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July 1, 2014
  The Facebook furore
The social networking site Facebook has been met with intense criticism after publishing a scientific study. In 2012, the site manipulated its users' News Feeds over a week to assess whether being shown fewer positive or negative stories from friends would affect the emotions of individuals. Did the research reveal anything meaningful, was it ethical, and why have many been 'creeped out' by it?

What did the study find?

The paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with Adam Kramer from Facebook's 'Core Data Science Team', as lead author. A huge sample of 689,003 participants was used, and the researchers found that if a user's News Feed was populated with fewer negative stories that user would be more likely to post positive updates themselves. The opposite effect was seen when the visibility of positive stories was reduced. The researchers concluded that 'social contagion' is possible without the need for non-verbal cues and social interaction.

Professor Peter Totterdell (University of Sheffield) told The Psychologist that the study has added to our understanding in a number of ways. 'The main claim of the study is that it provides experimental evidence of emotion contagion in a very large social network. The "experimental" part is important here because another paper that was published earlier this year in PlosOne by Coviello and colleagues - Adam Kramer is an author on both papers - also demonstrated the same phenomenon but it used a naturalistic design to show that the weather affects the emotional content of people's Facebook posts, which in turn affects the emotional content of the friends' posts even when their friends are living in different cities with different weather. The newer study uses an experimental intervention so it can make stronger claims about causality.'

Professor Totterdell said the study also showed that emotion contagion can occur non-verbally and does not need expressive mimicry to occur, both of which have been shown in previous studies, that it does not require a social interaction and that it is sensitive to the amount of emotional content transmitted.

He said: 'For me, this last finding was the most interesting. The authors showed that reducing the emotional content of the events (in this case news events) that people experience made their friends less emotionally expressive. This occurred when both good and bad news was suppressed. It indicates that people's behaviour is very attuned to the emotions of other people in their social world.'

The effects observed, although significant, were small: by the lead author's own admission, 'the result was that people produced an average of one fewer emotional word, per thousand words, over the following week.' But Professor Totterdell said they were still noteworthy: 'Although the effect will be negligible for any individual, it is still reliable when many individuals are involved which means that a societal intervention is possible, and could potentially be enhanced with a stronger manipulation. It does reinforce though that emotion contagion is usually a subtle effect that competes with other influencing factors.'

The study's methodology has also met with some criticism. The software used - the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count application (LIWC) - works by counting the number of positive or negative words in a status, but cannot pick up negation within a phrase. Therefore, according to John Grohol, it would mistakenly rate an update such as "I am not having a great day" as positive simply because that phrase contains the word "great".

But Professor Totterdell feels the methodology is 'crude rather than flawed. It will misclassify some things and thereby introduce noise into the data, which will also contribute to the small effect size. Sometimes this type of software is supplemented to look for particular word combinations. For example, when people say "Happy Christmas" it doesn't mean they are happy! I'm sure these techniques will become more sophisticated in future.'

Was the study ethical?

In response to accusations that Facebook set out to manipulate emotions without specific informed consent from individuals, the social networking site has pointed out that users tick a box on sign-up which gives permission for Facebook to use their data for research purposes.

Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee Professor Kate Bullen (Aberystwyth University) said in the UK research would be expected to comply with the relevant codes of ethical practice of the BPS, and of the sponsoring institution. Informed consent is a key element of the research process.

She said: 'Researchers have a duty of care to participants following any study and there are also issues surrounding the right to withdraw from any study up to the point of publication. These factors do not seem to have been considered in this case, as far as I can tell.

'There is also the issue of publication of the findings. A reputable journal would want to know that the ethical aspects of the research had been considered, and the mechanisms for ethical review that had been employed by the researchers.'

Professor Bullen added that, as this research was carried out in the USA, it would have to meet APA guidelines. She added: 'There are Institutional Review Boards that operate in the USA. Even if these operate on a federal or institutional basis the principles of deception and duty of care to participants are universal, as such it is reasonable to expect them to apply to any piece of psychology research.'

Bullen and John Oates, Chair of the Society's research ethics reference group, wrote to The Guardian to express 'serious misgivings' about the study, saying it appeared 'to contravene all four principles of research ethics as set out in the Society's code of human research ethics and a recent set of principles agreed by most British learned societies involved in social science research.'

Some online commentators have pointed out that we are unable to determine whether any minors were included in the study, speculating that this could lead to lawsuits. In addition, the Information Commissioner's Office, a UK regulator, has said it plans to question Facebook over the study. A spokesperson from the office told the Financial Times that it was too early to tell what part of the law the social networking site might have infringed.

Leading psychologist Susan Fiske, professor at Princeton University, edited the paper. She told The Atlantic: 'It's ethically okay from the regulations perspective, but ethics are kind of social decisions. There's not an absolute answer. And so the level of outrage that appears to be happening suggests that maybe it shouldn't have been done... I'm still thinking about it and I'm a little creeped out too.'

Facebook is not your Friend

So why do many commentators appear to share Professor Fiske's 'creeped out' feeling? Why has the response from Facebook users tended to be one of shock and anger?

New Zealand-based Sarah Gumbley is in the final stages of her PhD researching our relationships with corporations online.

Gumbley, who spent a year looking at the Facebook pages of a bank, an airline and a telecommunications company, told BBC Radio 4 programme The Digital Human that many corporations try to echo friendship norms to their users, therefore increasing disappointment when they act in a way users and customers don't expect. 'It's maybe tying in to what Sherry Turkle was talking about when she was writing that people are expecting more from technology and less from their friends.'

She said that one of the things that surprised her while doing her research was how angry people became with corporations who did not provide them with a good deal or tailored response to their comments: 'People were really angry with the corporate because they felt like they had been betrayed because they saw it as a friend, and when they didn't get a good deal or felt like they were being ripped off they felt like they were being ripped off by a friend.'

Psychologist Dr Ciarán McMahon, Research and Development Co-ordinator at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, told us that one concept at play in the public feeling betrayed by Facebook is what is known as 'telepresence' - which refers to web designers' and developers' efforts to hide the mechanics of the site's delivery from the public. 'They basically aim to engineer our experience of the site to be so flawless that when we interact with it, we psychologically feel like we are in a different place entirely, along with all of our friends and connections. What this research shows is that Facebook is not a neutral, passive or value-free conveyor of information - the wool has been removed from our eyes about what actually goes on in Facebook.'
Dr McMahon added that he thinks we react with sites such as Facebook in a state of denial or dissonance. He said: 'We know that we have given up a lot of our personal identity to Facebook, but our relationship with it is now so deep and ongoing that if we stopped to think about it for a few minutes, we would be immediately uncomfortable.
'This is what this study has done - it has forced us to think about how much of our personally identifiable information we have given away, and that makes us feel incompetent in our self-protection. Hence, we repress and deny - in fact, in much of the commentary on this story I have seen lots of projection in statements like "Of course this is happening, how could you not know Facebook is experimenting?".'

The fallout continues

In an official statement, Facebook said: 'This research was conducted for a single week in 2012 and none of the data used was associated with a specific person's Facebook account. We do research to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible. A big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it's positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow. There is no unnecessary collection of people's data in connection with these research initiatives and all data is stored securely.'

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, described the study as 'poorly communicated, and for that communication we apologise. We never meant to upset you.' The journal itself has published an 'editorial expression of concern'.

