How science can make your baby sleep better

Alice_Gregory_Oct_2015Alice M. Gregory is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is a member of the Advisory Board for a digital parent education endeavor on infant and toddler sleep that is being supported by Johnson’s Baby. She is a Corresponding Editor (Sleep) for the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. She has previously received funding to support her work from multiple sources including the MRC, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy. She is a member of the Labour Party. She is currently writing a book (Nodding Off: Sleep from Cradle to Grave) to be published by Bloomsbury Sigma in Spring 2018.

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

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Asleep, but for how long?


A friend of mine recently gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, but within months she was at the end of her tether with sleep deprivation. Like many parents, she was confused by conflicting advice from midwives, nurses and well-meaning friends – not to mention the many books available. But as a professor of psychology who specialises in sleep research, my advice was to consider the science, then make a choice that suits the whole family. This advice is shared by paediatric sleep experts worldwide who have now introduced Baby Sleep Day on March 1. The Conversation

Sleep is important for a child’s development – it has been associated with attention, school performance and emotional regulation which is important in developing social skills and making friends. My own research has focused on sleep problems early in life and indicates that they are associated with later difficulties such as anxiety, depression and behavioural problems.

Learning to sleep better

Research to date also seems to suggest that certain techniques might help support good sleep in young children. There is moderate evidence that behavioural techniques for sleep such as graduated extinction – putting a child to bed and ignoring all negative behaviour, such as crying, until the morning – promote good sleeping habits. This technique includes brief checks to ensure the child is okay.

Tried everything?

Techniques such as this can improve the time it takes young children to fall asleep, the number of times they wake up at night and the length of time they are awake. However, parents sometimes struggle to implement these techniques, because they feel that ignoring the child will affect the bond they share.

A recent study, however, suggested that such techniques don’t increase stress or lead to long-term attachment or behavioural difficulties in infants. Certain techniques are not recommended for babies under six months of age, however, and safety should always come first, especially when considering the sleep of the very young child.

However, questions about infant sleep go well beyond the effectiveness of behavioural interventions. Researchers have collated a list of the questions most commonly asked by examining queries submitted to an “ask the expert” section of a mobile phone app.

Questions raised by users were about awakenings during the night, sleep schedules, bedtime problems, the sleep environment and sleep training, as well as a whole host of other sleep problems. It is beneficial to understand their concerns for the continued development of resources for caregivers. Research has addressed many of these issues, and advice is available for families, but we must remember that scientific evidence does not necessarily have a bearing on personal preferences.

Personal preferences prevail

Every family is unique. My own bedtime ritual as a young child involved pestering my father for a fireman’s lift up the stairs to bed (not a good technique for the safety conscious). I have also been known to deviate from scientific advice on sleep with my son, who occasionally crawls into my bed during the night. The scientifically correct response to deter this unwanted behaviour is to return him to his own bed. However, my sleep-deprived self is sometimes too tired to bother – as is the case for many parents.

Sleep deprivation is a serious issue.

But encouraging your child to sleep well can limit the disruption to your own sleep. One study found what many parents feel they already know – that disturbed sleep is as problematic as insufficient sleep. Sufficient sleep is also important to maintain good physical and mental health, as well as optimal brain functioning which allows us to perform well at work and avoid accidents.

However, whether your personal choice leans you towards or away from techniques supported by the science, a baby’s sleep always needs to be considered in your own family’s context. A crying baby can wake other children, and night-time rituals and choices have serious implications for parents. So, while I wouldn’t recommend it, if a fireman’s lift to bed is what suits your family, then that decision is yours.

Alice M. Gregory, Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London and Erin S. Leichman, Child Psychologist, St. Joseph’s University

Alice rests on Twitter  @ProfAMGregory


What being stuck between two cultures can do to a person’s psyche

File 20170810 27655 zc1rdg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Living with your heritage culture via

Nelli Ferenczi, Goldsmiths, University of London and Tara Marshall, Brunel University London

What is the recipe for long-term happiness? One crucial ingredient cited by many people is closeness in their social relationships. Very happy people have strong and fulfilling relationships. But if we feel rejected by those who are closest to us – our family and friends – it can sour our attempts to master the recipe for happiness.

Bi-cultural people, who identify with two cultures simultaneously, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of rejection. A person can become bi-cultural by moving from one country to another, or if they are born and raised in one country by parents who came from elsewhere. For example, for a child born and raised in London by Russian parents, Russian will be what’s called their “heritage culture”.

Research has shown that being bi-cultural is a tremendously beneficial trait because it makes us more flexible and creative in our thinking. But bi-cultural people may experience their upbringing as the collision of multiple worlds. They sometimes face criticism for stepping outside the bounds of what’s normally acceptable in their heritage culture. This happens in the recent film The Big Sick. Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistan-born man living in the US, falls in love with grad student Emily Gordon rather than following his parents’ wishes and marrying someone from their culture.

This experience of rejection from one’s heritage culture is referred to as “intragroup marginalisation”. People experience this when they adapt to a new culture in ways that are deemed to be a threat to their cultural origins.

Jesminder Bhamra, the British Asian protagonist in the film Bend it Like Beckham is banned by her parents from playing football, a sport deemed too British and not befitting a young woman in their eyes. As “Jess” pursues her dream in secret, she feels unhappy and torn between her two identities. Her experience, similar to many bi-cultural people, highlights an important aspect of identity construction. They may wish to identify with their parents’ culture, but feel that they are barred from it by family or friends. They may even feel that they are betraying their heritage culture.

