Four Cambridge neuroscientists in Highly Cited Researchers 2016 list
By from News. Published on Dec 07, 2016.
Hard Brexiter or ardent Remainer? Psychologists aim to find out what drives our political ideologies
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 01, 2016.
Now, researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge have launched an online survey looking at the relationship between political attitudes and cognitive thinking styles, exploring different aspects of our personalities and our cognitive abilities, as well as our attitudes towards Brexit and the issues that surround it.
The survey is a follow-up to a recent study carried out by the team during the US elections, which looked at issues relating to Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton’s respective campaigns. The researchers are currently analysing the data from 800 respondents who completed the survey.
“The events of this year have really highlighted how strongly people feel about certain political issues,” explains Leor Zmigrod, a PhD student at the Department, who is leading the research. “We are interested in how these attitudes might relate to individuals’ identities and thinking styles.”
The survey asks questions on everything from attitudes towards the Monarchy, the EU and religion, to how much you agree it is acceptable to fight someone making fun of Britain, and to how anxious, creative or disorganised you consider yourself to be. It also includes cognitive games that look at your cognitive thinking style.
“It’s important to stress that this isn’t about making judgements about ideologies,” adds Zmigrod, “it’s about understanding how they arise.”
Dr Jason Rentfrow, Zmigrod’s supervisor, adds: “We think of ideologies usually in relation to politics, but in fact they come into many areas of our lives. We want to find out what links people to their ideologies and what drives them to protect their nation and communities in different ways.”
“It will be interesting to see if we can determine how basic cognitive styles relate to our political thinking,” says Professor Trevor Robbins, Head of Psychology, and Zmigrod’s advisor.
At a time of increasing divisions within politics – think of the recent battles over whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union – many are asking what it is that drives political ideologies.
Dr Paula Banca awarded a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship
By from News. Published on Nov 25, 2016.
Book to honour Professor N.J. Mackintosh, former Head of Department
By from News. Published on Nov 23, 2016.
Semantic Scholar program ranks Trevor Robbins fourth most influential neuroscientist of the modern era
By from News. Published on Nov 14, 2016.
Congratulations Jenn Murray and Aude Belin-Rauscent, winners of the 2016 Scientific Award EMCDDA
By from News. Published on Nov 11, 2016.
News from Trevor Robbins whilst on sabbatical leave
By from News. Published on Nov 07, 2016.
Does your empathy predict if you would stop and help an injured person?
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Oct 31, 2016.
A team of psychologists at the University of Cambridge has conducted a social psychology experiment to test the theory that an individual’s level of empathy influences their behaviour. The results of their preliminary study, dubbed “The Trumpington Road Study” and published in the journal Social Neuroscience, suggest that this theory is correct.
In the experiment, one of the team posed as an injured person, sitting on the grass on Trumpington Road, one the main roads running through Cambridge, next to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Next to the ‘injured’ person was his upturned bicycle. Another member of the team was standing innocently across the road, watching to see if anyone was approaching from the side road of Brooklands Avenue.
As soon as a member of the public approached the street corner, alone, and was about to turn into Trumpington Road, he gave a quiet signal to the ‘injured’ person to start rubbing his ankle. The experiment had begun. The researcher across the street then noted if the passer-by stopped to ask the ‘injured’ man if he was OK.
Irrespective of whether passers-by stopped or not, once they had walked further up Trumpington Road, they were intercepted by a third researcher who told them she was conducting a ‘memory’ experiment, inviting them to describe what they had seen along the road in the last few minutes. Various items had been left on the sidewalk (such as a scarf) to make this a plausible cover story. Those who agreed to take part were also asked to visit a website in their own time, and complete the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) questionnaires, and were told they would receive a token payment of £6 for taking part.
As the team predicted, EQ scores were higher in those who had stopped to help the injured cyclist, than in those who walked past him, presumably focused on their own agenda.
The study was led by Richard Bethlehem, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. 37 (19 males, 18 females) completed both the EQ and also the AQ. They ranged in age from 18 to 77 years old.
Interestingly, how many autistic traits a person recorded was not related to whether they stopped to help or not, suggesting that empathy is the key factor, not autistic traits. Nor did age predict who stopped or not. Of those who stopped to help, 80% were female.
Richard Bethlehem said: “Experimental studies are often confined to the lab, which means they lack ‘ecological validity’. In this novel study we tested if empathy scores predict if people will act altruistically in a real-world setting. Our results support the theory that people who do good are, at least partially, driven by empathy.”
Dr Carrie Allison, a member of the team, commented: “How much empathy one has is itself a complex outcome of both biological factors and early upbringing and is a skill that can improve with development, learning, and practice.”
