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Opinion: Musical genres are out of date – but this new system explains why you might like both jazz and hip hop

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 05, 2016.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time in history when genre labels were used to classify music, but the fact is that over the past century, and certainly still today, genre labels dominate. Whether organising your iTunes library, receiving music recommendations from apps like Spotify, or buying CDs at a record store, genre is the first way in which we navigate the music we like.

However, technological advances have now put millions of songs at our fingertips through mobile devices. Not only do we have access to more music than ever before, but more music is being produced. Places like SoundCloud have made it possible for anyone to record and publish music for others to hear. With this increased diversity in music that we are exposed to, the lines separating genres have become even more blurred than they were previously.

Genre labels are problematic for several reasons. First, they are broad umbrella terms that are used to describe music that vary greatly in their characteristics. If a person says they are a fan of “rock” music, there is no way of knowing whether they are referring to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, or Jimi Hendrix — but all three vary greatly in style. Or if a person tells you that they are a fan of pop music, how do you know if they are referring to Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber?

Genre labels are also often socially driven with little to do with the actual characteristics of the music. They are labels stamped onto artists and albums by record companies with the intent of targeting a particularly type of audience or age group.

Beyond genre

The fundamental problem is that genre labels often do not accurately describe artists and their music – they simply do not do them justice. A more accurate way to label music would be based solely on their actual musical characteristics (or attributes). Such a labelling system would also likely better account for diversity in a person’s music taste.

Recently, my team of music psychologists addressed this problem by developing a scientific way to create a basic classification system of music that is based on its attributes and not social connotations. The team included expert in musical preferences, Jason Rentfrow (Cambridge), best-selling author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (McGill), big data scientists David Stillwell (Cambridge) and Michal Kosinski (Stanford), and music researcher Brian Monteiro. Our research was published this month.

We had more than 100 musical excerpts spanning over 20 genres and subgenres rated on 38 different musical attributes. We then applied a statistical procedure to categorise these musical attributes and discovered that they clustered into three basic categories: “Arousal” (the energy level of the music); “Valence” (the spectrum from sad to happy emotions in the music); and “Depth” (the amount of sophistication and emotional depth in the music). The statistical procedure mapped each song on each these three basic categories. For example, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” is low on arousal (because of the slow tempo and soft vocals), low on valence (because of the expressed nostalgia and sadness), and high on depth (because of the emotional and sonic complexity expressed through the lyrics and sonic texture).

The songs listed represent each of the three musical attribute clusters. Tricia Seibold | Stanford Business |


Arousal, valence, depth

Will people start walking around wearing T-shirts that say “I love Depth in music”, or list themselves as fans of positive valence on their Twitter profiles? I doubt it. But it might be useful if people began to use attributes to describe the music that they like (aggressive or soft; happy or nostalgic). People’s music libraries today are incredibly diverse, typically containing music from a variety of genres. My hypothesis is that if people like arousal in one musical genre, they are likely to like it in another.

Even though these basic three dimensions probably won’t become a part of culture, recommendation platforms, like Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and YouTube should find these dimensions useful when coding and trying to accurately recommend music for their users to listen to. Further, it is also useful for scientists, psychologists, and neuroscientists who are studying the effect of music and want an accurate method to measure it.

Our team next sought to see how preferences for these three dimensions were linked to the Big Five. Personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). Nearly 10,000 people indicated their preferences for 50 musical excerpts and completed a personality measure. People who scored high on “openness to experience” preferred depth in music, while extroverted excitement-seekers preferred high arousal in music. Those who were relatively neurotic preferred negative emotions in music, while those who were self-assured preferred positive emotions in music.


So, just as the old Kern and Hammerstein song suggests, “The Song is You”. That is, the musical attributes that you like most reflect your personality. It also provides scientific support for what Joni Mitchell said in a 2013 interview with CBC:

The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.


Find out how you score on the music and personality quizzes at

David M. Greenberg, Music psychologist, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

The Conversation

David Greenberg (Department of Psychology) discusses the problems of labeling music by genre.

CD Album Covers Wallpaper

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Peter Pan and Wendy: how J M Barrie understood and demonstrated key aspects of cognition

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 03, 2016.

In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, J M Barrie describes a moment when a young girl, seeking to comfort a tearful Peter, gives him her handkerchief. But he doesn’t know what to do with it. Barrie writes: “… so she showed him, that is to say she wiped her eyes, and then gave it back to him, saying ‘Now you do it,’ but instead of wiping his own eyes he wiped hers, and she thought it would be best to pretend that this is what she had meant”.

With this touching little scene, J M Barrie neatly demonstrates that he had observed, and understood, something that psychologists call intentionality – a feature of ‘theory of mind’. The ability to understand that one’s own knowledge, beliefs and feelings might not be the same as someone else’s is one of the keys to understanding the complexity of human relationships – and is something that most children learn at the age of three or four.

In illustrating this fundamental stage of child development through the interaction of two children, one with a solid grasp of other minds and the other without, Barrie was remarkably prescient. The Peter Pan books were written at the turn of the 20th century and the term ‘theory of mind’ was not used until the late 1970s. In 1985 psychologists showed that failure to employ theory of mind is an important symptom of autism, its related condition Asperger’s Syndrome and various other psychiatric conditions.

In Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness, neuroscientist Dr Rosalind Ridley unpacks the magic and oddity of the tales that have captivated audiences for generations. In doing so through the lens of her own expertise, she reveals that Barrie had an almost uncanny grasp of human cognitive development four to eight decades before psychologists began to work on similar questions about the way we develop thinking and reasoning skills.  

Ridley has a distinguished career in neuroscience research with the University of Cambridge and Medical Research Council. Her work has focused on the brain mechanisms underlying cognitive processes such as learning, memory and problem solving. Since childhood Ridley has been an avid reader of literature and poetry – and a collector of books.

Rereading Barrie’s books for children she began to realise the extent to which Barrie had grasped many of the topics that she has spent her working life researching in order to come up with new treatments for dementia and to gain a better understanding of neurological conditions such as stroke which cause cognitive impairments.

Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie is the first book of its kind to explore fully how Barrie delved into the complexity of the developing human mind in his writing. Published at a time when cognitive psychology was in its infancy, the Peter Pan books were immediate hits and continue to inspire pantomimes complete with pirates, princesses and perambulators.

Ridley argues that Barrie’s enduring appeal (along with that of other authors for children, including Lewis Carroll) lies in his study of the unconscious mind – and its many quirks and foibles. Barrie referred to his nonsensical ideas (a boy who flies, a dog who becomes a children’s nanny, a crocodile who has swallowed a clock) as whimsicalities.  These whimsicalities, proposes Ridley, are the means by which Barrie explores the nature of cognition – and that his purpose was to expiate the pain of his own childhood.  

She writes: “It is Barrie’s deliberate use of cognitive mistakes and confusions in order to both amuse and illuminate the way we think that suggests that he was being intentionally analytical rather than descriptive. The weirdness of some of Barrie’s illogical stories suggests that he is tapping into something important in cognition.”

In a wealth of detail, and through close textual analysis, Ridley shows how Barrie created a narrative that works on several levels: as a coming-of-age story, as the myth of a golden age, as a fantasy to delight child and adult readers. Most importantly, asserts Ridley, Barrie invented Peter Pan to “make some sense of his own emotional difficulties, to investigate the interplay between the world of facts and the world of imagination, and to re-discover the heightened experiences of infancy”.

In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens Barrie describes for readers how the story comes from an inner dialogue with the fictional boy David during walks together in the park. “First I tell it to him, and then he tells it to me, the understanding being that it is quite a different story; and then I retell it with his additions, and so we go on until no one could say whether it is more his story or mine.”

Peter Pan is the boy who doesn’t quite fit in, a ‘betwixt-and-between’ who can fly and, most famously, never ages and never becomes adult. There is, suggests Ridley, a bit of Peter in all of us: “the child who lives in the heart of the adult; memories that we carry with us throughout our life but do not themselves age; dreams that disobey logic; the private world inside our head and those moments of exceptional experience that we rarely talk about”.

Barrie was fascinated by children – they were his preferred companions throughout his adulthood – and he, just like Peter Pan, was in many ways a boy “who could never grow up”. Ridley suggests that the Peter Pan books can be read as an escape from adulthood into a fantastical childhood, where anything can happen, but also as a plea for greater understanding of the mental and emotional needs of children.

A broad university education equipped Barrie to think across disciplines, and in fashionable London he was exposed to the ideas of leading thinkers, including Thomas Huxley, H G Wells and Henry James. The belief that God made the world in seven days had been newly overturned by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution which showed that humans were animals.

Barrie saw children not as miniature adults waiting for their minds to be filled with facts, or small savages needing to be disciplined (as Baden-Powell who founded the Boy Scouts had done), but as developing beings who required nurture and encouragement in order to become sensitive adults. Ridley notes, interestingly, that Barrie believed education was often damaging.

Ostensibly, Barrie wrote the Peter Pan books to entertain five boys whom he met in Kensington Gardens in central London. The nature of his relationship with them (their parents died and he became their guardian) is likely to remain a vexed question.  Despite the almost purple prose in which Barrie described the overnight visit of an imaginary child, Ridley is impressed by the view of the youngest of the boys themselves, who said that Barrie was “an innocent, which is why he could write Peter Pan”.  

Ridley, like most other scholars, sees Barrie’s tragic childhood as pivotal to his creativity. His older brother died in a skating accident and remained more alive in their mother’s thoughts than her surviving son. Ridley writes: “He learnt from his mother’s pre-occupation with his dead brother that things that do not exist physically can be more important in people’s minds than things that do exist.” Barrie’s mother was present but lost to him – and a search for a mother is a strong theme in his books.

Barrie married but was childless (it’s thought that he may never have had sex with his wife). He was painfully aware of his diminutive stature, writing in a letter: “Six foot three inches … if I had really grown to this it would have made a great difference in my life”.  He struggled with sleep problems and described many of the states of consciousness and unconsciousness later identified by psychologists as parasomnias.