Overcoming rejection

In our ongoing research, we are looking at ways that people can cope and overcome experiences of rejection from their heritage culture.

To understand this painful experience, other research has looked at whether personality traits, such as attachment style, can make a person more likely to feel intragroup marginalisation. Attachment style shapes how we interact with others in our relationships. A securely attached person sees themselves as worthy of love and others as trustworthy, while somebody who is insecurely attached can be anxious and sensitive to threats of rejection. They can also avoid and feel uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy.

Insecurely attached bi-cultural people tend to report greater marginalisation from their friends and family. This may be because they are sensitive to rejection and perceive themselves as failing to uphold the traditions expected of them by their heritage culture. For example, a second-generation Bangladeshi in Britain may feel ashamed at not being able to speak Bengali very well, or a Hungarian who moved to Britain may feel that their values have changed.

Another key personality trait reflects how individuals perceive their sense of self in relation to others. We can see our self as being independent and unique from others, and as having a high sense of agency. Alternatively, we can see ourselves as being interdependent with others and fluid, changing based on the situation.

Research has found that people who have a more fluid sense of self are less likely to feel rejected from their heritage culture, compared to those who have an independent sense of self. This is because they are better able to reconcile both their cultural identities without experiencing conflict.

Having a more fluid sense of self is also linked with a greater flexibility to tailor our responses and behaviour to different social situations. This means these people may find it easier to choose which parts of their identity are appropriate in any given situation. So they may identify with the same values as their family when cooking traditional dishes and eating dinner at home, and another set of values when playing football with their friends. They may be more ready to accept that they can identify with both cultures, without compromising their authenticity.

Being pushed out is painful

Those who feel rejected from their heritage culture can be left feeling alone and unsupported. This has been linked with depressive symptoms, poor well-being and greater stress. It can also leave people feeling as if their two cultural identities are in conflict with each other.

One of our research studies in 2015 surveyed people from a wide range of heritage cultures about their experiences of intragroup marginalisation. We found that those who perceived that they had been rejected by friends were more likely to agree with extreme attitudes in defence of their heritage culture, such as fighting someone who insults it or even dying for it. One reason may be that this is a way of alleviating uncertainty and reaffirming one’s cultural identity.

The ConversationMarginalisation may appear to be subtle – a gentle scolding about what typical members of a person’s family or friends should act like, a teasing comment about an accent – but its persistence can wear down individuals, unsettling relationships, and having a negative impact on well-being.

Nelli Ferenczi, Teaching Fellow in Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London and Tara Marshall, Lecturer in Psychology, Brunel University London

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


Can synaesthesia be induced in non-synaesthetes?


Dr. Devin B. Terhune is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He applies a range of methods to different facets of consciousness, with a focus on time perception and hypnosis.

Synaesthesia is a fascinating condition in which a stimulus in one sensory modality will reliably and automatically produce a secondary experience in a different modality. The most well-studied example of this phenomenon is grapheme-colour synaesthesia, in which numbers and letters (inducers) will involuntarily elicit experiences of colour (concurrents) in some individuals (synaesthetes). Although we typically assume that we all perceive the world in a relatively similar way, synaesthetes actually have a radically different conscious experience of their environment. These unusual experiences seem to confer benefits: synaesthetes display superior working memory, episodic memory, and colour perception. This condition may yield insights into a wide range of phenomena including automaticity, learning, and consciousness.

The most dominant model of synaesthesia proposes that synaesthetic photisms arise from excess structural connections between brain regions subserving inducer and concurrent processing. For example, an individual who experiences colours when looking at faces might exhibit heightened connectivity between the fusiform face area, a critical node in face processing, and neighboring V4, an important brain region for colour perception. Putative cases of induced synaesthesia, in which non-synaesthetes have transient crossmodal experiences resembling synaesthesia, pose a challenge to this account. If these individuals are having genuine experiences of synaesthesia, this would suggest that hyperconnectivity is not a necessary condition for synaesthesia as such connections are unlikely to form in a rapid manner. Rather, hyperconnectivity may just be one of multiple routes by which one could develop synaesthesia. Further still, it may merely be an artefact of living with this condition – a byproduct of the repeated experience of synaesthesia or the consolidation of inducer-concurrent pairs over time that does not have a mechanistic role in the occurrence of the condition.

Researchers tend to either credulously assume that induced synaesthesia-like experiences qualify as synaesthesia or outright dismiss them as unrelated to developmental synaesthesia. These oversimplifications seem to arise because these literatures have not been properly integrated and interrogated. Accordingly, in a recent book chapter, my colleagues and I sought to synthesize the available evidence regarding the induction of synaesthesia in non-synaesthetes and provide a clear assessment of the state of our knowledge. In particular, we review research studies that have examined whether synaesthesia can be induced in non-synaesthetes using drugs, cognitive training, and hypnosis.

Researchers have repeatedly documented that drugs, particularly psychedelic drugs that target the serotonin system, such as LSD and psilocybin, produce crossmodal experiences similar to synaesthesia. Although different studies have yielded fairly consistent results, they suffer from numerous methodological limitations; the data come almost entirely from surveys, anecdotal reports, and studies that lack experimental controls or use self-report measures of synaesthesia. To address this gap in the literature, my colleagues and I recently conducted the first placebo-controlled investigation of whether LSD produces synaesthesia. We found that LSD elicited synaesthesia-like experiences, such as reports of colours when presented with sounds. However, these associations did not meet multiple standard criteria for synaesthesia. For example, under LSD, sounds would elicit experiences of colour but the colour would vary from one presentation of the same sound to the next. By contrast, developmental synaesthetes exhibit very consistent associations. However, consistency might not be a fair adjudication criterion by which to assess the veracity of induced synaesthesias. It is possible that inducer-concurrent consistency is not a core feature of synaesthesia but rather a product of the consolidation of synaesthetic associations over time. Indirect evidence for this possibility comes from research on synaesthetic children, who are not as consistent in their associations as adult synaesthetes, and independent work showing that synaesthetic associations seem to be shaped in part by environmental constraints.

