Error terror

It’s a scenario that many students know all too well. It’s a Wednesday night at nine, and you have a midterm tomorrow. You sit at your desk with your textbook beside you, but haven’t managed to open it. Instead, you’re on the computer checking your email, checking the news, updating your Facebook. Then your friend calls and you talk for a half hour. Perhaps you notice the time slipping by, perhaps not. Suddenly, you realize that you are going to fail your exam if you don’t open your textbook soon.

What is that sudden flash of intuition that tells us a decision we are making is wrong? And why does it often come too late or not at all? These questions underpin a recent psychological study on correlations between academic performance and error-related negativity (ERN), an electro-physiological response that our brains emit when we make a mistake.

“ERN is like an alarm bell,” explains psychology doctoral student Jacob Hirsh, who worked on this study with Dr. Michael Inzlicht. “We spend most of our lives on auto-pilot, applying automatic behaviours to our daily situations. When something goes wrong, the anterior cingulated cortex (the part of the brain responsible for error detection) kicks in to let us know that we’ve made a mistake.”

According to Hirsh, some people have a higher ERN than others. The error detection process has two components: an emotional response, which causes anxiety and awareness of error, and a cognitive response, which gets us to do the right thing. He adds that different kinds of errors, whether calling someone by the wrong name, inadvertently driving your car over the curb or making a mistake on a test are dealt with by this same region. “All errors show the same strategic cognitive control mechanisms. However, if the task is considered important, it will show a higher neural response.”

Conducted over a four-month period, Inzlicht and Hirsh’s research consisted of testing 31 undergraduates from U of T’s Scarborough campus. The researchers set the students up with EEG caps and set them to perform a Stroop activity on the computer. Commonly used in psychological testing, the Stroop task involves looking at a series of spelled-out names of colours marked in a different colour (e.g. the word “blue” written in red ink).

“It’s a difficult task because people are used to processing linguistic signs more frequently than other kinds of signs, so the contradiction between the word and the colour throws them off. We chose this task because we knew that people would be prone to make mistakes while doing it,” Hirsh says.

After monitoring the subjects’ neurological ERN responses, Inzlicht and Hirsh looked at their academic transcripts and noticed a clear correlation between ERN and the students’ academic performance: those students with higher ERN tended to have better marks.

Hirsh stresses that this correlation is not necessarily related to the ability to understand academic material so much as to develop good study habits and maintain a high level of self-discipline. “School is a complex task that involves monitoring your own behaviour and making the right decisions on a daily basis,” he says.

According to Hirsh, ERN is one-half genetically determined, but the other half is influenced by environment and personal choice. “You can change the size of this response. It’s not set in stone. Sometimes, we have to direct our attention to get the desired results. This self-regulation is involved in many processes that involve self-control such as diet, exercise, and checking one’s impulses in social situations. It’s related to people’s knowing when to pay attention to their behaviour and recognize their mistakes.”

But what about all those people who tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, always falling into the same bad habits? Hirsh states that one useful way for students to improve their ERN is to pay conscious attention to mistakes, then analyze where they went wrong and try to apply a different strategy in the future. “The more you try self-regulation, the easier it becomes,” he says. “Also, structure your environment in a way that will help you to make better decisions. If you’re living in a messy house, that environment influences how you think about things. Your mind is as cluttered as your surroundings.”

Hirsh stresses that while a low level of ERN can lead people to impulsive and reckless behaviour, too much ERN is also not such a good thing. “People who overreact to their errors are candidates for anxiety disorders. In our study we found that a larger response is better, but if it’s too strong that isn’t good either because it can hinder your performance and your ability to change certain behaviours.”

Inzlicht and Hirsh recently published their study in the journal Psychophysiology. While much research has already been done on ERN, this is the first study to link it to academic performance. “We are taking this particular brain region out of the lab and showing that it has real-life applications to tasks in the world. People are seeing how it relates to real-life outcomes,” Hirsh says.

Explain My Brain: Eating Disorders

You don’t have to be on a teen drama show to experience anxiety about your body image. But when those worries start interfering with everyday functioning, things start to get problematic. In Canada, three per cent of women experience some form of eating disorder over the course of their lifetime. While eating disorders are often considered less serious than other psychological disorders, they can be extremely dangerous and incapacitating for the people who experience them. Interestingly enough, while most psychological disorders can be traced throughout history and across cultures, the pathological effort to control body weight (the key characteristic of eating disorders) appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, seen predominantly in prosperous Western cultures.

