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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjpraGVs2Sg

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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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99ejy8NzYW0

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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 https://unbound.com/books/the-laughing-baby

Caspar Addyman is happy to be on Twitter @czzpr

Data, data, data — the world is crazy about data. But how do you get it?

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Sophie von Stumm

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Carolina Antunez

Carolina Antunez and Sophie von Stumm  work at the Hungry Mind Lab, based in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths. Their research focuses on empowering early
career researchers to collect ‘big’, high-quality data with new and innovative assessment technologies. Here, they describe how they planned and hosted their Better Data) event that recently took place at SOAS and brought together 130 early career researchers and 25 technology and science experts.

The event was funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award to Sophie. Here, Carolina reflects on the event. 

When I started working at The Hungry Mind Lab, in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths University of London, I was rather sceptical of ‘data’ and ‘quantification’.  As an undergrad in Media & Sociology, I am naturally concerned about the data-fication of our society and the growing power that technology has over our lives. Back then, I could not have imagined the size of the industry behind the development of new technologies for collecting data – and I certainly didn’t know about its academic relevance. But that didn’t stop me from applying for a research assistant job that focused on promoting the use of technology for research.

 

My job was to organise an event that would bring awareness of the latest assessment technologies to early career researchers in the behavioural sciences – but I knew nothing about assessment technologies (and I didn’t understand the behavioural science jargon). To start the event planning, I was asked to interview behavioural science experts about their uses of research technology,  for example, I visited a team of world-leading behaviour geneticists at King’s College London and I talked to a group of virtual reality experts at University College London. Although I felt a little awkward at first to discuss assessment technologies with these very knowledgeable and famous scientists, the interviews soon showed me what all the data fuss was about.

 

I became aware of ground-breaking technologies that will revolutionize our understanding of human individuality. For example, the FaceReader, a new tool by Noldus, now makes it possible study people’s emotions based on subtle expressions in their faces while watching a movie clip or scene. I also learned about portable assessment technologies and wearables, virtual reality equipment, augmented reality valuable tools, and customisable tools, like web-based experiment builders and survey tools. Soon I was persuading the people behind the most pioneering research technologies to contribute to our event, which at that point finally had a name — Better Data: Technologies for Measuring Behaviour — as well as a date – the 26th October 2016.

 

As October approached, I had less and less time to explore gamified cognitive tests or interact with avatars in virtual spaces. Instead, I became immersed with the more mundane aspects of hosting an event, such as advertising, ticketing, catering, and confirming the contributors. It’s the phase in event planning that makes your realise that there’s always more to do and that even more can go wrong. But on the actual day of the event, everything came together perfectly. We had attracted over 130 early career researchers to attend and get hands-on experience with the latest assessment technologies. We showcased overall 20 assessment technologies in the morning of day. After lunch, we heard short presentations about different aspects of measuring behaviour with technology from expert speakers, including scientists, journalists and technology developers.

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The event taught me how important technology has become for research, including the study of behaviour but also all other scientific disciplines. For example, ETHOS is an app for sociologists to conduct field research: It serves as an ethnographic observation system. ETHOS organises and stores the researcher’s oral and written notes, as well as photos and videos from field observations and interviews in real time. The app helps researchers to identify patters in their data entries, minimising the time spent sorting and organising the information.

 

Notwithstanding my new found enthusiasm for collecting data, I am aware that big data come with big challenges, mainly surrounding the ethics of the use and storage of data. It is an important task for today’s researchers — but also policy makers and technology companies — to address these issues in ways that ensure the protection of people’s personal data while producing new scientific insights at the same time. Perhaps a topic for our next event…

All information about the event, including the showcased technologies and videos of the day, can be found here: www.better-data.co.uk.

