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monsters are people too!
November 1, 2012 3:12 PM   Subscribe

12-year-old uses Dungeons & Dragons to help scientist dad with his research: Cognitive scientist Alan Kingstone wanted to test whether people look at each others' eyes or simply to the center of faces. Some had suggested an answer would be impossible to discern because humans' eyes are in the center of their faces. But Alan’s son, Julian, a fan of D&D, told his father about D&D monster characters that have eyes in unusual places, such as on their hands or tail. “[Julian suggested] if you just showed them these images, you could find out whether they are looking for the eyes or not. I thought, actually, that’s a very good idea,” Kingstone said (summarized from Cosmos). The paper describing the results - "Monsters are people too" - was published in the British Royal Society journal Biology Letters this month, with 14-year-old Julian named as the lead author.
posted by flex (42 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
I hope Dad is last author; the son is still at the stage where Dad* is providing the research facility and possibly a weekly stipend.

* and possibly mum.
posted by jaduncan at 3:18 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Cosmos: "Levy took some time out of secondary school to assist in the research, joining his father and postdoctoral researcher Tom Foulsham, now at Britain’s University of Essex, in his father’s lab."

Discover Magazine blog: "Kingstone wrote it with postdoc Tom Foulsham, but Levy did the rest. He prepared the images, trained himself to use the eye-tracker, ran the experiment, and coded all the data. Accordingly, at the current age of 14, he’s the first author on the paper."

On the paper: "J. Levy, T. Foulsham, and A. Kingstone"
posted by flex at 3:20 PM on November 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


And my parents upstairs said that nothing would ever come of memorizing to-hit matrices. I'll show them now!
posted by Palindromedary at 3:20 PM on November 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm with jaduncan on this one. I think it's a cool story, and it would be nice of dad to list the kid as a co-author, but listing him as the lead? Maybe I'm just a cynical jerk, but something about it doesn't sit well with me.
posted by asnider at 3:20 PM on November 1, 2012


Maybe I'm just a cynical jerk, but something about it doesn't sit well with me.

Allegedly he came up with the idea and did basically all the research and data analysis. I'm not going to hold the fact that he can't yet write at an academic level against him.
posted by muddgirl at 3:30 PM on November 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


It's only unfair to Tom Foulsham, who doesn't really count.
posted by Nomyte at 3:30 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


He had the idea and he did the nuts-and-bolts research, while the father handled logistics and wrote up his findings. Even if they were fellow faculty members I could see that as a justification for full co-authorship, but lead author sounds reasonable too.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 3:31 PM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


I like the author affiliation of "Lord Byng Secondary School".
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:32 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Even if they were fellow faculty members I could see that as a justification for full co-authorship, but lead author sounds reasonable too.

This is really field and even lab dependent, too.
posted by muddgirl at 3:37 PM on November 1, 2012


This might go deeper than mammals. Lots of critters have fake eyes, and eye-like patches to discourage predators.
posted by wobh at 3:55 PM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah well this kid might be some big fingerquote geeenius fingerquote in the Ivory Tower and all but snort I just snort looking at a beholder's eyes is a reeal good way to get petrified or something snicker in the real world snicker for relative values of real and furthermore I what? No mom just put it in the fridge. I said PUT IT IN THE FRIDGE I'm on a RAID now JEEZ.
posted by No-sword at 4:22 PM on November 1, 2012 [22 favorites]


Giving the kid lead author doesn't seem that unusual to me. When my son was 16 he did some research for a NPS Historian that resulted in an article published in a history journal. My son found a previously unknown newspaper article and transcribed it, the historian wrote about a page putting the article into context and explaining why it was important. The Park Historian gave my son lead author credit - said he did far more work researching and transcribing than he did writing a 1 page intro.
posted by COD at 4:49 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think it's a cool story, and it would be nice of dad to list the kid as a co-author, but listing him as the lead? Maybe I'm just a cynical jerk, but something about it doesn't sit well with me.

To borrow a line: if that upsets you, you're going to shit when you notice everything else in academia.
posted by mhoye at 5:18 PM on November 1, 2012 [14 favorites]


Yeah, to echo the bandwagon (and mix a metaphor or three), I've seen way sketchier first authorships than this. (For those not in academia: jaduncan's post references the standard in most sciences that the principal investigator [the guy whose lab it is] gets last author on anything that comes out of their lab. I don't read it as a dig on the kid being first author.)