An important role of sleep is to consolidate and rationalise memory. Barrie expresses this charmingly in Peter and Wendy: “It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking in their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day… It is quite like tidying drawers … When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”

Ridley describes Barrie as “a naturalist of the mind”. Woven into his stories are dozens of details about human behaviour – from contagious yawning (Wendy’s “light blinked and gave such a yawn that the other two yawned also”) to mental constructs such as time travel (an aspect of memory and recollection) and the power of opposites (“It was her silence that they heard”). They reveal Barrie to be an acute observer of animals and people in a period when the theory of evolution was still hotly contested.

Barrie may have been extraordinarily forward-thinking but he was also a man of his time. Although he champions girls in some respects (“Wendy, one girl is of more use than twenty boys”), his attitude was frequently misogynistic: in creating his female characters he conflates femininity with domesticity. The original Wendy house, that potent symbol of gendered play, is built around Wendy by the fairies who seek to protect her from the cold of the night.

Ridley concludes that Barrie was more than anything interested in “the nature of consciousness and those rare moments of sublime consciousness and sublime imagination that we all experience” – the happiness that so often eluded him.  She ends her voyage into JM Barrie’s mind with a quote from his protégé, A A Milne, creator of Winne the Pooh. In his autobiography, It’s Too Late Now, Milne wrote: “Childhood is not the happiest time of one’s life; but only to a child is pure happiness possible.”

Peter Pan and the Mind of J M Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness by Rosalind Ridley is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

In a fascinating study of J M Barrie’s classic works for children, Dr Rosalind Ridley (Newnham College) reveals that the creator of Peter Pan, and a panoply of other characters, had a deep understanding of the science of cognition – and was decades ahead of his time in identifying key stages of child development.

... the child who lives in the heart of the adult; memories that we carry with us throughout our life but do not themselves age; dreams that disobey logic; the private world inside our head and those moments of exceptional experience that we rarely talk about.
Rosalind Ridley (writing about Peter Pan)
'Away he flew, right over the houses to the Gardens': illustration by Arthur Rackham for 'Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens'

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Gender Development Research Centre

By from News. Published on Jul 07, 2016.

Opinion: How to start healing those Brexit family rifts

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 01, 2016.

It has been an emotional month for many in the UK. After the sadness and anger that followed the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox, many people now feel fearful and apprehensive as the consequences of the EU referendum begin to reveal themselves.

It has also been a divisive time, and the number of racist incidents reported to the police has risen in the days since the vote. Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with an outpouring of anger, shock and shame from those who voted Remain, and celebration and pride from those who voted Leave.

These feelings of anger, fear and division may well be resonating in our families. Polling data suggests that while messages of internationalism and inclusiveness struck a chord with young voters, their mothers, fathers and grandparents may have been swayed by the Leave campaign’s pledge to “take back control”.

A difference in values can be a major stumbling block for family relationships. In my own recent research in collaboration with the charity Stand Alone, a clash in personality or values was cited as a common cause of relationship breakdown between parents and their adult children, as well as relationships between siblings.

A number of different factors and experiences typically contribute to family rifts. But a difference in values may be particularly significant. In a US study of mothers estranged from adult sons and daughters, the estrangement was more likely to be attributed to a difference in values rather than their child’s engagement in socially unacceptable behaviour – such as engaging in criminal activity or substance abuse.

Seven steps to help healing

Division between “leavers” and “remainers” is already having significant impact on some families. So what practical steps can people take to help heal rifts that may have been caused or exacerbated by the EU referendum?

The following is not a recipe for achieving the “perfect” post-Brexit family, but rather is a list of suggestions, informed by research on family relationship breakdown and well-being, that might be helpful.

  1. Improve communication skills There is a vast literature on how to develop and learn effective communication skills, which could be helpful to explore if you are looking to enhance your abilities or try to begin to change deeply ingrained family patterns.

  2. Take a break from social media Some people who are struggling with their family relationships take breaks from social media during particularly challenging times such as the holiday season. Stepping back from emotional Facebook or WhatsApp feeds or the intense coverage of Brexit on the 24-hour news cycle might likewise provide some relief.

  3. Positive engagement and action Volunteering and being part of a cause can be beneficial for our mental health and sense of well-being. Being actively engaged in making the changes you want to see in the world, whether they are Brexit-related or not, may be a positive way to funnel feelings of frustration and dismay.

  4. Acknowledge stigma Those who are experiencing family relationship breakdown often describe it as a silent issue that they cannot discuss openly for fear of being judged and blamed. Feelings of shame have been identified as having the potential to lead to feelings of disconnection and isolation. So it may be helpful to recognise that family relationships are often difficult and experiencing conflict and strain are common.

  5. Appreciate that you are not alone If you fear your family relationships may break down, or if they are beginning to do so, it may be helpful to know that you are not alone in this experience. It has been estimated that one in five UK families will be touched by family estrangement and its consequences.

  6. Nothing is permanent Just as the political reality of Brexit is changing daily, our relationships with our family members shift and change. Estrangements are rarely static and cycling in and out of estrangement is common. If you are struggling in your family relationships right now, it does not necessarily mean that you will feel the same way in 12 months’ time.