 

 

Magic, memory, and making the most of your time at university

chris_french_131168_bill_robinson_smallProf. Chris French founded the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) at Goldsmiths in the year 2000. Research in the APRU can be broadly divided into two categories. The main strand involves research that focuses upon attempting to develop and test non-paranormal explanations for ostensibly paranormal experiences, such as precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis – even alien abduction claims. A secondary, but still important, strand focuses upon attempting to directly test paranormal claims including people claiming to have psychic abilities (to date, no one has been able to demonstrate any such ability in our tests). Here, he talks more about the APRU’s current activities: how you can make the most of them – and of your time – at Goldsmiths.

 

Another academic year is about to begin and soon all of our students will be hard at work (we hope) attending lectures and tutorials, writing essays and reports, and generally immersing themselves in their chosen subject of psychology. But it is important to remember that being at university is not just about getting a good degree in your chosen subject, important though that is – it is also about becoming an independent thinker with the ability to critically assess claims and ideas of all kinds. One of the best ways to do this is to attend the wide range of talks and other events that are on offer to you throughout the year at Goldsmiths and beyond.

The Psychology Department offers three main invited speaker series: the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) Invited Speaker Series, the Whitehead Lectures in Cognition, Computation and Culture (co-organised with the Department of Computing), and the Psychology Department Seminar Series. Additionally, there are many other one-off events, including conferences, inaugural lectures, and small-group meetings, that you can also attend (often for free).

For example, take the time to have a look at the line-up of speakers for the forthcoming APRU series here.  As you will see, we have an amazing array of talented speakers, including academics from Goldsmiths and other universities, broadcasters, writers and even a magician, covering fascinating topics such as “brainwashing”, urban legends, the psychology of money, delusions, UFOs, and magic. Do come along to the first talk in our new series, Dr Marcia Holmes on “Brainwashing: Fears, fantasies and facts about mind control in the Cold War”.

Keep an eye open too for one-off talks by some of the world’s leading and most influential psychologists (word has it that Professor Elizabeth Loftus, awarded an honorary degree by Goldsmiths in 2015, will be speaking here again next spring). It isn’t just free talks that you can attend either. For example, in January 2016, the Forensic Psychology Unit hosted an evening of immersive theatre where participants played the role of ‘rookie cops’ or ‘investigative reporters’ in a live mock murder investigation.

Goldsmiths often hosts conferences on topics of potential interest. For example, in the last couple of years, I have co-organised one-day multidisciplinary conferences on vampires, possession and exorcism, witchcraft, Satanic abuse claims, and sleep, not to mention the three-day European Skeptics Congress (okay, that list does reflect my own fascination with weird stuff and there are plenty of other conferences on offer too!). We are planning to hold a one-day conference on conspiracies at Goldsmiths on 26 November 2016 (watch this space).

 

Beyond the walls of Goldsmiths, there are plenty of other interesting events for you to consider attending across London. For example, I run the Greenwich branch of Skeptics in the Pub. I must admit, the phrase “Skeptics in the Pub” always conjures up for me an image of a room full of grumpy old men all sipping warm beer and proclaiming, “Bah! I don’t believe that”, but the reality is much more fun. As you can see, the next speaker at GSitP is our own Ashok Jansari telling us about “neuro-bollocks”. I will be announcing the full 2017 programme very soon but take a look at the “past events” link to get an idea of the wide range of topics that we’ve covered.

Another forthcoming event that you might enjoy (particularly if you like a laugh and/or a drink) is the Goldsmiths Showoff night at the Amersham Arms on the evening of the 3 November 2016:. I’ll be giving you the chance to see if you can hear some “hidden messages” (that aren’t really there) and there will be a host of other Goldsmiths academics talking about everything from dating algorithms to cats and class war.

I urge you to come along to these events where you often not only get to hear great talks but have the opportunity to chat with the speakers (and members of staff, students and the general public) informally in the pub afterwards. A good way to make sure that you hear about forthcoming events is to sign up to the APRU’s (free) email list. In addition to that, regularly check the College’s events calendar. If you do, you’ll see that in addition to talks and conferences, there are numerous concerts, performances and exhibitions on offer for you. Go to some of those too. Make the most of your time at Goldsmiths.

