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Young minds think alike – and older people are more distractible

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 14, 2015.

The study, published today in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, also found that older people tended to be more easily distracted than younger adults.

Age is believed to change the way our brains respond and how its networks interact, but studies looking at these changes tend to use very artificial experiments, with basic stimuli. To try to understand how we respond to complex, life-like stimuli, researchers at the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) showed 218 subjects aged 18-88 an edited version of an episode from the Hitchcock TV series while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure their brain activity.

The researchers found a surprising degree of similarity in the thought patterns amongst the younger subjects – their brains tended to ‘light up’ in similar ways and at similar points in the programme. However, in older subjects, this similarity tended to disappear and their thought processes became more idiosyncratic, suggesting that they were responding differently to what they were watching and were possibly more distracted.

The greatest differences were seen in the ‘higher order’ regions at the front of the brain, which are responsible for controlling attention (the superior frontal lobe and the intraparietal sulcus) and language processing (the bilateral middle temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus).

The findings suggest that our ability to respond to everyday events in the environment differs with age, possibly due to altered patterns of attention.

Dr Karen Campbell from the Department of Psychology, first author on the study, says: “As we age, our ability to control the focus of attention tends to decline, and we end up attending to more ‘distracting’ information than younger adults. As a result, older adults end up attending to a more diverse range of stimuli and so are more likely to understand and interpret everyday events in different ways than younger people.”

In order to encourage audiences to respond to movies and TV programmes in the same way as everyone else, and hence have a ‘shared experience’, directors and cinematographers use a variety of techniques to draw attention to the focal item in each shot. When the stimulus is less engaging – for example, when one character is talking at length or the action is slow, people show less overlap in their neural patterns of activity, suggesting that a stimulus needs to be sufficiently captivating in order to drive attention. However, capturing attention is not sufficient when watching a film; the brain needs to maintain attention or at the very least, to limit attention to that information which is most relevant to the plot.

Dr Campbell and colleagues argue that the variety in brain patterns seen amongst older people reflects a difference in their ability to control their attention, as attentional capture by stimuli in the environment is known to be relatively preserved with age. This supports previous research which shows that older adults respond to and better remember materials with emotional content.

“We know that regions at the front of the brain are responsible for maintaining our attention, and these are the areas that see the greatest structural changes as we ages, and it is these changes that we believe are being reflected in our study,” she adds. “There may well be benefits to this distractibility. Attending to lots of different information could help with our creativity, for example.”

Cam-CAN is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference
Campbell, K et al. Idiosyncratic responding during movie-watching predicted by age differences in attentional control. Neurobiology of Aging; 6 Aug 2015.

‘Bang! You’re Dead’, a 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, continues to surprise – but not just with the twist in its tale. Scientists at the University of Cambridge have used the programme to show that young people respond in a similar way to events, but as we age our thought patterns diverge.

Older adults end up attending to a more diverse range of stimuli and so are more likely to understand and interpret everyday events in different ways than younger people
Karen Campbell
Hitchcock

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Jackdaws in the news

By from News. Published on Aug 12, 2015.

Here’s looking at you: research shows jackdaws can recognise individual human faces

By jeh98 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 11, 2015.

Researchers Alex Thornton, now at the University of Exeter, and Gabrielle Davidson carried out the study with the wild jackdaw population in Madingley village on the outskirts of Cambridge. They found that the jackdaws were able to distinguish between two masks worn by the same researcher, and only responded defensively to the one they had previously seen accessing their nest box.

Over three consecutive days Davidson approached the nest boxes wearing one of the masks and took chicks out to weigh them. She also simply walked past the nest boxes wearing the other mask. Following this she spent four days sitting near the nest boxes wearing each of the masks to see how the jackdaws would respond.

The researchers found that the jackdaws were quicker to return to their nest when they saw the mask that they had previously seen approaching and removing chicks to be weighed, than when they saw the mask that had simply walked by.

They also tended to be quicker to go inside the nest box when Davidson, wearing the mask, was looking directly at them rather than looking down at the ground.

“The fact that they learn to recognise individual facial features or hair patterns so quickly, and to a lesser extent which direction people are looking in, provides great evidence of the flexible cognitive abilities of these birds,” says Davidson. “It also suggests that being able to recognise individual predators and the levels of threat they pose may be more important for guarding chicks than responding to the direction of the predator’s gaze.”

“Using the masks was important to make sure that the birds were not responding to my face, which they may have already seen approaching their nest boxes and weighing chicks in the past,” she adds.

Previous studies have found that crows, magpies and mockingbirds are similarly able to recognise individual people. However, most studies have involved birds in busier urban areas where they are likely to come into more frequent contact with humans.