These last lines of evidence segue nicely into another induction method: cognitive training. Given the foregoing results, perhaps we can induce synaesthesia by repeatedly and dynamically pairing crossmodal stimuli? Some, but not all, studies have been able to reproduce behavioural characteristics of synaesthesia such as the tendency to automatically associate crossmodal stimuli. However, nearly all studies have failed to meet one or more criteria for synaesthesia, particularly the conscious experience of concurrents. One exception is a recent study that included dynamic training over multiple weeks. This training regimen produced reliable associations between crossmodal stimuli in participants that met various characteristics of synaesthesia and more than 50% of the participants reported having conscious experiences of concurrents. These results are very encouraging and suggest that cognitive training represents a valuable approach. Some interesting ways forward might be to examine whether cognitive training is more effective at inducing synaesthesia in the family members of synaesthetes, who may have a genetic predisposition to such experiences or related perceptual abilities, and to couple training with the administration of psychedelics, which seem to more rapidly induce concurrent experiences.

A final approach involves using posthypnotic suggestions, which are administered during hypnosis but only take effect afterwards, to produce synaesthetic associations. Although widely misunderstood due to perennial misconceptions in popular culture, hypnosis is increasingly being accepted as a reliable technique for modulating the contents of consciousness. Hypnosis has been successfully used to model a number of conditions including hallucinations, with many of these effects corroborated using neuroimaging. It has also been used to disrupt the behavioural and electrophysiological markers of synaesthesia in a highly suggestible synaesthete. One study showed that posthypnotic suggestion can be used to produce robust synaesthetic associations including conscious experiences of concurrents in highly suggestible individuals. Although preliminary, this method appears to be capable of reproducing all of the behavioural and phenomenological features of synaesthesia. A significant limitation of this approach is that it requires the use of highly suggestible individuals, who comprise a small minority of the population with a prevalence that is not substantially higher than that of synaesthesia. More broadly, a clear need here, and with the other techniques, of course is to use neuroimaging to compare the neurophysiological correlates of developmental and induced synaesthesia. Similar behaviour and phenomenology do not necessarily mean similar brain mechanisms.

So, what is the answer? All three of these approaches seem to be producing experiences that closely resemble synaesthesia. However, the available data do not as yet allow us to make firm statements regarding whether these induced phenomena qualify as genuine synaesthesia. Nevertheless, the preliminary data are encouraging and worthy of further attention. Moreover, even if these induced synaesthesias turn out to be mechanistically distinct from developmental synaesthesia, they may prove useful in studying certain features of this condition. For example, training may serve as a valuable model for experimentally studying the learning processes that shape the formation of synaesthetic associations.

Surprising facts about how we talk to babies

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AddymanCasparCaspar Addyman is a Lecturer in Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London. He previously spent 10 years working at Birkbeck Babylab. Caspar is a specialist in baby psychology with a particular interest in positive emotions in infancy. On his Baby Laughter website he has collected data and videos from parents all over the world. Here, he writes about how two psychologists and an army of babies helped Grammy winner Imogen Heap to write her new happy song for babies.  

                                       Caspar Addyman, Goldsmiths, University of London

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

Here’s an experiment to try next time you meet a baby, try holding a normal conversation. It is very difficult, isn’t it? Yes it is! Oh, yes it is!

When we talk to babies we all naturally switch into a high energy, sing song tone. We use simple words and short sentences. We sound excited. Our pitch rises at the end of the sentence. These particular characteristics of “parentese” or infant-directed speech (IDS) seem to be common across many languages.

A new study, published in Current Biology, has suggested there are universal changes in vocal timbre when talking to babies. Timbre describes the quality of a voice or a musical instrument. The difference between a violin and a trumpet playing the same note is a difference in timbre.

Timbre explained.

Elise Piazza, a postdoctoral researcher at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, invited 12 English-speaking mothers to Princeton Baby Lab and recorded them talking to their babies (aged eight to 12 months) and to an adult. The recordings were converted into “vocal fingerprints” using a standard statistical method. This produces a unique frequency profile for a given speaker that can reliably discriminate one speaker from another based on timbre.

Elise and her colleagues, Marius Iordan and Casey Lew-Williams, then used a computer algorithm to compare adult and infant-directed speech. This seemed to show that all mothers consistently alter the timbre of their voice when talking to babies.

The authors ran several controls to show that this is not just a result of mothers speaking in a higher pitch to babies. But the real test came when a further 12 mothers speaking nine different languages, including Spanish, Russian and Cantonese, were also recorded. The algorithm picked up the same difference between their adult- and infant-directed speech.

Elise describes the change as a “cue mothers implicitly use to support babies’ language learning”. The next hypothesis is that infants might detect this difference to help them know when they are being addressed. The researchers are looking for ways to test this. It would be consistent with what we already know about IDS: we do it to help babies learn.

Patricia Kuhl has shown that IDS exaggerates the differences between vowel sounds, making it easier for babies to discriminate words. This pattern was found in English, Russian and Swedish. Other research found that IDS has the acoustic features of happy, adult-directed speech, and the authors said that “what is special is the widespread expression of emotion to infants in comparison with the more inhibited expression of emotion in typical adult interactions”.

