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Welcome to Professor Mark Johnson, new Head of Department

By from News. Published on Oct 03, 2017.

Winner takes all: Success enhances taste for luxury goods, study suggests

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Sep 19, 2017.

While we may sometimes make expensive purchases because of the high quality of a product, these items often represent status symbols, a phenomenon termed ‘conspicuous consumption’. Evolutionary psychologists claim that conspicuous consumption may be comparable to ostentatious behaviours or elaborate physical characteristics seen in the animal kingdom. A peacock’s tail may be energetically costly to build, but may serve as an indicator of genetic quality; similarly, conspicuous consumption may represent a costly display of wealth that serves to increase an individual’s social status.

Previous studies have suggested that testosterone plays a key role in human social status seeking, with elevated levels of the hormone being associated with more dominant and aggressive behaviour in men. It has also been suggested that testosterone levels increase in response to an individual winning a competition, and fall in response to losing.

In a study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, Yin Wu, at the time a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with researchers from London Business School, University of Oxford, and University of Vienna, led an investigation into the effects of social status and testosterone levels on conspicuous consumption. Dr Wu tested the effects of winning or losing a competitive version of the game Tetris on the behaviour and testosterone levels of 166 male volunteers – although in fact, while the participants thought they were competing against each other in two-player games, they were randomly assigned as winners or losers.

After playing the Tetris game, the researchers asked the participants how much they would be willing to pay for luxury items such as expensive cars, from 10% of its retail price up to 120%. They found that winners tended to be willing to pay more for these items than losers. This effect was confirmed with some status products made in the laboratory, such that winners were more willing than losers to pay for a Harvard University T-shirt. 

Next, participants were asked to attribute positive and negative words to the items. This task helps assess the implicit value that participants assigned to the objects – in experiments, this is used to measure attitudes that people are unwilling to reveal publicly, and in the field of consumer psychology, these measures can predict brand preferences, usage, and recognition. The current study supported the finding that winners attach greater value than losers to luxury items.

Finally, the researchers measured the participants’ testosterone levels. Contrary to expectations, winning and losing had no observable effect on testosterone levels. This suggests that testosterone does not play a role in conspicuous consumption.

“Winning a competition, which we know is associated with feeling a sense of a higher social status, seems to drive individuals towards conspicuous consumption, making them more willing to pay for luxury items,” says Dr Wu, now based at Shenzhen University in China. “However, we were surprised that testosterone levels did not change with winning or losing, and so testosterone does not seem to be driving the effects on conspicuous consumption.”

The researchers argue that one way in which winning leads to conspicuous consumption is through an enhanced sense of entitlement among winners, the feeling that as winners they are more deserving of preferential treatment than others: the Tetris ‘winners’ may have felt more deserving of the high-status products and also of fair treatment in the ultimatum game. This would be consistent with findings that feelings of superiority over others arising from hard work and success enhance the desire to purchase luxury brands, as individuals see the luxury goods as a reward.

“We are not only interested in examining what people are willing to do to win, but also in understanding the consequences of winning on people’s everyday behaviour,” says Dr Amos Schurr, a behavioural economist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, who was not part of this study.

“Social competition is pervasive in our daily life – whether it is in terms of fighting for the top job, competing for friends and popularity or even growing up in a wealthy, successful family,” says Dr Wu. “Our study demonstrates that winning a competition leads people to prefer high-status products, possibly through an increased feeling of entitlement or deservingness.”

Concerning the null findings on the testosterone levels, the researchers suggested that competition-induced testosterone fluctuations may be hard to detect, and so they are carrying out further work to test the effects of testosterone on conspicuous consumption in their on-going project.

This study was conducted at the University of Cambridge’s Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, funded by Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust.

Wu, Y et al. The role of social status and testosterone in human conspicuous consumption. Scientific Reports; 18 September 2017; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-12260-3

Footballers in flashy cars, City workers in Armani suits, reality TV celebrities sipping expensive champagne while sitting in hot tubs: what drives people to purchase luxury goods? New research suggests that it may be a sense of being a ‘winner’ – but that contrary to expectations, it is not driven by testosterone.

Social competition is pervasive in our daily life – whether it is in terms of fighting for the top job, competing for friends and popularity or even growing up in a wealthy, successful family.
Yin Wu
McLaren P1

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News from Professor Trevor Robbins

By from News. Published on Sep 19, 2017.

Clive Wilkins, Artist in Residence, publishes new novel

By from News. Published on Sep 18, 2017.

Dr Amy Milton receives EBPS Young Scientist Award

By from News. Published on Sep 07, 2017.

Researching 21st Century Families

By from News. Published on Aug 04, 2017.

Why We Disagree about Facts

By from News. Published on Jun 28, 2017.

Trevor Robbins awarded the 2017 Goldman-Rakic Prize

By from News. Published on Jun 26, 2017.

Genes influence ability to read a person’s mind from their eyes

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 07, 2017.

Twenty years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed a test of ‘cognitive empathy’ called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or the Eyes Test, for short). This revealed that people can rapidly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling from looking at their eyes alone. It also showed that some of us are better at this than others, and that women on average score better on this test than men.

Now, the same team, working with the genetics company 23andMe along with scientists from France, Australia and the Netherlands, report results from a new study of performance on this test in 89,000 people across the world. The majority of these were 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research. The results confirmed that women on average do indeed score better on this test.

