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google culture wars

My impression of Damore’s Google Memo is that it is a thoughtful and well-considered personal opinion about workplace differences in abilities and attitudes. The tone is reserved, measured, and reasonable, avoiding sweeping claims. For example, it restricts its scope to the particular office in which he worked, and not Google as a whole. It is clearly written, with minimal jargon. Damore is at pains to explain himself, to clear up misunderstandings and to support his opinions with references. That does not mean that he gets everything right, nor is it intended to be a complete review of the literature of the sort one might find in a journal, but he makes a reasoned case for biological factors in sex differences. He makes helpful suggestions for Google to implement. I cannot comment directly on Google because I do not know about it first-hand, but I can look at the key assertions in this memo which can be tested by reference to psychological research. These have relevance for all workplaces.

I should make clear right away that I find most of his opinions perfectly reasonable and well supported by the research literature, though on some others I doubt their relevance or that they settle the issue. Of course, there is debate about all these matters, partly because there is debate about many important issues, but even more so because social science is often reluctant to consider biological causes for people’s abilities and attitudes. So, while on each of these topics there are references which favour either biological or cultural positions, there will be a majority which follow cultural interpretations. Damore is correct to say that there is a Left bias in social science, and unfortunately it has affected the interpretations placed on human behaviour, to the detriment of alternative biological explanations. Nonetheless, to associate a set of arguments with a particular point of view, Left or Right, is not to refute them. That must be done by a fair and balanced assessment of the evidence. In my view, there are many strong arguments to support the points Damore makes, though I can see that many people will not find them conclusive. Indeed, the research literature is as prone to culture wars as government regulated workplaces. Rival factions arrange their evidence in battle lines. As Buz Hunt used to say: “they are lawyerly rather than scholarly”. References from different perspectives rarely overlap, and often run in parallel, a case of perpetual confirmation bias. Even when a finding would seem to strengthen or weaken a particular position (I think that neonate visual preferences are in this category) the main flow of argument continues unabated. Are we swayed by evidence? Only sometimes, it would appear.

I find the ferocity of some of the replies to Damore extreme. The vehemence of the opposition is coruscating, and absolute. These issues should be matters of scholarly debate, in which the findings matter, and different interpretations contend against each other. Expressing different opinions should be a cue for debate, not outrage. We are far from having definite proofs about these matters, though personally I think we can see the direction of travel of the debate, which is that the case for genetics being a part cause of individual differences is gaining ground. It is only doing so because it can increasingly account for some of variance. A decade ago it was not possible to associate the genetic code with intelligent behaviour. Now studies which link snippets of code to intelligence are being published every few months. The pace of discovery is extraordinary. “Nature” and other science journals report frequently on new genetic correlations with important human behaviours, notably mental ability and mental illness and health generally.

Curiously, many people have reacted to Damore’s memo by assuming that cultural explanations for sexual and racial differences must be right, by definition. It is assumed that a culture-only explanation has triumphed because of the weight of the evidence. Damore’s view that both biological and cultural factors are involved in human differences seems to have been interpreted as him saying that only biological factors are involved. Damore has clearly argued for culture and biology being involved.

Worse, it has been assumed by some commentators that the consideration of biological explanations for sex differences is of itself reprehensible. As Jim Flynn said wryly to me of himself: “I know that I am on the side of the angels”. Whether they come from purported angels or devils, all hypotheses should be tested. As Jensen pointed out long ago, the Culture Only faction have to make a more fundamentalist case than the Heredity and Culture faction. The latter can concede at least 50% of the variance on a case by case basis, the former have to posit cultural explanations for all observations: a more demanding requirement.

The furore surrounding this memo seems to be based on sex differences, not racial differences, so I will concentrate on the former, though it has implications for the latter.

By way of background, it would be good to put the technology business into context, because many occupations, if not most, do not have a 50% representation of the sexes. An occupation is not an opinion poll: occupations represent competence, not opinions. In my view, there should be no requirement that a workplace be a mirror of society. Not every man wants to be a clinical psychologist. Personally, I have no objection to my technical computer assistance coming largely from Indian and Tamil men. I am interested in getting 5-star advice. As regards nurses and doctors, my main requirement is that they should be kind, and give me evidence-based and compassionate care.
Here are some issues raised in the memo on which I feel I can make some comments.