Professor Baron-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy and the Chair of Trustees of the Canadian-based charity “Empathy for Peace”, said: “This research is a first step towards understanding why some people may or may not stop to help a person in distress. Studies conducted ‘in the wild’ are notoriously difficult to undertake, and even this small sample was derived from over 1,000 passers by. We will need to await a larger-scale replication. These results suggest that one factor that predicts which individuals will not stand idly by, is how many degrees of empathy they have.”
The study was supported by the Autism Research Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Pinsent Darwin Trust, and the Cambridge Trust, and was conducted in association with the NIHR CLAHRC for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust.
Bethlehem, CA et al. Does empathy predict altruism in the wild? Social Neuroscience; 19 Oct 2016; DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2016.1249944
If you see an injured person by the side of the road, would you stop and help them, or are you more likely to walk on by? What motivates people to do good in such a situation?
Festival of Ideas talk by Professor Susan Golombok - Moving Towards Modern Families
By from News. Published on Oct 26, 2016.
New paper published on the success, precision and vividness of episodic memory
By from News. Published on Oct 25, 2016.
Memory and Mental Time Travel at Tate Modern
By from News. Published on Sep 28, 2016.
Professor Susan Golombok wins Book Award
By from News. Published on Sep 22, 2016.
The Department welcomes Dr Sander van der Linden
By from News. Published on Sep 16, 2016.
CamBABS study recruiting healthy volunteers
By from News. Published on Sep 09, 2016.
Laura Renshaw-Vuillier to take up Lectureship position at Bournemouth University
By from News. Published on Sep 05, 2016.
Alumni of the Department share their stories on becoming an academic lecturer.
By from News. Published on Sep 01, 2016.
Scientists Making A Difference - Professor Trevor Robbins contributes to this recently published Who's Who of eminent psychological scientists.
By from News. Published on Aug 31, 2016.
Opinion: Musical genres are out of date – but this new system explains why you might like both jazz and hip hop
By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 05, 2016.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time in history when genre labels were used to classify music, but the fact is that over the past century, and certainly still today, genre labels dominate. Whether organising your iTunes library, receiving music recommendations from apps like Spotify, or buying CDs at a record store, genre is the first way in which we navigate the music we like.
However, technological advances have now put millions of songs at our fingertips through mobile devices. Not only do we have access to more music than ever before, but more music is being produced. Places like SoundCloud have made it possible for anyone to record and publish music for others to hear. With this increased diversity in music that we are exposed to, the lines separating genres have become even more blurred than they were previously.
Genre labels are problematic for several reasons. First, they are broad umbrella terms that are used to describe music that vary greatly in their characteristics. If a person says they are a fan of “rock” music, there is no way of knowing whether they are referring to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, or Jimi Hendrix — but all three vary greatly in style. Or if a person tells you that they are a fan of pop music, how do you know if they are referring to Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber?
Genre labels are also often socially driven with little to do with the actual characteristics of the music. They are labels stamped onto artists and albums by record companies with the intent of targeting a particularly type of audience or age group.
The fundamental problem is that genre labels often do not accurately describe artists and their music – they simply do not do them justice. A more accurate way to label music would be based solely on their actual musical characteristics (or attributes). Such a labelling system would also likely better account for diversity in a person’s music taste.
Recently, my team of music psychologists addressed this problem by developing a scientific way to create a basic classification system of music that is based on its attributes and not social connotations. The team included expert in musical preferences, Jason Rentfrow (Cambridge), best-selling author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (McGill), big data scientists David Stillwell (Cambridge) and Michal Kosinski (Stanford), and music researcher Brian Monteiro. Our research was published this month.
We had more than 100 musical excerpts spanning over 20 genres and subgenres rated on 38 different musical attributes. We then applied a statistical procedure to categorise these musical attributes and discovered that they clustered into three basic categories: “Arousal” (the energy level of the music); “Valence” (the spectrum from sad to happy emotions in the music); and “Depth” (the amount of sophistication and emotional depth in the music). The statistical procedure mapped each song on each these three basic categories. For example, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” is low on arousal (because of the slow tempo and soft vocals), low on valence (because of the expressed nostalgia and sadness), and high on depth (because of the emotional and sonic complexity expressed through the lyrics and sonic texture).
Arousal, valence, depth
Will people start walking around wearing T-shirts that say “I love Depth in music”, or list themselves as fans of positive valence on their Twitter profiles? I doubt it. But it might be useful if people began to use attributes to describe the music that they like (aggressive or soft; happy or nostalgic). People’s music libraries today are incredibly diverse, typically containing music from a variety of genres. My hypothesis is that if people like arousal in one musical genre, they are likely to like it in another.
Even though these basic three dimensions probably won’t become a part of culture, recommendation platforms, like Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and YouTube should find these dimensions useful when coding and trying to accurately recommend music for their users to listen to. Further, it is also useful for scientists, psychologists, and neuroscientists who are studying the effect of music and want an accurate method to measure it.
