Scientist Syndrome? Check your Symptoms now!

Becoming a scientist is a process that reminds me of the saying, “you can’t see the wood for the trees.” If that’s not immediately obvious, stick with me, you may find that this applies to you too…

When you’re studying or conducting research in the Sciences you’re so busy staring at your data (the trees), that you overlook your development as a person and a scientist (the wood).

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 12.29.54When I started out studying triple sciences at A-Level and secretly hating science, I couldn’t even make the simplest chemistry experiment work. I was in fact so bad that I made myself a comical ‘dunce’ hat to wear in class. And don’t get me started on Physics! My favourite subject was Psychology, which I later pursued at degree level; and although my theoretical knowledge was good, my technical ability, logical reasoning, and practical skills were average at best. The weight of these limitations was a constant burden throughout my career, until mounting evidence suggested what I could not believe to be true… I had somehow unwittingly shed my shackles of ineptitude and become what can only be known as… A Scientist.

There’s no absolute test to see if you have unwittingly become a Scientist. I rather like to imagine it as “Scientist Syndrome” – diagnosed by the observation of a cluster of symptoms. And it’s not an easy syndrome to live with. You can use the following symptom checker to see if you too, have become a scientist.

1) Data Rage: Any reporting of data annoys you.

Do you find that you have to question any basic reporting of data in the media? Are you left with remaining questions regarding the validity of said data; plagued with intrusive thoughts after such an ordeal? Then you may have Data Rage…

Whilst watching BBC News one morning, I learned about the crisis UK milk producers are suffering regarding the price of milk. It sounded quite the dire situation – the price that supermarkets pay for milk has fallen year on year, meaning that some farms can no longer afford to carry on. Terrible news! The reporter went on to present a bar graph of the price of milk by year to make his point. “Great idea”, I thought. But no, this was an epic fail that, for me, completely undermined the story. At a glance I could already see that at least one of the bars was not smaller than its predecessor, suggesting that the price of milk did not fall that year. What’s more disturbing – I had grave concerns that the price of milk from year to year was not significantly different – i.e. it didn’t look to me as if the difference in price was large enough to say for sure that the price was really falling year by year rather than just fluctuating in the normal way prices tend to. To know this I wanted to see the standard error of milk prices for each year. But, to my horror, no standard error was presented. How could the BBC make such an oversight?! Breakfast ruined.

2) Matlabitis: inflammation of the matlab gland.

If you are regularly caught extolling the benefits of MATLAB to your poor uneducated Excel-using friends, then you may just be suffering from a bad case of ‘Matlabitis’. For those (un?)lucky enough not to know what Matlab is – it’s a life-changing ‘high level’ programing language, which is great for management and analysis of large data sets and, which includes a number of useful toolboxes for specialist analysis (like SPM (Statistical Parametric Mapping) for neuroimaging research). With matlab the world is your oyster! And, it’s exactly this kind of thinking that is symptomatic of Matlabitis.

When I started my PhD I did a lot of my data management in Microsoft Excel – nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t easy. For example, in a complex data set you may have many columns of data (let’s say relating some demographic information and questionnaire responses). So far, so good. But what if you want to look at a subset of these data, like only data from males? “Use the Sort function” I hear you cry? Indeed! But what if you want to look at a subsection within a subsection; or what if there are more than two conditions that specify the data of interest (males, over 30 years old, living in South Manchester, who have a disability)? I found this tedious and difficult in Excel, however, in matlab I can write a simple function that loops through each row and selects only the data that satisfy my conditions. If I want to, I can then save it as a new variable (organised like a spreadsheet), and manipulate (organise) it to display however I wish. It’s like a dream, I’m telling you! It’s when you start using matlab outside of work that you should worry…

3) Scientist Syndrome Sleep Disturbances.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 12.30.07Do you wake up in a cold sweat, wondering whether the analysis you left running overnight has finished? Have you had dreams about your research? Are your night-times plagues by nightmares of mislabelled graphs, insignificant t-tests and negative reviewer’s comments? If so, you may be suffering from Scientist Syndrome sleep disturbances.

