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Professor Claire Hughes receives Commendation from the 2016 Cambridge University Students' Union Teaching Awards

By from News. Published on Apr 28, 2016.

Professor Claire Hughes receives Commendation from the 2016 Cambridge University Students' Union Teaching Awards

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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Professor Brian Moore receives Audio Engineering Society Fellowship

By from News. Published on Apr 19, 2016.

Professor Brian Moore receives Audio Engineering Society Fellowship

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

Reference:
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
Shopping

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Simone Schnall appointed Einstein Fellow

By from News. Published on Mar 21, 2016.

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.

Reference
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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Brain waves could help predict how we respond to general anaesthetics

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 14, 2016.

Currently, patients due to undergo surgery are given a dose of anaesthetic based on the so-called ‘Marsh model’, which uses factors such as an individual’s body weight to predict the amount of drug needed. As patients ‘go under’, their levels of awareness are monitored in a relatively crude way. If they are still deemed awake, they are simply given more anaesthetic. However, general anaesthetics can carry risks, particularly if an individual has an underlying health condition such as a heart disorder.

As areas of the brain communicate with each other, they give off tell-tale signals that can give an indication of how conscious an individual is. These ‘networks’ of brain activity can be measured using an EEG (electroencephalogram), which measures electric signals as brain cells talk to each other. Cambridge researchers have previously shown that these network signatures can even be seen in some people in a vegetative state and may help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate. These findings build upon advances in the science of networks to tackle the challenge of understanding and measuring human consciousness.

In a study published today in the open access journal PLOS Computational Biology, funded by the Wellcome Trust, the researchers studied how these signals changed in healthy volunteers as they received an infusion of propofol, a commonly used anaesthetic.

Twenty individuals (9 male, 11 female) received a steadily increasing dose of propofol – all up to the same limit – while undergoing a task that involved pressing one button if they heard a ‘ping’ and a different button if they heard a ‘pong’. At the same time, the researchers tracked their brain network activity using an EEG.

By the time the subjects had reached the maximum dose, some individuals were still awake and able to carry out the task, while others were unconscious. As the researchers analysed the EEG readings, they found clear differences between those who were responding to the anaesthetic and those who remained able to carry on with the task. This ‘brain signature’ was evident in the network of communications between brain areas carried by alpha waves (brain cell oscillations in the frequency range of 7.5–12.5 Hz), the normal range of electrical activity of the brain when conscious and relaxed.

In fact, when the researchers looked at the baseline EEG readings before any drug was given, they already saw differences between those who would later succumb to the drug and those who were less responsive to its effects. Dividing the subjects into two groups based on their EEG readings – those with lots of brain network activity at baseline and those with less – the researchers were able to predict who would be more responsive to the drug and who would be less.

The researchers also measured levels of propofol in the blood to see if this could be used as a measure of how conscious an individual was. Although they found little correlation with the alpha wave readings in general, they did find a correlation with a specific form of brain network activity known as delta-alpha coupling. This may be able to provide a useful, non-invasive measure of the level of drug in the blood.

“A very good way of predicting how an individual responds to our anaesthetic was the state of their brain network activity at the start of the procedure,” says Dr Srivas Chennu from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Cambridge. “The greater the network activity at the start, the more anaesthetic they are likely to need to put them under.”

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, senior author from the Department of Psychology, adds: “EEG machines are commonplace in hospitals and relatively inexpensive. With some engineering and further testing, we expect they could be adapted to help doctors optimise the amount of drug an individual needs to receive to become unconscious without increasing their risk of complications.”

Srivas Chennu will be speaking at the Cambridge Science Festival on Wednesday 16 March. During the event, ‘Brain, body and mind: new directions in the neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness’, he will be examining what it means to be conscious.

Reference

Chennu, S et al. Brain connectivity dissociates responsiveness from drug exposure during propofol induced transitions of consciousness. PLOS Computational Biology; 14 Jan 2016

Image
Brain networks during the transition to unconsciousness during propofol sedation (drug infusion timeline shown in red). Participants with robust networks at baseline (left panel) remained resistant to the sedative, while others showed characteristically different, weaker networks during unconsciousness (middle). All participants regained similar networks when the sedative wore off (right).

The complex pattern of ‘chatter’ between different areas of an individual’s brain while they are awake could help doctors better track and even predict their response to general anaesthesia – and better identify the amount of anaesthetic necessary – according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

A very good way of predicting how an individual responds to our anaesthetic was the state of their brain network activity at the start of the procedure
Srivas Chennu
Brain networks during the transition to unconsciousness during propofol sedation

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Cocaine addiction: Scientists discover ‘back door’ into the brain

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

A second study from the team suggests that a drug used to treat paracetamol overdose may be able to help individuals who want to break their addiction and stop their damaging cocaine seeking habits.

Although both studies were carried out in rats, the researchers believe the findings will be relevant to humans.

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that can lead to addiction when taken repeatedly. Quitting can be extremely difficult for some people: around four in ten individuals who relapse report having experienced a craving for the drug – however, this means that six out of ten people have relapsed for reasons other than ‘needing’ the drug.

“Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’,” explains Dr David Belin from the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge. “In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion. We wanted to understand why this should be the case.”

Drug-taking causes a release in the brain of the chemical dopamine, which helps provide the ‘high’ experienced by the user. Initially the drug taking is volitional – in other words, it is the individual’s choice to take the drug – but over time, this becomes habitual, beyond their control.

Previous research by Professor Barry Everitt from the Department of Psychology at Cambridge showed that when rats were allowed to self-administer cocaine, dopamine-related activity occurred initially in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which plays a significant role driving ‘goal-directed’ behaviour, as the rats sought out the drug. However, if the rats were given cocaine over an extended period, this activity transferred to the dorsolateral striatum, which plays an important role in habitual behaviour, suggesting that the rats were no longer in control, but rather were responding automatically, having developed a drug-taking habit.

The brain mechanisms underlying the balance between goal-directed and habitual behaviour involves the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that orchestrates our behaviour. It was previously thought that this region was overwhelmed by stimuli associated with the drugs, or with the craving experienced during withdrawal; however, this does not easily explain why the majority of individuals relapsing to drug use did not experience any craving.

Chronic exposure to drugs alters the prefrontal cortex, but it also alters an area of the brain called the basolateral amygdala, which is associated with the link between a stimulus and an emotion. The basolateral amygdala stores the pleasurable memories associated with cocaine, but the pre-frontal cortex manipulates this information, helping an individual to weigh up whether or not to take the drug: if an addicted individual takes the drug, this activates mechanisms in the dorsal striatum.

However, in a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Belin and Professor Everitt studied the brains of rats addicted to cocaine through self-administration of the drug and identified a previously unknown pathway within the brain that links impulse with habits.

The pathway links the basolateral amygdala indirectly with the dorsolateral striatum, circumventing the prefrontal cortex. This means that an addicted individual would not necessarily be aware of their desire to take the drug.

“We’ve always assumed that addiction occurs through a failure or our self-control, but now we know this is not necessarily the case,” explains Dr Belin. “We’ve found a back door directly to habitual behaviour.

“Drug addiction is mainly viewed as a psychiatric disorder, with treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy focused on restoring the ability of the prefrontal cortex to control the otherwise maladaptive drug use. But we’ve shown that the prefrontal cortex is not always aware of what is happening, suggesting these treatments may not always be effective.”

In a second study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, Dr Belin and colleagues showed that a drug used to treat paracetamol overdose may be able to help individuals addicted to cocaine overcome their addiction – provided the individual wants to quit.

The drug, N-acetylcysteine, had previously been shown in rat studies to prevent relapse. However, the drug later failed human clinical trials, though analysis suggested that while it did not lead addicted individuals to stop using cocaine, amongst those who were trying to abstain, it helped them refrain from taking the drug.

Dr Belin and colleagues used an experiment in which rats compulsively self-administered cocaine. They found that rats given N-acetylcysteine lost the motivation to self-administer cocaine more quickly than rats given a placebo. In fact, when they had stopped working for cocaine, they tended to relapse at a lower rate. N-acetylcysteine also increased the activity in the brain of a particular gene associated with plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt and learn new skills.

“A hallmark of addiction is that the user continues to take the drug even in the face of negative consequences – such as on their health, their family and friends, their job, and so on,” says co-author Mickael Puaud from the Department of Pharmacology of the University of Cambridge. “Our study suggests that N-acetylcysteine, a drug that we know is well tolerated and safe, may help individuals who want to quit to do so.”

Reference
Murray, JE et al. Basolateral and central amygdala differentially recruit and maintain dorsolateral striatum-dependent cocaine-seeking habits. Nature Comms; 16 December 2015

Ducret, E et al. N-acetylcysteine facilitates self-imposed abstinence after escalation of cocaine intake. Biological Psychiatry; 7 Oct 2015

Individuals addicted to cocaine may have difficulty in controlling their addiction because of a previously-unknown ‘back door’ into the brain, circumventing their self-control, suggests a new study led by the University of Cambridge.

Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’. In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion
David Belin
relaxing after work_MMVI (cropped)

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Unhappy families: Nine out ten adults estranged from family find Christmas difficult

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Dec 10, 2015.

Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood, a collaboration between the charity Stand Alone and the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, is the first in depth piece of UK research on family estrangement. It examines the experiences of over 800 people who self-identify as being estranged from their whole family or a key family member, such as their mother, father, siblings or children.

Becca Bland, Chief Executive of Stand Alone, says: “Family is a huge part of our individual and collective lives and an unconditionally loving, supportive group of relations is idealised in society. Yet this is not always attainable for those who are estranged from their family or a family member. I’m sure this research will be challenging to read, but I’m hopeful that as a society we have the strength to keep listening to people in this position, with the view to eventually understanding why our adult family relationships are not always as unconditionally close and supportive as we might wish and imagine them to be.”

The report provides an understanding of family estrangement and its characteristics as well as detailing the challenges participants faced when living without contact with family or a key family member. Common factors that contribute to relationship breakdown with parents, siblings and children include emotional abuse, clashes of personality and values, and mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships.

However, estrangement does not necessarily mean there is no contact between family members. A minority of respondents have minimal contact with the person they are estranged from. Similarly, estrangements are not always stable, and cycling in and out of estrangement is not uncommon. Those who wished their estranged relationships could be different wanted a relationship that was more positive, unconditionally loving, warm and emotionally close.

Most often, respondents who were estranged from an adult child reported that their daughter or son had cut contact with them. Of those who had initiated estrangement from a parent, respondents had done so at various ages, with most doing so in their late 20s and early 30s.

The report shows that the festive period is often the most challenging time for those touched by family estrangement and can be a key time of isolation and vulnerability, with 90% of respondents saying they found the Christmas period a key time of challenge. Other challenging times were reported as birthdays (85%), being around other families (81%) and the death of family members (79%).

“Almost every estranged person finds Christmas the hardest period,” explains Dr Lucy Blake from the Centre for Family Research. “There’s a strong societal expectation of what a family looks like. Social media plays a part too because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together. The reality doesn’t always look like this, but people often find it difficult to talk about that.”

Stigma around the topic of family estrangement is also an issue: two-thirds (68%) of respondents felt that there was stigma around the topic of family estrangement and described feeling judged and feeling as if they were contradicting societal expectations. One in four respondents had turned to their GP for support but reported finding them not at all helpful.

However, not all experiences of estrangement were negative. Around four out of five respondents felt there had been some positive outcomes of their experiences of estrangement, such as greater feelings of freedom and independence.

Reference
Lucy Blake, Becca Bland and Susan Golombok. Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood. 10 December 2015

A new report looking at the experiences of people who are estranged from family members and the challenges they face has highlighted the particular difficulties associated with Christmas.

Social media plays a part because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together
Lucy Blake
Lonely nights (cropped)

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Unhappy families: Nine out ten adults estranged from family find Christmas difficult

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 10, 2015.

Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood, a collaboration between the charity Stand Alone and the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, is the first in depth piece of UK research on family estrangement. It examines the experiences of over 800 people who self-identify as being estranged from their whole family or a key family member, such as their mother, father, siblings or children.

Becca Bland, Chief Executive of Stand Alone, says: “Family is a huge part of our individual and collective lives and an unconditionally loving, supportive group of relations is idealised in society. Yet this is not always attainable for those who are estranged from their family or a family member. I’m sure this research will be challenging to read, but I’m hopeful that as a society we have the strength to keep listening to people in this position, with the view to eventually understanding why our adult family relationships are not always as unconditionally close and supportive as we might wish and imagine them to be.”

The report provides an understanding of family estrangement and its characteristics as well as detailing the challenges participants faced when living without contact with family or a key family member. Common factors that contribute to relationship breakdown with parents, siblings and children include emotional abuse, clashes of personality and values, and mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships.

However, estrangement does not necessarily mean there is no contact between family members. A minority of respondents have minimal contact with the person they are estranged from. Similarly, estrangements are not always stable, and cycling in and out of estrangement is not uncommon. Those who wished their estranged relationships could be different wanted a relationship that was more positive, unconditionally loving, warm and emotionally close.

Most often, respondents who were estranged from an adult child reported that their daughter or son had cut contact with them. Of those who had initiated estrangement from a parent, respondents had done so at various ages, with most doing so in their late 20s and early 30s.

The report shows that the festive period is often the most challenging time for those touched by family estrangement and can be a key time of isolation and vulnerability, with 90% of respondents saying they found the Christmas period a key time of challenge. Other challenging times were reported as birthdays (85%), being around other families (81%) and the death of family members (79%).

“Almost every estranged person finds Christmas the hardest period,” explains Dr Lucy Blake from the Centre for Family Research. “There’s a strong societal expectation of what a family looks like. Social media plays a part too because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together. The reality doesn’t always look like this, but people often find it difficult to talk about that.”

Stigma around the topic of family estrangement is also an issue: two-thirds (68%) of respondents felt that there was stigma around the topic of family estrangement and described feeling judged and feeling as if they were contradicting societal expectations. One in four respondents had turned to their GP for support but reported finding them not at all helpful.

However, not all experiences of estrangement were negative. Around four out of five respondents felt there had been some positive outcomes of their experiences of estrangement, such as greater feelings of freedom and independence.

Reference
Lucy Blake, Becca Bland and Susan Golombok. Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood. 10 December 2015

A new report looking at the experiences of people who are estranged from family members and the challenges they face has highlighted the particular difficulties associated with Christmas.

Social media plays a part because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together
Lucy Blake
Lonely nights (cropped)

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Opinion: Christmas is the hardest time of year for those estranged from close family

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Dec 09, 2015.

With Christmas just around the corner, many will be finalising plans to see their families over the festive period. Yet for others, family relationships are challenging, distant and a source of pain. In some cases, relationships break down entirely leaving people estranged from close relatives.

Results from a new online survey of people estranged from family members that I conducted with the charity Stand Alone, has shown how difficult Christmas can be. The survey was completed by 807 people who identified as being estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child.

Almost all identified the holiday season as the most challenging time of year, describing feelings of loneliness, isolation and sadness. These feelings and experiences are in direct contrast to the idealised images of happy families around the dinner table that feature in Christmas advertising and the media at this time of year. One respondent said:

Everyone always says ‘what family plans do you have for holidays?’ and look at you funny when you say none. It’s hard to explain to people why you don’t want to be with your own parents.

Two-thirds of the respondents felt there was a stigma about family estrangement. They described feeling judged or blamed – and feeling that estrangement was a taboo subject about which there is little understanding or acknowledgement.

 

An advert for the German supermarket Edeka focuses on families living apart.

 

No two estranged relationships looked alike. Yet common factors often led to estrangement, such as having mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships, clashes in personality and values, and emotional abuse.

Estrangement was found to be more complex than simply a lack of contact or communication between family members. Although most of the respondents who were estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child had no contact whatsoever with this individual, approximately 25% had contact that was minimal in nature. These results are similar to those of Australian social worker Kylie Aglias, who has distinguished between family members who have no contact at all (physical estrangement) and those whose contact is infrequent, perfunctory, and often uncomfortable (emotional estrangement).

We also found that estranged relationships change over time and that cycles in and out of estrangement are common. Of those who said they wished that their estranged relationship was different, most wanted a relationship that was more loving, warm and emotionally close.

What can be done to help?

When it came to getting support, respondents said those friends and support services which offered them emotional and practical support and took the time to listen to them and show them understanding were the most helpful. They found it unhelpful when they felt friends or counsellors dismissed them or when they felt they had been judged and blamed for the estrangement.

It would be wrong to assume that all those experiencing estrangement wish for there to be reconciliation in the future. Feelings about the future of estranged relationships were varied. Of those who were estranged from a mother or father, most felt that there would never be a functional relationship between them in the future. Yet for those who were estranged from an adult son or daughter, most felt that there could be a functional relationship in the future or were unsure of the future direction of the relationship.

Four out of five respondents also reported that there had been a positive outcome from their experience of estrangement. These included feeling more free and independent, feeling happier and less stressed, and having gained a greater insight or understanding of themselves and relationships more broadly.

By listening to the hidden voices of people who are estranged from close relatives, we can begin to move beyond assumptions about what families could or should look like and begin conversations about families and family relationships as they really are.

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

Lucy Blake (Centre for Family Research) discusses family estrangement and the particular difficulties associated with Christmas.

Alone on Christmas

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Opinion: What your musical taste says about your personality

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 30, 2015.

We’re exposed to music for nearly 20% of our waking lives. But much of our musical experience seems to be a mystery. Why does some music bring us to tears while other pieces make us dance? Why is it that the music that we like can make others agitated? And why do some people seem to have a natural ability to play music while others have difficulty carrying a tune? Science is beginning to show that these individual differences are not just random but are, in part, due to people’s personalities.