The two most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Both of these conditions involve disturbances in eating behaviour and harmful measures to control weight. These two types are very similar and can sometimes overlap. However, the popular media often misrepresents the differences between the two syndromes, so here’s some clarification.

The diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa include low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, unhealthy body image, and dangerous methods of losing weight. These methods can include a massive reduction in food intake―sometimes to the point of starvation―or purging. Individuals can purge by forcing themselves to vomit after eating, by overusing laxatives and diuretics, or through excessive exercise. The obsession to lose weight becomes dangerous, while people suffering from anorexia nervosa usually fail to realize how unhealthy their behaviour and body have become. Typically, people entering treatment are 25 to 30 per cent below their normal body weight, and are forced to seek help by concerned friends and family.

Bulimia nervosa is slightly different—it involves binge eating followed by purging. But since purging methods are usually ineffective, individuals suffering from bulimia nervosa usually maintain a near-normal body weight. Purging is motivated by a sense of guilt and a morbid fear of gaining weight. However, vomiting only gets rid of half of recently consumed food, while the other half is absorbed by the body, meaning that weight loss in bulimic individuals is usually not as dangerous as in cases of anorexia. What’s more, people suffering from bulimia nervosa are more likely to recognize that they have a pathological problem, and will often seek treatment for themselves.

A number of physical and psychological complications can result from eating disorders. These can include everything from kidney and menstrual dysfunction, hypothermia and dental problems, to depression, mood swings, social isolation, and a lack of self-esteem.

Contrary to popular belief, women aren’t the only ones who experience eating disorders. However, women form the overwhelming majority as 90 to 95 per cent of people who experience eating disorders. This predominance is attributed to the ideals of attractiveness in Western culture, which emphasize slenderness in females more so than males. In addition, studies show that women face greater social pressures to be attractive than men do.

It just goes to show that the way we eat is more than a body matter —it’s also a matter of the mind.

Blues in tough against Northern Ontario

After having their undefeated streak broken by the Ottawa Gee-Gees, the Varsity Blues women’s soccer team attempted to shake off the blues and move back up in the OUA. The team hit another roadblock last Friday, tying the Laurentian Lady Vees 1-1.

Despite the defeat to Ottawa last week, the Blues went into the game as a favourite over the Lady Vees. In the first half, it was no surprise that the Blues were the bigger team, producing six shots on goal to the Lady Vees’ two.

Then, in the 37th minute, Blues top scorer Erica Basso lobbed a shot over the Laurentian goalkeeper, but a Lady Vees defender managed to clear the ball off the baseline, which resulted in a corner kick. As a Blues player was fouled during the kick, Toronto received a free kick right outside the penalty box. Basso stepped up and smashed a shot over everyone’s head, and into the goal in the 38th minute.

However, the Blues failed to bring their advantage into halftime, as Leanne Adams of Laurentian scored the equalizer, thanks in part to Blues defensive errors. The Blues defence couldn’t contain the Laurentian attack, which led to several dangerous chances close to the Toronto net.

There was more frustration for the Blues later on in the game when their strikers could not capitalize on some chances. Juliana Bergin had a few great opportunities to put the ball into the net, but none of her attempts was successful, with the closest hitting the crossbar. In the final minutes, the visitors defended well, and held on for a 1-1 tie, which was a disappointing result for Toronto.

After the draw with Laurentian, the Blues hosted the Nipissing Lakers, who they rocked by a score of 5-1 earlier in the season. The Blues took the October 17 game, but not overwhelmingly.

By pressuring offensively throughout the match and dominating the midfield, U of T clearly outpaced the visitors, proved to be a handful for the Lakers defence, and constantly forced Lakers goalkeeper Samantha Behm into action. A collision between Behm and Blues striker Jessica Fantozzi in the 17th minute left the goalkeeper on the ground for about two and a half minutes. Receiving a round of applause from the audience, Behm got back up on her feet to play the rest of the match. Fantozzi put the ball past Behm three minutes later.

