Things that go Bump! in the mind

2017-website-banner-aAre you interested in the science behind table-tilting, near-death experiences and ghostly sightings? What is the surprising link between a telepathic experience and one of the greatest breakthroughs in neuroscience? I’m very excited to be speaking about this, and much much more, in just a couple of days from now, at Brighton Science Festival.

The organisers just informed me that tickets are nearly sold out, so don’t delay if you want to book to guarantee your place. Click here for the full event listing.

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New paper on options for prospective meta-analysis

transparentboxHappy New Year, folks! I hope 2017 brings you health and happiness.

Just a wee news item to let you know that this week Jim Kennedy and I published a short methodological paper about prospective meta-analysis (this grew out of the paper we presented at the 2016 PA/SSE conference in Boulder, Colorado).

A quick summary: We note that the principles of pre-registered well-powered confirmatory research apply for meta-analyses as well as for individual studies.  The outcomes of meta-analyses of parapsychological studies, for example, have been hotly debated. An important contributory factor to such controversy is that the researcher makes many decisions about how to conduct the meta-analysis (e.g., which studies to include or exclude), and these decisions are typically made after the results of the individual studies are known. So typical retrospective meta-analysis resembles exploratory research and allows potential for researcher bias to operate. This delays resolution of scientific controversies. Parapsychology is not alone in this: similar issues occur elsewhere in psychology too. We discuss the pros and cons of three different methods for prospective meta-analysis, and note how study registries can deliver further benefits if they are used to register prospective meta-analyses of pre-registered studies.

Click here to read our full paper.

Watt CA and Kennedy JE (2017) Options for Prospective Meta-Analysis and Introduction of Registration-Based Prospective Meta-Analysis. Front. Psychol. 7:2030. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02030

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Sue’s back: #QEDcon 2016

opengraphI am still recovering from the pleasure of my first QED Conference, a very busy few days in Manchester. I was grateful to be invited to participate along with Prof Susan Blackmore and Hayley Stevens in the ‘Team Spirit’ panel about researching the paranormal, expertly chaired by Deborah Hyde (editor-in-chief of The Skeptic Magazine, and folklore afficionado). I was also delighted to get to speak on Investigating the Paranormal: 30 Years of KPU Research to a packed theatre of Greater Manchester Skeptics on the thursday night. That ‘eve of conference’ event was hosted by Geoff Whelan, who is also one of the energetic QED organisers – jings he must have been exhausted by the Sunday night, though he certainly didn’t show it! (I’ll be giving that talk again to Glasgow Skeptics on Monday 24th Oct, ICYMI).

wisemanchairI was also working with Richard Wiseman to set up his Quirkology ‘Mind Tricks’ exhibition (see pic for his ‘chair illusion’), and at every turn there was a QED helper or organiser  asking what they could do to help us. SO impressive. Before the event I had been a judge on The Skeptic Magazine’s Ockham Awards for outstanding skeptical achievement, and on gala night Deborah asked me to present the Award to the winning blog (the excellent Naturopathic Diaries) – v relieved I had changed into my posh shoes!

I was impressed by many things: the scale of the QED event (over 650 attendees), youthful demographic, superb organisation, and really helpful volunteers. As a parapsychologist, I wondered whether I would be regarded as a bit of an oddity, however everyone was very friendly and supportive.  I couldn’t help but compare it with the Society for Psychical Research conference, that I attended the previous month. That was of course very friendly too, but with far fewer delegates, and a much older demographic. QED felt a lot more vibrant. The Team Spirit panel was a lot of fun. My main contribution probably came when we considered whether belief in the paranormal would always persist. Perhaps controversially, I suggested that under certain circumstances, paranormal and superstitious beliefs might be adaptive. Obviously, it’s not at all adaptive to take pseudo ‘treatments’ for serious illnesses. However some paranormal beliefs might create beneficial self-fulfilling prophecies. For instance, someone who brings their lucky mascot to an exam may feel more confident, less nervous, and actually perform better. Also, research indicates that religious belief can have beneficial consequences for the believer – I think primarily because of the social support that can come from being part of a church.