Chris French communicates technomagically via Twitter: @chriscfrench and via his Guardian blog column.

Baby science: Making a theatrical debut

AddymanCasparDr. Caspar Addyman is a Psychology Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a developmental psychologist interested in learning, laughter and behaviour change. The majority of his research is with babies. He has investigated how we acquire our first concepts, the statistical processes that help us get started with learning language and where our sense of time comes from. Before moving to Goldsmiths, he spent 10 years working in Birkbeck Babylab. Here he talks about a recent collaboration with the Polka Theatre. 

Imagine for a moment that you wanted create a piece of theatre to entertain babies or a scientific experiment to test their understanding, how would you go about it? In this article I will give you a handy six step recipe that will help you get started in either situation. And along the way I hope to persuade you why these are both such worthwhile and important undertakings. The surprising thing is that the process is very similar. Despite 10 years of experience running experiments with babies I only discovered this myself very recently.

Over last few months myself and colleagues from Birkbeck Babylab  have been collaborating with the creative team at Polka Theatre. The goal has been to make a piece of theatre for 6 to 18 month old infants based on our research as part of Polka’s upcoming Brain Waves festival (21 Sept – 2 Oct 2016). Brain Waves is a two week long festival of science and theatre that matches artists and neuroscientists to create new theatre productions for children. Supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award the festival features four original works for a range of audiences between 6 months and 16 years old.

To create a show for babies, Polka turned to Sarah Argent, a very experienced theatre director, who in recent years has specialised in creating works for babies and toddlers. In February, Sarah came to Birkbeck Babylab and after speaking to a range of our colleagues she honed in me and my fellow baby scientists Sinead Rocha and Rosy Edey. Rosy studies how we read the social movements of others. Sinead investigates rhythm and dance in babies and I study what makes babies laugh. Dancing babies, social babies, laughing babies. We could see how that makes a good start for a show. Sinead and I have also spent several years studying babies’ sense of time. We were curious how Sarah and her team would work with that.

In fact, at that first meeting, we were very curious about everything…

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Step zero: Why are we at the theatre?

Let’s take a step back, why would you want to create theatre for babies or try to run a psychology study with infant participants? Wouldn’t theatre for babies be limited? Wouldn’t experiments with adults give you clearer answers?

One important first principle that seems to be shared by baby psychologists and baby theatre makers is that we both treat babies as full citizens. Theatre for babies is not theatre for adults but smaller. And science for babies is not science for adults but simpler. Baby psychologists are not simply cataloguing when various abilities come online. For us, babyhood is not merely a way-station to something better. We care about what it is like to be a baby. We try to understand babies from the inside. In theatre for babies, the ambitions seem to be the same.

 

Step one: Why are we at the theatre, today?

Our lofty ambitions and elaborate theory won’t mean a thing to the babies.  To communicate with them we have to be concrete and we have to be focused. We must always start with a very specific question. To get answers from them we must present them with just one thing at a time.

Sarah’s previous show for babies, Scrunch, is a great example of this. It’s set at Christmas and it features just one actor (Sarah’s husband Kevin Lewis). It builds slowly and smoothly, transitioning from event to event at a pace that is often determined by the babies in the audience. Parents coming to our lab are often surprised by how short the actual experiments are. Their baby may spend as little as 3 or 4 minutes doing the task we set them. To get that exactly right, you need to deeply about your goals before you set off. You must consider lots of possible options to find the best way to ask your question.

I think this is somewhere that baby science can learn from baby theatre. In my experience people in science are impatient problem solvers. You start telling them about something and they leap ahead of you second guessing outcomes and jumping to conclusions  The tempo seems very different in theatre. Our first full day of collaboration at Polka, the whole creative team assembled with Rosy, Sinead and I to discuss our work and there was no rush. People work in theatre are a good audience. They really do listen. They absorb, then they ask great questions.