More importantly, the team confirmed that our genes influence performance on the Eyes Test, and went further to identify genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women that are associated with their ability to “read the mind in the eyes”.

The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur.

Interestingly, performance on the Eyes Test in males was not associated with genes in this particular region of chromosome 3. The team also found the same pattern of results in an independent cohort of almost 1,500 people who were part of the Brisbane Longitudinal Twin Study, suggesting the genetic association in females is a reliable finding.

The closest genes in this tiny stretch of chromosome 3 include LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum, and which has been shown using brain scanning to play a role in cognitive empathy. Consistent with this, genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the volume of the striatum in humans, a finding that needs to be investigated further.

Previous studies have found that people with autism and anorexia tend to score lower on the Eyes Test. The team found that genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the risk for anorexia, but not autism. They speculate that this may be because autism involves both social and non-social traits, and this test only measures a social trait.

Varun Warrier says: “This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world. This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy.” 

Professor Bourgeron adds: “This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience.”

Professor Baron-Cohen says: “We are excited by this new discovery, and are now testing if the results replicate, and exploring precisely what these genetic variants do in the brain, to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy. This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population.”

Warrier, V et al. Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition. Molecular Psychiatry; 6 June 2017; DOI: 10.1038/MP.2017.122

Our DNA influences our ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes, suggests a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

This is the first study to attempt to correlate performance on the Eye Test with variation in the human genome
Varun Warrier

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Stimulate your brain with the Cambridge BRAINFest 2017

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 05, 2017.

The three day event, running from 23-25 June, will allow audiences to quiz more than 130 leading Cambridge neuroscientists on everything from dementia and dyslexia through to memory and mental health.

“We’re all fascinated by the brain – its complexity is what makes us so unique as a species,” says Dr Dervila Glynn, coordinator of Cambridge Neuroscience, who is organising the event. “Cambridge is one of the major centres in the UK, if not the world, for studying how the brain works, and why in many cases it goes wrong, leading to disease. Cambridge BRAINFest is our chance to showcase the brilliant work that is taking place across the city.”

Throughout the weekend, the Cambridge Corn Exchange will be transformed into an interactive tour of the brain, with themes including ‘Development’, ‘Brain & Body’, ‘Pain & Pleasure’, Perception & Imagination’ and ‘Learning & Forgetting’ spanning research from molecules to man. Visitors, adults and children alike, will get the opportunity to take part in experiments across 30 different interactive exhibits and even build their own brain. A ‘Secret Cinema’ will show a series of films that illustrate how Cambridge researchers are tackling conditions such as dementia and OCD. Meanwhile, Café Scientifique will explore the breadth of brain science from body clocks and brain networks to the weird and wonderful world of the naked mole-rat.

On 23 June, the opening night, audiences at the Babbage Lecture Theatre will hear from BBC Horizon presenter Dr Giles Yeo about why we are all getting fatter, from Professor Usha Goswami about how dyslexic brains may be in tune but out of time, and from Professor Roger Barker on how we can repair the degenerating brain. Poet Lavinia Greenlaw will perform a moving poem about dementia, while Cambridgeshire-based Dance Ensemblé will explore the story of Parkinson’s disease through the medium of dance.

The following night, Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, will chair a panel discussion with mental health experts from the University of Cambridge and from Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, looking at the ongoing research that will help us better understand and treat mental health disorders and how we can bridge the existing gap between neuroscience research and current practice in the health service. The panel will look at issues including how the brain and body interact, the stigma surrounding mental health problems and the transition between child and adult psychiatry.

For those wishing to take advantage of the sights around Cambridge, a historical self-guided ‘Neurotrail’ will lead explorers around the places, people, and discoveries that have put our city at the heart of our understanding of the brain. Maps will be available at the Corn Exchange on the weekend.

The foyer of the Corn Exchange will be transformed by BRAINArt, an exhibition of brain-inspired art by local school children. In the lead up to Cambridge BRAINFest, Dr Glynn visited 1,400 pupils, talked about the brain and enthused her audiences about the body’s most complex organ.

“As a researcher, it can be thrilling to discuss our work with the public,” says Professor Angela Roberts, chair of the organising committee. “It’s an opportunity for us to share some of the excitement that comes from working at the cutting-edge of research. But equally, it’s a chance for us to hear the public’s views about our work. We expect some fascinating – and potentially challenging – discussions will arise.”

Cambridge BRAINFest 2017 builds on the success of major public engagement events organised by the University of Cambridge, including the Cambridge Science Festival in spring and the Festival of Ideas in autumn.

All events are free, but booking is recommended for the evening events at the Babbage Lecture Theatre. Further details, including how to book, can be found on the Cambridge BRAINFest 2017 website.

Join the #CambridgeBRAINfest conversation on Twitter @CamNeuro and on Facebook.

Why are we getting so fat?  Why do teenagers really need to lie-in? And can we fix a broken brain? These are just some of the questions that will be answered at Cambridge BRAINFest 2017, a free public festival celebrating the most complex organ in the body.

Cambridge is one of the major centres in the UK, if not the world, for studying how the brain works, and why in many cases it goes wrong, leading to disease. Cambridge BRAINFest is our chance to showcase the brilliant work that is taking place across the city
Dervila Glynn
brain 22

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Cambridge Risk and Uncertainty Conference

By from News. Published on May 30, 2017.