Our team next sought to see how preferences for these three dimensions were linked to the Big Five. Personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). Nearly 10,000 people indicated their preferences for 50 musical excerpts and completed a personality measure. People who scored high on “openness to experience” preferred depth in music, while extroverted excitement-seekers preferred high arousal in music. Those who were relatively neurotic preferred negative emotions in music, while those who were self-assured preferred positive emotions in music.
So, just as the old Kern and Hammerstein song suggests, “The Song is You”. That is, the musical attributes that you like most reflect your personality. It also provides scientific support for what Joni Mitchell said in a 2013 interview with CBC:
The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.
Find out how you score on the music and personality quizzes at www.musicaluniverse.org.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.
David Greenberg (Department of Psychology) discusses the problems of labeling music by genre.
Peter Pan and Wendy: how J M Barrie understood and demonstrated key aspects of cognition
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 03, 2016.
In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, J M Barrie describes a moment when a young girl, seeking to comfort a tearful Peter, gives him her handkerchief. But he doesn’t know what to do with it. Barrie writes: “… so she showed him, that is to say she wiped her eyes, and then gave it back to him, saying ‘Now you do it,’ but instead of wiping his own eyes he wiped hers, and she thought it would be best to pretend that this is what she had meant”.
With this touching little scene, J M Barrie neatly demonstrates that he had observed, and understood, something that psychologists call intentionality – a feature of ‘theory of mind’. The ability to understand that one’s own knowledge, beliefs and feelings might not be the same as someone else’s is one of the keys to understanding the complexity of human relationships – and is something that most children learn at the age of three or four.
In illustrating this fundamental stage of child development through the interaction of two children, one with a solid grasp of other minds and the other without, Barrie was remarkably prescient. The Peter Pan books were written at the turn of the 20th century and the term ‘theory of mind’ was not used until the late 1970s. In 1985 psychologists showed that failure to employ theory of mind is an important symptom of autism, its related condition Asperger’s Syndrome and various other psychiatric conditions.
In Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness, neuroscientist Dr Rosalind Ridley unpacks the magic and oddity of the tales that have captivated audiences for generations. In doing so through the lens of her own expertise, she reveals that Barrie had an almost uncanny grasp of human cognitive development four to eight decades before psychologists began to work on similar questions about the way we develop thinking and reasoning skills.
Ridley has a distinguished career in neuroscience research with the University of Cambridge and Medical Research Council. Her work has focused on the brain mechanisms underlying cognitive processes such as learning, memory and problem solving. Since childhood Ridley has been an avid reader of literature and poetry – and a collector of books.
Rereading Barrie’s books for children she began to realise the extent to which Barrie had grasped many of the topics that she has spent her working life researching in order to come up with new treatments for dementia and to gain a better understanding of neurological conditions such as stroke which cause cognitive impairments.
Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie is the first book of its kind to explore fully how Barrie delved into the complexity of the developing human mind in his writing. Published at a time when cognitive psychology was in its infancy, the Peter Pan books were immediate hits and continue to inspire pantomimes complete with pirates, princesses and perambulators.
Ridley argues that Barrie’s enduring appeal (along with that of other authors for children, including Lewis Carroll) lies in his study of the unconscious mind – and its many quirks and foibles. Barrie referred to his nonsensical ideas (a boy who flies, a dog who becomes a children’s nanny, a crocodile who has swallowed a clock) as whimsicalities. These whimsicalities, proposes Ridley, are the means by which Barrie explores the nature of cognition – and that his purpose was to expiate the pain of his own childhood.
She writes: “It is Barrie’s deliberate use of cognitive mistakes and confusions in order to both amuse and illuminate the way we think that suggests that he was being intentionally analytical rather than descriptive. The weirdness of some of Barrie’s illogical stories suggests that he is tapping into something important in cognition.”
In a wealth of detail, and through close textual analysis, Ridley shows how Barrie created a narrative that works on several levels: as a coming-of-age story, as the myth of a golden age, as a fantasy to delight child and adult readers. Most importantly, asserts Ridley, Barrie invented Peter Pan to “make some sense of his own emotional difficulties, to investigate the interplay between the world of facts and the world of imagination, and to re-discover the heightened experiences of infancy”.
In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens Barrie describes for readers how the story comes from an inner dialogue with the fictional boy David during walks together in the park. “First I tell it to him, and then he tells it to me, the understanding being that it is quite a different story; and then I retell it with his additions, and so we go on until no one could say whether it is more his story or mine.”
