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Novel Thoughts #8: Amy Milton on Hubert Selby’s Requiem for a Dream

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 03, 2015.

Amy Milton

Dr Amy Milton from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology relates how Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby’s bleak portrayal of drug addiction, motivated her to dedicate her academic career to finding treatments for addiction.

Here she talks about this favourite book as part of ‘Novel Thoughts’, a series exploring the literary reading habits of eight Cambridge scientists. From illustrated children’s books to Thomas Hardy, from Star Wars to Middlemarch, we find out what fiction has meant to each of the scientists and peak inside the covers of the books that have played a major role in their lives.

‘Novel Thoughts’ was inspired by research at the University of St Andrews by Dr Sarah Dillon (now a lecturer in the Faculty of English at Cambridge) who interviewed 20 scientists for the ‘What Scientists Read’ project. She found that reading fiction can help scientists to see the bigger picture and be reminded of the complex richness of human experience. Novels can show the real stories behind the science, or trigger a desire in a young reader to change lives through scientific discovery. They can open up new worlds, or encourage a different approach to familiar tasks.

View the whole series: Novel Thoughts: What Cambridge scientists read.

Read about Novel Thoughts.

Is there a novel that has inspired you? Let us know! #novelthoughts

New film series Novel Thoughts reveals the reading habits of eight Cambridge scientists and peeks inside the covers of the books that have played a major role in their lives. In the final film, Dr Amy Milton talks about how Hubert Selby's Requiem for a Dream has inspired her pursuit of treatments for addiction.

Amy Milton

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Yes

E is for Elephant

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 01, 2015.

The Parker Library (Corpus Christi College) is proud of its elephants. At least five illustrations of them are to be found in the Library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. Among them is an exceptionally beautiful copy of Kalila wa Dimna, the 8th-century Arabic text by Abdu llah ibn al-Mugaffa. The manuscript dates from the 14th century, and is in a fine hand with superb illustrations.

The text contains a series of instructive animal fables which can be compared to Aesop’s Fables. One of the fables has an illustration of a white elephant being shown by a fakir to the king. The regal dress of the elephant is mirrored exactly in the king’s garments, and the fables reflect the close relationship between the ruler and the animal. In a list of the king’s greatest treasures, the white elephant is given next after his kingdom, his wives and his sons.

One of the Library’s most popular illustrations is a drawing of the African elephant which was given by Louis IX of France to Henry III of England in 1255 as a diplomatic present. The drawing appears in the Chronica Maiora, a history of the world compiled by Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk and the official chronicler of St Albans.

The elephant Paris drew is the earliest western depiction of an elephant drawn from life. “Unlike many earlier western drawings of elephants, which are wildly inaccurate, Paris’s sketch captures the essence of the animal with its wrinkled trunk, jointed legs and toe nails,” says Steven Archer, sub librarian.  Elephants are traditionally pictured in medieval manuscripts without knees; it was believed that they were unable to right themselves should they fall over.

The elephant is shown with its keeper (magister bestie) who is named as Henri de Flor (Henry of Florence). Archer says: “Paris helpfully includes the figure of Henri squeezed between the animal’s trunk and its front legs in order to give the reader an idea of the size of the elephant.”

Presented to Henry III in France, the elephant was transported across the Channel at a cost of £6 17s 5d. Accommodation measuring 20 feet by 4O feet (pitifully small by today’s standards) was especially created at the Tower of London, where the elephant joined a royal menagerie which included lions and leopards.

In London, the elephant was an object of great curiosity. Matthew Paris recorded  that “people flocked together to see the novel sight”. However, knowledge about its dietary needs was sadly lacking. It was fed meat and beer – and survived for just two years.  The animal was buried in the grounds of the Tower of London in 1257 but, a year later, the bones were dug up and sent to the Sacrist of Westminster.

Matthew Paris also drew an elephant carrying a party of musicians on his back. The elephant he depicts was sent by the Emperor Frederick II to meet the crusader, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1241. It's thought that he made this drawing before seeing the real animal in London.

Another of the Parker Library’s treasures, the Peterborough bestiary, shows an elephant carrying on its back a castle, complete with turret and knights in chain mail. The image reflects an Indian tradition of elephants being used in battles as mobile forts.  Traditionally, a wooden tower is shown on the elephant’s back, protecting an army of men inside. The ‘elephant and castle’ is now remembered in the London place-name.

The accompanying text claims that female elephants woo males with a sprig of the mandoraga tree. More accurately, it states that elephants are animals of remarkable intelligence and memory, “Intellectu et memoria multa vigent”.

The remarkable intelligence and memory of elephants is at the core of a research programme run by Dr Josh Plotnik, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge and a senior lecturer at Mahidol University in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Plotnik is founder of Think Elephants International, a US organisation conducting research in the lush and colourful jungles of the Thailand’s Golden Triangle, where for centuries mankind has used elephants for traction and transport. Think Elephants integrates research, education and conservation in an ambitious bid to understand elephant cognition and thus make an important contribution to safeguarding the future of a species facing serious threats.

“In Asia, there are few wildernesses left. People and elephants are in conflict over land with elephants encroaching on farms and eating crops. In Africa, elephants are vulnerable to poachers who kill them in order to sell their tusks into the ivory trade,” says Plotnik. “In both parts of the world, it’s vital that we engage people of all ages in the importance of conservation and in particular that we make sure children grow up with an appreciation of elephants.”

Elephants are known to be smart – but remarkably little empirical scientific evidence exists to support this assertion. Plotnik and colleagues has shown that elephants are capable of thoughtful cooperation and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. Both abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates.

“In a rope-pulling task that led to a food reward, the elephants learned not only that a partner was necessary, but also that it was the partner’s behaviour and not just their presence that was needed for success,” says Plotnik. “Recognising oneself in the mirror demonstrates that an animal is able to see itself as separate from others. This ability is one of the main traits underlying empathy and complex sociality.”