However, some psychologists have come to Facebook's defence. For example, Pete Etchells looked for the positives, saying that in the furore and public outrage 'we risk missing a huge opportunity to improve the process by which digital research is conducted in the future.' In New Scientist, Tal Yarkoni wrote: 'If you were to construct a scale of possible motives for manipulating user behaviour - with the global betterment of society at one end, and something really bad at the other end - I submit that conducting basic scientific research would almost certainly be much closer to the former than other standard motives we find on the web... If the idea that Facebook would actively try to manipulate your behaviour bothers you, you should probably stop reading this right now and go and close your account.'

As reaction continues to emerge, our Research Digest, we is collating links to the best of the commentaries.

- Ella Rhodes, Journalist, The Psychologist

Edited: 07/04/2014 at 10:22 AM by jonsut

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    Posted By: Jon Sutton @ 01/07/2014 10:42 AM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

June 27, 2014
  Cutting smoking - not so plain and simple?
Plain packaging for cigarettes moved a step closer when draft regulations for how it would work in practice were released by government ministers yesterday.

The Department of Health has opened a six-week consultation for interested parties to have their say over the potential new regulations. There will also be some negotiation with the EU, which will take around six months, before plans are put in place in the UK.

We spoke to Chris Armitage, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Manchester and a member of the British Psychological Society Behaviour Change Advisory Group. He said the change in packaging was unlikely to result in current smokers changing their behaviour, but could dissuade young people from taking up smoking.

He said: 'Moodie et al. (2013) showed that regular smokers were less inclined to quit smoking in response to packaging in 2011 (after graphic images were introduced on packaging), compared to 2008 (before graphic images were introduced on packaging), so plain packaging is unlikely to make much difference to current smokers.'

Regarding young smokers, Professor Armitage said that before advertising bans on smoking, research tended to show that awareness of advertising and motivation to smoke were linked and therefore any reduced exposure to advertising is likely to reduce the chance of smoking uptake.

He added: 'One concern for the future is whether e-cigarette advertising and/or e-cigarette uptake ultimately turns out to be a precursor to future cigarette smoking.

'Although nicotine consumption per se does not appear to be related to increased risk of cancer, there is some evidence that nicotine disrupts brain reward mechanisms that could increase susceptibility to other drugs (e.g., Kenny & Markou, 2006; Yurasek et al., 2013).'

When asked whether standardized packaging should be a priority for the Government in its attempts to stop people from smoking, Professor Armitage told The Psychologist: 'There is a large body of evidence, stretching back quite a few years (e.g., Peterson et al., 1992) suggesting that increased taxation will reduce both uptake and consumption of cigarettes. Given that all the regulatory mechanisms are already in place, increased taxation would seem to be a more straightforward way of preventing smoking uptake than developing new rules about packaging.'

- Ella Rhodes

Kenny, P.J. & Markou, A. (2006). Nicotine self-administration acutely activates brain reward systems and induces a long-lasting increase in reward sensitivity. Neuropsychopharmacology, 31, 1203 - 1211.

Moodie, C., Mackintosh, A.M. & Hastings, G. (2013). Adolescents' response to pictorial warnings on the reverse panel of cigarette packs: a repeat cross-sectional study. Tobacco Control, Accessed at:

Peterson, D.E., Zeger, S.L., Remington, P.L. & Anderson, A.H. (1992) The effect of state cigarette tax increases on cigarette sales, 1955 to 1988. American Journal of Public Health, 82[1], 94-96.

Yurasek, A.m., Murphy, J.G., Clawson, A.H., Dennhardt, A.A. & MacKillop, J. (2013) Smokers Report Greater Demand for Alcohol on a Behavioral Economic Purchase Task. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 74[4], 626-634.

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    Posted By: Jon Sutton @ 27/06/2014 09:54 AM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

  Cutting smoking - not so plain and simple?
Plain packaging for cigarettes moved a step closer when draft regulations for how it would work in practice were released by government ministers yesterday.

The Department of Health has opened a six-week consultation for interested parties to have their say over the potential new regulations. There will also be some negotiation with the EU, which will take around six months, before plans are put in place in the UK.

We spoke to Professor of Health Psychology, Chris Armitage (University of Manchester), a member of the British Psychological Society's Behaviour Change Advisory Group. He said the change in packaging was unlikely to result in current smokers changing their behaviour, but could dissuade young people from taking up smoking.

He said: 'Moodie et al. (2013) showed that regular smokers were less inclined to quit smoking in response to packaging in 2011 (after graphic images were introduced on packaging), compared to 2008 (before graphic images were introduced on packaging), so plain packaging is unlikely to make much difference to current smokers.'

Regarding young smokers, Professor Armitage said that before advertising bans on smoking, research tended to show that awareness of advertising and motivation to smoke were linked and therefore any reduced exposure to advertising is likely to reduce the chance of smoking uptake.

He added: 'One concern for the future is whether e-cigarette advertising and/or e-cigarette uptake ultimately turns out to be a precursor to future cigarette smoking.

'Although nicotine consumption per se does not appear to be related to increased risk of cancer, there is some evidence that nicotine disrupts brain reward mechanisms that could increase susceptibility to other drugs (e.g., Kenny & Markou, 2006; Yurasek et al., 2013).'

When asked whether standardized packaging should be a priority for the Government in its attempts to stop people from smoking, Professor Armitage told The Psychologist: 'There is a large body of evidence, stretching back quite a few years (e.g., Peterson et al., 1992) suggesting that increased taxation will reduce both uptake and consumption of cigarettes. Given that all the regulatory mechanisms are already in place, increased taxation would seem to be a more straightforward way of preventing smoking uptake than developing new rules about packaging.'

- Ella Rhodes

Kenny, P.J. & Markou, A. (2006). Nicotine self-administration acutely activates brain reward systems and induces a long-lasting increase in reward sensitivity. Neuropsychopharmacology, 31, 1203 - 1211.

Moodie, C., Mackintosh, A.M. & Hastings, G. (2013). Adolescents' response to pictorial warnings on the reverse panel of cigarette packs: a repeat cross-sectional study. Tobacco Control, Accessed at:

Peterson, D.E., Zeger, S.L., Remington, P.L. & Anderson, A.H. (1992) The effect of state cigarette tax increases on cigarette sales, 1955 to 1988. American Journal of Public Health, 82[1], 94-96.

Yurasek, A.m., Murphy, J.G., Clawson, A.H., Dennhardt, A.A. & MacKillop, J. (2013) Smokers Report Greater Demand for Alcohol on a Behavioral Economic Purchase Task. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 74[4], 626-634.

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    Posted By: Jon Sutton @ 27/06/2014 09:51 AM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

June 24, 2014
  Brain 2025

In April last year President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative to ‘accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.’ The National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened a working group to develop a rigorous plan for achieving this scientific vision. The group has now delivered its findings and recommendations, including the scientific background and rationale for the BRAIN Initiative as a whole and for each of seven major goals.

In response to the ‘bold and ambitious’ challenge from the president, the working group agreed that accelerated technology development is the key, as reflected in the name of the BRAIN Initiative: ‘Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies’. The group recommends that the BRAIN Initiative develop over a 10-year period beginning in 2016, with ‘a primary focus on technology development in the first five years, shifting in the second five years to a primary focus on integrating technologies to make fundamental new discoveries about the brain’.