On the result: Makes sense. Even if you're just considering mammals, eyes are really the most constant (and probably the only mostly constant) feature in faces. And you want to be able to recognize faces, either to attack vulnerable bits or know when something can't see you.
posted by PMdixon at 5:43 PM on November 1, 2012


Solid thesis, solidly executed. Refreshing, really; too often these "child genius" stories wind up with gaping holes in them. (Remember that "revolutionary," "leaf-inspired" solar panel arrangement?)

'Course, you wouldn't have to necessarily use D&D monsters to show that this is the case - just look at all of the species that have evolved false eyes to distract, confuse, misdirect, or intimidate potential predators. Fixating on eyes seems not only to be the human condition but the condition, period.
posted by fifthrider at 6:30 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Solid thesis, solidly executed. Refreshing, really; too often these "child genius" stories wind up with gaping holes in them.

Yeah, it's real workaday science, and I mean that in a good way.
posted by muddgirl at 6:39 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if there were any copyright issues involved. Dungeons and Dragons is owned by the obscenely powerful Hasbro corporation, after all.
posted by BiggerJ at 6:48 PM on November 1, 2012


From the paper

While D&D images were used in the study, due to copyright, figure 1 presents exemplars.
posted by onya at 8:20 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


BiggerJ, they mention in the paper that "while D&D images were used in the study, due to copyright, figure 1 presents exemplars".
posted by Pinback at 8:21 PM on November 1, 2012


Wouldn't people look at an eye in an unusual place simply because it's unusual? If your eyes are on your hands, I'll be looking, but that doesn't mean much for the question of day-to-day eye contact, right?
posted by spaltavian at 8:47 PM on November 1, 2012


for some reason i am skeptical of research from a 14-year-old that uses D&D to draw conclusions

i suppose this is why i am not paid the big bucks
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:56 PM on November 1, 2012


Yeah, having now noticed that he basically designed the experiment, I think it's fair that he's listed at the lead.
posted by asnider at 9:40 PM on November 1, 2012


humans' eyes are in the center of their faces.

I'm on Earth II again, aren't I?

DEATH TO THE CYCLOPES!
posted by DU at 2:45 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


This only comforts me in my theory that we reach the apex of our intelligence at age 12. Then hormones set in and it all goes to f*ck...
posted by Skeptic at 3:15 AM on November 2, 2012


> "Wouldn't people look at an eye in an unusual place simply because it's unusual? If your eyes are on your hands, I'll be looking, but that doesn't mean much for the question of day-to-day eye contact, right?"

Try it with the pictures they had in the paper. My gaze automatically went to the eyes of hand-eye-thing, and it was because I had a 'this is where you look' reaction, not a 'what's with the eye-hands' reaction. Think about it - if it were just because of strangeness, then (a) you'd be as likely to fixate on the no-eyed face, and (b) your gaze would eventually wander elsewhere when you got used to the eye-hands, rather than persistently land there.
posted by kyrademon at 3:31 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did they rolled a d12 and divided it by 100 for their p-value
posted by Renoroc at 4:52 AM on November 2, 2012


IS THIS SOME 4TH ED CRAP?
posted by Mister_A at 5:13 AM on November 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


a) Where are the eyes of this thing?
b) This thing is looking at me.
c) Can this thing kill me?
d) Fight, flight or dismissal of threat.
posted by jaduncan at 5:17 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


On my planet, "we'd need to use the eye-tracker for that" basically means "oh gawd, don't bother." That's a pretty tricky and labor-intensive experimental setup.

('Course, we're linguists, so half of us go "oh gawd, don't bother" at the prospect of walking down the hall to get a second opinion from another native speaker. But, uh, yeah. This is still an impressive amount of effort from a 14 year old.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:39 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Made me think of the "pale man" in Pan's Labyrinth. *shudder*
posted by Harald74 at 6:40 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think what smarts is that there are plenty of really smart kids who could do this of they had the emotional and structural support of a parent working high up in academia but will never get the chance unless they spend 8+ years of post-secondary education jumping through hoops.

