Richard Kunert

How to ask a conference question

Many people are too shy to ask a question after a talk. They may think that many questions are unnecessary, self-important or off topic. Well, that is true. However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from joining in. With this guide anyone is guaranteed to be able to ask a perfectly normal question at any conference in Psychology/Cognitive Neuroscience and beyond.


conference, question, speaker, talk, cartoon


Beginning formula

Was the talk any good?

Yes: “I really liked your talk. …”

No: “I really liked your talk. …”


Main question

Did the presented study use animal models?

Yes: “How could this research be done with humans and what would you predict to happen?”

No: “What would be a good animal model for this topic and couldn’t this resolve some of the methodological issues of your design.”


Was the research fundamental (non-applied)?

Yes: “What would be a practical application of these results?”

No: “What is the underlying mechanism that is behind these results?”


Was the research done on children?

Yes: “What do your results say about adult processing?”

No: “What would be the developmental time course of these effects?”


Did the study only use typical Western student participants?

Yes: “Have you thought about whether these effects will hold up also in non-Western cultures?”

No: “Have you looked into more detail whether the Western sample itself may have subgroups?”



“Could you go back to slide 6 and explain something for me.” [Wait for scrolling back and ask what a figure actually means. If no figure on slide 6 appears, ask to go one ahead. Repeat until a slide with a figure appears.]


If all fails:

Talk at length about your own research followed by “this is less of a question and more of a comment”.


Behaviour after question

Could the presenter influence your career?

Yes: Hold eye-contact and nod (whatever s/he says).

No: Check your smartphone for brainsidea updates.

Picture: from twitter ( Original source unknown.

The 10,000-Hour rule is nonsense

Have you heard of Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule? The key to success in any field is practice, and not just a little. A new publication in the journal Psychological Science had a good look at all the evidence and concludes that this rule is nonsense. No Einstein in you, I am afraid.

Albert Einstein, by Doris Ulmann.jpg

Did he just practice a lot?

The authors of the new publication wanted to look at all major areas of expertise where the relationship between practice and performance had been investigated: music, games, sports, professions, and education. They accumulated all the 88 scientific articles that are available at this point and performed one big analysis on the accumulated data of 11,135 participants. A meta-analysis with a huge sample.

The take-home number is 12%. The amount of practice that you do only explains 12% of your performance in a given task. From the 10,000-Hour rule I expected at least 50%. And this low number of 12% is not due to fishy methods in some low-quality articles that were included. Actually, the better the method to assess the amount of practice the lower the apparent effect of practice. The same goes for the method to assess performance on the practiced task.

However, one should differentiate between different kinds of activities. Practice can have a bigger effect. For example, if the context in which the task is performed is very stable (e.g., running) 24% of performance is explained by practice. Unstable contexts (e.g., handling an aviation emergency) push this down to 4% . The area of expertise also made a difference:

  • games: 26%
  • music: 21%
  • sports: 18%
  • education: 4%
  • professions: 1%

In other words the 10,000-Hour rule is nonsense. Stop believing in it. Sure, practice is important. But other factors (age? intelligence? talent?) appear to play a bigger role.

Personally, I have decided not to become a chess master by practicing chess for 10,000 hours or more. I rather focus on activities that play to my strengths. Let’s hope that blogging is one of them.

Macnamara, B.N., Hambrick, D.Z., & Oswald, F.L. (2014). Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis Psychological Science DOI: 10.1037/e633262013-474





Albert Einstein, by Doris Ulmann” by Doris Ulmann (1882 – 1934) – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number LC-USZC4-4940]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Play music and you’ll see more


Check out the video. It is a short demonstration of the so-called attentional blink. Whenever you try to spot the two letters in the rapid sequence you’ll miss the second one. This effect is so robust that generations of Psychology undergraduates learned about it. And then came music and changed everything.

Test your own attentional blink

Did you see the R in the video? Probably you did, but did you see the C? The full sequence starts at 0:48, the R occurs at 0:50 and the sequence ends at 0:53. As far as I can see each letter is presented for about 130 milliseconds (a typical rate for this sort of experiment).


Judging by the youtube comments, of those who did the task properly (14 comments when I checked), only 65% saw the C. This is remarkably close to the average performance during an attentional blink (around 60% or so).

Where does the attentional blink come from?

