Field Work – South Africa 2016


In August 2016 I, Karri Neldner, and Jon Redshaw went to South Africa to conduct field work. Karri and I had spent time together doing fieldwork in Vanuatu, and Jon and Karri had previously worked together examining Great Ape cognition.

Left to right. Jon, Karri, Me. Those are not my sunglasses.

We arrived in Johannesburg, and after a brief trip through Kruger National Park (when in South Africa!) we linked up with our contact Keyan Tomaselli, and one of his graduate students, Ìtùnú Bódúnrìn. Our goal was to pack a 4WD and drive 400+ km to Kimberley, conduct some work with the wonderful !Xun and San people in Platfontein. Thereafter to drive another 400+ km (including a long stretch in the Kalahari) where would work with the local community at Molopo.

We were incredibly fortunate to have met Keyan previouly. Keyen been making this trip for more than 20 years, and several years ago, my PhD supervisor Mark Nielsen (who also supervises Karri) began attending these treks cross-country (where he took steps to examine the universality of Over-imitation). In 2016 he sent Karri and I instead. This work would not have been possible without the immense investment of Keyan and the amazing work he has been doing with traditional communities throughout South Africa.

We spent several days in Johannesburg preparing for the trip. Buying supplies for ourselves and the vehicle, and preparing stimuli and run sheets.  Then we got moving. South Africa is a country of fire. There are constant thin plumes of rising black smoke dotted across the horizon. That is when you can see the horizon; once out of the cities it’s just as likely you’ll be winding around tall, coloured rock mountains. But, like any road trip, it was hot and cramped, long, and not everyone was happy with the choice of music (and we were constantly terrified of South African drivers)… but we survived the first leg. Once in Kimberley we met some of Keyan’s colleagues (who graciously provided many great dinners and a bed for Karri). We then connected with the community to began recruiting translators. We found four fantastic guys – Jason, Norman, Skambo, and Andre. As will become a truism: without them, this research would not have run as smoothly as it did. We soon got down to work.

We had practised for this moment: We set our projects up in such a way that we could easily run children through each of our studies without draining them, boring them, or corrupting our own data. Jon went first. Jon was replicating prior findings looking at how children make predictions about the future (built on this work). Karri went second, and was looking at how and when children would innovate on natural-type problems (below). While I went third. My task was a new task (thought up while in Vanuatu) that related to how rituals influence our memory for action sequences. I designed a whole new kind of puzzle box, which had a particular set of affordances that meant that some actions were important and some where not (and I could vary how obvious this was!).

Karri testing in Platfontein. School is out for the big kids. Courtesy Jon Redshaw

We spent three solid days camped out inside the community schools. First in the San language area, than the !Xun. Each of us had a rather challenging task ahead, which required carefully balancing the number of children in each condition as a function of their age. It wasn’t perfect random assignment, but based on past experience and advice from our supervisor, we had structures in place to avoid making errors (and losing valuable data). As anyone will tell you, fieldwork is tiring and trying. Not only is it the sole purpose of your trip (so you better make it happen!) but you have to keep the translators happy and paying attention (ensuring they don’t give away any hints to the children), the children entertained (and in another language! You have to learn the local variant of the hi-5…), and all your apparatus and equipment in working order (Is the lighting ok for the camera? How are the batteries?).

A school building in the Kalahari

We were very lucky, everything ran smoothly. In the evenings (when we weren’t exhausted) we would back up and code our data. In the evenings we would return to the house of Keyan’s colleagues (Johan and Elsabe), and enjoy a cold beer and some excellent home-cooked meals. On our final day in Kimberly, we enjoy a contemporary Braai. We ate all the parts of all the animals in all the shapes meat can be made to take. It was delicious.

The next day we began planning for the next leg. We had given away all our rewards for the children, and Karri had used up various expendable elements of her research. We needed more supplies. After we had sorted this (a couple days worth of work) we jumped into the 4WD again and headed toward the Kalahari. The community in the Molopo region was considerable more remote than the one at Platfontein, and so we had to make a few more considerations in our planning, but that said, we ended up staying in a Hunting Lodge a short distance from the communities we would be visiting. Both Jon and Karri are huge fans of Africa, and so travelling into the ‘red dirt’ region of the country was something they were very excited for, and in the end I too was mightily impressed with the South Africa’s beauty. But at the same time, I was surprised at how cold the desert was!