Towards the end of the first half, the Blues defence was scrambling, trying to protect the one-point lead. The visitors created some chaos in front of the Blues goal, moving relentlessly towards the equalizer, which finally came in the 33rd minute. Amy Laidlaw hammered the ball low from the right, and Leesa Church, who faced Toronto goalkeeper Mary-Ann Barnes one-on-one, kicked it around Barnes to tie the score. Fortunately, a second consecutive draw was averted three minutes later when Mel Bowen’s left-wing cross was met with a firm header by Juliana Bergin.

In the second half, the Blues defence performed much better. They made every effort to widen the winning margin, but their opportunities were denied by the Lakers defence. In stoppage time, Blues substitute Natalie Law had a strong final effort by firing a hard shot, forcing Behm into a full stretch to make a great save. The 2-1 score held up, sealing the home team’s first victory in three matches.

Blues head coach Eva Havaris appeared satisfied with Saturday’s result. “I am pretty pleased with the game. The girls did a great job; it was the entire team effort,” said Havaris, commenting on her team’s performance. “To get the two goals was nice. It probably should have been more, but they played well, so I am very pleased.”

“We had as many opportunities [against Laurentian] to finish the difference, and we didn’t, and today we did,” said Havaris, who said the disappointment of playing to a draw with Laurentian motivated the team to push hard to score against Nipissing. “The girls were really hungry to go to goal.”

Juliana Bergin’s frustration with not being able to capitalize on chances during the Laurentian game turned into elation after scoring the winning goal in the next match. “Something just clicked today,” said the Toronto striker.

The Blues now sit in second place, behind the Queen’s Golden Gaels in the OUA East Division with a record of 10-1-3. Toronto will host its last two games, on October 24 against the RMC Paladins and October 25 against the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

“I am expecting to win, […] to build on the momentum we just created in this game,” said Havaris, who was looking to end the regular season on a high note.

Homecoming Wreckers

The Varsity Blues football team saw their homecoming celebrations spoiled when they suffered their second straight defeat at the hands of the Waterloo Warriors by a score of 30-7.

A decent turnout of 1,726 fans crowded into Varsity Stadium to view the Saturday afternoon tilt against the Warriors. Waterloo had an identical record as the Blues coming into the game. The Warriors, at 1-5, were a beatable opponent for the home side. The Blues were coming off a 21-3 loss to the McMaster Marauders. The home team struggled to keep the visitors from gaining ground, as the Warriors ran the ball seemingly at will. The Blues were unable to get much going offensively for essentially the final three quarters.

“We didn’t throw the ball very well at all today,” said Blues head coach Greg DeLaval. “What they showed us was what we expected, and we could have taken advantage. We just didn’t convert on a lot of our passes.”

New starting quarterback Jansen Shrubb was coming off impressive outings at York and at McMaster, where he threw for 322 and 250 yards respectively. However, Shrubb struggled to find his footing early in this game, missing his targets and throwing a couple of errant passes. Backup quarterbacks Andrew Gillis and Jordan Scheltgen saw limited action in the second half, and threw a mere 22 yards combined.

Belleville, Ontario’s Jonathan Wright was perhaps the lone bright spot in the Blues offense. Wright muscled past Waterloo defenders, making an open reception in the corner of the end zone.

With Waterloo ahead by one point, the Blues had an opportunity to pull ahead. The team drove the length of the field, only to be frustrated close to the goal. The Blues went for it in close, and had to turn the ball over on downs inside Waterloo’s six yard line. The Warriors scored on their next drive, as fourth-year pivot Evan Martin connected with freshman Matt Socholotiuk for a 41-yard touchdown pass. That swing affected the timbre of the game for good.

“We had a real great opportunity to have a momentum change,” DeLaval said, of the failed attempt on third down. “They stopped us, then marched all the way down the field and scored. If you’re looking for a turning point, then that was it.”

The loss was an unfortunate end to the Blues final home game of the year. The Blues will travel to London next week to close out their season against the 5-2 Western Mustangs, one of the top teams in the OUA.

“We’re looking forward to playing the best,” DeLaval says of the Mustangs. “The only way we’re going to get better is to play the best, continue to see how we match up, and take a look at what we need to work on.”