Jackdaws are the only corvids in the UK that use nest boxes so they provide a rare opportunity for researchers to study how birds respond to humans in the wild. Researchers at Cambridge have been studying the Madingley jackdaws since 2010.

“It would be fascinating to directly compare how these birds respond to humans in urban and rural areas to see whether the amount of human contact they experience has an impact on how they respond to people,” says Davidson.

“It would also be interesting to investigate whether jackdaws are similarly able to recognise individuals of other predator species – although this would be a lot harder to test.”

The study was enabled by funding from Zoology Balfour Fund, Cambridge Philosophical Society, British Ecological Survey, and BBSRC David Philips Research Fellowship.

Inset images: Mask (Elsa Loissel).

Reference:

Davidson, GL et al.,Wild jackdaws, Corvus monedula, recognize individual humans and may respond to gaze direction with defensive behaviour Animal Behaviour 108 October 2015 17-24.

When you’re prey, being able to spot and assess the threat posed by potential predators is of life-or-death importance. In a paper published today in Animal Behaviour, researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology show that wild jackdaws recognise individual human faces, and may be able to tell whether or not predators are looking directly at them.

The fact that they learn to recognise individual faces so quickly provides great evidence of the flexible cognitive abilities of these birds
Gabrielle Davidson
Jackdaws on nest box

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J is for Jay

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 05, 2015.

Jays are corvids – members of the crow family. The jays we see in Britain are Eurasian jays. With their pinkish plumage, and characteristic flash of blue, they will be familiar to many people as woodland birds that are increasingly seen in gardens, even in cities.

Professor Nicky Clayton (Department of Psychology) has carried out pioneering research into the thinking power of corvids. Her observations have revealed these crows to be extremely clever. In Aesop’s Fables, the wise old crow drops pebbles into a pitcher of water to raise the level and allow her to drink. Clayton’s work has revealed that real-life crows can, if they need to, use pebbles in just this way.

Corvids, including jays, cache (hide) food so that they can retrieve it later. They know who’s watching them and they also show the ability to plan ahead. Perhaps even more remarkably, corvids share their food. Male corvids even show the ability to understand what foods females prefer and will bring their mates tasty titbits.

We don’t think of corvids as song birds but current research is just beginning to reveal that they are skilled mimics, able to reproduce familiar sounds. As the accompanying film shows, a jay called Romero enjoys mimicking Clayton when she talks to him in one of the Cambridge University aviaries where she and colleagues are transforming our understanding of bird cognition.

These are just a few of the reasons that Clayton describes jays and other members of the crow family as ‘feathered apes’ – a term that challenges the ways we think about intelligence in the animal kingdom.

Clayton has been fascinated by birds ever since, as a young girl, she watched them in her garden. Her research into bird cognition has always run in parallel with her passion for dance. “It was the movements of birds that first drew me to them,” she says. “I wanted to know what they were doing, how they move and how they think.”

Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: K is for a bird that has biologists, physicists and materials scientists working together to unravel the secrets behind its spectacular colour effects.

Have you missed the series so far? Catch up on Medium here.

Inset images: Eurasian jays (Ljerka Ostojic).

The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, J is for Jay – a surprisingly clever corvid with the ability to mimic human voices and much more.

Eurasian jay

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Musical tastes offer a window into how you think

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 22, 2015.

In a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of psychologists show that your thinking style – whether you are an ‘empathizer’ who likes to focus on and respond to the emotions of others, or a ‘systemizer’ who likes to analyse rules and patterns in the world—is a predictor of the type of music you like.

Music is a prominent feature of everyday life and nearly everywhere we go. It’s easy for us to know what types of music we like and don’t like. When shuffling songs on an iPod, it takes us only a few seconds to decide whether to listen or skip to the next track. However, little is known about what determines our taste in music.

Researchers over the past decade have argued that musical preferences reflect explicit characteristics such as age and personality. For example, people who are open to new experiences tend to prefer music from the blues, jazz, classical, and folk genres, and people who are extraverted and ‘agreeable’ tend to prefer music from the pop, soundtrack, religious, soul, funk, electronic, and dance genres.

Now a team of scientists, led by PhD student David Greenberg, has looked at how our ‘cognitive style’ influences our musical choices. This is measured by looking at whether an individual scores highly on ‘empathy’ (our ability to recognize and react to the thoughts and feelings of others) or on ‘systemizing’ (our interest in understanding the rules underpinning systems such as the weather, music, or car engines) – or whether we have a balance of both.

“Although people’s music choices fluctuates over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like,” said David Greenberg from the Department of Psychology. “In fact, their cognitive style – whether they’re strong on empathy or strong on systems – can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality.”

