Category Archives: Experimental techniques
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.
A quick post to point you towards a great website with a lot of really cool content (if you’re into that kind of thing, which if you’re reading this blog, then I assume you probably are… anyway, I digress; I apologise, it was my lab’s Christmas party last night and I’m in a somewhat rambling mood. Anyway, back to the point).
So, the website is called cogsci.nl, and is run by a post-doc at the University of Aix-Marseille called Sebastiaan Mathôt. It’s notable in that it’s the homepage of OpenSesame - a very nice-looking, Python-based graphical experiment builder that I’ve mentioned before on these very pages. There’s a lot of other cool stuff on the site though, including more software (featuring a really cool online tool for instantly creating Gabor patch stimuli), a list of links to stimulus sets, and a selection of really-cool optical illusions. Really worth spending 20 minutes of your time poking around a little and seeing what’s there.
I’ll leave you with a video of Sebastiaan demonstrating an experimental program, written in his OpenSesame system, running on a Google Nexus 7 Tablet (using Ubuntu linux as an OS). The future! It’s here!
Reaction time tasks have been a mainstay of psychology since the technology to accurately time and record such responses became widely available in the 70s. RT tasks have been applied in a bewildering array of research areas and (when used properly) can provide information about memory, attention, emotion and even social behaviour.
This post will focus on the best way to handle such data, which is perhaps not as straightforward as might be assumed. Despite the title, I’m not really going to cover the actual analysis; there’s a lot of literature already out there about what particular statistical tests to use, and in any case, general advice of that kind is not much use as it depends largely on your experimental design. What I’m intending to focus on are the techniques the stats books don’t normally cover – data cleaning, formatting and transformation techniques which are essential to know about if you’re going to get the best out of your data-set.
For the purposes of this discussion I’ll use a simple made-up data-set, like this:
This table is formatted in the way that a lot of common psychology software (i.e. PsychoPy, Inquisit, E-Prime) records response data. From left-to-right, you can see we have three participants’ data here (1, 2, and 3 in column A), four trials for each subject (column B), two experimental conditions (C; presented in a random order), and then the actual reaction times (column D) and then a final column which codes whether the response was correct or not (1=correct, 0= error).
I created the data table using Microsoft Excel, and will do the processing with it too, however I really want to stress that Excel is definitely not the best way of doing this. It suits the present purpose because I’m doing this ‘by hand’ for the purposes of illustration. With a real data-set which might be thousands of lines long, these procedures would be much more easily accomplished by using the functions in your statistics weapon-of-choice (SPSS, R, Matlab, whatever). Needless to say, if you regularly have to deal with RT data it’s well worth putting the time into writing some general-purpose code which can be tweaked and re-used for subsequent data sets.
The procedures we’re going to follow with these data are:
- Remove reaction times on error trials
- Do some basic data-cleaning (removal of outlying data)
- Re-format the data for analysis
1. Remove reaction times on error trials
As a general rule, reaction times from trials on which the participant made an error should not be used in subsequent analysis. The exceptions to this rule are some particular tasks where the error trials might be of particular interest (Go/No-Go tasks, and some others). Generally though, RTs from error trials are thought to be unreliable, since there’s an additional component process operating on error trials (i.e. whatever it was that produced the error). The easiest way of accomplishing this is to insert an additional column, and code all trials with errors as ‘0’, and all trials without an error as the original reaction time. This can be a simple IF/ELSE statement of the form:
IF (error=1) RT=RT,
In this excel-based illustration I entered the formula: =IF(E2=1, D2,0) in cell F2, and then copied it down the rest of the column to apply to all the subsequent rows. Here’s the new data sheet:
2. Data-cleaning – Removal of outlying data
The whole topic of removing outliers from reaction time data is a fairly involved one, and difficult to illustrate with the simple example I’m using here. However, It’s a very important procedure, and something I’m going to return to in a later post, using a ‘real’ data-set. From a theoretical perspective, it’s usually desirable to remove both short and long outliers. Most people cannot push a button in response to, say, a visual stimulus in less than about 300ms, so it can be safely assumed that short RTs of, say, less than 250ms were probably initiated before the stimulus; that is, they were anticipatory. Long outliers are somewhat trickier conceptually – some tasks that involve a lot of effortful cognitive processing before a response (say a task involving doing difficult arithmetic) might have reaction times of several seconds, or even longer. However, very broadly, the mean RT for most ‘simple’ tasks tends to be around 400-700ms; this means that RTs longer than say, 1000ms might reflect some other kind of process. For instance, it might reflect the fact that the participant was bored, became distracted, temporarily forgot which button to push, etc. For these reasons then, it’s generally thought to be desirable to remove outlying reaction times from further analysis.
