One of the most annoying and stressful things that can happen during an fMRI experiment is for system notifications, pop-ups or even the Windows taskbar to suddenly appear on the screen on which you are presenting stimuli to participants.  Here I outline a few things that I do to minimise the likelihood of this sort of disruption when running Matlab on a Windows XP machine.

1) Turn off your wireless network adapter. This reduces the processing burden on your system – crucial if you’re interested in measuring response times – and stops a lot of annoyances (Flash updates, Windows updates etc.) being pushed to your system.  My laptop has a manual switch on the exterior than I can flick to turn it off.  Alternatively, the wireless network can be disabled within windows by navigating Network Connections, right-clicking on the wireless network, and selecting ‘disable’.

2) Disable Real-Time Antivirus Protection and Windows Automatic Updates. This again reduces the burden on your system  and stops annoying notifications popping up.  Whatever it is, it can wait.  However, disabling real-time protection  will probably lead to an ugly warning in your system tray, but no-one needs to see that if you…

3) Turn off the ‘always on top’ property of the Windows Taskbar. Once you do this, Matlab will sit entirely on top of the taskbar, and the taskbar shouldn’t ever become visible at inopportune moments (something I inexplicable struggled with when designing my latest fMRI experiment).  Right click on the taskbar, select Properties, and untick the ‘Keep the taskbar on top of other windows’ checkbox.

4) Disable balloon tips in the notification area. Whilst you could turn off the system tray altogether, that shouldn’t be necessary if you’ve already followed step 3.  (One reason I like to keep the system tray visible is that I find it a handy way to t manage wireless networks, Dropbox, etc. and I don’t want to lose that functionality entirely. ) However, to reduce the chances of anything else you haven’t already thought of ‘helpfully’ reminding you of something mid-experiment, turn off bubble notifications, as detailed in this Microsoft TechNet article.

That should give you the best crack at getting through an experiment with an ugly, flickering, Windows interruption.  Now that you’ve covered your bases,  all you need to do is make sure that your Matlab coding doesn’t give you any  grief – easier said than done.

UPDATE: These steps aren’t exclusive to Matlab stimulus presention either.  They could give you peace of mind before hooking your laptop up to give a formal presentation or jobtalk on Powerpoint… I’ve seen too many talks interrupted by pesky Windows Update notifications and ‘Found new wireless network’ bubbles.

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