Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Trying to Remember

In one study researchers investigated the role of intentional-encoding instructions and task relevance at study on visual memory performance (Varakin & Hale, 2014). Task relevance was manipulated by having participants keep a running tally of either the objects they were attempting to remember or an irrelevant category of objects during study. Half of the participants within each level of task relevance were further instructed to remember one category of objects for a subsequent recognition memory test (intentional memory group) , and the other half of the participants were not informed of a memory test (incidental memory group). Intentional-encoding instructions improved recognition discrimination only when participants were not already keeping a tally of the to-be-remembered objects. This result suggests that intentional-encoding instructions may improve visual memory due to generic attentional modulation, not encoding-specific processes.

In another study, we conducted at Eastern Kentucky University, we examined whether intentional encoding instructions improve long-term recognition memory for visual appearance (Varakin, Frye, & Mayfield, 2012). The effect of memory instructions was examined using a factorial design, so that attention to/task relevance of objects could be manipulated independently of memory instructions. The sample size was large enough to achieve power equal to .80 for medium effect sizes (f = .25). There was no effect of intentional memory instructions. These results suggest that observers cannot easily enhance encoding and storage of visual information in long-term memory.  Intent to remember, per-se, may not enhance memory.   

Trying to remember or reading material over and over does not necessarily lead to better memory. The appropriate behaviors are required, even when one is trying to remember. The foundations of memory (declarative memory) include: brain health, focused attention, elaborative encoding, spaced rehearsal (distributed practice) and testing. A key underlying factor supporting memory is understanding.

      The foundations of memory support understanding
      Understanding implies strong organization of memory connections

In my seminars Exploring Memory and Strategies To Maximize Learning a comprehensive overview of memory is provided.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Confused About Critical Thinking?

Educators often pay lip service to the idea of teaching “critical thinking”.  But, when asked to define “critical thinking” answers are often weak and sometimes so ambiguous they are virtually worthless.  Common responses to the defining  critical thinking questions include, “teaching them how to think”, “teaching them formal logic”, or “teaching them how to solve problems.”   They already know how to think, logic is only a portion of what is needed to increase critical thinking, and teaching them how to solve problems is an ambiguous answer that is context specific.  Stanovich argues, “that the super-ordinate goal we are actually trying to foster is that of rationality” (Stanovich, 2010, p.198). Ultimately, educators are concerned with rational thought in both the epistemic sense and the practical sense.  Certain thinking dispositions are valued because they help us base our beliefs on available evidence and assist us in achieving our goals. Many educators express to students and administrators the importance of critical thinking, yet, many of those expressing the importance of critical thinking don't know what critical thinking encompasses.  In fact, many educators are simply in the business of repeating what others say-Critical thinking is important.  Critical thinking, as promoted by educators, is often and appendage used to increase the value of intellectual status, or used to indicate this course is different.   

Understanding Rationality

Rationality is concerned with two key things: what is true and what to do (Manktelow, 2004).  In order for our beliefs to be rational they must be in agreement with evidence.  In order for our actions to be rational they must be conducive to obtaining our goals. 

Cognitive scientists generally identify two types of rationality: instrumental and epistemic (Stanovich, 2009). Instrumental rationality can be defined as adopting appropriate goals, and behaving in a manner that optimizes one's ability to achieve goals. Epistemic rationality can be defined as holding beliefs that are commensurate with available evidence. This type of rationality is concerned with how well our beliefs map onto the structure of the world. Epistemic rationality is sometimes called evidential rationality or theoretical rationality. Instrumental and epistemic rationality are related.  In order to optimize rationality one needs adequate knowledge in the domains of logic, scientific thinking, and probabilistic thinking.   A wide variety of cognitive skills fall within these broad domains of knowledge.  Components of critical thinking have been operationalized in a wide range of studies.  

Critical thinking can and has been measured.  CT is something much more than the over conceptualized ambiguous definitions often provided by educators and others (evidence based practitioners, science writers, skeptics, and so on...)  perpetuating the importance of critical thinking. 

Tasks on a critical thinking test include (Hale, 2012):

Answer the following:

John is looking at Cindy but Cindy is looking at James. John is married but James is not.
Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
A) Yes   B) No   C) Cannot be determined

Does a conclusion follow logically from the two premises?

Premise 1: All living things need food
Premise 2: Animals need food
Conclusion: Animals are living things
A) Yes B) No

Read and answer the following:

A suit and tie cost $120 in total. The suit costs $100 more than the tie.
How much does the tie cost?     

