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Professor Simon Baron-Cohen to speak at HowTheLightGetsIn2015

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 14, 2015.

Professor Lorraine K. Tyler to give plenary lecture at BNA2015

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 10, 2015.

Can you trust your memory?

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 02, 2015.

Science Festival round-up

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 01, 2015.

Wellcome Trust Award funds Scoping Study of the Departmental Archive

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 25, 2015.

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.


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 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.


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.


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.

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)


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Professor Nicky Clayton on gift-giving by brainy birds

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 18, 2015.

Research in focus: Tor Tarantola on Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 17, 2015.

Professor Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins going global with the Captured Thought

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 17, 2015.

Modern Families: A new book by Professor Susan Golombok

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 12, 2015.

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).

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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Prof. Tim Bussey leading WOW Wonderwomen session

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 06, 2015.

Dr Lisa Saksida talks about dementia on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 04, 2015.

Professor Tim Bussey Q & A in local paper

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 04, 2015.

Acting ‘out of character’ in the workplace

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 20, 2015.

We are often typecast as introverts and extroverts. People do have biological propensities to behave in certain ways; some of us are naturally more talkative and sociable while others prefer more time alone. But, according to Canadian-born research psychologist Professor Brian Little, our traits are by no means fixed. Little is now collaborating with Cambridge University PhD candidate Sanna Balsari-Palsule on an in-depth study of 'free-traits'.

In his new book Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, Little suggests that we are often able to override our biological make-up through the adoption of free-traits which allow us to act in different ways to our natural selves. We call on these free-traits to meet the demands of different situations and achieve projects and goals that are important to us.

Little recommends that we might usefully think of ourselves as amateur scientists. We are continually exploring and testing the world around us to discover what works and what doesn’t. We do things, say things, and then we observe the reactions and unconsciously store the results. We apply what we learn from our ‘experiments’ to the advancement of what Little describes as our ‘personal projects’ – a description he devised back in 1983 to describe the goals and pursuits that underlie people’s behaviour.

The personal projects in question might be big ones (such as career ambitions) or small ones (like cleaning the car) but they form the bedrock of our day-to-day behaviour and our relationships with our friends, family and workmates. Sometimes our personal project pursuit requires us to engage in free-traits; other times, we can just be ourselves. Little proposes that the successful pursuit of ‘core projects’ that are meaningful, manageable, supported by others and generate positive feelings can greatly impact our happiness and the quality of our lives.

Since 2010, Little has lectured in the Department of Psychology and Cambridge Judge Business School.  The course he teaches is based on his lifetime’s research covered in Me, Myself and Us – and it offers undergraduate, graduate and executive MBA students the chance to reflect on their own personality. In 2011, Little taught a group of graduate students that included Sanna Balsari-Palsule.

“I loved the idea that acting is not something restricted to the stage, but that we are so often faced with the need to perform in daily life. With the amount of time spent in our jobs, our occupations hold such a prominent place in our lives. In an ideal world, one’s job would fit one’s traits perfectly, but that’s very rarely the case. As so much can hinge on how we behave with others in the workplace, I became fascinated with exploring what happens when people push the limits of their ability to act out of character. Do they experience detriments in their well-being or work performance and does this increase their chances of burnout?” said Balsari-Palsule.

In collaboration with Little, Balsari-Palsule has been conducting projects that explore the experiences of employees in organisations. Initial results from the first stage of research in a large marketing company are intriguing. The findings suggest that extroverts initially experience advantages over introverts in terms of getting noticed and promoted more rapidly. However, when introvert employees higher up in the organisation act out of character and become extraverted ('pseudo-extroverts'), they have equal performance ratings as extroverts, and do not report feeling drained.

Little and Balsari-Palsule offer an explanation: introvert employees make frequent use of ‘restorative resources’. These are spaces in the workplace designed to allow employees to read quietly or simply relax in order to recover their equilibrium after a strenuous session of acting out of character that would otherwise drain their energy. However, if the same employees were expected to act out of character for more prolonged periods, without the chance to recover, the benefits could quickly turn into costs.

In the same study, however, extroverts report strikingly different, and much less rewarding, experiences of acting out of character. It appears that more outwardly confident personality types find it extremely hard – and stressful – to rein back their personalities and act as if they were introverted (‘pseudo-introverts’).

“We found this difference was most common among younger employees. It may be that introverts are generally so accustomed to acting extrovertly in situations outside of the workplace that it becomes a relatively easy force of habit, particularly in Western cultures where extroversion is often highly valued. On the other hand, extrovert employees at the beginning of their careers are much less used to being isolated in an office for long periods of time, so may feel like caged animals, needing to feed off the energy of others in order to thrive,” said Balsari-Palsule.

