transcript of episode 11: HAND, FOOT, MOUTH, BALLS, 4th June 2021

[🎶 INTRO: "Spring Swing" by Dee Yan-Kee 🎶]

welcome to the error bar: where brain jargon is jail broken

in this episode: how the visual brain processes hands & cutlery, the worst study ever, mirror neurons, alcohol, zombies & the amazing jane goodall

here is the brain news on the 4th June 2021:



the life of a volunteer inside a brain scanner is not easy

strapped into a dark, noisy tube, a plastic spoon is lit up for a quarter of a second. it's grabbed between finger & thumb. this happens four more times. after 10 seconds' reprieve it happens again. now a strange rod. next grabbing a plastic knife blade, then a pizza cutter, then another rod. again & again & again for an hour

20 volunteers' brains were scanned each for about 2 hours while they viewed then grasped different items of cutlery & unfamiliar rods & while they just looked at similar images

the researchers in Cambridge & Norwich, UK, found that brain areas thought to be for processing visual images of hands also contain information on the orientation of spoons, knives & pizza-cutters, but not about unfamiliar rods

reports on social media suggested that we finally understand how the brain interprets tools as if they were literally a part of the body


does the brain bit for hands also do tools?


this is a good news story. it is a technical achievement just to adapt the brain scanner to do this work successfully & the researchers clearly spent a lot of time with each of their volunteers to get really good data over multiple sessions inside the torture tube, err, the brain scanner

figure 2 in the paper is a masterpiece in efficiency & clarity of data reporting - everything you need to know is right there

and like all good studies, it raises more questions

first, two overlapping parts of brain - for hands and tools respectively - showed quite different responses. the separate areas were defined independently - which is the right way to do it - so it raises the possibility that these brain areas can be defined in a different way and that could even give better results

second, like most studies of this kind, the statistical effects were really very small - signals in the brain areas distinguished typical from atypical grasps, or cutlery from rods, only about 55 to 60 percent of the time, with chance being just 50%. this study was powerful enough to find these tiny signals in the brain, but these are needles-in-haystacks

while the excitement on social media is justified by this study's quality, we still have a lot to learn about how the brain deals with tools


how we grasp familiar cutlery is processed by brain areas that normally deal with images of hands. another tile in the mosaic of the brain has been put firmly into place


the science was by Knights et al. 2021: Journal of Neuroscience; reported in Twitter by @provisionalidea on 13/May/21



ever-obsessed with the failure of English football players to score during penalty shoot-outs, the Daily Mail reports a Dutch study of 22 football players taking penalties

the researchers attempted what many scientists would think impossible - recording high-quality brain imaging data while people are running around & kicking balls

finding that the motor cortex is involved in playing & the prefrontal cortex in thinking about football, the authors noted it is "feasible... to detect neurological clues relevant to anxiety and performance in the field"


are these the neural correlates of football?


there's good reason no-one has attempted this research before - it's not possible

as exemplified by our previous story, brain imaging is a difficult, labour-intensive technique that involves training, patience & competence. you can't just stick a scanner on someone's sweaty forehead & send them out to play games.

well, you can, but the result would be dribble.

to achieve the unachievable, the authors first removed one of their 22 participant's data for technical failure. this is quite common.

then they ignored 2 of the 10 scanned parts of the brain because the data were noisy. OK.

'outliers' were then removed. OK, fairly typical.

then one of the two sets of data signals were removed for being, you know, not useful.

& 59% of the remaining data was removed for being poor quality.

in total, the researchers removed 86% of their data. what little data remains for analysis looks strange.

the analysis itself was 165 different statistical tests, under three analytical approaches with two different ways of correcting for all of these comparisons.

this work is ground-breaking in that we just don't have words to describe how bad this study is. there are so many red flags that the authors, participants, reviewers & editors should all have been sent off long before any words were sacrificed on these seventeen pages.

i mean what's the [BLEEP] point?

the only redeeming feature in this 10000-word dump of an article is that the authors followed the "4-4-2" method of placing the brain scan devices on the head. i hope that does something to ease the pain for our listeners.




the science was by Slutter et al. 2021: Frontiers in Computer Science; reported in The Daily Mail by @JoePinkstone on 7/May/21

and the brain in brief...



mirror neurons - brain cells that respond to sensation & movement - have made the headlines again

first, mirror neurons were blamed for causing people to check their phones within the first 30 seconds after someone they are with checks theirs

the New Scientist & Mail reported on this 'chameleon effect' or 'automatic imitation,' in which researchers interacted with people, took out their phones, waited & watched for three minutes, then scurried away to note down what happened. m'kay

second, mirror neurons were also fingered by researchers studying the brain basis of misophonia - a 'devastating condition' claimed to affect 6 to 20% of people. misophonia sufferers complain of anxiety, irritation & disgust at hearing certain sounds, often other people's mouth noises

the Guardian & Mail both point out that it's not just an auditory condition - these new results suggest that movement areas of the brain are also involved


add these to the list of things that mirror neurons have been linked to


the science was by Maglieri et al. 2021: Journal of Ethology, & Kumar et al. 2021: Journal of Neuroscience; reported in The New Scientist by @christalestelas on 23/Apr/21, & The Daily Mail by @jwillchad on 3/May/21, & The Guardian by @iansample on 24/May/21, & The Daily Mail by Stacy Liberatore on 24/May/21



the error bar's share price has been all over the place this month, with reports from the Independent, Guardian & Mail that even a little alcohol is bad for your brain & that a little alcohol is good for your heart

you'll be pleased to know that all the error bar's drinks are non-alcoholic. i mean, they're non-existent

but if you're confused by the science, just pick whichever preliminary un-peer-reviewed report you prefer:

option 1 - a little alcohol is bad for your brain: that's an un-reviewed preprint from Oxford

option 2 - a little alcohol is good for your heart: that's the un-reviewed youtube video from Harvard




the science was by Topiwala et al. 2021: medRxiv; reported in The Daily Mail by @jwillchad on 19/May/21, & The Independent by Vishwam Sankaran on 19/May/21, & The Guardian by @NatalieGrover on 18/May/21, & The Daily Mail by @jwillchad on 3/May/21, & You Tube by @DrKene on 7/May/21



the Express reports that ZOMBIES are only a single parasite away

well that's the story. no link to the science is provided, but it seems to relate to a 2013 study & blog post in which mice infected with a toxoplasma pathogen were less wary of cat urine than uninfected mice

i don't know why this is in the news, i really don't. but it's a pattern

and, er, we're not going to be reporting the Express any more - they're barred






finally, the Guardian reports that Jane Goodall has won the 1.5 million dollar Templeton prize for her life's work on animal intelligence & humanity

the money will be used by the Jane Goodall Institute's ecological & community work in 67 countries

at 87 Goodall shows no sign of stopping work. you can now subscribe to the new Jane Goodall Hopecast


well done


reported in The Guardian by @harrietsherwood on 20/May/21

[🎶 OUTRO: "Cosmopolitan - Margarita - Bellini"by Dee Yan-Kee 🎶]

it's closing time at the error bar, but do drop in next time for more brain news, fact-checking & neuro-opinions. take care.

the error bar was devised & produced by Dr Nick Holmes from University of Birmingham's School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences. the music by Dee Yan-Kee is available from the free music archive. find us at the error bar dot com, on twitter at bar error, or email talk at the error bar dot com