There are also drawbacks to being bilingual

juliaouzia_profilephoto-1Dr. Julia Ouzia is a Teaching Fellow at Goldsmiths.The main objective of her work is to understand the cognitive functioning of individuals who use two or more languages in everyday life. Specifically, her research has focused on the impact of adverse emotional states and traits on cognition, spoken language comprehension in the presence of interference, probabilistic learning abilities, and metacognitive efficiency of bilingual individuals.

From a methodological standpoint, she is interested in using multi-dimensional approaches involving a variety of psychometric and behavioural paradigms, as well as other research methods, such as eye tracking, in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the bilingual mind. Here she, with colleague Tomas Folke, looks at some of the draw backs of bilingualism as researched at Anglia Ruskin University.

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

The ability to speak more than one language certainly has its perks. It enables you to work in another country, for example, interact with people while travelling, or consume foreign media.

Bilingualism is very common – current estimates are that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual and that this prevalence is rising.

Cognitive psychologists have been interested in how bilingualism shapes the mind for almost a century. There are those who suggest that in order to speak in one language, bilinguals have to suppress the influence of the other. Research from the past three decades has argued that this unique form of language processing “trains the brain” in the use of non-verbal abilities known as “executive functions” such as ignoring irrelevant information or shifting attention.

Bilinguals of different ages and cultural backgrounds have been shown to be faster and more accurate than their monolingual peers when performing cognitive tasks demanding these abilities. Furthermore, it has been argued that bilingualism may lead to a delayed onset of symptoms associated with dementia.

But the scientific community recently has become increasingly sceptical of the bilingual advantage hypothesis. One of the main points of criticism is that differences between monolinguals and bilinguals when it comes to executive function are not always apparent. This has generated a heated debate, especially in the Bilingualism Forum of the scientific journal Cortex, about whether bilingualism is associated with cognitive advantages or not.

Fresh challenge

It appears that research on bilingualism is at a turning point. We need to pursue a new approach to understand, beyond those individual examples of executive functions, how the bilingual mind works. We have attempted to address this challenge by testing whether bilinguals and monolinguals differ in terms of how accurately they can assess their own performance.

Might come in handy in parts of Wales.
FatManPhoto

This ability is called metacognition and is associated with, but separate from, other areas where bilinguals have been shown to have an advantage. Surprisingly, however, we found that bilinguals had less insight into their performance than their monolingual peers.

Joining the dots

In an effort to find out whether bilinguals also display advantages in other cognitive abilities (beyond executive function), we evaluated metacognitive processing in young adult monolinguals and bilinguals. Metacognition is the ability to evaluate one’s own cognitive performance or simply to have “thoughts about thoughts”.

This ability is a crucial function of everyday life, when we have to make decisions where the outcomes are not immediate. For example, when an entrepreneur reviews their company’s performance, they need to take into account a variety of factors – including, for example, revenues and expenses – in order to evaluate whether the company is doing well. Confidence in their ideas and performance can be the determining factor in whether they decide to keep investing time in their company or give up and apply for another job (the so-called “exploitation exploration trade-off”).

In our research, we presented participants with a situation in which they had to observe two circles on a screen and guess which one contained more dots. Sometimes the difference was obvious, making the decision easy, while at other times the decision was very difficult (for example, one circle contained 50 dots and the other 49). Participants were then asked to determine how confident they were in their decision on a scale from less to more confident than normal.

Illustration of the metacognition paradigm employed by Folke et al., 2016.
Folkes et al, 2016, Author provided

Over the course of two experiments, we found that bilinguals and monolinguals were equally likely to choose the circle containing the highest number of dots. However, monolinguals were better able than bilinguals to discriminate between when they were right and when they were wrong. In other words, bilinguals had less insight into their performance than monolinguals. This went against our initial predictions, as we expected to find a bilingual advantage in metacognitive processing. These results indicate that bilingualism may be associated with cognitive disadvantages as well as benefits.

What’s next?

The Multilanguage & Cognition lab (MULTAC) at Anglia Ruskin University is currently undertaking a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to enhance our understanding of the bilingual mind.

The lab has already published evidence of cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, suggesting that bilinguals are better at filtering out verbal interference as well as visual attention, specifically spotting the difference in a visuo-spatial working memory task.

This new research indicates that bilingual people may experience a disadvantage in metacognition. We hope that this new direction in bilingualism research will encourage further attention and enable us to resolve theoretical debate through the adoption of open-minded, empirically driven exploration of cognitive effects (both positive and negative) that may be associated with learning more than one language.

Julia tweets monolingually from @JuliaOuzia

Tomas Folke, is a PhD candidate, University of Cambridge

 

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

svs

Sophie von Stumm

carolina

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.