This is what it looked like driving through parts of the Kalahari. We’d jog along the roads some afternoons to avoid going stir-crazy. We had the same view, only it moved more slowly.

We made contact with a local man – Dion – who was respected in the community and who was a good friend of Keyan’s. Again, through these pre-existing networks, we found some excellent translators – Anneke, Dion, Hendrick – and set out to work. Both here and in Platfontein everyone was incredibly accommodating and eager to participate. The local schools (which was a fenced off area the size of two tennis courts, with a small playground and a couple of small buildings) all but shut-down to allow the kids to interact with us. We couldn’t have been more grateful for their help. Again, we powered through our protocols with the help of our translators, and after another stretch of full working days, endless children, and almost-but-not-always co-operative technology, we succeeded in collecting our data. Not only did we all end up with a more than 100 children having participated in each of our experiments, we all managed to balance our cells across age ranges nicely. A coup by developmental cross-cultural psychology standards!

A little girl from the Molopo region participating in my experiment with Hendrick translating. Courtesy Jon Redshaw

Again, each evening was spent uploading, backing up, and coding our data. Though the hunting lodge did have a few affordances (and, Oh, the food!), and so were were able to enjoy great food and a cold beer at a very Afrikaner lodge bar. It feels a little embarrassing to admit how comfortable this setting was, but sometimes you eat fish and get food poisoning in Vanuatu, and other times you get to eat Springbok Pie (always order the Springbok).

When the children weren’t playing soccer, they were constructing terrifying trampolines and flinging themselves down hills. Courtesy Jon Redshaw

However, like any field trip, the whole exercise was not without its hiccups. On at least on occasion we arrived at a location and no-one was there to greet us. We just hung around a rusty windmill. It was probably haunted. There was a surprise dog attacks (don’t worry, it ended up being fine). After playing with the children in Molopo, I ripped my pants and had to spend a whole afternoon testing wearing thoroughly tattered clothes. On a quick joy ride we incapacitated our 4WD in the middle of the desert. Testing was interrupted one day by a sand storm. And all the while, in the Kalahari, the annual rains were threatening to arrive.  But that’s all entirely offset by meeting everyone who lives in these places. On our final night in the Kalahari we had a traditional Braai. It was a little less put together than the more elaborate Kimberley version, but the food was just as good (if not better – the best way to eat a Pork Chop is to Braai it!).

And so we began our ~850 km trek back to Johannesburg. Jon and Karri went north to find Chimps (and to hopefully conduct more work), while I returned to Australia to analyse my data. The manuscript, as of February 2017, is in prep.

Sunset in the dunes of the Kalahari.

Field Work – Vanuatu 2016

In April 2016 I, and two colleagues, spent a month in Vanuatu conducting research with the traditional (‘Kastom’) children in the highlands of Tanna island. Sometimes life is hell, right? My two colleagues were Jac Davis, our intrepid and experienced leader who had already spent some time with the people on Tanna, and Karri Neldner, a woman with experience traveling to remote destinations to do interesting work.

We arrived in Port Villa, and not even 24 hours later we were woken by an earthquake during the night (not our last for the trip!), and less 36 hours later we were getting reports of a cyclone to the north (only a year after Cyclone Pam leveled much of the island system). We spent a few days doing necessary legwork – obtaining permits, arranging flights, buying food and gifts – in preparation for our trip to Tanna, a small southern island. We had made plans to visit the Kastom villages of Ikunala and Yakel to work with the children.

We arrived in the township of Lanakel on Tanna incident free (the cyclone did not bear south) and met some of Jac’s colleagues and friends, who would help us arrange further plans. It rained for several days, but fortuitously, this gave us the opportunity to manage some unexpected issues involving translators. In the end we had a great team of locals, two of whom knew many of the children in Ikunala, which certainly helped our research run more smoothly.

