Can you do neuroscience research outside of the lab?

The brain is one of the most fascinating, complex, and deeply personal wonders of the world. Each of us carries one around each day, but very few of us get to see ours in action. But what if we could? We might discover truths not written in any textbook, yet.

Brain imaging equipment can cost millions of dollars and precise observational methods can require extensive training. This adds up to neuroscience researchers keeping all the brain-peeking fun to themselves, basically hanging out in labs discussing biological jewels that few others get to see. In fact, we enjoy hanging out there so much that even when we recruit people to participate in our research, we don’t even go to them. We require that they visit us in our labs. Then, we conduct the research behind closed doors, and if we’re lucky, the fruits of our work get published in academic journals, but locked behind paywalls. Wait, sorry, I got carried away, that’s a rant for another day. Back on topic.

Here’s my question: what if we could reverse this picture and go meet people where they are — by doing neuroscience research out in public?

On April 29, 2017, I began to do just that.

But really, why do it?

One of the big problems in behavioral research — including psychology and neuroscience — is that 67–80% of what we know about the brain comes solely from college undergraduates (Henrich, 2010). Since there are fewer than 20 million undergraduates in the US out of a total population of around 325 million, that means we’re only studying about 6% of our population and hoping they generalize to the other 94%. Given how much we know that the brain changes from childhood to adulthood to older age, that seems pretty unlikely. Age is not the only difference, of course; the experiences we go through change our brains, so you are not even the same person you were yesterday. Anyway, before we go too far down that rabbit hole, I’ll just state my goal. Ultimately, I believe that we need to gather data from more people in research — explore all the beautiful neurodiversity that our species has to offer — in order to create personalized education, healthcare, and other systems. After all, we should create innovations that help all people, not just college students! Ok, soapbox speech ended. Now you understand my desire to leave the lab and venture out into the world in search of more representative data.

The March for Science in San Francisco agreed to take my organization (NeuroEducate) on as a partner, and I set up a booth there. With the help of wonderful research partners at Sapien Labs, as well as generous support from Muse, Muse Monitor, and a team of amazing volunteers, I went out into the crowds of San Francisco and showed people their brain activity in real time.

Huge thanks to the brilliant and kind Cheryl Isaacson at Lincoln Street Studios, the mastermind behind this short film.

After the March, a postdoc friend of mine at Stanford Medical School decided to join in on the next adventure. There was a music festival coming up that had expressed interest, and it seemed like a good event for us to set up our little mobile research shop. We had some questions, though…

Would gathering brain activity out in the open air at a music festival actually work?

Our biggest worry was that the brain activity data would be too noisy to interpret. We used low-cost, consumer, mobile EEG headsets which are not as sensitive and accurate as in-lab rigs. Furthermore, concerts are loud. In addition to sound, there is electrical noise from the sound systems, what about muscle movement which has its own electrical signature, etc. Still, if it worked at all, and if we found enough non-college students interested in participating in our studies, we would be adding a valuable, underrepresented dataset. How? To offset the music, I used acoustic headsets — the type that construction workers use onsite — and had our participants wear them during the recordings. I used a few other tricks to improve the recordings, but even so, many of the signal quality issues had to be addressed during the data cleaning phase. If you have detailed questions about this, please reach out to the email at the bottom of this page and we’ll follow up with more detail.

What would people do while we recorded from them?

Since there are so many unknowns when you leave the lab, I wanted to start by replicating a straightforward protocol used frequently in lab settings. If we got similar enough data out in the wild to what people get in the lab, we would have more confidence that we were getting “real” signal. Then, maybe we could push the envelope and ask questions not possible in a traditional lab setting. First things first, though: pick a nice, boring, simple protocol. Here’s what we chose: have participants sit quietly with their eyes open for 4–5 minutes and then with their eyes closed for 4–5 minutes and record their brain activity. Look for differences between the two conditions. If the differences look similar to what we see in the lab, use that as a baseline from which to do more exotic studies.

…Neuroscience out in the open?

A few months later, we found ourselves at a Music and Science concert around 30 miles north of San Francisco, watching a laser light show, listening to a Pink Floyd tribute band, and enabling crowds of people to view their own brain activity in real time. Over the course of this second adventure (and the original one at the March for Science in San Francisco), a large, if somewhat unconventional, dataset began to form. We started to wonder whether we should share what we found.

My collaborator and I put together a poster and submitted it to the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society. They were intrigued enough to accept it to their 2018 conference; this past weekend, we flew out to Los Angeles to present.

These were the three questions we asked in our research (and covered in our poster):

  1. If we set up a booth at an open-air festival, would many participants volunteer to provide EEG data?
  2. Would the participant population be more diverse than traditional studies?
  3. Could we successfully replicate traditional laboratory protocols in a naturalistic setting? Also, could we get any kind of decent EEG data, given that we were outside, it was noisy, we had to convince people to sit still, etc?

Spoiler alert: We were pleasantly surprised…Details in the poster below.

The big question…Could we capture usable amounts of brain activity data (using mobile EEG) from people sitting quietly, first with their eyes open and then with their eyes closed? Details above.

If you’re interested in getting involved in conducting neuroscience outside of the lab (as a participant, a researcher, a sponsor, etc), or if you’re just wondering what other projects we’re up to, we’d love to hear from you! Just email info@neuroeducate.com.