Friday, July 31, 2015

FormaLabs: Bringing science to the 99%

FormaLabs are a new “biomaker” space in Cork who describe themselves as aiming to “bring science to the 99%”. I recently attended a really interesting event by Professor Steve Potter, about DIY neuro-hacking, and how the increasing affordability of neuroscience and biomarker technologies will make it possible for non-professional scientists to conduct their own research. He used the interesting analogy of astronomy, where amateur astronomers have made relevant discoveries for years with their home telescopes.

The event included a demonstration of a number of these pieces of equipment, including kit for measuring EEG (albeit with not as many electrode sites as the type one would see in a well-funded lab) as well as heart rate and heart rate variability. Unfortunately, we couldn't get a demo of the most out-there equipment that monitors rapid eye movements in to induce lucid dreams (Prof Potter says he has used this and found it effective-want want want). 

It was great to see a wide variety of attendees, from professional researchers to kids, and the audience contributing so many ideas.

As FormaLabs are still being established, they are always looking for labs/groups etc. to help with setting up workspaces where non-professionals can engage in science. Check them out here:

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Book Review: "Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad" by Richard Stephens

Senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University and fellow blogger Richard Stephens has a new book out. Aimed at a general audience, it concerns the hidden benefits of bad things, from drink to sex to death. To be fair, the review won't be totally unbiased when the author does cite a review paper I published with Andy Smith, but I hope it will be informative.

Stephens has not been one to stay on a single research topic, so the diversity of the book takes in varied subjects Stephens has researched. This includes his Ig Nobel-prize winning research on swearing, which found that swearing increased people's tolerance for pain (particularly people who habitually swear less; save it for a special occasion). He also covers work looking at whether chewing gum can alleviate stress (to be honest the jury's still out on that one-it seems to be better at maintaining alertness). The chapter on alcohol also makes reference to his ongoing interest in hangovers, and how those who are prone to alcoholism are counter-intuitively prone to worse hangovers.

The net does widen to some weird and wonderful stuff that Stephens (to the best of my knowledge) has not been directly involved with, This includes attempts to go beyond retrospective accounts of near-death experiences to prospectively examine a large number of patients with conditions that might lead to a near death experience prior to having one. (Quite a tall order, and one that unsurprisingly hasn't proved successful so far). He also covers classic research on whether inducing a state of (non-romantic) fear makes men more likely to ask someone out on a date, and the intriguing topic of boredom.

For a book teeming with different ideas, at times it feels as though Stephens does have to make an effort to keep things under one overall, unifying theme. It's a good skill to have when one has restless interests, although perhaps it's a bit regrettable in our postmodern age that theses and monographs have to conform to always having their own "grand scheme of things". The breadth of human experience, even within a single aspect of cognition, doesn't always lend itself to a unifying theory.

Despite the tongue-in-cheek "bad to the bone" posturing, this is a prosocial book. Stephens does not only want to create an enthusiasm for science, but also to make it more approachable. This book is also an attempt to defend psychological science in particular, and especially any such science which does not smack of the "harder" science end of psychological research ("but where was the fMRI scan???"). Stephens is careful to bring the non-psychologist along with him whether he is discussing theory or comparing double-blind experiments to short online surveys. If the book gets the broad audience it courts then I'd be surprised if a few of its lay readers don't feel motivated to begin their own pursuit of psychological research.

Related posts:
Book Review: "Predictably Irrational"
The Perks of a Pack of Gum
The Hangover

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Exhibition review: "We Do Not Leave Pyramids"

And if you must build pyramids along the way, build them in the knowledge that they will soon crumble and disintegrate, disappearing in the distance as you move onto the next phase.
Chris Clarke, from the program foreword

I try to take in art galleries when I get a chance; I particularly enjoy going to final year exhibition. This review of 2015's final year art exhibition at the Crawford is somewhat belated, but then again maybe it's good to write about these works a little later, if only to show that they are not just vanishing into the ether.

On the topic of final year exhibitions, I remember severely disliking a series of paintings at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin a few years back. They were were very small drawings that depicted vaguely gross activities, but drawn in the manner of a 9-year-old child. Even though I can enjoy ugly art (Bacon springs to mind) I didn't care about the artist's point, it was just lacking in skill.

One set of images that strikes me is Elaina Walsh O'Reilly's pictures. Although these images may not be pretty, they are the antithesis of that kind of delibrately childish, wilfully shit art that annoyed me at the NCAD exhibition. They have depth and richness that shines through any layer of dark and grot.

They are inspired by melacholy. The deep greens and blacks of these images wash a wave of sadness over the frame. The human figure could be swimming or dancing, but the face seems sucked downwards into the heavy cloth. Walsh O'Reilly describes the figures as trapped in a perimeter that on one level can be easily broken. However, to me the density of these images hint that there is some level of difficulty in moving away from these feelings.

Jennifer Ahern's work is a walk-in spiral wall of collage. It reminds me somewhat of the artwork of "In Utero" by Nirvana, or a less violent version of "Reek of Putrefaction" by Carcass. In fact, with the torn fragments of text this could be like many postmodern album notes for Radiohead, ...Trail of Dead, ZooTV-era U2 etc.

Despite this initial impression of image overload, the focus on the female body, and how our media represent it, means this is not just a (comment on) info saturation. The changing dominant colours of the spiral give it the feeling of a life cycle, However, the spectre of objectification hangs over the collage. The body can be exposed at any point-wherever you go, there you are, and of what use are you?

Two works touching on similar themes also catch the eye. Victoria Callinan looks at the concept of the selfie; composing a particular image of oneself for the online world. Killian O'Dwyer's work is about gender performativity through the lens of "low-brow" culture (you can hear the bassline of "Anaconda" pounding as you approach his installation). Besides the thematic similarity between these two pieces, they both use the installation space to the full, turning artwork into a bedroom. Although O'Dwyer's work seems at some level to be confrontational in its use of pornography and USA hubris, and although the implicit fug of moral panic and cyberbullying hangs over Callinan's, there's a strange homeliness to these voyeuristic and consumerist pieces that suggest they've both caught a little bit of the zeitgeist.

Obviously these are just snapshots of a small minority of the work at the exhibit. As with any of these things, in a few years most of the students won't be working full-time as artists. But a few of these pieces remind me of a snippet of a review on the blurb of Euginedes' debut novel "Virgin Suicides": they are not just "promising"-they have arrived fully formed.

Related posts
Creativity and two modes of thought
I felt a funeral in my brain