Here I am working with a young boy in Ikunala.

Here I am working with a young boy in Ikunala.

Soon thereafter we made our way up the rugged track to the village of Ikunala, where we were greeted by near-naked men and excited children. We were shown our quarters (a spacious palm-thatched hut) and were given a tour. We participated in a welcoming ceremony, and offered our gifts of Kava root, coconuts, and dried meat. We were then asked to get down to work (we were a day late, and many families had walked from neighboring villages to participate). That day we tested more than 25 children. The next day we tested more than 30. The day after, the same again. It was hard work, with few breaks, and only pressed dirt and woven mats to rest on.

A young boy and an infant in Ikunala.


In the evenings I (the only man of our troupe) drank Kava with the men of the community in the Nakamal (a traditional men-only place, and that particular evening is a whole other story), while Jac and Karri spent time with the women cooking Laplap (that, too, is a whole other story).  On our second evening we participated in a full evening of dance under the stars, which we then repeated the morning after (in full Kastom dress). We spent three full days in the village, but had been prepared for many more. Ultimately we were far more successful than we could have reasonably hoped for.

After spending a few days back at at ‘base camp’ (which was actually a rather idyllic guesthouse, even if the water wasn’t hot and feral dogs prowled at night) we went halfway back up the ridge to visit a school. It was run by a woman who Jac had met previously, and it gave us some insight into the kind of education the kids receive outside of the townships (though it should be stressed, the children we tested in Ikunala did not receive any of this schooling). The school was actually run by the mother of one of our translators, and it became apparent how useful a few Australian dollars would be for them. (After we returned to Australia Karri and I raised ~$500 for them, which was enough to buy many necessary educational and building materials).

Karri and Jac walking down a path only 30 seconds from the Guest House


We returned back to camp and spent a few days managing our individual projects – inputting and backing-up data, writing, and coding. Given our success at Ikunala, but not quite having reached our ideal N, we arranged to head to Yakel. Yakel has the best PR of all the kastom villages, though their kastom is ‘less’ than others in some respects. This took a few additional days of leg-work, but was possible because Jac knew a prominent man from Yakel who arranged to facilitate our visit and act as a translator. A few days later we made the much longer journey, up a different ridge, to the village. As before we met the chiefs and many of the villagers (though not all, it was considerably larger than the first), thanked them, and introduced the kinds of research and games we would play with the children. We only spent one day at Yakel, and as before, it was hard work (even if the photos don’t convey this). We returned to the base-camp that night.

Young boys in Yakel waiting to participate

Having essentially finished our data collection we settled down into a few days (again) of backing up dating, coding, analysis, and writing. Given the nature of Jac’s and Karri’s projects, they ended up arranging some additional testing with a school in Lanakel. The logic was that these kids – in formal schooling – might represent a population halfway between the WEIRD kids in Australia, and the Kastom kids on the hill. This wasn’t appropriate for my study, and so I stayed at the guesthouse (though it should be noted I had been pretty much constantly sick since we arrived, and lying in bed was actually sort of necessary at this point). It was at this point, after data had been coded, cleaned, and analysed, that I discovered I had failed to find support for my hypothesis. Bummer. (The publication, as of July, is in preparation). While this was a downer, I began preparing a new experiment to conduct back in Australia (and ideally, also in South Africa – the next trip).

Without going into too much detail, at this point of the trip – several weeks in – we three finally found a day or two off from the near-constant work. Karri and I crossed the entire island to climb Mt. Yassur, an extremely active and awe-inspiring (dread-inspiring) volcano. On the trip back we spent considerable time with an older woman in the back of the truck, who shared a great deal of cultural knowledge with me. On topics relating to the legend of Yassur, the significance of cooking and a wife’s obligations to her family, as well as topics involving spirits, heaven, and hell.

There is so much that isn’t included in this brief essay. My near constant sickness (which included one night where I was more sick than I likely had ever been in my life), the trucks and the roads, the idyllic beaches, the red-cross workers, the gossip and the traditional system of ‘justice’, the friendliness of the locals, the sheer contrast between Australia and Vanuatu (and how men and women are treated). Overall the trip did not yield the results I had hoped, but did provide valuable insight into the theories and behavior I am grappling with.