Elephants ‘see’ and ‘think’ using a combination of their eyes, ears and trunk. “Our observations suggest that elephants are ‘hearing and smelling’ animals rather than ‘seeing’ animals,” says Plotnik. “We are now just beginning to explore the ways in which they use their sense of smell to navigate within their environment – for example, how do they make decisions about the quality of and where to find food and water, and does their sense of smell play an important role in their decision-making process?"

A better understanding of elephants’ sense of smell might well be a useful tool in conservation efforts. If the team at Think Elephants discover, for example, that elephants locate food such as farm crops by smelling them, scientists and local communities might be able to use this information to prevent an elephant's approach before their interaction with crops becomes a significant human-elephant conflict.

In Kenya, Dr Lauren Evans, a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Geography, is also researching the conflicts that arise when elephants and humans share the same rural landscape.  She is an associate director of Space for Giants, a Kenyan-based elephant conservation charity that seeks to ensure a future for elephants through human-elephant conflict mitigation, anti-poaching, securing space and education. Her work focuses on relationships between elephants and farmers in an area of northern Kenya called Laikipia

“Electrified fences are increasingly being used as the ‘silver bullet’ solution to human-elephant conflict across much of African elephant range by creating a space for elephants, within wildlife areas, and a space for people,” says Evans. “Yet many fences fail in their objectives. Elephants adapt to break even the most sophisticated of fences and engage in an arms race with people trying to maintain them.”

Little is known about how, why and where elephants break fences.  Evans’ PhD research has filled this gap.  “Fence-breaking elephants occupy a unique niche at the frontline of human-occupied landscapes. These are animals that take risks, and face threats posed by humans, to raid crops for nutritional gain.  We’ve found that fence-breakers are invariably older males,” she says.

Evans’ research has shed light on the often-elusive social dynamics of bull elephants, which are considered to be more solitary than females.  Through use of GPS collars, camera traps positioned along fence lines, and days and nights of patient observation in the field, Evans found that bull elephants broke fences in loyal groupings.

“Younger adolescent males associate with larger fence-breaking elephants, and watch and follow these experienced bulls as they break fences.  Together they would cross the fence, split up and raid crops, and reconvene in the morning to break back into a wildlife conservancy,” she says.

“Furthermore, fence-breaking bulls devised unique ways to avoid getting an electric shock. Some curled their trunks over their heads and pulled back wires with their tusks, while others kicked posts down with their feet. One bull carefully wrapped his trunk around posts, in between the wires, to uproot them and flatten the fence. I even once saw him push a smaller bull through the fence before him.”

An eventual solution used by wildlife departments to manage persistent fence-breaking elephants is to remove them from the population by translocation or, as a last resort, to shoot them. In Laikipia, 12 of the most persistent fence-breaking bulls were moved some 300km to Meru National Park.

“The results were two-fold. The translocated elephants began to teach the Meru bulls how to break fences, while the younger ‘follower’ bulls of Laikipia began to lead fence-breaks themselves,” says Evans. “Measures to mitigate human-elephant conflict need to accommodate the adaptability and agency of elephants.  We need to move away from fortress-like protection of elephants and towards a reciprocal relationship between conservation and local people.”

Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: F is for a creature that looks nothing like humans. But studying them is helping us learn more about devastating conditions, from neurodegenerative diseases to parasite interactions.

Inset images: Illustration of an elephant from Matthew Paris' Chronica Maiora (The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge); The elephant at Cremona carrying a band of musicians on its back (The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge); Josh Plotnik with an elephant (Elise Gilchrist, Think Elephants International); fence-breaking elephants photographed by infra-red camera traps by Lauren Evans (Space for Giants).

The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, E is for Elephant: an animal that takes pride of place in the Parker Library's manuscripts, is frequently in conflict with people in Thailand and parts of Africa, and is the focus of some important conservation projects.

Unlike many earlier western drawings of elephants, which are wildly inaccurate, Paris’s sketch captures the essence of the animal with its wrinkled trunk, jointed legs and toe nails
Steven Archer
A fakir presents a white elephant to the King, from Kalila wa Dimna by Abdu llah ibn al-Mugaffa

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Winners of the 2015 Passingham Prize announced

By from News. Published on Jun 24, 2015.

How to read a digital footprint

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 23, 2015.

Footprints

In 2007, Dr David Stillwell built an application for an online networking site that was starting to explode: Facebook. His app, myPersonality, allowed users to complete a range of psychometric tests, get feedback on their scores and share it with friends. It went viral.

By 2012, more than six million people had completed the test, with many users allowing researchers access to their profile data. This huge database of psychological scores and social media information, including status updates, friendship networks and ‘Likes’, is the largest of its kind in existence. It contains the moods, musings and characteristics of millions – a holy grail of psychological data unthinkable until a few years ago.

Stillwell and colleagues at Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre provided open access to the database for other academics. Academic researchers from over 100 institutions globally now use it, producing 39 journal articles since 2011.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge Psychometrics team devised their own complex algorithms to read patterns in the data. Resulting publications caused media scrums, with a paper published in early 2015 generating nervous headlines around the world about computers knowing your personality better than your parents.

But how surprising is this really, given the amount we casually share about ourselves online every day? And not just through social media, but also through web browsing, internet purchases, and so on. Every interaction creates a trace, which all add up to a ‘digital footprint’ of who we are, what we do and how we feel.

We know that, behind closed doors, corporations and governments use this data to ‘target’ us – our online actions mark us out as future customers, or even possible terrorists – and, for many, this reduction in privacy is a disturbing fact of 21st-century life.

