Efficiently Reading Scientific Articles

In the last few years, there has been a huge upsurge in referencing source material when writing a newspaper/magazine/blog article. As a scientist myself, I think it’s a brilliant thing – giving everyone the opportunity to see the research the story is based on and judge for themselves whether it has been discussed in a non-biased way. Of course, there are still issues of free access to studies, but here I’m going to give a quick-fire summary of how to judge a paper efficiently, once you have it on your screen (or in your hands…).

When I was at uni, I was taught a number of strategies designed to help you quickly read and extract the important information – as a student, you have to read a LOT of papers… some are a nice, manageable 3-7pg in length, others can clock in at over 20pg and take hours to read and understand, so it’s good to know some shortcuts.


1) Go straight to the Methods

This is the single most important part of a scientific paper- if the methods don’t make sense, no amount of beautiful prose in the abstract and conclusions will change the fact that the data is not sound.

If they don’t mention inclusion/exclusion criteria, how they decided on their sample size and whether they lost any subjects along the way, how can you trust that the data they so proudly present is actually representative of the experiment they did? Without complete transparency on what DIDN’T make it into the study, how can you trust what did?

Especially if it is a clinical trial, the protocol (i.e. how they did it, their experimental plan) must be pre-registered, stopping them from changing their minds about what they are really looking for half-way through a study because the primary outcome is rubbish – calculations of how many subjects are required are based on outcome measure, so changing the outcome measure half-way through invalidates the group sizes, so you have no way of knowing if any failure to detect a response is due to there not being any effect or because there just weren’t enough individuals tested.

It also lets you use a bit of common sense – I recently read a paper which claimed to be a double blind, randomised control trial… which used blinding codes of “MG” and “CG” on pill bottles given to patients. This was a study looking at the effects of magnesium. The chemical formula of magnesium is… Mg. Admittedly not everyone might know this, but if you are told you are enrolled on a trial looking at effects of magnesium supplements, and are handed a bottled marked “MG”, it’s not that hard to figure out which group you are in, unblinding yourself, and making the study invalid. Just as an aside, if you ever see a study involving animal which claims to be “double blinded”, chuck it. Throw it away. That statement suggests the animals were unaware of which treatment they received… and shows up the authors as not understanding the concept of blinding (or masking as it is sometimes referred to).


2) Abstracts & Conclusion

This is a common way of reading papers, I’m sure some of you reading this do the same… but by relying on the 2 parts of the paper which are most open to interpretive bias, you don’t see the big picture. Authors want to draw readers in with a jazzy abstract that highlights what they think is important, and skims over anything considered weird, unexpected, or plain dodgy, and then in the conclusion, they want to leave the reader feeling that their work is super-exciting, super-relevant, and going to lead to innumerable life-improving breakthroughs, so by concentrating on these areas of a paper, you are basically allowing yourself to be spoonfed with exactly what the authors project as important, and that isn’t the same as actually being important and useful.


3) “Moneyshot”

I was taught this while studying my PhD by another supervisor – his way of reading papers was to go straight to the last figure, the “Moneyshot” as it were. This will usually be the figure with the most impact, showing off the peak of the experimental findings – if that “looks good”, then read the rest… ok? NO. Not ok. By doing this, you are again falling in line with how the authors want their work to be seen. By all means judge the graphs and presentation of data, but don’t base your entire opinion of a paper on the pretty pictures – sometimes it just won’t add up. All sorts of dirty tricks can be used to make data look more sexy than it actually is – messing about with the axes (not starting at ’0′ starts alarms bells immediately), showing raw data on some and ‘% response’ on others (makes me very suspicious – if the effect is there, you should be able to see it without resorting to data transformations of this type), and of course, if the error bars overlap, thre probably isn’t an effect – statistically significant doesn’t always mean biologically relevent,


So there we are – 3 different ways I have read papers in the past… number 1 is how I currently read papers, and although it might make you a bit angry and frustrated at first, being able to critically evaluate a scientific article will improve both your understanding, and if you work in the field, your own reporting as well.

The Problem of Medication Over-use Headaches

In common with many labs, we have a weekly journal club, and last week one of my colleagues presented some fascinating work on the under-recognised problem of medication over-use headaches. I’m not going to go into the definition of migraine, rather, I will briefly consider the problems associated with the drugs used to treat it.