My colleagues and I have published research showing that people’s musical preferences are linked to three broad thinking styles. Empathisers (Type E) have a strong interest in people’s thoughts and emotions. Systemisers (Type S) have a strong interest in patterns, systems and the rules that govern the world. And those who score relatively equally on empathy and systemising are classified as Type B for “balanced”.

Research from the past decade has shown that 95% of people can be classified into one of these three groups and that they predict a lot of human behaviour. For example, they can predict things such as whether someone studies maths and science, or humanities at university. For the first time, we have shown that they can predict musical behaviour, too.

Matching music with thinking style

To study this phenomenon, we conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants. We took data on these participants’ thinking styles and asked them to listen to and indicate their preferences for up to 50 musical excerpts, representing a wide range of genres. Across these studies, we found that empathisers preferred mellow music that had low energy, sad emotions, and emotional depth, as heard in R&B, soft rock, and singer-songwriter genres. For example, empathising was linked to preferences for “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones and Jeff Buckley’s recording of “Hallelujah”.

 

 

On the other hand, systemisers preferred more intense music, as heard in hard rock, punk and heavy metal genres. Systemisers also preferred music with intellectual depth and complexity as heard in avant-garde classical genres. For example, systemizing was linked to preferences for Alexander Scriabin’s “Etude opus 65 no 3”. Importantly, those who are Type B, had a tendency to prefer music that spans more of a range than the other two thinking styles.

 

 

In our most recent study, published in the Journal of Research of Personality, we found that people’s personality traits can also predict their musical ability, even if they don’t play an instrument. Our team worked with BBC Lab UK to recruit over 7,000 participants and assess them for five distinct personality dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism/emotionality stability. We also asked them to conduct various tasks that measured their musical ability, including remembering melodies and picking out rhythms.

We found that, next to musical training, the personality trait of openness was the strongest predictor of musical sophistication. People who score highly for openness are imaginative, have a wide range of interests, and are open to new ways of thinking and changes in their environment. Those who score low on openness (or who are “closed”) are more set in their ways, prefer routine and the familiar, and tend to have more conventional values. We also found that extroverts who are often more talkative, assertive, and excitement-seeking had greater singing abilities.

Furthermore, we could apply this even to people who did not currently play a musical instrument, meaning there are people who have a potential for musical talent but are entirely unaware of it.

Music therapy

These new findings tell us that from a person’s musical taste and ability, we can infer a range of information about their personality and the way that they think.

This research shows there are factors beyond our awareness that shape our musical experiences. We hope that these findings can be of help to teachers, parents, and clinicians. Based on information about personality, educators can ensure that children with the potential for musical talent have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. Music therapists can use information about thinking style to help tailor their therapies for clients, too.

We are also interested in how knowledge gained from science can help children and adults on the autism spectrum who have difficulties with communication, as we recently wrote in the journal Empirical Musicology Review. This could also help people process emotions after experiencing a psychological trauma and when grieving a loss. In fact, initial findings from our lab suggest that people who experienced a traumatic event in childhood engage with music quite differently in adulthood than those who did not experience a trauma.

If you want to find out how you score on musical ability, preferences, and personality, you can take these tests at www.musicaluniverse.org.

David Greenberg, PhD candidate, psychology, 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.

David Greenberg (Department of Psychology) discusses how musical preferences are linked to thinking styles.

Headphones

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At the edge of vision: Struggling to make sense of our cluttered world

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 25, 2015.

Even with 20/20 vision in broad daylight on a clear day, our peripheral vision can be surprisingly poor, particularly when the scene in front of us is cluttered. Now, scientists at the University of Cambridge, UK, Northeastern University, Boston, USA, and Queensland Brain Institute, Brisbane, Australia, believe they are a step closer to understanding why this is.

“When objects in our peripheral vision are surrounded by visual clutter, a phenomenon known as ‘visual crowding’ hinders our ability to make sense of what we see,” explains Dr Will Harrison from the University of Cambridge. “Visual crowding is ubiquitous in natural scenes and affects virtually all everyday tasks, including reading, driving and interacting with the environment. But this failure of vision isn’t a problem with our eyes – it represents a processing limit of the brain.”

Image: Focus on the green spot. Without moving your eyes, you should be able to identify the letter ‘A’ on the left side of the display; the same letter is almost impossible to see on the right side of the display.

In a study published today in the journal Current Biology, Dr Harrison and Professor Peter Bex from Northeastern University have shed new light on how constraints in the brain limit our peripheral vision.

The researchers showed volunteers a series of images with differing levels of visual crowding. To make sure they kept their eyes still, the volunteers were asked to focus on a dot. Beside the dot was a broken ring, like the letter ‘C’, but with the gap positioned at a random orientation. The volunteers were asked to estimate the angle at which the gap appeared by freely rotating a second C so that it matched the target as closely as possible. This helped the researchers to measure each individual’s uncrowded perceptual acuity.

To measure crowded perception in the next stage, the C was surrounded by an additional, larger C – a ‘distractor’ – at different orientations and/or distances to the target C. The volunteers again rotated a second C until they thought it matched the target. Whereas previous studies looking at crowding had only given binary results – was the observer right or wrong? – this new method enabled the researchers to quantify crowding as a continuous experience.

The researchers found that when the angle of the target and distractor were similar, observers tended to choose an average of the two orientations. When the target and distractor angles were quite different, observers tended to choose either the correct orientation (that of the target) or they mistakenly reported the orientation of the distractor. However, this effect depended on the target and distractor being positioned very closely together – reports were not influenced by a distractor positioned a large distance away from the target.

Combining the findings with a computational model of how visual neurons represent the visual field, Dr Harrison and Professor Bex found that problems in identifying objects in our peripheral vision are due primarily to a combination of two factors. First, in a crowded scene, our visual resolution is degraded, meaning that we become less precise at locating an object’s detail. Second, we confuse which detail belongs to which object, to the extent that part of one object can appear ‘swapped’ with a part of a different object. Importantly, their model suggests that both factors are caused by the same underlying brain mechanism.

Dr Harrison believes the findings may have implications for quantifying and treating vision disorders, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). A large portion of the elderly population suffers from AMD, which causes debilitating central blindness. The loss of high-resolution central vision forces AMD sufferers to rely solely on peripheral vision, which is very poor due to visual crowding.

“We hope that in future it may be possible to adapt our methods to quantify the degree to which patients with AMD are visually-impaired,” explains Dr Harrison. “At the moment, it can be difficult to quantify the extent or severity of their visual deficits. Our method would allow a careful examination of the function of AMD patients’ remaining vision, which could in turn lead to better rehabilitation techniques down the track.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, USA, and the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

Reference
William J Harrison and Peter J Bex. A unifying model of orientation crowding in peripheral vision. Current Biology; 25 Nov 2015

As you’re driving to work along a busy road, your eyes on the traffic lights ahead, hoping they won’t turn to red, you pass signs warning of roadworks, ads on bus shelters… Suddenly a dog runs out in front of you. What are your chances of seeing it before it’s too late?

When objects in our peripheral vision are surrounded by visual clutter, a phenomenon known as ‘visual crowding’ hinders our ability to make sense of what we see
Will Harrison
Advisory Cycle Lanes and Pavements Being Abused On Parry's Lane (cropped)

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Hallucinations linked to differences in brain structure

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 17, 2015.

The study, led by the University of Cambridge in collaboration with Durham University, Macquarie University, and Trinity College Dublin, found that reductions in the length of the paracingulate sulcus (PCS), a fold towards the front of the brain, were associated with increased risk of hallucinations in people diagnosed with schizophrenia.


The PCS is one of the last structural folds to develop in the brain before birth, and varies in size between individuals. In a previous study, a team of researchers led by Dr Jon Simons from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, found that variation in the length of the PCS in healthy individuals was linked to the ability to distinguish real from imagined information, a process known as ‘reality monitoring’.

In this new study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Simons and his colleagues analysed 153 structural MRI scans of people diagnosed with schizophrenia and matched control participants, measuring the length of the PCS in each participant’s brain. As difficulty distinguishing self-generated information from that perceived in the outside world may be responsible for many kinds of hallucinations, the researchers wanted to assess whether there was a link between length of the PCS and propensity to hallucinate.

The researchers found that in people diagnosed with schizophrenia, a 1 cm reduction in the fold’s length increased the likelihood of hallucinations by nearly 20%. The effect was observed regardless of whether hallucinations were auditory or visual in nature, consistent with a reality monitoring explanation.

“Schizophrenia is a complex spectrum of conditions that is associated with many differences throughout the brain, so it can be difficult to make specific links between brain areas and the symptoms that are often observed,” says Dr Simons. “By comparing brain structure in a large number of people diagnosed with schizophrenia with and without the experience of hallucinations, we have been able to identify a particular brain region that seems to be associated with a key symptom of the disorder.”

The researchers believe that changes in other areas of the brain are likely also important in generating the complex phenomena of hallucinations, possibly including regions that process visual and auditory perceptual information. In people who experience hallucinations, these areas may produce altered perceptions which, due to differences in reality monitoring processes supported by regions around the PCS, may be misattributed as being real. For example, a person may vividly imagine a voice but judge that it arises from the outside world, experiencing the voice as a hallucination.