In the second stage of research, Balsari-Palsule is looking into the idiosyncrasies of people’s work projects and how the work environment plays a vital role in supporting or, in some cases, constraining them. For example, highly competitive work environments, that place strict demands on employees to conform to certain types of behaviour, may leave little time for employees to pursue their personally important and valuable core projects, which could eventually be detrimental to their well-being. She expects that a closer look at the influences of different factors in the work environment in conjunction with how people behave will shed more light on when the costs and benefits of acting out of character are drawn out.

The practical implications of this research are numerous. Balsari-Palsule suggests that it would serve employers well to not disregard the costs of free-trait acting as compromised psychological well-being and physical health can quickly translate into costly reductions for productivity and performance and increases in absenteeism. Instead, organisations must adopt policies and build work environments that are supportive of free-trait expression but also provide the spaces for people to be themselves.

She said: “Management should rely less on handing out personality questionnaires that pigeonhole employees into introvert and extrovert categories, but instead be aware of the powerful driving force of core projects on personality in the workplace.”

Look around your workplace – and ask yourself which colleagues you’d describe as extravert and which as introvert. Perhaps your most talkative workmate is actually an introvert? Research by Sanna Balsari-Palsule, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology, investigates the ways in which people act 'out of character' – and how the consequences play out in the workplace. 

In an ideal world, one’s job would fit one’s traits perfectly, but that’s very rarely the case.
Sanna Balsari-Palsule
Creative Company Conference 2011

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“You need to ignore it, babe”: how mothers prepare young children for the reality of racism

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 19, 2015.

An in-depth study of mothers and young children living in multicultural areas of London found that many of the women interviewed had prepared children for coping with a social environment that might be likely to include elements of racism. Many parents advised their children to ignore racist barbs which were made by people who were “rude and ignorant”.

While at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, Dr Humera Iqbal carried out a small-scale but intensive study of 36 British-born mothers – 12 British Indian, 12 British Pakistani and 12 White British – living in multicultural areas of the capital.This qualitative research into families from the UK’s three largest ethnic groups was part of a larger project on ethnicity and family life.

The study, ‘Multicultural parenting: Preparation for bias socialisation in British South Asian and White families in the UK’, is published in the January 2015 issue of the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.

The 36 families studied in depth were all non-immigrant British citizens. The mothers interviewed were at least the second generation to live in the UK. All had one child or more aged between five and seven years old. The children, who came from a range of socioeconomic settings, attended state primary schools in areas of London with high proportions of each of the groups being studied.

Iqbal found that, overall, parents described positive experiences of diversity. However, mothers and children from all three groups also reported experiencing discrimination – sometimes on a daily basis. Mothers of children as young as five found themselves addressing topics related to racism, either as a result of prejudice or in anticipation of it, to help their youngsters cope with the discrimination they were likely to face.

A marked difference emerged in the use of these ‘preparation for bias’ strategies across the three groups studied with 75% of British Pakistani families reporting their use, compared with 50% of White British families and just 16% of British Indian families.

“It’s important to stress that my research looks at a small number of families. However, it is clear that increased diversity in the UK has encouraged families to adapt their parenting strategies.This is particularly the case for groups who are experiencing wider societal pressures. British Pakistani Muslims, for example, increasingly face Islamophobia,” said Iqbal.

“International political events, such as the rise of the Islamic state and local negative attitudes towards immigration and the corresponding rise of UKIP in Britain, have all heightened the current mistrust towards Muslims - a highly diverse and complex set of groups often described as a single entity which is seen to include British Pakistanis.”

The research is notable for its inclusion of White British families who, as the dominant group, might not be expected to experience discrimination. “It was important to include White mothers and children because few studies have looked at the experiences of majority ethnic groups,” said Iqbal.

“A shift in the demographics of an area can mean that White British families find that, in their particular neighbourhood, they are no longer in the majority. One mother described this as ‘informal segregation’. She felt that many of the White families previously living in the community had chosen to move outwards leaving fewer White families behind and a predominance of families from one or two other ethnicities,” said Iqbal.

“Several of the White families interviewed reported feeling different and more vulnerable to experiencing both subtle and less subtle forms of discrimination as they now represented a group that was in smaller numbers.”

Previous research into similar issues has concentrated on older children, particularly teenagers. In concentrating on young children, who were just starting school, Iqbal shows that issues related to race and ethnicity begin to impact on children very early in their lives. Her study makes an important contribution to awareness of the potential implications of racism for child health and development.