Babies learning language perform some amazing feats. From the muffled confines of the womb, they have already learned enough that, at birth, they prefer their mother’s voice and her native language to another woman or another language.

Babies learn to recognise their mothers’ voices before they’re born.

A recent study found that premature babies in intensive care make more vocalisations in response to hearing adults’ speech. If adults stop responding, infants notice and also cease.

Testing five-month-old infants with this procedure also found that the infants ceased vocalising. Moreover, the more in tune these infants were to their caregiver’s behaviour at five months, the better their language comprehension was at 13 months.

In another charming study, researchers recorded proto-speech of three- to four-month-old infants talking to themselves. The babies expressed a full range of emotions in their squeals, growls and gurgles.

Clearing up a mystery

Incidentally, this new research may also clear up a mystery from my own work. Last year when we were helping Imogen Heap create a song that makes babies happy, we advised her to make sure she recorded it in the presence of her 18-month-old daughter. Research from the 1990s showed babies can tell the difference; they prefer singing that is genuinely infant directed. I never quite believed this at the time but now this new measure of timbre will let us test this out.

For babies, just as for adults, language is truly learned in conversation. From the very beginning, babies want to join in and proto-conversations start between mothers and their newborns; nursing mothers wait for pauses in their infants’ actions to talk to them. This new research highlights a universal signal that is there to let babies know that we are talking to them.

The ConversationYes we are! Oh, yes we are!

Caspar Addyman, Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London

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

Callous? Unemotional? Chances are you won’t be losing any sleep over it

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Alice M. Gregory is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is a member of the Advisory Board for a digital parent education endeavor on infant and toddler sleep that is being supported by Johnson’s Baby. She is a Corresponding Editor (Sleep) for the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. She has previously received funding to support her work from multiple sources including the MRC, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy. She is a member of the Labour Party. She is currently writing a book (Nodding Off: Sleep from Cradle to Grave) to be published by Bloomsbury Sigma in Spring 2018.

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

Alice M Gregory, Goldsmiths, University of London; Dan Denis, Harvard University, and Essi Viding, UCL

If you’ve ever suffered from problems with your emotions or behaviour, you might have struggled with disturbed sleep, too. But are emotional or behavioural difficulties always associated with poor sleep? Are some types of people with difficulties actually better sleepers than your average person? New research from our team suggests that this might just be the case.

Researchers have shown that a wide variety of emotional and behavioural problems are intricately interwoven with the way we sleep. Those suffering from depression, for example, may experience fragmented sleep or their sleep stages may appear unusual. Schizophrenia has also been linked to taking longer to fall asleep and less time spent sleeping when in bed. Post-traumatic stress disorder can involve a recurrence of distressing dreams related to the trauma as well as insomnia or restless sleep. Different aspects of sleep have also been associated with anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Recently, research focus has turned to the association between poor sleep and disruptive behaviour, including aggression and rule-breaking. Researchers have speculated that poor sleep may lead to aggression. It’s also possible that other disorders such as ADHD, which is common among those who are disruptive, could help to explain the association between disruptive behaviour and poor sleep.

Not all people with disruptive behaviour are the same. They can be distinguished by whether or not they have callous and unemotional traits, in other words whether they lack empathy and guilt. There is clearly a difference between someone who behaves badly and feels awful about it afterwards and someone who experiences no remorse or guilt.

We wanted to find out whether greater callous and unemotional traits might be one class of emotional and behavioural problem which was not associated with disrupted sleep. We had hypothesised this previously, based on what we knew about these traits. Perhaps if you are not troubled by guilt or concern for others, you will sleep more soundly.

To test our hypothesis, we asked 1,556 young adults about their sleep as well as their disruptive behaviour, callous and unemotional traits and anxiety. As expected, those who slept poorly tended to report more disruptive behaviour. This is what other researchers have found, too.

This association was partly explained by the anxiety reported by our participants. What was also noteworthy was that the association between poor sleep and disruptive behaviour was significantly stronger for those people who had low levels of callous and unemotional traits. If you had disruptive behaviour, but you also lacked empathy and guilt, your sleep was not disturbed to the same extent. We also found that callous and unemotional traits were not associated with poorer sleep quality.

Being callous and unemotional is associated with good quality sleep.

Belt and braces

We wanted to see if our results could be replicated, so we asked similar questions of another group of 338 participants, aged between 18 and 66 years of age. This time we went beyond simply asking questions. We asked some of the participants (43 of those tested) to wear watch-like devices with motion sensors to measure their sleep.

Again, we found that poorer sleep quality was associated with disruptive behaviour, but only when we asked the participants about their sleep. The association was not found when we measured sleep using the motion sensors. We’re not sure why this should be, but it could be that we did not have enough participants wearing motion sensors (only 43 did) to detect an association.

Perhaps the most striking finding from this sample was that, after considering the effects of age and sex of the participants, better sleep quality (assessed both by asking the participants questions and from some information provided by the motion sensors) was associated with higher levels of callous and unemotional traits.

The ConversationSleeping well has been an important health trend in 2017. But we’re only just beginning to understand this elusive state and the way it is associated with our functioning during the day. A lot of attention has been paid to the way poor sleep has been associated with a number of different emotional and behavioural difficulties. But it may be that some risk traits and behaviour are actually associated with better sleep, and we need to do more work to understand if and why this is the case.