“We think that the PCS is involved in brain networks that help us recognise information that has been generated ourselves,” adds Dr Jane Garrison, first author of the study, “People with a shorter PCS seem less able to distinguish the origin of such information, and appear more likely to experience it as having been generated externally.

“Hallucinations are very complex phenomena that are a hallmark of mental illness and, in different forms, are also quite common across the general population. There is likely to be more than one explanation for why they arise, but this finding seems to help explain why some people experience things that are not actually real.”

The research was primarily supported by the University of Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, funded by a joint award from the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

Reference
Garrison, J.R., Fernyhough, C., McCarthy-Jones, S., Haggard, M., The Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank, & Simons, J.S. (2015). Paracingulate sulcus morphology is associated with hallucinations in the human brain. Nature Communications, 6, 8956.

People diagnosed with schizophrenia who are prone to hallucinations are likely to have structural differences in a key region of the brain compared to both healthy individuals and people diagnosed with schizophrenia who do not hallucinate, according to research published today.

Hallucinations are very complex phenomena that are a hallmark of mental illness and, in different forms, are also quite common across the general population. There is likely to be more than one explanation for why they arise
Jane Garrison
HALLUZINATION

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Retirement of Professor James Russell

By from News. Published on Nov 09, 2015.

Tributes to Professor Nicholas J. Mackintosh, FRS

By from News. Published on Sep 02, 2015.

Jackdaws in the news

By from News. Published on Aug 12, 2015.

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

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on May 28, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Families with a difference: the reality behind the hype

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Mar 12, 2015.

Over the past 40 years the family has altered in ways that few people imagined back in the days of the Janet and John reading books in which mummy baked and daddy mowed the lawn. In the 1970s, the ‘nuclear’ family (heterosexual married couple with genetically related children) was in a clear majority. Advances in assistive reproductive technologies, a rise in numbers of single parent and step families resulting from divorce, and the creation of families by same-sex couples and single people have changed all that.  Today ‘non-traditional’ families outnumber nuclear families in the UK and many other countries.

When it comes to family, everyone has opinions – but they are just opinions. In her new book, Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms (published 12 March 2015), Professor Susan Golombok charts the remarkable changes that have taken place in the context of the empirical research that has sought to answer a series of contested questions. Are children less likely to thrive in families headed by same-sex parents, single mothers by choice or parents who conceived them using assisted reproductive technologies? Will children born to gay fathers through egg donation and surrogacy be less likely to flourish than children conceived by IVF to genetically related heterosexual parents?

Golombok’s contribution to family research goes back to 1976 when she responded to an article in the feminist magazine Spare Rib by conducting an objective study of the development of children of lesbian mothers. Spare Rib had revealed that, both in the UK and USA, lesbian mothers in child custody disputes invariably lost their cases to their ex-husbands. Courts argued that it was not in children’s best interests to be raised by lesbian women, not least because their gender development would be skewed. Golombok, and other researchers, have shown in successive studies that boys are no less masculine and girls no less feminine than boys and girls with heterosexual parents.

In 2006 Golombok was appointed director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research – a research centre known for its focus on family influences on child development. Modern Families brings together for the first time the growing body of research into the wide range of family forms, undertaken not just in the UK but also in the USA and around the world. Most strikingly, these studies show, again and again, that it is the quality of relationships that matters most to the well-being of families, not the number, gender, sexual orientation or genetic relatedness of the parents, or whether the child was conceived with the assistance of reproductive technology.

These findings fly in the face of the media hysteria that greeted the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978. Societal attitudes have since moved on. However, deep-seated assumptions of what is ‘right and proper’ continue to colour notions of what a family ‘should’ be in order to raise a well-balanced child. Real families are complex. Golombok is careful to be even-handed in her unpacking (family type by family type) of the issues, the arguments and the relevant research in a field that, by virtue of its human intimacy, demands a high level of sensitivity and diplomacy.

She also addresses the fact that research into so emotionally charged a field is bound to be imperfect. Parents willing to take part in research are more likely to be those who are functioning well than those who struggle. “It is important to study new family forms to find out what they are really like. Otherwise, all we have is speculation and assumption, usually negative, which simply fuel prejudice and discrimination and are harmful to the children involved,” she says.

Some findings are counterintuitive, others less so. One of the arguments most famously used against same-sex parenting has been that children may lack models on which to base their own gender identity and behaviour. In a study of play preferences, lesbian mothers chose a mix of masculine and feminine toys but their children chose toys and activities that were highly sex-typed. It seems that parents have little influence over the sex-typed toy and activity preferences of their daughters and sons.

In studies of children born through assisted reproduction, their mothers have consistently been found to show more warmth and emotional involvement, and less parenting stress, than natural conception mothers.

“Contrary to the expectation that parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies would experience difficulties in parenting, research has found them to be highly committed and involved parents, even in donor-conceived families where one or both parents lack a genetic relationship with their children,” says Golombok.

“A key factor in the positive functioning of children in new family forms appears to be that they are very wanted children. Parents in new family forms often struggle to have children against the odds. Many experience years of infertility before becoming parents; others become parents in the face of significant social disapproval; and still others surmount both hurdles in order to have a child.”

When surrogacy hit the headlines in 1985 with the case of Kim Cotton, the furore about the payment made to her by the intended parents of the child she was carrying led the UK to outlaw commercial surrogacy. Although attitudes to surrogacy have softened, it remains the most controversial form of assisted reproduction. Studies report that relationships between intended parents and surrogate mothers are generally both enduring and positive. Children born through surrogacy sometimes form relationships with the surrogate’s own children.

Modern Families offers a measured appraisal of the broader issues that are likely to prove increasingly salient (and debated) as reproductive technologies offer novel routes to the conception of a healthy child and society’s understanding of what constitutes ‘family’ is increasingly extended. Last month’s approval in the UK for the use of a technique called mitochondrial replacement has rekindled accusations of scientists ‘playing God’. Perhaps, in time, society will be more accepting of techniques like mitochondrial replacement, developed primarily to avoid a child being born with a devastating medical condition.

Two generations ago, same-sex parenting was widely vilified as ‘against nature’. Today, same-sex couples and single people are considered alongside heterosexual couples as prospective adoptive and foster parents. “Attitudes towards same-sex parent families in the UK have changed enormously over a relatively short period of time. In less than half a century we have moved from a situation in which lesbian mothers were ostracised, and gay men were at risk of imprisonment, to a time where same-sex couples can marry, adopt children jointly, and become the joint legal parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies,” says Golombok.

“But it’s important to remember that these laws are far from universal. Lesbian and gay relationships remain a criminal offence in some countries of the world with lesbian and gay people still living in fear of their lives.”

Families aren’t self-contained units. How do parents handle the prejudice they and their children are almost bound to encounter and how do children cope with what are perceived as ‘differences’? Sometimes the attitudes of the wider world make things hard. While children of same-sex parents are just as likely to flourish as those with heterosexual parents, children with lesbian or gay parents have to ‘explain’ their families in a way that their peers don’t. The need to explain can be burdensome.

“It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms,” says Golombok.

Children born through egg or sperm donation grow up with a realisation that they have a biological mother or father who may not live with them. The research covered in Modern Families shows that the question of disclosure – informing children conceived through donated gametes about their genetic parentage – is a foggy one. 

Legislation that took effect in 2005 gives anyone conceived with donated gametes after that date the right to have, at the age of 18, access to information about the identity of their donor via records held by the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).  Not until 2023 will it begin to be apparent how many donor-conceived young people might seek information about their donors from the HFEA.  If adoption law is any guide, the numbers will not be insignificant.

As the legislation stands, young people will not know that they have been donor conceived unless they have been told – and only those with this knowledge will have any reason to seek access to the information held about their donor. This situation puts the onus firmly on the parents to make the decision about disclosure. Interestingly, although many parents profess the intention of bringing their children up with the knowledge that they were donor conceived, significant numbers of parents never find the right moment to broach the subject.

Golombok says: “Parents fear that telling children about their donor conception will jeopardise the loving relationship that has developed between the child and the non-genetic parent. However, our research has shown this fear to be unfounded. Parents who are open with their children when they are young – before they reach school age – say that their children accept this information and are not distressed by it. Finding out in adolescence or adulthood appears to be more difficult to accept.”

Modern Families is a timely reminder that every family is different – and that families are both fluid and flexible. There is more variation within family types than between them. Many of the newer routes helping people to fulfil their desires to have a family are still in their infancy. Progress is never smooth – and, quite rightly, innovations in conception are bound to be, and need to be, a matter for public debate. Research by Golombok and her colleagues, at Cambridge and beyond, provides a firm and informed basis for discourse to take place. 

Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms by Susan Golombok is published on 12 March 2015 (Cambridge University Press).

