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APA honours Professor Michael Lamb with two top awards

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 26, 2015.

Professor Nicky Clayton is expert guest on A History of Ideas

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 22, 2015.

Ron (Hutch) Hutchison

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 21, 2015.

Prestigious award for Anushka Fernando

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 20, 2015.

Professor Usha Goswami attending White House Workshop

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

Professor Nicky Clayton on Private Passions

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

Psychometrics Centre research causes a media stir

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 13, 2015.

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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Dr Simone Schnall’s Edge HeadCon '14 Presentation featured in The Psychologist

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

The Captured Thought to be presented at the Hay Festival

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

Dr Emma Cahill awarded a BBSRC Anniversary Future Leaders Fellowship

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 03, 2015.

Fronto-striatal systems and impulsive-compulsive disorders

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Dec 23, 2014.

Professor Robbins outlines the details of his Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award.

Artist in Residence, Clive Wilkins, publishes Count Zapik

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Dec 19, 2014.

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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JNP Best Paper Prize 2014 goes to members of the BCNI

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Dec 10, 2014.

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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Cambridge professor and ScienceGrrl celebrate women in science with release of She Blinded Me With Science

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 06, 2014.

Tim Bussey

The song is performed by Violet Transmissions, a band whose lead singer Tim Bussey is also Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. Its video features a number of young women scientists including a material scientist, laser physicists and an epidemiologist. All proceeds from the song will go to ScienceGrrl, an organisation dedicated to celebrating and supporting women in science.

Thomas Dolby has himself offered his backing, providing samples from his original hit of British scientist and TV presenter Magnus Pyke, including his off-the-cuff remark “Yes, but as a known scientist, it would be surprising if a girl blinded me with science”.

Professor Bussey says: “In my field, neuroscience – and certainly in my lab – many of the best scientists are women, including my wife Lisa Saksida, with whom I run the lab. And as Director of Studies, I consistently find that many of the top candidates for admission at undergraduate level are women. So it’s shocking that most of the faces at my level of career progression are male. Clearly women are being put off science somewhere along the way. We’ve released this cover of Thomas Dolby’s hit as way of celebrating women in science and helping raise awareness of some of the issues they face.”

Through Both Eyes, a recent report from ScienceGrrl, highlighted some of the issues that face women in science and recommended steps that could be taken to address the problem of underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Issues include cultural stereotypes which do little to encourage girls to consider a career in STEM subjects and undermine their achievements in the classroom. ScienceGrrl calls on the government and organisations in a position of influence to show leadership in areas of gender equality, careers advice and education.

Dr Anna Zecharia, Director of ScienceGrrl, said: We want everyone to feel empowered to reach their potential. Too often, cultural and social factors mean that girls and women start off on the back foot feeling unsupported and out of place. ScienceGrrl is about showcasing diverse role models, and the different faces of success. We want to show that science and engineering is for everyone and support those who already have a foot in the door. There is still a lot of work to do to bust open stereotypes and break down barriers, but it’s encouraging that researchers like Tim are taking a stand and helping raise the profile – and position – of ScienceGrrls."

Similarly, a report last year by the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest charitable funder of medical research, found that a lack of mentoring and career support along with a low number of female role models were cited as key factors that may be driving women in science to move away from academic careers earlier than men.

The University of Cambridge has recently joined a select group of universities with an institutional Athena SWAN Silver Award. The awards are bestowed in recognition of commitment to advancing women's careers in STEM employment in higher education and research.

Professor Anne Davis, Professor of Mathematical Physics and a Gender Equality Champion at the University of Cambridge, said: “The University is keenly aware of the need to retain women as they progress through their careers into senior levels. Back when I got my PhD I suddenly found myself as the most senior women in my subject in the UK.

“The situation is changing, but slowly and there is still a lot more we must do to change the thinking of both men and women, to foster female scientists and ensure those recruiting academics have the right skills. To be a world class University we must recruit and retain the best candidates - from every sector of society.”

