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Presenting facts as ‘consensus’ bridges conservative-liberal divide over climate change

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 11, 2017.

In the murk of post-truth public debate, facts can polarise. Scientific evidence triggers reaction and spin that ends up entrenching the attitudes of opposing political tribes.

Recent research suggests this phenomenon is actually stronger among the more educated, through what psychologists call 'motived reasoning': where data is rejected or twisted - consciously or otherwise - to prop up a particular worldview.

However, a new study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour finds that one type of fact can bridge the chasm between conservative and liberal, and pull people's opinions closer to the truth on one of the most polarising issues in US politics: climate change.

Previous research has broadly found US conservatives to be most sceptical of climate change. Yet by presenting a fact in the form of a consensus - "97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening" - researchers have now discovered that conservatives shift their perceptions significantly towards the scientific 'norm'.

In an experiment involving over 6,000 US citizens, psychologists found that introducing people to this consensus fact reduced polarisation between higher educated liberals and conservatives by roughly 50%, and increased conservative belief in a scientific accord on climate change by 20 percentage points.

Moreover, the latest research confirms the prior finding that climate change scepticism is indeed more deeply rooted among highly educated conservatives. Yet exposure to the simple fact of a scientific consensus neutralises the "negative interaction" between higher education and conservatism that strongly embeds these beliefs.

"The vast majority of people want to conform to societal standards, it's innate in us as a highly social species," says Dr Sander van der Linden, study lead author from the University of Cambridge's Department of Psychology.

"People often misperceive social norms, and seek to adjust once they are exposed to evidence of a group consensus," he says, pointing to the example that college students always think their friends drink more than they actually do.

"Our findings suggest that presenting people with a social fact, a consensus of opinion among experts, rather than challenging them with blunt scientific data, encourages a shift towards mainstream scientific belief - particularly among conservatives."

For van der Linden and his co-authors Drs Anthony Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach from Yale and George Mason universities in the US, social facts such as demonstrating a consensus can act as a "gateway belief": allowing a gradual recalibration of private attitudes.

"Information that directly threatens people's worldview can cause them to react negatively and become further entrenched in their beliefs. This 'backfire effect' appears to be particularly strong among highly educated US conservatives when it comes to contested issues such as manmade climate change," says van der Linden.

"It is more acceptable for people to change their perceptions of what is normative in science and society. Previous research has shown that people will then adjust their core beliefs over time to match. This is a less threatening way to change attitudes, avoiding the 'backfire effect' that can occur when someone's worldview is directly challenged."

For the study, researchers conducted online surveys of 6,301 US citizens that adhered to nationally representative quotas of gender, age, education, ethnicity, region and political ideology.

The nature of the study was hidden by claims of testing random media messages, with the climate change perception tests sandwiched between questions on consumer technology and popular culture messaging.

Half the sample were randomly assigned to receive the 'treatment' of exposure to the fact of scientific consensus, while the other half, the control group, did not.

Researchers found that attitudes towards scientific belief on climate change among self-declared conservatives were, on average, 35 percentage points lower (64%) than the actual scientific consensus of 97%. Among liberals it was 20 percentage points lower.

They also found a small additional negative effect: when someone is highly educated and conservative they judge scientific agreement to be even lower.

However, once the treatment group were exposed to the 'social fact' of overwhelming scientific agreement, higher-educated conservatives shifted their perception of the scientific norm by 20 percentage points to 83% - almost in line with post-treatment liberals.

The added negative effect of conservatism plus high education was completely neutralised through exposure to the truth on scientific agreement around manmade climate change.

"Scientists as a group are still viewed as trustworthy and non-partisan across the political spectrum in the US, despite frequent attempts to discredit their work through 'fake news' denunciations and underhand lobbying techniques deployed by some on the right," says van der Linden.

"Our study suggests that even in our so-called post-truth environment, hope is not lost for the fact. By presenting scientific facts in a socialised form, such as highlighting consensus, we can still shift opinion across political divides on some of the most pressing issues of our time."

New evidence shows that a ‘social fact’ highlighting expert consensus shifts perceptions across US political spectrum – particularly among highly educated conservatives. Facts that encourage agreement are a promising way of cutting through today’s ‘post-truth’ bluster, say psychologists.