In considering these goals and the current state of neuroscience, the working group identified the analysis of circuits of interacting neurons as being particularly rich in opportunity, with potential for revolutionary advances. ‘Truly understanding a circuit requires identifying and characterizing the component cells, defining their synaptic connections with one another, observing their dynamic patterns of activity as the circuit functions in vivo during behavior, and perturbing these patterns to test their significance. It also requires an understanding of the algorithms that govern information processing within a circuit and between interacting circuits in the brain as a whole. The analysis of circuits is not the only area of neuroscience worthy of attention, but advances in technology are driving a qualitative shift in what is possible, and focused progress in this area will benefit many other areas of neuroscience.’

With these considerations in mind, the working group consulted with the scientific community to evaluate challenges and opportunities in the field, identifying seven high priorities:
I    Discovering diversity: Identify and provide experimental access to the different brain cell types to determine their roles in health and disease.
I    Maps at multiple scales: Generate circuit diagrams that vary in resolution from synapses to the whole brain.
I    The brain in action: Produce a dynamic picture of the functioning brain by developing and applying improved methods for large-scale monitoring of neural activity.
I    Demonstrating causality: Link brain activity to behaviour with precise interventional tools that change neural circuit dynamics.
I    Identifying fundamental principles: Produce conceptual foundations for understanding the biological basis of mental processes through development of new theoretical and data analysis tools.
I    Advancing human neuroscience: Develop innovative technologies to understand the human brain and treat its disorders; create and support integrated human brain research networks.
I    From BRAIN Initiative to the brain: Integrate new technological and conceptual approaches produced in Goals #1­–6 to discover how dynamic patterns of neural activity are transformed into cognition, emotion, perception, and action in health and disease.

The report says that the overarching vision of the BRAIN Initiative is best captured by the final goal – combining these approaches into a single, integrated science of cells, circuits, brain and behaviour. ‘For example, immense value is added if recordings are conducted from identified cell types whose anatomical connections are established in the same study. Such an experiment is currently an exceptional tour de force; with new technology, it could become routine. In another example, neuronal populations recorded during complex behavior might be immediately retested with circuit manipulation techniques to determine their causal role in generating the behavior. Theory and modeling should be woven into successive stages of ongoing experiments, enabling bridges to be built from single cells to connectivity, population dynamics, and behavior.’

The report also identifies core principles for the initiative, including pursuing human studies and non-human models in parallel, crossing boundaries in interdisciplinary collaborations, and establishing platforms for sharing data. Ethical implications are not ignored: ‘Initiative research may raise important issues about neural enhancement, data privacy, and appropriate use of brain data in law, education and business. These important issues must be considered in a serious and sustained manner.’

Needless to say, all this is not going to be cheap: ‘provisional’ budget estimates recommend ‘an investment by the NIH that ramps up to $400 million/ year over the next five years, and continues at $500 million/year subsequently.’ The report concludes that ‘A sustained, decade-long commitment at this level will attract talented scientists from multiple fields to the interdisciplinary collaborations that are essential to the BRAIN Initiative and its ambitious goals.’

Jon Sutton

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    Posted By: Debbie Gordon @ 24/06/2014 09:29 AM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

  A scientist walks into a bar...

While this may seem like the set-up to a joke, on 19–21 May hundreds of scientists around the world did just that. This was ‘Pint of Science’, a three-day science blitz covering a variety of topics, including ‘Matters of the Mind’ – a set of talks on issues within psychology and neuroscience. Over three evenings 10,000 people gathered in pubs and bars to hear about cutting-edge science over a pint.

The aim of the festival (see was to create a relaxed environment where members of the public can engage with leading researchers. While it only started in 2013, and was restricted to Oxford, London and Cambridge, this year the festival spread to 21 cities across six countries. Speakers  were mostly university academics, but other notable participants included award-winning science blogger Suzi Gage and  ‘standup mathematician’ Matt Parker. These events were similar to the British Psychological Society’s ‘Psychology in the Pub’ events, but included other activities such as live science demonstrations, pub quizzes, and other opportunities for audience participation.

In Bristol I helped organise events for the theme of ‘Matters of Mind’, where speakers from the University of Bristol shared their knowledge on topics of addiction, memory and sleep. The festival kicked off with talks by Dr Emma Robinson and Professor Marcus Munafò, who spoke on animal models of addiction and emotion recognition in a social world, respectively. Munafò, a professor of biological psychology at the School of Experimental Psychology, warmed up the audience with his latest research, revealing how the shape of beer glasses can impact how much you drink or perceive you have drunk. The festival also included an engaging talk on drug addiction by the aforementioned blogger and final-year PhD student Suzi Gage. Her presentation discussed issues such as the consequences and potential benefits of certain drugs. As it was a slightly controversial topic, the talk roused some interesting debate in the audience.

Another highlight of the festival was a talk on episodic memory by Dr Obaro Evuarherhe. This presentation focused on how memories are created through a process called ‘synaptic tagging’. Evuarherhe provided some examples from his own research using rats, including sharing photos of the environments he had to build. Although the science behind the concepts was complex, Evuarherhe kept the audience interested with humour throughout. He ended on a bit of ‘advice’: the best way to improve memory? Do memorable things!

Afterwards, Professor Christopher Jarrold spoke on his research in working memory using participants with Down’s syndrome and Williams syndrome. As well, he discussed how speed of processing was an important factor contributing to working memory performance, and how it could fit in the classic working memory model of Alan Baddeley. Perhaps most relevant for a realistic portrayal of psychology, Jarrold introduced one of his experimental paradigms for studying executive control. This paradigm succeeded in illustrating the scientific rigour required for overcoming the methodological difficulties within experimental psychology.

On the last night, Dr Ullrich Bartsch spoke on the science of sleep, dispensing useful psychology-approved advice for getting  a better rest. This presentation stood out as it was visually appealing, with a background that mimicked the activity stages of sleep. Bartsch pointed out that several mental health disorders, including depression and schizophrenia, are often associated with aberrant sleeping patterns. He suggested that normalising the sleep of people with schizophrenia may ease some of their symptoms. There were plenty of questions from the audience, including one on how many hours, minimum, are required for sleep (about eight).

Finally, Dr Matt Jones spoke on the use of neurotechnology to investigate research questions in sleep. A particularly fascinating moment was when he showed the audience the brain’s ‘song’ – that is, what a neuron in the hippocampus sounded like as a rat navigated through a maze. The festival ended on an afterparty, DJ’ed by two of our Pint of Science speakers, Evuarherhe and Bartsch. If nothing else, this event smashed through the stereotype of a scientist being boring, stuffy and unsocial. In fact, the speakers were just as happy as any of the audience to unwind with a pint in hand.

All in all, these talks certainly depicted psychology – and science more generally – in a good light. Not only were the speakers engaging, witty and fun, but the research presented was genuinely interesting and new. As well, the science was presented in accessible and unintimidating manner. If all this sounds very appealing, keep an eye out next year, as Pint of Science hopes to continue – growing bigger and better – for as long as possible.

Julie Lee (University of Bristol)

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    Posted By: Debbie Gordon @ 24/06/2014 09:26 AM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

  Cuts at King's College

King’s College London is set to cut up to 120 jobs from its health schools, with decisions based partly on individual grant income. The cuts will be made across the schools of medicine, psychiatry and biomedical sciences, with the Psychology Department one of those affected. Staff chosen for potential redundancy have been selected based on their research income and teaching hours, the College has confirmed.

Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Experimental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, has criticised the university’s selection criteria. She commented: ‘Using grant income as a proxy for staff quality indicates that KCL has completely lost any sense of the purpose of an academic institution… people are now doing research in order to get funding, when they should be seeking funding in order to do research.’

Patricia Howlin, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Child Psychology at King’s College, told us: ‘The conditions for getting rid of staff are much more unfair than in the case of the usual dismissal procedure. In those circumstances indidivuals are warned if their work is not up to standard, given set guidelines and the chance to improve and then their position is reconsidered. There has been no warning, no conditions for improvement set and no chance to improve. The last cull, at the Institute of Psychiatry about four years ago, left people very demoralised. I think many good people will try to leave, even if they are not axed this time. Those in charge of running the place and managing (or not) the budgets etc. appear, of course, to be exempt from the process.’

A spokesperson for King’s College said the institution had ‘ambitious’ plans to enhance its position as a ‘world-leading university’. ‘All parts of the college are looking at how they can increase income, control costs and collectively raise performance. We are seeking to reduce our academic payroll costs by 10 per cent and some job losses may be necessary.’ She added: ‘The first stage has been completed with the affected academic staff having being considered on the basis of their research grant income and teaching contact hours. The majority have been informed that they will no longer be part of the ongoing process. Those remaining have been invited to provide information in support of their broader contributions which will help inform deliberations.’

The King’s College branch of the University College Union (UCU) was due to complete a ballot for strike action over the cuts on 25 June. A petition to oppose the planned redundancies, at, has attracted thousands of signatures including former Dean of the Institute of Psychiatry Sir Robin Murray.

Ella Rhodes

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    Posted By: Debbie Gordon @ 24/06/2014 09:22 AM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

June 11, 2014
  Will it be England United in Rio?
On 12 June the Football World Cup kicked off in Brazil, an event like no other, which engages and brings individuals together on a national and global scale. For psychologists the World Cup provides a window to many psychological phenomena - not least the ability of players from rival clubs to come together for a brief period and unite towards the common goal of success in a global tournament.
Why would players have difficulty uniting in pursuit of the biggest prize in football? Yet consider Gary Neville, who won 85 caps for England and is now part of the coaching team: 'I regard myself as patriotic but, truth be told, playing for England was a bonus. Winning for my club was always the most important thing, and given a straight choice of a European Cup with United or a European Championship with England, it's United every time.'
We can understand Neville's comment, and the challenges facing the England manager Roy Hodgson, through Tajfel and Turner's social identity theory. From this perspective the nine club identities that make up England's 23-man World Cup squad define individuals, they are not simply forgotten or 'sleeping' when the players come together at a national level. The players seem to have a stronger identification with their clubs than England, favouring club honours to national success. This is in contrast to most other sports where the international stage is the pinnacle both financially and in terms of ability. Further, these club identities may not simply reflect different teams, but also different values associated with players' affiliations to their clubs. For example, some players may come from a club where autonomy is provided for individuals to prepare for a match as they see fit, whereas other players may come from a team where emphasis is on collective, group preparation for matches. So the cognitions and behaviours expected as an England football team member may diverge from those the squad are accustomed to at their clubs. Thus, England need to develop a sense of commonality, which is more than simply playing under the umbrella of the 'England team'. Taking time to create a team identity is time well spent; identities promote commitment (see Alex Haslam's research), collective efficacy (studies led by Katrien Fransen), and have been posited to facilitate a high-performing environment. In short, social identity is associated with success.
To create a strong national team identity, our own work suggests that the context is key and the England management can mould an environment conducive to facilitating a strong team identity. Roy Hodgson must highlight and emphasise, as the England football team, the commonalities 'we' share that make 'us' unique from other teams. Is it to show their pride in representing England by passionately singing the national anthem? Do the England players really know what it is about being English that makes 'us' distinct? Is it to live and breathe lion-hearted patriotic spirit, or is it 'to be winners'? Only once the players know what the team represents can they come together to be a unified team.
Interestingly, fans have little trouble uniting behind the team and club rivalries are (mostly) forgotten as this summer we can expect the streets and cars of England to fly the St George cross and England replica football shirts (even at £90 a time) to proliferate. Our research shows that the fans will share the emotional responses of their team and vicariously enjoy the highs and lows of the tournament. The World Cup is more than just a game, while it remains to be seen if England (dis)unite in Rio this summer.

Matthew Slater and Marc Jones are sport and exercise psychologists at Staffordshire University.
This column will appear in the July issue of The Psychologist.
Share your views on this and other sport psychology issues by e-mailing

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    Posted By: Jon Sutton @ 11/06/2014 03:18 PM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

June 3, 2014
  Psychologists get busy at The Hub

The first residents of The Hub at Wellcome Collection, a flagship new space for interdisciplinary projects around health and well-being, will investigate the busyness of modern life. Bringing together a rich network of scientists, artists, humanists, clinicians, public health experts, broadcasters and public engagement professionals, the group will explore states of rest and noise, tumult and stillness, and the health implications for lives increasingly lived in a hubbub of activity. They have been awarded £1 million to develop the project over two years.

The group is led by social scientist Felicity Callard (Durham University) with core contributing members comprising psychologist and writer Charles Fernyhough (Durham University), psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond (BBC’s All in the Mind and Health Check), neuroscientist Daniel Margulies (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences) and poet James Wilkes (University of East Anglia). The group will start their occupancy at Wellcome Collection in October 2014, as the venue opens new spaces and galleries after a £17.5m development.

The ambitious project will be nourished by the research resources of Wellcome Collection, the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust and will embrace the noisy city beyond and the people who live in it. The group, selected from 55 applications, will have freedom to develop ideas and outputs over their residency. The Hub will gather international experts investigating hubbub and rest at different scales, to breathe new life into the questions we ask about rest and busyness. Should we slow down, or should we embrace intense activity? What effects do each of these states have on the health of our bodies and minds? The space at Wellcome Collection will provide a base for the group to perform rigorous, creative research and to stage scientific and artistic experiments, data-gathering and public events. While neuroscientists study the ‘resting’ brain and mind, artists will explore the borders between signal, sound and noise, psychologists will track people’s bodily activity, and social scientists will map the city’s noise and silences.

Felicity Callard said: ‘Our team is enormously excited to take up the first residency of The Hub, and to work with this extraordinary physical and conceptual space to showcase what can be achieved through experimental interdisciplinary endeavours. Our collaborative work on rest and noise will
have members of the public at its heart and will create new possibilities for people from all backgrounds to find their own kinds of rest in the busy city. Through our research activities and creative adventures we want to transform how rest and its opposites are understood - and give us all an urgently needed intimacy with a hidden but vital part of our lives.’

Charles Fernyhough said: ‘We’re thrilled to be the first team to occupy this extraordinary research space in the heart of the busy city. Psychologically speaking, “rest” is a puzzle, with debates about whether the mind is ever actually still or silent. Our project will see neuroscientists working with psychologists on new ways of assessing subjective experience during rest, integrating it with what we know about the resting brain, and feeding into broader interdisciplinary experiments that draw on insights from the humanities, arts and social sciences to explore how people mentally and physically negotiate the boundaries between rest and busyness.’

For Claudia Hammond, the exciting thing about the project is ‘the number of different ways that members of the public will be able to get involved, from watching poetry performances in the Restmobile (a specially-adapted campervan) to lying on a couch in Wellcome Collection telling us their daydream’s.

Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, said: ‘In a field of exceptional applications, Felicity Callard and her team inspired us with a topic of rich potential and pressing concern. The pressures and health implications of unrelenting activity are an inescapable but underexplored part of the environment of modern life. We look forward to the process and outputs of their collaborative curiosity and anticipate their work leaving rich a legacy for academic and creative inquiry, clinical practice and public policy and for The Hub’s future as a crucible for innovative interdisciplinary research.’

Jon sutton

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  Combating '...isms' in fashion

Natalie Fernandes and Carolyn Mair report from Better Lives 2014, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London

This year, as last, London College of Fashion’s (LCF) Better Lives series has focused on the relationship between fashion and psychology as part of LCF’s initiative to use the discipline of fashion to drive change, build a sustainable future and improve the way we live. The 2014 series, concerned with ‘…isms in fashion’, was curated by Dr Carolyn Mair (LCF), Reader in Psychology and Course Leader of the MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion and MA Psychology for Fashion Professionals.

The first seminar brought together Dr Ros Jennings (Gloucester University) and Professor Paul Matts, a Research Scientist from P&G. Dr Jennings presented thought-provoking case studies from a sociocultural perspective of two women in popular culture, Dame Shirley Bassey and Petula Clarke, demonstrating different approaches to ageing. Professor Matts presented data from studies demonstrating the importance of skin appearance on perceived attractiveness. He argued that skin is an indicator of both health and youth. Therefore, taking an evolutionary psychology perspective, Professor Matts claimed that men are attracted to younger-looking women because they signal fertility and the potential to increase their chances of reproduction and survival. He argued that what is perceived as attractive is also perceived as healthy. The talks were followed by an audience discussion whereby the main conclusions were that although evolutionary processes are difficult to overcome, cultural influences can affect behaviour. Given the increasing population of people aged over 50, the fashion industry needs to address this population’s needs as well as those of the very narrow demographic currently catered for.

The second seminar looked at racism in fashion. Jody Furlong, director of The Eye Casting Company and The Eye Models, demonstrated how stereotyping develops in childhood using a YouTube video replication of Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s 1940s experiment ( Furlong criticised the lack of black models in Vogue and on the catwalk in New York, Paris, Milan and London. However, his optimism that change could happen was supported by the second speaker, James Lyon, a photographer and spokesperson for Models of Diversity. James claimed that consumers could influence change by supporting designers who embraced diversity and boycotting those who didn’t. Audience members agreed with this and were passionate about the importance of education. Dr Mair stressed that education is a continuous process and encouraged those present to take forward the seminar’s message to others.

Three speakers presented at the third seminar, Ablism in Fashion. Listening to paralympian and model Stef Reid describing how she had successfully adapted to becoming disabled, following a boating accident aged 16, was inspirational. Stef articulated the problems of striving to conform to the narrow stereotype of ‘normal’ and encouraged the audience to challenge the current paradigm. She emphasised the need for the fashion industry to celebrate difference rather than view it as a reason for exclusion. Michael Shamash, Chairman of the Restricted Growth Association, writer, researcher and self-described disabled person pointed out that disabled people consume fashion with as strong a sense of style as anyone else; however, they are typically ignored in the industry. He suggested that for change to happen, disabled people needed to occupy positions of power within fashion and that education needs to embrace diversity. Finally, Kelly Knox, winner of 2010’s Britain’s Top Missing Model, actress and ambassador for REACH, The Association for Children with Upper Limb Deficiency, spoke about how reaching out to others who were struggling with confidence issues had made her aware of her ‘disability’. ‘I am disabled by the attitudes in the fashion industry, not by my missing arm.’ The audience discussion covered the lack of diversity behind as well as in front of the cameras. Again, the consensus was for a more inclusive attitude from the fashion industry. Dr Mair concluded by referring to Donald Norman’s work on inclusive design: design for all people.

The final seminar was a panel session chaired by Dr Phil Sams (LCF, and Visiting Professor at Northumbria University). The panel comprised Caryn Franklin MBE, James Partridge OBE, Zowie Broach, Dr Chris Pawson (University of East London) and Dr Carolyn Mair. Each speaker was given a few minutes to make a point before the audience discussion. Caryn Franklin is a Visiting Fellow at LCF, broadcaster, fashion editor, co-editor of i-D magazine, and co-founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk which challenges the fashion industry’s dependence on unachievable body ideals by promoting diversity and inclusivity. She spoke about the importance of educating designers, stylists and journalists. James Partridge OBE, Founder and CEO of Changing Faces, the leading UK charity supporting and representing people with disfigurements, presented the audience with statistics demonstrating the large demographic on people with disfigurements in the UK. He argued that children are exposed to stereotyping through games in which the ‘baddie’ is scarred. He also showed how ‘disfigurements’ can be considered beautiful. He stressed the importance of fashion in developing social norms and argued for an industry that represented and respected individuals regardless of their appearance. Zowie Broach (LCF) is a partner in Boudicca, a design house respected for its integrity, depth of design and attention to detail. Zowie spoke about the beauty of images that were created to be different. Next was Chris Pawson, who spoke about the importance of clothing not only for other people’s perceptions of us, but for our own cognitions and mood. Giving examples from his own work, he emphasised the importance of fashion in well-being. Finally, Dr Carolyn Mair summed up the other speakers’ comments and reiterated the recurring theme of the narrow focus of ‘beauty’ and ‘normality’ currently promoted by the fashion industry. The concluding remarks emphasised the uniquely important role held by the fashion industry and the mission of LCF which is to use fashion to drive change, build a sustainable future and improve quality of life.

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  Teachers to be trained in neuroscience

Teachers look set to receive training in neuroscience, after members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) voted for a motion calling for materials and policies on applying neuroscience to education.

Perhaps prompted by the announcement earlier this year of a government-backed Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust’s launch of a £6 million scheme that will fund neuroscientific research into learning, members at the union’s annual conference narrowly supported the motion. However, the
news brought a mixed reaction.

Dr Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster, told us: ‘I am delighted about the recent financial support for educational neuroscience research, and I very much welcome initiatives to integrate robust and relevant neuroscience into educational practice. However, I think we have to be careful about how this is done. There is a real tendency for neuroscience to be taken out of context, misunderstood and misapplied. Julia Neal, member of ATL and supporter of the motion, is quoted as saying that an understanding of neuroscience could help teachers support creative “right brain thinkers”, a concept that would fill most neuroscientists with horror. Applying good, up-to-date empirical knowledge of the brain and mind to educational processes is an utterly vital step forward, but any training must be done carefully, appropriately and by the right people.’

We also spoke to Helen Knowler, a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Bristol, who said: ‘I am not a neuroscientist, but I have been a teacher who has attended countless hours of “training” over the years. Some of it was excellent and some of it was very poor!

It is not uncommon to read in research literature or mainstream media that teachers need more “training”. My feeling is that this has become something of trope which obscures what we know about the complex and multifarious ways that teachers learn to do their work. There is plenty of evidence that neuroscientific insights can be useful for teachers. There is also, however, plenty of evidence that teachers have been exposed to a range of “neuromyths” whereby spurious and even bizarre approaches to teaching and learning have been adopted in classrooms in the name of “brain science”! More “training” sounds like a good thing, but research tells us that in order for teachers to participate in high-quality professional development that has the capacity to transform experiences for learners, this needs to be more than a superficial round-up of everything we know about, in this case, the brain. Professional development for teachers, when done well, is a powerful and important tool for school improvement. Poorly designed courses, that do not attend to the cognitive, affective and ethical dimensions of teaching are likely to be a waste of time in the long run, and will not endear teachers investing time to learning more about the ways that neuroscientific insights can promote pedagogical innovation. I wholeheartedly support the idea of carefully evaluated professional development in the field of neuroscience for teachers, but would argue that it needs to be in-depth, long-term and offer some robust practical examples of the ways that this understanding translates into practice.’


