What children say when they are asked what they think about the brain.

(update May 19th 2018, this is an old post I am very sporadically updating)

I am interested in what we think of when we think of “the brain.” I am planning a post compiling the various technological metaphors that are used when people talk about the brain – from the steam engine  / pneumatic metaphors of the 19th Century to the computer metaphors of today. Of course, these metaphors (especially the computer one) assume a kind of literal meaning so that we forget that the brain really isn’t  a computer.

Anyhow, one interesting topic that may or may not have been systematically and academically studied is what children think of when they think of the brain. There is almost certainly some academic work out there on this – my own plan is to ask every few months the following questions:

What is a brain?

Where is  your brain?

What does your brain do?

 Until the children in question tell me to go away.

And because I am interested in sleep also, I will ask

What happens when you sleep?

(May 2018 update — um I haven’t actually done this)

February 24th 2015

Child aged four and four months

Where is your brain?
(touches neck, goes off and plays elsewhere)

Later on

Where is your brain?

(touches head)
What does your  brain do?

It keeps your forehead in place

May 24th 2015

Same child


What is a brain?

Your forehead’s bone

Where is  your brain?

Here (touches forehead)

What does your brain do?

Makes you think. Anything else? Mmm -mmm

Oct 2nd 2015

Same child.

What is a brain?

In your head.

Where is your brain?

In your forehead.

What does your brain do?

It makes you think.

Anything else?

That’s all.

May 18th 2018

What is a brain?

A brain is weird looking thing that helps your memeory stuff and keeps you breathing. Without a brain you would forget how to breathe and die

Where is your brain?

Your brain is on the top of your head in your skull. It has bones surrounding it so you can’t get anything in your brain except for your memory love and stuff like that.
What does your brain do?

It helps you live, helps you put stuff in your mind and helps you breathe. It helps you hug and remember what your hobby is.


Circadian rhythms Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology 2017

When I was young, the Oscars had an air of naffness, and the likes of the Golden Globes or Emmys even more so. One of the many many ways internet culture has failed to live up to its utopian hype   is the glorification of these sort of jamborees into moments of Great Cultural Significance, endlessly teased over by scolding columnists determined to weed out wrong think even about a glorified trade awards ceremony.

The Nobel Prizes haven’t quite reached the same point – indeed, as I wrote here before, their cultural impact may be somewhat diminished – but nevertheless, they are also subject to a strained search for important messages. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017 was awarded jointly to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young “for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”

The video illustrates nicely what Circadian Rhythms are. 


Here is Robash’s lecture (with 5250 YouTube views) which is a good place to start a consideration of circadian rhythms:

And here is Young’s, which ties it all back to human circadian rhythms (just over 4000 views):

Here is Hall’s Nobel lecture, I note he is wearing a Brawndo hat from the film “Idiocracy”. I also note this video has just over 6000 views on YouTube (the Brawndo ad linked to above has over 3 million) Then again, it is a little hard going – Hall is not as funny as he thinks he is… and while there is some interest in his anecdotal style of various prior Drosophilia researchers it is not that effective an entry into this world (so while it is the first lecture given and includes the overall introduction, I have left it to last):

Slides of Robash’s and Young’s lectures are available on the Nobel site. Rather endearingly, they are basic PowerPoint slides replete with credits for everyone in the lab.

So there you go. 3 Nobel lectures on a subject of direct relevance to all our lives have a grand total of less than 15000 views on YouTube. I could easily find some ephemeral/trashy/obscene video with several multiples, but what is the point?

In the New Yorker, Jerome Groopman identified the “real message” of the prize as a rebuke to those who ignore or underfund basic science (in fairness his piece is also a decent introduction to this research).  While there may be some merit to this, it strikes me as more likely that the Academy recognised scientific work of genuine merit and enduring relevance.

And Groopman’s piece was one of the only ones I could find online that discussed the science and the issues related in some context (even though it was one I found slightly suspect) – most of the others essentially recycled the press releases from the Nobel Foundation and the US National Science Foundation

In my post “Why isn’t William C Campbell more famous in Ireland?” I discussed an excellent piece by Declan Fahy on “the fragile culture of Irish science journalism”. One wonders if this fragility is perhaps not only an Irish phenomenon.



Vierordt’s Law and experimenting with time

Karl von Vierordt has a relatively short Wikipedia bio (compared, for instance, to this) for someone who pioneered the measurement of blood pressure, the measurement of lung function and – the activity that would link his name with a “law” for posterity, the experimental study of the time sense. Indeed, he seems to have been one of the first experimental psychologists.