Alice M Gregory, Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London; Dan Denis, Postdoctoral researcher, Harvard University, and Essi Viding, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, UCL

Parenting Science Gang: Citizen Science takes to the hills

Recently, I gave a talk to a group of scientists about emotional development in children. Not much new there, that’s pretty much what I do. Except this time I got to give the talk in my socks, in an activity centre in the middle of the peak district, and the scientists weren’t my usual peer group – these scientists were a group of parents who’d signed themselves up for Parenting Science Gang, a fully immersive citizen science programme, led by Sophia Collins and funded by the Wellcome Trust. The programme is multi-faceted, engaging with several different parent interest groups and offering live chats with scientists, encouraging groups to ask questions and look for existing research, and this – the first residential session for parents to come together.


I know that some of the questions that I am interested in have been shaped by my own parenting experiences so far, and so it makes perfect sense that parents have questions about child development that scientists haven’t addressed yet. Our session focused on how children develop emotion regulation skills, and most importantly for our group, who were largely parents of toddler and pre-schoolers – how can we best support that, and manage tantrums for the best.


We considered research on parent-child communication, sleep and sensory processing, the typical development of children’s understanding of own and others’ emotions, and the possible impact of screen time; and came up with a whole lot more questions that are still unanswered. The groups will continue to work on refining their questions, and will work with scientists to develop a research programme that allows them to address this. For my part, I am hopeful that this group will help me to shape the next stage of our pre-school project on behaviour development.


The benefit of a weekend residential was clear. Parents were able to meet each other, with and without their children (who were most usually entertained by the wonderful storyteller, pile of dressing up clothes and great outdoors), and were able to test out ideas in a space that allowed for constructive questioning and collaborative idea-sharing. Parents came from all different backgrounds, but shared the goal of asking useful questions. It was a privilege for me to spend time with interested and involved people, and to learn so much more about how citizen science might best be realised – a genuinely collaborative effort, with structure, support and group willing to ask questions.


Parents also benefit from being part of these projects in other ways –knowing how and where to find research promotes confidence in parenting decisions, and allows parents to make their own distinctions between ‘advice’ and something more evidence-based. I think the children who came along got to see something a little bit different; their parents taking part in active conversations about science, and them getting to trial out some of their own experiments.


If you want to know more about the project (and, really, you should), then have a look here:

CBT isn’t a talking therapy it’s a doing therapy.

IMG_1199Dr. Lucy Oldfield is a practising Clinical Psychologist working in a primary care adult mental health setting in the NHS alongside  lecturing at Goldsmiths on the Foundations in Clinical Psychology and Health Services MSc programme. Her clinical work is focused around anxiety and mood disorders with a specialist interest in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sometimes suffers from bold aspirational claims, usually made by politicians that it is a talking therapy that offers a panacea for all ills. That a few sessions of CBT will enable anyone to feel better, to go back to work or work for the first time and to live a richer, more meaningful life. Just like that. Some of these outcomes are absolutely possible for some people but the sophistication of the therapy and the demanding nature of it for both the therapist and the client is often not talked about. Unsurprisingly therefore many people come to therapy with an idea that CBT can ‘fix’ them and quickly. Many people think that CBT is sitting and having a nice chat with another person who listens and responds in a non-judgmental and encouraging manner. A good CBT therapist absolutely does listen with a non-judgemental stance and does encourage but they also need to do much more to offer the best chance of a successful outcome. The other buzz words commonly associated with CBT are ‘tools and techniques’. These make me think of hammers and drills and oil painting versus watercolours. In CBT the so called tools and techniques are actually ideas, principles and abstract knowledge which are learned through doing things and feeling things. In order to learn something about emotions the emotions need to be felt in the room to some extent, otherwise conversation could become a purely cerebral exercise. Similarly, the only way of developing confidence which many clients say they want more of, is to do things that prove our confidence to ourselves. No amount of thinking about it or talking about it on its own is going to change how confident we feel.

The most fundamental principle underpinning CBT is deceptively simple: that emotions are felt as a result of our appraisal of situations and events rather than as a result of the situations and events themselves (Beck, 1979). So for example if three different people at the same music festival all find themselves in the same thunder and lightning storm at the same time they might have very different emotional reactions to it which will affect their behavioural responses:

Person 1: “Whoo! This is exciting, look at the lightning isn’t it amazing, let’s dance in the rain!” (Excited, happy)

Person 2: “I might get hit by lightning, the tent might blow away, we’re not near any trees or metal are we? Let’s get inside quick!” (Frightened)

Person 3: “This is so typical, the weekend’s ruined now and I bet we won’t be able to get a refund. Let’s go home.” (Disappointed/angry/sad)

Each person’s perspective on the storm has directly determined their feelings and their behaviour. So how is it that the three can have such different perspectives on the same situation? Each person’s memories, biases and assumptions – all of their life experiences before the storm will have a bearing on how they see it.

People come to therapy when their habitual way of seeing things and reacting to events causes problems (usually emotional distress) for them and/or for other people. Good therapists require creativity and sophisticated understanding to help clients learn new perspectives. The ultimate aim of CBT is to help people to develop metacognitive awareness – or put another way to become one’s own therapist – spotting when we might be using a habitual or learned way of thinking or behaving that doesn’t have a good outcome for us and then choosing to try responding differently.


The psychotherapist Aaron T Beck is considered by many to be the father of cognitive therapy. He defined CBT as, ‘an active, directive, time limited structured approach… based on an underlying rationale that an individual’s affect and behaviour are largely determined by the way in which he sees his world’ (Beck, 1979).

