open letter to the AAAS regarding their new open-access journal

Below is the text of a recent open letter I signed, spearheaded by Jon Tennant. Here he explains why he spearheaded the below letter to the AAAS requesting they make changes to their policy regarding their new open access journal, Science Advances. 

Dear  AAAS,

This is an open letter concerning the recent launch of the new open access journal, Science Advances. In addition to the welcome diversification in journal choices for authors looking for open access venues, there are many positive aspects of Science Advances: its broad STEM scope, its interest in cross-disciplinary research, and the offering of fee waivers. While we welcome the commitment of the Association to open access, we are also deeply concerned with the specific approach. Herein, we outline a number of suggestions that are in line with both the current direction that scholarly publishing is taking and the needs expressed by the open access community, which this journal aims to serve.

The first of these issues concerns the licensing terms of the journal articles. The default choice of a non-commercial licence (CC BY-NC) places unnecessary restrictions on reuse and does not meet the standards set out by the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Many large funders, includingResearch Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust, do not recognise this as an open license. The adoption of CC BY-NC as the default license means that many researchers will be unable to submit to Science Advances if they are to conform to their funder mandates unless they pay for the upgrade to CC BY. There is little evidence that non-commercial restrictions provide a benefit to the progress of scholarly research, yet they have significant negative impact, limiting the ability to reuse material for educational purposes and advocacy. For example, NC-encumbered materials cannot be used on Wikipedia. The non-commercial clause is known to generate ambiguities and uncertainties (see for example, NC Licenses Considered Harmful) to the detriment of scholarly communication. Additionally, there is little robust evidence to suggest that adopting a CC-BY license will lead to income loss for your Association, and the $1,000 surcharge is difficult to justify or defend. The value of the CC BY license is outlined in detail by the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association.

We raise an additional issue with the $1,500 surcharge for articles more than 10 pages in length. In an online-only format, page length is an arbitrary unit that results from the article being read in PDF format. Can the AAAS explain what the additional costs associated with the increased length are that would warrant a 50% increase in APC for an unspecified number of additional digital pages? Other leading open access journals, such as PeerJ, the BMC series, and PLOS ONE, offer publication of articles with unlimited page lengths. The extra costs create constraints that may adversely incentivize authors to exclude important details of their study, preventing replication and hindering transparency, all of which are contrary to the aims of scholarly publication. Therefore it seems counterproductive to impose this additional charge; it discriminates against researchers’ best effort to communicate their findings with as much detail as necessary.

We feel that the proposed APCs and licencing scheme are detrimental to the AAAS and the global academic community. As such, we recommend that Science Advances:

  • Offers CC BY as standard for no additional cost, in line with leading open access publishers, so authors are able to comply with respective funding mandates;

  • Provides a transparent calculation of its APCs based on the publishing practices of the AAAS and explains how additional value created by the journal will measure against the significantly high prices paid by the authors;

  • Removes the surcharges associated with increased page number;

  • Releases all data files under CC0 (with CC BY optional), which has emerged as the community standard for data and is used by leading databases such as Figshare and DataDryad.

We hope that you will consider the points raised above, keeping in mind how best to serve the scientific community, and use Science Advances to add the AAAS to the group of progressive and innovative open access scholarly publishers. We hope AAAS will collaborate with the academic community to facilitate the dissemination of scientific knowledge through a journal committed to fully embracing the principles of Open Access.

We kindly request that you allow your response(s) to be made public along with this letter, and look forward to hearing your response soon.