 

 

Developmental Coordination Disorder in the Classroom

 

Elisabeth-Hill-photo-2Laura-Crane-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elisabeth Hill, Laura Crane and Emma Sumner are based in the Department of Psychology’s Goldsmiths Action Lab.  Their research focuses on a range of neurodevelopmental conditions, particularly autism and developmental coordination disorder. Here, they discuss Developmental Coordination Disorder in the Classroom, which was the topic of a recent ESRC Festival of Social Science event that they organised at Goldsmiths.

 

What did you do in the first five minutes that you were awake this morning?  Perhaps you hit snooze on the alarm? Buried your head into the pillow? Got out of bed and walked to the bathroom? Turned on the lights? Put some clothes on and went downstairs? Whatever you did, it would have involved motor skill (in some way, shape or form) before anything else. For most of us, motor skills are rather effortless. However, for others, motor skills can be a source of constant difficulty, and can have far reaching implications on their everyday lives. In this blog post, we focus specifically on children who have a diagnosed motor difficulty termed Developmental Coordination Disorder.

(c) Serhiy Kobyakov

(c) Serhiy Kobyakov

Developmental Coordination Disorder (abbreviated to ‘DCD’, and often referred to as dyspraxia) is characterised by impairments in motor skill (including coordination problems, poor balance and clumsiness), as well as delays or difficulties in achieving or acquiring motor milestones (such as crawling, walking, and running). DCD is not merely a childhood condition – it persists throughout adolescence into adulthood – and it can have a significant effect on aspects such as quality of life, academic achievement, and self-esteem.

DCD affects between 2-6% of children, which means that at least one child in every classroom (of 30 children) will meet the criteria for a diagnosis of DCD. Recent initiatives have highlighted the need for training to improve teachers’ awareness of the difficulties faced by children with a range of conditions such as  autism spectrum disorder and developmental language disorder, with a focus on how best to support them in the classroom. However, teachers receive very little advice, guidance or input regarding children with motor difficulties such as DCD.

What needs to be done?

It is important for there to be greater awareness of the different ways in which movement difficulties can present themselves in children. For example, children with DCD may have difficulties with one or more of the following:

  • Fine motor (e.g., grasping, pinching, handwriting) or gross motor (e.g., posture, reaching) skills;
  • Locomotive (e.g., walk, run, jump, hop, skip) or non-locomotive (e.g., stretch, curl, pull, balance, swing) movement;
  • Speed (e.g., writing quickly when taking notes) or accuracy (e.g., throwing a ball towards a target);
  • Unilateral tasks (requiring one-handed, e.g., brushing teeth, using a computer mouse) or bilateral tasks (requiring two-hands, e.g., holding a bottle with one hand whilst twisting the lid with the other).

Parents and educators should be aware of all of the potential areas in which children may experience motor difficulties, and who to turn to for help.

(c) Tatyana Gladskih

(c) Tatyana Gladskih

There should also be greater awareness of the fact that difficulties may be apparent very early on in development. Looking at early motor milestones of children with DCD – including crawling, standing unassisted and walking unassisted – our research found that children with DCD were significantly delayed relative to their typically developing peers.  For example, whilst typically developing children tend to crawl at around 8 months of age, children with DCD (on average) tend to crawl for the first time at 10 months, if at all (23% of parents of children with DCD reported that their child never crawled, whereas all children in typically developing comparison group acquired this skill). Whilst there is considerable variation in the age at which all children acquire key motor milestones, parents and caregivers should be astute to possible ‘red flags’ in these areas.

This is particularly important given that poor motor skills may have knock-on effects in other areas of development. Recent research conducted within the Goldsmiths Action Lab has shown that poor motor skills may be linked to both social skills and language abilities in school-aged children. Motor skills have also been linked to broader cognitive skills such as executive functions, which refer to aspects such as planning, mental flexibility, and inhibition. Executive functions are crucial in the classroom; for example, teachers often provide a series of instructions that children have to follow, before the child must decide on an appropriate course of action, and then carry out the tasks. Unsurprisingly, many children with DCD find the classroom environment difficult; due to both motor aspects and related difficulties in broader areas of functioning. This ties in with our preliminary findings suggesting that teachers identify children with poor motor skills as being more anxious and downhearted, and highlights the negative effects poor motor skills can have.

It is important for motor difficulties to be detected and addressed early in development – by both parents and by teachers – so that appropriate support can be given to these children. Studies in adults with DCD have shown that they report significantly lower satisfaction with quality of life and also experience difficulties with aspects such as mood, general health, wellbeing and employment. If DCD is picked up early, and appropriate support given, this will have a positive effect throughout development and into adulthood, allowing those with DCD to better fulfill their true potential.