One (fairly simple-minded, but definitely valid) approach to removing outliers then, is to simply remove all values that fall below 250ms, or above 1000ms. This is what I’ve done in the example data-sheet in columns G and H, using simple IF statements of a similar form used for removal of the error trials:
You can see that two short RTs and one long one have been removed and recoded as 0.
3. Re-format the data for analysis
The structure that most psychology experimental systems use for their data logging (similar to the one we’ve been using as an illustration) is not really appropriate for direct import into standard stats packages like SPSS. SPSS requires that one row on the data sheet is used for each participant, whereas we have one row-per-trial. In order to get our data in the right format we first need to sort the data, first by subject (column A), and then by condition (column C). Doing this sort procedure ensures that we know which entries in the final column are which – the first two rows of each subject’s data are always condition 1, and the second two are always condition 2:
We can then restructure the data from the final column, like so:
I’ve done this ‘by hand’ in Excel by cutting-and-pasting the values for each subject into a new sheet and using the paste-special > transpose function, however this is a stupid way of doing it – the ‘restructure’ functions in SPSS can accomplish this kind of thing very nicely. So, our condition 1 values are now in columns B:C and condition 2 values are in columns D:E. All that remains to do now would be to calculate summary statistics (means, variance, standard deviations, whatever; taking care that our 0 values are coded as missing, and not included in the calculations) for each set of columns (i.e. each condition) and perform the inferential tests of your choice (in this case, with only two within-subject conditions, it would be a paired t-test).
Next time, I’ll use a set of real reaction time data and do these procedures (and others) using SPSS, in order to illustrate some more sophisticated ways of handling outliers than just the simple high and low cutoffs detailed above.
I wrote a tiny post about PsychoPy a little while ago and it’s something I’ve been meaning to come back to since then. I’ve recently been tasked with an interesting problem; I need an experimental task for a bunch of undergrads to use in a ‘field study’ – something that they can run on their personal laptops, and test people in naturalistic environments (i.e. the participants’ homes). The task is based on a recent paper (Rezlescu et al., 2012) in PLoS One, and involves presenting face stimuli that vary in facial characteristics associated with trustworthiness, in a ‘game’ where the participant plays the role of an investor and has to decide how much money they would invest in each person’s business. I was actually given a version of the experiment programmed (by someone else) in Matlab using the Psychtoolbox system. However, using this version seemed impractical for a number of reasons; firstly Matlab licences are expensive and getting a licenced version of Matlab on every student’s computer would have blown the budget available. Secondly, in my (admittedly, limited) experience with Matlab and Psychtoolbox, I’ve always found it to be a little… sensitive. What I mean is that whenever I’ve tried to transfer a (working) program onto another computer, I’ve generally run into trouble. Either the timing goes to hell, or a different version of Matlab/Psychtoolbox is needed, or (in the worst cases) the program just crashes and needs debugging all over again. I could foresee getting this Matlab code working well on every single students’ laptop would be fraught with issues – some of them might be using OS X, and some might be using various versions of Windows – this is definitely going to cause problems.*
Somewhat counterintuitively therefore, I decided that the easiest thing to do was start from scratch and re-create the experiment using something else entirely. Since PsychoPy is a) entirely free, b) cross-platform (meaning it should work on any OS), and c) something I’d been meaning to look at seriously for a while anyway, it seemed like a good idea to try it out.
