I’ve mentioned OpenSesame briefly on here before, but for those of you who weren’t keeping up, it’s a pretty awesome, free psychology experiment-developing application, built using the Python programming language, and it has a lot in common with PsychoPy (which is also awesome).
The recently-released new version of OpenSesame has just taken an important step, in that it now supports the Android mobile operating system, meaning that it can run natively on Android tablets and smartphones. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a psychology-experimental application has been compiled (and released to the masses) for a mobile OS.
This is cool for lots of reasons. It’s an interesting technical achievement; Android is a very different implementation to a desktop OS, being focused heavily on touch interfaces. Such interfaces are now ubiquitous, and are much more accessible, in the sense that people who may struggle with a traditional mouse/keyboard can use them relatively easily. Running psychology experiments on touch-tablets may enable the study of populations (e.g., the very young, very old, or various patient groups) that would be very difficult with a more ‘traditional’ system. Similarly, conducting ‘field’ studies might be much more effective; I can imagine handing a participant a tablet for them to complete some kind of task in the street, or in a shopping mall, for instance. Also, it may open up the possibility of using the variety of sensors in modern mobile devices (light, proximity, accelerometers, magnetometers) in interesting and creative ways. Finally, the hardware is relatively cheap, and (of course) portable.
I’m itching to try this out, but unfortunately don’t have an Android tablet. I love my iPad mini for lots of reasons, but the more restricted nature of Apple’s OS means that it’s unlikely we’ll see a similar system on iOS anytime soon.
So, very exciting times. Here’s a brief demo video of OpenSesame running on a Google Nexus 7 tablet (in the demo the tablet is actually running a version of Ubuntu Linux, but with the new version of OpenSesame it shouldn’t be necessary to replace the Android OS). Let me know in the comments if you have any experience with tablet-experiments, or if you can think of any other creative ways they could be used.
Researchers typically use a lot of different pieces of software in the course of their work; it’s part of what makes the job so varied. Separate packages might be used for creating experimental stimuli, programming an experiment, logging data, statistical analysis, and preparing work for publication or conferences. Until fairly recently there was little option but to use commercial software in at least some of these roles. For example, SPSS is the de facto analysis tool in many departments for statistics, and the viable alternatives were also commercial – there was little choice but to fork over the money. Fortunately, there are now pretty viable alternatives for cash-strapped departments and individual researchers. There’s a lot of politics around the open-source movement, but for most people the important aspect is that the software is provided for free, and (generally) it’s cross-platform (or can be compiled to be so). All that’s required is to throw off the shackles of the evil capitalist oppressors, or something.
So, there’s a lot of software listed on my Links page but I thought I’d pick out my favourite bits of open-source software, that are most useful for researchers and students in psychology.
First up – general office-type software; there are a couple of good options here. The Open Office suite has been around for 20 years, and contains all the usual tools (word processor, presentation-maker, spreadsheet tool, and more). It’s a solid, well-designed system that can pretty seamlessly read and write the Microsoft Office XML-based (.docx, .pptx) file formats. The other option is Libre Office, which has the same roots as Open Office, and similar features. Plans are apparently underway to port Libre Office to iOS and Android – nice. The other free popular options for presentations is, of course, Prezi.
There are lots of options for graphics programs, however the two best in terms of features are without a doubt GIMP (designed to be a free alternative to Adobe Photoshop) and Inkscape (vector graphics editor – good replacement for Adobe Illustrator). There’s a bit of a steep learning curve for these, but that’s true of their commercial counterparts too.
Programming experiments – if you’re still using a paid system like E-Prime or Presentation, you should consider switching to PsychoPy - it’s user-friendly, genuinely cross-platform, and absolutely free. I briefly reviewed it before, here. Another excellent option is Open Sesame.
For statistical analysis there are a couple of options. Firstly, if you’re a SPSS-user and pretty comfortable with it (but fed up of the constant hassles of the licensing system), you should check out PSPP; a free stats program designed to look and feel like SPSS, and replicate many of the functions. You can even use your SPSS syntax – awesome. The only serious issue is that it doesn’t contain the SPSS options for complex GLM models (repeated measures ANOVA, etc.). Hopefully these will be added at some future point. The other popular option is the R language for statistical computing. R is really gaining traction at the moment. The command-line interface is a bit of a hurdle for beginners, but that can be mitigated somewhat by IDEs like R-Commander or RStudio.
For neuroscience there’s the NeuroDebian project – not just a software package, but an entire operating system, bundled with a comprehensive suite of neuroscience tools, including FSL, AFNI and PyMVPA, plus lots of others. There really are too many bits of open-source neuro-software to list here, but a good place to find some is NITRC.org.
So, there you are people; go open-source. You have nothing to lose but your over-priced software subscriptions.
Very exciting news here: I’ve just been invited to the first British Psychological Society (Maths, Statistics and Computing Section) Psychology open textbook hackathon!
Inspired by this event (where people got together and wrote an open-source maths textbook in a weekend) the day aims to raise awareness and skills, as well as perhaps produce some usable output.
The organisers are Thom Baguley of Nottingham Trent University (and the Serious Stats blog and book) and Sol Nte of Manchester University. They’ve very kindly invited me as a guest, so I’ll be hanging out and learning some new tricks myself, I’m sure.