In order for educators to successfully teach critical thinking / rational thinking it is imperative that they understand what critical thinking actually is and why it matters.  What are the goals of critical thinking?  How can critical thinking be assessed?  Does my curriculum contain information regarding scientific reasoning, logic, heuristic processing and probabilistic thinking? 

Critical thinking is about what is true (epistemic rationality) and what to do (instrumental rationality).  The best tip I can provide regarding critical thinking is to educate yourself on the works of the most influential people in the field of critical thinking.  A few of those people  include: Keith Stanovich, Daniel Kahneman, Richard West, Shane Frederick and Jonathan Baron. 

Rationality vs. Intelligence

 Rational thinking skills are as important as intelligence.  Intelligence and rationality are often dissociated. Research demonstrates that intelligence is often a weak predictor of rationality.  This has been shown over a wide range of studies.  Intelligence is important, but there is more to good thinking than intelligence.  Intelligence reflects reasoning abilities across a wide variety of domains particularly novel ones.  In addition, intelligence reflects general declarative knowledge acquired through acculturated learning.  Rationality reflects appropriate goal setting, goal optimization, and holding evidence-based beliefs.

Chapter 2 in my book - In Evidence We Trust- provides information on the science of critical thinking / rational thinking.  

References are available upon request. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Exercise Does The Brain Good!

Exercise may lead to a wide range of benefits- increased cardiovascular health, stronger bones and muscles, stronger connective tissue, and increased overall fitness and athleticism.  There is a plethora of evidence that shows exercise is beneficial to the brain (Fernandez et al., 2013).  Research using various methods from a variety of domains supports the finding.  

A recent study, conducted in the Netherlands, found evidence that people who utilized an exercise bike for 6 months experienced an increased connectivity and density in their brain’s white matter. This was seen in people with schizophrenia and people with no clinical diagnosis (Svatkova et al., 2015)  Abstract 

Another study, conducted in Taiwan, found that people with diabetes or metabolic syndrome who utilized a stationary bike for 12 weeks showed an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor involved in supporting neural plasticity processes- growth and differentiation of new neurons and neuron connections (Tsai et al., 2015) Abstract 

Why do fitness professionals fail to mention that exercise benefits the brain? There are probably three primary reasons for this. First, they are not familiar with the research, which is usually conducted in the field of brain science, as opposed to exercise science. Second, the subject matter can be intimidating – the brain is arguably the most complex structure in existence. Third, they have minimal knowledge of the brain and brain processes, thus they would rather not discuss the topic (brain is often the domain of cognitive, behavioral and neuroscientists).

Some of the key mechanisms mediating the effects of exercise on the brain:

Synaptic plasticity Angiogenesis & vascular growth factors
Neurotransmitters & growth factors.
Synaptic plasticity
Spine density

In my seminar -Your Brain & Exercise- these mechanisms are discussed in detail.  Other topics discussed: why health pros fail to mention brain benefits of exercise, physical activity and school curriculum, exercise and Parkinson’s, depression, stroke, neuroplasticity demystified, what type of exercise (aerobic vs. anaerobic), exercise recommendations for brain health, future research directions, etc. 

In conclusion, exercise offers an array of benefits.  Brain health is imperative to overall health.  The brain is part of the body, and should be referred as so.  Discard use of the phrases “brain and body” and “mental and physical.” The brain is part of the body, and all mental processes emanate from a physical structure: the brain.  

Further Reading: 

Exercise and The Brain   

 Your Brain on Exercise

Exercise Benefits Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease 

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

It's Only a Theory??

“It’s only a theory” is a phrase often used to suggest that the theory in question is weak.  This phrase is often used as a response to a theory that one doesn’t agree with or understand.  It is imperative to recognize that theory in science is drastically different than the type of theory discussed in everyday conversation.  In science, theory represents a body of knowledge that offers an explanation for converging lines of evidence. Science needs theory!   Lay person theory (everyday theory) reflects speculation or a guess directed at explaining phenomena. 
“Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.”  National Center for Science Education

“The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.” National Academy of Sciences

When juxtaposing lay theory and scientific theory it is evident that they are very different.  “It’s only a theory” is a powerful statement in the context of science, as theory represents a high status on the ladder of explanation.  It is probably a good idea to abandon the phrase “It’s only a theory” when discussing theories in science. The type of statement is more appropriately directed at lay person theory.