1 Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership.

Of course. The phrase “may in part explain” is general and not contentious. We need to look at the distribution of traits between and women to see if there are any such differences in traits, and if so, how big they are, and whether they “may in part explain” the representation of women in technology and leadership. We do not actually have to show what causes them, but it would help to show how easily they could be changed, and over what time span and with what amount of effort. For example, if women can be trained to be better at three dimensional tasks that is a good thing, but probably not of immediate comfort to a potential employer.

There are numerous sources, because the literature on sex differences is so extensive. I have made some suggestions in a previous post “Google Sex”. Here are a few I forgot to add to that list:

I would add that meta-analyses are not sacrosanct. They certainly provide larger sample sizes, but there can be idiosyncratic judgements about what is included and how the results are depicted. There will always be strategic differences between “lumpers” and “splitters”. Hyde (2014) is a case in point.


1-s2.0-S0160289616300988-gr2_lrg (1)

The picture shows that working memory for simple repetition (Forwards Digit Span, Forward Corsi Blocks) has increased slightly over 43 years, whilst working memory for the more complicated task of items in reverse order (Backwards Digit Span, Backwards Corsi Blocks) has fallen slightly.

Digit span is a bombshell of a test. Despite being very brief and simple to administer, it is a true ratio measure (in the SS Stevens sense, with a real zero) of how many digits you can repeat forwards and backwards. Consider it a test of whether you can remember a brief instruction, at least long enough to repeat it; and whether you can hold items in your short-term memory long enough to manipulate them. It is difficult to function well without those capabilities. The first (digits forwards) is mere repetition, but useful. Repeated instructions serve as a guide to action. The second (digits backwards) is basic data management, which is much more useful, though a more demanding task. It is analogous to being able to reconstruct a disassembled system or device. On a broader front, short term memory is a good test of racial differences in ability, since it has minimal cultural content but identifies processing power bottlenecks.

If we have really been getting smarter over the years, as the Flynn Effect suggests, then those scores should be going up as fast as any other subtest scores. Not so. The result is either No Change (as argued by Gignac) or small improvements in digit forwards and small decrements in digits backwards (as argued by Woodley).

Woodley argues that general ability is falling because of dysgenic effects, but also becoming more specialized, which he calls the Co-Occurrence model. Should it be called “Duller but specialized”?

How do these theories fare in the light of a massive new meta-analysis?

By the way, just in case you think this is some terrible battle, Flynn is no more tied to the Flynn Effect than Woodley is tied to the Woodley Effect. Charles Murray named both those effects, the first to sum up a long series of findings about rising intelligence test scores, starting with Rundquist (1936); the latter in an email exchange with me as I was telling him about the first results of Woodley’s research on Victorian reaction times. Charles Murray wondered how psychology would reconcile these contrary trends: the paper to be described is part of that long-term process.

Having conversations and meals with both Flynn and Woodley for several days in Montreal was a real pleasure. They and the wider group discussed trends in intelligence, including finding Flynn’s alarm about falling competence on Piagetian tasks. In addition, Jim Flynn confirmed to me that he had said in one of his books (he thought in 2012) that no-one was researching genetic causes of racial differences in intelligence “because they feared finding something”. Later I will post about Flynn’s view of the falling scores on Piagetian tasks.

Anyway, back to working memory, or short-term memory as it used to be called. The paper is massive in scope, has more study samples than previous publications on this topic, is extremely large with circa 140,000 subjects and is also a massive confirmation of Woodley’s reworking of Gignac’s data, on a far larger scale. It seems that over the last 43 years we have become able to repeat a bit more but manipulate a bit less. We can echo more, and analyze less.

Of course, there is another way of measuring short term memory, and thus to give pleasure to multiple intelligence believers. You can tap a series of objects in a particular sequence, and then ask the subject to tap them in the same sequence. This can be done forwards and backward, as with digits. This is the Corsi block span (1972) task, which I find difficult to give, let alone to observe and score. Nonetheless, it is a useful measure of spatial short-term memory, which is an important skill. So, one can test short term memory in two different modalities, to see if there is a real general effect, at the central rather than peripheral level.