The Cambridge researchers believe that the new era of psychological ‘big data’ can be used to improve commercial and government services as well as furthering scientific research, but openness is essential.

“If you ask a company to make their data available for research, usually it will go to some corporate responsibility office which deems it too risky – there’s nothing in it for them. Whereas if you tell them you can improve their business, but as part of that they make some data available to the research community, you find a lot more open doors,” says Stillwell, who co-directs the Centre.

Around half of the Centre’s current work involves commercial companies, who come to them for “statistical expertise combined with psychological understanding” – often in an attempt to improve online marketing, an area still in its infancy.

The team has recently launched an interface called Apply Magic Sauce, based on the myPersonality results, which can be used as a marketing and research tool that turns digital ‘footprints’ into psycho-demographic profiles.

“If you use the internet you will be targeted by advertisers, but at the moment that targeting happens in the shadows and isn’t particularly accurate,” says Vesselin Popov, the Centre’s development strategist.

“We all have to suffer advertising, so perhaps it’s better to be recommended products that we might actually want? Using opt-in anonymous personality profiling based on digital records such as Facebook Likes or Last.fm scores could vastly improve targeted advertising and allow users to set the level of data-sharing they are comfortable with,” says Popov. “This data could then, with the permission of users, be used to enrich scientific research databases.”

Measuring psychological traits has long been difficult for researchers and boring for participants, usually involving laborious questionnaires. This will sound familiar to anyone who has used an employment agency or job centre. The team are now building on their previous work with algorithms to take psychometric testing even further into uncharted territory – video games. Job centres might be the first to benefit.   

“A job centre gets about seven minutes with each job seeker every two weeks, so providing personalised support in that time is challenging,” explains Stillwell. “We are working with a company to build a game that measures a person’s strengths in a ‘gamified’ way that’s engaging but still accurate.”

In ‘JobCity’, currently an iPad proof of concept, users explore job opportunities in a simulated city. The game measures psychological strengths and weaknesses along the way, offering career suggestions at the end, and providing the job centre with feedback to help them guide the applicant. The team has tested the game with a group of under-25s and the results are promising.    

For the Centre’s Director Professor John Rust, the team’s background in psychology means they don’t lose sight of the people within the oceans of data: “We’re dealing with organisations that are using ‘big data’ to make actuarial decisions about who gets lent money, who gets a job – you don’t want this left solely to computer engineers who just see statistics.”  

“We want machines that can recognise you as a person. Much of the information for doing that already exists in the servers of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on. Your searches and statuses are all reflections of questions, experiences and emotions you have: all psychometric data. It’s the basis for a future where computers can truly interact with human beings.”  

Cyberspace has, for Rust, opened a ‘Pandora’s box’ that’s taken psychological testing to a new level. But, he says, the current explosion in big data bears comparison to a previous shift that happened a century ago – the advent of IQ tests shortly before the First World War. Millions of servicemen were tested to determine role allocation within the military. Suddenly, says Rust, overexcited scientists had massive psychological datasets. IQ tests influenced societies long after the war, leading he says to some of the most shameful episodes of the 20th century including scientific racism and sterilisation of the ‘feebleminded’.

“Today you have another psychological big data situation being used to challenge a perceived global threat: terrorism. Government data scientists hunting would-be terrorists are enthusiastically adopting big data, but there will be social consequences again. In many ways, we already have Big Brother – whatever that now means,” Rust says.

“The new psychological data revolution needs serious research, and ethical debates about it need to be happening in the public arena – and they’re not. We have a responsibility to say to people working on this in secret in companies and institutions: ‘You’ve got to come and discuss this in an open place’. It’s what universities are for.”

Inset images: Facebook's Infection (Ksayer1); Dr David Stillwell, Professor John Rust and Vesselin Popov (University of Cambridge).

Researchers are using social media data to build a picture of the personalities of millions, changing core ideas of how psychological profiling works. They say it could revolutionise employment and commerce, but the work must be done transparently.

Your searches and statuses are all reflections of questions, experiences and emotions you have: all psychometric data. It’s the basis for a future where computers can truly interact with human beings
John Rust
Footprints

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Novel Thoughts #5: Juliet Foster on Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's The Madness of a Seduced Woman

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 22, 2015.

Juliet Foster

Dr Juliet Foster’s ongoing fascination with the portrayal of mental illness in literature was triggered by reading The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. Today she carries out research in Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.

Here she talks about this favourite book as part of ‘Novel Thoughts’, a series exploring the literary reading habits of eight Cambridge scientists. From illustrated children’s books to Thomas Hardy, from Star Wars to Middlemarch, we find out what fiction has meant to each of the scientists and peek inside the covers of the books that have played a major role in their lives.

‘Novel Thoughts’ was inspired by research at the University of St Andrews by Dr Sarah Dillon (now a lecturer in the Faculty of English at Cambridge) who interviewed 20 scientists for the ‘What Scientists Read’ project. She found that reading fiction can help scientists to see the bigger picture and be reminded of the complex richness of human experience. Novels can show the real stories behind the science, or trigger a desire in a young reader to change lives through scientific discovery. They can open up new worlds, or encourage a different approach to familiar tasks.

View the whole series: Novel Thoughts: What Cambridge scientists read.

Read about Novel Thoughts.

Is there a novel that has inspired you? Let us know! #novelthoughts

New film series Novel Thoughts reveals the reading habits of eight Cambridge scientists and peeks inside the covers of the books that have played a major role in their lives. In the fifth film, Dr Juliet Foster talks about how reading The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer started an ongoing fascination with the portrayal of mental illness.

Juliet Foster

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Yes

Green Impact Silver Award for the Department

By from News. Published on Jun 11, 2015.

BAP Lifetime Achievement Award for Professor Trevor Robbins

By from News. Published on Jun 08, 2015.