“Previous research has found that stressful environments and ethnic inequalities are associated with unfavourable development profiles in children,” she said. “For example, a recent big study found that mothers who had experienced racism first-hand were more likely to have children at risk of obesity. Other research showed that mothers’ perception of racism was associated with socio-emotional difficulties in children such as being withdrawn or isolated.”

Iqbal looked at two types of ‘preparation for bias’ strategies: reactive and proactive. Her research showed that, while some parents downplayed race-related incidents and encouraged children to ignore such behaviour, other parents addressed incidents directly and urged their children to make a stand.

A White British mother told her son to ignore news reports and comments related to racism. “I’ll try to explain what’s going on, and, I just kind of say to him that you need to ignore it, babe… Don’t bite back if it happens, because…that’s what they want.”

How parents responded to discrimination depended on a range of factors – including their own experiences of racism. A study by researchers at New York University found that parents who had been victims of discrimination were more likely to prepare their children to cope with similar problems. This concurred with findings from the present study. British Pakistani parents, in particular, anticipated that their child would encounter racial barriers and did their utmost to equip their child with tools for future success by stressing the importance of a good education.

Some mothers used a discussion about racism as an opportunity to promote the importance of equality and to bolster their children’s psychological resources. Also, talking about discrimination following an incident emerged as an important way of protecting the emotional state of the child.

A British Pakistani mother had experienced frequent racism about her niqab (head covering with veil) from a group of teenagers, and these incidents had made her young son increasingly distressed and angry. She worried that as a result he would have negative views of white people and explained that he shouldn’t “discriminate against a whole bunch of people because there’s a few idiots…”

A British White mother said that her child and his friends had been called “white rats” by some children visiting the same block of flats. “My attitude is… you’re no different, you’re a different colour but you are no different to us… I won’t have racism at all…”

However, a number of White parents did look for “people like us” when choosing a school. Some felt that a multicultural school intake was a good thing but should be a “healthy” mix – in other words not too diverse. Two White British mothers reported moving their children to schools with more White pupils as they were worried about their children being marginalised.

Mothers did not always agree with schools about the best way to handle questions relating to race and faith and gave examples of schools either being heavy-handed or lacking in awareness of children’s sensitivities about differences.

A White mother said that her son had asked for the halal dish being served to his Muslim friend in the school canteen.Told he couldn’t have it, because he was “clearly not a Muslim child”, he was upset and asked his mother if he was “only allowed to eat Christian food”.  She said that the incident was “making him aware of differences between everyone when really there was no need for it or it could have been dealt with in a more positive way”.

Iqbal’s study gives a vivid, and valuable, snapshot of the topics navigated by many parents living in multicultural areas in talking to young children about issues of profound importance to their development. She emphasises that, while parents spoke of many positive encounters with diversity, discrimination remained an underlying problem in modern Britain. Experiences varied in intensity and severity between groups.

She concludes that parents are often instilling protective and positive messages about race and ethnicity. Researchers and policy-makers, she argues, need to acknowledge the way in which parents adapt to changing environments and, in particular, how interactions within these settings lead to discussions of race and ethnicity with children at an early age.

Humera Iqbal was a member of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge until 2014. She is currently a researcher at the Institute of Education in London.


Research among mothers with young children living in multicultural London shows that racism is a reality for children as young as five – and that many mothers adopt parenting strategies to help their children deal with it. 

It is clear that increased diversity in the UK has encouraged families to adapt their parenting strategies. This is particularly the case for groups who are experiencing wider societal pressures – British Pakistani Muslims, for example.
Humera Iqbal
A child's portrait of multiculturalism in the playground

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Computers using digital footprints are better judges of personality than friends and family

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 12, 2015.

A new study, published today in the journal PNAS, compares the ability of computers and people to make accurate judgments about our personalities. People's judgments were based on their familiarity with the judged individual, while computer models used a specific digital signal: Facebook Likes.

The results show that by mining Facebook Likes, the computer model was able to predict a person's personality more accurately than most of their friends and family. Given enough Likes to analyse, only a person's spouse rivalled the computer for accuracy of broad psychological traits.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University describe the finding as an "emphatic demonstration" of the capacity of computers to discover an individual's psychological traits through pure data analysis, showing machines can know us better than we'd previously thought: an "important milestone" on the path towards more social human-computer interactions.

"In the future, computers could be able to infer our psychological traits and react accordingly, leading to the emergence of emotionally-intelligent and socially skilled machines," said lead author Wu Youyou, from Cambridge's Psychometrics Centre.

"In this context, the human-computer interactions depicted in science fiction films such as Her seem to be within our reach."

The researchers say these results might raise concerns over privacy as such technology develops; the research team support policies giving users full control of their digital footprint.

