cognitive science and more
cognitive science and more
Open-source software for science

This is a guest post for the Open Science Collaboration Blog. You can read the full post here.

A little more than three years ago I started working on OpenSesame, a free program for the easy development of experiments, mostly oriented at psychologists and neuroscientists. The first version of OpenSesame was the result of a weekend-long hacking sprint. By now, OpenSesame has grown into a substantial project, with a small team of core developers, tens of occasional contributors, and about 2500 active users.

Because of my work on OpenSesame, I've become increasingly interested in open-source software in general. How is it used? Who makes it? Who is crazy enough to invest time in developing a program, only to give it away for free? Well ... quite a few people, because open source is everywhere. Browsers like Firefox and Chrome. Operating systems like Ubuntu and Android. Programming languages like Python and R. Media players like VLC. These are all examples of open-source programs that many people use on a daily basis.

But what about specialized scientific software? More specifically: Which programs do experimental psychologists and neuroscientists use? Although this varies from person to person, a number of expensive, closed-source programs come to mind first: E-Prime, SPSS, MATLAB, Presentation, Brainvoyager, etc. Le psychonomist moyen is not really into open source.

Continue reading on the Open Science Collaboration blog!

Are free high-quality textbooks a reality? A look at OpenStax college

If you’re a student, or young enough to remember what being a student was like, you know how expensive textbooks are. For example, the paperback version of Gazzaniga’s Cognitive Neuroscience sells for €57 on Amazon. The hardcover version will even set you back €120. It’s a beautiful book, to be sure, but practically speaking it’s mostly bought by students who only use it for a single course. After the course, the book fades to black on a dusty bookshelf, together with other pricey textbooks.

A dusty bookshelf. (Source: The Guardian)

Git for non-hackers pt. 1: Organizing your research one commit at a time

Version control is all the rage in academia. And when people talk about version control, they generally mean Git, which is by far the most popular version-control system. But what exactly is Git? We all want to control our versions. Especially when you have experienced versions-run-amock situations like these:


But how?!

In very simple terms, Git is a program that allows you to take snapshots of your files at a particular moment. A snapshot is called a ‘commit’. A ‘repository’ is a collection of files that are monitored by Git. If you are familiar with DropBox, there is an obvious parallel: Your DropBox folder is your repository, and DropBox automatically ‘commits’ each and every change. But Git is far more flexible and controlled.

Git has been developed by Linus Torvalds to manage the development of the Linux kernel. Managing a project as large as the Linux kernel is very complicated, and Git has lots of advanced functionality that allows people to work in parallel on the same project, without things drifting hopelessly apart. Therefore, git can be a tool for hardcore nerds. But it doesn’t need to be. Git is equally suitable for managing a simple, one-man project. And in this case, Git is very simple to use.

Can you brain-train your way to perfect eyesight?

Over the past month I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of visitors to the Gabor-patch generator on this site. A Gabor patch is a type of stimulus that psychologists like to use for experiments. It’s a pretty weird stimulus, as you can see in the example below, not really useful for anything except experimentation. So why the sudden interest? Why are thousands of people suddenly generating Gabor patches?

A Gabor patch

The rush on Gabors appears to have been triggered by a paper that appeared last month in Current Biology. In this paper, Deveau and colleagues claim that you can dramatically improve vision through repeated training on a simple visual task that uses–you guessed it!–Gabor patches. Even more remarkably, the participants in the study, who were university baseball players, even showed a marked improvement in on-field baseball performance!

Whoah! Improving your eyesight simply by looking at some weird images! If you can’t wait to get started, you can buy the training program in the form of an iPad app called ULTIMEYES Pro ®. The app, priced at a mere $5.99, is developed by Carrot Neurotechnology, a company founded by the senior author of the paper.

But wait, what’s that smell? Oh yes … It’s something fishy.


Reading with Spritz: Twice as fast, half as good?

Boston-based start-up Spritz aims for the sky with its recently announced mobile application, which, according to the developers, will drastically change the way we read. Forget about sentences, paragraphs, and layout. Spritz fires text directly at your eyes, one word at the time, at a break-neck speed. The motivation behind this presentation mode is straightforward: The eye movements that we make during reading are just a waste of time and energy. Remove these eye movements from the equation, and our reading pace easily doubles–or even quadruples–without much extra effort. With hardly any practice, anyone should be able to “spritz” at an astonishing rate of a 1000 words per minute. The prospect of devouring The Hobbit in merely one-and-a-half hour made Spritz go viral on the Internet. Even though the application is yet to be released, the world seems ready to welcome it with open arms.

But is the hype justified? Here, we take a critical look at the science behind this reading of the future.