Signatories (please note that we do not formally represent the institutions listed):

  1. Jonathan P. Tennant, PhD student, Imperial College London (jonathan.tennant10@imperial.ac.uk, @protohedgehog)
  2. Timothée Poisot, University of Canterbury (timothee.poisot@canterbury.ac.nz, @tpoi)
  3. Joseph R. Hancock, Montana State University-Bozeman (joseph.hancock1@msu.montana.edu, @Joe_R_Hancock)
  4. M Fabiana Kubke, University of Auckland, New Zealand (f.kubke@auckland.ac.nz, @kubke)
  5. François Michonneau, University of Florida (fmichon@flmnh.ufl.edu, @FrancoisInvert)
  6. Michael P. Taylor, University of Bristol (dino@miketaylor.org.uk, @MikeTaylor)
  7. Graham Steel, Open Science, Scotland (steelgraham7@gmail.com, @McDawg)
  8. Jérémy Anquetin, Section d’Archéologie et Paléontologie, Switzerland (j.anquetin@gmail.com, @FossilTurtles)
  9. Emily Coyte, University of Bristol (emily.coyte@bristol.ac.uk, @emilycoyte)
  10. Benjamin Schwessinger, UC Davis (bschwessinger@ucdavis.edu, @schwessinger)
  11. Erin C. McKiernan, independent scientist (emck31@gmail.com, @emckiernan13)
  12. Tom Pollard, PhD student, University College London (tom.pollard.11@ucl.ac.uk, @tompollard)
  13. Aimee Eckert, MRes student, Imperial College London (aee13@imperial.ac.uk, @aimee_e27)
  14. Liz Allen, ScienceOpen, San Francisco (liz.allen@scienceopen.com, @LizAllenSO)
  15. Dalmeet Singh Chawla, Imperial College London (dalmeets@gmail.com, @DalmeetS)
  16. Elizabeth Silva, San Francisco (elizabeth.silva@me.com, @lizatucsf)
  17. Nicholas Gardner, Marshall University (nick.gardner@gmail.com, @RomerianReptile)
  18. Nathan Cantley, Medical Student, Queens University Belfast (ncantley01@qub.ac.uk, @NathanWPCantley)
  19. John Dupuis, Librarian, York University, Toronto (jdupuis@yorku.ca, @dupuisj)
  20. Christina Pikas, Doctoral Candidate, University of Maryland (cpikas@gmail.com, @cpikas)
  21. Amy Buckland, Librarian, McGill University, Montreal (amy.buckland@mcgill.ca, @jambina)
  22. Lenny Teytelman, www.zappylab.com, Berkeley, CA (lenny@zappylab.com), @lteytelman)
  23. Peter Murray-Rust, University of Cambridge, UK (peter.murray.rust@googlemail.com), @petermurrayrust)
  24. Zen Faulkes, The University of Texas-Pan American, zfaulkes@utpa.edu, @DoctorZen)
  25. Robert J. Gay, The University of Arizona/Mission Heights Preparatory High School, AZ, USA (paleorob@gmail.com, @paleorob)
  26. Peter T.B. Brett, University of Surrey, UK (peter@peter-b.co.uk, @PeterTBBrett)
  27. Anders Eklund, Linköping University, Sweden (andek034@gmail.com, @wandedob)
  28. Johannes Björk, Institute of Marine Sciences, Barcelona, Spain (bjork.johannes@gmail.com, @AwfulDodger)
  29. William Gunn, Mendeley, London, UK, william.gunn@mendeley.com, @mrgunn)
  30. Nitika Pant Pai, McGill University, Montreal, Canada (nitika.pai@mcgill.ca) @nikkiannike
  31. Philippe Desjardins-Proulx, Ph.D. student (philippe.d.proulx@gmail.com, @phdpqc).
  32. Joshua M. Nicholson, PhD candidate Virginia Tech, VA and founder The Winnower, VA (jnicholson@thewinnower.com, @thewinnower)
  33. Scott Edmunds, GigaScience, BGI Hong Kong (scott@gigasciencejournal.com, @SCEdmunds)
  34. Steven Ray Wilson, University of Oslo (stevenw@kjemi.uio.no, @stevenRayOslo)
  35. Stuart Buck, Vice President of Research Integrity, Laura and John Arnold Foundation (sbuck@arnoldfoundation.org, @stuartbuck1)
  36. B. Arman Aksoy, Ph.D. student, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (arman@cbio.mskcc.org, @armish)
  37. Nazeefa Fatima, University of Huddersfield, UK (nazeefafatima@msn.com, @NazeefaFatima)