I’m happy to report it’s generally worked out pretty well. Despite being a complete novice with PsychoPy, and indeed the Python programming language, I managed to knock something reasonably decent together within a few hours. At times it was frustrating, but that’s always the case when programming experiments (at least, it’s always the case for a pretty rubbish programmer like me, anyway).
So, there are two separate modules to PsychoPy – the ‘Builder’ and the ‘Coder’. Since I’m a complete novice with Python, I steered clear of the Coder view, and pretty much used the Builder, which is a really nice graphical interface where experiments can be built up from modules (or ‘routines’) and flow parameters (i.e. ‘loop through X number of trials’) can be added. Here’s a view of the Builder with the main components labelled (clicky for bigness):
At the bottom is the Flow panel, where you add new routines or loops into your program. The large main Routine panel shows a set of tabs (one for each of your routines) where the events that occur in each of the routines can be defined on a timeline-style layout. At the right is a panel containing a list of stimuli (pictures, videos, random-dot-kinematograms, gratings etc.) and response types (keyboard, mouse, rating scales) that can be added to the routines. Once a stimulus or response is added to a routine, a properties box pops up which allows you to modify basic (e.g. position, size, and colour of text) and some advanced (through the ‘modify everything’ field in some of the dialog boxes) characteristics.
It seems like it would be perfectly possible to build some basic kinds of experiments (e.g. a Stroop task) through the builder without ever having to look at any Python code. However, one of the really powerful features of the Builder interface is the ability to insert custom code snippets (using the ‘code’ component). These can be set to execute at the beginning or end of the experiment, routine, or on every frame. This aspect of the Builder really extends its capabilities and makes it a much more flexible, general-purpose tool. Even though I’m not that familiar with Python syntax, I was fairly easily able to get some if/else functions incorporating random number generation that calculated the amount returned to the investor on a trial, and to use those variables to display post-trial feedback. Clearly a bit of familiarity with the basics of programming logic is important to use these functions though.
This brings me to the Coder view – at any point the ‘Compile Script’ button in the toolbar can be pushed, which opens up the Coder view and displays a script derived from the current Builder view. The experiment can then be run either from the Builder or the Coder. I have to admit, I didn’t quite understand the relationship between the two at first – I was under the impression that these were two views of the same set of underlying data, and changes in either one would be reflected in the other (a bit like the dual-view mode of HTML editors like Dreamweaver) but it turns out that’s not the case, and in fact, once I thought about it, that would be very difficult to implement with a ‘proper’ compiled language like Python. So, a script can be generated from the Builder, and the experiment can then be run from that script, however, changes made to it can not be propagated back to the Builder view. This means that unless you’re a serious Python ninja, you’re probably going to be doing most of the work in the Builder view. The Coder view is really good for debugging and working out how things fit together though – Python is (rightly) regarded as one of the most easily human-readable languages and if you’ve got a bit of experience with almost any other language, you shouldn’t find it too much of a problem to work out what’s going on.
Another nice feature is the ability of the ‘loop’ functions to read in the data it needs for each repeat of the loop (e.g. condition codes, text to be presented, picture filenames, etc.) from a plain text (comma separated) file or Excel sheet. Column headers in the input file become variables in the program and can then be referenced from other components. Data is also saved by default in the same two file formats – .csv and .xls. Finally, the PsychoPy installation comes with a set of nine pre-built demo experiments which range from the basic (Stroop) to more advanced ones (BART) which involve a few custom code elements.