New index of children’s ‘school readiness’ highlights importance of family support

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 28, 2015.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and Psychometrics Centre have completed a study in which they developed the simple questionnaire for teachers, dubbed the Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI).

The government has indicated that it wishes to introduce testing for all children at Reception (when they first enter school at age four) in September this year. These tests seek to provide baseline assessments of a child’s ‘school readiness.’ However, the proposals have been criticised by several teaching organisations as being too narrowly focused and likely to add to the difficulties of an already challenging period for both children and their teachers.

“If schools are to deliver the extra support needed to help children make a successful transition to school, some form of assessment is required, but the tests due to be introduced in September are not what teachers need: they are labour-intensive and potentially stressful for four-year-olds,” says Professor Claire Hughes from the Centre for Family Research, who led the research.

“Teachers need something that is brief but reliable and that harnesses their own skills and experience to identify children in need of extra support. A short teacher questionnaire such as the BESSI could provide all the necessary information and be easier to implement.”

The Cambridge study was a study commissioned by Frank Field MP who, following his 2010 report, The Foundation Years: how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults set up and now chairs the Foundation Years Trust.  Part of the Trust’s work is to develop, implement and promote life chance indicators, which are seen as playing a key role in driving policy and incentivising a focus on improving children’s long-term life chances.

The BESSI questionnaire is unique in being both brief (one page) and broad (including, for example, items about the kinds of support children receive at home).  A previous, much longer questionnaire, the Early Development Instrument (EDI), was designed by a Canadian research team and has enabled teachers in Australia to profile the development and wellbeing of more than 260,000 five-year-olds. This national census revealed worrying regional disparities in the proportion of children with ‘developmental vulnerabilities’, with clear policy implications for mobilizing extra support. However, the EDI is not appropriate for use in the UK because British children start formal schooling one year earlier than children almost everywhere else in the world – a significant time difference in terms of a child’s development and a source of concern for many.

Professor Hughes and colleagues carried out focus groups with teachers in Field’s Birkenhead constituency with a view to getting a first-hand view of variation in children’s school readiness. This highlighted an additional problem: a lack of consensus on how ‘school readiness’ should be defined.

Researchers in the USA have noted that for politicians, whose primary interest is in the extent to which schools produce employable young adults, school readiness hinges on achieving foundation skills in literacy and numeracy.  As Professor Hughes explained, “For teachers, who face the more immediate challenge of 30 small children in a confined space, the obvious starting point is children’s behaviour and emotional and social development.”

Defining school readiness is also complicated by the fact that learning takes many forms – from ‘surface learning’ (e.g. letter recognition) to ‘deep learning’ (e.g. finding patterns or principles).  Some theorists argue that the very term ‘school readiness’ is intrinsically unfair, in that it appears to place the burden of responsibility on the child.  The Cambridge researchers noted that a lack of educational support at home was a frequent issue raised by teachers.

To address these various problems, the researchers developed and piloted the BESSI. So far, this has been tested in three waves involving schools and nurseries in the Wirral, in London and in Manchester.  The first wave was with teachers of over 800 children in Reception, the second was with nursery staff working with a similar number of much younger children, and the third was with teachers of a further 270 children to check the reliability of BESSI ratings.

Amongst other factors, the BESSI provides information about children’s social and behavioural adjustment (e.g. are they able to play with other children or to wait their turn?) as well as measures of their daily living skills (e.g. can they use cutlery and can they go the toilet by themselves?) and language / cognitive skills. Importantly, it also captures variation in family support and includes items about reading, praise and fun at home.  The findings around fun are particularly interesting as they indicate that parental support is not simply a matter of regular reading at home – although there may be a virtuous circle by which parents and children who have fun together are also more likely to read together.

As the researchers expected, some problems, such as distractibility and trouble sitting still, were very common, even among the older children in the sample. However, the BESSI also provided some surprising insights.  First, not only were problems typically almost twice as common in boys as in girls, but these gender differences were also evident in family support. For example, compared with girls, boys received much lower ratings of ‘fun at home’.

Second, children from low-income families lagged behind their more affluent peers – but these differences were removed when scores for family support were taken into account.  In other words, when families facing financial difficulties are still able to have fun together, the children appear better prepared for school – but teachers’ ratings indicated that fun at home was often lacking.

“We should not blame parents who provide low levels of support, or recast problems of inequality as a matter of parental responsibility, or let these findings detract from efforts to reduce inequality in order to give all children a fair start in life,” adds Professor Hughes. “Instead, our hope is that the BESSI will help educational professionals support all children, regardless of family background, who display difficulties during the transition to school or nursery.”

The research was funded by the Westminster Foundation and the Foundation Years Trust.

Reference
Hughes, C et al. Measuring the foundations of school readiness: Introducing a new questionnaire for teachers – The Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI). British Journal of Educational Psychology; 8 May 2015

The importance of family support on a child’s ‘school readiness’ is highlighted in a study published this month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. Researchers developed and piloted a new index that might provide a simple and stress-free alternative to the government’s proposed baseline assessments for four-year-olds starting school.

The tests due to be introduced in September are not what teachers need: they are labour-intensive and potentially stressful for four-year-olds
Claire Hughes
Back to school (crop)

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Memory and mental time travel at the Hay Festival 2015

By from News. Published on May 24, 2015.

“Talk PhD to me!”

By from News. Published on May 20, 2015.

Student–led teachers’ awards recognise staff

By admin from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 13, 2015.

Student union thanks staff for supporting students and enhancing the educational experience

Staff from across the University have been recognised for their work by the students they support and teach.

The CUSU Student-Led Teaching Awards 2015 saw 265 nominations from students who submitted testimonies about why their chosen member of staff deserved to win.