The Flynn effect for verbal and visuospatial short-term and working memory: A cross-temporal meta-analysis

Peera Wongupparaj, Rangsirat Wongupparaj, Veena Kumaria, Robin G. Morris

This is a very detailed study, based on the real scores, not the scale totals, and corrected for age, sex, and the wealth of the countries of origin, which might affect nutritional status. Women did better on digits, men on blocks.

In a good, wide-ranging introduction to the topic, Wongupparaj and colleagues cover the Flynn Effect and Woodley’s co-occurrence model. Forward spans increase over the four decades of study (digits by r=0.12 and blocks by r= 0.10); backward spans decrease (digits by r=−0.06 and blocks by r=−0.17). The authors sum up their findings thus:

The gain on the verbal and visuospatial STM tasks (i.e. FDS and FCB) and decline on the verbal and visuospatial WM tasks (i.e. BDS and BCB) are consistent with the co-occurrence model (Woodley of Menie & Fernandes, 2015). Based on this model, it is predicted that less g-loaded measures should show arise, whereas more g-loaded measures may show the opposite trend as shown in the studies by Gignac (2015) and Woodley of Menie and Fernandes (2015).

The authors add that the increase on the less g loaded forwards conditions suggests environmental causes including practice effects, while the decrease on the more g loaded backwards conditions suggests dysgenic effects, probably the reduced fertility of brighter persons, but perhaps also an effect of ageing populations. They add:

Visuospatial WM has been found to be a strong predictor of mathematical ability (e.g. Ashkenazi et al., 2013; De Smedt et al., 2009; Hubber, Gilmore, & Cragg, 2014; van der Ven, van der Maas, Straatemeier, & Jansen, 2013). The mathematic scores on the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) during 1959–2015 indicate a significant and negative trend between the year of competition and efficiency score (ratio of attained score and all possible score) (n = 54, r = −0.71, p < 0.01; weighted by sample size for each year) (IMO, 2016). Furthermore, the current findings are consistent with many studies that have observed decline on attentionally demand visuospatial tasks (Pietschnig & Gittler, 2015; Woodley of Menie & Fernandes, 2016).

These are alarming findings, particularly to me with my Whig view of history.

Talking about moderator variables, the authors say:

• Category: Science • Tags: Flynn Effect, IQ, Woodley Effect, Working Memory 


Simply because the immediate reaction to the Google Memo concentrated on sex differences I gathered together some posts on sex differences, showing that the sexes differ somewhat in their abilities: not very much, but enough to make a difference at the extremes, and it is the extremes which make a difference to technology based societies, and to a technology dependent world. I left out any mention of the notion that a “diverse” workforce is better than …… better than a workforce selected purely on ability to do the task in question. My mistake, which I will try to repair now.

I wondered, some years ago, what evidence there was for the proposition that diversity was a good thing. I would like to collect more proposals, because the ones sent to me proved unconvincing. You may have heard a claim that having women in the workforce boosts profits by 40%. This turns out to be a misunderstood joke.

Now to the general claim that having women in a group boosts anything, or that having a variety of intellectual levels in a group boosts anything. That was taken apart in a set of experimental studies by Bates and Gupta.

My conclusion was:

So, if you want a problem solved, don’t form a team. Find the brightest person and let them work on it. Placing them in a team will, on average, reduce their productivity. My advice would be: never form a team if there is one person who can sort out the problem.

Perhaps Damore was a guy who could sort out problems, until the last problem, that is.

I repeat my January 2015 request: if you have any good studies showing that having a sexually or racially diverse workforce boosts profits over a workforce selected on competence alone, please send me send them to me in a comment to this item.

• Category: Science 

James-Damore-google memo

Since Google does not employ me, it cannot sack me, but I admit to feeling a little left out of the news recently. In a late bid for notoriety I have put together a series of my previous statements about sex differences, and if you will kindly circulate these as widely as possible someone may seek to censure me, which ought to boost readership.

As a brief introduction, humans are not exempt from sexual dimorphism. Men are taller, and have very much greater upper body strength. They have bigger brains. A fair approach to sex differences is to show all of them by effect size, rather than cherry-pick particular examples. Some purported meta-analyses are far from inclusive, which can misrepresent the total picture.

