Category Archives: Uncategorized

Ice-Storm Pumpkin Muffins

February always brings terrible weather to Ontario and 2019 is no exception. February 6 saw the city (London, ON) nearly shut down by an ice storm. Schools were closed, the University closed early, and we all stayed home. This was great! We were nearing the completion of a kitchen renovation, it gave us time to unpack a few things and get the kitchen back in working order.

So I decided to bake a batch of pumpkin muffins. Naturally, I posted the picture on Twitter and Instagram and was asked for the recipe so I have to oblige.


Hot and fresh from the oven in a newly-renovated kitchen

I have been baking these for at least 10 years and they were the runner up in the muffin category in 2016 at the Ilderton Fair, which is one of the best regional fairs in Ontario. Ilderton, Ontario, for those who don’t know, happens to the home of Scott Moir and the home ice for the most famous Olympic ice dancers in history, Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue. In fact, Scott was at the beer tent when I went to pick up my blue ribbon. Obviously, I assumed that he and I were kind of kindred spirits, him with all the Olympic gold medals and me with a second place muffin prize (not to mention the first place bread a few years earlier). He was busy, though, so he never got a chance to congratulate me on the muffins. Next time, Scott!

So here’s my recipe, I hope they turn out well for you.

Pumpkin Muffins

Makes 12 muffins or one loaf of pumpkin bread.

Preheat oven to 375°

Mix together in a large bowl:

  • 1 3/4 cup all purpose flour (I use Arva Flour)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground clove
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

Whisk together in another bowl:

  • 2 eggs (substitute an extra 1/2 cup pumpkin if you want ’em vegan)
  • 3/4 cup neutral flavour oil (e.g. canola)
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Then add:

  • 1 cup of brown sugar
  • 1 cup of unsweetened pumpkin puree (or any winter squash)

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients in the larger bowl and stir together until just mixed. Don’t overdo it. Spoon into muffin tins that have been lined or greased. Just before baking, sprinkle the tops lightly with a mix of cinnamon and sugar.

bake at 375° for 18 minutes.

These are even better if you let them cool and cover with plastic wrap until the next day, the tops get sticky and irresistible.




The Benefits of Playing Sports

Both of my daughters play team sports. Club sports, recreational leagues, competitive leagues, and high school teams. It’s part of the fabric in our community and it’s also a bit of cultural heritage as well. Team sports are part of growing up for many middle class Canadians and Americans. And of course I played a lot of different sports in high school and my wife did as well. So we probably passed that on to our own kids.

Benefits of team sports

Team sports have a lot of obvious benefits. There’s the physical activity aspect for sure and team sports can be a fun way to stay in good physical condition because you’re often with your friends. But there’s also a benefit to being a part of a group that has a shared goal. And sports like baseball/softball, soccer, and football have multiple problem solving components too. Each play in a baseball game requires fast decision making and might depend on a quick access to the probability of various outcomes (and don’t get me started on the physics of baseball). Team sports offer the potential to work on social skills, like how to achieve things with people who might not be like you. And of course, how to win and lose effectively and with some dignity.

The downsides

There are some down sides to many team sports, however. Risk of injury in general and concussions in particular are a major concern. I played youth football from the late 1970s through late 1980s. Ten years of getting hit on the offensive / defensive line. If a player sustained a bad hit, the coach might say “it’s just a concussion, shake it off”. I remember those words, just a concussion. We now know that this is a major concern for long term brain heath. Growing up in Western PA in the 70s and 80s, the Steelers were a huge presence. Mike Webster, one of the greatest centers to play the game, suffered greatly because of the severe brain damage he sustained as a result of playing the game. It’s a truly harrowing story. I don’t think I’d let my own kids play football because of the risks to brain health.

Lack of access

Team they are not available to everyone, including people with limited mobility. There are financial constraints for club sports, though many organization subsidize the participation. Some sports, hockey in particular, can cost several thousands of dollars per year for competitive players. High school sports programs offer a way to reduce that disparity. By using school funds, which are essentially public, the cost to play can be lower. Of course, in some regions, funding for school is inequitable and so the disparity is still there. It’s why I cringe when I hear that a school or a district has to cut funding for some of their athletic programs, especially low cost sports like soccer, track, or wrestling.