For more discussion on DCD, look up the authors of this piece on Twitter:

Laura Crane – @LauraMayCrane 

Elisabeth Hill  @ElisabethLHill

Emma Sumner @EmmaJSumner

Why a lack of sleep makes us depressed … and what we can do about it

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.

Alice M. Gregory, Goldsmiths, University of London

Historically, insomnia has been thought of as secondary to other disorders such as depression. The idea was that you became depressed – and that your sleep got messed up as a consequence. This might involve difficulty falling asleep, excessive time awake at night or waking up earlier than hoped.

This may make sense to those who have experienced depression and found that thoughts of distressing events such as of a deceased loved one, or previous failures, keep them awake at night. The possibility that depression leads to insomnia is also consistent with research in which I have been involved – where we found that adults with insomnia were more likely than others to have experienced anxiety and depression earlier in life.

But could things really be the other way around? Could poor sleep be making you depressed? Over the past decade or so it has become increasingly clear that disturbed sleep often comes before an episode of depression, not afterwards, helping to do away with the notion that sleep problems are secondary to other disorders.

This is not too hard to relate to either – just think about how you feel after you have slept poorly. Perhaps you feel tearful or snap at those around you. The literature seems to back up the idea that our ability to regulate our emotions is reduced after a bad night’s sleep. Insomnia has also been shown to predict depression defined according to diagnostic criteria.

So why does poor sleep lead to depression? Lots of different mechanisms have been proposed. To give just a few examples, let’s start by thinking about our behaviour. I, for one, am more likely to cancel an evening out with friends or an exercise class after a poor night’s sleep. This could be part of the problem, as such events are exactly those that may help to keep depressive symptoms at bay.

If we think about what happens to the brain when we miss sleep, there are clues as to why sleep and depression are linked. One study on this topic focused on an area of the brain called the amygdala. This is an almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain that is believed to play an important role in our emotions and anxiety levels.

It was found that participants who had been sleep deprived for approximately 35 hours showed a greater amygdala response when presented with emotionally negative pictures when compared to those who had not been sleep deprived. Interestingly, links with parts of the brain that regulate the amygdala seemed weaker, too – meaning that the participants were perhaps less able to control their emotions. Such findings could help to explain how poor sleep may actually cause difficulties such as depression.

Inherited insomnia

Over the years, my own work has taken a behavioural genetic perspective in an attempt to understand the links between poor sleep and depression. From my twin research and work led by others it seems that poor sleep and insomnia symptoms could be, to some extent, part of the same genetic cluster – meaning that if we inherit genes which make us susceptible to insomnia, we may also be vulnerable to depression.

Lonely hours.
Shutterstock

When trying to explain the link between sleep and depression, I’m also intrigued by recent work on the immune system and depression. Studies have found that those suffering from, or at risk of, depression may show high levels of inflammation in their bodies. Their immune systems appear to be in hyper-drive as if they’re fighting infection or healing from injury. When we disturb or restrict sleep we may also experience inflammation, so perhaps inflammation could also help to explain the link between sleep and depression.

So what can we do about it? It has been proposed for some time now that by improving sleep we can perhaps prevent or treat depression. Recently, data have started to emerge from studies suggesting that this may indeed be the case. For example, researchers at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the psychological therapy provider Self Help Manchester evaluated whether an online treatment for insomnia reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. They advised people with these difficulties to take steps such as keeping a consistent wake time, getting out of bed when they can’t sleep, and challenging beliefs that a bad night’s sleep is incapacitating.

They found that both anxiety and depression symptoms were reduced after insomnia treatment. Other groups are currently looking at whether by improving our sleep we can reduce other types of psychiatric difficulties, too. But even before this work is complete, the take-home message from research to date is clear: we need to begin to prioritise our sleep.

The Conversation

Alice tweets about sleep at @ProfAMGregory

Alice M. Gregory, Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London

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

Hallowe’en Special: Anonymous Clowns

lukemLuke is a PhD student, broadly interested in the development of children’s decision-making behaviours within an intergroup context. His work seeks to explore the contexts within which burgeoning morality may act as a primary or secondary influence in comparison to the influence of the peer group. This work draws upon Social Identity Development Theory and Social Domain Theoretical perspectives. In the process of examining this relationship He is also interested in Theory of Mind ability, Group Identification, Status Threat and Social Acumen.

He has recently written for Newsweek on the social psychology behind the anonymous clowns. Read his piece by clicking on the picture below. If you’re brave enough….

clownluke

Luke is less clown-like on Twitter: @LukeMcGuireX

 

What happens when people with autism grow old?