Front left to right: Selena (translator), Jac Davis, Mary (Translator), Rachel (Translator/Cultural Centre Delegate), Karri Neldner. Full Kastom dress on our final morning in Ikunala.

The Ritual Stance and the Precaution System

I have just published the second paper of my PhD, ‘The Ritual Stance and the Precaution System’ in Religion, Brain & Behavior. I have put together a brief 3-minute video summarising the present findings in the context of the paper that preceded it.

I won’t summarise the findings here, because, well, that’s what the video is for. For those of you who want more meat (or nuance) simply download the full paper here. Further, I have made my data available at OSF (click here). Unfortunately, I didn’t have the foresight to pre-register my predictions, but you’ll notice there are (as of publishing this post) two pre-registered studies online, and I intend to register at least two more in the near future.

This is my third experiment (over two papers) using this particular methodology (here is the first). For those playing along at home, I am in the process of replicating this behaviourally in the lab. While I won’t go into too much detail on that just yet, I can say I have completed one experiment (on undergrads) and am completing the same experiment with a convenience sample of people out in public.

6 and a half pointers to help you lose 3MT

Click to jump to to the pointers. 

Last week I competed in the UQ finals for the 3-Minute Thesis. For those of you who are unaware, the 3MT is a world-wide competition that asks post-grad students to communicate the thrust of their research in 3-minutes, using a single static slide, and in a way that an intelligent but non-expert audience can understand (click here for full criteria).

Getting to this level of competition is no mean feat. I won second place at the entry level of the competition (within the School of Psychology), then won first place at the second level (Faculty of Health and Behavioral Sciences).  My university takes the competition pretty seriously, offering a 5K travel grant and entry in to the Trans-Tasman competition for first place, and a 2K travel grant for second.

Despite my preparation I did not persuade the judges. I did however feel good about my speech. I performed it as well as I could have hoped, even if my experience on the stage was that some of my ‘notes’ didn’t quite resonate with the audience. That said, I definitely needed to smile more. Here I am:


Below is second place, Shaun Chen, who also won People’s Choice. Shaun was my favourite speaker of the night, and a very worthy winner. I saw him present an earlier version of his work some weeks prior, and was very impressed with the changes he made – they were well considered and impactful. Shaun had good stage-craft, and committed to his bit well.

And here is Teegan Green, the winner. I’ll be honest, I was not particularly impressed. While her topic is fairly sexy, she rushed her speech in the last minute, and employed jargon and bafflegab (“Using construal theory, developed in 2003… and later refined in a 2010…”). That said, she used her voice quite well (when unrushed) and was able to hit a lot of notes. I suspect using audience participation was also a factor in the winning decision (as no-one else did it). I was not a judge, nor do I have any insight into the decision making process of the judges that night, but I do believe there were several stronger contenders (specifically, Alyce Swinbourne).

Nonetheless, a panel of judges must have seen something I missed, and I wish Teegan the best of luck at the next level (and excellent travels!).

I have to thank a number of people who offered me incredibly helpful advice and feedback during the 3MT process. Historically, people like Will Harrison, Matt Thompson and Wen Wu (all previous 3MT winners) have shaped how I approached the competition. More recently, people like Zan Saeri, Morgan Tear, Tim Ballard, and Rachel Searston (as well as a few others) offered very constructive feedback on several iterations of the speech. Here I offer a few insights that I was given / developed over the last few years.

Click to read pointers…

Continue reading

My First-First Publication

Sure, it’s not my first publication, but it is my first first-author publication.

If you want the cliffs-notes please watch the video, but if you want the reference or the full document, please follow this link or see below:

Kapitány, R., & Nielsen, M. (2015). Adopting the ritual stance: The role of opacity and context in ritual and everyday actions. Cognition, 145, 13-29.



Since the thrust of the paper is available in at least two modalities already, I won’t spend any more words explaining what I did and what I found. Instead, I’ll simply point you to the data hosted on Open Science Framework.