Jon Sutton

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  Memories on cue

A new €2 million collaboration has launched, partnering the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex and computer scientists at Lancaster, Stuttgart and Lugano. The 'RECALL' project aims to use wearable technology to improve and augment human memory.

Professor Geoff Ward told The Psychologist: 'Technology has always had a direct impact on how and what humans remember. This impact
is both inevitable and fundamental – technology radically changes the nature and scale of the cues that we can preserve outside our own memory in order to trigger recall. Such change is not new – we have seen the transition from story-telling to written books, from paintings to photographs to digital images and from individual diaries to collective social networks. However, in recent years technology has opened up entirely new ways of augmenting human memory – near-continuous collection of memory cues has become possible through the use of technologies such as Microsoft’s SenseCam, social networks and interaction logs; advances in data storage and processing now enables widespread mining of stored cues for proactive presentation; and the presence of ubiquitous displays (both in the environment and via personal devices such as Google Glasses) provides many new opportunities for displaying memory cues to trigger recall.’

The project aims at a targeted breakthrough to create a memory augmentation technology that provides the user with the experience of an extended and enhanced memory, but is based on improvements in the collection, mining, and presentation of appropriate information to facilitate cued memory recall.

Professor Ward says: ‘One of our proposed activities, to be undertaken in the next six months, includes booking out a very large country holiday cottage, and inviting volunteer participants to wear all kinds of wearable sensors, cameras, et cetera., and then to see how the data captured can be used to test, supplement and modify memory. He adds that 'the project is high risk – numerous technical and societal challenges need to be addressed before augmented memory systems are possible; and potentially high pay- off – if successful, the project will contribute to our fundamental understanding of human memory and have a transformational impact on all spheres of life – the workplace, family life, education, and psychological well-being.’

Jon Sutton

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  Film Award

Devil in the Room, the sleep paralysis film that featured in our November 2013 ‘Big picture’, has won the Best Documentary Prize at the Cineglobe International Film Festival at CERN, Geneva. The biennial festival is based in the Globe of Science and Innovation, in the heart of CERN, which is home to the Large Hadron Collider, birthplace of the World Wide Web and one of the seats of modern science. The festival accepts films that are ‘inspired by science’, and the 2014 theme was ‘Beyond the Frontier’. Filmmaker Carla MacKinnon said:?‘It was a great honour to receive the award and have the film played in such a beautiful and meaningful location

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April 29, 2014
  New 'MindEd' site launched

A website designed to extend the skills, knowledge and awareness of professionals and volunteers working directly with children and young people, was launched at a Westminster conference on 25 March.

MindEd is funded by the Department of Health and run by a consortium of organisations in the child mental health field that includes the British Psychological Society. It contains over 100 short e-learning sessions, and many more will be added in the coming months.

As well as tackling stigma and giving adults access to information at any time and in any place, the website aims to speed up the time it takes to identify child mental health problems and put them on the path to the most appropriate treatment.

The e-learning sessions look at child development, typical presenting problems, diversity and equalities, legal frameworks, and different ways of helping and treating problems. As well as this core curriculum, MindEd is developing a review of the efficacy of different e-therapies and is working to make components of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme for children and young people delivered through higher education institutions available on its website.

MindEd is also updating the Department of Health’s Healthy Child programme and Adolescent Health programme in the context of mental health and developing a Healthy School Child programme on children aged 5–11 for healthcare professionals.

At the launch, Norman Lamb, the Minister for Care and Support, said: ‘Spotting the signs of mental health problems early in children and young people is essential to prevent problems from escalating and continuing into adulthood. That’s why we have invested £3 million in MindEd – so that people working with children, from teachers to dinner ladies and sports coaches to Scout leaders, can recognise when a child needs help and make sure they get it.’

The Society’s President Dr Richard Mallows was present at the event, and said that he was delighted the Society is a partner in the MindEd project: ‘There is increasing demand for a central resource to support professionals and key workers in children’s services to understand the mental well-being of children and young people. The training and information available via the portal is vital to that wider understanding.’

The day included a multiprofessional ‘Big Debate’, with a panel including Chartered Psychologist and Director of the University of Reading’s Charlie Waller Institute, Professor Shirley Reynolds. Dr Duncan Law, a former clinical lead for services for children of our Division of Clinical Psychology, made an interesting intervention from the floor during the big debate. He suggested that, just as all proposed new legislation must have an environmental impact audit, it should have a mental health audit too.

To coincide with the website’s launch, the MindEd consortium commissioned a survey of adult knowledge of and attitude towards child mental health problems. Among the findings from the 2105 adults questioned were that 38 per cent did not know the signs and symptoms to look out for and 51 per cent said they were worried about raising the issue for fear of being mistaken. When it comes to seeking help and advice, 87 said they would talk to their GP if they thought a child had a mental health problem, 55 per cent said they would turn to a family member and 37 per cent to a teacher. Significantly for MindEd, nearly three quarters (72 per cent) said they would use the internet.

Dr Raphael Kelvin, a child psychiatrist and the clinical lead for the MindEd programme, said: ‘Half of all diagnosable mental health conditions start before the age of 14, and 75 per cent by the age of 21, so identifying children at the earliest opportunity is crucial in setting them on the best path in life. Investing in early intervention is crucial – not doing so comes at a high price for those battling a mental health condition, and also costs the economy vast sums of money in lost education, training, jobs, and often, through crime.

‘It’s clear from these results that there’s still stigma attached to mental health with 51 per cent of adults admitting fear of approaching the issue. It’s also clear that many adults are not confident in being able to spot the signs of ill mental health in children, and many are turning to other adults – family, friends and teachers – for help and advice. So it’s vital that people know what to look out for so they can address the issue before it worsens, and that’s where MindEd can help.’

Jonathan Calder

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    Posted By: Debbie Gordon @ 29/04/2014 04:29 PM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

  Wellcome prizes

This year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist includes several books of a psychological nature.

Oliver Sacks, the physician, bestselling author, and professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, is on the list for Hallucinations, his consideration of what they tell us about the brain’s workings, and how they have influenced art and culture. Read our interview with him on the topic at

Andrew Solomon, who last year gained a PhD in psychology from the University of Cambridge, is nominated for Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. ‘Sometimes your child – the most familiar person of all – is radically different from you. The saying goes that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But what happens when it does?’ Drawing on interviews with over 300 families, covering subjects including deafness, dwarfs, Down’s syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, prodigies, children born of rape, children convicted of crime and transgender people, Solomon documents ‘ordinary people making courageous choices’.

There’s also a nomination for Sarah Wise for Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England.

The winner will be announced on 29 April (after we have gone to press).
In other news from the Wellcome Trust, their Science Writing Prize, in association with The Guardian and The Observer, is now open for applications. The annual award invites non-professional science writers based in the UK to submit short articles of no more than 800 words that address an area of science in an accessible way. Entries should demonstrate a passion for science and encourage the general public to consider, question and debate the key issues in science and society. The winners will have their work printed in The Guardian and The Observer and receive a £1000 cash prize. Deadline for entries
is 11 May 2014.