It is striking that the first word of this definition is active. One of the most active elements of CBT and one of the most fun, interesting and challenging ways to discover different outcomes and shift our world view is to do behavioural experiments. These can look weird or nonsensical until we understand why they have been devised in the way that they have and what new information it is hoped will be obtained by doing them. Usually they are done in or between CBT sessions to try to test out patient’s existing beliefs about themselves, others and the world or to build up and test new more adaptive beliefs (Bennett-Levy, 2004).

I have done a whole host of seemingly odd things for and with my clients. For example: asked tube staff at Kings Cross Station where Kings Cross Station is (learnt they didn’t laugh or think us stupid); raced up a steep hill to try to bring on a heart attack (learnt that increased heart rate after sprinting just like in a panic attack is not dangerous), walked about behaving suspiciously up and down a crowded tube carriage (learnt that people did not think we were terrorists), tried to make myself go insane (learnt that it is not possible to think ourselves into madness), put my hands into the toilet bowl then ate an apple without washing my hands (learnt that contamination is everywhere, we can bear to feel disgusted and our bodies are capable of preventing us from getting as ill as we might imagine).

The learning in all cases was more memorable to clients because they felt it rather than thought it and when I asked them at the end of therapy which bits were most useful they always referred to the experiments. I usually feel a mixture of anxiety and excitement when I do them with clients which is understandable because there is always some element of spontaneity even in pre-planned experiments. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. It is necessary and useful for me to feel that way to be authentic to my client and to model that it’s ok not to always know what’s going to happen and that whatever happens we will learn something.

CBT isn’t a talking therapy, it’s a doing therapy and it usually requires both the client and the therapist to be courageous and tenacious in trying to discover alternative perspectives about themselves, others and the world. Embracing new or adapted perspectives may ultimately lead to living richer, more meaningful lives.

Find out more:

Clark,D. (1995) Perceived limitations of standard cognitive therapy: A reconsideration of efforts to revise Beck’s theory and therapy. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 9 (3) 153–172

Teasdale, J. (1997). The transformation of meaning: The interacting cognitive subsystems approach.In M. Power, C.R. Brewin (Eds.), The transformation of meaning in psychological therapies,  (pp. 141–156). Chichester: Wiley.




Dr. Lucy Oldfield is on Twitter @oldfieldLuc


Hypnosis may still be veiled in mystery – but we are starting to uncover its scientific basis

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On the count of three, you will forget this ever happened. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Devin Terhune, Goldsmiths, University of London and Steven Jay Lynn, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This piece was originally published in The Conversation

Some argue that hypnosis is just a trick. Others, however, see it as bordering on the paranormal – mysteriously transforming people into mindless robots. Now our recent review of a number of research studies on the topic reveals it is actually neither. Hypnosis may just be an aspect of normal human behaviour.

Hypnosis refers to a set of procedures involving an induction – which could be fixating on an object, relaxing or actively imagining something – followed by one or more suggestions, such as “You will be completely unable to feel your left arm”. The purpose of the induction is to induce a mental state in which participants are focused on instructions from the experimenter or therapist, and are not distracted by everyday concerns. One reason why hypnosis is of interest to scientists is that participants often report that their responses feel automatic or outside their control.

Most inductions produce equivalent effects. But inductions aren’t actually that important. Surprisingly, the success of hypnosis doesn’t rely on special abilities of the hypnotist either – although building rapport with them will certainly be valuable in a therapeutic context.

Rather, the main driver for successful hypnosis is one’s level of “hypnotic suggestibility”. This is a term which describes how responsive we are to suggestions. We know that hypnotic suggestibility doesn’t change over time and is heritable. Scientists have even found that people with certain gene variants are more suggestible.

Most people are moderately responsive to hypnosis. This means they can have vivid changes in behaviour and experience in response to hypnotic suggestions. By contrast, a small percentage (around 10-15%) of people are mostly non-responsive. But most research on hypnosis is focused on another small group (10-15%) who are highly responsive.

In this group, suggestions can be used to disrupt pain, or to produce hallucinations and amnesia. Considerable evidence from brain imaging reveals that these individuals are not just faking or imagining these responses. Indeed, the brain acts differently when people respond to hypnotic suggestions than when they imagine or voluntarily produce the same responses.

Preliminary research has shown that highly suggestible individuals may have unusual functioning and connectivity in the prefrontal cortex. This is a brain region that plays a critical role in a range of psychological functions including planning and the monitoring of one’s mental states.

There is also some evidence that highly suggestible individuals perform more poorly on cognitive tasks known to depend on the prefrontal cortex, such as working memory. However, these results are complicated by the possibility that there might be different subtypes of highly suggestible individuals. These neurocognitive differences may lend insights into how highly suggestible individuals respond to suggestions: they may be more responsive because they’re less aware of the intentions underlying their responses.

For example, when given a suggestion to not experience pain, they may suppress the pain but not be aware of their intention to do so. This may also explain why they often report that their experience occurred outside their control. Neuroimaging studies have not as yet verified this hypothesis but hypnosis does seem to involve changes in brain regions involved in monitoring of mental states, self-awareness and related functions.

Although the effects of hypnosis may seem unbelievable, it’s now well accepted that beliefs and expectations can dramatically impact human perception. It’s actually quite similar to the placebo response, in which an ineffective drug or therapeutic treatment is beneficial purely because we believe it will work. In this light, perhaps hypnosis isn’t so bizarre after all. Seemingly sensational responses to hypnosis may just be striking instances of the powers of suggestion and beliefs to shape our perception and behaviour. What we think will happen morphs seamlessly into what we ultimately experience.