Sorting Out What Is Real: Q and A with Jon Simons

By from News. Published on May 25, 2017.

Brains or beauty? People perceive attractive scientists as more interesting but less able, studies show

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 22, 2017.

A new study published today in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) from researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Essex suggests that when it comes to judging scientists, we are more likely to find an attractive scientist interesting, but more likely to consider their less attractive colleagues to be better scientists.

“Given the importance of science to issues that could have a major impact on society, such as climate change, food sustainability and vaccinations, scientists are increasingly required to engage with the public,” says Dr Will Skylark from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, who led the study. “We know from studies showing that political success can be predicted from facial appearance, that people can be influenced by how someone looks rather than, necessarily, what they say. We wanted to see if this was true for scientists.”

Dr Skylark and colleagues randomly sampled the faces of scientists from the Physics and Genetics departments at US universities (108 scientists for each field), and then from the Physics and Biological Sciences departments at UK universities (200 scientists for each field) for replication studies.

In the first set of studies, the team asked one group to rate the faces on a variety of traits, such as how intelligent the individual looked, how attractive they were, and their perceived age. Then, two other groups of participants indicated how interested they would be in finding out more about each scientist’s research or how much the person looked like someone who conducts accurate and important research.

The researchers found that people were more interested in learning about the work of scientists who were physically attractive and who appeared competent and moral. Interest was also slightly stronger for older scientists, and slightly lower for females. There was no difference in interest between white and non-white scientists.

However, when it came to judging whether a scientist does high-quality work, people tended to associate this with an individual’s apparent competence and morality – and the more attractive and sociable they were perceived to be, the less people considered them to look like a scientist who conducts good research.

The researchers next investigated whether facial appearance affects people’s choices about which science to engage with by pairing the titles of real science-news stories with faces that had received low or high interest judgments in the first part of the study.

Participants were more likely to choose research that was paired with a photo of an interesting-looking scientist. This bias was present both for male and female scientists, physics and biology news stories, and both video and text formats.

Next, the participants were told that they would read articles from a new magazine section comprising profiles of people discussing their interests and work. The articles were adapted from news websites to make them appear like the scientist was describing his or her own work to a general audience. Participants read two articles, each presented with a photo of its putative author – one with a high ‘good scientist’ rating in the first study and one with a low rating.

Research that was paired with the photo of a ‘good scientist’ was judged to be higher quality, irrespective of the scientist’s gender and discipline – although the effect was small. In addition, quality judgments were higher for physics articles than for biology articles. A similar study found that the attractiveness of the scientist had only a small effect on the perceived quality of their research.

“It seems that people use facial appearance as a source of information when selecting and evaluating science news,” says Dr Skylark. “It’s not yet clear how much this shapes the spread and acceptance of scientific ideas among the public, but the rapid growth in visual media means it may be an increasingly important issue.”

Gheorghiu, AI, Callan, M and Skylark, WJ. Facial appearance affects science communication. PNAS; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1620542114

If you think of good science communicators, it’s likely that the names Brian Cox, Alice Roberts or Neil deGrasse Tyson may come to mind. But do you consider them good science communicators because they look competent or because they are attractive?

We know from studies showing that political success can be predicted from facial appearance, that people can be influenced by how someone looks rather than, necessarily, what they say. We wanted to see if this was true for scientists
Will Skylark
Professor Brian Cox

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Congratulations to Dr Sander van der Linden

By from News. Published on May 18, 2017.

Marmoset study provides clues to link between mental health disorders and heart disease

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 08, 2017.

Changes in heart rate and blood pressure such as the ‘fight or flight’ response are a normal part of our emotional reactions. However, it is well known that people with depression or anxiety have an increased risk of heart disease along with distressing negative emotional states. The reasons why have remained unclear.

Now, in a study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Dr Hannah Clarke and colleagues from the University of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust have discovered a link between two key areas of the brain and emotional responses. They also show that our brains control our cardiovascular response – changes in our heart patterns and blood pressure – to emotional situations.

To carry out the study, the researchers used marmosets with small metal tubes implanted into specific brain regions in order to administer drugs that reduce activity temporarily in that brain region. This enabled the researchers to show which regions caused particular responses. The marmosets rapidly adapt to these implants and remain housed with their partners throughout the study.

In the first task, the marmosets were presented with three auditory cues: one that was followed by a mildly aversive stimulus (a loud noise), one that was followed by a non-aversive stimulus (darkness), and one where the subsequent stimulus had a 50/50 chance of being either a loud noise or darkness. The task lasted just 30 minutes and they were exposed to this task a maximum of five days a week over a few months.

As the marmoset began to understand the cues, the researchers observed that the monkey’s heart rate and blood pressure increased in anticipation of the loud noise, and the monkey began to look around more (known as ‘vigilant scanning’). However, the team found that turning off one region (known as Area 25 – the subgenual cingulate cortex) of the prefrontal cortex in the marmosets made them less fearful: their heart rate and blood pressure did not change and they became less vigilant.

In a second task, adapted from a common rodent test of emotion, the team studied the ability of marmosets to regulate their emotional responses. In a single session of thirty minutes, an auditory cue was presented on seven occasions, and each time it was accompanied by a door opening and the marmoset being presented with a rubber snake for five seconds. As marmosets are afraid of snakes they developed similar cardiovascular and behavioural responses to the auditory cue associated with the snake as they did to the cue associated with loud noise. The next day, to break the link between the cue and snake, the researchers stopped showing the marmoset the snake when the cue was sounded.