Sue Blackmore spent 30 years investigating and writing on the paranormal and anomalous experiences such as NDEs and OBEs. Then, in 2000, Sue threw in the paranormal towel – she wrote about that decision for New Scientist, here. Sue then went on to focus on writing about memetics and consciousness.

sueqedHowever, Sue’s back! Her QED talk was on The New Science of Out-of-Body Experiences. Here’s a vimeo link to a talk she gave in Dec 2015 on the same topic. At QED, Sue began by recounting her own powerful OBE, which first got her interested in parapsychology. She then talked about early research on this topic. Sue explained how, after quite a hiatus, she has become interested again due to more recent research by Olaf Blanke and others. (The pic shows Sue illustrating in her QED presentation how one of these experiments works.) This research has identified the role of the right temporo-parietal junction in integrating and maintaining the sense of bodily awareness (for example, this paper). Some of this work has also (in news reports) been described as ‘creating’ an OBE using virtual reality techniques. However I think there’s a bit of a gulf between the ‘realer than real’ feeling reported by Sue and others who have experienced a spontaneous OBE, and the kind of bodily illusions elicited by providing false visual and sensory feedback. But clearly this ‘new science’ has something to say about OBEs, and OBE experiences have something to tell us about how the brain maintains a sense of bodily awareness and location. And this is what has excited Sue and has brought her almost full circle, to try to understand her first striking OBE. Welcome back Sue!

 

 

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Question, Explore, Discover: 2016

s200_susan-blackmoreFancy some Team Spirit? On Saturday 15th October I’ll be contributing to this year’s QED conference . QED is a science and skepticism meeting in Manchester (UK) .  I’ll be joining Prof Susan Blackmore (pictured) and @HayleyStevens for a panel called Team Spirit, exploring parapsychology and paranormal research. Keeping us in order will be Deborah Hyde (@jourdemayne , of werewolves, vampires, and The Skeptic magazine fame). As described on the QED site, “Susan Blackmore is Visiting Professor in psychology at the University of Plymouth and one of the most prominent early figures of the modern UK skepticism. Her personal encounters with perceived out of body experiences while studying at university led Susan to study the phenomena fully.” Sue’s 1986 autobiography Adventures of a Parapsychologist is a classic. Most recently, Sue has been writing about consciousness. Hayley is also a “Believer-turned-skeptic, with over a decade of ghost research under her belt, she examines strange sightings, photos, videos, sound recordings and more to determine their rational causes.”

Sue, Hayley and I were asked to come up with some possible questions to kick things off. Ideas include…

Has anyone ever tried to trick you?

What’s the most fun investigation into the paranormal you have ever done?

What’s the most depressing event you’ve encountered in paranormal research?

If there’s one paranormal phenomenon you’d most like to be true which would it be?

Is there any evidence for the paranormal that you think might possibly be valid?

Do you think belief in angels, spirits, souls, and life after death will ever go away? If not why not?

Is there any experiment you would love to do if only you had the time/money/ethical approval etc. ?

What advice would you give to a bright young student wanting to pursue a career investigating the paranormal?

Have you made any mistakes that have helped you to learn something about paranormal research?

Which paranormal researcher has inspired you most, and why?

What is the strangest thing you have experienced personally?

Has modern technology changed the way you research? For better or worse?

Are there any age-old stigmas you face regularly?

**********

Let us know if you have any other ideas. There are just a few tickets left so you’ll have to move quickly if you want to join in. Hope to see you there!

 

 

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Becoming Edinburgh’s second Koestler Chair of Parapsychology

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITYLast week, I was honoured to take up my new position as Edinburgh University’s second Koestler Chair of Parapsychology. Here’s an account of the history of the Koestler Chair, and how I came to be here.

The  Koestler Chair of Parapsychology was established at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Psychology (pictured) in 1985. However parapsychology has actually been studied at Edinburgh University since the appointment in 1962 of the late Dr John Beloff (pictured) as a lecturer in the Department of john1Psychology. Beloff researched and taught parapsychology at Edinburgh until his retirement in 1985, though he maintained his connections with the department for another two decades.