Hypnosis requires the consent of the participant or patient. You cannot be hypnotised against your will and, despite popular misconceptions, there is no evidence that hypnosis could be used to make you commit immoral acts against your will.

Hypnosis as medical treatment

Meta-analyses, studies that integrate data from many studies on a specific topic, have shown that hypnosis works quite well when it comes to treating certain conditions. These include irritable bowel syndrome and chronic pain. But for other conditions, however, such as smoking, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, the evidence is less clear cut – often because there is a lack of reliable research.

But although hypnosis can be valuable for certain conditions and symptoms, it’s not a panacea. Anyone considering seeking hypnotherapy should do so only in consultation with a trained professional. Unfortunately, in some countries, including the UK, anyone can legally present themselves as a hypnotherapist and start treating clients. However, anyone using hypnosis in a clinical or therapeutic context needs to have conventional training in a relevant discipline, such as clinical psychology, medicine, or dentistry to ensure that they are sufficiently expert in that specific area.

We believe that hypnosis probably arises through a complex interaction of neurophysiological and psychological factors – some described here and others unknown. It also seems that these vary across individuals.

But as researchers gradually learn more, it has become clear that this captivating phenomenon has the potential to reveal unique insights into how the human mind works. This includes fundamental aspects of human nature, such as how our beliefs affect our perception of the world and how we come to experience control over our actions.

How to make babies happy

AddymanCasparCaspar Addyman is a Lecturer in Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London. He previously spent 10 years working at Birkbeck Babylab. Caspar is a specialist in baby psychology with a particular interest in positive emotions in infancy. On his Baby Laughter website he has collected data and videos from parents all over the world. Here, he writes about how two psychologists and an army of babies helped Grammy winner Imogen Heap to write her new happy song for babies.

Being a new parent is an emotional rollercoaster. It is an even wilder ride for a baby. Baby experts often focus on coping with lows. As someone who studies infant psychology I think the highs are no less interesting. So for the last four years I’ve been researching baby laughter. Can I guarantee to make a baby laugh? Well, I’ve been working on it.

I conducted a survey of parents all over the world and have run various studies in the lab. I’ve come to see infant laughter as the flipside to all those tears. Crying and laughter are both social signals that let babies communicate with us. Crying is a signal of frustration and discomfort, laughter signals success and satisfaction. Laughs accompany each tiny triumph and each little “Eureka!”. This makes infant laughter a wonderful window into infant learning. In fact, laughter may be a tool babies use to learn about the social world.

It’s clear that a crying baby needs your help. What is less obvious is that a laughing baby is rewarding your assistance and holding your attention in order to learn from you. The biggest mystery in anyone’s life is other people. This is even more true for babies. They crave quality interactions with adults. Laughter is their secret weapon to get it. This is why laughing babies pull in hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. It also why one of the best ways to make a baby laugh is to take her seriously.

Now, if only more people would take this research seriously I might have funding to do it. Fortunately, last year I started a new job at Goldsmiths, University of London; a place with a reputation for encouraging radical ideas and creative approaches to research. (I always suspect that having blue hair may have helped me get the job.)  

Shortly after I arrived I gave a talk to my new department about my research. Straight after the talk Prof. Lauren Stewart came up to me and suggested we collaborate on something. Lauren is a professor of the psychology of music and was interested in how babies respond to music. Music is laden with emotion and so it would be fascinating to learn more about its effect on young babies. I readily agreed but couldn’t find a suitable project.

Then by weird and happy coincidence in April last year C&G baby club called Lauren up saying they wanted help to create ‘a song scientifically proven to make babies happy’. At first we were wary. Brands have a fairly poor track record when it comes to using science. However, I had previously had a very positive experience doing research funded by Pampers. I had seen that baby brands cannot afford to lose their credibility and so have to be assiduous in what they do and what they claim.  We met with C&G baby club to discuss their intentions. Our first proviso was that they shouldn’t use the word ‘prove’. Our second was that they had let us do real science. They readily agreed.

Once these ground rules were established the first step was to discover what was already known about the sounds and music that might make babies happy. We had some experience. My previous work on the Baby Laughter project had asked parents about the nursery rhymes and silly sounds that appealed to babies. Lauren’s previous research has looked at ‘earworms’, songs that get stuck in your head. We discovered surprisingly little research on babies’ musical preferences. This was encouraging as it meant this was a worthwhile project from a scientific point of view.

The next step was to find the right composer.  With the help of FELT music consultancy, Grammy winner Imogen Heap was recruited as the composer. Imogen is a highly tech-savvy musician who just happened to have an 18 month old daughter of her own. She was intrigued by the challenges of the project. Few musicians had taken on the challenge of writing real music to excite babies while still appealing to parents.  Musician Michael Janisch recorded a whole album of Jazz for Babies, but that was very slow and designed to soothe babies. Most music written specifically for babies sounds frankly deranged.

Plenty of research has looked at adults’ emotional response to music (such as the recent brain imaging study of Tinie Tempah). Research with babies is more piecemeal and eclectic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of asking them what they like. Researchers know that babies can hear and remember music even while they are still in the womb and one curious study from 2000 found that newborn babies prefer Bach to Aerosmith. Most systematic work has been conducted by Laurel Trainor at McMaster University and her colleagues. She has found young babies have clear preferences for consonance over dissonance and can remember the tempo and timbre of music they’ve heard before. Babies prefer the female voice but like it even more when it takes on the qualities of ‘motherese’ (the high-energy sing-song tone we all naturally adopt when talking to babies.)