The video, together with additional interviews with the ‘science grrls’ can be viewed online at

A Cambridge professor and an army of ScienceGrrls – with a little assistance from the late Magnus Pyke – will be helping celebrate women in science, with the release today on iTunes of a cover version of Thomas Dolby’s 1982 hit She Blinded Me With Science.

It’s shocking that most of the faces at my level of career progression are male. Clearly women are being put off science somewhere along the way
Tim Bussey
Tim Bussey

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How to tell a missile from a pylon: a tale of two cortices

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Oct 02, 2014.

Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge have identified the two regions of the brain involved in these two tasks – picking out objects from background noise and identifying the specific objects – and have shown why training people to recognise specific objects improves their ability to pick out objects.

In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, volunteers were given a series of 3D stereoscopic images with varying levels of background noise and asked first to find a target object and then to say whether the object was in the foreground or the background. During the task, researchers applied transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – a technique whereby a magnetic field is applied to the head – to disrupt the performance of two regions of the brain used in object identification: the parietal cortex and the ventral cortex. Their results are published in the journal Current Biology.

The researchers showed that the parietal cortex was involved in selecting potential targets from background noise, while the ventral cortex was involved in object recognition. When TMS was applied to the parietal cortex, volunteers performed less well at selecting objects from the background; when the field was applied to the ventral cortex, they performed less well at identifying the specific objects.

However, the researchers found that after the volunteers had undergone training to discriminate between specific objects, the ventral cortex – which, until then, had only been used for this purpose – also became involved in selecting targets from noise, enhancing their ability to distinguish between objects. The reverse was not true – in other words, the parietal cortex did not become involved in object discrimination.

Dr Welchman, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology, explains: “The parietal cortex and the ventral cortex appear to be involved in the overlapping tasks to a different extent. By analogy to the World War II analysts, the parietal cortex helped them spot suspect objects while the ventral cortex helped them distinguish the weapons from the pylons. But training these operatives to identify the weapons will have improved their ability to spot potential weapons in the first place.”

The research may have implications for therapies to help people with attentional difficulties. For example, people with damage to the parietal cortex, such as through stroke, are known to have difficulty in finding objects in displays, particularly when the display is distracting.

“These results show that training in clear displays modifies the brain areas that underlie performance in distracting situations. This suggests a route for rehabilitative training that helps individuals avoid distracting information by training individuals to make fine judgements,” he adds.

During the Second World War, analysts pored over stereoscopic aerial reconnaissance photographs, becoming experts at identifying potential targets from camouflaged or visually noisy backgrounds, and then at distinguishing between V-weapons and innocuous electricity pylons.

Training World War II operatives to identify weapons will have improved their ability to spot potential weapons in the first place
Andrew Welchman
Examining WWII aerial reconnaissance photos

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Presence or absence of early language delay alters anatomy of the brain in autism

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Sep 23, 2014.

A new study led by researchers from the University of Cambridge has found that a common characteristic of autism – language delay in early childhood – leaves a ‘signature’ in the brain. The results are published today (23 September) in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The researchers studied 80 adult men with autism: 38 who had delayed language onset and 42 who did not. They found that language delay was associated with differences in brain volume in a number of key regions, including the temporal lobe, insula, ventral basal ganglia, which were all smaller in those with language delay; and in brainstem structures, which were larger in those with delayed language onset.

Additionally, they found that current language function is associated with a specific pattern of grey and white matter volume changes in some key brain regions, particularly temporal, frontal and cerebellar structures.

The Cambridge researchers, in collaboration with King’s College London and the University of Oxford, studied participants who were part of the MRC Autism Imaging Multicentre Study (AIMS).

Delayed language onset – defined as when a child’s first meaningful words occur after 24 months of age, or their first phrase occurs after 33 months of age – is seen in a subgroup of children with autism, and is one of the clearest features triggering an assessment for developmental delay in children, including an assessment of autism.