 John Beloff was a friend of the noted writer Arthur Koestler (both were supporters of voluntary euthanasia and debated over dualism), and Koestler appointed Beloff as executor.  Koestler and his wife Cynthia died in a double suicide in 1983, and bequeathed their estate to establish a Chair of Parapsychology at a British University. The declared intention was to further scientific research into “…the capacity attributed to some individuals to interact with their environment by means other than the recognised sensory and motor channels.” Having already established that parapsychology could be pursued with scientific rigour in a University setting, Beloff went on to play an important role in bringing the Koestler Bequest to Edinburgh.

BobMorris1995smallThe first Koestler Professor was an American named Robert L. Morris (pictured). Bob came to Edinburgh to take up his position in late 1985. Bob was instrumental in the growth of the KPU, recruiting additional staff (one of whom was me), overseeing over 100 undergraduate student projects, and supervising more than 30 postgraduate students.  Many of these postgraduate students went on to research and teach parapsychology at other universities. Bob regarded parapsychology as an interdisciplinary problem area, so he took a broad approach to the field, including studying the psychology of deception (the topic of Richard Wiseman’s PhD under Bob’s supervision), the psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences, as well as testing the psi hypothesis (for instance using the ganzfeld method.) The whole field was shocked and saddened when Bob unexpectedly died in 2004.

My own connection with Bob Morris began shortly after I graduated with a psychology degree from the University of St Andrews in 1984. There had been a lot of press attention over Bob’s appointment, and I wrote a speculative letter to him, wishing him success, expressing my curiousity about parapsychology, and saying that I’d love to help out at the Koestler Chair if needed. Unlike many who wrote to Bob, I hadn’t had any personal experiences that I thought might be paranormal. But as a psychologist I was intrigued to find out more about what lay behind the paranormal experiences that people quite commonly report. I was always impressed that, despite being busy with moving his family from the USA to Edinburgh, Bob took the time to send a handwritten reply inviting me to drop in for a chat once he was settled in Edinburgh. I try to remember that generosity, when I receive unsolicited approaches from curious young folks.

Caro2016My potted history at the KPU:  I successfully applied for a research assistant job with Bob, and in June 1986 became one of the founding members of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit. Yep, I’ve been here for 30 years. During that time, I studied part-time for a PhD (awarded 1993), brought up two sons, conducted and published many experiments (broadly speaking, looking at areas of overlap between psychology and parapsychology), wrote two books (the latest of which – Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide – came out earlier this year), and got involved in supervising student projects and teaching parapsychology to undergraduate psychology students. After Bob’s death, the KPU was restructured to put it on a more secure financial footing, and I had to compete with KPU colleagues and external candidates for two new Koestler-funded lectureships. Fortunately in 2006 I was appointed as Senior Lecturer, and Peter Lamont as Lecturer. I took on management of the KPU’s public profile, running the website and twitter stream, and designing and launching a popular online parapsychology course in 2008 (still going strong – check it out here!). I also accepted positions on the Bial Foundation, an important funding organisation for parapsychology. In 2010 I was awarded the prestigious Perrott-Warrick Senior Researcher Fellowship, and in 2012 together with Jim Kennedy I launched parapsychology’s first Study Registry (indeed it was the first of its kind in psychology, so far as I am aware). Click on the button on the right to find out more about that. I also took on more senior management roles at the University, including a three-year stint as undergraduate director for the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences.

Then in 2015 I was on research leave and found that I at last had time (and, I felt, sufficient achievements) to apply for promotion to a professorship and personal chair. My application was supported greatly by Etzel Cardeña (Professor of hypnosis and parapsychology at the University of Lund) and Jessica Utts (Professor of Statistics at UC Irvine, and President of the American Statistical Association). I later learned that other leading researchers in parapsychology and anomalistic psychology had also commented to the University about my work, including Dr Stanley Krippner, Prof Chris French, and Prof Stefan Schmidt. I know how busy all these folks are, and am immensely grateful that they took the time to support my case. So here I am, honoured and delighted to become Edinburgh University’s second Koestler Chair of Parapsychology. Follow this blog to find out more about what we’re doing now at the KPU.