Why? This is something which interests me on many levels:

*The paradox of treatments designed to help a condition actually worsening symptoms can promote a drive to further understand what the drug does and how it interacts with any underlying pathology (this is the geek in me, always wanting to know WHY)
*My boyfriend suffers from migraine/cluster headaches so there is a personal incentive to better understanding of what is going on in there
*I’m currently involved in production of a feature film, the protagonist of which who suffers from aura migraine… my perfectionist nature wants to make sure our representation is accurate

So what’s it all about then? Headaches and migraine have been treated for years using classic opioids, NSAIDs such as naproxen, and combination drugs like co-codamol (Codiene + paracetamol). Then in the early 90s, the “Migraine Wonder Drug”, Sumitriptan, was first introduced, promising targeted relief for headaches caused not by muscle tension, but by the cranial nerves and the brain itself. These drugs work by imitating the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT) (which incidentally is also very similar structurally to DMT) at very specific receptor subtypes (5-HT1B/D) found primarily on blood vessels within the brain. Here, the molecules act to reduce inflammation of the vessels (as opposed to increased vasodilation, as is often assumed), reducing the experience of pain.

All these types of medication work best when given BEFORE the migraine hits its peak (i.e. during the premonitory or prodrome phase), and this is where the problems start.

Sometimes you might get symptoms which never manifest as a migraine… sometimes what you think is going to be a migraine turns out to be a tension headache instead. Taking triptans unnecessarily can cause a sustained increase in neurotransmitters such as CGRP, and has been shown to result in a latent sensitisation, whereby the individual becomes more sensitive to migraine triggers than before, resulting in more frequent migraines…. and thus the cycle starts and sustains itself – triptans cause a headache which can be treated with naproxen, until it too causes a headache which can only be treated with opioids, and so it goes until there are no more options left. What was originally an episodic condition (less than 15 attacks a month) can quickly escalate under these conditions, becoming chronic and intractable.

As estimated 1-2% of the European population suffer from headaches which are caused or exacerbated by medication over-use – this figure is even higher in the USA, where opioid drugs are more freely prescribed and obtained. In a condition such as migraine, one of the most common neurological disorders, and one which can cripple, it is vital we understand why this happens, and what can be done to avoid it in future treatments. It’s not reasonable to just stop prescribing medication to these patients – for many, these drugs are all that allow them to function and interact with the world – what we need is to find out why this happens, and make sure new treatments can avoid these issues…

Meng et al., 2011 (Cephalalgia) Pathophysiology of medication overuse headache: insights and hypotheses from preclinical studies.
De Felice et al., 2010 (Ann. Neurol.) Triptan-induced latent sensitization: a possible basis for medication overuse headache.

Fighting Pain with Pain: The ‘joys’ of DNIC

It might sound counter-intuitive, but there are actually many treatments for pain which already rely on this phenomenon, such as cupping and even acupuncture may involve some elements.

Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (DNIC) is our innate ability to modulate pain signals coming from spatially discrete areas, and broadly speaking explains why pain from one area can cancel out pain from another. A person’s capacity for this is highly variable, and some researchers are investigating whether they can use Conditioned Pain Modulation (a clinical measure of DNIC) to measure how DNIC system function is linked to individual susceptibility for developing a chronic pain condition.

I recently had some personal experience of this when I partially severed the tendon in my thumb while washing up (stealth crack in a plate – seriously, throw away any cracked crockery before it does you damage!!). As some of you who read this may know, I have been suffering from chronic post-operative pain for almost a year now, which manifests both as sudden and unpredictable shooting pains in my lower abdomen, a constant pulsing/stinging/heavy sensation which can sometimes last a few hours, and a general sensitivity to things as innocuous as my ID badge bouncing against me as I walk. Now, when I hurt my thumb, it bloody hurt. It was SERIOUSLY painful. I’ve had capscaicin (chilli pepper extract) injected into my hand (helping out a colleague by volunteering for their study – I’m not a total masochist!)… this was comparable – insanely sharp and nauseating for quite a few hours after I did it. Luckily for me, I not only work in a hospital with a world renowned hand surgery unit, but also one of my colleagues is married to a hand surgeon! It still required 8 stitches and surgery under general anaesthetic (which I was glad – would have no doubt watched them as they worked and ended up passing out or something silly…), and my mobility is pretty limited (again, luckily another colleague is a hand physio specialist so have been ‘treated’ to some one-on-one thumb-bending sessions), but then again, at least I still have a thumb, even if it does have a rather frankenstein scar wrapped around it!