Top two inset images from Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

Families come in many guises. Some parents are same-sex; others are single by choice. Growing numbers of children are conceived through assistive reproductive technology. What do these developments mean for the parents and children involved? Professor Susan Golombok’s book, Modern Families, examines ‘new family forms’ within a context of four decades of empirical research. 

It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms.
Susan Golombok
Cover image from Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms

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Yes

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

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Jan 19, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Yes

Assisted Reproduction and Family Development: The New Parents Study

By sj387 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Nov 01, 2013.

Family structure has changed markedly in the past few decades. Starting a family is now possible for a greater variety of intended parents due to the advances in assisted reproduction technologies (ARTs), allowing lesbian and  gay parents to start families for example. 

Despite the increasing numbers of couples and individuals helped by ARTs, these families have not been sufficiently represented in studies looking into how families develop. In order for policy and support to reflect the reality of life for these families, research needs to include all family forms. The science behind ARTs is developing rapidly and as such the science focusing on the psychological, social and emotional wellbeing of these families needs to keep up.

Of the extensive literature on family development conducted over the last century, comparatively little empirical focus has documented the wellbeing of same-sex parents and their children, in particular in families headed by gay dads. Studies including families with lesbian mothers have found children do not show signs of psychological maladjustment, do not have poorer peer relationships and do not show differences in gender identity.  Indeed, children of lesbian mothers appear to be functioning well into adult life.

Even fewer studies have focused on gay fathers and their children.  The few studies that have followed children of gay fathers have found these children did not show adverse effects, and were well adjusted. 

Understanding the development and experiences of these families is important, as increasing numbers of gay men are becoming fathers. Not enough is known about the well-being of these fathers, and the development of their children. Therefore, more empirical evidence and less assumption is needed to understand the effect of gay parents on their families wellbeing and experiences to ensure the correct support is in place, if needed.

This need for empirical evidence to understand the wellbeing of parents and children following ARTs is what drives The New Parents Study, an ambitious study following families with babies 4 months old are visited at their homes, with a follow-up invitation to Cambridge University when the babies are 12 months old. Families included are those who have gay parents, where the child was born through surrogacy; families with lesbian mothers, where the child was born through Donor Insemination; and heterosexual couples where the child was born through IVF. One father involved with The New Parents Study recently spoke about why he was driven to participate and what it was like being part of the study:

“As a family helped by surrogacy we are a minority, we need studies like this which represent us and our families, at the same time knowing the research is anonymous is also really reassuring….

“Taking part was enjoyable and speaking about our experiences of becoming parents really gave us food for thought. Normally when you talk to people about your children there’s a ticking clock, most people don’t want to hear all about what you’ve been up to and how we felt about everything! The New Parents Study team were really interested in what we had to say and were empathetic to talk to.

“All in all the visit was really enjoyable and I’d really recommend any first time parents who have been helped by ARTs to get involved.”

The New Parents Study is an exciting project to work on as we are following couples who have recently become first time parents (with babies up to 4 months old), inclusive of gay, lesbian and straight couples.  The study brings two groups based in Cambridge, the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group, and the Centre for Family Research, together with groups based at the University of Paris in France and the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. All of the groups involved in the New Parents Study have yielded findings over the years that demonstrate that it is the dynamics of a family that is far more important than the family structure when we are trying to understand child wellbeing.

Another reason being involved with The New Parents Study is so exciting is that we will be able to learn more about fathers who are primary caregivers.  In addition, we have the honour of seeing these families grow and develop while hearing about their family stories.

With such an ambitious project we are indebted to the on-going support and assistance we receive in reaching potential participating families, from charities, clinics, agencies and support groups.

Dr. Alice Winstanley and Dr. Kate Ellis-Davies recently attended several national and international events for ARTs, fathering and alternative families, including: the Alternative Parenting Show (London); Paternal Involvement in Pregnancy Outcomes from Preconception to First Year of Life (National Institutes of Health, Maryland, MD); New York Fertility Services (New York, NY); Surrogacy UK AGM (Warwick).

In March 2014, the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group, alongside the Centre For Family Research, will be organising an event for National Science and Engineering Week on “What Makes A Family”, where researchers, clinicians, charities, parent groups and the general public will be able to engage in discussions on recent research into family development, and how researchers can take account of the publics interests in family development.

For further information, please contact Alice Winstanley and Kate Ellis-Davies at infancy@hermes.cam.ac.uk

Alice Winstanley and Kate Ellis-Davies, are researchers in the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group working on The New Parents Study, a ground-breaking international project lead by Professor Michael Lamb and Professor Susan Golombok into the experiences of parents who have used assisted reproduction technologies, and the development of their children.

The New Parents Study team were really interested in what we had to say and were empathetic to talk to
A father involved with the New Parents Study

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Yes

We ask the experts: does society really care about the old and the vulnerable?

By sj387 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Oct 28, 2013.

Care of vulnerable groups is an emotive topic, often seen through the prism of crisis, scandal and rising costs. Funding is indeed a critical issue. According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, there are more than 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia: on average each one costs the economy more than £27,600 per annum. But discussions about how the ‘burden’ of care should be met, and by whom, also reveal much about our value systems and how we feel about each other. We asked three people some fundamental questions about care.

Charlie Cornish-Dale is a freelance journalist and editor. As part of his postgraduate research in social anthropology (St Catharine’s and King’s Colleges, Cambridge) he volunteered as a carer in a care home for the elderly where many of the residents had dementia. Dr Gail Ewing is a senior researcher at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge. After training as a nurse, she later moved into research where she has focused on palliative and end-of-life care, particularly from the perspective of unpaid carers.  Dr Claire Nicholl is Consultant Physician in Medicine for the Elderly at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. She is a practising clinician and advises on the interface between primary and secondary care as a champion for older people's services.

How do we think about care – and could we think differently?

Charlie Cornish-Dale: As someone trained to think as an anthropologist, I would say that care is a fundamental aspect of human relationships and of societies more generally. Care is something we all must do for each other at some time, through pregnancy, childhood, illness, disability and old age. It’s not something which happens only in institutions; care did not suddenly become a concern with the arrival of the care home. Kinship is care: whether we are brought up in an archetypal nuclear family or as part of an extended lineage or clan, we have obligations and duties towards defined groups of relations (sometimes even including the dead), which we must learn to fulfil. In talking about obligations and duties, we are, of course, entering the realm of ethics.

As different societies think about and do ethics in different ways, so it is with care. But what we think about care, and how we care, has changed, as our own society has changed, over a span of many centuries.  The progress of individualism has profoundly changed the way society is organised and with it the structures — kin-based, religious and economic —for organising care. The celebrated anthropologist, Alan MacFarlane, in The Origins of English Individualism, traces individualism back to the 13th century, by which time England, unlike other medieval nations, already had a social structure based around the unit of the nuclear family; this, he claims, was a prerequisite for England’s emergence as the first capitalist industrial power, allowing for rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

Gail Ewing: Care is part of everyday life for most people; whereby we care about others, not just care for them. From day to day, care is the practical stuff we do for each other as the result of our emotional bonds. We’re cared for within our families and we go on to care for our families.  When our children are young we care for them in a hands-on way but as they grow up we move out of that physical sphere of caring. There are, of course, exceptions: some people need life-long care. When care is mentioned, our first thought is care of the elderly – but there are other groups who need care too. When someone develops a long-term condition, he or she may need increasing care over many years.  Cancer can progress rapidly, in which case family members find themselves thrown into a caring situation with no preparation.  Care is something many people find themselves doing to varying degrees.

Claire Nicholl: I chose to specialise in medicine for the elderly because of the huge variety it offers you as a physician in terms of a career.  Most of the time, I absolutely love my job: I now work mainly on the wards and in outpatients clinics, I teach student doctors and train and examine postgraduate doctors. I ‘m also Trust co-lead for dementia services. I see lots of elderly frail people; each has different needs and often there is a chance to make a real difference to their lives. The negative media about the NHS, which I hear when I switch on the car radio, is depressing. Some terrible things have happened and urgently need addressing. But we mustn’t lose sight of the excellent work that goes on or launch an attack on the thousands of people who work in caring roles.

Nevertheless, I do feel that as a society we have moved backwards in terms of how we look out for each other. We tend to stand back in situations where in the past we might have got involved in reaching out to someone in need: if a child falls over we feel nervous about helping them up in case we are accused of touching them inappropriately.  In many communities there’s been a loss of reciprocity – the idea of people coming together to help each other. On a more positive note, many of the elderly people I meet do have wonderful families and neighbours.

In terms of what the state does to look after people, there’s been a rise in public expectations of what the NHS can provide.  For example, people who experience infertility, now expect to have IVF treatment into their 40s; people diagnosed with cancer want access to the best drugs and treatment which can be very expensive for very small benefits.  The NHS doesn’t talk about rationing healthcare, it talks about prioritising – but in effect there’s a finite pot of money and it has to make decisions about who gets what and how much. 

Who should be responsible for care?

