Low endogenous neural noise in autism
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Sep 26, 2014.
Team CFR enters Chariots of Fire race
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Sep 12, 2014.
The Department welcomes Dr William J. Matthews
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Sep 11, 2014.
Professor Walter Mischel to give special Zangwill Club talk
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Sep 06, 2014.
Professor Michael Lamb receives G. Stanley Hall Award
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Aug 27, 2014.
Dr Jon Simons on expert panel at the Royal Institution
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Aug 26, 2014.
Researcher Development Day a resounding success
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Aug 08, 2014.
Mind and body thinking together: Dr Simone Schnall's research covered on BBC Radio 4
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Aug 04, 2014.
One hundred years ago
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Aug 04, 2014.
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.
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).
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Bridging the gap between research and raising children: The Child and Family Blog
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jul 16, 2014.
Arrivals and departures
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jul 10, 2014.
Announcement of undergraduate awards
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jul 07, 2014.
Sandra Matz wins DataIQ New Talent Award 2014
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jul 02, 2014.
Development day for the Department's researchers
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jul 01, 2014.
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 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
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Comparative cognition for conservationists
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jun 30, 2014.
Children with autism have elevated levels of steroid hormones in the womb
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 03, 2014.
The team of researchers, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr Michael Lombardo in Cambridge and Professor Bent Nørgaard-Pedersen in Denmark, utilized approximately 19,500 amniotic fluid samples stored in a Danish biobank from individuals born between 1993-1999. Amniotic fluid surrounds the baby in the womb during pregnancy and is collected when some women choose to have an amniocentesis around 15-16 weeks of pregnancy. This coincides with a critical period for early brain development and sexual differentiation, and thus allows scientists access into this important window in fetal development. The researchers identified amniotic fluid samples from 128 males later diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition and matched these up with information from a central register of all psychiatric diagnoses in Denmark.
Within the amniotic fluid the researchers looked at four key ‘sex steroid’ hormones that are each synthesized, step-by-step from the preceding one*. They also tested the steroid hormone cortisol that lies outside this pathway. The researchers found that levels of all steroid hormones were highly associated with each other and most importantly, that the autism group on average had higher levels of all steroid hormones, compared to a typically developing male comparison group. The results of the study, which was funded by the Medical Research Council, are published today in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Professor Baron-Cohen said: “This is one of the earliest non-genetic biomarkers that has been identified in children who go on to develop autism. We previously knew that elevated prenatal testosterone is associated with slower social and language development, better attention to detail, and more autistic traits. Now, for the first time, we have also shown that these steroid hormones are elevated in children clinically diagnosed with autism. Because some of these hormones are produced in much higher quantities in males than in females, this may help us explain why autism is more common in males.”
He added: “These new results are particularly striking because they are found across all the subgroups on the autism spectrum, for the first time uniting those with Asperger Syndrome, classic autism, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not-Otherwise-Specified. We now want to test if the same finding is found in females with autism.”
Dr Michael Lombardo said: “This result potentially has very important implications about the early biological mechanisms that alter brain development in autism and also pinpoints an important window in fetal development when such mechanisms exert their effects.”
Steroid hormones are particularly important because they exert influence on the process of how instructions in the genetic code are translated into building proteins. The researchers believe that altering this process during periods when the building blocks for the brain are being laid down may be particularly important in explaining how genetic risk factors for autism get expressed.
Dr Lombardo adds: “Our discovery here meshes nicely with other recent findings that highlight the prenatal period around 15 weeks gestation as a key period when important genetic risk mechanisms for autism are working together to be expressed in the developing brain.”
Professor Baron-Cohen said: “These results should not be taken as a reason to jump to steroid hormone blockers as a treatment as this could have unwanted side effects and may have little to no effect in changing the potentially permanent effects that fetal steroid hormones exert during the early foundational stages of brain development.”
He cautioned further: “Nor should these results be taken as a promising prenatal screening test. There is considerable overlap between the groups and our findings showed differences found at an average group level, rather than at the level of accurately predicting diagnosis for individuals. The value of the new results lies in identifying key biological mechanisms during fetal development that could play important roles in atypical brain development in autism.”
*Within the amniotic fluid the researchers looked at 4 key ‘sex steroid’ hormones that are each synthesized, step-by-step from the preceding one, in the ‘Δ4 sex steroid’ pathway: progesterone, 17α-hydroxy-progesterone, androstenedione and testosterone.