The idea is that when the C is presented it cannot enter attention because attention is busy with the R. Another theory states that you immediately forget that you’ve seen the C. The R is less vulnerable to rapid forgetting.

What does music do with our attention?

In 2005 Christian Olivers and Sander Nieuwenhuis reported that they could simply abolish this widely known effect by playing a rhythmic tune in the background (unfortunately no more details are given). Try it out yourself. Switch on the radio and play a song with a strong beat. Now try the video again. Can you see both the R and the C? The 16 people in the music condition of Olivers and Nieuwenhuis could. Music actually let them see things which without music were invisible.

It is a bit mysterious why music would have such an effect. The article only speculates that it has something to do with music inducing a more ‘diffuse’ state of mind, greater arousal, or positive mood. I think the answer lies somewhere else. Music, especially songs with a strong beat, change how we perceive the world. On the beat (i.e. when most people would clap to the beat) one pays more attention than off the beat. What music might have done to participants is to restructure attention. Once the R occurs, it is no longer able to dominate attention because people are following the rhythmic attentional structure.

Behind my explanation is the so-called dynamic attending theory. Unfortunately, Olivers and Nieuwenhuis appear not to be familiar with it. Perhaps it is time to include some music cognition lessons in psychology undergraduate classes. After all, a bit of music let’s you see things which otherwise remain hidden to you.


Jones, M., & Boltz, M. (1989). Dynamic attending and responses to time. Psychological Review, 96 (3), 459-491 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.3.459

Large, E., & Jones, M. (1999). The dynamics of attending: How people track time-varying events. Psychological Review, 106 (1), 119-159 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.106.1.119

Olivers, C., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2005). The Beneficial Effect of Concurrent Task-Irrelevant Mental Activity on Temporal Attention Psychological Science, 16 (4), 265-269 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01526.x

Everything you always wanted to know about language but were too afraid to ask

MPI Nijmegen

The MPI in Nijmegen: the origin of answers to your questions.

The Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen has started a great initiative which tries nothing less than answer all your questions about language. How does it work?

1) Go to this website:
2) See whether your question has already been answered
3) If not, scroll to the bottom and ask a question yourself.
The answers are not provided by just anybody but by language researchers themselves. Before they are put on the web they get checked by another researcher and they get translated into German, Dutch and English. It’s a huge enterprise, to be sure..
As an employee of the Max Planck Institute I’ve had my own go at answering a few questions:
- How does manipulating through language work?
- Is it true that people who are good in music can learn a language sooner?
- How do gender articles affect cognition?
.What do think of my answers? What questions would you like to see answered?



Thibodeau, P., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Asaridou, S., & McQueen, J. (2013). Speech and music shape the listening brain: evidence for shared domain-general mechanisms Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00321

Segel, E., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Grammar in Art Frontiers in Psychology, 1 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244

My Life with Point O Five

This project is now done

A lot of subjects I have run

And all of this was wrong

Since p equals just point one.


I test more people just like you

Who are Dutch and have a clue

There is this and more to do

But p only rises to point two.


So, I try to save some time

Reject outliers, that is fine

Stats together with some wine

And hop p is down to point O nine


Shall this now be my fate?

Ge a result just second rate?

I give the data to a mate,

And hop, p is down to point O eight.


And then someone says to me

That more can be done with RT

After ROI’ing I see with glee

That p is down to point O three.


And so I feel like I’m in heaven

But a coding error I am havin’

Down I cry in my office at ‘leven

When p equals point O seven.


So, I try non-parametrics

You know the part of statistics

Where your results can get a fix

And hop p is down to point O six.


I nearly felt my feelings soar

If only I could do some more

There is here an effect for sure

Once p is down to point O four.


At this point I lose my drive

If only p would go down and dive

This project is no more alive

As p is greater than point O five.


This poem was written for the IMPRS (Nijmegen) Sinterklaas celebration.

How blind people see

Blind people have revolutionised our view on vision. Biology text books still teach us that vision functions roughly as light hitting the eyes where special cells – rods and cones – turn it into neural signals. These travel to the back of the head, the visual cortex, for brain processing leading to something we experience as ‘seeing’. Some blind people have offered a completely new picture. They see without visual cortex. They see without rods or cones. They see without experiencing ‘seeing’.

Stevie Wonder

Wearing sunglasses might impair vision – in the blind.