CCD: What’s interesting is how we, in the west, categorise people and treat them accordingly, and, in particular, how we order lives into distinct stages, each having its own distinct expectations, responsibilities and mode of experience. This affects not only how we experience and understand our own lives but also how we treat others and, in turn, are treated by them. But our categories aren’t the only way of ordering a life. One of my favourite books in anthropology is No Aging in India, by Lawrence Cohen. Cohen considers the idea that, until very recently, there wasn’t such a thing as ageing in India. This might sound like post-modern nonsense; but what he means is that there wasn’t “ageing” as a distinct stage of life, as an irredeemable descent towards death in the way that we understand it. The elderly weren’t sent to liminal environments away from everybody else, but remained a central part of their communities.

It would be a typically anthropological gesture to say there is no ‘natural’ way to care; that there are many possible dispensations for caring for children, the vulnerable, the ill and the elderly, and that these are demonstrated by different cultures. This is all well and good, but it tells us little about what we should do in this, our, situation, other than that we shouldn’t believe our way is or was in any way inevitable. Cohen’s book is provocative, but it isn’t a guide in any meaningful sense. We have very specific problems. For instance, I worry that the terms of the care debate are solely economic. The ‘burden of care’ is always monetary, never moral. But the question of responsibility is a moral question. We have the resources to have a moral debate, but lack faith in them. All too often, moral debate is silenced by somebody who says, “Well, that’s just your opinion”, the implication being that moral opinions are just subjective; we feel confident when we talk about facts, because they have ‘substance’ we can get our teeth into, but we don’t feel the same about values. 

GE: Historically, care has been something that families undertake and, when it’s good and families are well supported, nothing can substitute this kind of care. It’s always been the case that most carers - both unpaid and paid – are women. When larger numbers of women spent their lives at home rather than the workplace, care was something they built into their other activities. But families have changed: most women have jobs as well as family responsibilities and they find themselves juggling their roles. Despite these changes, women undertake the overwhelming responsibility of care. And it’s women who more often than men find themselves alone and needing care at the end of life.

CN: As Gail says, care falls largely to women, whether they are paid or unpaid.  And in both these cases, women are generally juggling a number of roles. Families are often geographically dispersed and women are likely to be working. So women face all these pressures.  Paid carers get minimal training, their work is low status and poorly paid: yet they work they do is demanding, both mentally and physically, and they are in roles that carry a lot of personal responsibility. This isn’t something easy to fix because for people paying for care at home, or for a place in a home, the costs are already high.  Those people paying for places in care homes are effectively subsidising the care of those in the same homes who are paid for by their local authorities. So society does face some really big challenges in this respect – and there are certainly no easy answers. And the pressures on families, and on the NHS and other services, are inevitably going to get greater.

Can caring be taught?

CCD: My research focused precisely on the question of learning to care. One doesn’t just walk off the street into a care home and start caring: I had to shadow experienced carers as they worked and learn from them. They told me that in order to care I had to “turn off” my emotions, to dissociate doer from deed and ignore provocations from the residents. Because residents were seen as lacking the necessary stable mental state to be responsible agents, you couldn’t blame them for bad behaviour, and reproaching them would only upset them and aggravate their condition. All this might sound rather different from the official line on caring, but this is exactly what new carers were doing: learning to see the residents as being irresponsible and undeserving of blame. This account of care’s necessary work on the self comes very close to a famous philosophical account of attributing blame. In his essay Freedom and Resentment, PF Strawson argues that attributing responsibility has nothing to do with an objective measure ‘out there’ in the world, but is about the emotional stances we take towards each other.

When we see someone as irresponsible, we suspend our habitual emotional responses, adopting what he calls an “objective attitude” and making that person no longer a full player in our moral games. This was something I had difficulty doing at first, being completely unused to interacting with elderly people with dementia. I had never been in a care home before and my family has been blessed with remarkable longevity: at 94 my great-grandmother Winifred was still taking a restorative Guinness daily and leaning over the banister to pop money in the electricity meter. Though some of the residents seemed to me as close to dead as it is possible to be when alive, others were less obviously incapable, and yet their behaviour could vary quite dramatically from day to day, or even within a single day, making it unclear what to expect of them and how to respond.

GE: I trained as a nurse at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and I can clearly remember being shown by the ward sister how to bathe a patient.  She demonstrated to me, by the way she went about her this task, just as much as by what she said, that washing someone was not a lowly task but something quite vital. It was an opportunity to assess the patient, observing how they were, talking to them, while the care was provided.  When it came to serving meals, there was the same attention to detail: food was selected from the trolley for its suitability to individual patients. We were taught to make a note of how much patients ate and drank, and help them if they needed help. Basic nursing care was something seen as valuable and skilled. I found the example of this sister inspirational; she taught me a tremendous amount about taking a pride in your work and upholding standards of care. 

As for learning to “turn off” your emotions, I think that you do need a level of professionalism but I think this can be overdone. It’s not appropriate to be cold – but on the other hand it’s not appropriate to be too matey either. Niceties such as how you address a patient – by their first name or as Mr, Mrs or Miss if that is preferred – are so important to the dignity, and self-esteem, of the patient. All these apparently small things add up to create an environment that is either caring or not.

CN: I think the ability to care generally goes back to how you were brought up – and whether you were encouraged to be kind to people and animals, to think about others, and to respect other people’s space. Communication skills can be taught and improved on through tips and strategies to raise professionalism. But it’s very hard to teach caring from scratch. The extent to which someone feels empathy, or a sense of compassion, varies from person to person. If you don’t feel empathy for the people you’re working with, and paid to look after, you really shouldn’t be working in a hands-on caring role. The reality is, however, that if you’re unskilled and looking for a job, then the jobs readily available to you are likely to be in the care sector. As for how you go about caring, your personal style, it’s also true that everyone has a different way of doing things: an approach works with one patient won’t necessarily suit another. That’s a fact of life we can’t avoid. 

Is there a crisis of care?

CCD: I think how the idea of how a care crisis is framed in the media and the public imagination, is as interesting as the question of whether it actually exists or not. Clearly, the economics of care are frightening, and made even more so by the current political and economic dispensation. But we need to make sure we are asking the right questions and looking in the right places. The general idea of a “crisis” might itself be a problem, smuggling in certain assumptions which cloud our thinking or make us favour certain lines of questioning over others.

We should be alert to the fact that we seem only to have economic crises today. The care crisis is no different, being presented as an economic, not a moral, problem. Even a major study like Dementia 2010 sticks to the facts (the figures) and avoids the language of values. It’s the same in the newspapers, more or less. In a recent piece on Labour’s care policy, for instance, Polly Toynbee used the word ‘fair’ essentially to mean ‘distributed along more economically equitable lines’; she did not question whether there might be a way to care for the elderly which not only takes into account the distribution of the cost, but equally asks what they deserve and are due from their loved ones and from society.

When we do discuss morality, usually in cases of abuse by carers, what’s often emphasised is its singularity— there are only individual scandals involving individual care homes and individual carers (Winterbourne View, Mid-Staffs, Hilton Gardens, etc).The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu famously said that Watergate wasn’t a scandal, because for something to be a scandal it had to be individual or unusual; how many Watergates had there already been, and how many were there to come? American politics itself was the real scandal. He could just as easily have been talking about care today.

GE:  The scale of need created by the growing elderly population has been well documented.  Many paid carers working in residential homes and in the community do an exceptional job – but they receive minimal training and are rewarded by minimum wages for caring for some of the most vulnerable people in society. This doesn’t give carers – or the public at large - a good message about the importance of their role. It’s shocking that carers paid to support people in their own homes are generally not paid for the time they spend travelling between visits – and sometimes not even reimbursed for their travel costs.  Some paid carers are on zero hour contracts which give them no job security. This situation urgently needs addressing.

There is another less immediately visible problem too: a crisis of individual people not recognising the situation they are in. Carers looking after family members or friends start out by providing one level of care but it often escalates so they continue to provide care with no service input – and often no knowledge of what support they could access. This can lead to cases of crisis – especially when one elderly or frail person is looking after another.

CN: I fear that this winter, and if not this winter then next winter, could be a really difficult time for the NHS. In my opinion, we have had far too much political interference and reorganisations which have led to a loss of staff morale and affected the ways in which people feel a sense of ownership of their jobs. In the case of recent scandals, which are inexcusable, most of those involved were not ‘bad people’: they were let down by the system and slipped into struggling to meet targets and  jumping through hoops rather than looking at the care provided to patients for whom they were responsible. A system in which one Trust has to compete with another, and is judged on the bottom line, is not a system that is putting compassion first: it’s a system that prioritises targets over people.

Is there a solution to this crisis?

CCD: I think we need to be certain what the nature of the crisis is. There clearly are economic problems.  But even if we solved the immediate economic problems— if more funding were made available for dementia research, diagnosis and treatment, for instance — then the structure of care institutions, if it remained intact, might still make abuse and mistreatment inevitable.