You spend so many hours of your life at work that when you leave for home you need a peaceful, work-free environment. However, if you haven’t properly decompressed from the day, you can inadvertently bring you work home with you. This can lead to troubles falling asleep, early waking, and night terrors. One time when I was deep in programming (writing a code – in matlab of course – that would present my experiment on a computer screen) I seriously had a nightmare that I could only talk in ‘for’ / ‘if’ loops and logical statements. I know it’s a common joke that scientists might as well talk in binary code, but this was no joke, it was terrifying!

4) Science-related sight difficulties: You see ANOVAs everywhere.

Like many syndromes, Science Syndrome can adversely affect our senses and our cognitions – the way we think. If you’ve found yourself looking at simple objects of beauty in a new and slightly odd way, or you’ve started interpreting art as science, this may be a sign that you have Science-related sight difficulties.

During my Masters studies, I think I over-indulged in statistics a little, until one day I had a temporary breakdown. I was at band practice with my housemate (we called ourselves The Gamma Band, which should have been an early warning sign of the syndrome) guitar in hand, vocal chords warmed. And then it hit me. The guitar was like a very large ANOVA (a statistical analysis of variance). ANOVAs test the statistical relationship between a number of factors, which can have many levels. In this case the factors were: Strings (with 6 levels, one per string); and Frets (with 19 levels, one per fret). The combination of these levels and factors create distinctly different sounds, and therefore I reasoned that this demonstrated a significant ANOVA. When I explained this to my housemate, she was not enthused. We never spoke of the guitar ANOVA again…

5) SNR hypersensitivity: You explain everything as Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR).

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 12.30.15Have you started seeing your environment differently? Maybe your perception of the environment (what you actually see) is the same, but the way you interpret and navigate it is different? If this sounds like you, you may be suffering from SNR hyperactivity.

I noticed this myself last week when driving through drizzly Manchester. Although well-known for its downpours, on this particular day the rain was happily rather light. I was driving home from the office, listening to XFMs daily feature “that’s good innit” when I had my own “that’s good innit” moment. I found the optimal windscreen wiper setting for the weather conditions. I’m ashamed to say that not only did this realisation accompany a rather long inner monologue which hinged upon scientific concepts but, that I also felt utterly delighted. I reasoned to myself that the size and frequency of the rain drops, along with the velocity of my car had created a deficit in the usual signal to noise ratio of driving. The proportion of signal – in this case, the visual information my eyes could detect about the road, the position of other cars etc. – was lower than the proportion of noise – in this case, the disruption to my visual perception caused by rain on the windscreen making things look blurry. Fortunately this disaster was averted by choosing the correct windscreen wiper speed, which weighed the SNR (signal to noise ratio) in favour of the signal by eradicating enough noise (rain) to drive safely. As Clint Boon of XFM would say – “that’s good innit!”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you should “get help now”; or to use my (newly) native tongue: “01100111 01100101 01110100 00100000 01101000 01100101 01101100 01110000 00100000 01101110 01101111 01110111”.(binary code taken from

Post by: Gemma Barnacle

Breaking Brain: Computer Science of the future

image1Code breaking all sounds very ‘007’ (or a bit Alan Turing if you’re into your WWII and Manchester history). For many it conjures images of special agents embroiled in top secret espionage; or perhaps a lone revolutionary working by candlelight towards some crucial eureka moment. But, what about breaking the ultimate code, that of the brain? Here I’ll explore some real life advances in neuroscience which may sound like science fiction, but are, in fact, all real…

Communicating with vegetative patients using neuroimaging:

No, this isn’t a work of science fiction; using state of the art technology, outwardly unresponsive patients can now communicate with the outside world (see here for the full article)

Due to developments in neuroscientific research, we can predict what brain activity will look like when people are asked to imagine performing certain actions (such as playing tennis); and, amazingly, it is this knowledge that forms the basis of such communication.

image2Scientists asked outwardly unresponsive patients yes or no questions whilst scanning their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI). Patients were instructed to imagine playing tennis if the answer was yes, or to do nothing if the answer was no. Incredibly, it was found that one patient who had been outwardly unresponsive for five months following a road traffic accident, was able to respond in this way. Scientists could be sure that this was a specific response to their question (and not just random brain activity) because of the well-known brain ‘signature’ which follows the imagination of playing tennis. Indeed the patient’s brain responses for this task could not be distinguished from those of a normally functioning person performing this task. Technology such as this could help physicians to make crucial decisions about the care of outwardly unresponsive patients, and could help families find ways to communicate with their loved ones.