In the study, a computer could more accurately predict the subject's personality than a work colleague by analysing just ten Likes; more than a friend or a cohabitant (roommate) with 70, a family member (parent, sibling) with 150, and a spouse with 300 Likes.

Given that an average Facebook user has about 227 Likes (and this number is growing steadily), the researchers say that this kind of AI has the potential to know us better than our closest companions.

The latest results build on previous work from the University of Cambridge, published in March 2013, which showed that a variety of psychological and demographic characteristics could be predicted with startling accuracy through Facebook Likes.

In the new study, researchers used a sample of 86,220 volunteers on Facebook who completed a 100-item personality questionnaire through the 'myPersonality' app, as well as providing access to their Likes.

These results provided self-reported personality scores for what are known in psychological practice as the 'big five' traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism— the OCEAN model. Through this, researchers could establish which Likes equated with higher levels of particular traits e.g. liking 'Salvador Dali' or 'meditation' showed a high degree of openness.

Users of the 'myPersonality' app were then given the option of inviting friends and family to judge the psychological traits of the user through a shorter version of the personality test. These were the human judges in the study—those listed on Facebook as friends or family expressing their judgement of a subject's personality using a 10-item questionnaire

Researchers were able to get a sample of 17,622 participants judged by one friend or family member, and a sample of 14,410 judged by two.

To gauge the accuracy of these measurements, the online personality judgements were corroborated with a meta-analysis of previous psychological studies over decades which looked at how people's colleagues, family and so on judge their personality. Researchers found their online values similar to the averages from years of person-to-person research.

In this way, the researchers were able to come up with accuracy comparisons between computer algorithms and the personality judgements made by humans. Given enough Likes, the computers came closer to a person's self-reported personality than their brothers, mothers or partners.

Dr Michal Kosinski, co-author and researcher at Stanford, says machines have a couple of key advantages that make these results possible: the ability to retain and access vast quantities of information, and the ability to analyse it with algorithms the techniques of 'Big Data'.

"Big Data and machine-learning provide accuracy that the human mind has a hard time achieving, as humans tend to give too much weight to one or two examples, or lapse into non-rational ways of thinking," he said. Nevertheless, the authors concede that detection of some traits might be best left to human abilities, those without digital footprints or dependant on subtle cognition.

The authors of the study write that automated, accurate, and cheap personality assessments could improve societal and personal decision-making in many ways—from recruitment to romance.

"The ability to judge personality is an essential component of social living— from day-to-day decisions to long-term plans such as whom to marry, trust, hire, or elect as president," said Cambridge co-author Dr David Stillwell. "The results of such data analysis can be very useful in aiding people when making decisions."

Youyou explains: "Recruiters could better match candidates with jobs based on their personality; products and services could adjust their behaviour to best match their users' characters and changing moods.

"People may choose to augment their own intuitions and judgments with this kind of data analysis when making important life decisions such as choosing activities, career paths, or even romantic partners. Such data-driven decisions may well improve people's lives," she said.

The researchers say that this kind of data mining and its inferences has hallmarks of techniques currently used by some digital service providers, and that—for many people— a future in which machines read our habits as an open book on a massive scale may seem dystopian to those concerned with privacy.

It's a concern shared by the researchers. "We hope that consumers, technology developers, and policy-makers will tackle those challenges by supporting privacy-protecting laws and technologies, and giving the users full control over their digital footprints," said Kosinski.

Take the Facebook personality test yourself here:

Researchers have found that, based on enough Facebook Likes, computers can judge your personality traits better than your friends, family and even your partner. Using a new algorithm, researchers have calculated the average number of Likes artificial intelligence (AI) needs to draw personality inferences about you as accurately as your partner or parents.

People may choose to augment their own intuitions and judgments with this kind of data analysis when making important life decisions
Wu Youyou
Facebook's Infection
Some example personality traits and associated Likes

Liberal & artistic

Shy & reserved


Calm & relaxed

TED J-pop Life of Pi Ferrari
John Coltrane Minecraft the Bible Volunteering
The Daily Show Wikipedia smiling Usain Bolt
Atheism The X-Files Bourne Identity Kayaking


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Tired of London? Maybe it’s time to change postal districts

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 12, 2015.

Way Out sign on London Underground

Between 2009 and 2011, the BBC collected data from almost 590,000 people as part of its Big Personality Test. An international team of researchers has analysed data from the subset of 56,000 Londoners to examine how associations between personality and life satisfaction differed across the 216 postal districts of Greater London. The results are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s very common for people to talk about where is the best place to live, but most research has tended to look at factors such as income and low crime rates, and only on a very broad geographical scale, failing to consider individual differences in personality,” says Dr Markus Jokela from the University of Helsinki, Finland. “As a result, studies imply that all people would be equally happy in the same places. It’s a one-size-fits-all conclusion that, as we show, is misleading because one’s level of happiness is dependent on whether their environment is suited to their personality.”