As long as the elderly and the vulnerable are treated as objects to be administered to, in a better or worse way, then I think the moral problem will remain. The question is whether we can find ways to allow the elderly and the vulnerable to exist actively, rather than passively, within, rather than outside, society. This is the provocative message at the heart of No Aging in India, that we don’t have to do things this way — that the elderly don’t have to be passive and that their existence and experience can be profoundly meaningful, both to themselves and to those around them. But moral questions barely register at the moment. Making them register won’t be easy.

GE: We certainly need a much better career structure for carers to encourage them to develop and move forward – the introduction of NVQs is a valuable first step and must be encouraged. Care is unpredictable by nature: this is at the crux of the challenge. As the journalist Jackie Ashley, wife of Andrew Marr, has pointed out in interviews about their experience of Andrew’s stroke and recovery, paid-for care is organised to pre-planned time slots. Andrew’s carer would arrive at 7am – but he wanted to get up at 6am which meant that when the carer arrived assistance was no longer needed. This is just a small detail but it reveals so much about a crisis facing not just one family but many others too. Jackie Ashley has also raised the question of whether family leave could be broadened beyond maternity and paternity leave to include a range of situations and scenarios.  There is no substitute for quality family care – and we can strive to help families to make that care possible.

CN: Caring for the frail older people whom I see, many of whom have cognitive problems, takes a lot of time and this puts real pressure on staffing budgets. People with dementia don’t necessarily feel hungry at meal times and feeding them takes time, skill and patience. We’re now seeing an increase in the use of volunteers to undertake these tasks in hospitals.  At Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Giles Wright, Voluntary Services Manager, is working on a programme to ensure that all volunteers in the hospital have basic training about dementia and those who express a particular interest in working with older people have additional training and on-going support.

There’s a lot of talk about assistive technology and how it can play a role in care. It’s a term used to describe not just devices that allow people to do things like close the curtains, switch the radio on and heat up food remotely, or ways of monitoring people at home – for example whether they are walking around and have opened the fridge – but also covers the development of robots as companions in the home, something that’s been explored in Japan. I’m sceptical about a lot of this: essentially people need people, not gadgets.   Pets can provide companionship and a new development is the training of dogs. Dogs can enhance the quality of life of a person with dementia – but once again dogs need people to look after them.

With the number of very old people increasing dramatically it’s likely that attitudes to euthanasia will eventually change. At present, there’s a lot of skirting around the issue in professional circles. Many people, especially older women, tell me that they are worried about becoming a burden on their families, and are really frightened about losing their independence and dignity. These people tell me that they would like to have the choice of going to Dignitas but are concerned that when they might want to end things they will not able to make the journey.

To purchase tickets (£6) for the Festival of Ideas talk ‘Melvyn Bragg in discussion: dementia narratives – the art of care’ phone 01223 353053 email mindsarts@gmail.com or visit www.artsminds.org.uk

For more information about this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673

Inset images from top: Vinoth Chandar, Sceptre Publishers, Jess Golden, Magnus Franklin, Phil and Pam, Marmotte73, Melvyn Bragg

 

On November 1 Melvyn Bragg will talk about his book Grace and Mary at the Festival of Ideas.  The novel is based on Bragg’s own bitter-sweet experience of his mother’s dementia. Looking back across three generations, it raises fundamental questions about social attitudes and how they shape our lives. Three people discuss some of the big challenges that face us.

Care is a fundamental aspect of human relationships and of societies more generally
Charlie Cornish-Dale
Steel Dust: Young and Old

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Family bonds: how does surrogacy impact on relationships?

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Jul 08, 2013.

When a woman becomes a surrogate to enable others to have a baby, new relationships are formed. Research carried out by the Centre of Family Research, University of Cambridge, suggests that many of these relationships flourish.  The research will be presented today at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) conference in London.

Surrogacy, the process whereby a woman carries and gives birth to a baby for an infertile couple, has become a more widely-accepted way of building a family, helped in part by media coverage of its use by high-profile celebrities. Commercially arranged surrogacy is illegal in the UK and many surrogates, most of whom have children of their own, are motivated by the desire to help others have a family.

To date there has been limited research into the long-term impact of surrogacy on the adults and children involved in the process, but now a study at the Centre for Family Research is looking at whether, and how, surrogacy affects family relationships. 

Today Dr Vasanti Jadva and PhD candidate Susan Imrie of the Centre for Family Research will present findings from a two-year ESRC-funded research project which looks at the experiences of surrogacy from a range of perspectives including that of the partners and children of surrogates as well as surrogates themselves.

The research is based on in-depth interviews with 34 surrogates, 36 children of surrogates and 11 partners of surrogates. Twenty of the surrogates had been interviewed by Dr Jadva more than ten years ago in a previous project which looked at the psychological wellbeing and experiences of surrogates one year after the birth of the surrogacy child.  The participation of these women allowed the researchers to track relationships over time, adding a valuable dimension to the study.

The findings paint a largely positive picture of the relationships between the surrogate and her own family, and between these individuals and the families created through surrogacy. 

“Our research shows that in the majority of cases, relationships formed as a result of surrogacy are valued and enjoyed by surrogates and sustained over time,” said Dr Jadva.  The study found that surrogates stayed in touch with the majority of the surrogacy children (77 per cent) and with most of the parents (85 per cent of mothers, 76 per cent of fathers). Of the surrogates who had chosen to maintain contact with the surrogacy families, most would meet in person once or twice a year.

Most of the surrogates’ own children (86 per cent) had a positive view of their mothers’ involvement in surrogacy. Almost half (47 per cent) were in contact with the surrogacy child all of whom reported a good relationship with him or her. A significant number of surrogates’ children referred to the child as a sibling or a half sibling.

There are two types of surrogacy practised in the UK: gestational surrogacy, also known as host surrogacy, in which the surrogate gestates the couple’s embryo (or an embryo created using a donor egg) and becomes pregnant through IVF; and genetic surrogacy, also known as traditional surrogacy, in which the surrogate uses her own egg and is thus the genetic mother of the child.

Interestingly, the type of surrogacy did not affect how the surrogacy child was viewed by the surrogates’ own children and did not appear to have a bearing on whether the experience was seen as positive or negative by those involved.

Susan Imrie said: “It is clear that the children of surrogate mothers do not experience any negative consequences as a result of their mother’s decision to be a surrogate and that this was irrespective of whether or not the surrogate used her own egg.  In fact, most of the children we spoke to were supportive of their mother being a surrogate and were proud of what she’d achieved.”

Surrogacy offers a means of having children to a growing number of couples experiencing fertility problems or unable to conceive.  The practice is legal in the UK on an altruistic and non-commercial basis, and surrogacy arrangements are non-enforceable in law.  The surrogate is the legal mother of the child until legal parentage is transferred to the intended parents through a Parental Order which can be applied for between six weeks and six months after the birth.  Since 2010 it has been possible for same-sex couples in the UK to use surrogacy as a means of parenthood. Although no accurate figures are available on the number of surrogacies carried out in the UK, it is estimated that numbers are increasing. 

Dr Vasanti Jadva will be presenting her paper ‘Children of surrogate mothers: psychological wellbeing, family relationships and experiences of surrogacy’ at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) on Monday, 8 July. Susan Imrie’s poster is titled ‘Surrogate mothers: contact and relationships with families created through surrogacy’.

For more information about this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673.
 

Preliminary results from a pioneering study at Cambridge University paint a positive picture of the relationships formed between surrogates and the families they help to create. 

Our research shows that, in the majority of cases, relationships formed as a result of surrogacy are valued and enjoyed by surrogates and sustained over time.
Vasanti Jadva
family outing

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Yes

How to care for carers

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Jun 10, 2013.

It is well established that most people would prefer to die at home rather than in hospital. The family members or friends who make this possible (carers) play a vital role in sharing care with the health care professionals involved.  Just as the patient has complex and immediate needs, so does the carer. The carer provides the support needed to help someone close to them spend the last stage of their life in the familiar surroundings of their own home, within their own community.

Caring for people who are dying is stressful on multiple levels. Many carers are elderly or infirm and find themselves in situations for which they have had little preparation. Others have to juggle conflicting roles within families – for example as care-givers to relatives and as parents to young children – as well as fitting care around paid work. Pioneering research into the day-to-day experiences of a range of people who have recently provided this kind of support to family or friends has led to the development of an accessible but comprehensive tool for assessing the support needs of carers – and thus providing a point of reference for putting that support into place. 

The Carer Support Needs Assessment Tool (CSNAT) has been developed by Dr Gail Ewing, a senior researcher at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, in partnership with Professor Gunn Grande at the University of Manchester. Both have long experience of palliative and end of life care research, particularly with carers.Their work was carried out in collaboration with the National Association for Hospice at Home.

The CSNAT is based on findings from a study of 75 recently bereaved carers who had cared for a relative or friend at the end of life. Participants shared their experiences with researchers in interviews and focus groups which explored carers’ support needs, particularly in the last two to three months of the life of the person they were caring for. Carers were asked about support needs that were met and input from services that was perceived to be helpful, but also shortfalls in provision where needs had not been met. This enabled the researchers to identify key support domains (areas) for carers at the end of life.