  7. Seek support Those who are estranged typically wish that their relationships with their family members was more loving, kind and accepting. If your family members do not meet our needs or expectations, it might be helpful to seek emotional and practical support from friends, colleagues or professionals who are able and willing to listen to your experiences and perspectives, and offer reassurance and understanding.

Jo Cox’s compassion has been praised by her family, friends, colleagues, community, and politicians and leaders around the world. It may be challenging to extend tolerance and compassion to “Brexiters” and “Remainers” alike when discussing the EU referendum and its consequences, but as Jo reminded us in her maiden speech in parliament: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.

The Conversation

Lucy Blake, Research Associate at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

A difference in values can be a major stumbling block for family relationships, writes Dr Lucy Blake from the Centre for Family Research for The Conversation website, and these may have been exacerbated in the recent Brexit debate. So what practical steps can people take to help heal rifts?

In the huff (cropped and manipulated)

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University of Cambridge Postgraduate Open Day 2016

By from News. Published on Jul 01, 2016.

Professorship of Experimental Psychology

By from News. Published on Jun 20, 2016.

How to build a healthier city

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 13, 2016.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” said Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. For Johnson, the rich tapestry of London life and the myriad cultural assets clearly outweighed any downsides of city dwelling.

For others, though, city life is a grind. Public transport is overcrowded, house prices are soaring, traffic is at gridlock and diesel fumes hang almost perceptibly in the air. Little surprise, then, that people do become tired of London, even if not of life itself.

Even if issues such as air pollution are taken out of the equation, living in a city can be bad for your health, which is not good news considering that the World Health Organization estimates that by 2017 the majority of people will be living in urban areas.

A study published in 2014 by Dr Manjinder Sandhu from the Department of Medicine suggested that increasing urbanisation of rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa might lead to an explosion of the incidence of stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Yes, moving to towns and cities provides better access to education, electricity and hospitals, but town and city dwellers become less active, their work becomes less physical and their diets worsen.

“If this pattern is repeated across the globe – which we think it will – then we could face an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other potentially preventable diseases,” says Sandhu. “Local and national governments need to take this into consideration when planning infrastructure to try and mitigate such negative effects.”

As far as ‘healthy’ cities go, Cambridge has a lot going for it. Its population has higher than average levels of education and is physically active: Cambridge has been nicknamed ‘the cycling capital of Britain’ – the sight of bicycles leaning against walls is as iconic as that of punts passing under the Bridge of Sighs. But as the city expands and house prices rocket, more and more people are living in neighbouring villages and towns, where cycling to work along winding, congested country lanes can be less appealing than driving.

In 2011, the world’s longest guided busway opened, connecting Cambridge with nearby Huntingdon and St Ives along a former railway line. An integral part of the busway was a cycle path along its route – and this appears to have helped nudge people in the right direction. A study led by Dr David Ogilvie from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit found that, among people who commuted into Cambridge from within a 30 km radius, those who lived closer to the busway were more likely to increase the amount of ‘active’ commuting they did, particularly cycling.

“Commuting is a part of everyday life where people could include a bit more physical activity without having to think about it very much or make time for it,” says Ogilvie. “When new infrastructure integrates opportunities for walking and cycling, we see people shifting their commuting behaviour.”

Ogilvie’s research is, he says, “contributing bricks of evidence to a wall that’s slowly being assembled from across the world of the health benefits of investing into this kind of infrastructure.” While such benefits are often alluded to in business cases, until now the evidence to support them has been limited.

There are ways to integrate more pedestrian-friendly environments in existing infrastructure, he says, citing examples such as those in the Netherlands – now being introduced in some areas of London – where traffic is slowed to walking pace and the divisions between pavement and road are deliberately blurred, cuing drivers to share the space.

With more thoughtful urban planning, Ogilvie says, it should be possible to design towns and cities as environments that promote not just physical activity, but improved health and wellbeing – “in short, a place where people want to live”.

“Sprawling cities with retail parks on the fringes are not conducive to doing your shopping on foot,” he says. “People are more likely to walk and cycle around their neighbourhood if it is safe, well connected and has good local amenities. And getting people out on the streets not only gets them active, it also increases social interactions and a sense that it’s safe to be on the streets.”

Dr Jamie Anderson from the Department of Architecture is also interested in the relationship between the built environment and our broader wellbeing. As part of his PhD project with Professor Koen Steemers (Architecture) and Professor Felicia Huppert (Department of Psychology), he did a study of another Cambridge initiative, the housing development known as Accordia.

Since the first residents moved into their homes in the mid-noughties, Accordia has won numerous prizes, including the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize, for its innovative mixing of private and public spaces. Yet surprisingly, says Anderson, no one had done a detailed study of the impact on its residents.

One of the interesting approaches taken by Accordia was to focus on communal spaces rather than private gardens: only one in five homes has its own garden. Given the stereotype of the British as a very private people, how did people respond? Did people spend time chatting outdoors with their neighbours, or did they shut themselves away and draw the curtains?

The results, explains Anderson, were mixed. While one middle-aged couple missed having their own garden and were now on a long waiting list for a local allotment, one mother described the communal gardens as “crucially important”: she had suffered from postnatal depression and, with her husband away at work all day, she told Anderson that she “wouldn’t have got through her depression” without the interactions that the adjacent communal areas provided.