 

Step two: Who is our audience?

A six month old is a very different person from a sixteen month old. A hungry baby is different person from the same baby after a good meal. An overtired toddler can have a lot of angry energy. We have to work with this not against it.

We never expect any given baby to “pass or fail” and results are based on the group not the individual because we might not get a baby at their best. For similar reasons, we rarely attempt to track the development of babies over time, preferring to test a group of 6 month olds and compare them to different groups of 4 or 8 month olds.

We try to make our tasks work with a wide age range. But often babies have other ideas. Sinead and I tried to teach babies about time by playing a game. Seven times in a row, Sinead would lift the babies’ hands every 4 seconds. On the eight time, she’d sit there and see if they babies anticipated. Four, 6 & 8 month olds played the game happily. You can see a video of this here .  But from 10 months and up, babies refused to even let us hold their hands. For them a different game would be required. In baby theatre, there isn’t the luxury of having a narrow age range. The show must have broad appeal.

Babies are fantastic participants for psychological studies because they are both open-minded and honest. They will consider anything we present them with but they won’t hold back their opinions. Translating this to theatre this makes them challenge but rewarding audience.  

 

Step three: The story

I read somewhere that good storytelling is about being simple, truthful, emotional, real and relevant. This would make for a good infant experiment too. An ideal for infant scientists would be to observe babies solving problems in their everyday lives. We can rarely do this but our lab must recreate as much of a natural situation as possible.

And it must be engaging. Infant attention is a precious commodity. After a few minutes in one situation their attention will wander. Everything is interesting to a baby. I’ve lost count of the number of times a baby has found his or her socks more interesting than my experiment. I am very envious when I see Sarah’s shows keeping babies entranced for 20 minutes or more. If I can learn some of her tricks this collaboration will have been invaluable to me.

The final rule is “show, don’t tell.” With preverbal infants, this goes without saying.

 

Step four: Rehearsal

Despite all the handy rules of step three, the mantra for step four is “Easier said than done.” Nothing will work quite as you expect and solving problems is the order of the day. Early rehearsals (or piloting as we call it) are where the real creativity happens

Sarah very wisely invites some babies to those early meetings because as we know well from our babylab, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In one experiment we had a ball on a stick that swung round for the babies to grab. They greatly enjoyed it. The trouble was they wouldn’t let go. It took a great deal of practice to learn how to distract the babies in just the right way it that wouldn’t provoke a rebellion.

When you get to the actual performance so much is happening at once that you need to have had extensive practice. Technical and dress rehearsal are invaluable in baby science too. In our studies there is often someone hiding behind a curtain jingling bells to get babies looking in the right direction madly pressing buttons to make teddy bears pop up on screen at just the right time and to ensure all the data gets recorded.

 

Step five: Showtime

In a recent ‘manifesto’ on theatre for children   Purni Morrell declared that “Art has to start from a shared position of ignorance.” This holds true for science too. You can’t make up your mind in advance. Or what would be the point?

And this all goes double when you are working with babies. Babies are enigmatic. If you think you know what baby is thinking you are probably wrong. Until we are there on the day with the babies we can’t know what will happen.

I do know that I am really looking forward to the premiere of Shake, Rattle and Roll .


The Festival is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award.

Brain Waves: Shake, Rattle and Roll, A Polka Theatre Production, runs at the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon. Times vary. Tickets: £12.50 / Concessions and previews £9.00.

Tickets are available from the Polka Theatre website and by calling 020 8543 4888.

Caspar Addyman takes further baby steps on Twitter: @czzpr.

 

Stakeholder engagement, Brexit and beyond

As the prospest of a Brexit makes waves across the UK and beyond, this is the first of two posts this week from our Department, focussing on its impact and meaning. 