I’ll make one final comment. This story hasn’t yet ended. I have a manuscript in preparation that explores the limits of the effect, and I’m currently running an experiment to validate the effect behaviourally. Slightly more far-sightedly, I’m working on elucidating (and then testing) the mechanism by which this effect is bought about. Though for that discussion you’ll have to wait until the next manuscript is published.

I will make the stimulus available in the very near future (8/9/2015).

Please feel free to contact me with any questions or criticisms here.

2015 Flame Challenge Finalist!

Wow. The finalists for the 2015 Flame Challenge have been announced, and I have the honour to count myself among them. I’m incredibly flattered and humbled to be included, and would like to thank everyone who voted (and continues to vote!).

For those who haven’t seen my entry, here it is:

And for teachers, or those who know teachers, you can register your class to participate and vote for the best video and written entries here via the Flame Challenge website.

When I first submitted I wrote a post discussing my thoughts on the 2015 competition, in which I selected my top 5 entries, and made a few bold claims. Based on the other two entries that made the final list (both from my favourites!), I have to admit: I may have been wrong. At the very least… I have changed my mind. I argued that with such a time constraint, and with a particularly lay audience, videos that included a lot of ambiguity were at a disadvantage to those that presented a clear, authoritative answer without conceding the difficulty of the field [of sleep]. Well, credit to every 11 year old who judged! Both other entries go some way to making this concession, while at the same time covering a considerable range of information. That said, this question is qualitatively different from previous years, but my concerns are somewhat diminished.

I guess I should have been more generous, though. When I gave a presentation on Colour (last year’s topic)  to 11-year-olds at a local primary school, they loved it, got on board with concepts I thought were particularly difficult, and asked a few tricky questions.

Presenting to 11-year-olds on the topic of Colour. This image features a contrast illusion in which, when the full image is presented, the same object can look black under some conditions, but white under others.

Presenting to 11-year-olds on the topic of Colour. This image features a contrast illusion in which, when the full image is presented, the same object can look black under some conditions, but white under others.

So, props to both Matteo Farinella and Eric Galacia [no link available] for winning the hearts and minds of the Flame Challenge judges. Their entries can be viewed at the 2015 Flame Challenge, or in my previous post. Best of luck to both them! It’s hard for me to pick my favourite – Galacia’s humour hits the spot and his knowledge of his audience is clear, but Farinella brings a broad range of information to his audience with a unique style.

And of course, GOOD LUCK to the JUDGES who, I hope one day, will becomes scientists, too!

If you’ve found your way to my website and would like more information, you can contact me here, or follow me on twitter (@psycasm).

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My first conference and Labstay

I recently completed an exhausting and whirlwind work tour of the United States from the 17th to the 31st of March. It began with a conference in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), was interrupted by a brief (recreational) stopover in New York, and ended with a week long stay in Austin (Texas).

The conference ran from the 19th to the 21st of March and was hosted by the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD). This was my first conference as a graduate student, and I was travelling with both my Supervisor, Mark Nielsen, and a UQ colleague, Siobhan Kennedy. The conference itself is, by reputation, a monster: Over 4000 presentation items were jammed into the bi-annual 3-day event hosted in a convention centre that occupied an entire city block. It was awesome, and exhausting, and eminently valuable. We arrived a day and a half prior to the conference to acclimatize a little (both in terms of jetlag and the temperature) before diving head-long into the conference itself. I wasn’t presenting anything, which afforded me a lot of freedom to meet others and attend other people’s events. I spent easily more than half my time in the poster sessions, talking to fellow grad students and senior academics who were addressing a range of relevant and interesting questions.  I met Jöern Klinger (University of Texas at Austin) who is looking at the role of cognitive opacity in overimitation in adults and children. While his methods differ considerably from mine, I too am looking at the role cognitive opacity plays in how we interpret social events, and I found his research very exciting. I met Kirsten Lesage (University of California) who is looking at whether children believe biblical events could actually happen as a function of their religious background and prayer as a causal mechanism. While not central to my primary interests, our conversations lead to other work which did seem very relevant, and I look forward to hearing about in the future. I don’t remember how I came to meet Adam Boyette (Duke University), but he and I shared a lot of higher-level thoughts on how to conduct research on the evolution of culture, particularly in a cross-cultural context. I found his insights uniquely thought-provoking given he has a background in Anthropology (not Psychology). Naturally I met dozens of other interesting early career researchers, too many to list. Though it is worth mentioning that I happened across Professor Jacquie Woolley (University of Texas at Austin), a big name when it comes to children’s understanding of Fantasy/Reality and the Supernatural, presenting her poster. Jacquie graciously and generously offered feedback on upcoming experiment of mine involving supernatural agents. I was fortunate later to again meet her at The University of Texas, where we discussed both her work and my own, and – again, graciously – offered to provide comments on my experiment when it was completed. And thanks to a mutual friend and colleague here at UQ,  I met Thalia Goldstein (Pace University) for coffee, who does super interesting work in the field children’s understanding of supernatural agents. I was also afforded the opportunity to catch up with some old friends from UQ, Cam Turner (Durham University) and Jac Davis (Cambridge), who, along with their respective colleagues, helped while away the after-hours in a strange city.