The visual cortex lies right at the back of the head and it is – as the name suggests – responsible for vision. If you lose it, you can’t see anymore. This happened to a partially blind patient only known by his initials DB, a man brought to scientific fame in 1974 by an article in the journal Brain. In it, Lawrence Weiskrantz and colleagues describe how DB is asked to say whether he is presented an X or an O in an area of his visual field where he is blind. DB performs more than 80% correct despite only guessing.
What happened when DB was told about his visual abilities? ‘[H]e expressed surprise and insisted several times that he thought he was just “guessing.” [H]e was openly astonished’ (p. 721). This phenomenon has been termed blind-sight and it is very unlike normal vision. It is usually much worse but there are exceptions. For example, DB is actually better at ‘blind-seeing’ very faint lines compared to his intact visual field or normal people’s vision (Trevethan et al., 2007). This rules out all sorts of concerns about blindsight such as the suggestions that DB might be lying or falsely describing degraded vision as no vision at all. Unusually good performance can hardly be faked.
If blind-sight is possible without visual awareness or visual cortex, is it also possible without the eye’s rods and cones which turn light into neural signals? Interestingly, yes. Back in 1995 a team led by Charles Czeisler reported an unusual finding in three blind people whose eyes were damaged due to various diseases. When a bright light was shone in their face, they had less melatonin – a hormone related to the sleep cycle – in their blood. Probably a little known cell type – called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells – turned light into neural signals and generally helps us synchronize our sleep-wake cycle with the day-night cycle.
A new article by Vandewalle and collagues shows what the potential of this newly discovered cell type is. They tested three blind people with eye damage and simply asked ‘is there a light or not?’ If a light was on for ten seconds, all three ‘guessed’ significantly differently from chance. This is remarkable as these people reported not seeing anything, electrical brain potentials following light flashes were curiously absent and their eyes were undoubtedly damaged.
When looked at together, these phenomena offer a new picture of the visual system. In the text-books you see a linear picture roughly like this:
light –> rods/cones in the eye –> visual cortex –> rest of brain
A new model is needed because a remarkable range of behaviours can still be performed when the middle elements of this account are removed. Instead of a linear picture we need a collection of parallel pathways all using light to influence the brain. The blind-sight pathway proves that circumventing the visual cortex is possible. People without rods/cones prove that not even these cells are needed to make use of light.
And now imagine that vision is one of the best-understood systems in the brain. If even vision can offer such surprises it is difficult to imagine what other brain systems hide below the surface. However, going ‘below the surface’ also comes with a considerable cost. Ask blind people what they see and they simply say ‘nothing’. Their residual abilities are hidden from them. It takes careful psychological testing to make them aware of what they can do.
So, how do blind people see? Some of them see without even knowing it.

Czeisler CA, Shanahan TL, Klerman EB, Martens H, Brotman DJ, Emens JS, Klein T, & Rizzo JF 3rd (1995). Suppression of melatonin secretion in some blind patients by exposure to bright light. The New England journal of medicine, 332 (1), 6-11 PMID: 7990870

Trevethan CT, Sahraie A, & Weiskrantz L (2007). Can blindsight be superior to ‘sighted-sight’? Cognition, 103 (3), 491-501 PMID: 16764848

Vandewalle G, Collignon O, Hull JT, Daneault V, Albouy G, Lepore F, Phillips C, Doyon J, Czeisler CA, Dumont M, Lockley SW, & Carrier J (2013). Blue Light Stimulates Cognitive Brain Activity in Visually Blind Individuals. Journal of cognitive neuroscience PMID: 23859643

Weiskrantz L, Warrington EK, Sanders MD, & Marshall J (1974). Visual capacity in the hemianopic field following a restricted occipital ablation. Brain : a journal of neurology, 97 (4), 709-28 PMID: 4434190


1) By Antonio Cruz/ABr (Agência Brasil.) [CC-BY-3.0-br (, via Wikimedia Commons

Music training boosts IQ

There are more and more brain training companies popping up which promise the same deal: improved intelligence. While there are doubts about their results, another sort of brain training has existed since the beginning of humanity: music. The evidence for its effectiveness is surprisingly strong.


Music Lesson, 1936

Brain training in the 1930’s.