Peter Pan is the boy who doesn’t quite fit in, a ‘betwixt-and-between’ who can fly and, most famously, never ages and never becomes adult. There is, suggests Ridley, a bit of Peter in all of us: “the child who lives in the heart of the adult; memories that we carry with us throughout our life but do not themselves age; dreams that disobey logic; the private world inside our head and those moments of exceptional experience that we rarely talk about”.
Barrie was fascinated by children – they were his preferred companions throughout his adulthood – and he, just like Peter Pan, was in many ways a boy “who could never grow up”. Ridley suggests that the Peter Pan books can be read as an escape from adulthood into a fantastical childhood, where anything can happen, but also as a plea for greater understanding of the mental and emotional needs of children.
A broad university education equipped Barrie to think across disciplines, and in fashionable London he was exposed to the ideas of leading thinkers, including Thomas Huxley, H G Wells and Henry James. The belief that God made the world in seven days had been newly overturned by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution which showed that humans were animals.
Barrie saw children not as miniature adults waiting for their minds to be filled with facts, or small savages needing to be disciplined (as Baden-Powell who founded the Boy Scouts had done), but as developing beings who required nurture and encouragement in order to become sensitive adults. Ridley notes, interestingly, that Barrie believed education was often damaging.
Ostensibly, Barrie wrote the Peter Pan books to entertain five boys whom he met in Kensington Gardens in central London. The nature of his relationship with them (their parents died and he became their guardian) is likely to remain a vexed question. Despite the almost purple prose in which Barrie described the overnight visit of an imaginary child, Ridley is impressed by the view of the youngest of the boys themselves, who said that Barrie was “an innocent, which is why he could write Peter Pan”.
Ridley, like most other scholars, sees Barrie’s tragic childhood as pivotal to his creativity. His older brother died in a skating accident and remained more alive in their mother’s thoughts than her surviving son. Ridley writes: “He learnt from his mother’s pre-occupation with his dead brother that things that do not exist physically can be more important in people’s minds than things that do exist.” Barrie’s mother was present but lost to him – and a search for a mother is a strong theme in his books.
Barrie married but was childless (it’s thought that he may never have had sex with his wife). He was painfully aware of his diminutive stature, writing in a letter: “Six foot three inches … if I had really grown to this it would have made a great difference in my life”. He struggled with sleep problems and described many of the states of consciousness and unconsciousness later identified by psychologists as parasomnias.
An important role of sleep is to consolidate and rationalise memory. Barrie expresses this charmingly in Peter and Wendy: “It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking in their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day… It is quite like tidying drawers … When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”
Ridley describes Barrie as “a naturalist of the mind”. Woven into his stories are dozens of details about human behaviour – from contagious yawning (Wendy’s “light blinked and gave such a yawn that the other two yawned also”) to mental constructs such as time travel (an aspect of memory and recollection) and the power of opposites (“It was her silence that they heard”). They reveal Barrie to be an acute observer of animals and people in a period when the theory of evolution was still hotly contested.
Barrie may have been extraordinarily forward-thinking but he was also a man of his time. Although he champions girls in some respects (“Wendy, one girl is of more use than twenty boys”), his attitude was frequently misogynistic: in creating his female characters he conflates femininity with domesticity. The original Wendy house, that potent symbol of gendered play, is built around Wendy by the fairies who seek to protect her from the cold of the night.
Ridley concludes that Barrie was more than anything interested in “the nature of consciousness and those rare moments of sublime consciousness and sublime imagination that we all experience” – the happiness that so often eluded him. She ends her voyage into JM Barrie’s mind with a quote from his protégé, A A Milne, creator of Winne the Pooh. In his autobiography, It’s Too Late Now, Milne wrote: “Childhood is not the happiest time of one’s life; but only to a child is pure happiness possible.”
Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness by Rosalind Ridley is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
In a fascinating study of J M Barrie’s classic works for children, Dr Rosalind Ridley (Newnham College) reveals that the creator of Peter Pan, and a panoply of other characters, had a deep understanding of the science of cognition – and was decades ahead of his time in identifying key stages of child development.
Opinion: How to start healing those Brexit family rifts
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 01, 2016.
It has been an emotional month for many in the UK. After the sadness and anger that followed the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox, many people now feel fearful and apprehensive as the consequences of the EU referendum begin to reveal themselves.
It has also been a divisive time, and the number of racist incidents reported to the police has risen in the days since the vote. Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with an outpouring of anger, shock and shame from those who voted Remain, and celebration and pride from those who voted Leave.
These feelings of anger, fear and division may well be resonating in our families. Polling data suggests that while messages of internationalism and inclusiveness struck a chord with young voters, their mothers, fathers and grandparents may have been swayed by the Leave campaign’s pledge to “take back control”.
A difference in values can be a major stumbling block for family relationships. In my own recent research in collaboration with the charity Stand Alone, a clash in personality or values was cited as a common cause of relationship breakdown between parents and their adult children, as well as relationships between siblings.