“In terms of behaviours that we associate with physical health and positive mental health – so people interacting with each other, children out playing, for example – we found clear positive associations with Accordia’s outdoor neighbourhood spaces,” he adds, “but when we looked at people’s subjective wellbeing, it wasn’t as clear cut.”

With Accordia, Anderson was evaluating an already established development, but he now has a chance to influence a project at the planning stage. Part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s vision of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will see a £110 million culture venue in Manchester named The Factory after the eponymous record company behind such iconic bands as Joy Division and Happy Mondays.

Under a fellowship from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Anderson, in collaboration with engineering firm BuroHappold, is carrying out a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) of the proposed new site, looking at factors that might influence health and wellbeing, from the lighting in office spaces, through to educational opportunities for young people from deprived communities and the restaurants within the venue.

HIAs are currently voluntary, but are set to become mandatory for significant developments across the UK in 2017, and can help architects and designers improve their submissions for planning application. How effective they’ll be is unclear, warns Anderson. “You might have some really strong evidence, but the final decision is a blend of opinion from various stakeholders, so you could end up with a watered-down version of what’s needed.”

He remains optimistic, however: “We’re moving in the right direction. By building consideration of health and wellbeing into the planning process, it should raise the bar and hopefully we will see many more cycle lanes, more inviting and better options for active transport, and maybe fewer fast-food shops.”

“I don’t know what makes me stay / The city life just ain’t the same,” sang New Order, one of Factory Record’s best known signings, in 2001. Perhaps the work of Cambridge researchers will help make cities attractive – and healthy – places to stay.

Life in towns and cities can grind you down, but putting health and wellbeing at the centre of new housing and infrastructure developments could make for happier, healthier citizens.

When new infrastructure integrates opportunities for walking and cycling, we see people shifting their commuting behaviour
David Ogilvie

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What birds' attitudes to litter tell us about their ability to adapt

By mjg209 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 31, 2016.

The study led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Alison Greggor and published in the journal Animal Behaviour, shows that corvids - the family of birds which includes crows, ravens and magpies - are more likely to show fear in relation to unfamiliar objects than other birds. However, if they and other bird species have previously encountered similar objects they are able to overcome some of their fear.

The researchers measured levels of fear of new objects in birds across urban and rural habitats, comparing corvids, a family known for being behaviourally flexible and innovative, with other bird species found in urban areas. The birds' hesitancy to approach food when different types of objects were nearby was compared to their behaviour when food was presented alone.

The researchers found corvids were more afraid of objects than other birds. However, birds were less fearful if the objects involved were similar to something they may have encountered before, for instance, urban birds were less hesitant in approaching litter.

Alison Greggor, who is doing a PhD in Psychology at the University of Cambridge, said: "From a broad perspective this work aims to help us understand how animals adapt to human-dominated landscapes. We found that although species differ in their overall levels of fear towards new things, populations of all species in urban areas showed lesser fear towards objects that looked like rubbish, but did not show reductions in fear towards all types of novelty. Therefore,  they may actually be learning which specific parts of urban habitats are safe and which are dangerous. In future, others might be able to use this information to predict what types of things animals need to learn to be able to survive in urban areas. Such predictions may help us understand why some species are unable to adjust to urban areas."

Greggor, AL et al. Street smart: faster approach towards litter in urban areas by highly neophobic corvids and less fearful birds. Animal Behaviour; 30 May 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2016.03.029

Urban birds are less afraid of litter than their country cousins, according to a new study, which suggests they may learn that litter in cities is not dangerous. The research could help birds to adapt to urban settings better, helping them to survive increasing human encroachment on their habitats.

[The birds] may actually be learning which specific parts of urban habitats are safe and which are dangerous
Alison Greggor
Crows in Kingston

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Ageing affects test-taking, not language, study shows

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 12, 2016.

Scientists from the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) scanned participants during testing and found that the areas of the brain responsible for language performed just as well in older adults as in younger ones.

The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that increased neural activation in the frontal brain regions of older adults reflects differences in the way they respond to the demands of the task compared with younger adults, rather than any difference in language processing itself.

“These findings suggest our ability to understand language is remarkably preserved well into old age, and it's not through some trick of the mind, or reorganisation of the brain,” says co-author Professor Lorraine Tyler, who leads Cam-CAN. “Instead, it's through the continued functioning of a well-used language processing machine common to all humans.”

Professor Tyler says cognitive neuroscientists attempting to explain how the mind and brain work typically approach the question with tasks designed to measure particular cognitive abilities, such as memory or language. However, it's rarely as simple as that, she says, and tasks never end up measuring only one thing.

“Scientists claim that they are studying language, when really they are studying language plus your motivation to do well, plus your understanding of the instructions, plus your ability to focus, and so on,” says lead author Dr Karen Campbell, now based at Harvard University. “These poorly defined tasks become even more problematic when it comes to studying the older brain, because older adults sometimes show increased neural activation in frontal brain regions, which is thought to reflect a change in how older brains carry out a given cognitive function. However, this extra activation may simply reflect differences in how young and older adults respond to the demands of the task.”