A window on the mind:

Some neuroscientific research can ‘train’ computers to respond or learn like a human brain – so called ‘neural network models’. One notable example of this is the work of Nishimoto and colleagues from Berkeley, USA. Nishimoto and colleagues used fMRI to scan the occipital cortex (the visual centre in the brain) of people watching clips of movies. The movie scenes were then categorised mathematically on a great number of features (e.g. the presence of colour, the nature of any movement, the presence of lines etc.). With this data, scientists set about developing a model that could match the mathematical categorisation of video data to real-time brain activity. Essentially, this involved looking for patterns in the mathematical categorisation that matched patterns in brain activity; such that one could say when a person views a picture with property A, then brain activity pattern B is reliably produced. The more movie clips and brain activity that were analysed, the better the model became.

image3Incredibly, the finished model could take fMRI data from an unknown clip and generate an accurate visual representation of the associated movie. Take a look at the YouTube clip that shows this happening here, and/or read the full scientific article here.

If you’re not already excited by this, just imagine the possibilities with a tool like this… Ever wanted to remember your dream from the night before but it all seems a bit vague and out of reach? It’s theoretically possible that this technology could ‘record’ a dreamer’s visions. And, what about recording your thoughts and even feelings for future playback?

Although this is beginning to descend into ‘science-fiction’; the basic premise of using computer science to model human behaviour could in theory, be applied to any modality from vision to touch – and who knows, maybe one day, feelings and emotions. With the ever growing and impressive repertoire of neuroscientific advances, it seems that today’s musings could be tomorrow’s reality.

Post by: Gemma Barnacle



Solipsism, Sympathy, and the Connection of Minds

image1Human beings often share the desire to reach out and connect to others, to feel part of a community, to understand and to be understood. In fact, understanding and empathy  underpin a peaceful and productive society, and connecting with others can provide a sense of purpose and meaning. It is this connection of minds that has long been a topic of fascination.

The early-modern philosophers such as Descartes and Wittgenstein introduced the philosophical notion of solipsism, taken from the Latin solus, meaning “alone”, and ipse, meaning “self”. Solipsism can be defined as “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist”. Hence, philosophers of a solipsistic persuasion questioned the very existence of other minds.

This question has been scientifically investigated by psychologists interested in  the Theory of Mind (or ToM). The term was coined by  Premack and Woodruff (1978), who studied chimpanzees.  They inferred from their investigations that chimps could attribute intentions and desires to others (human actors), showing that they understood the concept of another mind. Human research suggests that ToM develops around the age of 5 or earlier, when children can understand that other people have different desires, thoughts, and feelings to their own.

But if the mind can conceive of another mind, how does this occur, and what evidence do we have to challenge the solipsism of Descartes and Wittgenstein?

image2The answers lie in the advancement of technology and neuroscience. Dr Giacomo Rizzolatti recorded electrical activity from the brain of a monkey whilst they performed a specific action (grasping an object) – so far nothing exceptional. However, the same electrical activity in the monkey’s brain was generated when the animal  observed another person performing the same action. This suggested that the monkey understood the action to be the same as its own, demonstrating a kind of ‘sympathy’. The cells responsible for this understanding of another’s actions were termed ‘mirror neurons’, due to the obvious connection with mirroring another’s behaviour.

So far it seems that we can theorise about another’s mind, and that the explanation of understanding another’s actions can be (at least partly) explained by mirror neurons, but the possibility of the connection of minds is yet to be proven.