  38. Ross Mounce, University of Bath, UK (rcpm20@bath.ac.uk, @rmounce)
  39. Heather Piwowar, Impactstory, (heather@impactstory.org), @researchremix
  40. Avinash Thirumalai, Ph.D student, East Tennessee State University (thirumalai@goldmail.etsu.edu)
  41. Jason Priem, Impactstory (jason@impactstory.org), @jasonpriem
  42. Clayton Aldern, University of Oxford, UK (clayton.aldern@gmail.com, @compatibilism)
  43. Marcus D. Hanwell, Technical Leader, Kitware, Inc., (mhanwell@kitware.com, @mhanwell)
  44. Kristen L. Marhaver, NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, Carmabi Foundation (kristenmarhaver@gmail.com, @CoralSci)
  45. David Michael Roberts, ARC Research Associate, University of Adelaide (david.roberts@adelaide.edu.au)
  46. Brian Hole, Ubiquity Press, UK (brian.hole@ubiquitypress.com, @ubiquitypress)
  47. Alexander Grossmann, University of Applied Sciences Leipzig, Germany and co-founder of ScienceOpen, Berlin/Boston (alexander.grossmann@htwk-leipzig.de, @SciPubLab)
  48. David L.Vaux, Assistant Director, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Australia (vaux@wehi.edu.au)
  49. John Murtagh, Repository Manager, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine @LSHTMlibrary
  50. Alecia Carter, University of Cambridge, UK (ac854@cam.ac.uk, @alecia_carter)
  51. Alex O. Holcombe, University of Sydney (alex.holcombe@sydney.edu.au, @ceptional)
  52. Ignacio Torres Aleman, Cajal Institute, Madrid. Spain. (torres@cajal.csic.es)
  53. Sarah Molloy, Research Support Manager, Queen Mary University of London (s.h.molloy@qmul.ac.uk, @moragm23)
  54. John Lamp, Deakin University, Australia (john.lamp@deakin.edu.au, @johnwlamp)
  55. Matthew Todd, The University of Sydney and Open Source Malaria,matthew.todd@sydney.edu.au)
  56. Anusha Seneviratne, Imperial College London (anushans@hotmail.com, @anushans)
  57. Guido Guidotti, Harvard University (guidotti@fas.harvard.edu)
  58. Joseph McArthur, Assistant Director, Right to Research Coalition(Joe@RighttoResearch.org, @mcarthur_joe)
  59. Carlos H. Grohmann, University of São Paulo, Brazil (guano@usp.br)
  60. Jan de Leeuw, University of California Los Angeles, (deleeuw@stat.ucla.edu)
  61. Jung H. Choi, Associate Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology (jung.choi@biology.gatech.edu)
  62. Ernesto Priego, Centre for Information Science, City University London, UK (Ernesto.Priego.1@city.ac.uk)
  63. Brian Pasley, University of California, Berkeley (bpasley@berkeley.edu)
  64. Stacy Konkiel, Impactstory.org (stacy@impactstory.org), @skonkiel)
  65. Elizabeth HB Hellen, Rutgers University (hellen@dls.rutgers.edu)
  66. Raphael Levy, University of Liverpool (rapha@liverpool.ac.uk)
  67. Paul Coxon, University of Cambridge (prc39@cam.ac.uk)
  68. Nitika Pant Pai, McGill University, Montreal, Canada (nitika.pai@mcgill.ca)
  69. David Carroll, Queen’s University Belfast  (carroll.davide@gmail.com, @davidecarroll)
  70. Jacinto Dávila, Universidad de Los Andes (jacinto.davila@gmail.com, @jacintodavila)
  71. Marco Arieli Herrera-Valdez, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (mahv13@gmail.com, @brujonildo)
  72. Juan Pablo Alperin, Simon Fraser University, Canada (juan@alperin.ca)
  73. Jan P. de Ruiter, Bielefeld University (jan.deruiter@uni-bielefeld.de, @JPdeRuiter)
  74. Xianwen Chen, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (xianwen.chen@nmbu.no, @xianwen_chen)
  75. Jeanette Hatherill, Librarian, University of Ottawa, Canada (jeanette.hatherill@uottawa.ca, @jeanetteanneh)
  76. Katharine Mullen, University of California Los Angeles (katharine.mullen@stat.ucla.edu)