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    Posted By: Debbie Gordon @ 29/04/2014 04:24 PM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

  Toying with psychology

Psychology students at Coventry University have been showcasing toy designs that they have produced as part of an entrepreneurial challenge. The Apprentice-style contest tasked the students with designing a brand new, market-ready children’s toy and then presenting their concepts to a panel of industry judges.

A poster display of the best designs went on public display. Laura Taylor, associate head of Coventry University’s Faculty of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, said: ‘Developmental psychology – how our thinking and behaviour changes with age – is a major component of our undergraduate degree programmes and we set our students this practical exercise to really test their understanding of this important subject. Not only did the students have to design a brand new children’s toy but they had to present their concept and argue its developmental benefits to our expert judging panel. It was quite a daunting task for them but they rose to the challenge.’

The winning entry was ‘Ocean friends’ by Sophie Barker, a soft toy combination which draws on psychological theories of social, cognitive and motor development in order to assist 6- to 9-month-olds in developing their sense of self, senses, pinching and grasping, and use of both hands.


Jon Sutton

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  Psychiatry journal with an open mind

A new journal, The Lancet Psychiatry, launches in May, with the editor telling The Psychologist: ‘I am very interested in future research, review, opinion, and essay material by psychologists.’

A message at entitled ‘A fresh start for psychiatry’, claims that ‘Our new journal arrives at a pivotal moment in mental health care. Accounts of the distress experienced by people with mental health disorders appear throughout history, often accompanied by descriptions of their terrible mistreatment. Progress, both clinically and in terms of stigma and discrimination, has been slow. We believe, however, that with the emergence of high-quality evidence and political and social will, things can change rapidly for the better.’

The Lancet Psychiatry describes itself as ‘an independent, international, multidisciplinary general psychiatry journal’ that aims ‘to keep an open mind. Above all, we want a strong evidence base to help people with mental health problems, throughout the life course. We are interested in innovative treatments, novel methods of service delivery, and new ways of thinking about mental illness promoted by social psychiatry. In parallel with this, we will encourage the new wave of biomedical research that is challenging dogma and pointing out possible future directions for classification and treatment. We will also advocate strongly for the rights of people with mental health disorders, and welcome the voices of service users.’

Editor Niall Boyce told The Psychologist: ‘We are publishing a paper on the psychology of suicide by Professor Rory O’Connor (Glasgow University) and Professor Matt Nock (Harvard University) in our first issue. On the more psychoanalytic / psychotherapeutic side, we will be running essays in subsequent issues on the therapeutic process by authors such as Jay Watts and Tania Glyde. I cannot imagine a future for psychiatry that does not involve serious and sustained engagement and collaboration with psychology. The Lancet Psychiatry will provide a space in which members of both professions can publish and discuss their views and findings. I hope that this will be to the benefit of those working in mental health care and research, and, more importantly, will help to improve the lives of people with mental health problems.’


Jon sutton

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  Who is driving brain research?

Robyn Dean (University of Bristol) went to the Dana Centre on 12 March to find out

The current ‘Mind Maps’ exhibition at the London Science Museum, supported by the British Psychological Society, presents stories and tools of the past 250 years of psychological research. The Museum’s Dana Centre clearly positioned tonight’s event, also supported by the BPS, to look at the next 250 years. But while the event may have been entitled ‘Who is driving brain research?’, the themes of the four individual talks and the following discussion centred more around ‘To where is brain research driving?’

Speaking to a packed room, Professor Michael Hausser (UCL) opened the night by introducing some of his work on the neural code and attempts to build from knowledge at the neuronal level to understanding brain circuitry and the behaviour it underlies. Optogenetics is an exciting tool being used in his lab, allowing neuronal activity to be observed by making cells express the light-sensitive chemical channelrhodopsin. This means that light can then be used to activate the cell. The technique is precise enough that individual cells can be targeted, introducing the possibility of manipulating cellular firing patterns. Understandably, Professor Hausser was enthusiastic about the possibility of applying such a method to sensory perception, motor control and memory.

The theme of relating brain and behaviour was continued as Professor Kate Jeffery (UCL) discussed the role of place cells, a discovery in the 1970s which she feels is one of the most revolutionary changes in neuroscience. Place cells have been shown to fire when rats are in a specific location, suggesting a neural representation of space. Along with grid cells, which are thought to encode distances, this suggests we may possess a neural map helping us to navigate the world. Damage to the hippocampus, where such cells can be found, results in topographic disorientation in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

The importance of studying brain damage and disorders was highlighted by Dr Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster) using the strong analogy of understanding more about the mechanics of cars by studying those which aren’t functioning correctly. Contrasting Professor Hausser’s focus on one technique applied to several areas, Dr Loveday discussed the use of cognitive profiling in areas ranging from anorexia to dementia, memory issues and personality. Cognitive profiling involves looking at an individual’s strengths and weaknesses on a variety of tasks; allowing such characteristics to build an understanding of brain and thought changes, and therapeutic options.

Dr Bhismadev Chakrabarti (University of Reading) clearly presented the opposing strategy of applying a wide-range of neurological tools to his main focus of empathy and the perception of social cues. These are typically areas of difficulty in autistic spectrum disorder, and individuals don't seem to gain the same reward from social encounters as typically functioning individuals. Dr Chakrabarti has investigated the link between reward and empathy by studying the activity of the dopaminergic (reward) system during moments of maternal bonding, and the effects of blocking the system chemically or surgically. Other methods have included relating neural activation using fMRI to questionnaires on an individual’s empathy and recording the movement of facial muscles to mimic photos of faces that were conditioned to be more or less rewarding. The converging evidence has strong implications for reward-based treatments
of social behaviour in those with autism.

Across the talks there was a divide between using one psychological tool to tackle several problems and using several methods to examine one area; however, both aimed to ‘look under the bonnet’ as Dr Loveday put it. Within this, the importance of relating neural work to observations of behaviour strongly resonated throughout.

If there was a danger of the talks focusing too much on the nature side of the nature–nurture debate, a flurry of questions debating the cultural and ethical aspects of neuroscientific work brought the discussed methods into perspective. Particularly, the speakers all mentioned ecological difficulties in their own work. This ranged from the difficulties in controlling social stimuli without losing the realism of the study to the issues in determining the reason for neuronal firing patterns.

The latter point alludes to a correlational problem of neurological work, namely a specific neuron may fire when engaging in a certain activity without it reflecting cognition in that task. It could represent the rat thinking how dull the experiment was! Interestingly, Professor Hausser presented optogenetics as a causal method of looking at neuronal firing, because replicating known firing patterns could test whether this causes the behaviour.

The talks concluded with a discussion of the ‘long bridges’ neuroscience had to cross in its future journey. Answers varied significantly with the experts’ interests. Dr Chakrabarti focused on the many ‘short bridges’ of research needed to understand face perception. Dr Loveday discussed the understanding of consciousness, a bridge she feels we may never cross. Professor Hausser suggested that there now aren’t enough future directions and a theoretical focus was needed to develop areas of new research. Professor Jeffery followed this, pointing out that there were few theoretical alternatives to the view that memories were stored in the spaces between neurons, an area that may need further investigation.