One last thing. In 1984 (when there was a lot of press interest in the new parapsychology chair at Edinburgh) I was sitting the ‘contemporary issues’ paper in my final year psychology degree exams at St Andrews University. The question I chose to answer went something like this: “You are applying to be the new Koestler Professor of Parapsychology at Edinburgh University. Outline your research programme and the methods you would use to pursue these questions.”

With hard graft and patience, dreams can come true.

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Why ‘waste my life’ on parapsychology? #NECSS

Last week I was fortunate to get to hang out backstage at NECSS (Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism) in New York. It was great to get to know Evan Bernstein, and Steven, Jay and Bob Novella and their families. These are the NECSS co-organisers and the guys behind the long-running Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

While in New York, I also enjoyed a chatty dinner with a Skeptic who asked me (in a friendly way) why I was wasting my life on parapsychology. Parapsychologists form more than one ‘tribe’. For me, aside from that it’s a very interesting area in which to work, my answer is that I believe that researching paranormal experiences (parapsychology broadly defined), such as apparitional experiences, out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences, can help us to learn more about normal brain function. Perhaps more surprisingly though, I think that psi research is generally well-conducted, positive results are not easily dismissed, and the challenge of conducting controlled tests of the psi hypothesis (i.e., parapsychology as it is narrowly defined) can drive advances that can benefit science more generally. Just a few examples:

Historians have suggested that the origins of randomization in experimental design can be found in nineteenth century tests of telepathy – check out this paper by Ian Hacking.

Ted Kaptchuk, the placebo expert,  has argued that testing controversial claims helped to develop placebo and double-blind methods – read more about that here.

Hans Berger developed electro-encephalography in order to search for telepathic brain waves, after he had a seemingly psychic experience. Read more about Berger’s ‘unusual and solitary journey’ to one of the greatest breakthroughs in neuroscience here.

I could go on, but skipping a century or so I’ll finish with a handful of more recent examples. Psychology’s ‘replication crisis’ was in part stimulated by Daryl Bem’s 2011 publication of studies about ‘Feeling the Future’ – read more about the wider importance and ramifications of Bem’s paper here. Psychology responded by starting to debate the need for study registration and introduced registered reports. Meantime, parapsychologists were already ahead of the game. In 1978, the European Journal of Parapsychology introduced registered reports – an editorial policy of accepting papers on the basis of their planned methods, as a way to tackle publication bias. Read about that here. In 2012, Jim Kennedy and I launched a registry for parapsychological studies. So far as we are aware it was the first registry of its kind in psychology – discover more about the KPU Registry here. In 2015, Jim and I published a paper for the wider psychological community making recommendations for how to improve study registration practices in psychology based on our experiences with parapsychological study registration. You can read that here. Finally, next month at the Parapsychological Association convention, Jim and I will be proposing a prospective meta-analysis of parapsychological studies. This is something that occasionally happens in medical research (check out the Cochrane Collaboration), but is rarely found elsewhere in behavioural research. The abstract of our PA paper is here.

So, that is why I am still engaged with parapsychology, and with scientific advancement.

 

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Launch of Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide @EdSciFest

Beginner's GuideI’m excited to announce that my new book – indeed my first solo-authored book – will be launched at the Edinburgh International Science Festival on 7th April. Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide is published by Oneworld as part of their Beginner’s Guide series. My book aims to provide an engaging, authoritative and balanced introduction to parapsychology, in three sections. First, testing psychic claimants. Second, anomalous experiences. And third, laboratory research.

I am thrilled that the book has been favourably reviewed by  Professor Robert Rosenthal (Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Riverside, and an expert in behavioural research methodology), who said:

Dr Caroline Watt’s new Beginner’s Guide to Parapsychology is a wonderfully clearly and engagingly written introduction to the domain of parapsychology, an introduction that manages to be broadly encompassing, rigorous, and scholarly, but yet remain nontechnical. In a highly controversial domain of science in which many scientists have been quite closed-minded and dogmatic, this book presents a balanced, open-minded, and data-driven overview of the domain and its controversial nature. The book is an excellent read for those who just want to know what’s been studied, how it’s been studied, and what’s been learned so far, as well as for those who want to go on and conduct serious research of their own on the topics covered.