  77. Pedro Bekinschtein, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina (pbekinschtein@fmed.uba.ar; @pedrobek)
  78. Quentin Groom, Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium (quentin.groom@br.fgov.be, @cabbageleek)
  79. Karen Meijer-Kline, Librarian, Simon Fraser University, Canada (kmeijerk@sfu.ca, @kmeijerkline)
  80. Pietro Gatti-Lafranconi, Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, UK (pg356@cam.ac.uk, @p_gl)
  81. Jeffrey Hollister, USEPA, Narragansett, RI (hollister.jeff@epa.gov, @jhollist)
  82. Lachlan Coin, University of Queensland and founder of Academic Karma (l.coin@academickarma.org @AcademicKarma )
  83. MooYoung Choi, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Seoul National University, Korea (mychoi@snu.ac.kr)
  84. Oscar Patterson-Lomba, Harvard School of Public Health (opatters@hsph.harvard.edu)
  85. Rowena Ball, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia (Rowena.Ball@anu.edu.au)
  86. Daniel Swan, Oxford Gene Technology, UK (Daniel.Swan@ogt.com @DrDanielSwan)
  87. Stephen Curry, Imperial College London, UK (s.curry@imperial.ac.uk, @Stephen_Curry)
  88. Abigail Noyce, Boston University (anoyce@bu.edu, @abbynoyce)
  89. Jordan Ward, UCSF, San Francisco, CA, USA (jordan.ward@ucsf.edu, @Jordan_D_Ward)
  90. Ben Meghreblian, criticalscience.com, London, UK (benmeg@benmeg.com, @benmeg)
  91. Ethan P. White, Utah State University, Logan, UT, USA (ethan.white@usu.edu, @ethanwhite)
  92. Sean R. Mulcahy, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA (mulcahy@berkeley.edu, @srmulcahy)
  93. Sibele Fausto, University of São Paulo, Brazil (sifausto@usp.br @sibelefausto)
  94. Lorena A. Barba, George Washington University (labarba@gwu.edu @LorenaABarba)
  95. Ed Trollope, Director, Things We Don’t Know CIC (contact@thingswedontknow.com, @TWeDK)
  96. Stephen Beckett, Ph.D. student, University of Exeter (S.J.Beckett@exeter.ac.uk, @BeckettStephen)
  97. Andrew D. Steen, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (asteen1@utk.edu, @drdrewsteen)
  98. Mari Sarv, Estonian Literary Museum (mari@folklore.ee, @kaskekanke)
  99. Noam Ross, Ph.D. Candidate, Ecology, University of California-Davis (nmross@ucdavis.edu, @noamross)
  100. Erika Amir, Geologist, Massachusetts, USA (erika.amir@gmail.com, @geoflier)
  101. Martin Paul Eve, University of Lincoln (meve@lincoln.ac.uk, @martin_eve)
  102. Franco Cecchi, University of Florence (francocecchi337@gmail.com)
  103. Jason B. Colditz, University of Pittsburgh (colditzjb@gmail.com, @colditzjb)
  104. Philip Spear, postdoc, Northwestern University (philspear@northwestern.edu)
  105. Mythili Menon, University of Southern California (mythilim@usc.edu, @mythmenon)
  106. Matthew Clapham, University of California Santa Cruz (mclapham@ucsc.edu,@meclapham)
  107. Karl W. Broman, University of Wisconsin–Madison (kbroman@biostat.wisc.edu, @kwbroman)
  108. Graham Triggs, Symplectic (graham@symplectic.co.uk, @grahamtriggs)
  109. Tom Crick, Cardiff Metropolitan University (tcrick@cardiffmet.ac.uk, @DrTomCrick)
  110. Diano F. Marrone, Wilfrid Laurier University (dmarrone@wlu.ca)
  111. Joseph Kraus, Librarian, University of Denver (joseph.kraus@du.edu, @OAJoe)
  112. Steven Buyske, Rutgers University (buyske@stat.rutgers.edu)
  113. Gavin Simpson, University of Regina (gavin.simpson@uregina.ca)
  114. Colleen Morgan, University of York (colleen.morgan@york.ac.uk @clmorgan)
  115. Kara Woo, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, UC Santa Barbara (woo@nceas.ucsb.edu, @kara_woo)