In the weeks following the surgery on my hand, I hardly noticed the pain from my previous surgery… my mind was almost completely taken over by the new sensations coming from my thumb, hand, and arm. When you damage a nerve, lots of funny things happen as it works to repair itself* – most of the outer edge of my thumb is completely numb, I experience strange tingling small electric shocks whenever I moved my hand or rubbed my arm, a painful feeling of stretching inside my thumb whenever I lift my arm above my head, increased sensitivity to heat (showers OK, baths NOT OK), and particularly sensitivity to cold, with even a light breeze feeling like a biting north wind. I know these are all normal experiences when a nerve is healing, so as annoying as it is, I don’t worry about these things… especially once I noticed how they were over-riding any other pain my body may have been experiencing.

All good things must come to an end, and as the pain in my thumb subsides, the other has resurfaced with a vengeance. Swings and roundabouts, eh? Still, it was a beautiful demonstration for me, as a neuroscientist working to understand pain, of the power of the body to cope with stress and prioritise events in a hierarchical fashion (e.g. pain from recent tissue damage trumps ongoing chronic pain with no obvious/easily fixable cause). Pretty brilliant, but I don’t think it’s worth injuring myself again over!

*not all damaged nerves can repair themselves, but if the soma and some of the neurolemma (outer covering of nerve fibres) is intact, regeneration is usually possible, if slow

Stability of conditioned pain modulation in patients with chronic pain: Implications for pain assessment & treatment
Yarnitsky 2010 (Curr Opin Anaesthesiol.) Conditioned pain modulation (the diffuse noxious inhibitory control-like effect): its relevance for acute and chronic pain states.

Scientists, their pets and research…


Really great post!

Originally posted on unlikelyactivist:

Some presumably animal rights-leaning visitor to my blog dropped a GOTCHA! question on me this morning. This is a question she expected I would answer in a way that would poke holes in my arguments in support of humane animal research

“Well, if animal research is so important,” she says, “would you give your dogs to me so that I can use them to conduct a research project on addiction?”

This is my youngest dog, Oliver. He is, quite possibly, my favorite living being on this planet.

This is my youngest dog, Oliver. He is, quite possibly, my favorite living being on this planet.

GOTCHA, she thinks! She believes that I will either say “No, I’d never give my dogs to research”, and all my arguments that animal research is justifiable because of the benefits to human and animal welfare will fall apart. Or possibly, I’ll say “Yes”, and she’ll claim I am cruel and heartless. Either way, she wins. GOTCHA!

Here’s the thing; my answer to…

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My QST results from  Sept 2012

What to do when you become a subject of your own research

They say many psychiatrists choose their profession because they themselves suffer from mental illness. When I started my PhD, studying pain, I never expected to succumb to chronic pain, but things certainly seem to be going that way, so I figure it might be useful to share my insight as both a researcher, and now a sufferer of chronic pain.

My story starts in 2008, when I was diagnosed with ovarian dermoid cysts. In the years since then, I’ve undergone two further surgeries, which have left me in constant abdominal pain which varies in intensity, location, and in the way it feels. I experience two main types: a constant dull ache, similar to period pains, and intense shooting pains, which happen whenever the hell it wants – sitting, standing, walking, lying down – and generally this is most problematic. It’s often briefly excruciating, usually nothing more than annoying and distracting, but there haven’t been a day in over a year that I haven’t experienced pain that has made me catch my breath. It’s exhausting, and I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t affected my lifestyle over the last year in particular.