Here’s the flyer for the event, with sign-up details etc. It’s free, but strictly limited to 20 places – if you’re keen, best be quick… (click the pic below for a bigger version):
I’ve just come across two outstanding tutorial videos over on xiph.org - an open-source organisation dedicated to developing multimedia protocols and tools. So, the first one covers the fundamental principles of digital sampling for audio and video, and discusses sampling rates, bit depth and lots of other fun stuff – if you’ve ever wondered what a 16-bit, 128kbps mp3 is, this is for you.
The second one focusses on audio and gets on to some more advanced topics, about how audio behaves in the real world.
They’re both fairly long (30 mins and 23 mins respectively) but well worth watching. If you’re just getting started with digital audio and/or video editing and production, these could be really useful.
So-called brain-training tools seem to have exploded in the last few years; one estimate puts it at a $6 billion market by 2020. It’s clearly become a major industry, but what’s less clear is exactly what it does, and if it even works. The typical procedure seems to be to engage in short games, puzzles and working-memory-type tasks, and these are supposed to produce long term changes in attention, engagement and general fluid intelligence.
Whether this is actually true or not is a matter of some debate. I’m not a specialist in this area, but the received wisdom appears to be that training on specific tasks does improve performance – on those tasks. There seems to be little generalisation to other tasks, and even less to domain-general abilities like executive processing, or working memory. A high-profile study by Adrian Owen and colleagues (2010) reported exactly that – benefits in the tasks themselves, but little (if any) general benefits. A previous study from PNAS in 2008 does seem to contradict this, and reports an increase in fluid intelligence as a result of working-memory training – not only that, but they claim a dose-dependent effect, that is, more training = more increase in intelligence. The gains in that study were relatively small, and it should be also noted that the control group also apparently increased their intelligence somewhat over the same period as the experimental group – curious. There are lots of other studies around, but many have issues; small samples, poorly-controlled etc. etc.
So, the jury’s still very much out (though personally, I’m on the side of the skeptics on the issue). This hasn’t stopped a bewildering array of businesses starting up, making all kinds of wild claims, and playing on the fears of educators and parents that perhaps if they don’t provide these kinds of programs, their kids will be slipping behind the rest. All these companies have glossy, highly-polished, ethnically-balanced websites with testimonials, and lots of links to science-y looking videos that present their program as the only scientifically-proven method of increasing your child’s intelligence. A brief browse through some of these companies websites reveals that they range from the absurd (QDreams! Success at the speed of thought!) to the very, very slick indeed (e.g. Lumosity). Other examples are Cogmed (seems to be backed by Pearson publishers and, to its credit, links to a list of semi-relevant research papers), and the very simplistic PowerBrain Education - which seems to involve getting kids to do some odd-looking arm-shaking exercises. There’s literally hundreds of these companies. Some of them even seem to cater to businesses who want their employees to do these ‘exercises’.
LearningRX definitely falls into the slick category. According to this New York Times article it has 83 physical store-front franchises across the USA, where people can come to pay $80-90 an hour for one-on-one training, and they market this to parents as an alternative to traditional tutoring. A quick glance at their Scientific Advisory Board is pretty revealing – I count only one (clinical) psychologist, and a grab-bag of other professionals – mostly teachers (qualified to Masters level) with an optometrist, a chemical engineer and an audiologist. Not a single neuroscientist, and only a few qualified at doctorate level.
I’m not trying to be unnecessarily snobby about their qualifications here, I’m suggesting that the claims they make for their brain-training programs (literally: it will change your child’s life) are big ones, and we might expect that the people who developed it might be qualified in some area of brain-science. If it really, clearly worked, then of course it wouldn’t matter exactly who developed it, and what their qualifications were, but there’s definitely reasonable doubt (if not outright disbelief) over its effectiveness.
And this is the important point. People are spending money on this - big money. Whether that’s a hard-pressed family struggling to find an extra $90 a week for their kid to have a session at one of LearningRX’s centres, or an education board deciding to institute one of these programs in its schools. Education budgets are tight enough, but these kinds of programs are being heavily invested in, and I can see why – they promise to make kids smarter, better-behaved, more attentive, and all you have to do is sit them in front of a special computer game for an hour a week. That must seem like a pretty attractive proposition for teachers. Unfortunately, if they really don’t work, then that money could be better spent on books, or musical instruments, or something else which might genuinely enrich the kids’ lives.
There’s a long and venerable history of unscrupulous people making money from pseudo-neuroscience – back in the 19th Century phrenology was described as “The science of picking someone’s pocket, through their skull.” I’d like to believe that some of these companies have a solid product that actually made a difference, but they all seem to have the whiff of snake-oil about them. For now I’m very much of the opinion that you’d probably be better off learning the piano, or Japanese, or even playing the latest Call of Duty. If you were really ambitious you could even try and get your kid to (Heaven forfend!) read the odd book now and again.
I put that last sentence that mentions Call of Duty in there as a bit of flippancy, but I’ve since been informed (by Micah Allen on Twitter) of some evidence that playing action video games can indeed improve some cognitive processes such as the accuracy of visuo-spatial attention and reaction times. These results mostly originate from a single lab and so are in need of replication, but still – interesting. (I still reckon you’re probably better off with a good book though.)
A very quick post to point you towards a really fantastic set of online, interactive courses on MRI from a website called Imaios.com – a very nice, very slick set of material. The MRI courses are all free, but you’ll need to register to see the animations. Lots of other medical/anatomy-related courses on the site too – some free, some ‘premium’, and some nice looking mobile apps too.