Campbell and her Cam-CAN colleagues tried to isolate the effect of the testing by scanning 111 participants aged 22-87 using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they either passively listened to sentences or decided if the sentences were grammatical or not.

The researchers found that simply listening to and comprehending language, as we do in everyday life, “lights up” brain networks responsible for hearing and language, whereas performing a cognitive task with the same sentences leads to the additional activation of several task-related networks.

Age had no effect on the language network itself, but it did affect this network’s ability to “talk with” other task-related networks.

The Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and is jointly based at the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

Campbell, KL et al. Robust Resilience of the Frontotemporal Syntax System to Aging. Journal of Neuroscience; 11 May 2016; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4561-15.2016

The ability to understand language could be much better preserved into old age than previously thought, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge, who found older adults struggle more with test conditions than language processing.

Scientists claim that they are studying language, when really they are studying language plus your motivation to do well, plus your understanding of the instructions, plus your ability to focus, and so on
Karen Campbell

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Opinion: There are also drawbacks to being bilingual

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 26, 2016.

The ability to speak more than one language certainly has its perks. It enables you to work in another country, for example, interact with people while travelling, or consume foreign media.

Bilingualism is very common – current estimates are that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual and that this prevalence is rising.

Cognitive psychologists have been interested in how bilingualism shapes the mind for almost a century. There are those who suggest that in order to speak in one language, bilinguals have to suppress the influence of the other. Research from the past three decades has argued that this unique form of language processing “trains the brain” in the use of non-verbal abilities known as “executive functions” such as ignoring irrelevant information or shifting attention.

Bilinguals of different ages and cultural backgrounds have been shown to be faster and more accurate than their monolingual peers when performing cognitive tasks demanding these abilities. Furthermore, it has been argued that bilingualism may lead to a delayed onset of symptoms associated with dementia.

But the scientific community recently has become increasingly sceptical of the bilingual advantage hypothesis. One of the main points of criticism is that differences between monolinguals and bilinguals when it comes to executive function are not always apparent. This has generated a heated debate, especially in the Bilingualism Forum of the scientific journal Cortex, about whether bilingualism is associated with cognitive advantages or not.

Fresh challenge

It appears that research on bilingualism is at a turning point. We need to pursue a new approach to understand, beyond those individual examples of executive functions, how the bilingual mind works. We have attempted to address this challenge by testing whether bilinguals and monolinguals differ in terms of how accurately they can assess their own performance.

This ability is called metacognition and is associated with, but separate from, other areas where bilinguals have been shown to have an advantage. Surprisingly, however, we found that bilinguals had less insight into their performance than their monolingual peers.

Joining the dots

In an effort to find out whether bilinguals also display advantages in other cognitive abilities (beyond executive function), we evaluated metacognitive processing in young adult monolinguals and bilinguals. Metacognition is the ability to evaluate one’s own cognitive performance or simply to have “thoughts about thoughts”.

This ability is a crucial function of everyday life, when we have to make decisions where the outcomes are not immediate. For example, when an entrepreneur reviews their company’s performance, they need to take into account a variety of factors – including, for example, revenues and expenses – in order to evaluate whether the company is doing well. Confidence in their ideas and performance can be the determining factor in whether they decide to keep investing time in their company or give up and apply for another job (the so-called “exploitation exploration trade-off”).

In our research, we presented participants with a situation in which they had to observe two circles on a screen and guess which one contained more dots. Sometimes the difference was obvious, making the decision easy, while at other times the decision was very difficult (for example, one circle contained 50 dots and the other 49). Participants were then asked to determine how confident they were in their decision on a scale from less to more confident than normal.

Illustration of the metacognition paradigm employed by Folke et al., 2016. Folkes et al, 2016, Author provided

Over the course of two experiments, we found that bilinguals and monolinguals were equally likely to choose the circle containing the highest number of dots. However, monolinguals were better able than bilinguals to discriminate between when they were right and when they were wrong. In other words, bilinguals had less insight into their performance than monolinguals. This went against our initial predictions, as we expected to find a bilingual advantage in metacognitive processing. These results indicate that bilingualism may be associated with cognitive disadvantages as well as benefits.

What’s next?

The Multilanguage & Cognition lab (MULTAC) at Anglia Ruskin University is currently undertaking a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to enhance our understanding of the bilingual mind.

The lab has already published evidence of cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, suggesting that bilinguals are better at filtering out verbal interference as well as visual attention, specifically spotting the difference in a visuo-spatial working memory task.

This new research indicates that bilingual people may experience a disadvantage in metacognition. We hope that this new direction in bilingualism research will encourage further attention and enable us to resolve theoretical debate through the adoption of open-minded, empirically driven exploration of cognitive effects (both positive and negative) that may be associated with learning more than one language.

Julia Ouzia, PhD candidate in cognitive psychology, Anglia Ruskin University and Tomas Folke, PhD candidate, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

Tomas Folke (Department of Psychology) and Julia Ouzia (Anglia Ruskin University) discuss the cognitive disadvantages that may be associated with learning more than one language.