A number of different factors and experiences typically contribute to family rifts. But a difference in values may be particularly significant. In a US study of mothers estranged from adult sons and daughters, the estrangement was more likely to be attributed to a difference in values rather than their child’s engagement in socially unacceptable behaviour – such as engaging in criminal activity or substance abuse.
Seven steps to help healing
Division between “leavers” and “remainers” is already having significant impact on some families. So what practical steps can people take to help heal rifts that may have been caused or exacerbated by the EU referendum?
The following is not a recipe for achieving the “perfect” post-Brexit family, but rather is a list of suggestions, informed by research on family relationship breakdown and well-being, that might be helpful.
Improve communication skills There is a vast literature on how to develop and learn effective communication skills, which could be helpful to explore if you are looking to enhance your abilities or try to begin to change deeply ingrained family patterns.
Take a break from social media Some people who are struggling with their family relationships take breaks from social media during particularly challenging times such as the holiday season. Stepping back from emotional Facebook or WhatsApp feeds or the intense coverage of Brexit on the 24-hour news cycle might likewise provide some relief.
Positive engagement and action Volunteering and being part of a cause can be beneficial for our mental health and sense of well-being. Being actively engaged in making the changes you want to see in the world, whether they are Brexit-related or not, may be a positive way to funnel feelings of frustration and dismay.
Acknowledge stigma Those who are experiencing family relationship breakdown often describe it as a silent issue that they cannot discuss openly for fear of being judged and blamed. Feelings of shame have been identified as having the potential to lead to feelings of disconnection and isolation. So it may be helpful to recognise that family relationships are often difficult and experiencing conflict and strain are common.
Appreciate that you are not alone If you fear your family relationships may break down, or if they are beginning to do so, it may be helpful to know that you are not alone in this experience. It has been estimated that one in five UK families will be touched by family estrangement and its consequences.
Nothing is permanent Just as the political reality of Brexit is changing daily, our relationships with our family members shift and change. Estrangements are rarely static and cycling in and out of estrangement is common. If you are struggling in your family relationships right now, it does not necessarily mean that you will feel the same way in 12 months’ time.
Seek support Those who are estranged typically wish that their relationships with their family members was more loving, kind and accepting. If your family members do not meet our needs or expectations, it might be helpful to seek emotional and practical support from friends, colleagues or professionals who are able and willing to listen to your experiences and perspectives, and offer reassurance and understanding.
Jo Cox’s compassion has been praised by her family, friends, colleagues, community, and politicians and leaders around the world. It may be challenging to extend tolerance and compassion to “Brexiters” and “Remainers” alike when discussing the EU referendum and its consequences, but as Jo reminded us in her maiden speech in parliament: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.
A difference in values can be a major stumbling block for family relationships, writes Dr Lucy Blake from the Centre for Family Research for The Conversation website, and these may have been exacerbated in the recent Brexit debate. So what practical steps can people take to help heal rifts?
How to build a healthier city
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 13, 2016.
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” said Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. For Johnson, the rich tapestry of London life and the myriad cultural assets clearly outweighed any downsides of city dwelling.
For others, though, city life is a grind. Public transport is overcrowded, house prices are soaring, traffic is at gridlock and diesel fumes hang almost perceptibly in the air. Little surprise, then, that people do become tired of London, even if not of life itself.
Even if issues such as air pollution are taken out of the equation, living in a city can be bad for your health, which is not good news considering that the World Health Organization estimates that by 2017 the majority of people will be living in urban areas.
A study published in 2014 by Dr Manjinder Sandhu from the Department of Medicine suggested that increasing urbanisation of rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa might lead to an explosion of the incidence of stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Yes, moving to towns and cities provides better access to education, electricity and hospitals, but town and city dwellers become less active, their work becomes less physical and their diets worsen.
“If this pattern is repeated across the globe – which we think it will – then we could face an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other potentially preventable diseases,” says Sandhu. “Local and national governments need to take this into consideration when planning infrastructure to try and mitigate such negative effects.”
As far as ‘healthy’ cities go, Cambridge has a lot going for it. Its population has higher than average levels of education and is physically active: Cambridge has been nicknamed ‘the cycling capital of Britain’ – the sight of bicycles leaning against walls is as iconic as that of punts passing under the Bridge of Sighs. But as the city expands and house prices rocket, more and more people are living in neighbouring villages and towns, where cycling to work along winding, congested country lanes can be less appealing than driving.
In 2011, the world’s longest guided busway opened, connecting Cambridge with nearby Huntingdon and St Ives along a former railway line. An integral part of the busway was a cycle path along its route – and this appears to have helped nudge people in the right direction. A study led by Dr David Ogilvie from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit found that, among people who commuted into Cambridge from within a 30 km radius, those who lived closer to the busway were more likely to increase the amount of ‘active’ commuting they did, particularly cycling.