Among the nominees were lecturers, supervisors, tutors, chaplains, librarians, custodians, and a whole range of people who have provided student support and enhanced the educational experience at Cambridge.

The winners - judged by a panel of students working alongside CUSU - were presented with their awards at a ceremony on Tuesday, May 12.

Rob Richardson, CUSU Education Officer 2014-15, said: "It has been a pleasure to read the quality and passion of the testimonies from students. The CUSU Teaching Awards provide a great opportunity to highlight the world class teaching that students at Cambridge have access to, and the ceremony itself was an extremely enjoyable occasion. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive, and it has been a pleasure to be involved in the awards."

The list of winners and the categories they were recognised in, is below:

 

Lecturer Category

Winners

Dr Laura Moretti, AMES

Dr Rory Finnin, MML

Dr Katharine Hubbard, Plant Sciences

Christine Counsell, Education

Dr Richard Turner, Engineering

Dr Fiona Maine, Education

 

Supervisor Category

Winners

Dr Richard Barnes, PDN

Dr David Whitebread, Education

Dr Jason Rentfrow, Psychology

Dr Helen Thaventhiran, English

Dr Jenny Koenig, Pharmacology

Special Mentions

Dr Ruth Abbott, English

Dr Julian Sale, Pathology

Dr Yannis Galanakis, Classics

Prof Graham Virgo, Law

Matthew Simpson, Philosophy

 

Pastoral Category

Winners

Dr Louise Joy, Homerton

Dr Paola Filippucci, Murray Edwards

Dr Kevin Greenbank, Wolfson

 

Non-Teaching Category

Winners

Don Stebbings, Divinity

Katheryn Ayres, Veterinary Medicine

Karen Kempton, Robinson College

Libby Tilley, English

 

Image: Thank You by Nate Grigg

Memory and mental time travel at the Hay Festival

By from News. Published on May 12, 2015.

Listen to your heart: why your brain may give away how well you know yourself

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 21, 2015.

Listen to your heart

In research published today in the journal Cerebral Cortex, a team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, studied not only whether volunteers could be trained to follow their heartbeat, but whether it was possible to identify from brain activity how good they were at estimating their performance.

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, a Wellcome Trust Fellow and lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, says: “‘Follow your heart’ has become something of a cliché, but we know that, consciously or unconsciously, there is a relationship between our heart rate and our decisions and emotions. There may well be benefits to becoming more attuned to our heartbeat, but there’s very little in scientific literature about whether this is even technically possible.”

A recent study from Dr Bekinschtein and colleagues showed that people with ‘depersonalisation-derealisation disorder’ – in which patients repeatedly feel that they are observing themselves from outside their body or have a sense that things around them are not real – perform particularly badly at listening to their heart. Another study from the team, looking at a man with two hearts – his natural, diseased heart and a replacement artificial heart – found that he was better able to tune into the artificial heart than the diseased one.

Other studies have highlighted a possible connection between heart rate and task performance. For example, in one study, volunteers given the drug propranolol to increase their heart rate performed worse at emotional tasks than the control group. Changing heart rate is part of our automatic and unconscious ‘fight or flight’ response – being aware of the heart’s rhythm could give people more control over their behaviour, believe the researchers.

Thirty-three volunteers took part in an experiment during which scientists measured their brain activity using an electroencephalograph (EEG). First off, the volunteers were asked to tap in synchrony as they listened to a regular and then irregular heartbeat. Next, they were asked to tap out their own heartbeat in synchrony. Then, they were asked to tap out their own heartbeat whilst listening to it through a stethoscope. Finally, the stethoscopes were removed and they were once again asked to tap out their heartbeat.

During the task, when the volunteers were tapping out their heartbeat unaided, they were asked to rate their performance on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being ‘inaccurate’ and 10 ‘extremely accurate’. Once the task was completed, they were asked how much they thought they had improved from 1 (‘did not improve’) to 10 (‘improved a lot’).

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that brain activity differed between people who improved at tapping out their heartbeat and those who did not,” says Andrés Canales-Johnson from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. “But interestingly, brain activity also differed between people who knew whether or not they had improved and those people who under- or over-estimated their own performance.”

Just over four in ten (42%) of the participants showed significant improvement in their ability to accurately tap along unaided with their heartbeat. This is most likely due to the fact that listening to their heartbeat through a stethoscope had allowed them to fine tune their attention to the otherwise faint signal of their heartbeat. In those whose performance had improved, the researchers saw a stronger brain signal known as the ‘heartbeat evoked potential’ (HEP) across the brain.

The researchers found no significant differences in the HEP when grouping the participants by how well they thought they had performed – their subjective performance. This suggests that the HEP provides a marker of objective performance.

In the final part of the test – after the participants had listened to their heartbeat through the stethoscope and were once again tapping unaided – the researchers found differences in brain activity between participants. Crucially, they found an increase in ‘gamma phase synchrony’ – coordinated ‘chatter’ between different regions in the brain – in only those learners whose subjective judgement of their own performance matched their actual, objective performance. In other words, this activity was seen only in learners who knew they had performed badly or knew they had improved.

“We’ve shown that for just under half of us, training can help us listen to our hearts, but we may not be aware of our progress,” adds Dr Bekinschtein. “Some people find this task easier to do than others do. Also, some people clearly don’t know how good or bad they actually are – but their brain activity gives them away.

“There are techniques such as mindfulness that teach us to be more aware of our bodies, but it will be interesting to see whether people are able to control their emotions better or to make better decisions if they are aware of how their heart is beating.”

The research was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC in the UK, and the Chilean National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development, the Argentinean National Research Council for Science and Technology, and the Argentinean Agency for National Scientific Promotion.

“Listen to your heart,” sang Swedish pop group Roxette in the late Eighties. But not everyone is able to tune into their heartbeat, according to an international team of researchers – and half of us under- or over-estimate our ability.