Modern civilization is largely dependent on science and technology.  Most people would agree, most of the time.  That is, until science repudiates cherished beliefs.  Scientific processes are unquestionably the most powerful we have for uncovering reality.  Of course, scientific processes demonstrate weaknesses, but they are the best we have for understanding the universe.
Understanding and appreciating the full implications of science, requires, at least, a basic knowledge of the history of science, philosophy of science and matters of scientific literacy.  In addition, an understanding of research methodology and statistics will be beneficial in regards to:

Reading scientific journals

Distinguishing science from pseudoscience (in popular science articles)

Protection from quacks

Being a better thinker

Being an independent consumer of research information (you can decide the credibility of the information)

Being a consistent scientific thinker (applying principles of scientific thinking to all contexts)

To learn more about scientific thinking refer to In Evidence We Trust: The Need for ScienceRationality and Statistics

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Systematic Approach To Knowledge

Science is a systematic approach to knowledge; concerned with discovering reality, overcoming personal biases, avoiding superstitious and various other types of cognitive errors.  Proper use of the scientific method(s) leads us to rationalism (basing conclusion on intellect, logic and evidence). Relying on science also helps us avoid dogmatism (adherence to doctrine over rational and enlightened inquiry, or basing conclusion on authority rather than evidence), and leads us closer to reality.  Scientific processes/ methods are unmistakably the most successful processes we have for describing, predicting and explaining phenomena in the observable universe. If reality is your preference then science is the way. 

“Science is not the mysterious, distant, smoking-test-tube sort of a priesthood that many imagine it to be. Rather, it is simply an organized, formal method of finding out.”  James Randi
General approach
The scientific approach to knowledge is based on systematic empiricism (Stanovich, 2007).  Observation itself is necessary in acquiring scientific knowledge, but unstructured observation of the natural world does not lead to an increased understanding of the world. “Write down every observation you make from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed on a given day. When you finish, you will have a great number of facts, but you will not have a greater understanding of the world” (Stanovich & Stanovich, 2003, p. 12).
Systematic Empiricism is systematic because it is structured in a way that allows us to learn more precisely about the world.  After careful systematic observations, such as those in controlled experiments, some causal relationships are supported while others are rejected. Extending these observations, scientists propose general explanations that will explain the observations.  “We could observe end-less pieces of data, adding to the content of science, but our observations would be of limited use without general principles to structure them” (Myers & Hansen, 2002, p. 10).
The empirical approach (as used in everyday observation) allows us to learn things about the world.  However, everyday observations are often made carelessly and unsystematically.  Thus, using everyday observations in an attempt to describe, predict and explain phenomena is problematic.
When observing phenomena a scientist likes to exert a specific level of control.  When utilizing control, scientists investigate the effects of various factors one by one.  A key goal for the scientist is to gain a clearer picture of those factors that actually produce a phenomenon.  It has been suggested that systematic control is the key feature of science.  Non-scientific approaches to knowledge are often made unsystematically and with little care.  The non-scientific approach does not attempt to control very many factors that could affect the events they are observing (don’t hold conditions constant).  This lack of control makes it difficult to determine cause-and-effect relationships (too many confounds, unintended independent variable). 
The factors that the researcher manipulates, in experimental research, to determine their effects on behavior are called the independent variables.  In its simplest form the independent variable has two levels.  A variable is manipulated when participants / subjects are assigned to receive different levels of the variable.    These two levels (or conditions) include the experimental condition; the condition in which the treatment is present and the control condition; the condition in which the treatment is absent.  Only with experimental research can we determine cause and effect (or probability of causal relationship).
The measures that are used to assess the effect of the independent variables are called dependent variables (Shaughnessy & Zechmeister, 1990).  Proper control techniques must be used if changes in the dependent variable are to be interpreted as a result of the effects of the independent variable. Scientists often divide control technique into three types: manipulation, holding conditions constant, and balancing.  We have already discussed manipulation when we looked at the two levels of the independent variable.   Holding conditions constant other than the independent variables is a key factor associated with control.  This helps eliminate the possibility of confounds influencing the measured outcome.
Balancing is used to control factors that cannot be manipulated or held constant (e.g. subjects characteristics).  The most common method of balancing is to assign subjects randomly to the different groups being tested.   An example of random assignment would be putting names on a slip of paper and drawing them from a hat (flipping coin or number generator may also be used for random assignment).  This does not mean there will be no differences in the subject’s characteristics, but the differences will probably be minor, and generally have minimal effect on the results. 