The researchers found geographical differences and clustering in levels of life satisfaction and certain personality traits. For example, people clustered around central and urban areas were the most open – and, to a lesser degree, the most extroverted – with levels decreasing when moving to outer regions. Areas of greater average openness also showed a mixture of neighbourhood characteristics, including higher population density and higher housing prices, higher ethnic and religious diversity, and higher crime rate. The findings support previous research showing that openness is associated with broad interests and tolerance for alternative lifestyles and ideas, and that these dispositions are often thought to characterize residents of densely populated urban areas.

Click on the images to expand

The least agreeable areas were found in western central London, an area that has the highest crime rate, busiest pedestrian traffic, and some of the highest housing prices in the capital. The researchers believe this could be interpreted to support the popular notion that residents of big cities tend to be less considerate towards other people.

The researchers found higher levels of life satisfaction in the most affluent regions of London and pockets of low life satisfaction in northwest, northeast, and south London. As with previous studies, the researchers found that people who were most emotionally stable and/or extroverted tended to have the greatest life satisfaction – and this was not affected by the area in which they lived.

Importantly, the researchers also showed that the strength of associations between personality traits and life satisfaction were dependent on neighbourhood characteristics. For example, in postal districts with higher extraversion, lower agreeableness and lower conscientiousness, people tended to show greater life satisfaction if they were more open to new experiences.

In areas that reported lower levels of life satisfaction, the most agreeable and conscientious tended to fare best – to be the most satisfied – suggesting that these personality traits are more important determinants of life satisfaction for individuals living in less favourable environmental circumstances.

Overall, the analysis of personality–neighbourhood interactions showed that openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness were differently associated with life satisfaction of individuals depending on their residential location and specific characteristics of those locations. This suggests that finding the best place to live will depend on the match between individual dispositions and neighbourhood characteristics.

“Together, these findings not only add to our understanding of the ways in which features of our personalities relate to our physical environments, but they also provide potentially useful information for choosing a place to live,” says Dr Jason Rentfrow from the Department of Psychology and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge. “Granted, most people don’t have the luxury of complete control over where they live, but given their budgets, people can decide whether it’s more important to live in the centre of town, where daily life is vibrant and accommodation is small, or further out where daily life is slower but space is more plentiful. Making the decision that fits with your personality could have an effect on your overall life satisfaction.”

This study was funded by the Kone Foundation and the Academy of Finland.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” observed the writer Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. In fact, research published today suggests such a man may be merely living in the wrong postcode. A study of 56,000 Londoners found that a person’s life satisfaction depends, at least in part, on whether their personality suits the place where they live.

Making the decision [on where to live] that fits with your personality could have an effect on your overall life satisfaction
Jason Rentfrow
Way Out (cropped)

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OCD patients’ brains light up to reveal how compulsive habits develop

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 19, 2014.

OCD Letter Blocks

The research, led by Dr Claire Gillan and Professor Trevor Robbins (Department of Psychology) is the latest in a series of studies from the Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute investigating the possibility that compulsions in OCD are products of an overactive habit-system. This line of work has shifted opinion away from thinking of OCD as a disorder caused by worrying about obsessions or faulty beliefs, towards viewing it as a condition brought about when the brain’s habit system runs amok.

In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, researchers scanned the brains of 37 patients with OCD and 33 healthy controls (who did not have the disorder) while they repetitively performed a simple pedal-pressing behavioural response to avoid a mild electric shock to the wrist. The researchers found that patients with OCD were less capable of stopping these pedal-pressing habits, and this was linked to excessive brain activity in the caudate nucleus, a region that must fire correctly in order for us to control our habits.

Basic imaging work has long since established that the caudate is over-active when the symptoms of OCD are provoked in patients. That the habits the researchers trained in these patients in the laboratory also triggered the caudate to over-fire adds weight to the suggestion that compulsions in OCD may be caused by the brain’s habit system

The research team thinks these findings are not specific to OCD and that, in fact habits may be behind many aspects of psychiatry.

“It’s not just OCD; there are a range of human behaviours that are now considered examples of compulsivity, including drug and alcohol abuse and binge-eating,” says Dr Gillan, now at New York University. “What all these behaviours have in common is the loss of top-down control, perhaps due to miscommunication between regions that control our habit and those such as the prefrontal cortex that normally help control volitional behaviour. As compulsive behaviours become more ingrained over time, our intentions play less and less of a role in what we actually do.”