Blues skate by Rams again

Toronto goalie Andrew Martin stopped 36 shots, as the Varsity Blues defeated the Ryerson Rams 3-1 at Varsity Arena on Sunday afternoon. Martin upped his save percentage to a healthy .933 in the victory.

Bryden Teich scored what stood up as the winning goal, just over eight minutes into the first period. On his winning goal, Teich drove the net and deflected a Rob Kay pass that eluded Rams’ goalie Paul Gibson for Teich’s first goal of the year. Gibson stopped 38 shots and took the loss.

“I saw Kay with the puck on the right wing,” said Teich. “I was just trying to get to the net, but I wasn’t sure if he was going to throw it over to me for a pass or shoot it on goal. Teich added “I was just trying to put my stick on the ice, and luckily, it went in.”

“We worked on driving to the net in practice [Saturday],” revealed Toronto head coach Darren Lowe. “Our first two goals were scored by guys going hard to the net.”

Byron Elliott and Brent McGrail also scored for the Blues, who with the win evened their record at 2-2. The victory snapped a two-game losing streak for the Blues, and moved them into a tie for third place with McGill in the Ontario University Athletics East Division.

Cory Konecny scored the lone goal for Ryerson, who fell to 1-2 with the loss. The Rams have now lost four games in a row to the Blues, dating back to February 15 of last year.

The Varsity Blues were 1-6 on the man advantage, while the Rams were shutout on power plays, going 0-7.

The Blues took a 1-0 lead at 2:42 into the first period. Claudio Cowdrey skated into the Ryerson zone, and centred the puck for Elliott. The Blues player then deflected the shot off Gibson’s glove for his third goal of the year. Ryerson tied the game at 1-1 at 7:39 into the first period. Konecny scored his second on a quick wrist shot from the right circle, which whizzed by Martin and into the far side of the net. Teich found the net from close range to make it 2-1 for the Blues at 8:34 into the opening frame.

The Varsity Blues initially thought that they had increased their lead to 3-1 in the second period. Gibson, the Ryerson goalie, could not control a rebound, and Teich banged the puck into the net. However, there were a number of bodies banging away at the puck in the crease. The referee’s vision was obstructed and he blew the play dead.

“The referee said afterwards that he lost sight of the puck,” Teich said. As unfortunate as it is that we couldn’t get that extra goal, that’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

The Blues peppered the Ryerson net with 15 shots in the second, including numerous odd man rushes, but could not sneak a goal past Gibson. “We’re not a high-scoring team or a high-rolling offensive team,” Coach Lowe described his team’s philosophy. “A lot of the guys are maybe not offensively gifted, but they are hard workers, and that’s part of the reason why we didn’t bury our chances.”

The Blues finally did manage to up the lead to 3-1, with a power-play goal at 6:31 into the third period. McGrail got his second goal of the campaign, redirecting a Sean Kliewer shot from the left point.

Martin stopped 15 shots in the third period, including five saves on a late Ryerson man advantage, nailing down the win for the Blues.

Gooden plenty

Fourth-year Varsity Blues striker Nordo Gooden can run like the wind. This past weekend, the Kingston, Jamaica native left his opponents in the dust.

Gooden accounted for all three goals scored by the Varsity Blues men’s soccer team on the weekend. The Blues overmatched the Laurentian Voyageurs 2-0, and the Nipissing Lakers 1-0 on October 16 and 17 at Varsity Centre. Goalkeepers John Smits and Maximir Luburic both earned shutouts, as the Varsity Blues improved to a league best 10-1-2. The Blues have secured thetop spot in the East division, and guaranteed themselves a first round bye and home field advantage in the quarter-finals of the 2009 OUA playoffs. “We clinched our team goal of the year, which is ‘finish in first in our division,’” said Gooden. “We went out gunning for the win.”

The nationally ranked Varsity Blues were in playoff form on Friday and Saturday, dominating on the field over the Voyageurs and Lakers. The combination of veteran forward Gooden and Toronto native Alexander Raphael was more than opposing defenders could handle. The pair led an aggressive and speedy offensive attack, which consistently pushed their opponents deep into their own zone.

Alongside this stunning offensive display was a solid performance by the Blues defence, who controlled the momentum of the game from the back end. On neither day could the opposing team effectively penetrate the Varsity Blues defence, nor was it able to contain the Blues quick-moving offense.