Wrestling as a unique sport

Wrestling was one of the many sports I tried in high school. It was not my best sport (that was football) but I recognized it as being a terrifically demanding sport and one with incredible transformative power. Wrestling is somewhat unique among youth sports. For one, it’s very low cost. It’s available to individuals from diverse backgrounds, and it also a sport in which people of many different ability can compete. I once wrestled against a boy without legs who might not have been able to complete in baseball, football, or track but was able to compete in wrestling in the same divisions as everyone else. Wrestling is one of the most egalitarian sports I know.

It’s also brutal to lose a wrestling match. There’s a technically a team (your school and the people you train with) but when you compete it’s just you and the other person. It’s not a team loss when you lose the match. It’s just you losing. And when you lose, it’s not just a matter of not scoring enough points, or failing to get a goal, it’s that you were beaten by another person. Most sports can teach you how to lose. Wrestling can teach you how it feels to be beaten. It’s not a good feeling. You can’t shift the blame.

I was talking with my dad the other day, about my daughters on their softball and hockey teams and he mentioned that he loved watching me play football but could not bear to watch me wrestle. I won a few matches, but mostly had a losing record. It’s not fun to watch your son struggle against another boy, only to be pinned down. Of all the sports I’ve participated in those 3 years as a wrestler probably affected me the most. The intensity, the competition, and the combativeness are things I still remember even 30 years later.

I only wrestled for a few years, and did not compete much my senior year. I started running in university (a habit, by the way, that I developed as an offshoot of wresting conditioning practice) and decided that the individual nature of running middle and long distance appealed to me most. I still run, almost every day. It’s a sport that can be competitive or not, solitary or with friends. I can dial back the competitive aspect or ramp it up as things change.


The sports I played, football, wrestling, running, softball, were only a small part of what I did growing up. But I’m glad I had the opportunity. It’s why we encourage our girls to participate, now. It’s why I still run. It’s why I volunteer to coach and convene programs.

In my view, the benefits outweigh the costs, and as improvements are made in safety protocol, the costs can be reduced further.











Cause and Effect

Correlation does not imply causation” is a well-worn phrase, an expression used to explain things, and (often) to smugly shut down an argument. There’s a meta effect in which the phrase has some causal power: it can cause an argument to be discarded.

Of course, though, correlation often does imply causation. Cause and effect are most definitely correlated. Pearson even designed his correlation coefficient as an index of the strength of causation. It’s just that correlation is not enough to allow a valid causal inference to be made.

Causality and the Cat

Sometimes, even direct causal links are not even enough to infer causation. My cat has an annoying habit that illustrates this.

Peppermint, our cat, looking smug after she’s woken me up in the morning.

Every morning at around 5:00am, without fail, she carries out a complicated routine in my bedroom. She starts by meowing loudly and then begins picking at the door to the closet. This reverberates loudly, enough to wake me. She will rattle the window blinds and sometimes open and slam the door to the room, and then start picking at that door. These are all loud enough, and unrelenting enough to cause me to get up, at 5:30, and head downstairs where I feed her. And today, she might have even caused me to write this essay.

These events, picking at the door and me getting up, are highly correlated. But are they causally linked? I like to imagine the cat thinks they are. That somewhere in the recesses of her dusty little cat-mind, she believes that she and she alone caused me to get up and feed her. This, I believe anthropomorphically, causes a sense of independent agency in the cat. She has purpose. She has power. Certainly, there is strong behavioural association and that’s why she continues to engage in the behaviour.

What is the candidate for causality?

Did the cat actually cause me to wake up, though? That’s not clear. There are many mediators that are outside her control that are also candidates for the cause. My own desire to wake up early is a cause. The motivation is already there and in fact I’d probably wake up around the same time anyway (though without the irritation that may have been caused by her routine). Another candidate is my desire to stop her from making noise that would wake others in the family. And I have to use the washroom. And I want to make coffee.

So the question I asked this morning was: Did she cause me to wake up or did she simply contribute to a larger causal model?

Or, did I actually cause her behaviours by getting up and reinforcing her actions, thus establishing and contributing to the symphony of slamming, picking, and pestering that seems like the cause but is actually the effect of my early rising habit? There really is no simple answer.

We are all creatures of habit

Casual reasoning, thinking about cause and effect and attempting to determine the cause, is not easy to do but yet we tend to do it anyway, almost without trying. Even in a fairly mundane scenario like the cat waking me up (or me waking up while the cat does behaviours) it’s easy to think about what is causing things, but it’s hard to establish casualty.