The researchers think this is the work of our habit system.

“While some habits can make our life easier, like automating the act of preparing your morning coffee, others go too far and can take control of our lives in a much more insidious way, shaping our preferences, beliefs, and in the case of OCD, even our fears,” says Professor Robbins. “Such conditions – where maladaptive, repetitive habits dominate our behaviour – are among the most difficult to treat, whether by cognitive behaviour therapy or by drugs.”

Co-author Professor Barbara Sahakian adds: “This study emphasizes the importance of treating OCD early and effectively before the dysfunctional behaviour becomes entrenched and difficult to treat. We will now focus on the implications of our work for future therapeutic strategies for these compulsive disorders.”

Dr John Isaac, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust comments: “Research such as this marks a shift in how we understand Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition which affects hundreds of thousands of lives in the UK alone. Unravelling the underlying causes of OCD could lead to improved treatment of the condition, and may provide an important step forward in the management of compulsion in other forms, from binge-eating to alcohol abuse.”

Gillan, C. et al. Functional neuroimaging of avoidance habits in OCD. American Journal of Psychiatry; 19 Dec 2014

Misfiring of the brain’s control system might underpin compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to researchers at the University of Cambridge, writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

While some habits can make our life easier, others go too far and can take control of our lives in a much more insidious way, shaping our preferences, beliefs, and in the case of OCD, even our fears
Trevor Robbins
OCD Letter Blocks

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A step towards solving the enduring puzzle of ‘infantile amnesia’

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 29, 2014.

Most of us cannot remember toddling around at the age of 18 months or so, let alone being breast or bottle fed as tiny infants. Our early life is a blank to us. It is a blank in the sense that it is not accessible to so-called “episodic memory,” which means conscious or “re-experiential” recall of autobiographical events.

Sigmund Freud coined the term ‘infantile amnesia’ to describe this phenomenon. He explained the lack of early memory in terms of repressed sexual desires. Today, few people find Freud’s arguments persuasive - but the term, infantile amnesia, and the puzzle it presents to scientists, persists.

In seeking to understand how the brain develops its remarkable capacity for episodic memory, cognitive psychologists have tended to explain amnesia for early lives by arguing that our first experiences have the ‘wrong’ kind of format to be accessed by the backward-casting adult mind.

But what does this primitive format lack and when does memory become truly episodic and adult-like?

A team led by Professor James Russell from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology has shed some light on this fascinating puzzle by carrying out a study on two- and three-year-olds, an age that many developmental psychologists believe to be marked by an absence of episodic memory.

The results of the team’s most recent study ‘Pre-school children’s proto-episodic memory assessed by deferred imitation’ were published online last month (October 2014) in the journal Memory.

Russell and co-researchers Dr Patrick Burns (University of Cambridge) and Dr Charlotte Russell (King’s College, London) conclude that young children fail to engage in re-experiential/episodic memories because they are not yet able to bind where and when information to information about objects and actions when recalling something that they have experienced.

“A young child may simply know that mum is wearing a red blouse today without any recollection of the original event that told them this – for example, seeing mum emerging from the bedroom wearing the blouse, on her way downstairs,” said Russell.

Psychologists use the term spatiotemporal information to describe the when and where of an episode. There are a number of reasons why spatiotemporal information is crucial to episodic memory, but Russell has a distinct approach to the matter, one inspired by the work of the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant argued that perceptual experience itself is marked by its taking place in space and time. If this is so, Russell argues, re-experiential memory will also be spatiotemporal. According to Kant, the temporal aspect of experience consists of coding the simultaneity and order of elements within the event.

Russell explained: “If we have an experience of an event involving, say, a football and a cat, then spatially each of them will be perceived as being in a certain relation to our body - left or right, near or far.  In addition, they will be near to, or far away from, each other. Temporally, they will either be simultaneously present in the event or appear one after the other. Crucially, an episodic/re-experiential memory of the event should involve the memory inheriting these spatiotemporal properties.”

Another key feature of re-experiential memory of events is that it will tend to be all-of-a-piece rather than elemental. In other words, because events are experienced holistically rather than element-by-element, the re-experiential memory of them will, again, inherit this holistic property.

“When we hear or read sentences, they will be experienced in a serial or digital manner with phrases embedded in clauses and clauses embedded in sentences. One may call this semantic experience in reference to the term, ‘semantic memory’, used by Endel Tulving in 1972 to distinguish it from episodic memory,” said Russell.