Elisabeth-Hill-photo-2The first post is from Elisabeth Hill, a Professor of Neurodevelopmental Disorders in the Department of Psychology where she heads up Goldsmiths Action Lab. She is also ProWarden (or elsewhere PVC) Learning Teaching Enhancement at Goldsmiths. Her work focuses on the importance of motor development for the development of cognitive domains and daily life outcomes in those with and without a range of developmental disorders. Here, she takes us from an early foray into stakeholder engagement to Brexit and beyond.

 

Around 20 years ago, towards the end of my PhD at the MRC Applied Psychology Unit (APU; now the Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit), I gave a talk to a group of professional stakeholders in my field. My focus that day was the motor skills of children with specific language impairment (SLI). One or two children in every school class meet criteria for this condition, which is diagnosed entirely on the basis of language skill. However, my research highlighted that a large proportion of children with SLI struggle with motor development and experience the same difficulties as children diagnosed with developmental coordination disorder (a motor disorder that also affects 1-2 children in every school class). These days we know that motor development has a very significant impact on early and later development of a range of areas including language and social skills. It also has an impact on longer term outcomes – at school, at work and on mental health. However, that’s now. The striking memory that I want to share is that of a speech therapist (let’s call her Joanna) speaking to me after the talk. I remember her exact words:

“your work turned on a light bulb for me. My team will now assess motor skill in every child that comes to us for a detailed language assessment. We’re failing them if we don’t”.

Fast forward a couple of years and Joanna was in another audience that I spoke to where she told me that motor screening had been implemented in her team and, as a result, a great proportion of the children assessed now received occupational therapy as well as language interventions. At the time I was astounded. It turned out that my work as a PhD student was not only well received by stakeholders, but had effected a change. It was needed on the ground and it made a difference, even though it was invisible to the great majority of those who benefitted. I’d like to think that it played a small part in improving the lives of hundreds of children seen in that one service and that those children who are now adults will have had better life outcomes because of it.

Great Britain design with 3d shape of United Kingdom map colored in blue and isolated on white background.

Great Britain design with 3d shape of United Kingdom map colored in blue and isolated on white background.

I was reminded of Joanna on the morning of 24th June 2016, as I sat bleary-eyed watching the results of the EU referendum. I was reminded of her again, later in the day, as I scoured articles and images of the night before and wondered what the Brexit vote meant for the future. I was also reminded of her when thinking about the unusually unified response of universities (coordinated by Universities UK) in their campaign to Remain. And I was further reminded of Joanna when I looked at the Leave/Remain map of the UK. One of the interesting features of this map concerns the disconnect between the pro-EU views of universities and the pro-Brexit views of their local communities. With the odd exception, only universities in London, Cambridge, Oxford and Scotland seem exempt from this. This despite universities making a significant impact on their local communities: employing a significant proportion of their workforce from the local area; providing education and opportunity for the local community; and playing a significant part in advances that make a difference to these communities (in the present and the future). The reason I thought of Joanna was that the referendum results made me realise just how much we – as academics and researchers – need to do to bridge the divide between universities and their local communities. Sitting in Lewisham, a strong Remain voting community in South East London, it is easy to forget this disconnect. Yet we should not forget that we need to engage with our local community – within Lewisham, within London and within the world – and we are in a strong position to do so.

Human head on a blackboard with the word Autism on the brain

Take, for example, the work that my colleagues (Laura Crane, Lorna GoddardLucy Henry) and I have been conducting concerning the diagnosis of autism. Autism is a developmental condition affecting the way a person experiences the world around them, and it affects around 1% of the population. This means that over 700,000 people in the UK have an autism diagnosis, and hundreds of thousands more people will be affected by the condition indirectly (e.g., parents, siblings, carers, colleagues etc). Close to 1300 people participated in our research, which identified long delays in accessing a diagnosis, dissatisfaction with the diagnostic process as a whole, and a shameful lack of support post-diagnosis. As well as publishing this work in academic articles, we have tried to make this work accessible to the broader community. We have achieved this by: writing articles for lay audiences; making short accessible videos about our findings; speaking at conferences for academics and for stakeholders; setting up a project website; and engaging with stakeholders such as the National Autistic Society and Network Autism to ensure our findings are heard. Importantly, we are also preparing a short summary of the project and its findings for the participants that so generously gave up their time to take part in the research. The fact that we had collected comprehensive and high-quality data from three key stakeholder groups (adults, parents, clinicians) allowed the National Autistic Society to run a stronger and successful campaign to reduce autism diagnosis waiting times – the Autism Diagnosis Crisis campaign. A key outcome of this campaign was that it led to the NHS receiving new recommendations to consider waiting times for autism diagnosis as a key measure of how local NHS services perform.