Even in our so-called post-truth environment, hope is not lost for the fact
Sander van der Linden
Protester in Seattle, US

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OCD Brain wins Openness Award

By from News. Published on Dec 11, 2017.

Industrial Revolution left a damaging psychological ‘imprint’ on today’s populations

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 10, 2017.

People living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed to negative emotions such as anxiety and depressive moods, more impulsive and more likely to struggle with planning and self-motivation, according to a new study of almost 400,000 personality tests.

The findings show that, generations after the white heat of Industrial Revolution and decades on from the decline of deep coal mining, the populations of areas where coal-based industries dominated in the 19th century retain a “psychological adversity”. 

Researchers suggest this is the inherited product of selective migrations during mass industrialisation compounded by the social effects of severe work and living conditions.

They argue that the damaging cognitive legacy of coal is “reinforced and amplified” by the more obvious economic consequences of high unemployment we see today. The study also found significantly lower life satisfaction in these areas.   

The UK findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, are supported by a North American “robustness check”, with less detailed data from US demographics suggesting the same patterns of post-industrial personality traits. 

“Regional patterns of personality and well-being may have their roots in major societal changes underway decades or centuries earlier, and the Industrial Revolution is arguably one of the most influential and formative epochs in modern history,” says co-author Dr Jason Rentfrow, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.

“Those who live in a post-industrial landscape still do so in the shadow of coal, internally as well as externally. This study is one of the first to show that the Industrial Revolution has a hidden psychological heritage, one that is imprinted on today’s psychological make-up of the regions of England and Wales.”

An international team of psychologists, including researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, University of Texas, University of Cambridge and the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University, used data collected from 381,916 people across England and Wales during 2009-2011 as part of the BBC Lab’s online Big Personality Test.

The team analysed test scores by looking at the “big five” personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. The results were further dissected by characteristics such as altruism, self-discipline and anxiety. 

The data was also broken down by region and county, and compared with several other large-scale datasets including coalfield maps and a male occupation census of the early 19th century (collated through parish baptism records, where the father listed his job).

The team controlled for an extensive range of other possible influences – from competing economic factors in the 19th century and earlier, through to modern considerations of education, wealth and even climate.

However, they still found significant personality differences for those currently occupying areas where large numbers of men had been employed in coal-based industries from 1813 to 1820 – as the Industrial Revolution was peaking.

Neuroticism was, on average, 33% higher in these areas compared with the rest of the country. In the ‘big five’ model of personality, this translates as increased emotional instability, prone to feelings of worry or anger, as well as higher risk of common mental disorders such as depression and substance abuse.

In fact, in the further “sub-facet” analyses, these post-industrial areas scored 31% higher for tendencies toward both anxiety and depression.

Areas that ranked highest for neuroticism include Blaenau Gwent and Ceredigion in South Wales, and Hartlepool in England. 

Conscientiousness was, on average, 26% lower in former industrial areas. In the ‘big five’ model, this manifests as more disorderly and less goal-oriented behaviours – difficulty with planning and saving money. The underlying sub-facet of ‘order’ itself was 35% lower in these areas.

The lowest three areas for conscientiousness were all in Wales (Merthyr Tydfil, Ceredigion and Gwynedd), with English areas including Nottingham and Leicester.   

An assessment of life satisfaction was included in the BBC Lab questionnaire, which was an average of 29% lower in former industrial centres. 

While researchers say there will be many factors behind the correlation between personality traits and historic industrialisation, they offer two likely ones: migration and socialisation (learned behaviour).    

The people migrating into industrial areas were often doing so to find employment in the hope of escaping poverty and distressing situations of rural depression – those experiencing high levels of ‘psychological adversity’.

However, people that left these areas, often later on, were likely those with higher degrees of optimism and psychological resilience, say researchers.

This “selective influx and outflow” may have concentrated so-called ‘negative’ personality traits in industrial areas – traits that can be passed down generations through combinations of experience and genetics.

Migratory effects would have been exacerbated by the ‘socialisation’ of repetitive, dangerous and exhausting labour from childhood – reducing well-being and elevating stress – combined with harsh conditions of overcrowding and atrocious sanitation during the age of steam.

The study’s authors argue their findings have important implications for today’s policymakers looking at public health interventions.

“The decline of coal in areas dependent on such industries has caused persistent economic hardship – most prominently high unemployment. This is only likely to have contributed to the baseline of psychological adversity the Industrial Revolution imprinted on some populations,” says co-author Michael Stuetzer from Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, Germany.   