From left to right: Jac, Siobhan, Me (Rohan), Mark, Cam. Background: the masks of our vanquished academic foes.

All that said, the absolute highlight of the SRCD conference for me was Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa’s symposia. I thought I had a fairly good forest-level-view of this kind of comparative/primatology literature – but I was wrong. Everything about Matsuzawa’s work, from his data and methods, to his illustrations and concluding thesis, were mindblowing. The video below is not the presentation he gave at SRCD, but one he gave a year earlier in India, but appears to be highly similar.

After this Siobhan and I hurried, by train, from Philly to New York. What’s there to say about New York that hasn’t been said before? It’s big. It’s big in all the ways. I won’t linger on how I spent less than 48 hours in a city that has more words written about it than any other, except to say that I loved Central Park. It’s a phenomenal civic space. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, it has parks, and fields, and playgrounds, and baseball diamonds, and lakes, and places to get lost. The world would be a richer place if each city had a resource like Central Park.

Then I left for Austin to work with Associate Professor Cristine Legare and her lab at the University of Texas at Austin. A collaboration between Cristine, Mark (my supervisor), Rachel Watson-Jones (Cristine’s post-doc), and myself had been progressing slowly over the last year or so. While I had met Cristine and her lab at SRCD, here at Austin I really spent some solid hours with them. We worked our way through some pragmatic issues related to the experiment, built stimulus, toured facilities, and talked science. I was also very lucky to give a talk to her lab and the faculty of UT. I had gone on record earlier, in conversation with Rachel, that I hoped I was shredded – that my work was dismantled bit by bit. Back home, in Queensland, it’s really just Mark and me talking about these ideas; while I appreciate Mark’s insight into this problem at all levels of analysis, here was an opportunity to talk to a large group of people who knew, collectively, far more about the topic of ritual than I could imagine. I presented two experiments currently under review, and two in preparation, and proposed how I thought it furthered our understanding of the topic. It was well received, I think; people liked the ideas, there were a few questions, and no-one had any unanticipated issues with my claims. While I really wanted to be deeply challenged (even if it was public), I suppose the second best outcome is that everyone rather liked what I had to say :p

Picture: ACTUAL SCIENCE. Sometimes in developmental psychology you need to spend a half day building a dragon a lair. That’s just how it works.

While at UT everyone in A/P Legare’s lab, including Rachel, Nicole Wen, Jenn Clegg, Justin Busch, and Alex Etz, were incredibly hospitable, welcoming, and interested in talking theory and science. And also with filling me with food. Lots of food. And I must mention Dan Conroy-Beam, who, along with his partner and small dog, hosted me for the duration of my stay. Dan offered to take me in sight unseen, and very fortuitously, we got along famously. We had a great deal in common, from music to science, and I never once lacked for something interesting to do in Austin.