“If we experience an event, by contrast, we experience it as a whole - this is episodic memory. Let’s return to the example of the child with the red-blouse-wearing mother. In the original event, the child saw mum in a red blouse -  the what of the potential memory -  on her left emerging from the bedroom  - the potential where of the memory - as mum was about to descend the stairs - the potential when of the memory. 

“These spatiotemporal elements were experienced together, as a whole, as elements of one event. They were not fed to the child as bite-sized factual chunks as in ‘the blouse was red', ‘mum was on my left’, ‘after that she went down the stairs’. This kind of elementally-chunked experience could result in a kind of semantic memory.” 

In order to test whether two- and three-year-olds are able not only to retain the what-when-where of an episodic memory but also to recall these three in a holistic, non-elemental way, the team gave more than 370 pre-schoolers two kinds of memory test. In each one, the children had to imitate on the second day what they had seen the experimenter do on the first day.

In the first task the children saw the experimenter move two icons on a touch-screen in a certain order to make the computer show a smiling face and play a happy song. Note that in this task the spatial element (the location to which the icons had to be moved) was defined not only by three-dimensional landmarks but also by the relation to the child’s own body (eg ‘in the corner to my top-right-hand’).

In the second task, the what of the performance was two kinds of action (pumping or twirling) which had to be performed on the handles of a music box belonging to hippo (see photograph) in a certain order to turn it on. Note that in this case the location of the actions could be defined by three-dimensional landmarks such as ‘near the door’ or ‘in front of the window’.

Next, in order to find out if recall was holistic/non-elemental or elemental, the researchers applied a statistical model to determine whether it was likely for children to recall the what-when-where of the memory in elemental fragments (eg just recalling what and where but not when) or whether memory tended to be all-of-a-piece.

The results of the study were very clear. Although performance was better than chance after two-and-half years in both tasks, only in the second task (the music box in a room) was recall non-elemental/holistic.

The crucial difference between the two tasks was in terms of the spatial information. In the second task, in which there was evidence for genuine episodic memory, the spatial information was environment-centred, such as ‘the twirling took place near the window’.

In explaining the apparent dependency of this primitive form of episodic memory on environment-centred spatial coding, Russell said: “The reasons for this are two-fold. Conceptually, while episodic memory tends to be from our own point of view, the very idea of a ‘point of view’ requires it to be a point of view of something – some objective spatial layout. So anything that encourages the child to code actions and objects in terms of their environment-centred features like ‘near the door’ will tend to reveal episodic abilities, if they are there at all.

“In terms of neuroscience, a structure in the brain called the hippocampus is crucial to the performance both of environment-centred spatial coding and to the laying down of episodic memory traces. We know that the hippocampus is undergoing rapid development around two years of age. Though later episodic abilities, such as those developing around four and five years with the acquisition of a theory of mind, are likely to be more frontal in nature.”

The findings of Russell and co-researchers that episodic memory begins, and infantile amnesia fades away, at the age of around two-and-a-half years appear to fit with the results of studies by other psychologists.

“Professor Madeline Eacott at Durham University found that two-and-a-half was the earliest age at which adults can retrieve re-experiential memories for significant events such as the birth of a sibling. We can also recall events about our own birth, but this is obviously going to be semantic in nature,” said Russell.

While discovering more about the earliest origins of episodic memory is of inherent scientific interest, there are practical applications of this work, and it also affords avenues of investigation beyond infantile amnesia. 

“Firstly, it suggests that very young children may actually be quite accurate reporters – for example, of abusive events. Secondly, it is possible that even younger children would succeed on tasks like the ones we have carried out if the temporal element were simultaneity rather than order. It’s not hard to believe that an 18-month-old can have a re-experiential memory of what happened in the morning,” said Russell.

“I recall the very full account of a zoo trip my daughter gave me when she was a year-and-a-half. Why shouldn’t this have been based on an episodic trace, albeit not one that would be available to adult recall?”

James Russell is a Fellow of Queens’ College.

A study led by Professor James Russell shines a light on the phenomenon of 'infantile amnesia'. He argues that children's ability to recall events depends on their being able to unify the environmental elements of when, what and where. Most children develop this ability aged between two and three.

A young child may simply know that mum is wearing a red blouse today without any recollection of the original event that told her this – for example, seeing mum emerging from the bedroom wearing the blouse.
James Russell
Children play in the fountain at Somerset House (cropped)

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Lifelong learning and the plastic brain

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 19, 2014.

When a group of experimental psychologists moved into their new lab space in Cambridge earlier this year, they took a somewhat unconventional approach to refurbishing their tea room: they had the walls tiled with the Café Wall Illusion.

The illusion, so-named after it was spotted on the wall of a Bristol café in the 1970s, is a much-debated geometrical trick of the eye and brain in which perfectly parallel lines of black and white tiles appear wedge-shaped and sloped.