“Commuting is a part of everyday life where people could include a bit more physical activity without having to think about it very much or make time for it,” says Ogilvie. “When new infrastructure integrates opportunities for walking and cycling, we see people shifting their commuting behaviour.”
Ogilvie’s research is, he says, “contributing bricks of evidence to a wall that’s slowly being assembled from across the world of the health benefits of investing into this kind of infrastructure.” While such benefits are often alluded to in business cases, until now the evidence to support them has been limited.
There are ways to integrate more pedestrian-friendly environments in existing infrastructure, he says, citing examples such as those in the Netherlands – now being introduced in some areas of London – where traffic is slowed to walking pace and the divisions between pavement and road are deliberately blurred, cuing drivers to share the space.
With more thoughtful urban planning, Ogilvie says, it should be possible to design towns and cities as environments that promote not just physical activity, but improved health and wellbeing – “in short, a place where people want to live”.
“Sprawling cities with retail parks on the fringes are not conducive to doing your shopping on foot,” he says. “People are more likely to walk and cycle around their neighbourhood if it is safe, well connected and has good local amenities. And getting people out on the streets not only gets them active, it also increases social interactions and a sense that it’s safe to be on the streets.”
Dr Jamie Anderson from the Department of Architecture is also interested in the relationship between the built environment and our broader wellbeing. As part of his PhD project with Professor Koen Steemers (Architecture) and Professor Felicia Huppert (Department of Psychology), he did a study of another Cambridge initiative, the housing development known as Accordia.
Since the first residents moved into their homes in the mid-noughties, Accordia has won numerous prizes, including the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize, for its innovative mixing of private and public spaces. Yet surprisingly, says Anderson, no one had done a detailed study of the impact on its residents.
One of the interesting approaches taken by Accordia was to focus on communal spaces rather than private gardens: only one in five homes has its own garden. Given the stereotype of the British as a very private people, how did people respond? Did people spend time chatting outdoors with their neighbours, or did they shut themselves away and draw the curtains?
The results, explains Anderson, were mixed. While one middle-aged couple missed having their own garden and were now on a long waiting list for a local allotment, one mother described the communal gardens as “crucially important”: she had suffered from postnatal depression and, with her husband away at work all day, she told Anderson that she “wouldn’t have got through her depression” without the interactions that the adjacent communal areas provided.
“In terms of behaviours that we associate with physical health and positive mental health – so people interacting with each other, children out playing, for example – we found clear positive associations with Accordia’s outdoor neighbourhood spaces,” he adds, “but when we looked at people’s subjective wellbeing, it wasn’t as clear cut.”
With Accordia, Anderson was evaluating an already established development, but he now has a chance to influence a project at the planning stage. Part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s vision of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will see a £110 million culture venue in Manchester named The Factory after the eponymous record company behind such iconic bands as Joy Division and Happy Mondays.
Under a fellowship from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Anderson, in collaboration with engineering firm BuroHappold, is carrying out a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) of the proposed new site, looking at factors that might influence health and wellbeing, from the lighting in office spaces, through to educational opportunities for young people from deprived communities and the restaurants within the venue.
HIAs are currently voluntary, but are set to become mandatory for significant developments across the UK in 2017, and can help architects and designers improve their submissions for planning application. How effective they’ll be is unclear, warns Anderson. “You might have some really strong evidence, but the final decision is a blend of opinion from various stakeholders, so you could end up with a watered-down version of what’s needed.”
He remains optimistic, however: “We’re moving in the right direction. By building consideration of health and wellbeing into the planning process, it should raise the bar and hopefully we will see many more cycle lanes, more inviting and better options for active transport, and maybe fewer fast-food shops.”
“I don’t know what makes me stay / The city life just ain’t the same,” sang New Order, one of Factory Record’s best known signings, in 2001. Perhaps the work of Cambridge researchers will help make cities attractive – and healthy – places to stay.
Life in towns and cities can grind you down, but putting health and wellbeing at the centre of new housing and infrastructure developments could make for happier, healthier citizens.
What birds' attitudes to litter tell us about their ability to adapt
By mjg209 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 31, 2016.
The study led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Alison Greggor and published in the journal Animal Behaviour, shows that corvids - the family of birds which includes crows, ravens and magpies - are more likely to show fear in relation to unfamiliar objects than other birds. However, if they and other bird species have previously encountered similar objects they are able to overcome some of their fear.
The researchers measured levels of fear of new objects in birds across urban and rural habitats, comparing corvids, a family known for being behaviourally flexible and innovative, with other bird species found in urban areas. The birds' hesitancy to approach food when different types of objects were nearby was compared to their behaviour when food was presented alone.
