Cognitive research – coming to a smartphone near you

“Citizen science” projects have successfully gotten people to classify galaxy shapes, find optimal protein folding structures or decipher manuscripts. But is it possible to use online participation not just to harness users problem-solving abilities but for actual experiments and data gathering in cognitive research? There has been much furore recently about a study on the spread of emotion that used data not only gathered through Facebook without users’ consent, but for which users’ newsfeed was actively manipulated. In contrast, researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Birmingham now show that data for cognitive science experiments can be crowdsourced with informed consent, and results from the mass data collection replicate results which researchers got when they carried out experiments with the same aim in a carefully controlled lab setting.

The researchers got an app produced for smartphones, which allows users to play four short games that are based on classic experimental paradigms of cognitive science. These tested decision-making, short-term memory, perception and action inhibition but were packaged as competitive games. In one of them, users tapped their screen when fruit fell from a tree, but not when the fruit turned brown while falling. When the users tapped correctly and quickly enough, they progressed to the next level, where fruits turned brown later in their fall. Before playing, users filled out a questionnaire about themselves and gave informed consent for the use of their data. Interestingly, when analyzing the data, the researchers got the same results that other researchers got when they carried out experiments with the same goal in a lab setting, with only a few participants. One advantage of mass data collection over the internet is that the participants come from a wider demographic than the usual lab rats for cognitive science, cash-strapped university students. Soon, there will be two billion people using smartphones worldwide. That’s quite a wide pool of potential participants for online experiments, if done correctly. And, Facebook – no, informed consent is not optional.

Original research paper in PLOS One

Good vibrations?

“Fit in 15 minutes” – just 15 minutes training to get the same results as in a one and a half hours of sweaty workouts – that’s one of the promises of the “vibroplate”, “powerplate” and similar gyms promoting doing exercises on a vibrating plate. “Clever in 15 minutes” might be another claim they are making soon. Researchers in the Netherlands tested whether sitting on a vibrating plate could improve cognition in young, healthy adults. We know that exercise can improve memory, reasoning and problem solving, so-called “executive functions”. However, how can people who are unable to physically exercise reap the same benefits? The researchers tested whether passively sitting on a chair mounted on a vibrating platform – called whole body vibration – could improve executive functions. They found that after two minutes of such whole body vibration, volunteers performed better on a color-word interference test. In this test, participants are shown cards with 20 color names, each printed in one of five colors. However, the ink color of each word is different from the color name. The participants are asked to name the ink color of the word as fast as possible. In the study, participants were quicker in naming the correct ink colors after vibration. But they only improved if they took this test, designed to measure attention and inhibition, immediately after the end of vibrations. They did not improve if another two-minute test, measuring working memory, was done in between. And they also did not score any better on the working memory test.

The researchers suggest that vibrations might stimulate skin receptors that respond to vibrations. They send signals to a region of the brain strongly connected to the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in cognition and the processing of information. However, it is yet to early to add “become Einstein in 15 minutes” to the claims of vibration gyms. The observed improvement only lasts for a short while, less than a minute and only for a specific type of cognition, attention. And the researchers themselves suggest that it is necessary to test how long the vibration sessions have to be, and how often they have to be repeated, to see any strong effects on cognition. But in the long run, whole body vibration might turn out to be clinically relevant, and help people unable to exercise to at least have some of the benefits of going to the gym. For everyone else, the best reason to go to the gym in the meantime probably remains to simply get fit.

Original research paper in PLOS One