'Follow your heart’ has become something of a cliché, but we know that, consciously or unconsciously, there is a relationship between our heartrate and our decisions and emotions
Tristan Bekinschtein
listen to your heart <3

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Study finds GB’s most extroverted, agreeable and emotionally stable regions

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 25, 2015.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge used the data to analyse a sample of just under 400,000 people from England, Wales or Scotland (Northern Ireland was excluded as sample sizes were too small), around two-thirds of whom were female. The results of their study are published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study is based on data that was gathered as part of the Big Personality Test, an online survey published by the BBC in 2009 as part of a collaboration between the BBC and the scientific community, BBC Lab UK.

“Understanding how personality traits differ by region is more than just ‘a bit of fun’,” explains Dr Jason Rentfrow from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Fitzwilliam College. “Geographical differences are associated with a range of economic, social and health outcomes – and hence how important resources are allocated. Although participants in an online test are self-selecting, the demographic characteristics are representative of the British population, so we can develop an accurate snapshot of the psychology of the nation.”

The test looked at five personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness.

Extraversion

Extroverts tend to be more assertive, energetic, enthusiastic and sociable, and previous research has linked extraversion with physical health and wellbeing, leadership and occupational performance. Our research found high levels of extraversion concentrated in London as well as Manchester and pockets of the South and South East of England, Yorkshire and Scotland. In contrast, the East Midlands, Wales, Humberside, the North of England and East Scotland showed significantly low levels, suggesting that their residents tend to be quiet, reserved and introverted.

Agreeableness

Agreeableness reflects traits such as cooperation, friendliness and trust. The study found that ‘agreeable’ regions tended to have higher proportions of females, married couples and low-income residents as well as lower rates of violent crime.

The most agreeable regions were to be found throughout Scotland, as well as in the North, South West and East of England, suggesting that disproportionate numbers of residents of these areas were friendly, trusting, and kind. This contrasted with London and various districts throughout the East of England, which had lower levels of agreeableness, suggesting that comparatively large proportions of residents of these areas were uncooperative, quarrelsome, and irritable.

Images: Maps of personality characteristics across the UK. The redder the area, the level of the characteristic in the region. Click on images to enlarge.


Conscientiousness

People who are conscientiousness tend to have a stronger sense of duty, responsibility and self-discipline, and research has shown that this trait is linked with career and educational success, longevity and conservatism. According to the study, conscientiousness reflects the degree to which residents of an area are socially conservative, nonviolent, and physically healthy.

The survey found the most conscientious regions were in Southern England, pockets of the Midlands, and the Scottish Highlands, suggesting that large proportions of residents of these areas were self-disciplined, cautious, and compliant. London, Wales, and parts of the North of England showed significantly lower levels, suggesting that comparatively large proportions of residents of these areas were disorderly, rebellious, and indifferent.

Conscientiousness individuals were more likely to be married, older and on a higher income, with lower rates of deaths from cancer and heart disease.

Emotional Stability

People who are emotionally stable tend be calm, relaxed, and happy, and several studies have shown that such traits can have a positive impact on relationship satisfaction, psychological wellbeing, career success and longevity. In regions where there are large proportions of emotionally stable individuals, there appear to be large proportions of physically healthy and middle-class residents.

The research found significantly low levels of emotional stability throughout most of Wales and in a number of districts throughout the Midlands. People were more likely to be emotionally stable in the South West and much of Southern England, as well as across most of Scotland, suggesting that residents of these areas tend to be calm, relaxed, and happy. Overall, the survey found that regions with large proportions of people scoring low in emotional stability had more residents who were working class and physically unhealthy.

Openness

At an individual level, openness represents creativity, curiosity, imagination, and intellect, and is associated with pursuing a career that involves creativity, living an unconventional lifestyle, earning a college degree and supporting liberal attitudes.

Metropolitan areas tended to show greater Openness appeared mainly in metropolitan areas, with London, Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow, but also in parts of Wales, indicating that a disproportion number of residents of these areas were creative, unconventional, and curious. Significantly low levels of Openness emerged throughout most of the East Midlands and East of England, suggesting that large proportions of residents of these areas were conventional, down-to-earth, and traditional.

According to the study, openness was positively related to residents with university education, income, prevalence of high-status professionals, foreign-born residents, same-sex couples, and rates of violent crime. Overall, the results suggested that regions with large numbers of highly open people were cosmopolitan, economically prosperous, and liberal.

To help the general public find out how they fit within these results, the BBC has produced an iWonder guide called Take the test: Where in Britain would you be happiest?

The BBC’s interactive guide asks people to answer 10 questions about how they see themselves and then matches the answers to the region in Britain that most suits that person – i.e. the district where they would be happiest – according to the published research. The guide also estimates how well-matched participants are to the area they currently live in, the nearest place to where they live that they would be happier, and their worst place to live.

Reference
Rentfrow, PJ et al. Regional Personality Differences in Great Britain. PLOS ONE.

A survey of almost 400,000 British residents has highlighted significant differences in personalities between regions. Amongst its findings, it shows Scots to be amongst the friendliest and most co-operative residents, Londoners the most open and Welsh people the least emotionally stable.

Understanding how personality traits differ by region is more than just ‘a bit of fun’. Geographical differences are associated with a range of economic, social and health outcomes – and hence how important resources are allocated
Jason Rentfrow
Scotland ~ Day 2
The highest and lowest personality scores by GB area
Personality trait Highest scoring Lowest scoring
Extraversion Hammersmith & Fulham (86.7) Boston, Lincs (11.3)
Agreeableness Isles of Scilly (87.6) City of London (8.3)
Conscientiousness Isles of Scilly (77.5) Merthyr Tydfil (13.6)
Neuroticism Barrow-in-Furness (83.3) Orkney Islands (4.5)
Openness Hackney (100) Maldon, Essex (28.1)

 

The #GBpersonality quiz just told me I should live in the Shetland Islands...lovely, but no. Should have asked how much I like being cold!