“These regional personality levels may have a long history, reaching back to the foundations of our industrial world, so it seems safe to assume they will continue to shape the well-being, health, and economic trajectories of these regions.”

The team note that, while they focused on the negative psychological imprint of coal, future research could examine possible long-term positive effects in these regions born of the same adversity – such as the solidarity and civic engagement witnessed in the labour movement.  

Study finds people in areas historically reliant on coal-based industries have more ‘negative’ personality traits. Psychologists suggest this cognitive die may well have been cast at the dawn of the industrial age.

The Industrial Revolution has a hidden psychological heritage, one that is imprinted on today’s psychological make-up of the regions of England and Wales
Jason Rentfrow
Industrial workplace

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Jerry Fodor 1935-2017

By from News. Published on Dec 08, 2017.

Psych Sanctuary

By from News. Published on Nov 29, 2017.

Eye contact with your baby helps synchronise your brainwaves

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 29, 2017.

When a parent and infant interact, various aspects of their behaviour can synchronise, including their gaze, emotions and heartrate, but little is known about whether their brain activity also synchronises – and what the consequences of this might be.

Brainwaves reflect the group-level activity of millions of neurons and are involved in information transfer between brain regions. Previous studies have shown that when two adults are talking to each other, communication is more successful if their brainwaves are in synchrony.

Researchers at the Baby-LINC Lab at the University of Cambridge carried out a study to explore whether infants can synchronise their brainwaves to adults too – and whether eye contact might influence this. Their results are published today in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The team examined the brainwave patterns of 36 infants (17 in the first experiment and 19 in the second) using electroencephalography (EEG), which measures patterns of brain electrical activity via electrodes in a skull cap worn by the participants. They compared the infants’ brain activity to that of the adult who was singing nursery rhymes to the infant.

In the first of two experiments, the infant watched a video of an adult as she sang nursery rhymes. First, the adult – whose brainwave patterns had already been recorded – was looking directly at the infant. Then, she turned her head to avert her gaze, while still singing nursery rhymes. Finally, she turned her head away, but her eyes looked directly back at the infant.

As anticipated, the researchers found that infants’ brainwaves were more synchronised to the adults’ when the adult’s gaze met the infant’s, as compared to when her gaze was averted Interestingly, the greatest synchronising effect occurred when the adults’ head was turned away but her eyes still looked directly at the infant. The researchers say this may be because such a gaze appears highly deliberate, and so provides a stronger signal to the infant that the adult intends to communicate with her.

In the second experiment, a real adult replaced the video. She only looked either directly at the infant or averted her gaze while singing nursery rhymes. This time, however, her brainwaves could be monitored live to see whether her brainwave patterns were being influenced by the infant’s as well as the other way round.

This time, both infants and adults became more synchronised to each other’s brain activity when mutual eye contact was established. This occurred even though the adult could see the infant at all times, and infants were equally interested in looking at the adult even when she looked away. The researchers say that this shows that brainwave synchronisation isn’t just due to seeing a face or finding something interesting, but about sharing an intention to communicate.

To measure infants’ intention to communicate, the researcher measured how many ‘vocalisations’ infants made to the experimenter. As predicted, infants made a greater effort to communicate, making more ‘vocalisations’, when the adult made direct eye contact – and individual infants who made longer vocalisations also had higher brainwave synchrony with the adult.

Dr Victoria Leong, lead author on the study said: “When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signalling their availability and intention to communicate with each other.  We found that both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync with their partner. This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronising when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.”

Dr Sam Wass, last author on the study, said: “We don’t know what it is, yet, that causes this synchronous brain activity. We’re certainly not claiming to have discovered telepathy! In this study, we were looking at whether infants can synchronise their brains to someone else, just as adults can. And we were also trying to figure out what gives rise to the synchrony.

“Our findings suggested eye gaze and vocalisations may both, somehow, play a role. But the brain synchrony we were observing was at such high time-scales – of three to nine oscillations per second – that we still need to figure out how exactly eye gaze and vocalisations create it.”

This research was supported by an ESRC Transformative Research Grant to Dr Leong and Dr Wass.

Reference
Leong, V et al. Speaker gaze increases infant-adult connectivity. PNAS; 28 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.1101/108878

Making eye contact with an infant makes adults’ and babies’ brainwaves ‘get in sync’ with each other – which is likely to support communication and learning – according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.