Like my cat, we too are creates of habit. We have a habit to look for causality in the world. These tendencies are reinforced by the correlations we observe. And because of that, we can’t stop from believing in causes that are correlated and easy to observe.

The Professor, the PI, and the Manager

Here’s a question that I often ask myself: How much should I be managing my lab?

I was meeting with one of my trainees the other day and this grad student mentioned that they sometimes feel like they don’t know what to do during the work day and that they sometimes feel like they are wasting a lot of their time. As a result, this student will end up going home and maybe working on a coding class, or (more often) doing non grad school things. We talked about what this student is doing and I agreed: they are wasting a lot of time, and not really working very effectively.

Before I go on, some background…

There is no shortage of direction in my lab, or at least I don’t think so. I think I have a lot of things in place. Here’s a sample:

  • I have a detailed lab manual that all my trainees have access to. I’ve sent this document to my lab members a few times, and it covers a whole range of topics about how I’d like my lab group to work.
  • We meet as a lab 2 times a week. One day is to present literature (journal club) and the other day is to discuss the current research in the lab. There are readings to prepare, discussions to lead, and I expect everyone to contribute.
  • I meet with each trainee, one-on-one, at least every other week, and we go though what each student is working on.
  • We have an active lab Slack team, every project has a channel.
  • We have a project management Google sheet with deadlines and tasks that everyone can edit, add things to, see what’s been done and what hasn’t been done.

So there is always stuff to do but I also try not to be a micromanager of my trainees. I generally assume that students will want to be learning and developing their scientific skill set. This student is someone who has been pretty set of looking for work outside of academics, and I’m a big champion of that. I am a champion of helping any of my trainees find a good path. But despite all the project management and meetings this student was feeling lost and never sure what to work on. And so they were feeling like grad school has nothing to offer in the realm of skill development for this career direction. Are my other trainees also feeling the same way?

Too much or too little?

I was kind of surprised to hear one of my students say that they don’t know what to work on, because I have been working harder than ever to make sure my lab is well structured. We’ve even dedicated several lab meetings to the topic.

The student asked what I work on during the day, and it occurred to me that I don’t always discuss my daily routine. So we met for over an hour and I showed this student what I’d been working on for the past week: an R-notebook that will accompany a manuscript I’m writing that will allow for all the analysis of an experiment to be open and transparent. We talked about how much time that’s been taking, how I spent 1-2 days optimizing the R code for a computational model. How this code will then need clear documentation. How the OSF page will also need folders for the data files, stimuli, the experimenter instructions. And how those need to be uploaded. I have been spending dozens of hours on this one small part of one component of one project within one of the several research areas in my lab, and there’s so much more to do.

Why aren’t my trainees doing the same? Why aren’t they seeing this, despite all the project management I’ve been doing?

I want to be clear, I am not trying to be critical in any way of any of my trainees. I’m not singling anyone out. They are good students, and it’s literally my job to guide and advise them. So I’m left with the feeling that they are feeling unguided, with the perception that that there’s not much to do. If I’m supposed to be the guide and they are feeling unguided, this seems like a problem with my guidance.

What can I do to help motivate?

What can I do to help them organize, feel motivated, and productive?

I expect some independence for PhD students, but am I giving them too much? I wonder if my lab would be a better training experience if I were just a bit more of a manager.

  • Should I require students to be in the lab every day?
  • Should I expect daily summaries?
  • Should I require more daily evidence that they are making progress?
  • Am I sabotaging my efforts to cultivate independence by letting them be independent?
  • Would my students be better off if I assumed more of a top down, managerial role?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I know that there’s a problem. I don’t want to be a boss, expecting them to punch the clock, but I also don’t want them to float without purpose.

I’d appreciate input from other PIs. How much independence is too much? Do you find that your grad students are struggling to know what to do?

If you have something to say about this, let me know in the comments.

Presidential Power Pose

The president at work

As much as I don’t want to write about US presidential politics, I was struck by a photograph that was released officially by the Office of the White House of the president hard at work during the government shutdown. As you can see, it is a staged photograph of the president sitting in the oval office at his desk on the phone. The photo has been mocked on line, but I’m not really interested in mocking any more.


The president seem small and ill-at-ease in this official photo.

The first thing that struck me, was how small he looked. I am not a fan of the current US president, but he never struck me as a small person. In fact, many people commented during the 2016 election on his body language.