Despite this, I was very resistant to admitting the possibility that the pain I was experiencing was anything out of the ordinary.  Partly, I suppose, because none of the doctors I have seen suggested it could be the case. I have tried most traditional pain medications with no effect (co-codamol, paracetamol, even tramadol), and ignored the fact that any pain persisting longer than 3months is in the running for the title of “Chronic”. Part of this reluctance was fear, but not of the unknown – I knew too much. Having spent the best part of 5 years focusing my studies on the problems of diagnosing and treating chronic/neuropathic pain conditions, I know only too well how difficult it is to successfully treat pain. It’s a minefield of misdiagnosis and I’ve read more accounts than I care to remember of patients shunted from specialist to specialist with very little improvement or even reassurance. I remember one soundbite I heard in my first year of studies that 30% of the population will experience chronic and particularly neuropathic pain, of which only 30% will experience acceptable pain relief…. so you can understand why I was burying my head in the sand! My main solutions to date have been breathing, swearing,  and stopping whatever I am doing until the pain subsides. When I’m at home I take a bath and hug a hot water bottle. It helps a bit, even if as something to do.

“Neuropathic pain” was the thing that scared me the most – this is pain which is not caused my tissue damage, but by the nervous system itself. It occurs when nerves are damaged, either by ‘foreign bodies’ (drug and viral), or by physical trauma, such as surgery. This damage alters nerve sensitivity, lowering and/or raising thresholds so that what used to be a nice shower temperature becomes way way WAY too hot, a cool breeze switches from refreshing to agonising, and even the touch of clothing against the skin is unbearable. Luckily for me, my experience seems more due to spontaneous activity, which results in shooting pains and other unusual sensations. I like to think of the way nerves function in neuropathies as similar to a faulty fire alarm – over-reacting to steam, failing to detect a fire, and then just going off for no reason whatsoever. Unfortunately, this type of pain has no simple fix, no batteries to change, no refund and replace.

Researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly what makes one person develop neuropathic pain, and another be totally fine, given the same injury. Part of the reason for this is that pain is a learning tool – it is how our body learns to protect itself from damage, and is shaped by our experiences and attitudes, making every painful moment unique to the individual. Treatment can be complex to say the least.

Of course, it turns out that the last surgery I had (abdominal hernia repair) is one of the top three known to be associated with post-operative pain issues (the other two: mastectomy and thoracotomy)… so if I hadn’t been so busy hoping it’d go away, I probably could have been seen much earlier! Additionally, having underwent three abdominal surgeries, my insides are now riddled with adhesions - these are points where scar tissue has formed along lines of incision, sticking to anything they come into contact with. I have been aware of my own adhesions for a while – for some time they were not painful, just strangely uncomfortable, a feeling of stretching and tension inside me when I moved in certain ways, although since the last surgery I have definitely been more aware of their presence – in the abdomen, they often end up affecting the bowels, and I can definitely confirm that! Eating and needing the bathroom have been noticeably more uncomfortable… further lessons in why taking advice from an ostrich is a bad idea…

So what are my options? Keep on plugging away with co-codamol which does nothing??? Try something else? The last 10 years have seen the addition of drugs established in other areas, such as gabapentin for epilepsy and duloxetine for major depressive disorder to the analgesic arsenal. These tend to be given at much lower doses in pain conditions, and work by altering neurotransmitter levels. Other approaches include TENS, acupuncture, talking therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy, each having their benefits and drawbacks. My personal opinion is that drugs alone are not enough – the emotional side of pain is not to be underestimated… it’s draining and miserable, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. How we feel psychologically has such a huge effect on our physical well-being – stress releases hormones which can have a knock-on effect on pain, especially visceral pain, as anyone who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome would confirm, and our attitude and lifestyle can change the course of the disease. Furthermore, there are bidirectional associations between anxiety/depression and chronic pain, and both conditions involve many of the same parts of the brain (e.g. the amygdala), which explains why antidepressants have been used so successfully to treat chronic pain.

So this week, after chatting with some colleagues (if nothing else, my experiences have taught me to make the most of those around me), and reinvigorated with a “New Year Fresh Start Let’s Sort Stuff Out!” vibe, I went to my GP and straight out asked to be put on medication for neuropathic pain. After consulting another doctor, they agreed, and this week I will be starting on amytriptyline, another antidepressant used to treat pain. I’m bizarrely excited – the prospect of being able to go about my daily life undisturbed by pain makes me pretty hopeful. I will also start seeing someone for some talking therapy – I know myself the detrimental effect pain has on my mood, and it’d be foolish to ignore that side of things, pinning all my hopes on pharmaceuticals. These efforts might not fix me completely, and I know that, but I hope they will at least give me the tools to cope better.