Over the years, researchers have noticed that people who have taken music lessons are better on a wide range of seemingly unconnected tasks. Just look at this impressive list:


Mathematics (across many different tasks; Vaughn, 2000)
Reading (understanding a written text; Corrigall & Trainor, 2011)
Simon task (quickly overcoming an easy, intuitive response in order to do a task right; Bialystok & DePape, 2009)
Digit Span (repeating a long list of random digits; Schellenberg, 2011)
Simple Reaction Time (pressing a button as soon as possible; Hughes & Franz, 2007)


None of these tasks has anything to do with music classes. What is it that makes music lessons correlate with them? It could just be the socio-economic background: the more well-off or well-educated the parents the better the education of their children, including their music education (e.g., Corrigall et al., 2013). However, one can adjust for these differences with statistical tricks and the general picture is that the family background cannot fully explain the advantage musically trained children have on all sorts of tasks (e.g., Corrigall & Trainor, 2011; Schellenberg, 2011). If not family background, then what is underlying the music children advantage?


Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin

Brain training in the 18th century. I am referring to the left lady.

Another contender is a common factor making some people good on all sorts of seemingly unrelated tasks and other people bad on nearly any task. This factor is called ‘g’ or general intelligence. An indeed, people who have enjoyed a musical education score higher on intelligence tests than people who did not. This has been shown across the globe: North America (Schellenberg, 2011), Europe (Roden et al., 2013), Asia (Ho et al., 2003†). The consistency across age groups is also impressive: 6-11 year olds (Schellenberg, 2006), 9-12 year olds (Schellenberg, 2011), 16-25 year-olds (Schellenberg, 2006). So, what holds these tasks and music education together is general intelligence. But that just opens up the next question: what causes this association between general intelligence and music lessons?
Music lessons cause higher intelligence
The most exciting possibility would be if music lessons actually caused higher intelligence. In order to make such a claim one needs to take a bunch of people and randomly assign them to either music lessons or some comparable activity. This random assignment ensures that any previous differences between music and non-music children will be equally distributed across groups. Random chance assignment at the beginning of the experiment ensures that any group differences at the end must be due to the whether children took music lessons during the experiment or not. Glenn Schellenberg did exactly this experiment with over 100 six-year-olds in Toronto (2004). Over a period of one year the children who learned to play the keyboard or to sing increased their IQ by 7 points. Children who were given drama lessons instead or simply no extra-curricular activity only increased by 4 points (likely because they started school in that year). A similar study which recently came out of Iran by Kaviani and colleagues (2013) replicates this finding. After only three months of group music lessons, the six-year-old music children increased their IQ by five points while children who were not assigned to music lessons only improved by one point. Across studies music lessons boost IQ.
It is worth reiterating how impressive this effect is. It has been found across three different music teaching approaches (standard keyboard lessons, Kodály voice lessons, Orff method). It has been replicated with two different sorts of intelligence tests (Wechsler and Stanford-Binet) as well as most of their subscales. It even came up despite the cultural differences between testing countries (Canada, Iran).
The take-home message couldn’t be any clearer. Music lessons are associated with intelligence not just because clever or well-off people take music lessons. A musical education itself makes you better across many tasks generally and on IQ tests specifically. No other ‘brain training’ has such a strong evidence base. Music is the best brain training we have.


Eros and a youth

Ancient Greek brain training. I am referring to the gentleman on the right.


Bialystok E, & Depape AM (2009). Musical expertise, bilingualism, and executive functioning. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 35 (2), 565-74 PMID: 19331508

Corrigall KA, Schellenberg EG, & Misura NM (2013). Music training, cognition, and personality. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23641225

Corrigall, KA, & Trainor, LJ (2011). Associations Between Length of Music Training and Reading Skills in Children Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal,, 29 (2), 147-155 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2011.29.2.147

Ho YC, Cheung MC, & Chan AS (2003). Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: cross-sectional and longitudinal explorations in children. Neuropsychology, 17 (3), 439-50 PMID: 12959510

Hughes CM, & Franz EA (2007). Experience-dependent effects in unimanual and bimanual reaction time tasks in musicians. Journal of motor behavior, 39 (1), 3-8 PMID: 17251166

Kaviani H, Mirbaha H, Pournaseh M, & Sagan O (2013). Can music lessons increase the performance of preschool children in IQ tests? Cognitive processing PMID: 23793255

Roden, I, Grube, D, Bongard, S, & Kreutz, G (2013). Does music training enhance working memory performance? Findings from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735612471239