“Although people with autism share many features, they also have a number of key differences,” said Dr Meng-Chuan Lai of the Cambridge Autism Research Centre, and the paper’s lead author. “Language development and ability is one major source of variation within autism. This new study will help us understand the substantial variety within the umbrella category of ‘autism spectrum’. We need to move beyond investigating average differences in individuals with and without autism, and move towards identifying key dimensions of individual differences within the spectrum.”

He added: “This study shows how the brain in men with autism varies based on their early language development and their current language functioning. This suggests there are potentially long-lasting effects of delayed language onset on the brain in autism.”

Last year, the American Psychiatric Association removed Asperger Syndrome (Asperger’s Disorder) as a separate diagnosis from its diagnostic manual (DSM-5), and instead subsumed it within ‘autism spectrum disorder.’ The change was one of many controversial decisions in DSM-5, the main manual for diagnosing psychiatric conditions.

“This new study shows that a key feature of Asperger Syndrome, the absence of language delay, leaves a long lasting neurobiological signature in the brain,” said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, senior author of the study. “Although we support the view that autism lies on a spectrum, subgroups based on developmental characteristics, such as Asperger Syndrome, warrant further study.”

“It is important to note that we found both differences and shared features in individuals with autism who had or had not experienced language delay,” said Dr Lai. “When asking: ‘Is autism a single spectrum or are there discrete subgroups?’ - the answer may be both.”

This study was supported by the Waterloo Foundation, the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), the Autism Research Trust, the Wellcome Trust, the William Binks Autism Neuroscience Fellowship, and the European Autism Interventions—a Multicentre Study for Developing New Medications (EU-AIMS).

Individual differences in early language development, and in later language functioning, are associated with changes in the anatomy of the brain in autism.

We need to move beyond investigating average differences in individuals with and without autism, and move towards identifying key dimensions of individual differences within the spectrum
Meng-Chuan Lai
Neural Connections In the Human Brain

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Males and females with autism show an extreme of the typical male mind

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 16, 2014.

Lego ordered into compartments

A team of researchers, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr Meng-Chuan Lai from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, tested 811 adults with autism, of whom 454 were female. They compared them to 3,906 typical adults, of whom 2,562 were female. Large samples are needed in order to test for subtle sex differences reliably. This is the first time such a large sample, especially of females with autism, has been studied, since autism is less common in females. The results are published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

All adults took three questionnaires online: the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) that counts the number of autistic traits a person has, the Empathy Quotient (EQ) that measures how easily a person shows social sensitivity to others, and the Systemising Quotient (SQ) that measures how interested a person is in systems (such as maps, machines, numbers, and collecting things).

Results showed clearly that typical females scored higher on the EQ, and typical males scored higher on the AQ and SQ. This sex difference was preserved but significantly reduced in adults with autism, and both males and females showed an extreme of the typical male profile on these measures.

The researchers also analysed the results in terms of ‘brain types’, which look at the difference between an individual’s EQ and SQ. The most common brain type in typical females is Type E, where EQ is higher than SQ. The most common brain type in typical males is Type S, where SQ is higher than EQ. The most common brain type in people with autism – both males and females – were Type S and an extreme of Type S, where EQ is below average whilst SQ is either average or even above average.

Professor Baron-Cohen said: “Our study provides strong evidence in support of the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism. Importantly, extreme Type S manifests differently in males and females with autism, but these measures nevertheless reveal its presence. The results also fit with other research showing that children who go on to have autism show elevated prenatal levels steroid hormones (such as testosterone), which affect the development of the brain and the mind.”

Dr Meng-Chuan Lai said: “For decades, the role of sex and gender was relatively under-investigated in autism. Females with autism are now beginning to be studied in their own right. In this new study, typical sex differences were reduced in autism, but not abolished. In addition, females with autism as a group show greater variation on these measures, compared to males with autism. We need more research into the differences between males and females with autism, and how these affect the identification of autism, and what support they need.”