I’m only too aware that my experience is very definitely at the small end of the scale when it comes to pain – I can basically function, just not in comfort most of the time – but I have been reminded that the impact of any pain condition is a result of BOTH duration AND intensity. I think most people would prefer a short sharp shock to constant dull pain, and there are studies showing that knowing pain is not going to last forever increases our tolerance as the associated anxiety is much lower.

Anyway, wish me luck, and I’ll be back in a month or so with an update on how this new approach is working…

p.s. if anyone would like references for all the above, or has any questions or points they’d like me to expand on, holla and I’ll write some more!


Gingko Biloba and Neuropathic Pain

It’s strange the way news tends to circulate, and seem to happen particularly frequently with scientific news stories.

In running the London Pain Consortium twitter feed, I keep an eye on people using the phrase “neuropathic pain” – this morning there were no fewer than a dozen tweets, all extolling the virtues of the chinese traditional medicine and health supplement, ginkgo biloba, so I had to take a closer look.

Firstly, the original article they all cite is from 2009… that’s 5 years ago guys… why bring it up again now? A quick pubmed search shows only 4 articles looking at ginkgo biloba in neuropathic pain… and none of them are clinical studies. So why the hype? Is it just hype?

So lets look at what evidence there is:

The first study looks at a model of spinal nerve ligation in rats. This is known to decrease the thresholds for detection of mechanical (i.e. touch) and thermal (i.e. cold/hot) stimuli, corresponding with increased sensitivity experienced by many neuropathic pain patients, so in theory, ginkgo should return these thresholds back up to normal levels, which a quick look at the graphs seems to confirm. However, there are some methodological issues – they only looked at rats with nerve damage, neglecting to check if gingko has an effect in healthy animals… it could very well be reducing sensation. Also, the effects are relatively short lived (2hrs on average at the highest dose), and there was a small effect at the highest dose on activity (as measured by rotorod activity), so perhaps gingko has some motor or psychotropic effects? To their credit, they did take precautions to avoid some degree of bias (blinding experimenters – obviously not literally… just ensuring they were unaware of what treatment the animal had), and mentioned exclusions, but made no reference to how many animals failed to develop neuropathic symptoms (a bugbear of mine – all animals should be included – non-responders are just as interesting, if not moreso, as those which behave as expected) and were therefore excluded, and no sample size calculations were conducted (useful to indicate whether the group sizes are large enough to detect any effect reliably).

The same group also looked at whether ginkgo is effective in a model of chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain (i.e. vincristine), and found a very similar profile (obviously using the same tests, and making the same methodological errors as above), which is interesting, but still not making me rush out and invest in supplements.

A third study, from a different group and published only 2 years ago, looked at the effects in a model of diabetes-induced neuropathy, and is nice because it actually looks at the effects over the course of a few weeks, not just a few hours as the previous studies. They also thought a little bit more about mechanisms, and looked at levels of nitrous oxide (known to be involved in inflammation) and also at antioxidant enzyme activity. However, they also looked at both males and females mixed together, which could increase variability, and again didn’t give enough details about the animals included in the study to satisfy a strict follower of the ARRIVE guidelines such as myself! Anyway, they found much the same as the studies above, with the added bonus of showing antioxidant effects, which gives an indication of how it could be working. Which is interesting.

Sooo… 3 studies (the 4th was a rather vague review of medicinal herbs in neuropathic pain)… all showing gingko is effective in restoring normal levels of sensitivity to mechanical and cold stimuli, in rats. I don’t think that’s enough to justify being reposted all over the internets…

When reading studies like these which claim to study pain in animals, it is vital to realise most of the time, they are only looking at the sensory side – pain is so much more than a pointy stick: it is also the surprise at being poked, the anxiety over why someone jabbed you with said pointy stick, and the worry about whether it might happen again. Pain, as we know it, is generated in the brain, and is a complex amalgamation of the signals our nerves bring us about what is happening physically, and our past experiences in similar situations, our current emotional state, our environment, and countless other factors which come together to produce an experience unique to the individual. My main issue with studies like those above, is that they arguably ignore the more crucial measure of pain, which is not how much nociception they can endure, but how those sensations impacts on overall emotional and physical comfort.