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Research can have an impact in different ways. Sometimes the research will be invisible by the time it is fully embedded (as for my PhD research, which most of the families that it benefitted will never have come across). In other cases, we – as researchers – need to find ways to engage with stakeholders, to help them see our work as relevant to them. We must also reflect on how we can ensure that we conduct research in a way that is relevant and accessible to others. One of our many challenges is how we articulate the relevance of our work to a wide array of communities in such a way that they are able to see the value of the work we do and to consider that it contributes to a brighter future. We may not have achieved this regarding Brexit, but perhaps lessons will be learned from this.


Prof. Elisabeth Hill widens the accessibility of her research on Twitter: @ElisabethLHill, and @GoldActionLab

You can also find her research on the web at: www.goldactionlab.co.uk and at www.autismdiagnosis.info

The death of Jane Doe: A mock murder investigation

GRTW1Dr. Gordon Wright, a Teaching Fellow, and member of the Forensic Psychology Unit in the Department, studies the personality and behaviour of liars, manipulators, cheats, scammers and fraudsters. Among his research and analytic methods lie mock-crimes and investigative interview scenarios, linguistic & sentiment analysis, alongside physiological and brain stimulation.  Here he blogs about a mock murder investigation –  an immersive theatre event run by the Forensic Psychology Unit. 

Previously, at Goldsmiths…

Earlier this year, Jane Doe was found dead in Deptford Town Hall, right on the doorstep of Goldsmiths. She had her whole life ahead of her. Fortunately, a team of trainee investigators were on hand for an evening of sleuthing and crime-fighting. The eager recruits received briefings by former police detectives, viewed CCTV footage, examined the crime scene, and had the chance to grill members of the Forensic Psychology Unit and other suspect individuals in their search for clues. Thankfully justice was done, the guilty party apprehended, and the citizens of New Cross could again rest easy in their beds. Case closed.

Tickets sold out in 48 hours, so if you weren’t able to join us, we are sorry, but we’ve put together a short video to give you a taste of the evening. Make sure to join us next-time…

 

I hope you agree that the event looked fun. We had a great time! The ‘trainees’ certainly enjoyed the night as well. We received some wonderful feedback on the crime scene, the cast of characters presented, and the insights we were able to share as researchers in the field.

Why did we do it?

This little adventure started with a public engagement grant from the Goldsmiths Outreach Team. The event was designed to raise awareness of the research we do in the Forensic Psychology Unit and how it informs police policy and practice. We chose to do this in the context of a ‘live’ murder investigation. We even took the opportunity to test some hypotheses and run mini-experiments, rapidly crunching the numbers, and giving feedback to the attendees on their predictions of ‘WhoDunnit’ – All during the course of the evening. Pretty lofty goals for our first foray over the Arts-Science divide, I think you’ll agree.

A stated aim of the event, and something we are very proud of in retrospect, was to base as much of the event as possible in fact. From small things, like using police issue evidence bags for collecting trace evidence, through to selecting the details of the crime from the archives of the Innocence Project. Now, I’ll admit that the fake blood tasted of raspberry and the corpse wasn’t entirely dead, but here’s the reality… the success of the night and the extent to which the audience ‘bought into’ the production relied on the relationships we built with talented, enthusiastic and creative people from within Goldsmiths. And we were helped by many.