During the campaign

In the following picture, one that has also been seen by millions of people, candidate Trump is seen glowering and looming over candidate Hillary Clinton.  He appears aggressive, ready to attack (not in a good way).

Campaign 2016 Debate (5)

Candidate Trump looms and glowers over Hillary Clinton.

In other debates in appearances, he commanded attention. During the Republican convention, I even commented to friends that I thought he was going to win the election. He stood up there, absorbing the crowd energy, and fully in control of the vibe (so much so that I felt uneasy for days afterward). In other campaign rallies, for better or worse, he commanded attention. An attribute no doubt honed and developed in the aggressive world of NY/international real estate development, casinos, pageants promotion, and reality TV. You don’t have to be a fan is his to notice this.

But in the “at work at the desk” photo, he seem so very small. Much smaller than his actual size (6’2” or 6’3” depending on who you believe). The desk is too big for him, too consequential. Even the hat seems too large. He appears to be diminished. I don’t think you need to oppose the president to notice this. He really does seem to be making himself smaller, or is unable to make himself appear big enough.

Body language never lies

Body language is a fascinating subject, it’s the domain of ethnologists , comparative psychologists, and social psychologists. Our body language often conveys things that may be at odds with spoken language. It often gives away something that we may wish to conceal. Our body language is the link to the more primitive self. The inner ape that often is concealed and covered over by culture, language, and society. In the president’s photograph, the body language reveals a man who does not belong, who is out of place, and possible knows he is too small for the role.

Unlike the president’s spoken language, body language doesn’t lie.

The Creation Myth and Fear of Resting

Western Sunrise

The sunrise at Western University, as seen from my 7th floor lab.

November 30, 2017

I feel very unfocused lately, and I think I know why. When I was writing my two grant proposals in October, I really felt like I had control of my ideas. I felt like I knew what I was working on and what I wanted to be doing with my research program, my graduate student, and trainees. This is a great feeling and I was filled with the satisfaction of not only working hard on the proposals but also of having so many ideas and projects that I wanted to pursue. I could not wait to get started on some of the new projects.

But right after they were submitted, I rested. This seems natural, for course, for I’d worked hard and wanted to celebrate a job well done and relax a bit. Also I had just undergone a minor surgery, so some recovery time was needed. But a week later, I needed to turn to other things that Required my attention, and before I realized what had happened, I was overwhelmed with our departmental job searches and my office and lab’s move to the new building. My research ideas, having been developed and nurtured in the NSERC and SSHRC proposals, languished from the inattention.

That is, I worked. I seemed to have it together, I rested, and it all seemed to slip away.

It was like the 7th day.

In the creation myth in Genesis, God worked hard to create the universe and then he rested. And then right after that, right after sitting back, looking with satisfaction at what he’d done, and cracking open a divine beer, he seems to lose focus…humans took over, they started killing each other, and he can’t really seem remember why he created us in the first place, or what his plan is. He takes it out on us. He starts to clearly resent his work…he keeps coming back to it every so often, but the magic is gone. He rested and lost focus.

I think this is a metaphor that is often unexplored in the Bible (or maybe it is interpreted this way, I’m really not up on Bible scholarship). The creation myth can be seen as a story about what happens when you rest on your laurels and stop working on something. You step back and get caught up in other things and you lose you train of thought. The ideas fade, they take a back seat, and it can be so difficult to get back in control, that you risk starting to resent the ideas.

I think that’s the underlying theme in Genesis: God rested and the universe took a back seat. It got out of hand and he never quite got it back the way he wanted. He started to resent the work and even tried to destroy it.

The inevitability of forward motion.

I’m not trying to say I’m God here, but I am supposed to be in control of my research program. And there are times when I’m in the middle of working on a project, or paper, or grant that I really think I can see the big picture. I can glimpse a bigger vision for my research on cognition, concepts, and categories. I think I’ve created something worthwhile. But damnit, if I step way for a week and get caught up in a PhD defence, or faculty hiring, committee work, or the like, it can be so hard to put things back together.

And the lesson in Genesis seems to be: you can’t. You can’t put it back in that pristine state. But you can’t give up either. You have to let the ideas work themselves out. You have to come back and not be afraid to admit you made a mistake. Sometimes you start over or learning new skills. You may have to look at things from a new perspective while realizing that you can’t ever get back to the garden.

I’m not a religious believer… but I think there’s still a good lesson here: Even the divine creator has trouble keeping it together after a break.