The majority of psychology researchers subscribe to the view that men and women have “virtually the same levels of intelligence”, by which they mean that men and women are not all that different in their mental abilities, or a little different but counterbalanced, so that the totals come out pretty equal. A minority position is that by early adulthood men have a 2-4 IQ advantage over women. The debate hinges on sample representativeness.

It is generally accepted that men show a wider range of ability, while women cluster a bit more closely round their mean level. There are some exceptions, but it is a general rule. As a consequence of this, even if men and women have exactly the same level of intelligence, there will be more men at the extremes of ability, and thus more men at the highest levels of ability, which tends to get all the attention.

If, in addition, men have a 2-4 IQ point advantage, their over-representation at the higher levels increases considerably.

Here are the latest findings on men and women’s brain sizes and their intelligence levels:

Here sex ratios of math and science ability and general knowledge

The brightest people tend to be male:

Here is an exception to the general that women’s standard deviation of abilities is smaller

Women are more easily hurt and more easily traumatized, even though they have fewer traumatic events

You can find more posts by putting “sex” into the search bar next to my name. I would gather more posts, but I have to rush to a voluntary meeting about diversity. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not arguing in favour of diversity.

Ability is what interests me.

• Category: Science 

french fire

France is a territory which lies to the south of the English Channel, and was largely managed by the English Crown till it fell under the sway of the local inhabitants, with mixed results.

It is a large domain, blessed with ample resources and noble prospects, of which its azure Mediterranean coast is a treasured example. The sea is a twinkling jewel, the water warm and crystal-clear, the beaches generally small but beautifully set between rocky promontories, but the holiday architecture, while less barbarous that the Spanish Costas, often brings little glory to the nation.

There are exceptions of course, in such places where the shore road is not allowed to engender banality, and a local town mayor fights to preserve local traditions. Study the map carefully, and there are a few parts of the South of France where the all-conquering coastal road is quietly pushed inland, so that traffic races past to other fleshpots, and as a consequence the track is taken only by quieter visitors. In one such place a local landowning family made a deal with the local municipality: they gave a peninsula as a national park and in return, slightly inland of that park, were allowed to build a domain of holiday houses, each only two stories high, with Provencal roofs discretely scattered between umbrella pines, such that the vista is of continuing forest with glimpses of roof tiles and ochre walls. The restriction of building type and low density was set about with further important restrictions: no barbecues, no pine needles to be left accumulating as a fire hazard in public areas, and no smoking on the beach and certainly not in the national park.

In that park wild boar flourish, occasionally coming down to the beach to the consternation of bathers; as well as lizards and tortoises and many different trees and shrubs. On the small rocky beaches there are nude German bathers, but all parks have invasive species. (These particular ones are highly likely to be law abiding and respectful of the environment).

In this way, the scene was set for the peaceful diversity of humans living next to the beasts of the forest, in harmony for at least 41 years. All this changed at 7.30 pm on Monday 24th July when a fire broke out in the tinder-dry forest, and was quickly fanned by strong winds to consume much of the park, also nearly taking out a section of houses.

The French state responded heroically. Canadair planes bombed retardant down onto the spreading flames, and scooped water from the sea to dive bomb it again and again, dumping water onto the conflagration. All respect to the pilots, and lovely to witness their fun job. The Sapeur-Pompiers showed up in great numbers from far and wide, their distant municipalities emblazoned on the sides of their fire wagons, to tackle the fires in personal combat. All respect to them.

Displaced to the nearby town, we residents gathered in a hall, where we signed our names in a book, and were given a cup of water. Tiring of this, I left municipal munificence and found a room for the night. By mid-morning were back again, to witness the hills burnt black, a forlorn landscape. Two days later fresh fires started, and we evacuated again. More of the forest burnt down. Across the region 7000 hectares of forest went up in smoke.

Walking down on foot to the houses we had apparently seen on fire, we found an Italian gentleman who said he saw it start, and gave a location about 100 yards from his house. A day later we found a couple in a house which the flames had reached, and were able to locate the source more precisely. It started on a trail we and other residents had been using for years, a short cut to the beach. The couple, though just renters, hosed down the nearby flames before fleeing. The hedge by the house was burnt out, but the house survived. The human causes were variously given as: barbecue, smoking, and malevolent fire setting. Two young men were arrested elsewhere, suspected of starting another one of the blazes.