Tactile perception demonstration: The “comb illusion”

At first, I was underwhelmed by this one.

comb, finger, and stick

Run the stick along the comb. With your eyes closed, notice the resulting percept: something moving down your finger.

Running an object (like a stick, or a pen) along the fine teeth of a comb, causes successive teeth of the comb to deflect laterally. There is no appreciable up-and-down component to the teeth’s movement, just the side-to-side movement. 

If you place your finger along the top of the comb’s teeth and close your eyes while you stroke the teeth with the stick, you’ll feel something running along your finger. I wouldn’t call this much of an illusion, so I didn’t think much of it at first. But Hayward & Cruz-Hernández (2000) pointed out that from this phenomenon, we can conclude your finger is able to sense lateral force, essentially skin stretch, not just indentation of the skin. The brain interprets the successive stretch signals as an object running down the finger. That stretch alone can result in these percepts is interesting.

There are several sorts of touch receptors in the skin. Most detect vibration or indentation. Stretch is detected by a rather distinct class, the Ruffini corpuscles, which are the specialized endings of nerves that carry the corpuscles’ signal to the spinal cord.

Now run the stick along the comb without your finger on top. Look carefully at the comb’s teeth. If you drag the stick along with some force, you’ll be able to see the teeth move a bit. But try running the stick along with very little force, at an acute angle so the side of the stick barely touches the comb, and runs smoothly. Make it nearly parallel to the plane of the comb, so it’s smooth enough that you don’t get the clicking sound and bump-bump vibration from successive teeth that occurs if the stick protrudes between the teeth. I noticed that when doing this, the deflection of the teeth is so small that looking directly at the ends of the teeth, I can’t see the deflection.

Yet if you put your finger again atop the comb, you should still have the sensation of something running along your finger. Hayward & Cruz-Hernández (2000) suggest that here the teeth move only by microns, and I believe them, as we ought to be able to see even a few microns of deflection when we look closely at the comb. Indeed, I suspect that the teeth may be moving less than a micron.

This shows how extraordinarily sensitive our sense of touch is- more spatially acute than vision. But note that the exquisite sensitivity of touch here comes from an ability that has no direct analogy in vision. In vision, when we think about spatial sensitivity, we think of acuity,

Spatial resolution in vision is limited by receptor spacing. Image: Gerald Westheimer.

Spatial resolution in vision is limited by receptor spacing. Image: Gerald Westheimer.

which is limited by receptor spacing (although hyperacuity makes it a bit more complicated than that). Vision has nothing like touch’s stretch receptors, which here are not limited by spatial spacing, but rather by the minimum force the Ruffini corpuscles can register.

Touch can also best visual acuity in another way. Receptors sensitive to ultra-high-frequency vibration allow us to discriminate a rough surface from a smooth one even when the roughness is created by features much smaller than a micrometer. For that phenomenon, I created a picture to put the spatial scales involved into perspective. I might explain it more another time. 

Reference

V. Hayward, M. Cruz-Hernandez, Tactile display device using distributed lateral skin stretch, in: Proceedings of the Haptic Interfaces for Virtual Environment and Teleoperator Systems Symposium, Vol. DSC-69-2, ASME, 2000, pp. 1309–1314. 