In this task, inactivating Area 25 meant that the marmoset was quicker to adapt: once the link between the auditory cue and the snake was broken, the marmosets quickly became less fearful in response to the cue, with their cardiovascular and behavioural measurements returning to baseline faster than normal.

In both tasks, inactivating another region (Area 32 – the perigenual cingulate cortex) made normal fearful responses spread to non-threatening situations: the marmosets became less able to discriminate between fearful and non-fearful cues, showing heightened blood pressure and vigilant scanning to both. This is a characteristic of anxiety disorders.

Marmoset brain with Areas 25 and 32 highlighted

“We now see clearly that these brain regions control aspects of heart function as well as emotions,” says Dr Clarke. “This helps our understanding of emotional disorders, which involve a complicated interplay between brain and body.”

Previous studies of anxiety and depression in humans have shown altered activity in these subgenual and perigenual brain regions. However, as it is not possible to manipulate the brain regions in humans, it was not previously possible to say whether these brain regions were responsible for the alterations in behaviour and cardiovascular activity, or alternatively whether the changes in brain activity were caused by such alterations. As the structural organisation of the prefrontal cortex of non-human primates including the marmoset is very similar to that of humans, the researchers were able to directly address this issue.

Animals are only used in research where no other alternatives are available, and researchers always use the most appropriate species. In the vast majority of cases, this involves using mice, rats and zebrafish. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to use species that are closer to humans. While rodents can provide a good model for exploring and understanding many aspects of behaviour, the researchers argue that this study highlights how non-human primates in certain cases can help provide a more detailed and specific understanding of how our brains work.

“Our work highlights the importance of research using marmosets in understanding human conditions that affect many millions of people worldwide,” says Dr Clarke. “Studies using animals such as rats are important for providing insights into behaviour and disease, but for some areas of research, monkeys have greater relevance because their brains are much closer in structure to ours.”

The research was partly-funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Wallis, CU et al. Opposing roles of primate areas 25 and 32 and their putative rodent homologs in the regulation of negative emotion. PNAS; 1 May 2017; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1620115114

A team of researchers at Cambridge has identified how two key areas of the brain govern both our emotions and our heart activity, helping explain why people with depression or anxiety have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

We now see clearly that these brain regions control aspects of heart function as well as emotions. This helps our understanding of emotional disorders, which involve a complicated interplay between brain and body
Hannah Clarke

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Elephants’ ‘body awareness’ adds to increasing evidence of their intelligence

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 12, 2017.

Self-awareness in both animals and young children is usually tested using the ‘mirror self-recognition test’ to see if they understand that the reflection in front of them is actually their own. Only a few species have so far shown themselves capable of self-recognition – great apes, dolphins, magpies and elephants. It is thought to be linked to more complex forms of perspective taking and empathy.

Critics, however, have argued that this test is limited in its ability to investigate complex thoughts and understanding, and that it may be less useful in testing animals who rely less on vision than other species.

One potential complement to the mirror test as a measure of self-understanding may be a test of ‘body-awareness’. This test looks at how individuals may recognise their bodies as obstacles to success in a problem-solving task. Such a task could demonstrate an individual’s understanding of its body in relation to its physical environment, which may be easier to define than the distinction between oneself and another demonstrated through success at the mirror test.

To test for body-awareness in Asian elephants, Dr Josh Plotnik, visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, devised a new test of self-awareness together with his colleague Rachel Dale (now a PhD student at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna). The new test was adapted from one in which children were asked to push a shopping trolley, but the trolley was attached to a mat on which they were standing.

In the elephant version of the test, Plotnik and Dale attached a stick to a rubber mat using a rope; the elephants were then required to walk onto the mat, pick up the stick and pass it to an experimenter standing in front of them. The researchers wanted to investigate whether elephants understood the role of their bodies as potential obstacles to success in the task by observing how and when the animals removed themselves from the mat in order to exchange the stick. In one control arm of the test, the stick was unattached to the mat, meaning the elephant could pass the stick while standing on the mat.

The results of the study, which was largely funded by a Newton International Fellowship from the Royal Society awarded to Dr Plotnik, are published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Elephants are well regarded as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, but we still need more empirical, scientific evidence to support this belief,” says Dale. “We know, for example, that they are capable of thoughtful cooperation and empathy, and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. These abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates. We wanted to see if they also show ‘body-awareness’.”

Plotnik and Dale found that the elephants stepped off the mat to pass the stick to the experimenter significantly more often during the test than during the control arm. Elephants stepped off the mat an average (mean) of around 42 out of 48 times during the test compared to just three times on average during the control.

“This is a deceptively simple test, but its implications are quite profound,” says Dr Plotnik. “The elephants understood that their bodies were getting in the way, so they stepped aside to enable themselves to complete the task. In a similar test, this is something that young children are unable to understand until they are about two years old.

“This implies that elephants may be capable of recognising themselves as separate from objects or their environment. This means that they may have a level of self-understanding, coupled with their passing of the mirror test, which is quite rare in the animal kingdom.”

Species that have demonstrated a capacity for self-recognition in the mirror test all show varying levels of cooperative problem-solving, perspective taking and empathy, suggesting that ‘self-awareness’ may relate to effective cooperative-living in socially intelligent animals. A more developed self-understanding of how an individual relates to those around may underlie more complex forms of empathic perspective taking. It may also underlie how an individual targets help towards others in need. Both aspect are seen in studies of human children.