Three days later four teenagers were smoking in the long grass where the beach below the park becomes the beginnings of the forest. Once alerted, the local ecology guardian said it was a matter for the life savers, and stayed at her post, handing out ecology leaflets. The life savers were elsewhere, presumably saving lives. Groups of adults were smoking a few yards away from the long grass, and less furtively than the teenagers. It seemed futile to explain to French citizens that smoking put their forests at risk of fire. On the journey back to the airport it was clear that one massive forest fire had started in a shallow ditch on the right hand side of the road, just where a driver passing by might have thrown a cigarette. The other side of the road was untouched by flames.

According to the fire services, an estimated 2% of forest fires have natural causes. As to the other 98% of fires, they may be caused by conspiracies, but I think it more likely that they arise from the simple reason that French citizens assume they should not be inconvenienced by any restrictions on their habits. The World Health Organization in 2015 gives French smoking rates as 30%.

• Category: Science 
The loathsome truth about psychology textbooks

Fear and loathing

I have a secret hope that one day one of my readers will write a psychology textbook, and that intelligence will be mentioned in an up-to-date and accurate manner.

Years ago, when reading a new UK textbook that took an apologetic and partial view of racial differences in intelligence I planned to look at the UK scene, but got distracted by having to learn what was really happening in the field, a task from which I never recovered, because I am still wading through the torrent of new publications.

What is the current situation regarding the coverage of intelligence in US textbooks? Here are two heroic figures, who have waded through this forest of paper to bring us some interesting results. This cannot have been easy work, so what sort of stimulants did they use to maintain their concentration? On observing them, I think they kept going out of a macabre fascination with just how badly intelligence is presented in US textbooks.

Warne and Astle looked at 29 best-selling undergraduate textbooks, which is where psychology students learn about intelligence, because less than 10% of graduate courses offer an intelligence option.

3.3% of textbook space is dedicated to intelligence. Given its influence, this is not very much.

The most common topics start well, with IQ and Spearman’s g, but do not go on to the best validated, evidence-led Cattell-Horn-Carol meta-analytic summary, but a side-stream, speculative triarchic theory from Sternberg; and a highly speculative and non-specific sketch of an idea about multiple intelligences Gardner. The last is a particular puzzle, since it really is a whimsical notion that motor skill is no different from analytical problem solving. All must have prizes.
Commonly, environmental influences are discussed, genetic ones rarely.

Warne textbook common topics

Interesting to compare this list with the Sackett and Snow predictive equation for employment selection, in which the addition of a multiple intelligence test contributes 1% to the final prediction.

Warne and Astle compare the actual contents against Gottfredson’s (2009) common mistakes about intelligence research and find that some errors are particularly frequent, found between a third and a quarter of the time: the idea that intelligence test items are arbitrary, and that other lists would provide an equally arbitrary result; that any variation in scores shows that they could be altered permanently by interventions; that if a skill can be improved it means that skill gaps can be closed; that because people are 99.9% alike genetically it means that important differences between them cannot be caused by genetics.

79% of the textbooks had inaccurate statements, often on the topics of test bias and that intelligence was only important in academic contexts. If we take the broader category of questionable accuracy, then all the textbooks contained questionable statements, mostly about race, environmental influences on intelligence, stereotype threat, and Lewontin’s parable of the seeds (which I think will last for ever).

Here is their paper:

Here is their conference presentation:

The authors mildly conclude: Our study may provide insight into why popular beliefs about intelligence often do not match expert opinions.

My conclusion is more acerbic: too many writers of psychology textbooks fear intelligence research and loathe what the results imply. They regard it as their democratic duty to twist the results to serve their own, presumably saintly, objectives. I think they have fallen into Noble Cause Corruption, but doubt they feel any shame at respecting their presumptions more highly than the facts.

P.S. The following day, David Lubinski was interviewing Stephen Pinker, and as the topic turned to public perceptions of intelligence Pinker said that he would really like to see how the topic was covered in psychology textbooks, and that someone should investigate it. In a delicious moment, we all pointed at Warne! A good boost for any researcher, on whom I hope fortune will smile.

• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: IQ, Political Correctness, Public Schools 

cinema seats

Here are two presentations from the London Conference on Intelligence in May. They are in what I would call the proper format, in that both the speaker and the slides are visible, and the sound is on throughout. Almost like being there. The conference is speakers only, so the audience is about 24 persons, hence if you watch these you will boost the numbers somewhat.

The first is by Vladimir Shibaev, on the intelligence of ethnic groups in the Russian Far East. It was a great pleasure to welcome Vladimir, and to convince the Russian authorities to provide a visa so that he could attend the conference. His presentation shows the variability of test scores for different groups, and he proposes various explanations for these differences.

The second is by the irrepressible Ed Dutton, talking about religious belief and mutational load. Mutants don’t believe in god. Needless to say, he was trained in theology. Those of fundamentalist beliefs should be warned that if they watch this they may be educated.Be cautious about recommending this to religious friends.

Both movies are only 20 mins in total. Provide your own popcorn.

• Category: Science 
If solving problems doesn’t motivate you, what does?

motivated students

One of the joys of attending a conference on intelligence, such as ISIR2017, is hearing people report the results of their detailed investigations into overblown claims in science reporting that one had oneself thought questionable. Will the proper researcher come to the same conclusions as you had in your own preliminary reactions?

Years ago I was asked to comment on a paper which was being touted as revealing that IQ test results were strongly affected by the vagaries of motivation. In fact, the paper actually said that the main factor in an intelligence test result was intelligence, but it did go on to discuss the contribution of motivation at more length. Press reports took the hint, and stressed the interpretation that motivation distorted IQ results.

However, science does not proceed by immediate impressions, but by studies which give any hypothesis a chance to succeed, before then testing it further by giving it a chance to fail.

Into this controversy steps the highly motivated Gilles Gignac, whose conference paper I show below. It is fun to see how a more disciplined mind takes a subject apart. First, Gignac shows that the claim that motivation can boost IQ by 10 points was skewed by the fact that only 2 of the 46 studies were carried out on adults, and that a only a few papers claimed very big results. Other conference delegates said that those were of less good quality. Gignac also found out that motivation was measured by counting the number of times children said: “I don’t know” quickly to questions. As he points out, this might be something that an unmotivated child does, but it could also be due to a child simply not knowing something, admitting it, and wanting to move on to the next question.

In Gignac’s study 1 he measured ability in university students, and measured their motivation by the Student Opinion Scale. There was a small but non-fluke r= .3 correlation which was reduced to .25 with the inclusion of the most substantial interference effect.

Case proved? Not really. He carefully explained that there are two explanations for this correlation. The first is that low motivation lowered the ability scores a bit. The second is that intelligence affects the amount of effort students put in to the ability tests, but in a positive way. Intelligent subjects could be simply more motivated when confronted by intelligence tests. Gignac concludes: “the correlation between motivation and IQ scores is not simply due to interference.”

gignac interference

So, intelligence is affecting both problem solving and the motivation to solve problems. It is an additional correlated force, and not a separate interfering factor.

Even though he had probably proved his case, Gignac tried to test the motivational hypothesis further, by seeing whether the strong prospect of winning $75 boosted performance on tests of ability, having established that was the sum that undergraduates found motivating. He gave no fewer than 5 IQ tests: Visual-Spatial Ability, Letter-Number Sequencing in 2 forms, Fluid intelligence, Working memory. He imagined that the processing speed tasks should be most sensitive to motivation, but although there was a bit of an effect on the numbers task, even that task fell short of significance, and all the others were flat. Motivation did not boost performance. That is even the case for the APM shown below, which is the Advanced Progressive Matrices, a test of Fluid Intelligence.

gignac money

Gignac concludes:

1. It is likely that there is a positive correlation between test-taking motivation and IQ scores in low-stakes settings.
2. The correlation is substantially due to intelligence impacting test-taking motivation, rather than test-taking motivation impacting IQ scores.
3. Attempts to increase IQ scores via financial incentive have failed in adults.
4. There is an absence of a causal effect between test-taking motivation and IQ scores.