CHAST public science talks at University of Sydney

3 CHAST (www.chast.org) lectures:

Why we cannot make life

Professor Bert Meijer, Molecular Sciences, Organic Chemistry, Eindhoven University of Technology and 2011 Cornforth Foundation Lecturer, University of Sydney

Where: Old Geology Lecture Theatre, Edgeworth David Bldg, University of Sydney, map: http://bit.ly/hmm5U8

When: Wednesday 31 August, 6:30-7:30pm.   Free admission, no bookings.  All welcome.

Abstract: “The origin of life on earth” is without doubt one of the most intriguing scientific topics, while the wish to create life in a laboratory is amongst its most difficult challenges. The enormous progress in science and technology over the past decades has provided many deep insights into the miraculous composition and functioning of living systems. Today, on the one hand, we can clone sheep, grow organs from stem cells, while cells, plants, animals and bacteria have been genetically modified. On the other hand, the synthesis of small and large molecules has become so sophisticated that almost every molecule that exists on earth can now be made in a laboratory, including long strands of DNA, proteins and complex drugs that can cure diseases. These many insights, however, also show the complexity of the molecular biology of living cells. As a result, the astonishment about how life could ever have originated has further increased. The lecture will illustrate the greatest challenges that are encountered while seeking to understand the origin of life, including an explanation of why it will take a very, very long time before a living cell can be made in a laboratory out of its individual components, if it is possible at all. Special attention will be paid to the self-organization of complex molecular systems as a critical step in the building process.

E.W. “Bert” Meijer is Distinguished University Professor in the Molecular Sciences, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the Eindhoven University of Technology and scientific director of the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems. After receiving his PhD degree at the University of Groningen, he worked for 10 years in industry (Philips and DSM). In 1991 he was appointed in Eindhoven, while in the meantime he has held part-time positions in Nijmegen and Santa Barbara, CA. Bert Meijer is a member of many editorial advisory boards, including Chemical Communications, Angewandte Chemie, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Bert Meijer has received numerous awards, including the 1999 Silver Medal of the Macro UK group, the Spinoza Award in 2001, the ACS Award for Polymer Chemistry in 2006, the AkzoNobel Science Award 2010. He is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science.

———————————-

Announcing a CHAST (www.chast.org) Lecture:

Numbers: Their Human Aspects. Perspective from Indigenous Cultures

Dr. Helen Verran, History and Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne

Where: Old Geology Lecture Theatre, Edgeworth David Bldg, University of Sydney, map: http://bit.ly/hmm5U8

When: Tuesday 8 November, 5:30-6:30pm.   Free admission, no bookings.  All welcome.

Abstract: Many people spend a lot of time looking at numbers, or more to the point, looking through numbers at something else.  In this talk I take a look at numbers as such.  How can we ‘see’ numbers? And why would we want to? I will tell of the experience of working with teachers in primary school classrooms in Nigeria.  This had me recognizing that if we are going to understand how science might come to life as a significant cultural element in places like Nigeria we need a way to see the cultural lives that things like numbers have.  Having done some preliminary thinking with the help of Nigerian primary school children I turn to my experiences of working with Yolngu Aboriginal Australians who own lands in northeast Arnhem Land.  I will make a rather surprising analogy which I suggest can help us better understand the sorts of things numbers are.

Helen Verran is a Reader in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne. She has a PhD in metabolic biochemistry. For most of the 1980s she worked as a science lecturer in the Institute for Education at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria.  Her book Science and an African Logic (2001) was published out of this experience. Since she returned to Australia she has worked with Yolngu Aboriginal communities in northeast Arnhem Land an early product of this work was the small book Singing the Land Signing the Land now available on-line. http://singing.indigenousknowledge.org/ which provides background for her CHAST Lecture.

