Recommended Reading – 26th March 2010

These five posts got me thinking over the past week:

Justin McMurray from Made By Many has laid out a manifesto for agile strategy. I particularly like the idea of simplicity of purpose over the reliance on a mystical “insight” (which may well rest on top of a house of cards)

Gareth Kay points out the flaws in Millward Brown’s latest “viral” research. I don’t want to get into the semantics of viral versus spreadable, but there is an interesting debate in the comments where both Gareth and Duncan Southgate from MB defend their different viewpoints on the nature of “viral”.

Jeff Jarvis has an interesting take on blog commenting. He believes that they are an inferior form of discourse to other social media commentary, but also that the host has a responsibility to maintain a certain level of quality – such as fully framing an argument for feedback rather than relying on the crowd to spot the flaws for you

This HBR piece on the cost of being omniscient looks at how the feedback from passive data collection can influence our behaviour (think eco:DRIVE or Nike+)

And finally, this Marketing Week feature looks at online research, specifically “real-time” research and neuroscience. I find “co-creation” techniques can be useful in certain circumstances, but I am still yet to be convinced by the benefits of neuroscience techniques.


The Science of Lifelong Learning

On Tuesday evening I attended the lecture / debate “The Science of Lifelong Learning“, co-hosted by the RSA and the NIACE. The evening was centred on neuroscience and how understanding of its mechanics can impact upon education. The event was recorded, and I believe that feed will soon be uploaded here.

It was an enjoyable evening, though with over-running speeches the debate was sadly lacking and limited to a couple of rounds of questions (incidentally, this was the first panel where I’d seen questions asked in groups, rather than one at a time. Is this standard?).

If there was one overriding theme, it was an echo of Public Enemy – Don’t Believe The Hype. Neuroscience may aid an advancement in our understanding of how the brain works, but it does not work in isolation and cannot alone answer all questions.

The five speakers were a mixture of scientists and educators. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (a neuroscientist at UCL) opened things up by looking at the “seductive allure” of neuroscience. Aids such as the Brain Gym are, apparently, sold on “facts that aren’t factual”.

She quoted a great study from Weisenberg et al (2008), which indicated that people became more satisfied with a “bad” explanation of brain activity once extraneous technical words were included. This was true for both neuroscience novices and students. Neuroscience experts were immune to this effect; amusingly, they instead felt the “good” explanation was less satisfactory when the neuroscience terms were included.

The takeout for the advertising industry is that products designed to improve intelligence will sell better if brain words are included in the description.

Despite the seductive connection between the mind and brain, Blackmore concluded that neuroscience can still be used effectively – e.g. we have discovered that the brain still develops within teenagers.

Usha Goswami, a neuroscientist from Cambridge, followed up by positing that creating optimal conditions for early learning makes our later learning more efficient, and increases the complexity of what can be learned. However, the ongoing environment has a bigger effect on development trajectory. This is a reason why continual learning is important (it can also help fight Alzheimer’s disease).

Paul Howard-Jones (University of Bristol) then presented evidence that training can improve targeted cognitive functions. While there is less evidence that this can transfer to non-targeted functioning, a recent study (Willis et al, 2006) suggested that reasoning tests in 74 year olds resulted in less self-reported functional decline in everyday life. Paul also had some very snazzy glasses, where the visual shapes projected within the lenses have been shown to enhance cognitive functions.

Andrew Pollard (ESRC Institute of Education) contended that there are four ways in which we can learn – formal workshops/training, personal support, a learning culture, and opportunities for self-reflection. He placed particular emphasis on the final point, saying that biography and history shouldn’t be overlooked. Learning needs to recognise the nature of phenomena; not just the brain but meaning and identity.

Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive, RSA) rounded off the speeches by agreeing that neuroscience is important but shouldn’t be overhyped. He also spoke about the extended mind and distributed cognition. The former refers to how external devices (e.g. a mobile phone) can extend our cognitive capacity while the latter relates to intelligence embedded in our social networks. He argued that learning takes place in groups, and that “collaboration is a meta-skill for lifelong learning”. Something our friends in social media will surely agree with.