Bilingual street name sign in Bangor, North Wales

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Does nature make you happy? Crowdsourcing app looks at relationship between the outdoors and wellbeing

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 26, 2016.

NatureBuzz, which is available to download free on iOS and Android platforms, asks participants three times per day to answer questions about how they feel, whether they are outside or indoors, who they are with, and what they are doing. At the same time, it records their location using GPS data.

NatureBuzz also provides information about UK nature reserves and ‘protected areas’ and will provide users with feedback on how their happiness has fluctuated, where it was highest, with whom and during which activities.

“Apps provide a great way of collecting data from thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of users, a scale that is just not possible in lab experiments,” explains research associate Laurie Parma from the Department of Psychology, who coordinates the study. “We’ll use this data to answer some fascinating and potentially very important questions about our relationship with nature.”

Studies have suggested that people are happier and reinvigorated when living in more natural settings. For example, a 2011 study from the United States found that people who live in inner cities were the least happy, while those who live in rural areas are the happiest. However, it is not clear whether all green spaces promote happiness equally.

Diversity – the number and abundance of different species in particular systems – is thought to be important in increasing the resilience of some so-called ecosystem services  - such as climate regulation and pest control – that underpin human wellbeing. However, the more immediate role that biodiversity may play in affecting happiness is unclear.

“We know that people quickly become familiar with – and immune to – happiness-inducing stimuli and one potential way to combat this phenomenon is to provide new and varied stimuli,” adds Professor Andrew Balmford from the Department of Zoology. “Natural environments with greater biodiversity – different flowers, different birds, for example – present a rich variety of stimuli, so it’s possible they will keep the ‘happiness factor’ fresh for visitors.”

The researchers hope that by crowdsourcing data, they will be able to answer questions such as whether the type of green space – gardens, city parks, countryside or nature reserves, for example – have the same impact on an individual’s wellbeing, and whether someone needs to be interested in nature to benefit more from the natural environment. They believe their findings may have important consequences for how policymakers promote biodiversity and how reserve managers enable people to make the most of the happiness-improving potential of access to nature.

The app is part of a broader study of happiness and nature developed by the Departments of Psychology and Zoology, University of Cambridge, RSPB, UNEP-WCMC and Cardiff University. It is funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and is part of a research programme on human happiness.

NatureBuzz is available to download from the iPhone App Store and from Google Play.

A new app will crowdsource data to help scientists understand the relationship between biodiversity and wellbeing. The app, developed at the University of Cambridge, maps happiness onto a detailed map that includes all the UK’s nature reserves and green spaces. 

Apps provide a great way of collecting data from thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of users, a scale that is just not possible in lab experiments
Laurie Parma
La felicità nella luce della sera

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Spending for smiles: money can buy happiness after all

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 07, 2016.

People who spent more money on purchases which matched their personality were happier, found the study, published in the journal Psychological Science. According to the researchers, matching spending with personality was more important for individuals’ happiness than the effect of individuals’ total income or their total spending.

The study, by researchers from the University of Cambridge, was conducted in collaboration with a UK-based multinational bank. Customers were asked whether they would complete a standard personality and happiness questionnaire, and to consent to their responses being matched anonymously for research purposes with their bank transaction data.

The final study was based on 76,863 transactions of 625 participants. The study whittled down 112 spending categories automatically grouped by the bank into 59 categories that had at least 500 transactions over a six-month period.

The study matched spending categories on the widely recognised “Big Five” personality traits – openness to experience (artistic versus traditional), conscientiousness (self-controlled vs easy-going), extraversion (outgoing vs reserved), agreeableness (compassionate vs competitive), and neuroticism (prone to stress vs stable).

For example, eating out in pubs was rated as an extroverted and low conscientiousness (impulsive) spending category, whereas charities and pets were rated as agreeable spending categories. Further examples can be found below.

The researchers then compared the participants’ actual purchases to their personalities using this scale, and found that people generally spent more money on products that match their personality. For example, a highly extroverted person spent approximately £52 more each year on pub nights than an introverted person. Similarly, a highly conscientiousness person spent £124 more annually on health and fitness than a person low in conscientiousness.

The study was authored by Sandra Matz, a PhD candidate in Cambridge’s Department of Psychology; Joe Gladstone, a Research Associate at Cambridge Judge Business School; and David Stillwell, University Lecturer in Big Data Analytics & Quantitative Social Science at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Historically, studies had found a weak relationship between money and overall wellbeing,” said Gladstone. “Our study breaks new ground by mining actual bank transaction data and demonstrating that spending can increase our happiness when it is spent on goods and services that fit our personalities and so meet our psychological needs.”

The researchers believe the findings hold widespread implications, including for Internet businesses using search-based recommendation engines. Companies can use this information to recommend products and services that don’t just increase clicks, but will actually improve the wellbeing of their customers – allowing companies to forge better relationships with customers based on what makes them happier.

The researchers also backed up their findings by running a second experiment, where they gave people a voucher to spend either in a bookshop or at a bar. Extroverts who were forced to spend at a bar were happier than introverts forced to spend at a bar, while introverts forced to spend at a bookshop were happier than extroverts forced to spend at a bookshop. This follow-up experiment overcomes the limitations of correlational data by demonstrating that spending money on things that match a person’s personality can cause an increase in happiness.