The researchers found corvids were more afraid of objects than other birds. However, birds were less fearful if the objects involved were similar to something they may have encountered before, for instance, urban birds were less hesitant in approaching litter.
Alison Greggor, who is doing a PhD in Psychology at the University of Cambridge, said: "From a broad perspective this work aims to help us understand how animals adapt to human-dominated landscapes. We found that although species differ in their overall levels of fear towards new things, populations of all species in urban areas showed lesser fear towards objects that looked like rubbish, but did not show reductions in fear towards all types of novelty. Therefore, they may actually be learning which specific parts of urban habitats are safe and which are dangerous. In future, others might be able to use this information to predict what types of things animals need to learn to be able to survive in urban areas. Such predictions may help us understand why some species are unable to adjust to urban areas."
Greggor, AL et al. Street smart: faster approach towards litter in urban areas by highly neophobic corvids and less fearful birds. Animal Behaviour; 30 May 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2016.03.029
Urban birds are less afraid of litter than their country cousins, according to a new study, which suggests they may learn that litter in cities is not dangerous. The research could help birds to adapt to urban settings better, helping them to survive increasing human encroachment on their habitats.
Ageing affects test-taking, not language, study shows
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 12, 2016.
Scientists from the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) scanned participants during testing and found that the areas of the brain responsible for language performed just as well in older adults as in younger ones.
The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that increased neural activation in the frontal brain regions of older adults reflects differences in the way they respond to the demands of the task compared with younger adults, rather than any difference in language processing itself.
“These findings suggest our ability to understand language is remarkably preserved well into old age, and it's not through some trick of the mind, or reorganisation of the brain,” says co-author Professor Lorraine Tyler, who leads Cam-CAN. “Instead, it's through the continued functioning of a well-used language processing machine common to all humans.”
Professor Tyler says cognitive neuroscientists attempting to explain how the mind and brain work typically approach the question with tasks designed to measure particular cognitive abilities, such as memory or language. However, it's rarely as simple as that, she says, and tasks never end up measuring only one thing.
“Scientists claim that they are studying language, when really they are studying language plus your motivation to do well, plus your understanding of the instructions, plus your ability to focus, and so on,” says lead author Dr Karen Campbell, now based at Harvard University. “These poorly defined tasks become even more problematic when it comes to studying the older brain, because older adults sometimes show increased neural activation in frontal brain regions, which is thought to reflect a change in how older brains carry out a given cognitive function. However, this extra activation may simply reflect differences in how young and older adults respond to the demands of the task.”
Campbell and her Cam-CAN colleagues tried to isolate the effect of the testing by scanning 111 participants aged 22-87 using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they either passively listened to sentences or decided if the sentences were grammatical or not.
The researchers found that simply listening to and comprehending language, as we do in everyday life, “lights up” brain networks responsible for hearing and language, whereas performing a cognitive task with the same sentences leads to the additional activation of several task-related networks.
Age had no effect on the language network itself, but it did affect this network’s ability to “talk with” other task-related networks.
The Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and is jointly based at the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
Campbell, KL et al. Robust Resilience of the Frontotemporal Syntax System to Aging. Journal of Neuroscience; 11 May 2016; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4561-15.2016
The ability to understand language could be much better preserved into old age than previously thought, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge, who found older adults struggle more with test conditions than language processing.
Opinion: There are also drawbacks to being bilingual
By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 26, 2016.
The ability to speak more than one language certainly has its perks. It enables you to work in another country, for example, interact with people while travelling, or consume foreign media.
Cognitive psychologists have been interested in how bilingualism shapes the mind for almost a century. There are those who suggest that in order to speak in one language, bilinguals have to suppress the influence of the other. Research from the past three decades has argued that this unique form of language processing “trains the brain” in the use of non-verbal abilities known as “executive functions” such as ignoring irrelevant information or shifting attention.
Bilinguals of different ages and cultural backgrounds have been shown to be faster and more accurate than their monolingual peers when performing cognitive tasks demanding these abilities. Furthermore, it has been argued that bilingualism may lead to a delayed onset of symptoms associated with dementia.
But the scientific community recently has become increasingly sceptical of the bilingual advantage hypothesis. One of the main points of criticism is that differences between monolinguals and bilinguals when it comes to executive function are not always apparent. This has generated a heated debate, especially in the Bilingualism Forum of the scientific journal Cortex, about whether bilingualism is associated with cognitive advantages or not.
It appears that research on bilingualism is at a turning point. We need to pursue a new approach to understand, beyond those individual examples of executive functions, how the bilingual mind works. We have attempted to address this challenge by testing whether bilinguals and monolinguals differ in terms of how accurately they can assess their own performance.