The researchers conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants, who were recruited mainly through the myPersonality Facebook app. The app asked Facebook users to take a selection of psychology-based questionnaires, the results of which they could place on their profiles for other users to see. At a later date, they were asked to listen to and rate 50 musical pieces. The researchers used library examples of musical stimuli from 26 genres and subgenres, to minimise the chances that participants would have any personal or cultural association with the piece of music.

People who scored high on empathy tended to prefer mellow music (from R&B, soft rock, and adult contemporary genres), unpretentious music (from country, folk, and singer/songwriter genres) and contemporary music (from electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop). They disliked intense music, such as punk and heavy metal. In contrast, people who scored high on systemizing favoured intense music, but disliked mellow and unpretentious musical styles.

The results proved consistent even within specified genres: empathizers preferred mellow, unpretentious jazz, while systemizers preferred intense, sophisticated (complex and avant-garde) jazz.

The researchers then looked more in-depth and found those who scored high on empathy preferred music that had low energy (gentle, reflective, sensual, and warm elements), or negative emotions (sad and depressing characteristics), or emotional depth (poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful features). Those who scored high on systemizing preferred music that had high energy (strong, tense, and thrilling elements), or positive emotions (animated and fun features), and which also featured a high degree of cerebral depth and complexity.

David Greenberg, a trained jazz saxophonist, says the research could have implications for the music industry. “A lot of money is put into algorithms to choose what music you may want to listen to, for example on Spotify and Apple Music. By knowing an individual’s thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual.”

Dr Jason Rentfrow, the senior author on the study says: “This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self. Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a member of the team, added; “This new study is a fascinating extension to the ‘empathizing-systemizing’ theory of psychological individual differences. It took a talented PhD student and musician to even think to pose this question. The research may help us understand those at the extremes, such as people with autism, who are strong systemizers.”

Based on their findings, the following are songs that the researchers believe are likely to fit particular styles:

High on empathy

  • Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
  • Come away with me – Norah Jones
  • All of me – Billie Holliday
  • Crazy little thing called love – Queen

High on systemizing

  • Concerto in C – Antonio Vivaldi
  • Etude Opus 65 No 3 — Alexander Scriabin
  • God save the Queen – The Sex Pistols
  • Enter Sandman – Metallica

 

David Greenberg was funded by the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust and the Autism Research Trust during the period of this work.

Reference
Greenberg, DM, Baron-Cohen, S, Stillwell, DJ, Kosinski, M, & Rentfrow, PJ. Musical preferences are linked to cognitive styles. PLOS ONE; 22 July 2015

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen will be speaking at the University of Cambridge Alumni Festival on 26 September 2015.

Do you like your jazz to be Norah Jones or Ornette Coleman, your classical music to be Bach or Stravinsky, or your rock to be Coldplay or Slayer? The answer could give an insight into the way you think, say researchers from the University of Cambridge.

Although people’s music choices fluctuates over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like
David Greenberg
Death Angel (cropped)

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New cohort of Junior Researchers inducted in Spain

By from News. Published on Jul 21, 2015.

ERC Advanced Investigator Grant

By admin from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 08, 2015.

Professor Lorraine K Tyler, Department of Psychology, has been awarded her second Advanced Investigator Award by the European Research Council.

The prestigious ERC Advanced Grant funds exceptional established research leaders to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects that open new direction in their research fields.

Professor Tyler is the only individual from the University of Cambridge to be awarded a second Advanced Grant under the 2014 call, and has the honour of being the second ever holder of two Advanced Grants within the University.

The over €2 million fund will support Professor Tyler’s LANGDYN (Language dynamics: a neurocognitive approach to incremental interpretation) research programme until October 2020. Her research aims to understand the complex processes and representations that support the transition of spoken language from auditory input to a meaningful interpretation, and the neurobiological systems in which they are instantiated.

The novel research programme will combine advanced techniques from neuroimaging with new developments in multivariate statistics and computational linguistics to determine the nature of the processes involved in the transition from early perceptual analyses through different representational states to the development of a meaningful representation of an utterance, the dynamic spatio-temporal relationship between these processes, and their evolution over time.

Announcement of Cambridge University Press book prizes

By from News. Published on Jul 07, 2015.

Professor Tyler scoops second Advanced Investigator Award

By from News. Published on Jul 07, 2015.

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

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

Amy Milton

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

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

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

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

Read about Novel Thoughts.

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

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

Amy Milton

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E is for Elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winners of the 2015 Passingham Prize announced

By from News. Published on Jun 24, 2015.

How to read a digital footprint

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

Footprints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juliet Foster

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

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

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

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

Read about Novel Thoughts.

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

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

Juliet Foster

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Green Impact Silver Award for the Department

By from News. Published on Jun 11, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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