Professor Baron-Cohen added: “These results also have implications for education and employment. People with autism – both males and females – love systems, which are rule-based, precise, and predictable, and find the world of emotions, thoughts, motives and intentions fuzzy and confusing. To achieve their full potential at school, college or at work, information should be presented with exactness, avoiding ambiguity.”

The largest ever psychological study of sex differences in adults with autism has found that both males and females with autism on average show an extreme of the typical male mind, where systemising (the drive to look for underlying rules in a system) is stronger than empathising (the ability to recognize the thoughts and feelings of others and to respond to these with appropriate emotions).

For decades, the role of sex and gender was relatively under-investigated in autism. Females with autism are now beginning to be studied in their own right
Meng-Chuan Lai
Technic Bits (cropped)

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University teaching awards honour excellence

By pbh25 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 01, 2014.

The 21st annual Pilkington Prizes, which honour excellence in teaching across the collegiate University, were held at Downing College last night.

The prizes are awarded annually to academic staff, with candidates nominated by Schools within the University.

The Pilkington Prizes were initiated by Sir Alastair Pilkington, the first Chairman of the Cambridge Foundation, who believed passionately that the quality of teaching was crucial to Cambridge’s success.

This year’s recipients received their awards at a ceremony attended by Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and Lord Watson of Richmond CBE, the University’s High Steward.

The prize-winners, and excerpts from their citations, are given below.

Dr Michael AitkenDr Michael Aitken, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Department of Psychology: Michael Aitken is a very popular, charismatic and accomplished lecturer who regularly obtains top marks from students in their feedback, even for what are for them lectures on “boring” topics such as statistical theory and practice. He has a rich understanding of undergraduate education and was instrumental in negotiating the new phase of accreditation of the courses in psychology by the British Psychological Society. However, his major abiding achievement has been to establish a new Tripos in this University, in the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS).

Dr Alastair Beresford, University Lecturer at the Computer Laboratory, Faculty of Computer Science and Technology: Alastair Beresford has revolutionised programming-language teaching for the Computer Science Tripos in the Computer Laboratory over the past six years. His pioneering work, along with fellow Pilkington Prize recipient Dr Andrew Rice, has seen teaching move away from traditional lectures to video and online exercises. The changes are hugely appreciated by the students, who are able to study at their own pace with substantial support from their supervisors. In addition, he has taken on the role of Chair of the Advanced Taught Course Management Committee.

Dr Sally Boss, University Lecturer in Chemistry, Department of Chemistry: Sally Boss is an outstanding teacher of chemistry who has already had a significant impact on several generations of Cambridge chemists. Her lucid and lively introductions to the intricacies of co-ordination chemistry and the mysteries of polyhedral molecular architectures continue to engage and excite the whole class. In addition she is an outstanding supervisor, undertaking a busy load for both her own College and others. Sally has been instrumental in a substantial revision of the first- and second-year practical courses, giving the classes a new vigour and direction.

Professor Richard Fentiman, Professor of Private International Law, Faculty of Law: Richard Fentiman is an exceptional teacher, whose entertaining and invigorating lectures have engaged students for many years. Described by one as making “even the dreariest topic seem exciting”, he is consistently ranked as one of the top-rated lecturers in the Law Faculty. Professor Fentiman has also made a substantial contribution over the years to faculty administration, serving first as director of the LLM and, more recently, as chair of the degree committee. In addition, Professor Fentiman is considered one of the leaders in his field of research.

Dr Rachael Harris, Senior Language Teaching Officer in Arabic, Faculty of Eastern and Middle Eastern Studies: Rachael Harris is, with her close colleague Mrs Nadira Auty, the cornerstone of the Arabic teaching programme in the undergraduate tripos. For the last 26 years at Cambridge she has given heart and soul to the training of our undergraduate students, helping them achieve levels of confident fluency in Arabic recognised as remarkable in the national context. Together they have blazed a trail in the professionalisation of Arabic language teaching. It is difficult to appreciate the difference between what we currently expect our students to excel at and what they were able to do before Rachael and Nadira joined us.