Children who later develop autism are exposed to elevated levels of steroid hormones (for example testosterone, progesterone and cortisol) in the womb, according to scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. The finding may help explain why autism is more common in males than females. However, the researchers caution it should not be used to screen for the condition.
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Scientists identify part of brain linked to gambling addiction
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 08, 2014.
The research, led by Dr Luke Clark from the University of Cambridge, was published on April 7 2014 in the journal PNAS.
During gambling games, people often misperceive their chances of winning due to a number of errors of thinking called cognitive distortions. For example, ‘near-misses’ seem to encourage further play, even though they are no different from any other loss. In a random sequence like tossing a coin, a run of one event (heads) makes people think the other outcome (tails) is due next; this is known as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’.
There is increasing evidence that problem gamblers are particularly prone to these erroneous beliefs. In this study, the researchers examined the neurological basis of these beliefs in patients with injuries to different parts of the brain.
“While neuroimaging studies can tell us a great deal about the brain’s response to complex events, it’s only by studying patients with brain injury that we can see if a brain region is actually needed to perform a given task,” said Dr Clark.
For the study, the researchers gave patients with injuries to specific parts of the brain (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, or the insula) two different gambling tasks: a slot machine game that delivered wins and ‘near-misses’ (like a cherry one position from the jackpot line), and a roulette game involving red or black predictions, to elicit the gambler’s fallacy. For the control groups, they also had patients with injuries to other parts of the brain as well as healthy participants undergo the gambling tasks.
All of the groups with the exception of the patients with insula damage reported a heightened motivation to play following near-misses in the slot machine game, and also fell prey to the gambler’s fallacy in the roulette game.
Clark added: “Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in problem gamblers, making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking. Future treatments for gambling addiction could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies.”
Gambling is a widespread activity: 73% of people in the UK report some gambling involvement in the past year* and around 50% play games other than the National Lottery. For a small proportion of players (around 1-5%), their gambling becomes excessive, resulting in features seen in addiction. Problem gambling is associated with both debt and family difficulties as well as other mental health problems like depression.
New research reveals that brain damage affecting the insula – an area with a key role in emotions – disrupts errors of thinking linked to gambling addiction.
New study reveals scale of problem gambling among homeless population
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 02, 2014.
The study – one of the largest surveys of gambling and homelessness ever undertaken in the UK – provides new insight into a rarely studied problem and suggests homeless services should offer clients more support to identify and tackle problem gambling.
Although homelessness and problem gambling are two public health concerns, they are rarely considered together. This new study – published in the Journal of Gambling Studies – interviewed 450 people at homeless hostels and shelters in the London Borough of Westminster.
According to lead author Steve Sharman from the Department of Psychology: “Many issues face the homeless population, including drug and alcohol use. In terms of addiction research, most focus has been on drugs, alcohol and smoking, but the gambling field is relatively small in comparison. And while it is possible to spot physiological indicators of drug and alcohol addiction, problem gambling is much harder to identify.”
Finding out more about gambling addiction is important at a time when gambling opportunities are wider than ever. “Gambling has exploded in popularity over the past 20 years, partly due to changes in legislation but also because of new technology,” said Sharman.
“Where previous generations were limited to betting shops and football pools, today there’s everything from online slots to in-play betting. That means people can gamble 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the more people who gamble, the more people there will be who do so problematically.”
Together with researchers at Kings College London, the National Problem Gambling Clinic, The Connection @ St Martins and other centres in Westminster, Sharman spoke to over 450 homeless people in London.
He assessed levels of problem gambling using a standard clinical diagnostic tool called the Problem Gambling Severity Index. He then compared the results with data from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey.
Compared with the UK population as a whole, where problem gambling affects 0.7% of people, the level of problem gambling among homeless people was 11.6%. “We found that the rate of problem or pathological gambling is significantly higher in the homeless population than the general population,” he said.
In identifying the significant scale of the problem, the study could pave the way to developing new services for the homeless.
“The results are useful because some homeless services don’t ask about gambling in their initial assessments. By showing that this population is vulnerable to gambling addiction, the study should encourage homeless services to include questions about gambling in their assessments. If they can understand the full range of behavioural problems their clients face – not only substance abuse – then they will be able to provide more comprehensive services,” said Sharman.
The next stage of the project will be to unpick the direction of the link between gambling and homelessness – whether gambling is a cause or consequence of homelessness – the links between gambling and alcohol and drug use, and look at so-called negative life events.
“By giving us an indication of life events that precede homelessness and came afterwards, we will get a better understanding of the causes, and whether people start gambling after becoming homeless or became homeless as a result of gambling,” he said.