There’s a couple of features that it doesn’t have which I think would be really useful – in particular in the Builder view it would be great if individual components could be copied and pasted between different routines. I found myself adding in a number of text elements and it was a bit laborious to go through them all and change the font, size, position etc. on each one so they were all the same. Of course ‘proper’ programmers working in the Coder view would be able to copy/paste these things very easily…
So, I like PsychoPy; I really do. I liked it even more when I transferred my program (written on a MacBook Air running OS X 10.8) onto a creaky old Windows XP desktop and it ran absolutely perfectly, first time. Amazing! I’m having a little bit of trouble getting it running well on a Windows Vista laptop (the program runs slowly and has some odd-looking artefacts on some of the pictures) but I’m pretty sure that’s an issue with the drivers for the graphics card and can be relatively easily fixed. Of course, Vista sucks, that could be the reason too.
So, I’d recommend PsychoPy to pretty much anybody – the Builder view makes it easy for novices to get started, and the code components and Coder view means it should keep seasoned code-warriors happy too. Plus, the holy trinity of being totally free, open-source, and cross-platform are huge advantages. I will definitely be using it again in future projects, and recommending it to students who want to learn this kind of thing.
Happy experimenting! TTFN.
*I don’t mean to unduly knock Matlab and/or Psychtoolbox – they’re both fantastically powerful and useful for some applications.
I got a serious question for you: What the fuck are you doing? This is not shit for you to be messin’ with. Are you ready to hear something? I want you to see if this sounds familiar: any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you’re gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you’re a genius… and you ain’t no genius.
Body Heat (1981, Lawrence Kasdan)
To consult the statistician after an experiment is finished is often merely to ask him to conduct a post-mortem examination. He can perhaps say what the experiment died of.
R.A. Fisher (1938)
Doing a pilot run of a new psychology experiment is vital. No matter how well you think you’ve designed and programmed your task, there are (almost) always things that you didn’t think of. Going ahead and spending a lot of time and effort collecting a set of data without running a proper pilot is (potentially) a recipe for disaster. Several times I’ve seen data-sets where there was some subtle issue with the data logging, or the counter-balancing, or something else, which meant that the results were, at best, compromised, and at worst completely useless.
All of the resultant suffering, agony, and sobbing could have been avoided by running a pilot study in the right way. It’s not sufficient to run through the experimental program a couple of times; a comprehensive test of an experiment has to include a test of the analysis as well. This is particularly true of any experiment involving methods like fMRI/MEG/EEG where a poor design can lead to a data-set that’s essentially uninterpretable, or perhaps even un-analysable. You may think you’ve logged all the data variables you think you’ll need for the analysis, and your design is a work of art, but you can’t be absolutely sure unless you actually do a test of the analysis.
This might seem like over-kill, or a waste of effort, however, you’re going to have to design your analysis at some point anyway, so why not do it at the beginning? Analyse your pilot data in exactly the way you’re planning on analysing your main data, save the details (using SPSS syntax, R code, SPM batch jobs – or whatever you’re using) and when you have your ‘proper’ data set, all you’ll (in theory) have to do is plug it in to your existing analysis setup.
These are the steps I normally go through when getting a new experiment up and running. Not all will be appropriate for all experiments, your mileage may vary etc. etc.
1. Test the stimulus program. Run through it a couple of times yourself, and get a friend/colleague to do it once too, and ask for feedback. Make sure it looks like it’s doing what you think it should be doing.
2. Check the timing of the stimulus program. This is almost always essential for a fMRI experiment, but may not be desperately important for some kinds of behavioural studies. Run through it with a stopwatch (the stopwatch function on your ‘phone is probably accurate enough). If you’re doing any kind of experiment involving rapid presentation of stimuli (visual masking, RSVP paradigms) you’ll want to do some more extensive testing to make sure your stimuli are being presented in the way that you think – this might involve plugging a light-sensitive diode into an oscilloscope, sticking it to your monitor with a bit of blu-tack and measuring the waveforms produced by your stimuli. For fMRI experiments the timing is critical. Even though the Haemodynamic Response Function (HRF) is slow (and somewhat variable) you’re almost always fighting to pull enough signal out of the noise, so why introduce more? A cumulative error of only a few tens of milliseconds per trial can mean that your experiment is a few seconds out by the end of a 10 minute scan – this means that your model regressors will be way off – and your results will likely suck.*
3. Look at the behavioural data files. I don’t mean do the analysis (yet), I mean just look at the data. First make sure all the variables you want logged are actually there, then dump it into Excel and get busy with the sort function. For instance, if you have 40 trials and 20 stimuli (each presented twice) make sure that each one really is being presented twice, and not some of them once, and some of them three times; sorting by the stimulus ID should make it instantly clear what’s going on. Make sure the correct responses and any errors are being logged correctly. Make sure the counter-balancing is working correctly by sorting on appropriate variables.