— Felicity Sedgewick (@SedgewickF) March 25, 2015

#GBpersonality quiz says I'm pretty much happiest where I am. But did I adapt to my environment in order to feel happiest there? #ponders

— Diana Caulfield (@dsw26) March 25, 2015

Spooky. BBC #GBpersonality thing says I should live near Coalville Leics. That would be Whitwick where my Dads family lived for centuries

— Janet Kearns (@Jan2555) March 25, 2015

 

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Families with a difference: the reality behind the hype

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 12, 2015.

Over the past 40 years the family has altered in ways that few people imagined back in the days of the Janet and John reading books in which mummy baked and daddy mowed the lawn. In the 1970s, the ‘nuclear’ family (heterosexual married couple with genetically related children) was in a clear majority. Advances in assistive reproductive technologies, a rise in numbers of single parent and step families resulting from divorce, and the creation of families by same-sex couples and single people have changed all that.  Today ‘non-traditional’ families outnumber nuclear families in the UK and many other countries.

When it comes to family, everyone has opinions – but they are just opinions. In her new book, Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms (published 12 March 2015), Professor Susan Golombok charts the remarkable changes that have taken place in the context of the empirical research that has sought to answer a series of contested questions. Are children less likely to thrive in families headed by same-sex parents, single mothers by choice or parents who conceived them using assisted reproductive technologies? Will children born to gay fathers through egg donation and surrogacy be less likely to flourish than children conceived by IVF to genetically related heterosexual parents?

Golombok’s contribution to family research goes back to 1976 when she responded to an article in the feminist magazine Spare Rib by conducting an objective study of the development of children of lesbian mothers. Spare Rib had revealed that, both in the UK and USA, lesbian mothers in child custody disputes invariably lost their cases to their ex-husbands. Courts argued that it was not in children’s best interests to be raised by lesbian women, not least because their gender development would be skewed. Golombok, and other researchers, have shown in successive studies that boys are no less masculine and girls no less feminine than boys and girls with heterosexual parents.

In 2006 Golombok was appointed director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research – a research centre known for its focus on family influences on child development. Modern Families brings together for the first time the growing body of research into the wide range of family forms, undertaken not just in the UK but also in the USA and around the world. Most strikingly, these studies show, again and again, that it is the quality of relationships that matters most to the well-being of families, not the number, gender, sexual orientation or genetic relatedness of the parents, or whether the child was conceived with the assistance of reproductive technology.

These findings fly in the face of the media hysteria that greeted the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978. Societal attitudes have since moved on. However, deep-seated assumptions of what is ‘right and proper’ continue to colour notions of what a family ‘should’ be in order to raise a well-balanced child. Real families are complex. Golombok is careful to be even-handed in her unpacking (family type by family type) of the issues, the arguments and the relevant research in a field that, by virtue of its human intimacy, demands a high level of sensitivity and diplomacy.

She also addresses the fact that research into so emotionally charged a field is bound to be imperfect. Parents willing to take part in research are more likely to be those who are functioning well than those who struggle. “It is important to study new family forms to find out what they are really like. Otherwise, all we have is speculation and assumption, usually negative, which simply fuel prejudice and discrimination and are harmful to the children involved,” she says.

Some findings are counterintuitive, others less so. One of the arguments most famously used against same-sex parenting has been that children may lack models on which to base their own gender identity and behaviour. In a study of play preferences, lesbian mothers chose a mix of masculine and feminine toys but their children chose toys and activities that were highly sex-typed. It seems that parents have little influence over the sex-typed toy and activity preferences of their daughters and sons.

In studies of children born through assisted reproduction, their mothers have consistently been found to show more warmth and emotional involvement, and less parenting stress, than natural conception mothers.

“Contrary to the expectation that parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies would experience difficulties in parenting, research has found them to be highly committed and involved parents, even in donor-conceived families where one or both parents lack a genetic relationship with their children,” says Golombok.

“A key factor in the positive functioning of children in new family forms appears to be that they are very wanted children. Parents in new family forms often struggle to have children against the odds. Many experience years of infertility before becoming parents; others become parents in the face of significant social disapproval; and still others surmount both hurdles in order to have a child.”

When surrogacy hit the headlines in 1985 with the case of Kim Cotton, the furore about the payment made to her by the intended parents of the child she was carrying led the UK to outlaw commercial surrogacy. Although attitudes to surrogacy have softened, it remains the most controversial form of assisted reproduction. Studies report that relationships between intended parents and surrogate mothers are generally both enduring and positive. Children born through surrogacy sometimes form relationships with the surrogate’s own children.

Modern Families offers a measured appraisal of the broader issues that are likely to prove increasingly salient (and debated) as reproductive technologies offer novel routes to the conception of a healthy child and society’s understanding of what constitutes ‘family’ is increasingly extended. Last month’s approval in the UK for the use of a technique called mitochondrial replacement has rekindled accusations of scientists ‘playing God’. Perhaps, in time, society will be more accepting of techniques like mitochondrial replacement, developed primarily to avoid a child being born with a devastating medical condition.

Two generations ago, same-sex parenting was widely vilified as ‘against nature’. Today, same-sex couples and single people are considered alongside heterosexual couples as prospective adoptive and foster parents. “Attitudes towards same-sex parent families in the UK have changed enormously over a relatively short period of time. In less than half a century we have moved from a situation in which lesbian mothers were ostracised, and gay men were at risk of imprisonment, to a time where same-sex couples can marry, adopt children jointly, and become the joint legal parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies,” says Golombok.