“Regardless of whether gambling is a cause or a consequence, recognising and addressing this problem will hopefully give affected individuals a better chance of getting off – and more importantly staying off – the streets.”
Homeless people are ten times more likely to be problem gamblers than the UK population as a whole, researchers at Cambridge have found.
Male Eurasian jays know that their female partners’ desires can differ from their own
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 26, 2014.
Knowing what another person wants is not a trivial issue, particularly when the other’s desires are different from our own. The ability to disengage from our own desire to cater to someone else’s wishes is thought to be a unique feature of human cognition.
New research challenges this assumption. Despite wanting something different to eat, male Eurasian jays can disengage from their own current desire in order to feed the female what she wants even when her desires are different to his. The study, which was funded by the BBSRC, is published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
“We found that males could respond to the female’s desire even when their own desire was conflicting. That said, the males were also partially biased by what they wanted – a bias similar to one commonly found in human children and adults,” said Dr Ljerka Ostojić, who led the University of Cambridge study.
For the study, nine male-female pairs of Eurasian jays (a member of the Corvid family) from two colonies were tested during the breeding season – the only time when jays share food. To manipulate what food the males and the females desired, the researchers used a phenomenon termed ‘specific satiety’ – after eating a particular food item to satiety, jays prefer to eat a novel food item that they are not currently sated on.
Once a day the females and males were placed in adjacent compartments with a mesh window in between. The male was then pre-fed either wax moth larvae or mealworm beetle larvae – both favourite treats for jays - until he did not want more. At the same time, the female’s desire was manipulated by giving her the same food as the male (meaning that their desires were matching), a different food from the male (meaning that their desires were conflicting), or her usual diet (meaning that the female’s desire was neutral towards the two types of larvae).
During the pre-feeding, the male had visual access to the female and saw her eat. At the end of pre-feeding, all food was removed. The males were then given 20 choices between a single wax moth larva and a mealworm beetle larva which they could either eat, cache (hide for later) or give to the female.
Not surprisingly, when the male and female birds’ preferences were the same, the male fed the female the food desired by both. However, when the female’s desire differed from the male’s, then he took his partner’s wishes into account, often feeding her the food that she desired. This ability to ascribe to another individual an internal life like one’s own and at the same time understand that the other’s internal, psychological states might differ from one’s own is called state-attribution.
Professor Nicky Clayton, whose Comparative Cognition lab at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology conducted the study, said: “As humans, we ‘put ourselves into someone else’s shoes’ in order to respond to what the other person wants. Although we are biased by our own current desires, we can inhibit these to put the wants and desires of another before our own. The current findings show that the jays can also do this. So what this research suggests is that a common mechanism might underlie ‘desire-state attribution’ in humans and jays.”
New research shows that male jays are able to disengage from their own current desires to feed their female partner food that she wants.
Out of mind, out of sight: suppressing unwanted memories reduces their unconscious influence on behaviour
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 18, 2014.
The study, part-funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and published online in PNAS, challenges the idea that suppressed memories remain fully preserved in the brain’s unconscious, allowing them to be inadvertently expressed in someone’s behaviour. The results of the study suggest instead that the act of suppressing intrusive memories helps to disrupt traces of the memories in the parts of the brain responsible for sensory processing.
The team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge’s Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) have examined how suppression affects a memory’s unconscious influences in an experiment that focused on suppression of visual memories, as intrusive unwanted memories are often visual in nature.
After a trauma, most people report intrusive memories or images, and people will often try to push these intrusions from their mind, as a way to cope. Importantly, the frequency of intrusive memories decreases over time for most people. It is critical to understand how the healthy brain reduces these intrusions and prevents unwanted images from entering consciousness, so that researchers can better understand how these mechanisms may go awry in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Participants were asked to learn a set of word-picture pairs so that, when presented with the word as a reminder, an image of the object would spring to mind. After learning these pairs, brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participants either thought of the object image when given its reminder word, or instead tried to stop the memory of the picture from entering their mind.
The researchers studied whether suppressing visual memories had altered people’s ability to see the content of those memories when they re-encountered it again in their visual worlds. Without asking participants to consciously remember, they simply asked people to identify very briefly displayed objects that were made difficult to see by visual distortion. In general, under these conditions, people are better at identifying objects they have seen recently, even if they do not remember seeing the object before—an unconscious influence of memory. Strikingly, they found that suppressing visual memories made it harder for people to later see the suppressed object compared to other recently seen objects.