Science is freaken’ awesome. My supervisor was in a position to pay for my travel (Thanks Mark!), I met a group of like-minded interested people from all over the world at a 3-day conference, where I proceeded to follow some of them home. They then took me in, gave me all the opportunities they could, and listened to my ideas. I know also, given how few people in the world are studying what I’m studying, that I will be running into these same people at conferences, disagreeing with them (and being disagreed with), and learning from them for the foreseeable future. I look forward to this, and the future of a field with these people in it.

A momento left behind in Manny Brown's (in Philly). Please not the correct (or nearly correct) APA formatting. Name order determined scientifically (i.e., by coinflip)

A momento left behind in Manny Brown’s (in Philly). Please note the correct (or nearly correct) APA formatting. Name order determined scientifically (i.e., by coinflip)



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The Flame Challenge 2015

As promised in the heading, here’s my entry to this year’s Flame Challenge.


As you might have guessed this year the question was ‘What is Sleep?’. This was considerably harder than last year’s challenge, “What is Colour?” (see my previous entry here), mostly because the answer and the story were considerably less clear.

Sleep is a lot of things, but the one thing everyone can agree on is that it’s necessary. We, and pretty much all other animals (well, maybe), are obligate sleepers. There are plenty of observations which show how sleep benefits us, and how we slowly deteriorate without it. But we don’t have a grand unified theory of sleep, and this is, in my opinion, the sticking point. This is the very core of the question, and this is where I took my story. Evolution gave us sleep, and we’re not totally sure why.

I drove home in my answer one of the core missions of the Flame Challenge: to inspire 11-year olds. In science we can rarely deliver straight answers. A good scientist (the best, in my opinion) speak in carefully demarcated terms. Here’s what we know, here’s what we think, here’s what I think, and here’s my speculation. I love this. I tried to couch my explanation at the first two levels of explanation, and then make a call to action. We don’t know what’s going on, want to figure it out? As far as I’m concerned science is all about untangling these problems, and I have come to realise that ‘Sleep’ is a hell of a problem.

Having watched all other visual entries I note there are others with much clearer stories, much funnier narratives and devices, and a more compelling style. I like to think I’m competing with the best of them, but only time will tell. I have made one observation, however. Questions from pervious years (What is time, flame, and colour) have all had clear answers. Complicated answers, yes, but answers which the scientific community generally agrees upon. ‘Sleep’ isn’t like these previous questions, but if you didn’t know the research you could  give a single answer in an authoritative way (e.g., sleep is for cellular regeneration, or, sleep is for memory consolidation) and it would look like the field is united. This is not the case, and videos which try to tackle the ambiguity of the situation are at a disadvantage to those which tell an incomplete and partial story without conceding the mixed nature of the field. This is especially true when you consider who decides what the ‘best’ entry is. I see the value in non-expert judges, but I believe the Flame Challenge, in future years, must be mindful to balance depth and ambiguity, and compelling communication. It’s an excellent initiative to ask 11-year olds to judge these questions, but their lack of expertise may – in part – lead to a loss of rigour. I have no doubt the winner will be funny and a little bit silly (and hopefully scientifically worthy), but whether the winner is rigorous and concedes that the answer is far from resolved is an open question.

With that in mind, here are my top 5 Flame Challenge entries for 2015. These videos are a lot of things, and in my opinion they do everything a good video should and strike an excellent balance in content, delivery, and style (and stand to make my efforts look clumsy).

Number 1. I sincerely hope Alie Astrocyte makes it to the finals. This video has high production values, tackles ambiguity, has a bit of humour, and is totes professional. It also concludes well with a clear take-home message. Excellent entry.

Number 2. This video is gorgeous, and the creator, Matteo Farinella is a credible artist and scientists, and I encourage you to check out his other work. This style of explanations affords Matteo a really concise way to express dense ideas. I’d be surprised if this doesn’t make it to the finals.


Number 3. Eric Galacia nails it. I really hope he makes the finals. He doesn’t shy away from digging into seriously dense stuff, but he explains it with great gags and simple analogies and explanations. Killer entry.