How can two people witness the same event but see different things?  This often occurs due to personal biases and subjective impressions.  These characteristics are common traits among non-scientists.  Their reports often go beyond what has just been observed and involve speculation.  In the book Research Methods in Psychology (Shaughnessy & Zechmeister, 1990) an excellent example is given demonstrating the difference between scientific and non-scientific reporting.  An illustration is provided showing two people running along the street with one person running in front of the other.  The scientist would report it in the way it was just described.  The non-scientist may take it a step further and report one person is chasing the other or they are racing.  The non-scientist has a tendency to speculate more than the scientist.  This type of reporting lacks objectivity.
Scientific reporting attempts to be objective and unbiased.  One way to lessen the chance of biased reporting is checking to see if other independent observers report the same findings.  Even when using this checkpoint the possibility of bias is still present.  Following strict guidelines to prevent biased reporting decreases the chances of it occurring.  Totally unbiased reporting, rarely, if ever occurs.  Scientists are humans, and humans are susceptible to a wide range of conscious and unconscious biases. 

In part 2 additional characteristics of the systematic approach to knowledge will be discussed.
To learn more about science, rationality and statistics read In Evidence We Trust: The Need for Science, Rationality andStatistics 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bad Evidence

When discussing evidence it is important to point out that Common Evidence (evidence in the context of everyday discussion) is drastically different than Scientific Evidence (evidence derived from scientific processes).   Common Evidence, generally consists of proof or testimony.  Webster’s New Dictionary of The English Language (2006) provides the following definitions for evidence:  “1: outward sign  2: proof or testimony.”  An outward sign, proof or testimony are ambiguous, and can mean almost anything.  From a scientific perspective, testimonials, anecdotes, they-says, wishful thinking and so on do not count for evidence.  Testimonials exist for almost any claim you can imagine.  That does not mean that claims of this sort have no value. However, they have little value in the context of science.  Experiences are confounded (confused by alternative explanations). Experiences may be important in some contexts, and they may serve as meaningful research questions.  However, a meaningful question or a possible future finding is not synonymous with evidence; although, in the future either could become evidence (Hale, 2013).  Scientific evidence is derived from scientific studies.  All scientific evidence is not created equal.  Many bad studies get published and many good studies do not get published. 

The contents of this article address scientific evidence. I address Common Evidence in a different article- Testimonials Aren't Real Evidence
Understanding research methods & statistics

Reading and understanding research methods and statistics are not easy.  For most people formal training may be necessary to gain a firm understanding of these relatively difficult subjects.  There are people that lack formal training, in these areas, that have exceptional knowledge on these topics. 

Scientific methods are the most powerful methods we have for discovering reality.  Statistics allows us to organize, summarize, and interpret research data collected from samples. In order to fully appreciate and apply the knowledge that has been acquired through the scientific process it is imperative to have a basic understanding of scientific research methodology.  Scientific Methodology-scientific techniques used to collect and evaluate data. 
It is important to understand that all research methods play an important role in leading us to tentative conclusions concerning how things work in the observable universe.  But, it also important to realize different types of research should be interpreted and applied in a different manner. As an example, the primary goal of correlation research is prediction, while the primary goal of experimental research is explanation / understanding (determining cause and effect relationships). 

Quantitative research is different than qualitative research.  With quantitative research the results are presented as numbers or quantities; qualitative research presents the results in words (Patten, 2004).  Knowledge of statistics is required if one is interested in understanding quantitative research.  For a detailed discussion on quantitative vs. qualitative research refer to - Understanding Research Methods by M.L. Patten and Health Psychology by L. Brannon and J. Feist. 

An understanding of research methods and statistics is attainable by most people.  However, it requires a lot of effort for most.   Understanding research requires more than reading an abstract, glossing over the Discussion section of a paper, or repeating what your favorite guru said about the results of a study. 

Bad Evidence

When considering the value of evidence, reliability and validity must be considered.  The type of study also needs to be considered. In addition, other factors should be considered when evaluating studies.  A concise discussion regarding reliability and validity is addressed here: Reliability & Validity  Refer to In Evidence We Trust (Hale, 2013) to learn more about evaluating research. 

It is imperative to recognize that not all scientific journal articles are quality articles.  Journals often publish poor studies.  And, good studies are sometimes not published.  Students in research methods and stats courses know there are a lot of bad studies published.  Students are often required to critique bad journal articles.  I hated doing this in graduate school.  However, it was great learning experience, and my ability to spot bad evidence was enhanced.   