… Or is it? Earlier this year, a group of scientists from Spain, France and the U.S.A documented what they term ‘conscious brain-to-brain communication’. Grau and colleagues recruited participants in two distant locations, one to be the ‘emitter’ – the person who generated the message to communicate; and one to be the ‘receiver’. The emitter thought of a word, which was represented as a binary code of ‘1’s and ‘0’s. The ‘1’s and ‘0’s were recorded from the brain of the emitter using motor imagery: if the emitter wished to communicate a ‘1’ they imagined an action with their hands, for a ‘0’ they imagined an action with their feet. The electrical activity from the scalp over the brain areas relating to the actions of hands and feet was recorded with  electroencephalography. Computers transformed this electrical activity back to binary code for transmission via the internet to the location of the receiver. A computer at this location received the binary code and relayed it to the person designated as the receiver. The receiver experienced the ‘1’s and ‘0’s via   a magnetic field applied to the brain through the scalp (transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS). If the digit of code to be conveyed was a ‘1’ the researchers  stimulated the part of the brain responsible for vision, and this made the receiver think they were seeing a light.

If the digit to be conveyed was a ‘0’ the computer positioned the magnetic stimulation over a different part of the brain which resulted in the omission of a light. Therefore, the receiver could communicate the code of ‘1’s and ‘0’s based on the presence and omission of lights. The transmitted word could be  deciphered, completing the brain-to-brain communication.


Although perhaps not what Descartes and Wittgenstein had in mind when they questioned the existence of other minds, modern technology has helped us to explore, explain and expand our means of communication with some truly fascinating results.

Post by: Gemma Barnacle


Original article by Grau and colleagues:

Interview with Rizzolatti on the discovery of mirror neurons:

How to ‘get’ yourself some Science

1043205025_36fbaf8d69_zRoll up! Roll up! The dawn of Open Access (OA) format has begun, thus making it possible (and indeed incentivised) for scientists to make their research freely accessible to all! This represents a  historical breakthrough; research will no longer be the sole captive of subscription-only journals as was traditionally the case, with new guidelines ensuring that everyone can now access more research than ever, for free.

The OA policy published by Research Councils UK, which governs seven research councils with an approximate annual investment in research of £3 billion, suggests that making publicly-funded research available to the “general tax-paying public” is a central objective of this reform.

However, one could argue that merely making research available is not enough; research needs to also be accessible, i.e. easily understandable. It is my hunch that in some scientific fields the general public (myself included) would need a translator to be able to digest this material.

“Member of general public WLTM accessible Science w/GSoH. Seeking the uncomplicated and reliable. Willing to relocate. Will answer all.”

6446476_57a1aa432c_zI could not illustrate this point more elegantly than to recall Marc Abrams’s speech (founder of the Ig Nobel Prize award for whacky research), at the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience in 2012. In his talk he described a  paper co-authored by his friend and colleague, the late Jerome Lettvin, the purpose of which was to amass and combine random technical jargon and formulae with the express purpose of writing nonsense. The outcome of this publication  was a whirlwind of praise, invitations to speak and the receipt of many prestigious job offers: An illustration of the affliction of science. It seems that the more incomprehensible the content, the greater the acclaim – something that has contributed to the notion that to become a consumer of science one must be part of The Club. Happily though, this need not be the case as many researchers are now turning to blogging and the use of social media platforms to entice people back to the world of science in a friendly and, importantly, accessible way.

So how can we ‘get’ ourselves some science? Here’s just three of the ways I’ve found to be useful in finding and understanding new ideas outside of my field of interest, all of which require very little effort:

1. Read reliable blogs – if you’re already reading this then you’ve achieved point one on the list. Congratulations!

2. Follow scientists and science journalists on twitter – Science in 140 characters?! Yes Please! Perfect for those idol moments like standing in the lunch queue, or waiting for the bus; and often with links to more information if you want it. If you don’t know where to start, pick a scientist or science writer that covers broad topics, and see who they follow in turn. I saw a talk about science writing by Ed Yong ( whose blog is hosted by National Geographic ( and started following him. In turn I found similar writers whose style I liked. This method tends to cause your ‘Following’ list to grow exponentially, but fear not! You can use the ‘Lists’ option to organise the tweets you want to see at the appropriate times. I also comment on tweets and make sure to add my own hashtag such as #foodiegems or #neurogems. This effectively stamps the tweets I’m interested in for various reasons with my unique marker, and I can later retrieve all of these by searching for that hashtag. No, it’ll never be trending, but it’s a cool way to organise info you want to come back to. Remember to make sure it’s a very individual hashtag or else you’ll find yourself scrolling through unrelated tweets.