4. Do the analysis. Really do it. You’re obviously not looking for any significant results from the data, you’re just trying to validate your analysis pipeline and make sure you have all the information you need to do the stats. For fMRI experiments – look at your design matrix to see that it makes sense and that you’re not getting warnings about non-orthogonality of the regressors from the software. For fMRI data using visual stimuli, you could look at some basic effects (i.e. all stimuli > baseline) to make sure you get activity in the visual cortex. Button-pushing responses should also be visible as activity in the motor cortex in a single subject too – these kinds of sanity checks can be a good indicator of data quality. If you really want to be punctilious, bang it through a quick ICA routine and see if you get a) component(s) that look stimulus-related, b) something that looks like the default-mode network, and c) any suspiciously nasty-looking noise components (a and b = good, c = bad, obviously).
5. After all that, the rest is easy. Collect your proper set of data, analyse it using the routines you developed in point 4. above, write it up, and then send it to Nature.
And that, ladeez and gennulmen, is how to do it. Doing a proper pilot can only save you time and stress in the long run, and you can go ahead with your experiment in the certain knowledge that you’ve done everything in your power to make sure your data is as good as it can possibly be. Of course, it still might be total and utter crap, but that’ll probably be your participants’ fault, not yours.
Happy piloting! TTFN.
*Making sure your responses are being logged with a reasonable level of accuracy is also pretty important for many experiments, although this is a little harder to objectively verify. Hopefully if you’re using some reasonably well-validated piece of software and decent response device you shouldn’t have too many problems.
Another quickie post (it’s been ages since I’ve written anything substantive I know, bear with me just a little while longer…) with some links-of-interest for you.
First up is Open Sesame – this is an experiment-builder application with a nice graphical front-end, which also supports scripting in Python – nice. Looks like a possible alternative to PsychoPy with a fair few similar features. Also, it’s cross-platform, open-source and free – my three favourite things!
Next up is Inkscape – this is a free vector graphics editor (or drawing package), with similar features to Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. I tend to use Adobe Illustrator for a few specialised tasks, such as making posters for conferences, and this looks like a potentially really good free alternative.
Neuroimaging Made Easy is a blog I found a while ago that I’ve been meaning to share; it’s mostly a collection of tips and downloadable scripts to accomplish fairly specific tasks. They’re all pretty much optimised for Mac users (using AppleScript) and people who use BrainVoyager or FSL for their neuroimaging – SPM users are likely to be disappointed here (but they’re pretty used to that anyway, right?! Heh…). Really worth digging through the previous posts if you fall in the right segments of that Venn diagram though – I’ve been using a couple of their scripts for a while now.
Penultimately, I thought this recent article on Mind Hacks was really terrific – titled: “Psychological self-defence for the age of email”. It covers several relevant psychological principles and shows how they can be used to better cope with the onslaught of e-mail that many of us are often buried under.
Lastly, I hope you’ll pardon a modicum of self-promotion, but I recently did an interview over Skype with the lovely Ben Thomas of http://the-connectome.com/. Unfortunately the skype connection between London and Los Angeles was less than perfect which meant he couldn’t put it up as a podcast, but he heroically transcribed it instead – if you are so inclined, you can read it here.