Schellenberg EG (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological science, 15 (8), 511-4 PMID: 15270994

Schellenberg, EG (2006). Long-Term Positive Associations Between Music Lessons and IQ Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (2), 457-468 DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.98.2.457

Schellenberg EG (2011). Examining the association between music lessons and intelligence. British journal of psychology, 102 (3), 283-302 PMID: 21751987

Vaughn, K (2000). Music and Mathematics: Modest Support for the Oft-Claimed Relationship Journal of Aesthetic Education,, 34 (3/4), 149-166 DOI: 10.2307/3333641



† Effect only marginally significant (0.05<p<0.1)



1) By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Johann Heinrich Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin, via Wikimedia Commons

3) attributed to the Penthesilea Painter, between circa 460 and circa 450 BC, via Wikimedia Commons

Did genes shape my mother tongue?

Intuitively, one is inclined to answer with a resounding ‘no’. Of course not, had I been adopted by Thai parents, I would speak Thai. But I was not. My parents and my mother tongue are German. Still, there is a growing opinion that genes do nonetheless play a role.

Before looking at this opinion, it is worth asking why genes shouldn’t play a role in language. A computational model by Andrea Baronchelli of Northeastern University presents a good case. It suggests that the great diversity of languages is due to fast language change. This in turn favours generalist language learners who are able to learn any language equally well. Why? Well, genes are slow to change. Language presents a moving target for evolutionary mechanisms. Instead of adapting to any language in particular, people who can learn any language are at an advantage.

Her genes are different to mine, as is her language. Coincidence?

It is thus crucial to look at the rate of language change: is it slow enough for genes to change in response to it? An examination of the connections between modern languages which emerged out of a common origin and separated millennia ago gives some clues as to the real rate of language change. For example, the first European visitors to India noticed curious commonalities between Indian languages such as Sanskrit (3 = ‘tráyas’) and European ones such as ancient Greek (‘treĩs’) and Latin (‘trēs’). Since the time of the split between European and Indian languages these words do not appear to have changed much.
Nowadays, this can be extended beyond mere anecdotes. In a 2007 article in Nature, Mark Pagel and colleagues showed that the more often a word is used today the more likely it is to be similar across languages with a common origin, even if this connection lies 7,500 years in the past. Using structural features, such as grammar systems and the inventory of language sounds, one can look even up to 12,000 years into the past. These numbers correspond to approximately a quarter of the time the world’s languages had in order to differentiate! So, yes, language vocabulary and structural features do indeed change quickly, but still, there are exceptions, for example among the very common words. This opens up the possibility that genes – which are quite stable – do influence at least those language features which have been found to be consistent for thousands of years.
What is missing so far is an actual example of such a gene-language link. It was found by Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd who looked at tone, a feature which is a relatively stable language characteristic. Tone refers to the use of pitch differences to differentiate words. Take this Thai tongue twister, for example: /mǎi mài mâi mái/. The same consonants and vowels get repeated with different pitches resulting in the sentence ‘Does new silk burn?’. Dediu and Ladd noticed a surprising parallel between the location of tone languages and the location of different versions of two genes in the world, as can be seen on the following map. They tested this gene-tone relation formally and it emerged that it is unusually strong among the possible combinations of genes and structural language features. Furthermore, it does not appear to be due to historical accidents or geographic patterns alone. These two genes called ASPM and Microcephalin are somehow linked to whether a language uses tone. How can that be?


    Geographic distribution of A) one version of ASPM, B) one version of Microcephalin, C) and tone languages.

Geographic distribution of A) one version of ASPM, B) one version of Microcephalin, C) and tone languages.

The most straight forward explanation would be that there is a tone gene – if you have it in one version you can learn tone otherwise not. Dediu and Ladd reject such a direct account – my own ASPM and Microcephalin versions do not determine whether I will ever be able to learn Thai. Instead, genes could exert a subtle effect, nudging successive generations of language learners in a certain direction. Imagine a bunch of German children were dropped on a lonely island and they learnt Thai from Thai native teachers. They would probably manage very well and their teachers would be very proud. Without their teachers noticing it, however, the German children struggled a bit with the Thai tone system. Over generations, this struggle would reduce tonality bit by bit. Were Thai teachers to discover this island again a few hundred years later, they would be astonished what an odd version of Thai people spoke on the island. A Thai without tone.
So, because language is a not a homogenous ever-changing system, but instead a mix of stable and less stable features, the former could potentially be influenced by genes which are known to be stable as well. So, did genes shape my mother tongue? In a sense yes, the combined genetic background of generations of German speakers shaped German. In another sense no, my genes did not determine that German would end up being my mother tongue. Both answers are true.