Brain imaging showed that people’s difficulty seeing the suppressed object arose because suppressing the memory from conscious awareness in the earlier memory suppression phase had inhibited activity in visual areas of the brain, disrupting visual memories that usually help people to see better. In essence, suppressing something from the mind’s eye had made it harder to see in the world, because visual memories and seeing rely on the same brain areas: out of mind, out of sight.
Over the last decade, research has shown that suppressing unwanted memories reduces people’s ability to consciously remember the experiences. The researchers’ studies on memory suppression have been inspired, in part, by trying to understand how people adapt memory after psychological trauma. Although this may work as a coping mechanism to help people adapt to the trauma, there is the possibility that if the memory traces were able to exert an influence on unconscious behaviour, they could potentially exacerbate mental health problems. The idea that suppression leaves unconscious memories that undermine mental health has been influential for over a century, beginning with Sigmund Freud.
These findings challenge the assumption that, even when supressed, a memory remains fully intact, which can then be expressed unconsciously. Moreover, this discovery pinpoints the neurobiological mechanisms underlying how this suppression process happens, and could inform further research on uncontrolled ‘intrusive memories’, a classic characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr Michael Anderson, at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit said: “While there has been a lot of research looking at how suppression affects conscious memory, few studies have examined the influence this process might have on unconscious expressions of memory in behaviour and thought. Surprisingly, the effects of suppression are not limited to conscious memory. Indeed, it is now clear, that the influence of suppression extends beyond areas of the brain associated with conscious memory, affecting perceptual traces that can influence us unconsciously. This may contribute to making unwanted visual memories less intrusive over time, and perhaps less vivid and detailed.”
Dr Pierre Gagnepain, lead author at INSERM in France said: “Our memories can be slippery and hard to pin down. Out of hand and uncontrolled, their remembrance can haunt us and cause psychological troubles, as we see in PTSD. We were interested whether the brain can genuinely suppress memories in healthy participants, even at the most unconscious level, and how it might achieve this. The answer is that it can, though not all people were equally good at this. The better understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying this process arising from this study may help to better explain differences in how well people adapt to intrusive memories after a trauma”
New research shows that, contrary to what was previously assumed, suppressing unwanted memories reduces their influence on behaviour, and sheds light on how this process happens in the brain.
Research in Japan suggests that a ‘relationship-based’ police interviewing style gets the best results
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 15, 2014.
In 1995 members of a religious cult called Aum Shinirikyo carried out a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed two station staff and injured several hundred people. One of those questioned by the police as a member of the cult was Dr Hayashi Ikuo. During interviews, Ikuo made a voluntary decision to confess his involvement in the attack. He was later sentenced to indefinite imprisonment.
In an autobiography written in prison, Ikuo described his feelings about his interrogation by police before standing trial: “At that time, I felt reassured by the fact that I had someone who would understand my true intentions without prejudice. I thought I could trust Mr I and Mr F [police interrogators]. I made up my mind to tell them everything I knew.”
Prize-winning research undertaken in Japan by Dr Taeko Wachi, while a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, suggests that a ‘relationship-based’ interviewing style in which interrogators listen closely and attempt to form good relationships with suspects is more likely to elicit true confessions than other styles.
Dr Wachi’s research comprised three studies of attitudes to, and experiences of, police interviewing in Japan. The first study explored information on interrogation techniques gathered from almost 280 police officers. The analysis of questionnaires led to the identification of four interview styles: evidence-focused, confrontational, undifferentiated and relationship-focused.
The second study was a ‘crime experiment’ in which more than 230 members of the public took part. It was designed to reveal which of the interviewing techniques identified in the first study were most likely to elicit true confessions and prevent false confessions. Overall, 74 out of 114 ‘guilty’ participants confessed to their notional ‘crime’ but none of the ‘innocent’ participants made false confessions. Relationship-focused interviewing was most likely to elicit a confession.
The third study examined questionnaires from more than 290 offenders in 36 prisons. All of them had been convicted of serious crimes including murder, rape and kidnapping. This third study – which was administered by means of a questionnaire – was the first of its kind in Japan and thus broke new ground in terms of identifying which interviewing styles led offenders to confess.
Again, relationship-focused interviewing was particularly effective in eliciting confessions from suspects who had not decided, before interrogation, whether or not to confess their crimes or had decided to deny the allegations against them.
The research suggested that the relationship-based interviewing style has a positive effect on both police officers’ and suspects’ feelings after interrogation. Those offenders who confessed to crimes during a relationship-based interview did so as the result of internal pressures, such as “I confessed because I felt guilty about the crime”, rather than external pressures, such as “I confessed because of police pressure during the interview”.