Get his whole conference presentation here:

Happily, my off-the-cuff comments can now be substantiated by proper research. That is worth much more than $75.

• Category: Science 


Things move fast here. No sooner do I give you the brief description of my visit to see the Big Brain than I can announce the movie of the same. Here is the Big Brain film, showing how it was put together, and what it is like to use.

Here is the link to the Big Brain research work:

Here is the (open) ftp site, with the BigBrain data at different stages of processing and in different formats:

This should get you started, though an esteemed psychologist of my acquaintance tells me that in her day studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge University each student did a full dissection of a human brain, four students to a brain, under the tutelage of a skilled physiology demonstrator, and after a long series of lectures. Before that they started by dissecting 8 dogfishes to find their cranial nerves, just to learn that no dogfish is exactly like a textbook dogfish, in the same way that no human brain is exactly the same as the Montreal Big Brain.

The fact that brains differ may be news to the current generation, for whom the task of human brain dissection is a lost opportunity, something they are unlikely to ever experience.

See the movie.

• Category: Science 

montreal institute

Finding the conference location was difficul. The best and most detailed instruction from conference staff was that it was “up the hill”. The hotel porter was more helpful. He said it was up the hill. He also gave me a road name, so I walked up the hill on that road, wondering what the Montreal Neurological Institute might look like, and feeling mildly agitated. At the top of the hill one of the many buildings turned out to be the institute. Inside there were corridors, staircases, a lift, and a raised walk way over a games pitch, but no conference. Finally, after meeting many interesting people, I found a conference hall with familiar faces.

Of course, in retrospect I was visiting a well-known temple of brain research. At the National Hospital, Queen Square, London in the late 60s the talk was all about the work of Wilder Penfield and his brain maps at McGill university. It seemed astounding that a small electric current applied to the brain could often engender a thought, a recollection or déjà vu state. This was real science, against which my psychometric approaches to brain injured children seemed hopelessly imprecise (though it was also a very good measure of the consequences of injury). It should have been a reverential moment, but I could only reflect that the main function of a hospital is to nurse corridors.

We began with a very good talk on brain imaging by the research leader Alan Evans, discussing healthy brains for healthy lives.

The scope of the subjects studied, including autism, ageing and the usual range of brain disorders is immense, likewise the North American and international network of which it is part. McGill has a unique 3D map of the brain down to a resolution of 20 microns. In Alan’s view the most common damage to the brain is caused by toxic misfolded proteins. Tracking those down, mostly due to genetic disorders, is a health priority. Autism is a brain disorder with multiple sub-types. Very impressive time lapse imaging of the growing infant brain, which comprehensively rewires itself by age 4 years. Looking at it is enough to watch your childhood in fast forward motion. No wonder we remember little of the first four years of life, since it is only at 4 that we have a more fully working brain (though there are more changes to come as development continues). Connectivity is the key, connectivity of white matter, grey matter, and of brain functional regions. Fibre length is crucial, but carries high metabolic cost.

Alan said he was not an intelligence researcher. Nonetheless I told him that he was, and should say which aspect of the brain was most important for those behaviours which we call intelligent. After a pause, his reply: Long range connectivity.

Update: I have just seen the “big brain” in the most agreeable company of the Pinker family mother and daughter. This is one brain which has been sliced at 10 µ level, and assembled slice by slice in a massive project that has taken 6 years to complete. There are 4 large screens: one shows the brain position in 3D and the other 3 screens show the slice in incredible detail. It is like flying through the brain, while also knowing exactly where you are. This gives a benchmark brain against which individual patient brains can be compared, with tremendous accuracy. It has already been used for gamma knife surgery, and will be used for precise stimulation of very discrete brain locations. I could not help but imagine what my research would have been like if we had had this level of accuracy 40 years ago. As I will explain later, the imaging work is closing in fast onto what makes brains differ in mental power.

More to follow.

James Thompson
About James Thompson

James Thompson has lectured in Psychology at the University of London all his working life. His first publication and conference presentation was a critique of Jensen’s 1969 paper, with Arthur Jensen in the audience. He also taught Arthur how to use an English public telephone. Many topics have taken up his attention since then, but mostly he comments on intelligence research.