Both self-awareness as demonstrated by the mirror test and body-awareness as demonstrated by the current study help scientists better understand how an animal’s understanding of self and of its place in the environment may impact social decision-making in the wild.

Plotnik argues that studies such as this are important for helping increase our understanding of and appreciation for the behaviour and intelligence of animals. He also says that understanding elephant behaviour has important implications for the development of human/elephant conflict mitigation strategies in places like Thailand and India, where humans and elephants are competing for land. Only through careful consideration of both human and elephant needs can long-term solutions be sustainable.

“The more we can understand about elephants’ behaviour, the more we can understand what their needs are, how they think and the strains they face in their social relationships,” he says. “This will help us if we are going to try to come up with viable long term solutions to the problems that these animals face in the wild, especially those that bring them into regular conflict with humans.”

Dale, R, and Plotnik, JM. Elephants know when their bodies are obstacles to success in a novel transfer task. Scientific Reports; 12 April 2017; DOI: 10.1038/srep46309

Asian elephants are able to recognise their bodies as obstacles to success in problem-solving, further strengthening evidence of their intelligence and self-awareness, according to a new study from the University of Cambridge.

The more we can understand about elephants’ behaviour, the more we can understand what their needs are, how they think and the strains they face in their social relationships
Josh Plotnik
Elephant body awareness tast

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Human rights of people with autism not being met, leading expert tells United Nations

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 31, 2017.

In his keynote speech, Professor Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, argued that even with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities having been adopted in 2006, people with autism still do not enjoy human rights to the same extent as everyone else.

At least 1% of the world’s population is on the autism spectrum, which equates to some 70 million people with autism on the planet.  Autism is a spectrum of neurological disabilities involving difficulties with social relationships, communication, adjusting to unexpected change, dealing with ambiguity, and entailing sensory hypersensitivity and anxiety. Autism also leads to a different perceptual and learning style, so that the person has a preference for detail, and develops unusually narrow interests, and an unusually strong preference for facts, patterns, repetition and routine.

“People with autism account for a significant minority of the population worldwide, yet we are failing them in so many respects,” he said. “This creates barriers to their participation in society and to their autonomy that must be addressed. We have had a UN Convention to support people with disabilities for over 10 years now and yet we still are not fulfilling their basic human rights.”

In his speech, Professor Baron-Cohen reminded the UN that in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, people with intellectual disability were killed in their thousands, under the compulsory euthanasia laws. Many of these individuals likely had autism, even before we had a name for it, as the first report of autism by Dr Leo Kanner was published during the Second World War.

However, historical violations of the human rights of people with autism go back further than that: in the US, in the 1920s, many States passed laws to compulsorily sterilize people with intellectual disability, including those whom today we would recognize had autism, in the name of eugenics.

Professor Baron-Cohen highlighted six examples where he believes the human rights of people with autism are not being met.

First, the right to dignity: According to the National Autistic Society in the UK, half of adults with autism report they have been abused by someone they thought was a friend. Half of adults with autism report they stay home because of fear of being abused in some way. Individuals with intellectual disability, including those with autism, are three times more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect, robbery, or assault.

Second, the right to education: one in five children with autism have been excluded from school. Whatever the reason for being excluded, they are being deprived of the right to education.  And of the other 80% of children with autism who have stayed in school, half report having been bullied, which is a risk factor for depression.

Third, the right to equal access to public services: one in three adults with autism experiences severe mental ill health because of lack of support. In Professor Baron-Cohen’s clinic for adults with Asperger Syndrome, a subgroup of autism, two thirds have felt suicidal and one third have felt so bad that they have attempted suicide. Research from the Universities of Cambridge and Coventry in the UK found that among those who have died by suicide, approximately 12% had definite or probable autism. Professor Baron-Cohen called for a minute’s silence to remember those people with autism who have died by suicide.

Finding such a high rate of autism in people who have died by suicide is not surprising when you consider how many of these individuals did not have the benefit of early diagnosis, explained Professor Baron-Cohen. Early diagnosis is possible in childhood – there are screening measures that can detect autism in young toddlers, but most countries do not screen for autism.

He drew attention to the fact that in the UK, in many areas, the waiting time for a diagnosis can be up to a year or longer, and that in high- and middle-income countries, people with autism may receive a formal diagnosis, but in low-income countries, the majority of people with autism may remain undiagnosed, either because of stigma, ignorance, or lack of basic services.

Fourth, the right to work and employment: Professor Baron-Cohen said that only 15% of adults with autism are in full time employment, despite many having good intelligence and talents. The right to work should extend to everyone, whatever support they might need. Unemployment is another well-known risk factor for depression.

He commended some enlightened employers, like the German company Auticon, the Danish company Specialisterne, and the German company SAP, for setting an example of how to help people with autism into employment and how employers can make reasonable adjustments for people with autism.

Fifth, the right to protection from discrimination, and the right to a cultural life, and to rest and leisure: He described how many people with autism have been asked to leave a supermarket or a cinema, because of their different behaviour. He said this is discrimination and again would never be tolerated for other kinds of disabilities.

In addition, half of adults with autism report feeling lonely, a third of them do not leave the house most days, and two thirds of them feel depressed because of loneliness. One in four adults with autism have no friends at all.