3. Go to events! There are a number of affordable or FREE public science events around Manchester, which are usually fairly informal and laid back. Combine a beer (or non-alcoholic beverage) with Science at Café Scientifique (, or if you missed the Pint of Science Festival in May this year ( put it in your diary for 2015! Alternatively if you think that watching an awkward academic explain their topic and combine this with stand-up (and/or other performing arts), keep an eye out for Bright Club Manchester events ( And don’t forget SciBar on the last Monday of every month, held at The Salutation Pub, organised by Manchester Metropolitan University (

It’s clear that science can be somewhat out-of-reach at times, and that admirably, OA will provide a partial solution to this. However, in its current form it is still a little way off providing a fully viable solution to those of us from the general public who wish to engage with more science on a day-to-day basis. Access to science might be improving, but ‘getting’ it still needs a little work from all parties.

Post by Gemma Barnacle

Singing the praises of reconsolidation (and shouting about asparagus)

Having studied Psychology in various forms for many years, I have often questioned the merit of some theories. It seemed to me that the psychological mechanisms that we investigate are often far removed from natural behaviour, and I shared the view of many that my field has a tendency to be reductionist – simplifying complex feelings and behaviours to little more than cogs in a machine.

In fact, in my cynicism I have at times wondered Memorywhether some reported parts of behaviour actually exist. One example, taken from research on the topic of memory, is a process referred to as ‘reconsolidation’. According to reconsolidation theory even a firm, long-term memory can be tampered with, possibly changing the memory altogether. Reconsolidation centres upon the process of ‘consolidation’ where a memory trace is converted from short- to long-term memory.

For reconsolidation to occur an existing memory must first be reactivated by a similar experience. It is this reactivation which renders the memory unstable. The unstable memory can then be modified by new experiences/information and undergoes a second consolidation, or ‘reconsolidation’. It is during this stage that alterations to the original memory can be made. The extent to which the reconsolidated memory persists depends upon the properties of the similar experience, but research suggests that the changes can be permanent in some circumstances.

My initial scepticism regarding this process was two-fold. Firstly, I found it hard to believe that an established long-term memory could be affected by showing me another similar piece of information. Could the memory of my parent’s address be altered like this? Surely this was absurd? Secondly, it seemed to me that reconsolidation theory may have been a scientific explanation of confusion brought about by knowledge of two similar and conflicting pieces of information – something I’m sure we have all experienced before.

Until recently, I hadn’t experienced anything in my own life that I could attribute to the process of reconsolidation, but I’m pleased to report that recently my stand-point on this has changed somewhat. Whilst living in Germany and attempting to learn the language, my German friends would often ask me to tell them an English word for something. My prior conclusions would have led me to believe that I could not possibly forget an English word that I have known all my life, simply by holding the equivalent German word in my head at the same time. However, one day whilst in the supermarket my German friend pointed to ‘Weisse Spargel’, which I knew in German and English. When he asked me for the English word, all I could do was stare blankly and mutter ‘Weisse Spargel’. It took me several hours of frustrated thinking before I eventually shouted out ‘ASPARAGUS’ later that evening!


In conclusion, I believe it is probable that repeatedly seeing the Weisse Spargel in the context of a German supermarket, over many visits reactivated my memory of the word asparagus. This reactivation rendered my initial knowledge temporarily unstable, and upon reconsolidation my knowledge was re-weighted to the German, rather than the English word. I can discount the possibility of being confused in this case because my knowledge of the word asparagus was not something I could mix up with something else. The information was there, but something very real had changed that made it more difficult to access.

I’m pleased to report that, although this was not an isolated incident, there were no lasting side effects, and I have not (yet) permanently lost my ability to speak English.

To find out more, please see this review by Thomas Agren.

Post by Gemma Barnacle