This ability is called metacognition and is associated with, but separate from, other areas where bilinguals have been shown to have an advantage. Surprisingly, however, we found that bilinguals had less insight into their performance than their monolingual peers.
Joining the dots
In an effort to find out whether bilinguals also display advantages in other cognitive abilities (beyond executive function), we evaluated metacognitive processing in young adult monolinguals and bilinguals. Metacognition is the ability to evaluate one’s own cognitive performance or simply to have “thoughts about thoughts”.
This ability is a crucial function of everyday life, when we have to make decisions where the outcomes are not immediate. For example, when an entrepreneur reviews their company’s performance, they need to take into account a variety of factors – including, for example, revenues and expenses – in order to evaluate whether the company is doing well. Confidence in their ideas and performance can be the determining factor in whether they decide to keep investing time in their company or give up and apply for another job (the so-called “exploitation exploration trade-off”).
In our research, we presented participants with a situation in which they had to observe two circles on a screen and guess which one contained more dots. Sometimes the difference was obvious, making the decision easy, while at other times the decision was very difficult (for example, one circle contained 50 dots and the other 49). Participants were then asked to determine how confident they were in their decision on a scale from less to more confident than normal.
Over the course of two experiments, we found that bilinguals and monolinguals were equally likely to choose the circle containing the highest number of dots. However, monolinguals were better able than bilinguals to discriminate between when they were right and when they were wrong. In other words, bilinguals had less insight into their performance than monolinguals. This went against our initial predictions, as we expected to find a bilingual advantage in metacognitive processing. These results indicate that bilingualism may be associated with cognitive disadvantages as well as benefits.
The lab has already published evidence of cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, suggesting that bilinguals are better at filtering out verbal interference as well as visual attention, specifically spotting the difference in a visuo-spatial working memory task.
This new research indicates that bilingual people may experience a disadvantage in metacognition. We hope that this new direction in bilingualism research will encourage further attention and enable us to resolve theoretical debate through the adoption of open-minded, empirically driven exploration of cognitive effects (both positive and negative) that may be associated with learning more than one language.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.
Tomas Folke (Department of Psychology) and Julia Ouzia (Anglia Ruskin University) discuss the cognitive disadvantages that may be associated with learning more than one language.
Does nature make you happy? Crowdsourcing app looks at relationship between the outdoors and wellbeing
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 26, 2016.
NatureBuzz, which is available to download free on iOS and Android platforms, asks participants three times per day to answer questions about how they feel, whether they are outside or indoors, who they are with, and what they are doing. At the same time, it records their location using GPS data.
NatureBuzz also provides information about UK nature reserves and ‘protected areas’ and will provide users with feedback on how their happiness has fluctuated, where it was highest, with whom and during which activities.
“Apps provide a great way of collecting data from thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of users, a scale that is just not possible in lab experiments,” explains research associate Laurie Parma from the Department of Psychology, who coordinates the study. “We’ll use this data to answer some fascinating and potentially very important questions about our relationship with nature.”
Studies have suggested that people are happier and reinvigorated when living in more natural settings. For example, a 2011 study from the United States found that people who live in inner cities were the least happy, while those who live in rural areas are the happiest. However, it is not clear whether all green spaces promote happiness equally.
Diversity – the number and abundance of different species in particular systems – is thought to be important in increasing the resilience of some so-called ecosystem services - such as climate regulation and pest control – that underpin human wellbeing. However, the more immediate role that biodiversity may play in affecting happiness is unclear.
“We know that people quickly become familiar with – and immune to – happiness-inducing stimuli and one potential way to combat this phenomenon is to provide new and varied stimuli,” adds Professor Andrew Balmford from the Department of Zoology. “Natural environments with greater biodiversity – different flowers, different birds, for example – present a rich variety of stimuli, so it’s possible they will keep the ‘happiness factor’ fresh for visitors.”
The researchers hope that by crowdsourcing data, they will be able to answer questions such as whether the type of green space – gardens, city parks, countryside or nature reserves, for example – have the same impact on an individual’s wellbeing, and whether someone needs to be interested in nature to benefit more from the natural environment. They believe their findings may have important consequences for how policymakers promote biodiversity and how reserve managers enable people to make the most of the happiness-improving potential of access to nature.
The app is part of a broader study of happiness and nature developed by the Departments of Psychology and Zoology, University of Cambridge, RSPB, UNEP-WCMC and Cardiff University. It is funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and is part of a research programme on human happiness.
NatureBuzz is available to download from the iPhone App Store and from Google Play.
A new app will crowdsource data to help scientists understand the relationship between biodiversity and wellbeing. The app, developed at the University of Cambridge, maps happiness onto a detailed map that includes all the UK’s nature reserves and green spaces.