Does This Project Bring Me Joy?


I have too many research projects going on.

It’s great to be busy, but I’m often overwhelmed in this area. As a university professor, some of my job is well defined (e.g. teaching) but other parts not so much. My workload is divided into 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service. Within each of these, I have some say as to what I can take on. I can teach different classes and volunteer to serve on various committees. But the research component is mine. This is what I really do. I set the agenda. I apply for funding. This is supposed to be my passion.

So why do I feel overwhelmed in that area?

I think I have too many projects going on. And I don’t mean that I am writing too many papers. I’m most certainly not doing that. I mean I have too many different kinds of projects. There are several projects on psychology and aging, projects on the brain electrophysiology and category learning, a project on meditation and wellbeing in lawyers, a project on patient compliance, a project on distraction from smartphones, plus 4-5 other ideas in development, and at least 10 projects that are most charitably described as “half baked ideas that I had on the way home from a hockey game”.

Add to this many projects with students that may not quite be in my wheelhouse, but are close and that I’m supervising. And I’ll admit, I have difficulty keeping these things straight. I’m interested in things. But when I look at the list of things, I confess I have a tough time seeing a theme sometimes. And that’s a problem as it means I’m not really fully immersed in any one project. I cease to be an independent and curious scientist and become a mediocre project manager. And when I look at my work objectively, more often than not, it seems mediocre.

Put another way, sometimes I’m always really sure what I do anymore…

So what should I do about this, other than complain on my blog? I have to tidy up my research.

A Research Purge

There is a very popular book called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up“. I have not read this book, but I have read about this book (and let’s be honest that’s sometimes the best we can do). The essence of the approach is that you should not be hanging on to things that are not bringing you joy.

Nostalgia is not joy.

Lots of stuff getting in the way is not joy. And so you go though things, one category at a time, and look at each thing and say “does this item spark joy“? If the answer is no, you discard it. I like this idea.

If this works for a home or a room…physical space…then it should work for the mental space of my research projects. So I’m going to try this. I thought about this last year, but never quite implemented it. I should go through each project and each sub project and ask “Does this project bring me joy?” or “Is there joy in trying to discover this?” Honestly, if the answer is “no” or “maybe” why should I work on it? This may mean that I give up on some things and that some possible papers will not get published. That’s OK, because I will not be compelled to carry out research and writing if it is not bringing me joy. Why should I? I suspect I would be more effective as a scientist because I will (hopefully) focus my efforts on several core areas.

This means, of course, that I have to decide what I do like. And it does not have to be what I’m doing. It does not have to be what I’ve done.

The Psychology of the Reset

Why do we like this? Why do people want to cleanse? To reset. To get back to basics? It seems to be the top theme in so many pop-psych and self help books. Getting rid of things. A detox or a “digital” detox. Starting over. Getting back to something. I really wonder about this. And although I wonder why we behave this way, I’m not sure that I would not find joy in carrying out a research study on this…I must resist the urge to start another project.

I’m going to pare down. I still need to teach, and supervise, and serve on editorial boards, etc: that’s work. I’m not complaining and I like the work. But I want to spend my research and writing time working on projects that will spark joy. Investigating and discovering things that I’m genuinely curious about…curious enough to put in the hours and time to do the research well.

I’d be curious too, to know if others have tried this. Has it worked? Have you become a better scholar and scientists by decluttering your research space?

Thanks for reading and comments are welcome.

Thinking about Vacations

Summer is when most people take a vacation. The weather is usually nice, so there are many options for most people. And of course, children are usually home from school for a few months so families tend to take a vacation during this time. And even people without children probably still have a residual rhythm to the year that was forged during their own childhood and school time. Those early patters leave their mark.

I’m fascinated by how people choose to spend their vacation time. When I was a child, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, we tended to spend most if the summer at home since my mother was a schoolteacher. But we did go away on vacations. They tended to be road trips to stay with family in other areas of the country and we’d take in attractions like the Grand Canyon, the White Mountains in NH or the beach in North Carolina along the way. One year, we visited family in Northern Virginia and spent some time at the Smithsonian Museum. I was 12 and younger siblings were 11 and 8. I remember we had to all wear the same bright yellow Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt so that my parents would not lose us in the crowds. I remember being embarrassed but don’t remember the crowds.