Number 4. Adam Heyde has done a great job too. It’s a little bit pedagogical / PBS style (but then again, so is mine). In my opinion it’s possibly a little dense on some topics and veers away from the broader, more interesting question. That said, I think he totally hits the mark for 11-year olds.

Also, points for being Australian.


Number 5. I really like this video by Claire W, too. What gets me about this entry is her enthusiasm, and how she actually gets into the [raw] data, methods, and labs. I was a bit let down that there was no take-home at the end. After all the cool information she presented I was left to integrate it all myself. Very cool.

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My First Publication

The following article was published recently:

Nielsen, M., Kapitány, R., & Elkins, R. (2014). The Perpetuation of Ritualistic Actions as Revealed by Young Children’s Transmission of Normative Behavior.Evolution and Human Behavior.

I am the second author, and it is my first publication. Most of the experimentation involved in this study was conducted by Rosie Elkins, an honours student at the time. I became involved at quite a late stage, when my supervisor, Mark Nielsen, asked me to read the manuscript (as much for practice as anything else). He and I have been discussing the nature of ritual and overimitation for some time, and I offered my thoughts on the topic. Though I did not anticipate earning myself an authorship (after all, the majority of the work had already been completed), Mark considered my contributions to be of enough merit to include me – both as a contributor on subsequent revisions, and ultimately as an author. This was quite surprising, but very satisfying.

In order to communicate what it is exactly this research is about, I have created the following video (and intend to do so for all my publications). I have tried to pitch the video at a lay level, and so I gloss over specific methodologies and the nuance of the statistical analysis.

As I am not the primary author of this research, I am not providing the data. Associate Professor Mark Nielsen should be contacted for such information. If you are interested in reading the article, please visit my list of publications.


Swinburne Mentoring

In February this year (2014) I was approached by a man name James Marshall, a Senior Lecturer at Swinburne University (Melb.), to mentor small groups of his students on their final year research and communication project. The project was entitled ‘Wicked Scenarios’, which involved the students producing a 3 – 5 minute documentary on a complicated, intractable, and multifaceted social problem. Solutions to such  ‘wicked scenarios’ are never easy, never simple, difficult to execute, and usually only partially successful. Almost always solution to such problems are associated with unintended or unforseen consequences. James approached me to offer some topics on which I could mentor his students.

I suggested two topics I felt comfortable being an expert on. The first was ‘The Nature of Maladaptive Religious Beliefs’ and the second was ‘The Social Cost of Psuedo-Science’. Both topics were adopted by groups of students.

The first group, who opted to explore the nature of maladaptive religious beliefs, consisted of three students: Jessie, Dasty, and Hailing. There details are included below, but here is their final project (which I am proud to have been a part of)


Wicked Scenarios – Maladaptive Belief Systems from Swinburne Digital Media Design on Vimeo.


This video is a product of great dedication and many hour of hard work by Jessie, Dasty, and Hailing. My physical input was limited to email correspondence, a number of skype meetings, and reviewing draft copies of various documents. However, I really tried to shape the way the students thought about the problem. What are the questions they haven’t considered? What are the underlying assumptions in their reasoning that need to be challenged? What constitutes a ‘maladaptive’ behaviour and when does it become so?

While the approach to building a documentary was very new to me, and the kind of information the students brought to the table was different from the kind of information I’m used to (as a research psychologist), I found their final product very even-handed, just, humane, and ultimately satisfying.



Jessie is a Digital Media student at Swinburne university, minoring in Communication Design and Design Management. Prior to her studies at Swinburne, Jessie studied Fine Art at RMIT where she created a number of video and animation projects, some of which have been screened in exhibitions and festivals in Melbourne. 

Dasty came to Australia when she was 15 years old to continue her high school and higher education. Her passion in animation and photography motivated her to major in Digital Media design course at Swinburne university.

Hailing from Indonesia, Helsa is a digital media/multimedia design student currently living in Melbourne, Australia.  She strives to deliver an engaging storytelling in her works, especially in her fields of interest such as animation, film, and illustration.

James Marshall is a Senior Lecturer at Swinburne University (Melbourne) and Deputy Department Chair of Communication Design and Digitial Media Design



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