Interestingly, a final focus was placed on the development of artificial intelligence, a topic audience members were still discussing as they left. Particularly, Dr Chakrabarti suggested that this progression would require a deep understanding of the differences in perception of other people and non-humans. Professor Jeffery agreed that understanding artificial intelligence would mean understanding ourselves. Parallels were even drawn with the new Hollywood movie Her, which features a man falling in love with an anthropomorphised operating system. This discussion prompts the conclusion that as neuroscience ‘drives’ forwards, the line between reality and science fiction may be blurring.

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    Posted By: Debbie Gordon @ 29/04/2014 04:01 PM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

  Change of funding direction

The US National Institute of Mental Health, a major funder of research, has announced changes to the way it funds clinical trials.

Writing on his Director’s Blog, Thomas Insel says that ‘future trials will follow an experimental medicine approach in which interventions serve not only as potential treatments, but as probes to generate information about the mechanisms underlying a disorder. Trial proposals will need to identify a target or mediator; a positive result will require not only that an intervention ameliorated a symptom, but that it had a demonstrable effect on a target, such as a neural pathway implicated in the disorder or a key cognitive operation.’

Insel goes on to explain that ‘while experimental medicine has become an accepted approach for drug development, we believe it is equally important for the development of psychosocial treatments.It offers us a way to understand the mechanisms by which these treatments are leading to clinical change. Moreover, a subset of the funding announcements will support clinical trials
that evaluate the effectiveness or increase the clinical impact of pharmacological, somatic, psychosocial, rehabilitative, and combination interventions.’

A Nature editorial on the move said it ‘will certainly ruffle feathers. Insel notes that more than half of the trials that the NIMH currently supports would not receive funding under the new requirements, at least not without modifications. For example, a trial that focuses on changes in attention span as a means of testing a behavioural-intervention therapy in children with a broadly defined disorder such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder would not be funded unless researchers could present a controlled way to study how the therapy takes effect. The NIMH would rather see trials that aim to recruit people with a common trait – say, hallucinations – regardless of their specific psychiatric diagnosis, treat them with a drug that acts on a specific brain receptor, and measure changes in brain activity.’

The editorial goes on to predict that ‘critics will argue that the NIMH has exchanged a difficult problem – treating mental illness – for an even more challenging one, understanding the brain. But the institute’s new direction on trials may also aid an effort to free research on mental-health disorders from the limits of existing diagnostic categories.’


Jon Sutton

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  Questioning scientific motivation

What motivates you as a scientist and what pressures are you under? What effects are funding, publishing and governance systems having on the production of high quality, ethical scientific research? Is competition in science a good thing? These are some of the questions being explored in a project led by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics which will gather views and promote debate about the culture of scientific research in the UK. They would like to hear from people involved in all kinds of scientific research in the UK (including psychology), in the public, charitable and private sectors.

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  New academicians elected

Several prominent psychologists have become Academicians of the Academy of Social Sciences, following their nomination by the British Psychological Society.
Professor Mick Cooper, Professor Susan Gathercole, Professor Owen Hargie, Professor Glynis Murphy, Professor Rory O’Connor, and Professor Alison Wearden were all successful.

Professor O’Connor said: ‘Although I am broadly interested in a range of health outcomes, most of my research over the past 20 years has focused on applying psychological theory to understanding the complex pathways to self-harm and suicide. I am delighted to receive this award from the Academy, and I hope the conferment raises the profile of research into suicide and self-harm in the UK and beyond. Unlike other major causes of death, like stroke and cancer, research into suicide continues to be chronically underfunded. In addition to our theoretical work on the psychological mechanisms underpinning suicide risk, we are also working on developing new innovative psychological interventions to help those who are vulnerable.’

Owen Hargie is Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown and a member of the ‘Peace, Conflict & Equality’ Research Group within the Psychology Research Institute at Ulster. His main research interests over a long career have been in the fields of organisational communication, interpersonal behaviour, health communication and most recently cross-cultural relationships in Northern Ireland. He is currently working on a research project funded by the Northern Ireland Government into social exclusion and sport in Northern Ireland ( This will examine how and in what ways a range of groups across Northern Ireland feel excluded from participating in sports, including religious groups, ethnic minority groups, people with a disability, those of lower socio-economic status, older people, females, and the LGBT community.

Professor Hargie said: ‘I am honoured both to be conferred with the award of Academician, and to have been nominated for the Award by the Society. In a sense this is dual recognition by two prestigious bodies. It is very gratifying to have one’s research recognised as having had major significance for the wider community, outside of academia.’

For the past decade, Professor Mick Cooper has led research on the outcomes and process of school-based counselling in the UK, and has been involved in the evaluation and development of person-centred, existential and relational approaches to counselling and psychotherapy. In recent years Professor Cooper has worked with Professor John McLeod (University of Abertay) to develop a ‘pluralistic’ approach to psychological practice, which aims to personalise therapy to the particular client’s goals and preferences. He says: ‘For me, being an Academician is an acknowledgment of the work that counselling psychologists are doing to develop a deeper understanding of human relationships and psychological processes, and the ways in which greater well-being can be facilitated. I am very grateful to the Division of Counselling Psychology for putting me forward for this award.’

Professor Cooper is currently working as National Advisor for Counselling for the Children and Young People’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, and is continuing to work on the development of a pluralistic approach. ‘We are developing an increasing knowledge of effective psychological interventions, but we still need to know more about how to integrate this with service users’ individual preferences and needs. A tailored therapeutic approach may offer the best opportunity to reduce dropout and help clients achieve their personal goals.’

Alison Wearden is Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Manchester and Director of the Manchester Centre for Health Psychology. Her research focuses on the management of long-term conditions, particularly chronic fatigue syndrome, and on interpersonal factors and health. Over the coming years, she intends to bring these two interests together to develop a generic family-based fatigue intervention, which could benefit people living with many different long-term conditions. Professor Wearden said: ‘I am delighted to have my work recognised by the award of Academician in the Social Sciences and to see my name in the members’ list alongside that of many illustrious colleagues.’

Professor Glynis Murphy is Professor of Clinical Psychology and Disability, and Co-Director of the Tizard Centre, University of Kent. Her principal research interests are in the field of challenging behaviour and learning disabilities. Her current and recently completed studies include: the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for people with learning disabilities who have committed sex offences; screening for people with learning disabilities in prison; the effectiveness of social care for ex-offenders with learning disabilities; and (with Dr Peter Langdon) the effectiveness of CBT for people with Asperger’s syndrome and social anxiety.She said: ‘I am delighted to be elected to the Academy of Social Sciences. Its values of inclusivity, independence, transparency, intellectual rigour and sound ethics are values I have held all my working life. My efforts over the last 40 years have been to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities, and I plan to continue to strive to do this. I very much look forward to contributing to the Academy.’

Professor Susan Gathercole is Unit Director and Programme leader of the Memory and Perception group at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. Much of her research focuses on children with developmental disorders in memory, attention, language, and learning.

Other psychologists honoured (although not nominated by the British Psychological Society) were Revd Canon Professor Leslie Francis (University of Warwick) and Professor Bob Woods (University of Bangor), both Chartered Psychologists and Fellows of the Society; and Professor Denise Rousseau (Carnegie Mellon University, USA).

Jon Sutton

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    Posted By: Debbie Gordon @ 29/04/2014 03:44 PM     News from the Psychologist     Comments (0)  

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