In terms of evidence bad evidence can be thought of as no evidence.  Deciding the value of evidence is an intense intellectual activity and becomes increasingly difficult with complex studies. 

Experimental Research Fallacy

It is a fallacy that experimental research is always good research.  This fallacy is not generally explicitly stated, but may be suggested when only experimental research seems to count in regards to the discussion or topic being discussed.  As with other research methods, the reliability and validity must be considered along with additional factors that may impact the outcome or inferences regarding the outcome.  Considering internal validity (in addition to external, construct, and statistical validity) is important when evaluating experimental results.  Research methods, other than experiments, can provide valuable information, contrary to what some appear to think.  As an example, epidemiological studies were the first to detect a relationship between the behavior of smoking and heart disease (Brannon & Feist, 2010). 

If the goal is determining causation true experimentation is required. Some researchers suggest that some level of causation can determined using methods other than just experiments (Stanovich, 2007; Gore, 2013).  True experiments require tedious work and high levels of control.  However, experiments are not always practical or ethical.  Thus, one of the reasons other types of methods are needed.  If we didn’t have other research methods in addition to experiments many questions couldn’t be examined.   

Evidence Based Practice

Some people in the medical, educational, and fitness industry consider themselves evidence-based practitioners.  What is an Evidence Based Practitioner?  Consider the following illustration in relation to the medical field:  Research utilization (RU) overlaps with some of the same principles of an evidence based practice (EBP). However, EBP extends beyond the steps taken with scientific research.  Research utilization refers to the review and critique of scientific research, and then the application of the outcomes to clinical practice (Estabrooks, 1998).  Evidence-based practice (EBP) represents a wider concept. When clinicians utilize the EBP approach, they go beyond the expertise of clinicians and researchers, and consider the patient's preferences and values to guide patient care (Ingersoll, 2000).  This sort of ambiguous definition is problematic.  How can this concept be operationalized?  

Operationism (using operational definitions) removes the concept from the feelings and intuitions of an individual and allows it to be tested by anyone with the resources to carry out the measures (Stanovich, 2007).
When clinical recommendations are incongruent with statistical recommendations one should generally prefer statistical recommendations.  Refer to the following article to learn more about clinical vs. statistical prediction- When Experts Are Wrong  
Procedures for enhancing medical adherence may involve not only scientific findings.  Adherence to the program or treatment plan should be considered. The treatment provider and patient relationship should also be considered in terms of efficacy.  Research indicates a positive relationship between clinician and patient is often associated with a positive outcome (Benedetti, 2011)  Does one practicing medicine need to be well read in science to perform well as a clinician?  Of course, in order to understand and explain how things work a scientific understanding is needed.  But, recipe knowledge may work fine in regards to successful clinical practice.  
I have asked many of the self-proclaimed evidence based fitness crowd to provide a definition, or at least an approximate definition of evidence based fitness, but I haven’t even received an answer.  If there are no guidelines, criteria, or approximations of the concept- Evidence Based Fitness (EBF)- the concept is weak.  If this concept is hard to test or as some have suggested non-testable, then it is a non-scientific matter.  If what is implied by EBF is that some elements of the training program adhere to scientific findings then it is reasonable to suggest most successful programs are evidence based.  Just as successful diet programs are successful due to some scientific principles, whether the proponents of the diet programs are aware or not of what those principles are.  In addition to lacking a definition, other problems exist regards EBF- logical inconsistency, and no evidence indicating that clients of evidence based fitness practitioners has better outcomes.    

The following questions need to be addressed:

Do trainers need to be well read in science and statistics to be good trainers?
Isn’t a large part of fitness training artistic in nature?
Should evidence based practitioners ridicule people for making non-evidence based fitness claims, and then proceed to make irrational claims associated with other domains of knowledge?
What is the ultimate objective of the EBF crowd?  To be well read in science, to design quality training programs or both?
How can EBF be operationalized?  

Do those that call themselves evidence based fitness trainers understand research methods and statistics?

The evidence based fitness movement can have some positive implications- highlighting the importance of science, encouraging people to learn more about science, and encouraging thorough evaluation of popular fitness claims.


Bad evidence is often published in science journals.  Understanding that not all scientific journal articles are created equal is imperative.  To reiterate, experimental research is one of many scientific methods.  Other methods can contribute to an understanding of the universe.