When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signalling their availability and intention to communicate with each other
Victoria Leong
Lucy Kivlin and her baby Ginny
Researcher profile: Dr Victoria Leong

Dr Victoria Leong is an Affiliated Lecturer at Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, and also an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research aims to understand how parents and infants communicate and learn from each other, and the brain mechanisms that help them to interact effectively as social partners.

“The Baby-LINC lab is designed to look like a home living room so that mothers and babies feel comfortable,” she says.  In the lab, they use a wireless EEG system to measure infants’ brain activity, which means that babies don’t have to be tethered to a computer and we can conduct recordings for longer periods of time. “This is invaluable if the baby needs a nap or a nappy change in-between doing our tasks!”

Dr Leong says she is passionate about “real-world neuroscience”. In other words, “understanding and not ignoring the very real – and often very messy – human social contexts that infiltrate brain processes”. This means that in addition to world class facilities and methods, the ability to collect robust data also depends on keeping the infants relaxed and happy. “Many a tantrum can be averted by the judicious and timely application of large soapy bubbles and rice cakes. The ability to blow large charming bubbles thereafter became a key criteria for recruiting research assistants!”

The research project came about “over a cup of tea [with Sam Wass] and a notepad to scratch out some frankly outlandish ideas about brain-to-brain synchrony”. They received £3,995 with the help of Cambridge Neuroscience and Cambridge Language Sciences for a pilot project and within a year went on to secure an ESRC Transformative Research Grant, which allowed them to significantly scale-up research operations, and to build the first mother-infant EEG hyperscanning facility in the UK (the Baby-LINC Lab).

“Cambridge is one of probably only a handful of highly-creative research environments in the world where young, untested post-doctoral researchers can organically come together, develop ambitious ideas, and have the support to try these out,” she says. “I am very proud of our humble beginnings, because they remind me that even a small handful of resources, wisely invested with hard work, can grow into world-class research.”

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Department Hosts Research Symposium

By from News. Published on Nov 22, 2017.

Cambridge Biological Sciences rated top in the UK

By from News. Published on Nov 15, 2017.

2017 Goldman-Rakic Prizewinner Film

By from News. Published on Nov 15, 2017.

Global Alliance approves five joint research projects

By ag236 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 13, 2017.

The Global Alliance was formed in 2016 as a tripartite agreement between University of California, Berkeley, the University of Cambridge, and National University of Singapore in order to develop innovative research across the three universities to address research questions that could not be answered by one institution alone. There are three themes within the Global Alliance: Precision Medicine, Cities, and Smart Systems.

Following a second funding call in May 2017, the Management Selection Committee has approved funding of the following five collaborative research projects:

  • "Opportunities for ecological adaptation to flood hazards in major global cities: London, Singapore and San Francisco" (Principal Investigator: Professor Thomas Spencer)
  • "Machine learning tools for personalised diagnosis in dementia"  (Principal Investigator: Professor Zoe Kourtzi)
  • "Healthy living in cities: my Personal Exposure Quality (MyPEQ)" (Principal investigator: Professor Rajasekhar Balasubramanian)
  • "Automating Approaches for Clinical Genome Interpretation" (Principal Investigator: Professor Steven  Brenner)
  • "Skin Deformation Assay Platforms for Pathogen- and Patient-Specific Diagnostics and Drug Development" (Principal Investigator: Dr Katherine Brown)

The three universities are delighted to approve these collaborative projects which will build upon the combined strengths of the universities, as well as their distinctive regional insights, to develop unique solutions to global problems.

Professor Paul Alivisatos, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, University of California, Berkeley

Professor Chris Abell, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, University of Cambridge

Professor Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost Designate, National University of Singapore

UC Berkeley, the University of Cambridge and the National University of Singapore to support collaborative projects in themes including Precision Medicine, Cities and Smart Systems.

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A Day In The Life...Professor Nicky Clayton

By from News. Published on Nov 10, 2017.

Breaking The Silence

By from News. Published on Nov 07, 2017.

Why Siblings Matter by Claire Hughes

By from News. Published on Nov 02, 2017.

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.

Reference
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.

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.”

Reference
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
Eyes

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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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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.”

Reference
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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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.

Reference
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
Depression

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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.”

Reference
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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