solution.

Comment Sadly unsurprising (Score 5, Informative) 105

Last year, the Chicago Tribune ran an incredible series of investigative articles on the dangers of flame retardant chemicals and the extent to which industries profit from their manufacturing ( In light of their unfortunate conclusions, this report is hardly surprising.

Comment Re:"Study" (Score 1) 238

I'm a friend of the author of the paper in question, so although I may not be entirely unbiased, I figured I would take it upon myself to answer your questions.

1) This got published because it used a formal methodology that's accepted in psychology. Conditions were counterbalanced, statistics were properly done, and the effects show up in both by-subjects and by-item analyses. There's no quackery here at all. To address an issue that other people have raised, I agree that there are legitimate complaints to be made about the validity of self-assessed preference ratings, but scientists often have to use imperfect measurements to estimate underlying processes. For example, fMRI studies use blood flow in the brain to approximate neural activity.

2) Looking at the actual paper, the authors tested 819 different people. 30 is just the minimum number of people who read each of the 3 versions of each of the 12 stories that were used across the experiments. The articles linked to in the summary did not make this as clear as they could have.

3) Having seen the stimuli myself, the spoilers were exactly that: spoilers. They really did tell the readers who the killer was, etc.

For what it's worth, I don't think the authors would disagree with you that some people like spoilers and some people don't. Importantly, they're not trying to say anything about any particular person, and they'd probably be the first to agree that you know what you like better than they do. What their research shows, though, is that - at least for the kinds of people they tested and the kinds of materials they used - people tend to like stories more when they're spoiled.

(I agree with you about the trailers, by the way.)

Comment Re:Unfortunately.... (Score 2) 887

Put a different way, the privilege protects the "expression of the contents of an individual's mind."

I thought this was the most interesting quote from TFA because it raises the question of what exactly constitutes an individual's mind. I once read a philosophy paper promoting a school of thought called Active Externalism that says that the interaction between a user and an object or interface can constitute a kind of distributed cognitive system. From the open-access Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

[A]ctive externalism asserts that the environment can play an active role in constituting and driving cognitive processes. Hutchins (1995) argues that the successful completion of a typical commercial flight requires complex interaction between the pilots and the instruments in the cockpit. He claims that an adequate analysis of the task would need to treat the whole distributed system as a cognitive system with memories, representations, and cognitive processes that extend outside the pilots' heads. Clark and Chalmers (1998) is a widely-discussed defense of active externalism. In one argument, they introduce a thought experiment where someone with Alzheimer's disease has to rely on a notebook to retain information and find his way about. Clark and Chalmers argue that because the notebook plays an active role in the cognitive life of the patient, its contents actually constitute some of that person's non-occurrent beliefs, and so these belief contents are “not in the head”.

Given the extent to which we rely on our laptops - calendars to help us remember where to be, photos to help us remember the past, etc. - I wonder if a laptop wouldn meet this qualification. If so, maybe the contents of the laptop actually constitute the individual's mind in the first place!

(I'm not saying I really believe this is true or that there's any chance a court would ever buy it, just that it's an interesting thought experiment.)

Comment Re:It'll work..except when it doesn't. (Score 1) 157

Not quite - the hit rate is 70 percent, which means that 70 percent of the messages that are spam will never reach your inbox, and the other 30 percent will. The number you're after is the false alarm rate, 0.3%, which tells you that only 3 out of every 1000 non-spam messages will be incorrectly flagged as spam.

My initial reaction to these numbers was to wonder what percentage of e-mail is spam. The article says it's a whoppingly high 90.4%, which I think makes the false-alarm rate more than acceptable, as (by my calculations) only one out of every 229 e-mails flagged as spam will be a real e-mail. In contrast, if, say, only 1% of e-mails were spam (in which case we probably wouldn't need a spam detector at all, but still), 3 out of every 10 e-mails flagged as spam would actually be real e-mails.

Of course, this is just a long-winded way of noting that hit rates and false alarm rates aren't terribly useful without taking the base rate into account.

Comment Re:Well #@%$ me. (Score 1) 230

You're the perfect person to ask then: a french teacher once told me that bilingual people develop memory problems in old age sooner than others. I'm not sure if he specifically mentioned Alzheimer's or not. Have you heard of this, and do you know of anything to back it up or refute it?

I have good news and bad news for you.

The good news is that, when it comes to Alzheimer's, being bilingual appears to be beneficial. A researcher by the name of Ellen Bialystok has looked into this question; in a recently published paper, she and her coauthors concluded that among people who have regularly used two languages for most of their lives, the onset of dementia is delayed by an average of four years. (By "dementia", I'm referring to severe age-related declines in mental functions, of which Alzheimer's Disease is the most common form. The Bialystok et al. paper specifically states that their conclusions hold true for Alzheimer's as well.) Note that they don't make any claims about whether this conclusion applies to people who learned to speak multiple languages as children but only use one in later life, or people who learned a second language as an adult and use multiple languages daily: those populations might benefit from a similar delay, but they weren't tested for this paper.

On the memory front, I don't know about age of onset, but bilinguals behave differently than monolinguals on memory tasks throughout their lives. Here, there's both (more) good news and bad news. (I'm going to be cribbing some of this from another one of Bialystok's papers, which, as with the paper referenced below, you'll probably need to access at a university to read more than the summary.) Someone who grows up multilingual, while having the obvious advantage of being able to speak multiple languages, tends to be less proficient in each of those languages than monolinguals - that's one of the consequences of splitting your speaking and listening time between several languages. As a result, bilinguals tend to have smaller vocabularies (within each language) and perform worse on word retrieval tasks than monolinguals throughout their lives. So, bilinguals are worse than monolinguals at memory tasks that rely on verbal recall (e.g., "Memorize this list of words and then, in a little while, I'll ask you to tell me what they were.")

At the same time, there's some evidence that being bilingual actually helps you on other kinds of cognitive tasks. Bilinguals perform better at some tasks that place big demands on short-term memory, and, more controversially, on some tasks that require what we call "conflict resolution", situations where you have to choose between two or more possible responses (the Stroop effect is the most famous example). They're better at conflict resolution tasks, so the theory goes, because they've spent their whole lives choosing between multiple competing representations (one per language) for each word. The result of these advantages is that bilinguals tend to be better than monolinguals at nonverbal memory tasks (for instance, recalling an ordered sequence of blocks).

As for how these findings are affected by aging, I think that the relative deficits and advantages present in young adults should carry over into later life. For example, another researcher, Tamar Gollan, showed that bilinguals' naming deficits persist with age. If that's true, then while I don't know about age of onset, I would expect older bilinguals to have worse verbal memory, and better non-verbal memory, than their monolingual counterparts.

Comment Re:Well #@%$ me. (Score 5, Informative) 230

I work in a psycholinguistics lab that studies, among other things, the effects of being bilingual on cognitive functions, both linguistic and non-linguistic. While we haven't ourselves studied this question, I expect that cursing in a nondominant language would be less effective at prolonging the amount of time someone was willing to hold their hand in cold water, based on research that shows that words in one's nondominant language evoke less of an emotional response than words in one's dominant language.

I can't remember which papers support that statement, but a Google search reveals (at least) one paper claiming that bilinguals curse more often in their dominant languages (and while I haven't read it, I expect they controlled for frequency of use). If one of the purposes of swearing is to relieve emotional tension, that conclusion would make the most sense if swearing in your dominant language provided a greater emotional release. It wouldn't surprise me too much if the same thing was true for pain.

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