Crowds are bigger these days

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really started notice the crowds more. As an example, my famliy and I often spend time on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. There is a wonderful national park and fantastic hiking along the Niagara Escarpment. The first year we visited, 2004, the place seemed so remote, so pristine. But ever year, the crowds have steadily increased. So much so that one of the most popular attractions, “the Grotto” has summer restrictions now. It can only be accessed you are given one of the parking passes that are handed out at 7:00am each day. When the passes are gone, the park is closed to anyone without one. The Grotto is magnificent, but hard to enjoy when it’s teeming with people.


A quiet evening on the Bruce Peninsula, looking out over Georgian Bay

The traffic at the big American parks (Yosemite, Smokey mountains, Yellowstone) is legendary and a growing problem, In some parks, campgrounds are so popular that some entrepreneurs have set up permit bots to buy the site permits when they are available and resell.

Personal preference

So what makes some people crave a vacation in a crowded area and others choose solitude? Some people plan for big crowed locations like Disney, Las Vegas, or a music festival like Coachella or Osheaga. And of course, some events are crowded by nature, such as a ball game. I tend to want to avoid crowds (an ideal vacation is winter camping…crowds are low).

Maybe it comes down to what you want to get away from or back to? I work at a large research university and teach classes up to 200 students. With 30,000 students enrolled at Western, I find that I’m always in a crowd. I suppose the last thing I want to do to recharge is be in another crowd. But if you tend to work in a less crowded place, maybe the fun of being in a bigger crowd on the beach or a park is what you enjoy.

Vacations are needed

Regardless of whether you like a crowd, a beach, the city, or solitude, we all need some time to get out of our comfort zone (or sometimes time to get back into it). Project:Time Off tracks research on vacations and the general message is that we’re not doing it enough. I I hope you are able to get away for a few days. Unplug. Reconnect with your friends or family. Or head to a big crowded festival if that’s your thing (I won’t see you there…). Either way, enjoy your vacation!




Taming My Distracted Mind

There is mounting evidence that digital devices, screens, smartphones are a real roadblock to productivity. The very tools that are supposed to make us more productive might be robbing us of that ability.

The Modern Worker

I’m a psychology professor at a large research institution. This means that although I do spend some time teaching in a large lecture hall, mostly I’m in my office writing, reading, doing email, attending meetings, and planning…that is, spending my time like many other modern workers. I’ve been at this for a while and I can still recall a time when not everyone had an email address, when research articles had to be printed, when submitting my work to a journal meant actually mailing four identical copies of the manuscript to the publisher. But nearly all of that is now done on line. I sit at my desk to do email, to read, to analyze data, to access research papers, to grade assignments, comment on student work …everything. And lately this has expanded to me writing and managing email at home, at breakfast on my phone, reading email in a faculty meeting on my phone, in bed on my phone…in the bathroom on my phone. An really…why am I doing my work in the bathroom?

What’s more, everything is being carried out on a device or a browser that is also used for recreation media consumption and social media. I read news, play games, and watch baseball games on my laptop. I watch sports on my laptop and tweet about the game at the the same time.

What this means is that my workstation is essentially also a playstation.

A Tired Mind

Lately I’m finding that a week of desk/computer work leaves my mind feeling like mush. Much more cognitive fatigue that there used to be. I’m less able to focus on my work. I can’t read the whole way through a paper. I’ll start and email and write two lines and then my attention wanders. It did not used to be this way, and it’s not just because I’m getting older (I’m a few weeks shy of 47). I think my work habits have begun to tire me out.

Meditation does help in this regard…I can meditate for 10–15 minutes with little difficulty. And running helps too: I can run for an hour without getting bored and feel refreshed (not tired)

But the minute I’m at my desk I slide right back into the habit of having 10 browser tabs open…each one vying for my attention.  No matter what I try, the second I sit down at my university office or home office to write, I lose my ability to concentrate on my work. It starts with email, and then 10 minutes of local news, maybe twitter….some more email. And back and forth and them I’m still working on the same email.

Some remedies

I’ve started taking steps this week to create some “digital distance” at work. Small habits to try to improve my work experience. None of this is scientific: I’m just trying to retrain. And I’m not so much interested in being more productive…just less tired.

