transcript of episode 24: THE FACETIME ILLUSION, 11th February 2022

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

welcome to the error bar: fact-checking brain science news since 2021

in this episode: how your brain lives in the past, the virus causing multiple sclerosis, consciousness explained three times, the scanner that talks scots & a news dump

here is the brain news on the 11th February 2022:



starting 2022 without a single CAPITALISED word, the Daily Mail tells us that our perception of the visual world is 15 seconds out of date; that our brain shows us images from the past rather than trying to see the unpredictable present.

in twelve experiments, 4132 people judged the age or gender of a face on a computer screen. before making their judgement, about half of these people were shown a video of a similar face, changing slowly from younger to older, or older to younger, or maler to femaler, or femaler to maler.

seeing these slowly-changing videos biased the following age- or gender-judgements of the people. a video of a face changing from 13 to 25 years old made people judge the 25 year old as being only 20. a video rejuvenating from 25 to 13 years, made the 13 year old appear 18. somehow.

a similar thing happened with a face changing slowly from male to female or female to male. because the videos were 30 seconds long, the researchers claim that, actually, we are seeing things as they were 15 seconds ago.



are we 15 seconds out of time?


much like the UK government's approach to breaking international law: our visual brain is only 15 seconds late in a "very limited and specific way". let me explain.

first, the 15 second claim relies on cherry-picking the very largest effect from the study. the average reported effect is around 11 'seconds'. i mean, if you insist on using that way of describing the effect.

second, you shouldn't. it's not at all about the number of seconds in the past. in one experiment, the researchers added an additional 15 seconds delay after the video & before the face judgement was made. this delay made no difference - people were still biased in judging the face's age. so it's not simply about time.

thirdly, nerdly, the experiments were done on-line, advertised as a 'very very short survey'. online experiments can be fine, but it's no substitute for proper in-person, controlled laboratory studies where the experimenter can, for example, check that the participant is watching the video.

fourth, all of the age judgements were biased in the same direction - the 25 & a half year old face was always rated younger & the 13 year old always older, even in the control conditions without the slowly-changing videos. these baseline biases account for about 3 'seconds' of that magic 15 seconds number. which, again, is not about the number of seconds, if you remember my second criticism, from about 30 seconds ago.

fifth, the gender version of the experiment did not work nearly as well as the age version, despite the authors' exaggerated claims. indeed, one of the two critical numbers was fudged - not 'statistically significant'.

finally, the faces used were very artificial - hair & ears were removed, they were presented within a blurred oval window. & worse, the cherry-picked '15 second' result was only found when the highest-level of noise was added to the images. it worked much less well with clear, sharp images.


if you ignore the hype, this is a solid study. it just emphatically does not show that we are living 15 seconds in the past. rather: our facial judgements are biased, in limited, specific & interesting ways, by what we've just seen


the science was by Manassi & Whitney 2022: Science Advances; reported in The Daily Mail by @shivalibest on 1/Feb/22



the Irish Times & New Scientist report that more than 10 million US military staff were tracked over 20 years. 955 developed multiple sclerosis at some point. 801 of these, along with 1566 matched healthy controls without multiple sclerosis, were also tested for the Epstein-Barr virus.

800 of the 801 cases had tested positive for the virus, compared with only 57% of controls.


avoid viruses


the science was by Bjornevik et al. 2022: Science; reported in The Irish Times by @ginakolata on 14/Jan/22, & The New Scientist by @mjflepage on 13/Jan/22

and the brain in brief...



the Guardian, New Scientist & Science News all contain reviews of books on consciousness by a consultant neurologist, a philosopher & a neuroscientist, respectively.

there are an awful lot of books on consciousness already. an awful lot of them pop up in the news media. the authors are universally male & usually look thoughtful or powerful.

to end this cottage industry we must hope that one of these books, one day, will be correct.




reported in The Guardian by Andrew Anthony on 6/Feb/22, & The New Scientist by Richard Webb on 26/Jan/22, & Science News by JP O'Malley on 5/Jan/22



a magnetic resonance imaging brain scanner in Aberdeen has been refurbished at a cost of 1 point 2 million pounds. the scanner can now address its patients in Doric, a dialect of North East Scotland.

i will not offend listeners in Scotland by attempting the accent, but instead of "the next scan will take five minutes", you can now hear: "the neist scan'll tak five minties". that's two hundred thousand pounds per word.




reported in Irish Independent by Dan Barker on 28/Jan/22



after a long new year's break at home, i returned to the error bar this week to find a pile of newspapers, magazines & journals the size of a large robot dementia-sniffing dog.

the only way of clearing this blockage is to update the error bar's editorial policy.

as reported in the previous episode's end-of-year round-up, the majority of brain science news stories are about dementia, food, dog behaviour, sex, bodily fluids & artificial intelligence. in the first month of 2022, there have been 12 brain science articles about food & drink, 9 about AI, 5 dementia, 4 dogs & 2 sex; 3 reports about sleep & dreams; 3 about consciousness books.

to clear my inbox, i will no longer cover brain science stories on dementia, dinner, drink, dogs, dirt or droids; stories about sleep, dreams & consciousness will be treated with suspicion. if you don't like it, you can start your own brain science news podcast. i suggest calling it 'the box & whisker podcast'.

what this will allow me to do is to read more science stories & research that is closer to my own interests & less-driven by the media's agenda.




[🎶 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