We met with Imogen and gave her a set of recommendations based on what we had discovered.The song ought to be in an major key with a simple and repetitive main melody with musical devices like drum rolls, key changes and rising pitch glides to provide opportunities for anticipation and surprise. Because babies’ heart rates are much faster than ours so the music ought to be more up-tempo than we would expect. And finally, it should have an energetic female vocal, ideally recorded in the presence of an actual baby.

Fortunately Imogen had her daughter, Scout, to help her with the composition. Imogen created 4 melodies for us to test in the lab, 2 fast and 2 slow ones. For each of these she created a version with and without simple sung lyrics. Twenty-six babies between 6 and 12 months came to our lab with their mums to give us their opinion on these 8 short pieces of music. Amazingly most of the mums and 20 out of 26 babies seemed to share a clear preference for one particular melody. In line with our predictions this was a faster melody.  Even more amazingly, this is was the tune that had started out as a little ditty made up by Scout.

We knew which song the mums liked because we could ask them. We also asked the mum’s to tell us what their babies prefered best, because they are the experts on their own babies. But we also filmed the babies’ responses and coded the videos for laughs, smiles and dancing. We tried measuring changes in the babies’ heart rates and using a motion capture system to see if they were moving in time with the music. Unfortunately, this hit quite a few technical difficulties and there wasn’t time to solve the problems on our very tight schedule. This was worthwhile as pilot work and will be a really interesting area for future research.

But now we had a winning melody, Imogen needed to turn it into a full length song and it needed to be funny (to a baby). The secret was to make it silly and make it social.  Around 2500 parents from the C&G baby club and Imogen’s fan club voted on silly sounds that made their babies happy. The top 10 sounds included “Boo!” (66%), raspberries (57%), sneezing (51%), animal sounds (23%) and baby laughter (28%). We also know babies respond better to plosive vocal sounds like “pa” and “ba” compared to sonorant sounds like “la”. Imogen very cleverly worked many of these elements into the song.

Next it needed to be something that parents could enjoy themselves and share with their children. Happiness is a shared emotion and the success of nursery rhymes is that they are interactive. Imogen carefully crafted the lyrics to tell a joyous tale of how we love our little babies wherever we are – from the sky to the ocean, on a bike or on a rocket. The transport theme permitted lots of plosives “Beep, beep” and bouncing actions.

Our baby music consultants came back to the lab and listened to two slightly different sketches of the full song. This time we found that slightly slower seemed to work better (163 vs 168 beats per minute). Perhaps because it gave mums and babies a little more time to respond to the lyrics. We also found that the chorus was the most effective part of the song and determined which lyrics and sound effects worked better or worse.

After one final round of tweaks from Imogen, we went for a different kind of test. We assembled about 20 of the babies in one room and played them the song all together. It was perhaps a silly thing to do but as Imogen and I sat on the sofa in front of a colourful and chaotic room full of mums and babies and pressed play we were cautiously optimistic. If you ever met an excited toddler or young baby, you will know that 2 ½ minutes is a long time to hold the attention of even one child, let alone two dozen. When The Happy Song played we were met by a sea of entranced little faces. This certainly wasn’t very scientific as tests go but it definitely convinced me that we had a hit on our hands. You can hear the song here. Please tweet me (@czzpr) and let us know if it makes your little ones happy too.

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Thanks to all the mums, dads and babies who helped with the project. We couldn’t have done it without our small army of tiny music consultants. Nor without my two assistants Omer and Kaveesha who came to us through the excellent Nuffield Brilliant Club which arranges internships for A-level student in real working science labs. It was a frantic summer but we are very happy with the final song. You see a short video about the process here:

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Now that we have a song that both novel and highly baby friendly, Lauren and I have a range of follow up studies planned. We are planning to use the song in a range of experiments looking at how mothers introduce their babies to music and hope to look properly at babies physiological responses to happy music. Meanwhile, I am finishing a popular science book called the Laughing Baby. It is all about how to make babies happy and why that is so important. You can preorder your copy here

Caspar Addyman is happy to be on Twitter @czzpr

It’s time to change the face of psychology

Worm emerging from an apple - hungrymindlab.comVanessa, Hannah and Sophie are members of the Hungry Mind Lab, which is currently based at Goldsmiths University of London. Their research focuses on the causes and consequences of individual differences for lifespan cognitive development. Vanessa is studying for her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Chemnitz in Germany, but she visited the Hungry Mind Lab last autumn for a placement. Hannah has been working as a research assistant and the lab’s co-ordinator for two years, whilst also doing an MSc in Forensic Psychology at King’s College London. Sophie is the lab’s director and a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, where she teaches Personality and Individual Differences.

The Research Whisperer

Worm emerging from an apple - hungrymindlab.comVanessa Günther, Hannah Rachel Scott and Sophie von Stumm are a psychological research group at Goldsmiths University of London.

Our lab is called Hungry Mind Lab (@HungryMindLab) and we investigate the complex interplay of various dimensions of individual differences.

We focus on cognitive ability and personality traits and explore how and why these dimensions are interrelated, their causes and consequences for lifespan cognitive development, and their behavioral manifestations. 

Although females outnumber male psychology students at undergraduate levels, senior positions in psychological science are mostly held by men. This disparity has been previously attributed to two principal reasons:

  1. Women’s tendency to prioritise raising a family over pursuing a scientific career, and
  2. Systematic faculty gender biases against hiring and promoting women in academia.

We want to raise awareness of a third crucial issue that hinders women’s progression into the most respected posts in psychological research:

  1. The typical image of the psychological…

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