And Etzel Cardeña, Ph. D., Thorsen Professor in Psychology, Lund University, Sweden. Co-editor of Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century stated:

The novice seeker of a trustworthy source on the possible reality of telepathy, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night (or the day) faces a daunting challenge. On the one hand s/he will encounter supercilious and aggressive dismissals of experiences that people have reported throughout history, on the other books that promise that the latest idea in psychology or quantum mechanics explains it all. Caroline Watt, the head of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit and a leader in the field delivers something very different. She excels at the very hard task of introducing a complex and contentious field in a balanced way. She has written an authoritative yet entertaining guide to what scientific research has shown (and not shown) about this fascinating field.

I hope you’ll like it too, and that if you’re not too far from Edinburgh you’ll be able to come along to my Edinburgh Science Festival event on 7th April, and discover how science explores the paranormal.

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How prospective meta-analysis could be useful for parapsychology

transparentboxThis week Jim Kennedy and I submitted our paper for the Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association (June, Boulder Colorado). It’s about how prospective meta-analysis of registered studies could be used to help resolve debates about the evidence for psi. Travel to Boulder is costly, and a major driver for me to attend was the opportunity to meet Jim Kennedy, who’s based in Colorado and who I’ve been collaborating with since 2012 in running the KPU Study Registry.

PA conference submissions have to be full length papers, and get refereed, so we don’t yet know if it will be accepted. However, here’s a sneak preview of our abstract:

In 2012, the authors launched the Koestler Parapsychology Unit (KPU) Registry for Parapsychological Experiments. Study registration is a valuable tool that helps to eliminate or identify many questionable research practices in individual studies and thereby enhances the methodological quality of an area of research.

Researchers employ meta-analysis to quantitatively combine methodologically similar studies. When conducting a meta-analysis, they must make decisions about what data to include and what statistical methods to use. If researchers do this after knowing the outcomes of the studies, the decisions may be biased. Pre-registration of individual studies does not eliminate potential biases that emerge from decisions during a meta-analysis. Retrospective meta-analyses are similar to exploratory research because methodological decisions are made after the study outcomes are known. Prospective meta-analyses are a form of preregistered confirmatory research because the analyses and the data that will be included are specified before the results are known.

The present paper uses ganzfeld ESP research to illustrate the limitations of retrospective meta-analysis, and to highlight how prospective meta-analysis can help to resolve debates over the evidence for psi and stimulate progress in parapsychology. For the first time, we present a summary of the KPU ganzfeld ESP studies, and note the decisions facing anyone seeking to evaluate their combined outcome. We then discuss the wider ganzfeld ESP database and associated debates about the methodological decisions for meta-analyses. The extensive discussions and debates about the Milton and Wiseman (1999) meta-analysis demonstrate the latitude in making decisions for a retrospective meta-analysis and, most importantly, the potential for bias either pro or con the psi hypothesis.

We then introduce a registration-based prospective meta-analysis of ganzfeld ESP studies and describe the differences from the more common prospective meta-analysis in medical research. The ganzfeld prospective meta-analysis will be preregistered on the KPU Study Registry following review by parapsychologists and critics. In addition to preregistering the statistical methods, this meta-analysis will use future study registrations to prospectively decide which studies will be included. Any qualifications or modifications for the use of a study will also be specified prospectively on the list of included studies. This approach to meta-analysis does not limit process oriented research or innovation, but simply specifies what studies will be included in a subsequent meta-analysis before the studies have been conducted.