—————

The 2011 Templeton Lecture (www.chast.org):

The Emotional Brain

Professor Joseph LeDoux, Center for Neural Science, New York University

Where: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, University of Sydney, map: http://bit.ly/qHUKUd

When: Monday 17 October, 6:00-7:30pm.   Free admission, no bookings.  All welcome.

Abstract: The study of emotion has been hampered by a fixation on feelings.  Feelings are important, but not all important.  Problems arise when we use feelings, and their semantic labels, as guides to studying brain function in other animals.  Rather than imposing concepts based on human introspective experience to the brains of other creatures, we should attempt to understand how the human brain is similar to the brains of other animals. This then becomes a foundation for understanding differences between humans and other animals. I propose that much of what is called emotion in studies of other animals is accounted for by the operation survival circuits, circuits involved in defense, energy/nutrition supplies, fluid balance, thermoregulation, and procreation. These circuits are highly conserved in mammals, including humans. While the behavioral expression of survival circuits can be species-specific, the circuits are species-general. Some other approaches also emphasize the adaptive function of emotions, but typically define emotions in terms of feelings. Survival functions are the real topic in most animal studies of emotion. By focusing on the adaptive function itself (rather than the behavioral expression or the conscious consequences) of survival circuits we have a way of characterizing phenomena that fall under the rubric of “emotion” in all mammals (perhaps all animals) without recourse to feelings. Feelings are what happens when consciousness witnesses the overall outcome (in the brain and body) of survival circuit activation. Feelings, which cannot be studied scientifically in non-human organisms, are neither necessary nor sufficient to understand survival circuits and their functions. By reorienting the comparative study of emotions around survival circuit functions, we have the opportunity to understand similarities and differences in emotional functions between humans and other animals.

“Visual Attention On the Go” seminar on Friday

My talk for the Sydney University psychology department will be at 4pm in the Education building, room 424. Below, the abstract:

Localizing a single object relative to oneself is fairly easy—ever seen a plant reaching towards the sun? It’s a no-brainer. A less trivial task is determining the position of two objects relative to each other. Humans evolved brains that can do it, probably because it’s important for survival, but we don’t know how we do it.  I asked some people to look at a stable scene and report which objects are adjacent. They said, “the red disc is next to the green disc” or “the red disc is next to the yellow disc”. Performance was essentially perfect. When the display started spinning, however, queer things started happening. These things suggest that apprehending the spatial relationship among objects requires a shift of attention from one object to the other. They also suggest that to perceive the spatial relationships among moving objects, the ability to follow an object with attention is critical[1]. The ability to follow an object with attention was tested by many previous investigators, who found that people can keep track of about four objects at once. But previous investigators never moved their objects as fast as we move ours. Our findings with speedy objects dispel previous theories of tracking and suggest that the faster an object moves, the more attentional resource it consumes[2]. Until nothing is left.

1. Holcombe, A., Linares, D., & Vaziri-Pashkam, M. (2011). Perceiving Spatial Relations via Attentional Tracking and Shifting. Current Biology, 21, 1-5. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.05.031

2. Holcombe, A.O., Chen, W.Y. (2011, submitted). Tracking a single fast-moving object exhausts attentional resources. (See the associated poster)

[Updated post with the time (4pm). Thanks Mat!]

Robert S. McNamara on nuclear weapons

“Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 offensive nuclear warheads of which 2500 are on fifteen-minute alert to be launched by the decision of one human being?””

“The lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.”

“Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”

-Robert S. McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, The Fog of War (2003)

The surviving leader on the other side of the Cuban missile crisis, Fidel Castro, has also warned of the continued danger of nuclear weapons.

lecture on the alternative energy challenge

The information so beautifully presented in Saul Griffith’s  lecture is as important as that presented in any talk I’ve seen. Saul has calculated what it’ll take for the world to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. And what it takes for an individual to consume an environmentally responsible amount of energy.

http://www.themonthly.com.au/personal-and-global-view-energy-and-climate-saul-griffith-2412

Through CHAST, I had the privilege of organizing this lecture. Drop me a line if you want to be added to our email list for notification of future CHAST lectures at Sydney University.