A couple of interesting points also came out of the questions. Sarah-Jayne Blackmore said that different learnings have different sensitive periods e.g. social learning can continue for decades. Matthew Taylor noted that within schools, differing innate abilities meant that few could ever fall within a sweet spot of motivated learning and that assessment systems only added to the problem. Andrew Pollard named it the tragedy of the education system – feedback is not in a loop and so people cannot take it on board.

For further reading, see the blogs of Matthew Taylor and Tom Schuller, who chaired the evening.


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Links – 21st November 2008

My top 10 reads of the past week:

1. The Times published an absolutely fantastic article looking at neuroscience and how we can improve our brain performance. The writer pays short shrift to the DS Brain Training activities, for the sensible reason that this rewards recognition and repetition over learning. While we do not yet know a lot about our brain, the author exhorts us to work on improving oneself through a simple mantra: Pay Attention

2. On a neuroscience theme, Martin Lindstrom – author of Buyology – has an article on Advertising Age explaining why sponsorship of American Idol works for Coke but not Ford. Essentially, Ford has had trouble justifying its existence.

3. How intelligence can overcomplicate: Students trying to predict the stockmarket perform worse than a rat finding a piece of cheese. It is the conflict between striving for perfection (through modelling) or accepting a reasonable chance of success (Science Blogs)

4. Chris Anderson has conceded that the Long Tail argument is flawed, in that the number of aggregators providing the long tail of product options conform to powerlaws (think Google, Amazon or Netflix)

5. ETH Zurich have studied Youtube videos to try and work out what constitutes a successful upload. Their typology consists of viral, quality and junk videos – a more nuanced approach to my 4-video typology where viral constituted a single element (against reference, scheduled and topical) (Newteevee)

6. Engage Research and Global Market Insite have published a report saying that online surveys bore respondents. Quite. Unlike telephone or face to face interviews, online is restricted to the narrower range of those that opt-in. Therefore things need to be mixed up regularly in order to avoid a) burn-out and b) recognition of formats and patterns. (Brand Republic)

7. Fast Company has a profile of Sam Ewan – whom some people may refer to as a guerrilla marketing. I don’t particularly like the label, but I think the concept is fantastic – the levels of creativity in constructing a unique experience are limitless

8. A NY Times article looks at how industries change to survive e.g. one might predict the extinction of the bicycle with the advent of the automobile but that evidently wasn’t the case

9. Lifehacker tells us how to burn any type of video file to a playable video DVD

10. And finally, a triumvirate of brilliant little websites (OK I’m cheating in order to get a nice round figure of 10). Tag galaxy transposes Flickr searches to a galaxy of interrelated search items, the Charlian is a Charlie Brooker themed Guardian that came out of their hack day, and Let me Google that for you gives a visual display of searching to colleagues lazily shouting out a question when the answer is in front of them


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Thinkbox Event – TV & The Brain: How Creativity Wins


Last Wednesday, I attended the Thinkbox event TV & The Brain: How Creativity Wins. The half-day conference explored how psychology plays a role in brand communications and advertising. The argument is that we should be looking towards the emotional and not the rational.

As a researcher, this is a challenge. Rational messages are easy to measure – emotions aren’t. I went into the event wanting to build up my knowledge on the theory, to learn of any practical applications and to leave with ideas on how to improve our understanding of advertising evaluation.

The event was split in two – half on theory, half on application. Personally, I found the first half far more rewarding. My knowledge of psychology was limited to Malcom Gladwell books, but the three excellent speakers broadened my horizons considerably and left me with a lot of things to ponder. I found the second half a disappointment. There were few specifics and the talks were dangerously close to sales pitches.

Tess Alps, Chief Executive of Thinkbox, opened the event in the customary fashion of selling TV as a medium. Continue reading