The benefits of registration-based prospective meta-analysis as proposed here include (a) each study is preregistered and precludes most questionable research practices; (b) the meta-analysis does not require the increasingly complex methods that are being used to evaluate possible methodological biases; (c) the decision to include a study in the meta-analysis and decisions about possible qualifications for the use of study data are specified prospectively at the time the study is registered, which eliminates biases (pro or con) from methodological decisions after the study results are known and also allows adaptation to the unique characteristics of a study; (d) the properties of psi will be revealed without being obscured by methodological noise and biases; (e) potential critics of the meta-analysis outcome (pro or con) can be given the opportunity to comment on the meta-analysis plan; and (f) the field of parapsychology will be recognized to be a methodological leader.

Finally, we consider how prospective meta-analysis could be applied to other lines of parapsychological research. By pioneering high standards of methodology and research synthesis, parapsychologists send an important message to researchers in other fields (Watt & Kennedy, 2015).”

References

Milton, J., & Wiseman, R. (1999). Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 125(4), 387–391.

Watt, C., & Kennedy, J. E. (2015). Lessons from the first two years of operating a study registry. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 173.

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Study registration: ‘could do better’

transparentboxDisagreement over how to interpret the results of a line of research often boils down to whether or not there is scope for researcher decisions (or bias) to influence the database. For example, the published database can be distorted if a researcher chooses to stop collecting data at an auspicious point, decides not to publish results that don’t come out as hoped, or analyses the data in various ways then only reports the analyses that give the desired outcome. One way to minimize the opportunities for researcher bias to operate is to deposit a statement of the planned number of trials, hypotheses and analyses prior to the collection of any data. This is known as study registration.

In 2012, Jim Kennedy and I launched the KPU Registry for Parapsychological Experiments. This is a simple registry that makes the researcher’s plans publicly available. It offers researchers, reviewers, editors and others the ability to identify studies that were planned for a line of research and to verify that a study report matches the pre-registered information.

In 2015, we published in Frontiers in Psychology recommendations  for improving study registration practice based on the lessons we had learned from running the KPU Registry. These included the importance of distinguishing exploratory from confirmatory analyses, and the need for review of submissions to the registry to ensure the registered information unambiguously meets the registry requirements. Interestingly, our experience is that, despite us providing a template and guidelines for registration, several go-rounds of review and revision are typically needed to iron out ambiguities in registered information. This fact hints at the existence of loopholes in registries that do not review submissions, undermining the basic purpose of the registry.

In the last few years, psychologists have increasingly become aware of the dangers of researcher bias, and numerous steps have been taken to address these issues. To summarise and evaluate the main developments in this rapidly changing arena, Jim Kennedy and I have added two short comments to our Frontiers paper. In brief, we feel that study registration in psychology has made some noteworthy progress but is still sub-optimal. You can read our original Frontiers paper, and our comments evaluating the current situation, here.

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Just announced: Details of 2016 Bial Foundation Symposium

luisportelaresizedDr Luis Portela (left), chairman of Bial (Portugal’s largest pharmaceutical group), has a strong interest in parapsychology. In 1994 he set up the Bial Foundation whose mission is ‘to foster the scientific study of the human being from both the physical and spiritual perspectives’. In practice, the Bial Foundation funds ‘largely unexplored’ areas of psychophysiology, and parapsychology, and is currently parapsychology’s most important funder.

In 20 years, the Bial Foundation has awarded over 500 research scholarships (each from €5000 to €50,000 to researchers across 25 countries. This includes over 200 awards for parapsychological projects.

In addition to its scholarship scheme, the Bial Foundation organises bi-annual themed symposia that include keynote addresses from international experts in neuroscience, parapsychology, and psychophysiology, as well as presentations and poster sessions from Bial Fellows. Dick Bierman (Uni of Amsterdam) and I are the two parapsychologists on the symposium organising committee.  You can see the published proceedings of the first ten  Symposia here.

The 2016 Bial Symposium, the 11th, is on the theme of placebo, healing and meditation – a fertile topic for cross-fertilisation between parapsychology, psychophysiology and neuroscience. The Bial Foundation has just announced the details of this symposium. The keynote address for the opening session is Irving Kirsch (Harvard, USA), entitled the “The emperor’s new drugs: medication and placebo in the treatment of depression”. Find out more here.

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