The Communications team filmed and edited the footage you watched earlier, they even helped us film the CCTV of the murder itself in the wee small hours. Students from the Goldsmiths Acting and Filmmaking Society were our suspects, relatives for the witness appeal, security guards, journalists, camera crew, CSI techs… And they gave their expertise and experience freely, and largely saved us from our dramatically inexperienced selves. The Estates & Facilities team mostly kept a straight face while we asked about the risk of blood stains on marble.

And if you ever need a body-bag, there’s a cupboard full in the Theatre & Performance Department prop store… Who’d have guessed?

Plans for our next event are well in hand and we’ve learned some lessons along the way – by far the most important being that such projects are great fun to dream up, plan and execute. We are proud to be part of a very dynamic department, with regular media coverage and with a few jokers in our ranks (make sure to catch the next Science Showoff!)

We encourage you all to embrace the slightly frightening prospect of creative Arts-Science collaborations or immersive theatre-based experimentation. It’s great fun and so very Goldsmiths! To be honest, if your next to-do list doesn’t include ‘borrow body bag – preferably empty’ or ‘google recipes for fake blood’ you’re missing out!

Dr. Wright practices lies and deception on Twitter as @DrDeception. The Forensic Psychology Unit are  @ForensicGold

The next event will be advertised via #FPUevents Early booking is advised!

Community Involvement In Research: Are We Doing Enough?

Laura-Crane-2Dr Laura Crane completed her undergraduate and postgraduate (MSc and PhD) degrees within the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths.  Laura now works as a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Associate Lecturer within the Department.  She is also an Honorary Lecturer at UCL’s Institute of Education, and a Research Fellow at City University London.

Here she talks about what it means to participate in research. 

Recently, I was invited to an event on autism and the criminal justice system (my area of expertise).  The delegate list was impressive, including academics, legal professionals and charity representatives (all with extensive experience in the area).  The day was interesting and varied.  At one particular point in the day, the delegates were asked to work in groups to identify the issues faced by autistic people[1] when encountering the criminal justice system, as well as some potential solutions to these issues.  Each group was busy generating ideas, before I raised what I thought was a very obvious question: ‘If we want to know what the issues people with autism face in the criminal justice system, shouldn’t we start by involving them in these discussions?’

In our inaugural blog post, Prof. Andy Bremner (our Head of Department) discussed how ‘working together is welcome’ at Goldsmiths.  Indeed, working together is welcome, and commonplace…amongst academics.  I should stress that one of the strengths of Goldsmiths’ Psychology Department is that there are several examples of academics working collaboratively with non-academic stakeholders (e.g., police officers, musicians).  However, in this blog post I want to question whether we are really doing all we can to engage the communities that we study in our research.

A few years ago, Pellicano, Dinsmore and Charman (2013) published a thought provoking paper on researcher-community engagement in autism.  They conducted a survey of over 1500 stakeholders interested in autism research – gathering the views and opinions of researchers, professionals (e.g., teachers, therapists), and the autism community (autistic people and their families).  The results revealed that whilst researchers perceived themselves as engaged with the autism community (in terms of dissemination, dialogue and research partnerships), autism community members did not share this view.  In addition, whilst professionals were fairly satisfied with their involvement in research, those on the autism spectrum and their families were not.

Following up these survey results with focus groups and interviews, Pellicano et al. (2013) highlighted the variable nature of autistic community involvement in research.  For example, autism community members expressed dismay about giving up their time to take part in research but not finding out the outcomes, with one participant commenting: “they only want us as guinea pigs”.  Further, community members felt that their contributions were not valued by researchers, and they expressed scepticism about whether their views would have any influence on future research or policy.