Finally, the right to protection of the law, and the right to a fair, impartial trial: one in five young people with autism have been stopped and questioned by the police, and 5% have been arrested. Two-thirds of police officers report they have received no training in how to interview a person with autism. Many legal cases involving someone with autism result in imprisonment for crimes the person with autism may not have committed, or for crimes others committed, but the person with autism became tangled up in, because of their social naivete. Some of these crimes are the result of the person with autism becoming obsessed with a particular topic, a product of their disability, and yet the courts often ignore autism as a mitigating factor.

Professor Baron-Cohen ended his address with a call to action. “We must take action. I want to see an investigation into the violation of human rights in people with autism. I want to see increased surveillance of their needs, in every country. And I want us to be continuously asking people with autism what their lives are like, and what they need, so that they are fully involved in shaping their future. Only this way can we ensure their human rights are met.”

The basic human rights of autistic people are not being met, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a world expert on autism, told the United Nations in New York today, to mark Autism Awareness Week.

People with autism account for a significant minority of the population worldwide, yet we are failing them in so many respects
Simon Baron-Cohen

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The OCD Brain: how animal research helps us understand a devastating condition

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 28, 2017.

When David Adam was just 18, a teasing comment from a university friend triggered a series of thoughts that he had contracted HIV and would die of AIDS. This was around the time of peak hysteria about this new disease, but even so, his thoughts represented more than the worries of a naïve, newly-sexually active young man: the fear was unshakeable and the thoughts consumed him, dominating his life.

For a long time, David remained silent about his obsession, afraid to tell anyone what he was going through. It was only a couple of decades later, when the thoughts began to affect his relationship with his young daughter, to whom he was sure he would transmit his ‘infection’, that he sought help. He was subsequently diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

OCD is sometimes viewed as a personality quirk – “I’m a little bit OCD,” people will say as they carefully arrange the books on their shelf. The truth is far more devastating. People living with OCD will scrub their hands compulsively, often with bleach, till they are bleeding. Others will check that they have locked the back door thirty, forty times – otherwise, they are sure a family member will come to harm - making going out almost impossible.

David, a journalist and science writer, has written and spoken extensively about his condition. He considers himself fortunate: his condition is under control, thanks to a combination of ‘talking therapies’ and medication. Others are not so fortunate: despite intensive therapy and medication, they are still unable to hold down a job or a relationship, so dominant are their OCD behaviours.

Now, in a series of short films for the University of Cambridge, David has visited leading researchers who study OCD and asks what we know about the underlying biology that leads to the condition: just what is going on in the brain?

In the films, Professor Trevor Robbins, Head of Psychology at Cambridge, introduces David to scientists who use a combination of studies to explore the inner workings of the brain. These include studies involving rats and marmosets (small monkeys), as well as people.

One of the studies is a so-called ‘reversal learning’ test. In this test, the marmoset learns that pressing one button gives it a juice reward, while it gets no reward if it presses a second button. But then, unexpectedly, the buttons swap: how good is the marmoset at changing its thinking to adjust to this new information? A common trait in people with OCD is a tendency to have rigid, obsessive thinking that dominates their behaviour.

By manipulating localised regions of the animals’ brains, either permanently or via temporary drug infusions, scientists are able to understand better the exact pathways within the brain that malfunction in OCD and cause this rigid behaviour. As Professor Robbins explains, this would not be possible in human studies. But this knowledge will help underpin the development of new, more effective treatments – and this is crucial, as around 60% of patients with OCD do not respond to existing treatments.

The films have been produced as part of the University of Cambridge’s commitment to openness on animal research. In 2014, the University announced that it had signed the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. The following year, it launched its first film on the subject, Fighting Cancer: Animal research at Cambridge.

We welcome comments about this article. However, as with discussions on all of our news and feature pages, comments will be moderated so please do not post contributions that are offensive or contain profanities, and please stay on topic. We do not moderate comments in real-time so there may be a delay before they appear.

OCD can be a devastating condition: therapy and medication often doesn’t work, leaving many people unable to hold down a job or a relationship – or even to leave their house. In our series of films, science writer David Adam looks at how research at Cambridge using animals helps us understand what is happening in the brain – and may lead to better treatments.

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Cambridge scientist shares world’s largest neuroscience prize for research on the brain’s reward system

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 06, 2017.

The capacity to link reward to events and actions is the foundation of human and animal survival, and problems with the processing of reward lie at the heart of many neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The Brain Prize, awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark, is worth €1 million.  Awarded annually, it recognises one or more scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to neuroscience.  

The research of this year’s winners has far-reaching implications for understanding human behaviour, including decision-making, gambling, drug addiction, compulsive behaviour and schizophrenia.

Reward is essential to survival because humans and other animals need to learn to direct their decisions and their actions towards outcomes that will satisfy their needs, and away from danger.  This means that they have to learn which events in the environment predict future rewards and punishments. For instance, if you feel hungry and see a building with a sign ‘restaurant’, you are likely to enter because the sign predicts that your hunger will be reduced if you go inside.

The sense of reward is surprisingly complicated. It is influenced and determined by many things, such as taste and smell, as well as by fundamental motivations such as hunger or thirst. In turn, it influences choices, decisions and even attention. Many regions of the brain process information associated with reward, but one central linchpin for the regulation of learning and performance is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) in the brain called dopamine.