Auroux, S. (2000). History of the Language Sciences. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Baronchelli A, Chater N, Pastor-Satorras R, & Christiansen MH (2012). The biological origin of linguistic diversity. PloS one, 7 (10) PMID: 23118922 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048029

Dediu D, & Cysouw M (2013). Some structural aspects of language are more stable than others: a comparison of seven methods. PloS one, 8 (1) PMID: 23383035 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055009

Dediu D, & Levinson SC (2012). Abstract profiles of structural stability point to universal tendencies, family-specific factors, and ancient connections between languages. PloS one, 7 (9) PMID: 23028843doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045198

Pagel M, Atkinson QD, & Meade A (2007). Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Nature, 449 (7163), 717-20 PMID: 17928860 doi:10.1038/nature06176




‘approximately a quarter of the time the world’s languages had in order to differentiate’

Assuming a) a common origin lying 10,000 years in the past and b) one language which existed 40,000 years ago when some of its speakers left Africa to populate the world. The latter estimate is taken from: Diamond, J.: Guns, Germs, and Steel


‘tone, a feature which is a relatively stable language characteristic’

Across language families, it is ranked the 15th most stable structural language feature among 68 investigated by Dediu and Levinson (2012). Across different ways of quantifying stability, it is ranked 19th out of 62 (Dediu & Cysouw, 2013).


‘Take this Thai tongue twister, for example: /mǎi mài mâi mái/.’

You can listen to it here (go to 4. The most difficult word and tongue twisters)



1) By YashiWong (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

2) p. 288 in: Dediu D (2011). Are languages really independent from genes? If not, what would a genetic bias affecting language diversity look like? Human biology, 83 (2), 279-96 PMID: 21615290

Feeling someone else’s sensation of touch – the neural background, the examples, and you

Touch is the only sensation which we cannot share with another person. The immediacy of touch differentiates it from the distant impressions which sight and audition can give us. However, modern neuroscience is currently revising this picture: you can touch at a distance. One just doesn’t notice it. Can we find people who do?

A very possessive romantic partner may mind when his love interest was looked at. But it is a whole different game if touch was involved. There is something intuitively different about touch which pervades every day culture. It is, arguably, the lack of distance, the necessary intrusion of the touching object into personal space. This makes touching a very personal experience, far more so than seeing or hearing.
Modern neuroscience is currently revising this picture. The first report to challenge the immediacy of touch came out in 2004. A team led by Christian Keysers found that when people saw someone else being touched on the leg they showed activation in the same brain area as when their legs were being touched directly. Curiously, seeing touch from a first person perspective led to similar brain region activity as seeing it from a third person.
What it looks like to touch and being touched in the secondary somatosensory cortex.

What it looks like to see touch and being touched in the secondary somatosensory cortex.

This got several laboratories around the world started on the topic. For example, recently, Schaefer and colleagues showed that when hands are touched or seen to be touched, perspective does actually matter – a first person view-point increases activation more in primary areas than a third person perspective. In any event, the general picture was not a statistical fluke but instead a replicable finding – being touched is represented in a very similar way in the brain as seeing someone else being touched. But this raises two questions: why can’t I feel anything then and why does it happen?
In 2009, Ramachandran and Brang published a paper which may provide an answer to the first question. They studied four amputees who had lost one hand due to accident. When they watched an experimenter being touched on her hand, the lost hand’s phantom ‘felt the touch’ after a few seconds. One anecdote shows the power of this finding:
‘Patient 1 even added that after we had demonstrated this, he had gone home and asked his wife to massage her own hand while he watched, and watching her do so seemed to relieve his phantom pain.’
Importantly, this was not the case for intact hands – whether of control participants or the amputees. The difference, thus, appears to be whether the sensation felt by others is in competition with the own direct input from the skin. If so, the own touch wins the competition and one does not consciously feel someone else’s experience. But without a hand providing direct sensory input – as in the case of amputees – the touch felt by others becomes vivid.
Apes (of the non-human variety) collaborating.