In view of the lack of in-depth research into investigative interviewing techniques in Japan, Dr Wachi’s work makes a significant contribution to understanding the wide number of factors that affect this complex process. It should be noted, however, that most participants in the study were male.
As Dr Wachi points out, there are significant differences, as well as similarities, between the structure of criminal processes in Japan and those in Western Europe and the USA. In Japan the law allows for suspects to be held for 23 days before initiating prosecution: this maximum detention period contrasts with 24 hours (generally) in the UK, 48 hours in Hong Kong and just four hours in Australia.
It has thus been argued that interrogations play a much more important role in Japanese criminal investigations than in other countries. In recent years, several high-profile false confessions have drawn attention to the possible impact of interviewing techniques on suspects’ feelings and decisions about confessions and denials. Training of police officers in interviewing is being stepped up.
Interestingly, the Japanese public (in addition to crime victims and their families) exhibits a strong desire for offenders to talk about their criminal motives and explain their criminal acts. Interrogation meets this public interest by helping offenders to give accounts of their cases in detail.
Last month it was announced that Dr Wachi had won first place in the 2013 American Psychology-Law Society Dissertation Awards. As part of her prize she is invited to attend, and present a poster at, the AP-LS Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana in March, 2014. The AP-LS committee reviewers described her dissertation as “highly original… because of the breadth of interrogation factors it addresses”.
An impressive aspect of the research was Dr Wachi’s design and implementation of a crime experiment which was tested on a range of people recruited from the general public, widely varying in age and from a diversity of backgrounds. In contrast, previous crime experiments have used university students who tend to be from a narrow age range and educational level.
At Cambridge, Dr Wachi’s research was supervised by Professor Michael Lamb of the Department of Psychology. He said: “I was delighted to hear that Taeko had won this award. Her persuasive study was comprehensive and very significant, especially because we are increasingly aware of the risks that false confessions may lead to the conviction and incarceration of innocent people. Taeko’s findings add to the growing body of evidence that more humane rather than coercive interviewing practices are likely to elicit confessions from guilty individuals, a pattern evident in Western countries, too.”
Dr Wachi has been working for the National Research Institute of Police Science (attached to the National Police Agency, Japan) since 2005. She was able to study for a PhD at Cambridge thanks to a scholarship from the Japanese Government Long-Term Overseas Fellowship Program.
Her background gave her the advantage of an in-depth understanding of, and close working relationship with, the National Police Agency, Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office and Ministry of Justice, which enabled her to conduct the studies of police officers and prisoners.
Dr Wachi is currently conducting research into interrogations of those with learning disabilities as well as on public opinions about interviewing techniques. She intends to continue her research into criminal investigation on behalf of the National Police Agency by providing scientific findings about interrogations of various types of suspects.
For more information about this story contact Alexandra Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, firstname.lastname@example.org, 01223 761673
Award-winning research into police interviewing techniques in Japan reveals that a ‘relationship-based’ style may be particularly effective in eliciting true confessions. The research included the first ever study of Japanese offenders’ views about police interrogation.
The eyes have it
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 05, 2014.
While what humans do with their eyes has been well studied, we know almost nothing about whether birds communicate with members of the same species with their eyes.
The new study, published today in Biology Letters, shows that jackdaw eyes are used as a warning signal to successfully deter competitors from coming near their nest boxes.
Gabrielle Davidson of the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: “Jackdaw eyes are very unusual. Unlike their close relatives, the rooks and crows – which have very dark eyes – jackdaw eyes are almost white and their striking pale irises are very conspicuous against their dark feathers.”
While most birds have black or dark brown eyes, bright eyes are not unknown in the avian world, and around 10% of passerines (perching birds) have coloured irises. The question Davidson wanted to answer was do jackdaws use their bright eyes to communicate with fellow jackdaws?
Just before the spring breeding season arrived last year, Davidson installed one of four different pictures in 100 jackdaw nest boxes on the outskirts of Cambridge. The pictures were either black (the control), a pair of jackdaw eyes, a pair of jackdaw eyes in a jackdaw’s face, or a jackdaw’s face with a pair of black rook eyes. She then filmed the effect the different pictures had on the birds’ behaviour.
“Jackdaws are unique among the crow family in that they nest in cavities in trees. These hollows are natural – the birds cannot excavate their own nest cavities as some woodpeckers do – so they have to compete for a limited resource. And because jackdaws nest in close proximity to each other, they fight a lot to gain the best nesting sites,” she explained. Often what initiates these fights are jackdaws approaching nest boxes that are not their own.
