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fMRI Brain Research: The Dead Salmon Has Lots of Company

June 5th, 2020

Quite a lot of brain research uses the technique called fMRI—and now quite a lot of research shows that fMRI brain research fairly often leads to nonsense or bewilderment.

A New Study Turns Up Much Nothingness

A new study tries to sum up the situation: “What Is the Test-Retest Reliability of Common Task-Functional MRI Measures? New Empirical Evidence and a Meta-Analysis,” Maxwell L. Elliott, Annchen R. Knodt, David Ireland, Meriwether L. Morris, Richie Poulton, Sandhya Ramrakha, Maria L. Sison, Terrie E. Moffitt, Avshalom Caspi, and Ahmad R. Hariri, Psychological Science, epub 2020.

The authors, at Duke University, the University of Otago, and King’s College London, explain:

“Identifying brain biomarkers of disease risk is a growing priority in neuroscience…. Measuring brain activity using task functional MRI (fMRI) is a major focus of biomarker development; however, the reliability of task fMRI has not been systematically evaluated. We present converging evidence demonstrating poor reliability of task-fMRI measures….
Collectively, these findings demonstrate that common task-fMRI measures are not currently suitable for brain biomarker discovery or for individual-differences research.”

(Thanks to Edward Tufte for bringing this to our attention.)

Legacy of the Dead Salmon

The 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for neuroscience was awarded to Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford, for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere — even in a dead salmon.

They documented their research, in the study “Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon: An Argument For Multiple Comparisons Correction,” Craig M. Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael B. Miller, and George L. Wolford, Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-5. They first presented that work in poster form at a conference in 2009.

That paper drew outrage from many neuroscientists, as did the awarding of that Ig Nobel Prize. Many other neuroscientists were pleased, though. Among them was Bethany Brookshire, then blogging under the pen name “Scicurious”, for Scientific American. Brookshire’s report about that Ig Nobel Prize began:

IgNobel Prize in Neuroscience: The dead salmon study

I have to say that I am incredibly pleased that this study won the Ignobel. Not just because it’s a really fun study, but also because it really is one of those studies that makes you laugh, and then makes you THINK. And in the case of this study in particular, it has changed a lot about how we think about making corrections in fMRI, and may have actually really affected the way the data are published. And so, I present to you: the dead salmon study….

Building on the Foundation of the Dead Salmon

The new, 2020 “What Is the Test-Retest Reliability…” study is drawing favorable attention from many neurosciences. It builds on the knowledge found by the dead salmon study. Duke University issued a proud press release about it, though for whatever reason did not mention the dead salmon. The press release begins:

Duke researcher questions 15 years of his own work with a reexamination of functional MRI data


There’s one thing most everyone agrees on: fMRI studies produce pretty pictures.

Pocket-Sized #1012: “Monkeys and College Students”

June 3rd, 2020

Monkeys and College Students

In this Pocket-Sized episode #1012, Marc Abrahams shows an unfamiliar research study to Mason Porter. Dramatic readings and reactions ensue.

The research mentioned in this episode is featured in the special Mathematics issue (Vol. 16, #4) of the Annals of Improbable Research Magazine.

Remember, our Patreon donors, on most levels, get access to each podcast episode before it is made public.

1. Mason Porter encounters:

Basic Math in Monkeys and College Students,” Jessica F. Cantlon and Elizabeth M. Brannon, PLoS Biology, vol. 5, no. 12, 2007, e328.

Seth GliksmanProduction Assistant

Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Google Podcasts, AntennaPod, BeyondPod and elsewhere!

Dead Duck Day 2020 postponed till 2021

June 2nd, 2020

The 25th Dead Duck Day, on June 5th, will be postponed till 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, public open air gatherings are not allowed. So be on the lookout for the special (postponed) 25th anniversary edition in 2021.

This year, Dead Duck Day will have only two participants – me and the stuffed duck, accompanied by a bottle of beer, just as on the very first Dead Duck Day celebration, 25 years ago.