This excellent set of slides gives an overview of Vierordt’s career and a very detailed discussion of the time experiments, their methodology, context, and implications. So what is Vierordt’s Law? As stated by Wearden in the talk:

the proposition that short intervals
of time are judged as longer than they are,
whereas long intervals are judged as
shorter, with an indifference point, where
intervals are judged correctly, somewhere
between the two

In 1868, Vierordt published Der Zeitsinn nach Versuchen
– “The Time Sense According to Experiments.” This was not the first study of time perception, but by had by far the most data. Wearden describes Vierordt’s experimental methodology:

The data collected in Der Zeitsinn come from
experimental studies in which Vierordt himself,
or sometimes his pupil Höring, was the sole
experimental participant
• Höring [Vierordt’s student] not only carried out time perception
studies to qualify for a medical degree, but his
thesis work has the oddity that Höring was the
participant and not the experimenter (who was
• The data were derived from very extensive
experimentation, often involving hundreds of
experimental trials carried out over many days

Two taps (on a glass plate) define a target
time interval and the participant must
make a response so that the time between
the second tap and the response is equal
to the time between the two taps

A very full account of the Vierordt effect (perhaps a better term than “law”) is given in Wearden’s paper linked to above. Wearden has an intriguing conclusion:

A potential conclusion is that the Vierordt effects
shown in different tasks don’t actually have any
common cause, and that different processes are
responsible in the different cases

• Here, unusually, theoretical analysis seems to
suggest that things that look the same aren’t
really the same at all, a kind of theoretical
“disintegration” rather than the usual theoretical
“integration” of different phenomena within the
same theoretical framework

He ends with two points that should give pause to those who see the science of today as inherently superior to the science of the past:

You can see that this 19th. Century work, in spite
of some peculiarities, not only produced reliable
data, but also has posed some problems which
are unsolved (and, it seems, quite difficult to
solve) even today in the light of many recent
advances in our understanding of time
• More generally, Vierordt seems to be a pioneer
of experimental Psychology who is unjustly
neglected….until now

Circadian Rhythms video from Oxford Nuffield Sleep & Circadian Neuroscience Institute

From here

The myth of digital natives and health IT 

I have a post on the CCIO website on the Digital Native myth and Health IT

The opening paragraph: 

We hear a lot about digital natives. They are related to the similarly much-mentioned millenials; possibly they are exactly the same people (although as I am going to argue that digital natives do not exist, perhaps millenials will also disappear in a puff of logic). Born after 1980, or maybe after 1984, or maybe after 1993, or maybe after 2007, or maybe after 2010, the digital native grew up with IT, or maybe grew up with the internet, or grew up with social media, or at any rate grew up with something that the prior generation – the “digital immigrants” (born a couple of years before the first cut off above, that’s where I am too) – didn’t.

Presentation by Pedro de Bruyckere: Urban Myths about Learning and Technology

An excellent presentation by Pedro De Bruyckere, co author of the recent paper on the myth of the digital native I blogged about before… “I believe in education, I believe in teachers… but do I believe in technology in education? It depends”

Obviously these are slides which can’t compete with the real thing and clearly Pedro de Bruyckere has a rich sense of humour!

From experience to meaning...

This is the presentation I gave at the National ResearchED conference, September 9 2017. The presentation is in part based on our book Urban Myths about Learning and Education and in part based on the recent article I co-wrote with Paul Kirschner published in Teaching and Teacher Education (yes the one that was mentioned in Nature).

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Review of Compulsive Acts, Elias Aboujaoude, 2008


This book did not impress me much at all. A far more readable and useful books on obsessions and compulsions is David Adam’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” which I regularly recommend to patients. I did some book reviews for Fortean Times from 2003 til around 2008, I think this is likely to have been one of the last – none seem to have a life online but will turn up in various archives I have.

Compulsive Acts: A psychiatrists tales of ritual and obsession

The best that can be said of Elias Aboujaoude’s Compulsive Acts is that it’s an easy read. Director of the Impusive Control Disorders Unit at Stanford University School of Medicine, one would hope that Aboujaoude would give both the general and specialist reader some great insight into the world of compulsion. He ranges from obsessive-compulsive disorders to pathological gambling and problematic internet use, yet never really rises above the level of a decent magazine article, in say Time or Newsweek.

In his introduction Aboujaoude makes much of the weighty ethical dilemma facing him putting pen to paper. Clearly the issue of confidentiality looms over every medical writers wishing to make use of the material presenting every day. However Aboujaoude’s throat-clearing and disquisitions on storytelling in his Mediterranean ancestry serve to annoy when it finally comes to the writing itself. In his fictionalised composites, Aboujaoude adopts an irritatingly breezy style, as well as betraying a tin ear for dialogue and a weakness for twee framing devices (in particular his receptionist Aurora, an attempt at down-to-earth wisdom) Furthermore, the cases seem to progress neatly to their conclusions (not necessarily happy or successful ones) and lack real drama. One feels that Aboujaoude must have a decent book inside him – if only it could be compelled to come out.

3/10 – Far from compulsive