It’s also an excellent demonstration of how the brain interprets the world in a way that moves beyond what the input is from the eye, as one of the experimental psychologists, Professor Zoe Kourtzi, explained. “In interpreting the world around us, our brains are challenged by a plethora of information. The brain is thought to integrate information from multiple sources and solve the puzzle of perception by taking into account not only the signals registered by the sensory organs but also their context in space and time.

“In the Café Wall Illusion, the brain takes into account the surrounding tiles, but it also relies on our previous knowledge acquired through training and experience when interpreting a new situation.”

From the day we are born, neurons in the brain start to make connections that combine what we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell with our experiences and memories. Neuroscientists refer to the brain’s ‘plasticity’ in explaining this ability to restructure and learn new things, continually building on previous patterns of neuronal interactions.

To unravel the mechanisms that underlie how brains learn, Kourtzi’s team is looking at how brains recognise objects in a cluttered scene. “This aspect is vital for successful interactions in our complex environments,” she explained. “It’s how we recognise a face in a crowd or a landmark during navigation.”

Visual perception is also highly trainable. The brain can use previous experience of similar cues to be quicker at identifying the image from the ‘noise’ – the proverbial needle from the haystack.

But although neuroscientists recognise that this type of brain plasticity is fundamental to our ability to cope with continually changing settings at home, school, work and play, little is known about how we can stimulate our brain to enhance this learning process, right across the life span.

“The process of ‘learning to learn’ is at the core of flexible human behaviours,” explained Kourtzi. “It underpins how children acquire literacy and numeracy, and how adults develop work-related skills later in life.”

One of the important determinants her team has discovered is that being able to multi-task is better than being able to memorise.

“The faster learners are those who can attend to multiple things at the same time and recruit areas of the brain that are involved in attention,” she explained. “Those who are slower at learning try to memorise, as we can see from greater activity in the parts of the brain connected with memory.”

“So, in fact, being able to do the sort of multi-tasking required when interacting in busy environments or playing video games – which requires the processing of multiple streams of information – can improve your ability to learn.”

She also finds that age doesn’t matter: “what seems to matter is your strategy in life – so if older people have really good attentive abilities they can learn as fast as younger people.”

This has important implications for an ageing society. In the UK, there are now more people over State Pension age than there are children. The UK’s Office for National Statistics predicts that, by 2020, people over 50 will make up almost a third of the workforce and almost half of the adult population. The average life expectancy for a man in the UK will have risen from 65 years in 1951 to 91 years by 2050. Older age has become an increasingly active phase of people’s lives, one in which re-training and cognitive resilience is increasingly sought after.

Kourtzi and colleagues are using functional magnetic resonance imaging to detect when areas of the brain are activated in response to a sensory input and how these circuits change with learning and experience. While at the University of Birmingham, she showed that the visual recognition abilities of young and older adults can be enhanced by training, but that the different age groups use different neural circuits to do this.

Young adults use anterior brain centres that are often used in perceptual decisions, where sensory information is evaluated for a decision to be made; older adults, by contrast, use the posterior part of the brain, which is in charge of the ability to attend and select a target from irrelevant clutter. “The clear implication of this is that training programmes need to be geared for age,” said Kourtzi.

Crucially, what she also observed is that some people benefit from training more than others: “although it’s well known that practice makes perfect, some people are better at learning and may benefit more from particular interventions than others. But to determine how and why, we need to go beyond biological factors, like cognition or genetics, to look at social factors: what is it about the way a particular individual has learned to approach learning in their social setting that might affect their ability to learn?”

This multidisciplinary approach to understanding learning lies at the heart of her work. She leads the European-Union-funded Adaptive Brain Computations project, which brings together behavioural scientists, computer scientists, pharmacologists and neuroscientists across eight European universities, plus industrial partners, to understand and test how learning happens.

“In our work, there’s a strong element of translating our findings into practical applications, so creating training programmes that are age appropriate is our ultimate goal,” she added.

“The reason we like the Café Wall Illusion so much is because tricks of visual perception tell us that the brain can see things in a different way to the input. How the brain does this is influenced by context, just as the way we interpret our environment is influenced by learning and previous experience.”

Inset image: Café Wall Illusion, Tony Kerr on Flickr

Our brains are plastic. They continually remould neural connections as we learn, experience and adapt. Now researchers are asking if new understanding of these processes can help us train our brains.

In the Café Wall Illusion, the brain takes into account the surrounding tiles, but it also relies on our previous knowledge acquired through training and experience when interpreting a new situation
Zoe Kourtzi
11 Thinking about it

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