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“They only want us as guinea pigs”

These issues are not unique to the field of autism.  From recent discussions with colleagues, they also apply to work in other neurodevelopmental conditions (e.g., Developmental Coordination Disorder), as well as psychology more broadly.  Nevertheless, there have been several examples of successful researcher-community partnerships in some research areas, particularly in the field of learning disabilities (e.g., Powers et al., 2007; Richardson, 2000).  ‘Participatory research’, as it is termed, also forms the basis of ‘INVOLVE’ – a government-funded programme aiming to advance public involvement in research, in order to make it an ‘essential’ part of the way in which research priorities are identified, and the way in which research is designed, conducted, and disseminated.

But how does participatory research work?   

There are several different ways in which stakeholders can be involved in the research process, and these are highlighted in Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of citizen participation.  Arnstein notes that the bottom rungs of the ladder describe levels of ‘non-participation’, in which researchers have control over the participants in the study.  This tends to be the kind of involvement that is commonplace in psychology research studies with clinical groups (e.g., people with autism).  Further up the ladder are varying degrees of ‘tokenism’, in which the participant is given a voice but they are not conferred any power over the research (and there is no change in the status quo).  There has been a move towards this kind of participation in recent years, especially in terms of ‘informing’ participants about research findings; for example, researchers are encouraged to disseminate their findings in outlets for non-academic audiences (e.g., The Conversation), and many academic journals (e.g., Autism) require authors to produce easy-read summaries of research findings to accompany their articles.  Moving even further up the ladder, community members can engage in research partnerships, or even have control over the research process (i.e., having managerial power, or holding the majority of decision-making roles) – these are referred to as instances of ‘citizen control’.  However, these tend to be relatively rare occurrences.

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There are several benefits to adopting a ‘participatory’ research design and involving stakeholders in the research process.  For example, it ensures that the research priorities are valuable and have a genuine impact on the lives of the people being studied.  In addition, the involvement of community members is likely to aid the recruitment of participants and in subsequent dissemination activities.  Community involvement would also provide important insights into the area under study (perhaps ones that are overlooked by researchers who do not have this ‘insider’ knowledge).

Despite my enthusiasm for participatory research, I openly acknowledge that the majority of my current and previous research projects (on autism in the criminal justice system, as well as autism diagnosis) have been researcher-led.  Although my work is often conducted in collaboration with professionals (e.g., police officers, clinicians), the involvement of community members has tended to be limited to the bottom or middle rungs of the ladder.  This is because participatory design is not without its challenges, such as the additional time and effort (and often funding) required to engage in researcher-community partnerships (Pellicano et al., 2013), along with the lack of training opportunities available for early career researchers (during my seven years of study within Goldsmiths’ Psychology Department, I wasn’t even informed of participatory research, yet alone had any opportunities for training!).  As proud as I may be of the research projects I’ve been involved in, and the outcomes of that work, I wholeheartedly feel they could have been improved with greater community input and involvement.

The research projects I’m developing at the moment have a much greater focus on collaboration with community members and I’m really excited to see how they progress.  For example, I’m about to begin an evaluation of an autistic-led post-diagnostic support programme, in collaboration with the (autistic) developer of the programme.  We’ve jointly decided on the focus of the research, and will be working together throughout to achieve the aims of the evaluation.

Partnerships like this take time to come to fruition, and I’m particularly struggling to ‘move up the ladder’ for areas in which I’m only just starting to conduct research (e.g., Developmental Coordination Disorder).  However, I hope this blog post encourages researchers (and students) to reflect on the involvement of the communities they study in their work, and to consider how they might start working their way further up the rungs.

Laura is on Twitter : @lauramaycrane    @GoldActionLab

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[1] There is a debate regarding the most appropriate way to refer to individuals on the autism spectrum.  Whilst person-first language (i.e., ‘person with autism’) has typically been advocated, many autistic individuals prefer disability-first language (i.e., ‘autistic person’).  Throughout this blog post, both terms are used, to respect this diversity of views (see Kenny, Hattersley, Molins, Buckley, Povey & Pellicano, 2015, for further discussion of such issues).