Thirty years ago, German-born Wolfram Schultz, professor of neuroscience now at the University of Cambridge, was studying learning in monkeys at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He developed methods for recording activity from neurons (nerve cells) that use dopamine to transmit information to other neurons.  He found that before learning, these dopamine neurons respond whenever a reward - fruit juice - is given to the monkey, but if the monkey is shown various visual patterns and has to respond to one of them in order to secure the reward, the pattern of response changes as the animal learns. The dopamine neurons now respond when the correct visual pattern appears, and the response to the reward itself disappears. If no reward is given, the activity of dopamine neurons actually decreases at the expected time after the visual signal; but if the reward is delivered at an unexpected time, the neurons respond to it.

“This is the biological process that makes us want to buy a bigger car or house, or be promoted at work,” said Schultz. Every time we get the reward, our dopamine neurons affect our behaviour.  “They are like little devils in our brain that drive us towards more rewards.”

Dopamine neurons play a ‘devilish’ role in drug addiction. “Addictive drugs generate, hijack and amplify the reward signal and induce exaggerated and uncontrolled effects of dopamine on the brain,” Schultz explained. 

British computational neuroscientist, Peter Dayan, director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London, is recognised internationally as a leader in the rapidly developing field of computational neuroscience. When working at the Salk Institute in California, Dayan realised that the pattern of activity of dopamine neurons described by Schultz corresponds to a signal known - from the earliest days of artificial intelligence - as a ‘reward prediction error’.

This signal is the difference between the reward that is actually delivered and the reward that is predicted to be delivered.  Prediction errors sculpt our expectations and experience of the world.

“For example, imagine that you choose between restaurants based on predicting how good they are. Then, if the one you chose is better than expected, the positive prediction error allows you to update your prediction. Next time you are faced with a restaurant choice, you are more likely to pick the one that was better,” said Dayan.

This link between dopamine and prediction error was one of the spurs for an explosion of work using theoretical ideas and computational models to link artificial intelligence, economics, mathematics, engineering and statistics to swathes of results in psychology and neuroscience.

Professor Ray Dolan was born in the Irish Republic and is the director of the new Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing at University College London, and the Wellcome Centre for Neuroimaging. Dolan has been a leader in the development and use of methods for imaging the human brain, in order to understand the mechanisms of emotion, learning and decision-making. 

Through his pioneering application of mathematical models to brain imaging and behaviour, together with his discoveries on the action of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, he has shown how humans learn about reward and punishment and also how we learn about the preferences of other people.

Dayan and Dolan have worked collaboratively over the past decade to probe how reward learning impacts on complex human questions, including motivational drive, variation in happiness, and a propensity towards gambling. 

“One puzzling clinical problem is why some patients treated with drugs that boost dopamine function, for example in Parkinson’s disease, fall prey to pathological gambling. Our work has shown that this effect is, at least in part, due to dopamine amplifying an innate tendency to repeat activities that are rewarding,” said Dolan.

Schultz gratefully acknowledged the contributions of his many colleagues and collaborators, as well as the institutions and funding agencies that have supported his work, especially the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust.  

“The Brain Prize is a fantastic reward for our research group. I can hear our dopamine neurons jumping up and down!” Schultz said.

Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, chairman of the Brain Prize selection committee said, “The judges concluded that the discoveries made by Wolfram Schultz, Peter Dayan and Ray Dolan were crucial for understanding how the brain detects reward and uses this information to guide behaviour. This work is a wonderful example of the creative power of interdisciplinary research, bringing together computational explanations of the role of activity in the monkey brain with advanced brain imaging in human beings to illuminate the way in which we use reward to regulate our choices and actions. The implications of these discoveries are extremely wide-ranging, in fields as diverse as economics, social science, drug addiction and psychiatry.”

The winners will share the prize of €1 million, which will be presented to them at a ceremony on 4 May in Copenhagen by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark.

Adapted from a press release by the Lundbeck Foundation.

A Cambridge neuroscientist has today won the world’s most valuable prize for brain research, shared with two London neuroscientists. This year, The Brain Prize for 2017 is awarded to Cambridge’s Wolfram Schultz, together with Peter Dayan and Ray Dolan from University College London for their analysis of how the brain recognises and processes reward. 

The Brain Prize is a fantastic reward for our research group. I can hear our dopamine neurons jumping up and down!
Wolfram Schultz

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Viral charity campaigns have a psychological 'recipe' and all-too-brief lifespan

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 13, 2017.

A University of Cambridge researcher has identified a recipe for the new breed of wildly successful online charity campaigns such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – a phenomenon he has labelled “viral altruism” – and what might make them stick in people’s minds.    

However, he says the optimistic use of global digital networks to propel positive social change is balanced by the shallow, short-lived nature of engagement with anything viral.

Writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, social psychologist Dr Sander van der Linden has outlined the key psychological levers he says underpin the new wave of viral altruism that is increasingly taking over our Facebook feeds.

These include the power of social norms, particularly the appeal of joining a social consensus and the desire to conform to prosocial behaviour (such as appearing charitable), having a clear moral incentive to act, and the appetite for a ‘warm glow’: the positive emotional benefit derived from feeling compassionate.

One of the most important ingredients – and the hardest to achieve – is ‘translational impact’: the conversion of online token support, or ‘clicktivism’, into sustained real world contributions, whether financial donations or a long-term commitment to an issue.   