“We don’t change our preparation; it’s always been the same,” said assistant coach Tom Lazarou, after Friday’s game. “And we showed it today. We played faster than they did, it’s a bigger field than they’re used to, and I think that makes a big difference in our play.”

The speed of Toronto’s game resulted in the Blues’ first goal Friday afternoon, at the 33rd minute. Raphael set up Gooden on a pass and play. Gooden, turned away on numerous chances earlier in the game, would not be denied, as he tipped the ball into the open side of the goal. A sprinting Gooden scored a second goal on a long pass from a Blues defender. After the ball went by Laurentian goalkeeper Scott Cliff, the Voyageurs were visibly deflated for the remainder of the game.

Saturday evening’s game saw much of the same fire from the Blues. A fierce offensive strategy and constant pressure resulted in the game’s first and only goal, scored early. Gooden started the play on a long ball to Raphael in the 15th minute of the first half. He scored on a set-up from Seung Bok Lee, who made no mistake in finding Gooden in the clear, for a beautiful finish in front of the Nipissing net. The goal put Gooden in sole possession of second place for the OUA’s leading goal scorers, ahead of third-ranked Raphael.

“It’s always fun playing with [Raphael],” said Gooden with a grin. “We want to be first and second in the OUA, so we always look for each other and set each other up. It is friendly competition, and it keeps us both going.”

Though the Blues team was considerably faster than Laurentian, this skill was nearly to a fault. A number of possessions throughout the game were conceded, as a result of an offside called against the Blues. While assistant coach Tom Lazarou agreed that surrendering possessions is not ideal, he noted that none of these concessions were of a particularly dangerous nature.

“It would be really nice to keep it and not lose the ball, absolutely,” admitted Lazarou. “But when you lose possession in their third of the park, that’s not bad. It’s only when you lose it in our third of the park that’s a concern.” Lazarou went on to add, “I thought we did well as a group. Yes, there were a few turnovers, but they didn’t hurt us.”

“I’ve got to take some risks going up front,” explained Gooden, when asked about the off-sides in Friday’s game. “I try to use my speed as much as I can. So I’m always looking to play off the last defender’s shoulder. Sometimes I get caught offside, sometimes I have a breakaway. But I try to incorporate my style into the way our coach wants us to play.”

On the strength of their speed and overall game, the gambles made this past weekend by the Blues appeared to be risks worth taking.

Addressing a planetary emergency

“It may not be evident to everyone that we are in a planetary emergency situation, but we are,” says Danny Harvey, professor in the Geography and Planning Department at U of T. “For perceptive people, the early signs are there. If you study the science, and look at the momentum of what’s already been done, we’re in big trouble.”

Those are powerful words, and if they don’t get people thinking about the implications of global warming, perhaps Harvey’s forthcoming books will. The planet faces global ecological disaster and if we don’t act soon, climate change in the next hundred years will be comparable to the warming at the end of the last ice age—except 100 times faster.

In 1978, when Harvey arrived at the University of Toronto as a Master’s student, he took a course taught by the late professor Ken Hare investigating global warming. It didn’t take him long to recognize the severity of the situation, and by the time he started his PhD in 1980, he focused his work on climate modelling. Attending conferences and meeting people—specifically those who knew about energy—provided Harvey greater education on the topic, until eventually in mid 2006, he published a book on the design of ultra energy-efficient buildings.

More recently, Harvey took a slightly different angle and began to write a book on the efficient use of energy. The volume grew so large that he had to split it into two: Energy and the New Reality, Volume 1: Energy Efficiency and the Demand for Energy Services looks at how to run the world on three to four times less energy than we use right now, and Energy and the New Reality, Volume 2: C-Free Energy Supply discusses how carbon-free energy sources could meet all of our energy needs.

Harvey sees the greatest potential lying in wind and solar energy, “There are a lot of misconceptions about wind and solar energy, [such as] they vary too much and you can’t store the energy. There are now many ways to get around that, and it’s not very expensive. Wind and solar [energy] truly are viable techniques to meet our energy needs as long as we’re efficient.”