What would I like to see before people get too excited is more work looking at long term effects, and effects on emotional and cognitive outcomes… perhaps some observational clinical studies looking at those who already take supplements (although most supplements have levels far lower than those used in the studies – 6000mg sounds impressive but then you notice the small print telling you the active ingredients are present at less than 25mg, below the 100mg active dose from these studies).

X-ray Room

X-ray Room

A few years ago, when I worked as a research assistant, I used x-ray film on an almost daily basis to develop Western Blots…

I was curious how the stuff would behave in a pinhole camera, so one day, I carefully smuggled a sheet home, and did this 2hr exposure in my then bedroom in Glasgow, before carefully smuggling it back into work and running it through the developer (which looked a bit like a huge photocopier, only to be operated under red light).

Worked out none too shabby if you ask me… and seeing it again reminds me I should really get to work on all my other pinhole schemes…

Notes on The Creative Culture: an Ed Catmull lecture at Neuroscience 2013

I recently returned from my first Society for Neuroscience annual meeting – it’s something I’ve been excited about attending since I started my PhD some 4 years ago, so it was great to finally attend! For those unfamiliar, it’s an annual meeting of ~30,000 neuroscientists, from all disciplines, over 5 days, and this year it was in San Diego, a city I’ve never visited and was keen to see!

My current research focusses on the pain field, and despite coming from a strong neuroscience background, had only ever attended pain specific conferences – so I was psyched about the prospect of 5 days of EVERYTHING to do with the brain. I attended lectures on addiction, sex and aggression, “NeuroLaw” (something I’ll be covering at a later date – it was fascinating!) and saw posters running the gamut from control of bird song, oxytocin in social behaviour, crazy new techniques for activating/deactivating very select parts of the brain, all the way to artificial intelligence and bioengineering – there really was a lot of ground covered!

However, the first lecture I attended, and arguably the one that made the greatest impression was one given by Ed Catmull on The Creative Culture.

Creativity is something I feel is undervalued in scientific research – say the word “Creative” to most people, and they will think of artists, designers, possibly even marketing… forgetting, or perhaps not realising that to be a good scientists, you also must be creative. Being able to facilitate creativity, and form a group where ideas thrive is integral to solving scientific problems and understanding complex data.

So what did Catmull, President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and one of the three co-founders of Pixar, have to say to a room full of neuroscientists?

Firstly he spoke about his experiences in Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic, where he work from 1979, and how the experience changed when in 2006, Disney bought Pixar and put him charge of jump-starting the flagging Burback animation studios.

He felt that

smart creative people were making dumb decisions that led to decreased creativity within a creative environment

Why was this? He quickly realised that individual contributions to a creative process were irrelevant – no one person could be responsible for either creating or destroying creativity as it is all part of working as a team – and so instead of thinking of how to increase creativity, he went about trying to understand the blocks to a creative environment, and how they could be released.

What he came up with can be summarised as follows:

  1. Candour
  2. Mistakes and Failure
  3. “Feed the Beast”

1. Candour, rather than honesty, implies not only openness and honesty, but also fairness and sincerity. People working within a group towards a creative goal need to feel their opinions are valued and taken at face value. Individuals can feel unable or unwilling to speak out due to respect, fear of embarrassment, a desire to be polite – this creates an atmosphere where only the most senior or most vocal member of the group can have the most sway, often inappropriately.

In science, this is key – scientists often work in isolation, and confer with colleagues only as a last resort for fear of criticism or theft of ideas. Most laboratories will have frequent meetings to discuss data and any issues anyone might be having, so it is vital that everyone feels able to speak up. We are told over and over that “there are no stupid questions”, yet the fear of being made to feel stupid because you didn’t quite understand something you are working on, or unexpected data, can lead to reticence, particularly in junior researchers

2. Failure can have both negative and positive connotations, but when considering creativity, zero errors are neither desirable nor practical. If you want to try something new, chances are, it won’t go right the first time round. Rather than working to prevent errors, it is important to be comfortable in accepting them, as it is only through making and understanding mistakes that you can really understand what you are doing and how to do it better.