One of the support domains is the matter of knowing who to contact about concerns. “We found that carers often had little knowledge of healthcare systems and who they should contact for help. What appeared to make a real difference was whether the carer had a main contact for support. This was not just a telephone number, but it was a person: someone who they could contact who knew their situation – who could be reached both in the daytime and out of hours.  Carers did not necessarily make use of named contacts a great deal but reported reassurance from knowing that there was a person they could call if needed,” said Dr Ewing.

“Our study with bereaved carers showed us that the needs of carers fell into two groupings: support to enable them to care for their relative/friend, but also more direct support for themselves, arising from the impact of their caring role. We built the tool around that understanding.”

Seven of the 14 domains on the tool ask the carer about the support he or she needs in order to fulfil the role of carer to a dying relative or friend, such as ‘do you need more support with managing your relative’s symptoms, including giving medicines?’  The second set of domains asks the carer about the support they need for themselves, such as ‘do you need more support with dealing with your feelings and worries?’

The CSNAT was designed as a screening tool to identify which of the 14 areas of support needs require further detailed assessment, thus enabling it to be short but comprehensive in approach. “The intention is to use it to use it to open up a conversation between practitioners and carers to explore, from the carers’ perspective, what their support needs are and what it most important to them,” explained Dr Ewing.

In 2009-2010 the tool was validated when 225 adult carers were surveyed twice – a baseline survey was followed by a second survey four weeks later where carers completed the CSNAT along with standard measures of the impact of caregiving, preparedness to care and carer health.

Carers’ needs may change over time due to shifts in the situation and the burden of continuing, often escalating, practical and emotional demands. Study findings suggested that the assessment tool was relevant and covered all the main support domains; feedback indicated that that the CSNAT was quick and easy to use. It was also seen as giving carers a voice: one former carer remarked that she felt she “could be heard through this”.

The study found that most carers wanted more support with knowing what to expect in the future and dealing with their feelings and worries. “In end-of-life care, carers often find themselves entering a world they are unfamiliar with – and find themselves coping with medications and equipment they know little about. They may need information about the drugs, or instruction about the equipment and devices they are handling,” said Dr Ewing.

“The assessment tool allows them to voice their worries about aspects of the care they are providing. Just as importantly it offers a framework that recognises the important role they play and legitimises their own needs. The way in which professional support is offered is vital. Sometimes it can be something very simple:  carers may just want to be included in aspects of the care of a loved one or even just to have acknowledgement of role they are playing.”

If you would like further information about the CSNAT, please contact Dr Gail Ewing ge200@cam.ac.uk.

Carers’ week (10-16 June) will focus on the 6.5 million people who are carers. Many are providing palliative care for a relative or friend at home. A new tool has been developed to identify carers’ needs during end-of-life care at home and enable them to work more smoothly with healthcare professionals. 

In end-of-life care, carers often find themselves entering a world they are unfamiliar with – and find themselves coping with medications and equipment they know little about.
Dr Gail Ewing

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Yes

New conceptions: single mothers by sperm donation

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Apr 25, 2013.

Earlier this month, we were given the sad news that Professor Sir Robert Edwards had passed away. A Nobel Prize winner, scientist, and fellow of Churchill College, Professor Edwards has received much international acclaim for his significant contribution to the field of reproductive medicine. Here in Cambridge, with colleague Patrick Steptoe, he pioneered in vitro fertilisation, a method to facilitate family-building in the face of infertility. Yet, although the scientific implications of IVF were well thought-through by the duo, the extensive social, ethical and philosophical debates which ensued as a result of their work could not have been anticipated.

Twenty five years on, it is clear that assisted reproductive techniques have raised fundamental questions about the relationship between technology and society, and the role of science in human experience. And while IVF at the outset was explicitly used to assist traditional family-building, today technology has enabled lesbian and gay couples and single men and women worldwide to become parents, causing much deliberation, discussion and debate among professionals, politicians, and the wider public.

At the Centre for Family Research, our team, headed by Professor Susan Golombok, is committed to obtaining empirical evidence on the psychological, social and emotional well-being of parents and children in families formed through assisted reproduction. Having conducted research on hundreds of families of different shapes and sizes, we have learnt that what seems to be most important is not how families are formed or structured, but the quality of family relationships and experiences. One of our most recent research projects focuses on single women who have used a sperm donor to have a child.

In 1990, when the UK government first legislated about the use of assisted reproduction, it was stated that clinicians needed to consider a ‘child’s need for a father’ in deciding whom to offer treatment. In practice, we know that some fertility clinics were already offering, and continued to offer, treatment to lesbian couples and single women, but the ‘need for a father’ was only recently replaced by the ‘need for supportive parenting’ when the legislation was last amended – in 2008.

Many of the arguments against single women using sperm donation assume that these families are likely to face similar issues to those that might affect single-parent families by divorce, such as financial or emotional difficulties. It is often assumed that women who want to use fertility treatment on their own will fit a middle-class, career-focused, 40-something stereotype, suddenly struck by the sound of their ticking biological clock.

This group of women has been widely criticised for the pursuit of a non-traditional path to parenthood which ultimately, it is argued, deprives children of the right to know, and have a relationship with, their biological father. In fact, concerns are raised not only by politicians and the wider public, but by professionals working in fertility treatment services. Clinic staff have questioned whether single women have the adequate material and social resources, and psychological and emotional skills, required to parent effectively. It is often assumed that these women’s single status is indicative of their inability to maintain a successful romantic relationship. This being the case, it is supposed that single mothers by sperm donation will lack the qualities necessary for good parenthood.

Our latest findings at the Centre for Family Research indicate not only that the cohort of single women accessing sperm donation may be more diverse than often assumed, but that concerns about the functioning of their families may be based more upon misinformation than anything else. In our work, we have so far been welcomed into the homes of over 40 single mothers by sperm donation. We have met their children, their families, their friends and, sometimes, their pets, and have been entrusted with significant and often deeply personal information about their experiences. So who are these women, why have they chosen this path to parenthood, and what are their families like?

The women we have seen come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and they differ vastly in their experiences of education and employment. They have ranged in age from their early 30s to their early 50s, with some women initially accessing fertility services as 20-somethings. Only one woman we visited described her decision to use fertility treatment as a result of her career choices earlier in life. In fact, the majority of mothers discuss their decision as resulting from not having a suitable partner at the time they decided to have a child. Contrary to clinical opinion, most of the women in our study have previously been in long-term relationships, and several have cohabited with a partner. Some have had children in these relationships, and others have previously been married.

But why do these women want to become single mothers? The answer is that in many ways, they don’t. The majority of women we have visited have described how they had always assumed they would have children within a traditional two-parent family, and would have preferred this to be the case. However, they – like the majority of people in the UK today – want to have children, and they want to do so in a way they see as safe and honest, and supported by the services available to them.

When talking about having chosen their specific sperm donor, mothers have described different approaches, including choosing from a sperm donation website in the company of friends, to asking very little information of clinic staff about the donor they have been matched with on the basis of shared physical characteristics. Some mothers tell their family, friends, and their children about their use of a donor, while others do not share this information so readily, and others have opted to refrain from disclosing the information, until their children – who, in our study, are currently aged four to eight – are older.

At odds with the assumption that single women using a sperm donor intentionally deprive their children of a father, most of the mothers we have seen explicitly acknowledge the possibility that their use of a donor may have consequences for how their children feel about their families. Many reflect upon the significance of male role models for their child’s development, and several highlight how they have fostered relationships between their male family members and friends and their children for this reason.

In fact, it seems fair to say that none of the mothers parent single-handedly: they all receive practical and emotional support from family, friends, and others, in raising their children. And although they do see clear differences between their experiences of parenthood and the experiences of their married friends, these differences are not always seen in a negative light. Mothers mostly distinguish between the good and bad families they are familiar with. Their judgments are based upon whether the people in these families are happy and healthy, rather than how many people are in them.

Having now spent over a year listening to their stories, and sharing in mothers’ experiences, it seems reasonable to suggest that politicians, professionals, and the public might do well to take the lead from these mothers in assessing their families in a similar way: irrespective of family structure. Instead of relying on a single stereotype of single mothers by sperm donation, our focus should remain on research which continues to look closely at the well-being of the mothers and children within these families.

Most fundamentally, the debate ignited by Edwards and Steptoe back in 1978 must now move beyond arguments in favour of the traditional family, comprised of two married, heterosexual parents and their 2.4 children. In other words, the need for new conceptions – of family life in general, and of single motherhood specifically – is now clear.

Sophie Zadeh is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge. Her research with Dr Tabitha Freeman and Professor Susan Golombok focuses on the experiences of single women who have used a sperm donor to have a child, and explores the psychological, social and emotional well-being of mothers and children in these families.

 

Sophie Zadeh, a PhD candidate in the Centre for Family Research, is contributing to a new study of the well-being of single mothers by sperm donation and their children. Her initial findings confound many of the assumptions about this group of women. 

Why do these women want to become single mothers? The answer is that in many ways, they don’t.
Sophie Zadeh
Litte hand

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