Apes (of the non-human variety) collaborating.

This still leaves the question as to why this happens. The common explanation is that having the capacity to feel the touch of someone else – even if it is so faint as to be below the level of awareness – aids our ability to understand others. As a social species we need a high level of empathy in order to work together efficiently. Evolutionary ancestors who had a touch-empathy link may have been better at collaborating and, thus, were better able to survive and reproduce.
The current account makes an interesting prediction. Next time you have an anaesthetized hand or foot – and thus no own skin-sensation – you might want to check whether you can feel someone else’s touch. Let me know whether it worked. This experiment has not, as far as I can tell, be done, yet. You yourself could disprove the immediacy of touch.

Keysers C, Wicker B, Gazzola V, Anton JL, Fogassi L, & Gallese V (2004). A touching sight: SII/PV activation during the observation and experience of touch. Neuron, 42 (2), 335-46 PMID: 15091347

Ramachandran VS, & Brang D (2009). Sensations evoked in patients with amputation from watching an individual whose corresponding intact limb is being touched. Archives of neurology, 66 (10), 1281-4 PMID: 19822785

Schaefer M, Heinze HJ, & Rotte M (2012). Close to you: embodied simulation for peripersonal space in primary somatosensory cortex. PloS one, 7 (8) PMID: 22912698



1) adapted from Keysers et al., 2004, p. 337

2) By Ikiwaner (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons

The ironic effect of German PhD prestige

What would happen if a culture actually believed that a PhD does confer such a great set of transferable skills and is such an important test of character that the title is a career boost? A look at Germany gives an impression but it is not the science policy heaven one might expect.


Schavan, Doktor, German science minister, doctor

By now she is just Schavan, ex-science minister.

There can be no doubt that a PhD is associated with career boost in Germany. Just look at numbers like these: in 2005 in the US 6% of CEOs had a PhD, in France it was 4%. In Germany, however, the number was a full 59%. Note that this is not because more than half of the university graduates who leave German universities do so with a PhD in hand. Only 11% do. Actual pay mirrors this pattern. With merely a university diploma a female graduate gets nearly a third less pay than her PhD colleague.The message to ambitious people is clear: get that PhD no matter what career you want to pursue.
Moreover, having a German PhD is more than just a boost to one’s career. It is a boost to one’s entire social standing. Once the title is obtained it will cover one’s doorbell, one’s business card and even one’s passport. One will expect to be addressed with this title. In many respects it has become the modern equivalent of a title of nobility.
At first, this may sound like science policy heaven. There is a country where people who have earned scientific qualifications have got such a high social standing that they easily reach the highest ladders of society. The claims of transferable skills, test of character, training in critical thinking and analysis, … There is seemingly no need to convince Germans of these things, no need to do advertisements for science education, it appears. However, the opposite could be true. People who want to reach the highest ladders of society are clogging up the scientific training process. They have their career in mind, not scientific progress.
Merkel, zu Guttenberg

He was defense secretary and had a PhD. She is chancellor and has a PhD.

This leads to unintended consequences. A year ago, the German defense secretary (Dr) zu Guttenberg was about to lose his PhD title for plagiarism and consequently stepped down. Now, the German science minister (Prof. Dr) Schavan was forced to resign for the same reason. In between, a list of other German politicians was also found out. When prestige is more important than scientific value, the latter will obviously suffer. In this context the list of people with faulty PhDs at the highest levels of politics is hardly surprising.
What needs to change is a view that people with a PhD are somehow better people. At heart, a PhD is just a vocational qualification for science, a necessary step for pursuing a career in research or academia. It says nothing about the general quality of a person, or as Chris Chambers put it: ‘almost everyone who starts a PhD and sticks around long enough ends up getting one’. Of course you learn transferable skills while doing a PhD, but this does not mean that a PhD should be seen as a condition for having a business or politics career.
Paradoxically, everyone involved might actually benefit from less prestigious academic titles in the long run. Professors would be less bothered by PhD students who are not interested in research. The research literature would be less clogged up with easily obtained but uninteresting findings. And career minded graduates would not be required to spend years of their lives developing research skills which will perhaps not be needed in their later business or politics careers.
Now, how do you reduce the prestige of academic titles? There is no better way than to expose people in power who obtained them without actually deserving them. Thanks Dr zu Guttenberg and Prof. Dr Schavan.



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