  1. I’m printing more and screen reading less. This goes for articles, student work, and editing my own work. (don’t worry: I’m recycling the paper by printing on the back of other used paper!)
  2. This is big one: After many years of running everything through a browser and Gmail, I’m switching back to an actual email client (Spark Mail App for mac). That way, when I decide to do email, I’m ONLY doing email and not tempted to read FB, Twitter, news, etc. in another tab. Gmail or Outlook webmail was killing me for that because “hey you already have Chrome open, just leave a tab open for twitter”. So Chrome is closed when I’m responding to email.
  3. My lab and my graduate students are now on Slack (not email) so that when I’m doing project management, research planning, and advising, I can concentrate on that and nothing else. I close can Chrome and email
  4. I’ve turned all the notifications off on my smart phone, except texts/calls from my wife & kids, and their school.
  5. No posting to social media in the morning, because I’ll just be thinking about whether not there are hits. This is another big one. I’ll post something at breakfast or comment and then keep checking.I’ve already completely deactivated Facebook to make this even easier. My students and I are even carrying out a research study on this specific topic (more detail on that later..when the data are in).

I’m curious if others are finding similar things. Do you think that your productivity has waned? Do you think that working all day on a screen is reducing your ability to concentrate? Have you taken steps to correct this or retrain your mind? I’d be interested in hearing.

Le biais de confirmation: The story of the Bilingual Advantage 

The newest salvo in the psychology’s “reproducibility crisis” is not in social psychology, but is hitting the field of psycholinguistics. In this case, the evidence is mounting that the so called “bilingualism advantage” may not be an advantage after all. Worse, it may be something like the Mozart Effect for psycholinguistics…That is, an effect that is plausible and desirable enough (and marketable) that we all believe it and ignore reputable counter evidence.

Full disclose, our children have attended a French Immersion school, and as we live in a country with two official languages, I think it’s important to know some of both. But I’m not bilingual myself (6 years of German in high school and university, but I no longer speak it). So I like the idea of a second language. And I like the idea of the bilingual advantage too. I’ve assumed that this advantage is present and measurable, but now I’m not so sure. This controversy is worth paying attention to.

The Bilingual Advantage

The story goes like this. People who speak two languages fluently are constantly switching between them. They have to inhibit one language in order to respond in the other. And because switching and inhibition are two of most well-known and well-studied aspects of the cognitive control system known as the executive functions, it’s assumed that bilinguals would be especially adept at these behaviours. And if they are good and switching and inhibiting within language, they may have a general executive functioning advantage for behaviours as well.

Ellen Bialystok at York University and others have investigated this claim and have produced quite a lot of data in favour of the idea that general executive functioning abilities are superior in bilinguals relative to English speaking persons. The advantages might also persist into old age and the may guard against cognitive decline in aging. Dr. Bialystock’s work is extensive has relied on many different measures and she’s arguably one of the towing figures in psycholinguistics.

Does this work Generalize?

An article in Feb 2016 in The Atlantic has suggested that recent attempts to replicate and generalize some of this work have not been successful. Specifically, the work of  Kenneth Paap, at San Francisco State has argued that there is no general advantage for bilinguals and that any advantages are either very local (confined to language) or are artifacts of small sample size studies with idiosyncratic groups. Systematic attempts to replicate the work have not been successful. Reviews of published studies found evidence of publication bias. And other psychologists have found the same thing. In other words, according to Paap, whatever advantages these groups might have shown in early studies, they can’t really be attributed to bilingualism.

The Battle Lines

By all accounts, this is a showdown of epic proportions. According to the Atlantic article, Paap has thrown the gauntlet down and said  (paraphrased) “Let’s work together, register the studies, collect good data, and get to the bottom of it.” Even a co-author of one of the most well-cited bilingualism advantage papers is now questioning the work. My colleague at Western, J. Bruce Morton, is quoted as saying:

“If people were really committed to getting to the bottom of this, we’d get together, pool our resources, study it, and that would be the end of the issue. The fact that people won’t do that suggest to me that there are those who are profiting from either perpetuating the myth or the criticism.”

But proponents of the advantage are not interested in this, suggesting that the Paap and others are not properly controlling their work and also pointing to their recent work with brain imaging (which gets away from the less than idea executive functioning tasks but also could fall prey to the Seductive allure of Neuroscience…which is another topic for another day).

This is, I think, a real scientific controversy. I think we should get to the bottom of it. If the advantage is robust and general, then it’s going to show up in these newer studies. If it’s not, then it becomes an outmoded idea (like so many in psychology and in science). That’s progress. There is the risk that inherent appeal of the advantage will allow it to persist even if the science does not back it it, and that’s problematic.