Errors are a necessary consequence of doing something new

3. “Feeding the Beast”, as a concept in the film industry, refers to being aware of the audience, and also of producers and investors who may have their own view on how a project should go, without necessarily understanding the processes involved. Succumbing to this demand is inappropriate in creativity – a creative group should have the freedom to develop ideas without undue outside influence. The nature of creativity is such that the more constraints you put around it, the less it will flourish

Creativity is protecting the undefined

He also stressed the importance of maintaining separation between information flow and hierarchical structure – it is easy for information to become distorted as it moves up a hierarchy (e.g. what is seen and heard by a manager compared to someone more intimately involved with the project at the ground level), and how views can become warped and biased.

When he took over responsibility for the Disney animation studio, after being president of Pixar for 20 years, he was faced with the decision whether to merge the two groups, or keep them separate. He decided to keep them separate, partly to safeguard Pixar, but also to allow the right environment to develop in Disney without any loss of identity.One of the most important things that emerged from the questions following his lecture, was the idea that small groups, with an odd number of members, are best for creativity – too large and there are too many voices clamouring to be heard, an even number and the possibility of stalemate is increased – he considered 3, 5, or 7 people to be the optimum number to facilitate free discussion and flow of creative ideas. Along similar lines, he mentioned that the influence of finances on creativity follows a bell-curve distribution, with an optimal peak, followed by a drop in creativity as funding increases beyond a critical point – a perfect illustration of why throwing money at a problem won’t necessarily have the desired effect!

If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, don’t get in the boat

Creativity is not about simplifying – it is not an easy or quick process, and never should be. It should be enjoyable, stimulating, occasionally frustrating and possibly even depressing, but the outcome will be something memorable, educational, informative, and/or entertaining, depending on your field.

As a final point, he mentioned the difficulties faced by someone new to a field, and particularly new to a creative team. There is often a temptation to look for rules, unwritten or otherwise, which can quickly instil unnecessary caution and fear of breaking said rules. A newcomer should instead be aware that they are bringing fresh eyes to the problem, and pointing out something you think could be done better or differently to better effect is the most valuable contribution you can make – ignore the natural tendency to be polite, and get involved! Organisations are inherently unstable – speaking out is the only way chance will happen.

So there we go. As a scientist, and as someone with a somewhat creative bent, I found it fascinating, and will remember the lessons learnt as I go on to finish my PhD and beyond!

Oh and as an aside, Ed Catmull, life-long employee of the visual arts, gave his talk without a single slide or even hint of a powerpoint… Fresh ;)

UPDATE: The video of this lecture is now available online…

Art, science and technology in harmony


The Wellcome Collection – always interesting, always worth a visit!

Originally posted on Wellcome Collection blog:

Thinking with the Body at Wellcome Collection

Thinking with the Body at Wellcome Collection

Where do science, dance and choreography meet? Muriel Bailly looks into the ideas behind our current Thinking with the Body exhibition.

Science and technology have helped enhance artistic productions since the early beginning of humankind. Already in Ancient Greece, the study of the Golden Ratio by Pythagoras (570-495 BC) and his followers influenced a new generation of artists, among which was Phidias (480-430 BC), who is considered as the greatest sculptor of Classical Greece and is believed to have used the Golden Ratio in many of his sculptures, including the statues of Athena Parthenos and of Zeus at Olympia, which was one the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

In 15th century Italy, the work of the architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective, leading to one of the most prolific periods in art history: the Italian…

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Conditional Formatting on the brain

It is no secret that I love spreadsheets – I spend hours messing about with pivot tables and conditional formatting and trying to find the magic formula that will make my life easier…

This evening, I found a neat trick to format a data entry sheet so that it looks like this:


I wanted to mask out cells that I wasn’t going to be putting anything in and figured it could be used to organise any data input spreadsheet where you can predict which cells you won’t use.

My data started out looking like this:


The three columns correspond to parts of the brain, found at co-ordinates specified by the Bregma values in column 1, and I also had a smaller table, specifying the range of  for each area:


To get the black boxes where I wanted them, I used conditional formatting, based on this formula:

=(reference cell [-1.44 on my sheet])<(low end of reference range[-3.00])

i.e. =H6<$A$2

This formula can be tweaked to respond to greater than (>), equal or less than (=<), or any value of your choosing

To do this:

Simply select the cells want to change (e.g. the CeM column) and go to “Conditional Formatting”, then “New Rule”. Click on “Use a formula to determine which cells to format”, and type the formula you want into the box, select the formatting you want (borders/colour/text colour etc), and voila!