Saul lecturing at Sydney University on 31 March 2010

optimizing your coffee consumption

We live in an era where students, shift workers, and scientists increasingly consume drugs that modify brain activity in order to enhance cognition. Ethicists are right to fret about this as the number of addictive substances with some ill effects proliferates (DeJong et al. 2008). People will use these things regardless whether or not some condemn the phenomenon, so it is important that information is out there about how best to use them.

Caffeine is probably the most widely-used drug for enhancing cognition and productivity. However despite its long history, I have not been able to find a good manual or user’s guide! By a manual, I just mean a description of on what kind of schedule it is best used, given caffeine’s tolerance profile, acute effects, withdrawal symptoms, etc. Here I’ll report a few things I found in the scientific literature, in relation to my own experience.

When I first drank coffee, the effects were perhaps too strong to help me much, because I got some ‘jitters’ and had trouble focussing. But as I gained a bit of tolerance to caffeine’s effects, the jitters faded and the arousal effect became milder but more conducive to productivity. This tendency has in fact been reported in the scientific literature, as a rapid tolerance selective to some negative effects even while positive effects can continue (Evans & Griffiths 1992; Schuh & Griffiths 1997). However after many months of judicious usage during which an afternoon coffee was effective in heightening and prolonging my workday productivity, I gradually became a daily user. After approximately a year of this, my tolerance to the arousal effects became great enough that I needed a daily coffee simply to feel normal. It still provided a boost, but only to what a year ago I would have considered baseline. In contrast to this important slow rise in tolerance, the academic literature focuses on the very rapid increase in tolerance during the first several days of caffeine consumption. Usually this is measured by decrease in effect of caffeine on blood pressure elevation. Not very useful for understanding how to best enhance cognition.

My situation, in which caffeine no longer had its productivity-boosting effects, must be a very common problem. To solve it, one might either increase one’s dosage, or try to regain the original effects by going off caffeine for a while. I decided to try the latter.

Arvind says that science indicates one can restore complete sensitivity to caffeine after only 5 days of abstinence (or 10 days of gradual abstinence), however I haven’t been able to find a study that documents this. A blood pressure study estimates that only 20 hours of abstinence (Shi et al. 1993) will restore total sensitivity to caffeine on the blood pressure response. But the subjective withdrawal effects don’t peak until nearly 48 hours of absence! Apparently, for different caffeine effects, different amounts of time are required to restore sensitivity. So what about the positive subjective and arousal effects the average person is most interested in?

I decided to go nearly cold turkey for 7 days, with only one or two decafs in that interval to blunt my withdrawal-effect blues. Fortunately, I had only mild headaches, but did have significant lethargy and loss of mental focus. After seven days, I think I have regained most of my caffeine sensitivity. But I’m only on day one of using again, so not certain how close I am to the sensitivity I had 6 months or a year ago. I hope to share Arvind’s experience of increased productivity for a long period before needing to abstain again to restore sensitivity.

Are there any scientific papers on the topic, or lacking that, further personal reports to certify that this works? I worry about chronic tolerance effects that might not dissipate even after prolonged abstinence, but haven’t seen a shred of relevant science. To bring us closer to having a real user’s manual for both caffeine and other cognitive enhancers, those already using should report the results of their self-experimentation!

DEJONGH, R., BOLT, I., SCHERMER, M., & OLIVIER, B. (2008). Botox for the brain: enhancement of cognition, mood and pro-social behavior and blunting of unwanted memories Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32 (4), 760-776 DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.12.001

Shi J, Benowitz NL, Denaro CP, & Sheiner LB (1993). Pharmacokinetic-pharmacodynamic modeling of caffeine: tolerance to pressor effects. Clinical pharmacology and therapeutics, 53 (1), 6-14 PMID: 8422743

Update: this post provides related info in the same spirit.