Professor Christopher Howe, Professor of Plant and Microbial Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry: Christopher is not only an extremely gifted didactic teacher in his own right, regularly garnering plaudits from his undergraduate audiences, but for several years he has also served the department diligently and innovatively as its director of undergraduate teaching. His hard work is marked by several virtues: unbounded enthusiasm, creativity, painstaking preparation and organisation, and the courage to take on, and deal effectively with, often vexing tactical and strategic issues.

Dr Sriya Iyer, Isaac Newton Trust Affiliated Lecturer, Faculty of Economics: Sriya Iyer has been teaching development economics in the Faculty of Economics and St Catharine’s College since 2000. Her approach is to teach development economics passionately and enthusiastically using microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, but to infuse learning with a sense of history and a sound intuition for development policy. Sriya has the ability to explain complex points clearly. Her students value her greatly. As one said: “Dr Iyer is a brilliant lecturer. You get the impression she loves what she teaches and that certainly rubs off in the lectures.”

Dr John Maclennan, University lecturer in Earth Sciences, Department of Earth Sciences: John Maclennan has an enviable breadth of geological knowledge, which students benefit from in all four years of the Earth Sciences degree course. All John's teaching is characterised by a deep understanding of the subject and by a lively and motivating presentation of the material. He is particularly good at conveying that observations and interpretations are there be questioned, and that this scientific process is valuable and fun. John's excellent teaching is not confined to lectures. Students especially comment on his skill at demonstrating practical classes, and in running the fourth year field trip to Spain.

Professor Michael Potter, Professor of Logic in the Faculty of Philosophy: Michael Potter is a dedicated and inspiring teacher of undergraduate and research students. As lecturer and supervisor, Michael has been a major force in the teaching of logic, philosophy of mathematics and history of analytic philosophy in the Faculty for over 15 years. He has been instrumental in establishing a flourishing seminar on the philosophy of mathematics and logic. He has made an outstanding contribution to maintaining and enhancing the quality of supervision and small group teaching that makes the experience of studying at Cambridge excellent and unique.

Dr Sally Quilligan, University Lecturer in Clinical Communication, School of Clinical Medicine: Sally Quilligan is a Lecturer in Clinical Communication in the School of Clinical Medicine and an outstanding medical educator.  Sally is committed, conscientious and enthusiastic, always treating the students with respect, paying attention to their views and helping each student develop their potential as effective clinical communicators. Student feedback regularly includes statements such as “she really cares about what we are saying”, “she takes everything we say seriously”, “her feedback is relevant and helpful” and “she is the best facilitator I have had”.

Dr Andrew Rice, Senior Lecturer at the Computer Laboratory, Faculty of Computer Science and Technology: Andrew Rice is recognised for his pioneering work on programming-language teaching for the Computer Science Tripos. Together with Dr Alastair Beresford, Andy has presided over a major shift in how students have carried out their studies over the past six years. Moving away from traditional lectures, he has ensured students can study at their own pace using video and online exercises. A substantial emphasis on the role of the supervisors ensures the teaching remains within the Cambridge context.

Dr Jeremy Webb, Academic Lead for Staff Development, School of Clinical Medicine: Jeremy Webb successfully combines his clinical career as Principal in a busy General Practice in Newmarket with an important educational role at Cambridge for medical students and educators. He is an invaluable member of the Clinical School’s education team.  A founder member of the Graduate Entry Programme, he brought his passionate belief that medical students should be taught more often by general practitioners into the development of the Cambridge Graduate Course in Medicine (CGC) programme. Jeremy has in particular supported students in difficulty, both with pastoral guidance and remedial clinical teaching.

Twelve inspirational academics honoured for the outstanding quality and approach to their teaching

Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and Lord Watson of Richmond CBE with 2014 Pilkington Teaching Prize winners

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