After analysing 40 videos of jackdaws peeking into each other’s nest boxes, she found that compared with the other nest boxes, those that contained the picture of a jackdaw with its bright eyes was much more likely to deter the birds from landing on it, and that the birds spent less time near such a nest box.
Davidson’s study is the first to show the eyes being used as a means of communication between members of the same species outside primates.
“Before now we knew very little about why some birds have brightly coloured eyes. In jackdaws, the pale eyes may function to improve their ability to defend their nest and chicks from competitors. It also raises the question of whether this is unique to jackdaws, or if other cavity nesting birds also use their eyes in a similar way,” she added.
The field research took place at the Cambridge Jackdaw Project, which was established by Dr Alex Thornton of the University of Exeter.
To see the research in action, view video below:
Researchers in Cambridge and Exeter have discovered that jackdaws use their eyes to communicate with each other – the first time this has been shown in non-primates.
Feeling powerless increases the weight of the world… literally
By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 04, 2014.
Scientists have found that people who feel powerless actually see the world differently, and find a task to be more physically challenging than those with a greater sense of personal and social power.
Eun Hee Lee - a researcher working with Dr Simone Schnall at Cambridge’s Department of Psychology - carried out a series of tests in which volunteers were surreptitiously surveyed about their own social power, then asked to lift boxes of varying weights and guess how heavy they were. Those who felt powerless consistently perceived the weight of the boxes as much heavier than those who felt more powerful.
The study is the first demonstration that power – a ‘psychosocial’ construct relating to the control of resources – changes peoples’ perception of objects; that how you feel about your social standing in a situation can influence how you see the physical environment.
The researchers say this overestimation of weight may be an adaptive strategy when faced with a lack of resources: when in a position of powerlessness, it would be ‘advantageous’ to have an overly cautious approach to the world in order to preserve your existing limited resources.
Experiencing perceptual attributes of the world – such as the weight of objects - in an “exaggerated fashion” when feeling powerless might be symptomatic of this instinctive resource conservation.
The study is published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“Although many psychological studies have been conducted on power not much was known about how power influences actual perceptual experiences in everyday life,” said lead researcher Eun Hee Lee.
“This research demonstrates that people’s social role, as indicated by a sense of social power, or a lack thereof, can change the way they see the physical environment.”
To measure a person’s sense of their own social power, Lee and Schnall conducted three separate studies – all disguised by cover stories so that participants were unaware of what was being tested.
In the first, 145 participants were asked to rank how strongly they felt a series of statements applied to them – such as “I can get people to listen to what I say” – to measure beliefs about their power in social relationships. They were then tasked with lifting a number of boxes and guessing the weight, before taking a final test to gauge their mood. Researchers found that the lower a person’s feelings of social power, the more they thought the boxes weighed.
In the second test, the researchers manipulated the sense of power by asking 41 participants to sit in either an expansive, domineering position – with one elbow on the arm of their chair and the other on the desk next to them – or a more constricting one, with hands tucked under thighs and shoulders dropped.
Prior to manipulation, most participants overestimated the weight; after manipulation, those who sat in the more powerful pose gave more accurate estimates, while those in the submissive condition continued to imagine heavier weight.
In the final test, 68 participants were asked to recall an experience in which they had felt either powerful or powerless, and then repeatedly estimate the weights of various boxes - under the guise of studying the effect of exercise on autobiographical memory. Those who focused on the powerful incident became more accurate at guessing the weight, while those recalling a powerless situation continually overestimated the heaviness of the boxes.
While previous research has shown that various physical and emotional states can influence perception of the environment – such as perceiving a hill slant to be steeper when wearing a heavy backpack, or threatening objects, such as a tarantula, appearing to be further from your face when feeling good about yourself – this is the first study to show that a sense of power can now be added to that list.
Giulio Andreotti, the former Italian Prime Minister who was nicknamed ‘Il Divo’ after the epithet for Julius Caesar, famously once said that “power tires only those who do not have it”. Lee and Schnall write that this comment is “no longer an unsubstantiated conjecture”, and that their data suggests the world of the powerless “is indeed full of heavy burdens”.
Added Lee: “Power plays a role when it is present in a given moment, but also when it comes to people’s personality. We find that personality, which determines how people interact with the social world, also shapes how people interact with the physical world.”
New research shows that the more personally and socially powerless you feel the heavier objects appear to weigh.