“Our findings suggest that spending money on products that help us express who we are as individuals could turn out to be as important to our well-being as finding the right job, the right neighbourhood or even the right friends and partners,” said Matz. “By developing a more nuanced understanding of the links between spending and happiness, we hope to be able to provide more personalised advice on how to find happiness through the little consumption choices we make every day.”

Categories with the lowest and highest scores on each of the Big Five personality traits:

Big 5 Trait       Low High
Openness  Traffic fines, residential mortgages Entertainment, hair and beauty
Conscientiousness Gambling, toys and hobbies   Home insurance, health, fitness
Extraversion Home insurance, accountant fees Entertainment, travel
Agreeableness  Traffic fines, gambling Charities, pets
Neuroticism Stationery, hotels  Traffic fines, gambling

Sandra C. Matz, Joe J. Gladstone, and David Stillwell. ‘Money Buys Happiness When Spending Fits Our Personality.’ Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616635200

Adapted from a Cambridge Judge Business School press release.  

Money really can buy happiness when spending fits our personality, finds a study based on 77,000 UK bank transactions.

Spending can increase our happiness when it is spent on goods and services that fit our personalities and so meet our psychological needs.
Joe Gladstone

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Being overweight linked to poorer memory

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 25, 2016.

In a preliminary study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers from the Department of Psychology at Cambridge found an association between high body mass index (BMI) and poorer performance on a test of episodic memory.

Although only a small study, its results support existing findings that excess bodyweight may be associated with changes to the structure and function of the brain and its ability to perform certain cognitive tasks optimally. In particular, obesity has been linked with dysfunction of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory and learning, and of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in decision making, problem solving and emotions, suggesting that it might also affect memory; however, evidence for memory impairment in obesity is currently limited.

Around 60% of UK adults are overweight or obese: this number is predicted to rise to approximately 70% by 2034. Obesity increases the risk of physical health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as psychological health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

“Understanding what drives our consumption and how we instinctively regulate our eating behaviour is becoming more and more important given the rise of obesity in society,” says Dr Lucy Cheke. “We know that to some extent hunger and satiety are driven by the balance of hormones in our bodies and brains, but psychological factors also play an important role – we tend to eat more when distracted by television or working, and perhaps to ‘comfort eat’ when we are sad, for example.

“Increasingly, we’re beginning to see that memory – especially episodic memory, the kind where you mentally relive a past event – is also important. How vividly we remember a recent meal, for example today’s lunch, can make a difference to how hungry we feel and how much we are likely to reach out for that tasty chocolate bar later on.”

The researchers tested 50 participants aged 18-35, with body mass indexes (BMIs) ranging from 18 through to 51 – a BMI of 18-25 is considered healthy, 25-30 overweight, and over 30 obese. The participants took part in a memory test known as the ‘Treasure-Hunt Task’, where they were asked to hide items around complex scenes (for example, a desert with palm trees) across two ‘days’. They were then asked to remember which items they had hidden, where they had hidden them, and when they were hidden. Overall, the team found an association between higher BMI and poorer performance on the tasks.

The researchers say that the results could suggest that the structural and functional changes in the brain previously found in those with higher BMI may be accompanied by a reduced ability to form and/or retrieve episodic memories. As the effect was shown in young adults, it adds to growing evidence that the cognitive impairments that accompany obesity may be present early in adult life.

This was a small, preliminary study and so the researchers caution that further research will be necessary to establish whether the results of this study can be generalised to overweight individuals in general, and to episodic memory in everyday life rather than in experimental conditions.

“We're not saying that overweight people are necessarily more forgetful," cautions Dr Cheke, “but if these results are generalizable to memory in everyday life, then it could be that overweight people are less able to vividly relive details of past events – such as their past meals. Research on the role of memory in eating suggests that this might impair their ability to use memory to help regulate consumption.

“In other words, it is possible that becoming overweight may make it harder to keep track of what and how much you have eaten, potentially making you more likely to overeat.”

Dr Cheke believes that this work is an important step in understanding the role of psychological factors in obesity. “The possibility that there may be episodic memory deficits in overweight individuals is of concern, especially given the growing evidence that episodic memory may have a considerable influence on feeding behaviour and appetite regulation,” she says.

Co-author Dr Jon Simons adds: “By recognising and addressing these psychological factors head-on, not only can we come to understand obesity better, but we may enable the creation of interventions that can make a real difference to health and wellbeing.”

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council and Girton College, University of Cambridge, and the James S McDonnell Foundation.

Cheke, LG et al. Higher BMI is Associated with Episodic Memory Deficits in Young Adults. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology; 22 Feb 2016. DOI:10.1080/17470218.2015.1099163

Overweight young adults may have poorer episodic memory – the ability to recall past events – than their peers, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge, adding to increasing evidence of a link between memory and overeating.

How vividly we remember a recent meal, for example today’s lunch, can make a difference to how hungry we feel
Lucy Cheke
Too many croissants yesterday... (cropped)

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