Kees Moeliker

Of course everybody is free and invited to have private Dead Duck Day celebrations, anywhere in the world, to commemorate the dramatic death of the duck — and the tragedy of billions of other birds that die from colliding with glass buildings.

Photographic and/or video images of the private short Dead Duck Day ceremony in Rotterdam will be posted here and on social media. #DeadDuckDay

Here is a photo from Dead Duck Day, when a paucity of pandemics permitted people to gather together in celebration. (photo Maarten Laupman)

Ig Nobel Duck
The mallard duck that is a vital part of Dead Duck Day became known to science as the first (documented) ‘victim’ of homosexual necrophilia in that species, and earned its discoverer the 2003 Ig Nobel Biology Prize.

Vexations, over and over, yet again

June 1st, 2020

There’s been another artful repetition of the artfully repetitious musical art piece called “Vexations,” composed by Eric Satie—although this time, unlike a performance years ago by a different pianist, no scientists were recording electromagnetic signals from the pianist’s brain. (Thanks to Deb Kreuze for bringing it to our attention.)

This new performance gets a loving appreciation by Joshua Barone, in The New York Times:

‘I Just Let Myself Go’: Igor Levit on Surviving a Satie Marathon
The pianist livestreamed “Vexations,” a solo of four lines repeated 840 times, to evoke the crisis facing artists during the coronavirus pandemic.

The pianist Igor Levit is always one-upping himself. His recordings have swollen from a collection of four Beethoven sonatas to the entire cycle; his performances, from a traditional recital to, as of Sunday, a livestream lasting over 15 hours.

In an extraordinary act of musical self-flagellation, Mr. Levit played Erik Satie’s “Vexations” — a mysterious and absurd work consisting only of four lines repeated 840 times — to evoke and draw attention to the difficulties facing artists during the coronavirus pandemic….

Here’s video of about twelve hours of that performance by Igor Levit:


An Earlier, Meticulously Monitored Performance

Some years ago, we wrote about a scientific examination of another pianist who took on the task of enduring that piece of music:

Is playing the piano for 28 hours harmful?
28 hours at the piano is enough to vex anyone – but not these researchers

German and Austrian researchers analysed what happened to pianist Armin Fuchs when he spent more than a full day playing over and over again, nonstop, an oddly-named piece of music by a French composer. They also analysed what happened to the music. This was a tour de force of artistic and neurological repetition.

The research team – Christine Kohlmetz, Reinhard Kopiez and Marc Bangert of the Hanover University of Music and Drama, and Werner Goebl and Eckart Altenmuller of the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in Vienna – published a pair of monographs in 2003 describing what they measured in the pianist….

Here’s video of a just a few minutes of that experimental monitoring of Armin Fuchs:


The effects of juiciness in an action RPG [new study]

June 1st, 2020

“A juicy game element will bounce and wiggle and squirt and make a little noise when you touch it.”

When it comes to ‘Juiciness’ in Role Playing (Computer) Games, too much, or too little, it seems, can be non-ideal. Professor Dominic Kao and colleagues at the Virtual Futures Lab, Purdue University, US, have experimentally investigated such things – noting that :

“This is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest study to date on juiciness.”


“We created four versions of the same identical action RPG game*, but with differing levels of visual/audio effects: No Juiciness, Medium Juiciness, High Juiciness, and Extreme Juiciness. Overall, both Medium Juiciness and High Juiciness outperform No Juiciness and Extreme Juiciness across all measures.”

See: The effects of juiciness in an action RPG in Entertainment Computing, Volume 34, May 2020. (Also available in PDF format*)

* Note: The paper sports a number of examples of a linguistic construction called RAS syndrome* ( i.e. Redundant Acronym Syndrome, Syndrome ) with three references to “RPG game”* (i.e. ‘Role Playing Game, Game’).

Research research by Martin Gardiner

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