Solar energy is more expensive than wind energy, although Harvey sees the cost coming down in the near future. In order to increase the electricity output from sunlight, a significant number of PV (photovoltaic) panels must be installed. For that to happen, more factories that manufacture these panels must be established. According to Harvey, “PV panels are good on buildings in cities because they’re producing electricity where you need it. It becomes a substitute for shingles or the kind of siding you would normally have.”

Concentrating sunlight with mirrors can also produce electricity. This approach is well-suited for arid and semi-arid regions, such as the American Southwest and Mexico.

Harvey’s research shows that almost every large population centre in the world is within 2,000 to 3,000 kilometers of a good site for concentrating solar or wind energy. “The bottom line is that we have plenty of sites with strong winds, and there’s no shortage of wind energy sufficient to generate more than the amount of electricity we use right now,” he says.

Consequently, the chapter on wind energy in Volume 2 of Harvey’s books is quite substantial.

“We need something we can ramp up fast, and wind is probably the fastest we can ramp up. You can build a factory to build the turbines in six months to a year. You can install huge wind farms in two to three months.”

Canadian Hydro Developers, the country’s largest independent developer of wind-energy projects, recently purchased the rights to develop wind farms in Lake Erie. There is now speculation that the world’s largest offshore wind farm may actually be situated there.

Recently there has been new exciting research regarding the production of offshore wind energy.

Last month, StatoilHydro of Norway installed the first large floating wind turbine off the country’s south-western coast. Because oil and gas production from the North Sea is declining, companies such as StatoilHydro, which is the biggest offshore oil and gas company in the world, have started to switch gears. They have learned a lot about building big structures in deep water as a result of their experiences with floating oil platforms and are now transferring their knowledge into what could be considered the “floating wind industry.”

This research could have exciting implications for wind energy production in the Great Lakes region, as it will allow turbines to be effectively positioned in deeper waters. With this new technology, Lake Ontario could be considered a practical wind farm site because its depth would no longer be an obstacle.

The need to produce energy from sources other than fossil fuels is becoming increasingly important.

“We have to get off fossil fuels by the end of the century, and the sooner the better,” says Harvey, “We’re talking three to nine degrees warmer if we don’t get off, and if we do, [only] two to four [degrees]. That’s already a serious problem.”

Professor Michael Marmura, scholar of Islamic philosophy, dies at 79

For over 36 years, professor Michael Marmura devoted his life to teaching at U of T’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilization. He established himself not only as a recognized scholar of Islamic philosophy, but also as an engaging and devoted teacher who gained the admiration of his students. A fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he taught at U of T from 1959 to 1995, staying on as professor emeritus until 2006. On Sept. 17, he passed away at his Maritime home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Marmura is survived by his wife Elizabeth, their three children, and four grandchildren.

“I found him to be a dedicated and highly productive scholar of truly international repute in his field,” said professor emeritus Richard Blackburn, a former student and a long-time friend. “He was an engaging, enthusiastic, and versatile teacher, and a thoroughly decent person. What more can be said short of resort to the anecdotal?”

Born in Jerusalem in 1929, Marmura was already fluent in Arabic and knowledgeable of the Arabic literary tradition when he went to the University of Wisconsin for his undergraduate degree. He continued onto graduate school at the University of Michigan, where he completed his PhD in 1959.

In late 1959, Marmura arrived at U of T and became a staple at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern studies. He was known for his insight, humility, and gentleness towards his students, but also for his dedication to his work, becoming a leading authority on the philosophy of Avicenna and al-Ghazali. His works include The Incoherence of the Philosophers (1997), an annotated translation of al-Ghazali’s Tahafut al-falasifa, as well a collection of his own writings called Probing in Islamic Philosophy (2005)

Marmura’s legacy is most notably passed down through the people he inspired and worked alongside. “The study of Islamic philosophy will be greatly impoverished by Michael’s passing but I am confident that the work he left behind will continue to inspire future scholars,” said professor Deborah L. Black, another former student, who will speak at Marmura’s memorial service. Black is now a professor of philosophy and medieval studies at U of T, and Marmura’s influence can be seen in her classes: she will be using some of Marmura’s translated works for her graduate course.

A memorial service will be held Thursday, October 22, at noon in the Trinity College Chapel, 6 Hoskin Ave. All are welcome.