I get it, do I ever. But that's life and it's all around and bitterness is useless.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:16 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well the other pathway is via school-sponsored science fairs, which I participated in despite having two parents who didn't graduate from college. But then again that requires publicly funded education, which we aren't exactly fans of any more.
posted by muddgirl at 9:18 AM on November 2, 2012


Looking at pictures is way different than looking at people. Looking at a faces that looks at you, that is interacting with you, is way different than looking at a face that never will notice or participate with you.
posted by BurnChao at 10:03 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


muddgirl — FWIW, I'd be startled if any public or private high school had the sort of gear you'd need to do this experiment. It's a multi-thousand-dollar rig with basically no use outside of a research lab. (And it's not a common enough piece of gear that it would make sense to e.g. teach kids how to use it in science classes. This isn't like "let's teach 'em to use computers" or even "let's teach 'em to handle chemicals.")

Even if our schools were much better funded, I can't imagine a world where this particular project would have been a feasible science fair thing.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:10 AM on November 2, 2012


t's a multi-thousand-dollar rig with basically no use outside of a research lab.

I don't think you'd need an external eye-tracker to do a modified form of this experiment. I can imagine using a webcam eye tracker and, say, an optometrist's head rest. You'll have lowered accuracy, and maybe it wouldn't be publishable, but I hope that we're not going to start teaching 12-year-olds to publish or perish.

In fact, I would argue that it's valuable to teach children that science doesn't have to depend on fancy, hard-to-use equipment.
posted by muddgirl at 10:15 AM on November 2, 2012


(I should say that I respect the underlying point that kids with academic parents have social and professional advantages over kids without academic parents. But I also think that engaging school programs can overcome a lot of that advantage.)
posted by muddgirl at 10:17 AM on November 2, 2012


fifthrider: 'Course, you wouldn't have to necessarily use D&D monsters to show that this is the case - just look at all of the species that have evolved false eyes to distract, confuse, misdirect, or intimidate potential predators. Fixating on eyes seems not only to be the human condition but the condition, period.
True. If you come upon a deer in the woods (and it's not hunting season), look to the side. Deer don't like being viewed with two eyes (basically all of their predators have binocular-vision), but they don't seem to mind sidelong glances much.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:43 AM on November 2, 2012


I can imagine using a webcam eye tracker and, say, an optometrist's head rest.

Yes. Good point.

(I should say that I respect the underlying point that kids with academic parents have social and professional advantages over kids without academic parents. But I also think that engaging school programs can overcome a lot of that advantage.)

Oh, definitely. Primary schools can and should do a lot more of this stuff.

I guess I'm frustrated, as someone already doing academic research, with how little we on the university end are doing about the imbalance. We have a serious version of the unpaid-internship problem. Opportunities go to people who have already done cool shit; and when it's pointed out that not everyone gets to try their hand at the cool shit, we sort of shrug and say "Yeah, it's a shame that public schools suck so hard" instead of asking what we can do to help.

In a perfect world we'd have both. There would be more funding, at more schools, for science fair type programs — and more kids would get chances to go over to the university and play with their toys.

(Though, lemme be clear, it's still fucking awesome that this kid had the opportunity he did, and awesome that his dad took the idea seriously. This isn't "they did a bad thing," it's "they did an awesome thing, and I wish this was possible in a general way and not just as a special exception for kids with well-connected parents.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:56 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


J. Levy, DM

Hey, he earned that title.
posted by Bonzai at 3:02 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is rather interesting.

Mammals rely on a number of sensory inputs.

It's really telling that a human decided to run the experiments for visual acuity - and human visual acuity is really cool*. However, isn't the orc airborn chemical sensory system magnitutdes more sensitive than humans, and does the different spectrum sensitivities of elves make it difficult to compare to humans?

Changes and movements really prick (at least my) visual system; my peripheral vision is crap unless there's something in that field that moves or changes suddenly - someone ten blocks away going onto their balcony in the corner of my eye draws my attention.
posted by porpoise at 8:06 PM on November 2, 2012


Porpoise, that's true of everyone - and most binocular animals, too. If you think about it, fast motion is the only thing that's really important at the edges of vision; everything else gives you time to focus, but a predator (or falling object) inbound is "REACT NOW!!!"-level stimulus.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:53 AM on November 5, 2012


Is this the oldest d20 on Earth?
posted by homunculus at 2:14 PM on November 6, 2012


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