PsychoPy is something which I’ve been meaning to write something substantive on for a while. Briefly though, it’s a system for designing and running experiments, programmed in the Python language, with a nice GUI front-end to it. I’ve only flirted with it briefly, but the open-source and cross-platform nature of it makes it a very attractive package for programming experiments, in my opinion. If I was learning this stuff for the first time, it’s definitely the system I’d use.
The purpose of this post was just to publicise a YouTube video, put up by the creator of PsychoPy – Jon Peirce, of Nottingham University. The video is a great little starter-tutorial for PsychoPy and gently walks the viewer through creating a simple experiment – great stuff.
Happy experimenting! Here’s the vid:
I’ve just come across a fantastic-looking 3-day course running at the University of Nottingham called ‘Matlab for Psychologists‘. The curriculum looks like it starts from the very basics at the beginning of the course, and works up to some fairly advanced material by the end of the three days. The summer course has just finished, but there’s another one due to run in September.
Without a doubt, if you’re a PhD student or post-doc at the beginning of your research career, learning Matlab is certainly one of the most useful things you could possibly learn. You can use it for… well… everything really, since it’s a true, general-purpose programming language, albeit wrapped up in a semi-friendly GUI. Presenting stimuli with the psychophysics toolbox is one really popular usage in psychology research, as is general statistical analysis and plotting, and of course analysing fMRI data with the mighty SPM. If I was a PhD student I’d be begging my supervisor and/or department for the £375 to pay for this course – it’s likely to be some of the best money you’ll ever spend on your education.
One other thing – while googling ‘Matlab for Psychologists’ I also came across this book with the same title, which was just published a few months ago. Not a whole-hearted recommendation as I haven’t read it, but it looks like it might be worth checking out if you’re keen to give Matlab a try and can’t get to the course.
A brief post about a fantastically useful little utility – AutoHotKey. This is a small, free, very flexible and powerful program for Windows which has potentially unlimited usefulness. It allows the user to either a) define a string of mouse/keyboard inputs (i.e. macros) which can be triggered with a single key-press, or b) re-map a particular keyboard/mouse/whatever input to act as if it’s any other kind of input. All this can be achieved either with a fairly simple scripting language, or by the use of AutoScriptWriter – a means of ‘recording’ a sequence of inputs that can then be ‘played back’ at much faster rates.
I use it for some of my fMRI stimulus programs. The MRI scanner sends out a TTL-like pulse at the beginning of every functional volume acquisition (or ‘TR’) and this can be used to synchronise with external equipment – in fMRI it’s important to know exactly when your stimuli were presented (relative to the volume acquisition sequence) in order to generate an accurate statistical model. The pulse from the scanner goes into a little USB adapter doo-hickey, which is plugged into the computer running the stimulus program – the USB box simulates a joystick button-press every time it receives a scanner pulse. This works great, except that when I’m writing my programs in my office, I don’t have a joystick, and also sometimes I want to start my programs manually (for demo purposes, or whatever). The solution? I write all my programs to start with a left-mouse click, and run an AutoHotKey script on the stimulus-program computer in the scanner room which transforms the game-port input to a left-mouse-click. This is the script in its entirety:
Simple, huh? In this way, my programs can start either with a left-mouse-clickorwhen they receive the input from the scanner on the game-port, and I don’t have to change them at all when I move them from my office machine to the scanner-room computer. It works perfectly. There’s loads of good help, advice and sample scripts on the AHK website/forums – a quick search will usually bring up something at least somewhat-related to what you want to achieve.
It’s also possible to play a very mean prank on somebody by running a script on their computer re-mapping several (or even all) of their keyboard keys to other random keys, but the less said about that the better…
Mac users are out of luck with AutoHotKey I’m afraid – it’s Windows only. However the built-in Automator application in Mac OS X has a lot of the same macro-like functionality, and is pretty easy to use once you get the hang of it. For the input re-mapping side of things IronAHK looks like a good (and very powerful) free option, and KeyRemap4MacBook also looks good – less powerful, but a much more user-friendly interface.
Happy key-hacking! If you find a good use for AHK, then let me know in the comments. TTFN.