This, he says, involves a shift in motivation from the ‘extrinsic’ – incentives conditional on outside social pressures – to the ‘intrinsic’: an incentive that has been internalised to become a “new personal normal” for an individual.

Part of van der Linden’s initial research has been to pull together data such as Google and Wikipedia searches as well as donations to indicate the longevity and engagement levels of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign. 

The Challenge reached unprecedented ‘virality’ during August 2014. The formula of videoing ice-cold water being poured over your head and posting it to social media while publicly nominating others to do the same in support of a motor neurone disease charity reached approximately 440 million people worldwide, with over 28 million joining in.  

'Brightly but briefly'

Yet van der Linden found that the Challenge burned brightly but briefly: with online interest and donations reverting to pre-viral levels in mere weeks. The engagement was also superficial: estimates suggest that 1 in 4 participants did not mention the ALS charity in their videos and only 1 in 5 mentioned a donation.

And, while the 2014 campaign caused a significant spike in donations – some $115m – when the ALS charity attempted to reboot the Ice Bucket Challenge the following year it raised less than 1% of the previous summer.

Other examples of viral altruism considered to be successful also appear to have an equally brief “half-life”. The Facebook organ donor initiative elicited more than 60% of its total online registrations in the first two days before numbers rapidly dropped off. Save Darfur was one of the largest campaigns on Facebook; after joining, most members never donated money or recruited anyone else.

Van der Linden believes converting the brief social pressures of viral altruism into self-sustaining personal motivations is the key to leveraging new digital networks for long-term engagement with the big issues of our time, such as climate change.

However, he argues that it may be the very viral nature of ‘viral altruism’ that acts as a barrier to this.

“Society now has the ability to connect and mobilise over a billion Facebook users to action on specific social issues in a fast and low-cost manner, but it is becoming clear this entails viral phenomena which by their very nature are ephemeral and superficial,” says van der Linden, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology. 

Hyper-viral paradox

“Just as a flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, so a rapid social consensus spike reaches an equally rapid saturation point.

“Once the social tipping point of a campaign has passed, momentum can decay quickly and the purpose can get diluted. Once the ALS campaign had reached peak virality, many people were just pouring cold water over their heads without necessarily referencing the charity.

“Paradoxically, increasing meaningful engagement through viral altruism might actually require deliberately hindering the hyper-viral nature at some point with a stabilising force. Perhaps introducing aspects to a campaign that increasingly require more commitment – slowing growth and encouraging deeper engagement. If we want people to internalise a new normal, we need to give them a window big enough to do that.

“Deeper engagement seems especially vital. Something as simple as a single phrase connecting a campaign to its cause can make a difference. For example, those who mentioned the ALS charity in their Ice Bucket Challenge video were five times more likely to donate money than those who did not.”

SMART recipe

Van der Linden has set out his recipe for viral altruism using the acronym SMART: Social influences; Moral imperatives; Affective Reactions; Translational impact.

The ALS campaign managed to exploit a two-pronged approach to 'social influences'. People were influenced by the example of those in their network, and wanted to join the burgeoning consensus. The nature of the campaign also meant that many were publicly challenged to participate by their social network, and risked the 'social sanction' of being seen to lack compassion if they then didn't.

Helping people with a debilitating disease was seen as a 'moral imperative'. Van der Linden says that having 'identifiable victims' such as scientist Prof Stephen Hawking allowed people to relate to the cause.

Campaigns that allow for the creation of a shared identity between the individual and the cause over time appear to be more successful in achieving translational impact.

Sander van der Linden

'Affective Reactions' is the response to strong emotional content. "Empathy is an emotional contagion," says van der Linden. "We are evolutionarily hard-wired to 'catch' other people's feelings. Responding with an altruistic act give us a 'warm glow' of positivity. Similarly, people often respond to social injustice, such as genocide, with strong moral outrage."

However, where almost all campaigns stumble is 'Translational impact', he says. "Extrinsic incentives, such as competitions or network pressure, can actually undermine people's intrinsic motivation to do good by eroding moral sentiment. Motivation to participate can get sourced from a desire to 'win' a challenge or appear virtuous rather than caring about the cause itself."

Climate change is an example of a major global issue that currently scores pretty much zero for the SMART recipe, says van der Linden.

"Climate change often fails to elicit strong emotional engagement, there is little to no societal pressure to act on climate change in our daily lives, most people do not view it as a fundamental moral issue, and the long-term nature of the problem requires more than a one-off donation."

He suggests that using the SMART recipe could be a way to reverse engineer more effective climate change campaigns that harness viral altruism, but the problem of translating impact remains.

One of the more impactful campaigns van der Linden highlights is 'Movember': the month-long growing of a moustache to raise awareness of men's health. Starting with just 30 people in 2003, the campaign didn't experience viral hypergrowth, but developed over years to reach about 5 million members by 2014 - by which time the charity reported 75% of participants were more aware of health issues facing men.

"Campaigns that allow for the creation of a shared identity between the individual and the cause over time appear to be more successful in achieving translational impact."

New work focusing on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge reveals very brief shelf life of such viral campaigns, and suggests the nature of ‘virality’ and social tipping points themselves may be a stumbling block to deeper engagement with social issues that campaigns aim to promote.    

Increasing meaningful engagement through viral altruism might actually require deliberately hindering the hyper-viral nature at some point with a stabilising force
Sander van der Linden
ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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