“But it’s important to remember that these laws are far from universal. Lesbian and gay relationships remain a criminal offence in some countries of the world with lesbian and gay people still living in fear of their lives.”

Families aren’t self-contained units. How do parents handle the prejudice they and their children are almost bound to encounter and how do children cope with what are perceived as ‘differences’? Sometimes the attitudes of the wider world make things hard. While children of same-sex parents are just as likely to flourish as those with heterosexual parents, children with lesbian or gay parents have to ‘explain’ their families in a way that their peers don’t. The need to explain can be burdensome.

“It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms,” says Golombok.

Children born through egg or sperm donation grow up with a realisation that they have a biological mother or father who may not live with them. The research covered in Modern Families shows that the question of disclosure – informing children conceived through donated gametes about their genetic parentage – is a foggy one. 

Legislation that took effect in 2005 gives anyone conceived with donated gametes after that date the right to have, at the age of 18, access to information about the identity of their donor via records held by the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).  Not until 2023 will it begin to be apparent how many donor-conceived young people might seek information about their donors from the HFEA.  If adoption law is any guide, the numbers will not be insignificant.

As the legislation stands, young people will not know that they have been donor conceived unless they have been told – and only those with this knowledge will have any reason to seek access to the information held about their donor. This situation puts the onus firmly on the parents to make the decision about disclosure. Interestingly, although many parents profess the intention of bringing their children up with the knowledge that they were donor conceived, significant numbers of parents never find the right moment to broach the subject.

Golombok says: “Parents fear that telling children about their donor conception will jeopardise the loving relationship that has developed between the child and the non-genetic parent. However, our research has shown this fear to be unfounded. Parents who are open with their children when they are young – before they reach school age – say that their children accept this information and are not distressed by it. Finding out in adolescence or adulthood appears to be more difficult to accept.”

Modern Families is a timely reminder that every family is different – and that families are both fluid and flexible. There is more variation within family types than between them. Many of the newer routes helping people to fulfil their desires to have a family are still in their infancy. Progress is never smooth – and, quite rightly, innovations in conception are bound to be, and need to be, a matter for public debate. Research by Golombok and her colleagues, at Cambridge and beyond, provides a firm and informed basis for discourse to take place. 

Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms by Susan Golombok is published on 12 March 2015 (Cambridge University Press).

Top two inset images from Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

Families come in many guises. Some parents are same-sex; others are single by choice. Growing numbers of children are conceived through assistive reproductive technology. What do these developments mean for the parents and children involved? Professor Susan Golombok’s book, Modern Families, examines ‘new family forms’ within a context of four decades of empirical research. 

It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms.
Susan Golombok
Cover image from Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms

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Your brain might not be as ‘old’ as you think

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 09, 2015.

How ‘old’ is your brain? Put another way, how ‘aged’ is your brain? The standard, scientific answer, suggests that the older you get, the greater the changes in the activity of your neurons. In fact, my colleagues and I have found out that this isn’t necessarily the case: older brains may be more similar to younger brains than we’d previously thought.

In our study, published recently in the journal Human Brain Mapping, we’ve shown that changes in the ageing brain previously observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – one of the standard ways of measuring brain activity – may be due to changes in our blood vessels, rather than changes in the activity of our nerve cells, our neurons. Given the large number of fMRI studies used to assess the ageing brain, this has important consequences for understanding how the brain changes with age and it challenges current theories of ageing.

The fundamental problem of fMRI is that it measures the activity of our neurons indirectly through changes in regional blood flow. Without careful correction for age differences in how the blood vessels respond, differences in fMRI signals may be erroneously regarded as differences in our neurons.

An important line of research focuses on controlling for noise in fMRI signals using additional baseline measures of vascular (blood vessel) function, for example involving experimental manipulations of carbon dioxide levels in blood. However, such methods have not been widely used, possibly because they are impractical to implement in studies of ageing.

An alternative way of correcting makes use of the resting state, ’task-free’, fMRI measurement, which is easy to acquire and available in most fMRI experiments. While this method has been difficult to validate in the past, the unique combination of an impressively detailed data set across 335 healthy volunteers over the lifespan, as part of the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (CamCAN) project, has allowed us to probe the true nature of the effects of ageing on resting state fMRI signal amplitude. This showed that age differences in signal amplitude at rest – in other words, while volunteers perform no task during the scan – originate from our blood vessels, not our nerve cells. We believe we can use this as a robust correction factor to control for vascular differences in fMRI studies of ageing.

A number of research studies have previously found reduced brain activity in the areas of the brain related to our senses and movement during tasks that study these aspects. Using conventional methods, we replicated these findings, but, after correction, we found that it is more likely to be vascular health, not brain function, that accounts for most age-related differences in fMRI signals in sensory areas. In other words, neuroscientists may have been overestimating age differences in brain activity in previous fMRI studies.

Why is this important? We’re an ageing society, with more and more people living into old age, so it’s crucial that we understand how age affects how the brain functions.  We clearly need to refine our fMRI experiments, otherwise we risk creating a misleading picture of activity in the brain as we age. Without refinement, such fMRI studies may misinterpret the effect of age as a cognitive phenomenon, when really it has more to do with our blood vessels.

Dr Tsvetanov is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference
Tsvetanov, KA et al. The effect of ageing on fMRI: correction for the confounding effects of vascular reactivity evaluated by joint fMRI and MEG in 335 adults. Human Brain Mapping;  27 February 2015

Our standard way of measuring brain activity could be giving us a misleading picture of how our brains age, argues Dr Kamen Tsvetanov from the Department of Psychology.

We’re an ageing society, with more and more people living into old age, so it’s crucial that we understand how age affects how the brain functions
Kamen Tsvetanov
Brain areas with rich blood supply lower their vascular reactivity with ageing

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