14_rebeccacharltonDr. Rebecca Charlton is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths University of London. Her research focuses on age-related conditions and falls into three areas: Typical Ageing, Depression, and Ageing in Developmental Disorders. Using cognitive and neuroimaging methods, she examines the relationship between cognitive decline and changes in the brain. She conducts research into ageing with developmental disorders, in particular how individuals’ with Autism Spectrum Disorders will be affected by age-related brain, cognitive or social changes. Here she talks to The Conversation about just that.

If you mention autism to most people they will think about children, but it is a lifelong diagnosis. Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. Little is known about how the symptoms change with age. This is because autism is a relatively new disorder, first described in 1943 and not regularly identified until the 1970s. It is only now that those people first diagnosed are reaching older age that we can start to learn whether the disorder changes over a lifetime.

There have been some suggestions that symptoms may reduce as people get older. These reports, describing fewer difficulties with older age, are often from people with autism themselves and from their families. But how much evidence is there for this? Our latest research provides some answers, and also raises some new questions.

Working with the Autism Diagnostic Research Centre in Southampton we assessed 146 adults who were referred to the centre seeking a diagnosis of autism between 2008 and 2015, and who consented to take part in the research. People were aged between 18 and 74 years old. A hundred of these adults were diagnosed with autism, and 46 people did not receive a diagnosis. This gave us an opportunity to explore the subtle differences between people who receive a diagnosis and those who don’t, even though they may have some other similar difficulties.

Our analysis showed that age and severity of autism were linked; that is, as age increased so did the severity of autism symptoms in social situations, communication and flexible thinking (such as coping with change or generating new ideas or solutions). We also found that older people with autism were more likely than younger people to extract rules from situations or prefer structure (for example, wanting to know how committees are organised or always following the same routine during a task).

This pattern did not occur in the group of 46 people who didn’t have autism. Whether this tendency to extract rules is a “worsening” of autism symptoms or a general trend among all older people is not yet clear.

Strategies for life

It may seem surprising that people who received a diagnosis much later in life had more severe symptoms, as we might expect people with severe symptoms to be more likely to seek a diagnosis earlier in life. What we found was that the older adults with autism performed better than the young adults with autism on some cognitive tests we carried out. The group diagnosed with autism were faster on tests measuring speed of thinking during a task and did better when dealing with visual and shape information. Perhaps these abilities have helped adults with autism develop strategies across their lives that have helped them to cope with their symptoms which may explain why they were not diagnosed until adulthood.

Older adults with autism performed better on cognitive tests than younger adults.
Jirsak/Shutterstock.com

When the group with autism was compared with the group without autism, we found that rates of depression and anxiety were high in both groups. A third of adults diagnosed with autism report high levels of depression or anxiety – rates much higher than in the general population. Depression among older adults is a risk factor for developing problems in memory and cognition. Given the high rates of depression among people with autism, it may be important for doctors to monitor mood during ageing to ensure that individuals are not at risk for cognitive decline due to depression.

The people described in our research are not typical of people with autism. They all had cognitive abilities in the normal range and did not receive a diagnosis in childhood when autism is most often recognised. Despite this, older people in the study showed more severe symptoms of autism. This might suggest that symptoms of autism become more severe with age. However, reporting more symptoms could also reflect a change in self-awareness. Better self-awareness is generally a good thing, but might lead to greater realisation of one’s own difficulties.

It isn’t yet clear whether people with autism age in the same way as people without autism – it’s still early days, given the relative age of the disorder. Ageing may also be different for each person with autism. People with autism may have developed strategies to help them age better, or may be at risk for depression and cognitive decline. In future work, we aim to see people every few years so we can understand how they change over time.

We all deserve to age as well as we can. It’s only by understanding how people with autism change as they get older, that we can start to put services in place to support them.

The Conversation

Rebecca Ann Charlton, Senior Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

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

How are you? Mental Health Awareness in Higher Education

JonesSianEToday is World Mental Health Day. Two years ago, Dr. Sian Jones, a Teaching Fellow in the Department, blogged on mental health awareness in undergraduates.

She says “Today, there is more awareness among students and beyond – and more research (check out Alex Haslam’s research in evidence of this).

Yet, undergraduates I see still worry that they are the only ones not coping. This is definitely not the case – and anyone experiencing mental health difficulties is not alone”. Read on...

Goldsmiths Students: If you or a friend is experiencing difficulties with their mental health, check out the range of support available at the Student Centre.

Through the Academic Looking Glass

Earlier this month, TimetoTalk held their first ever time to talk day, to encourage us to talk about mental health, by doing simple things, like asking people how they are when you meet them.  Since university mental health awareness week (with a focal day on 19th February) ends today, and bearing in mind my experience with students, I feel the time is ripe to do as the organizations have been urging, and help raise awareness of student mental health. Here goes…

I’ll frame it around the lecture I’m giving this evening. Part of the lecture is about the power of descriptive group norms to guide behaviour. This has been shown powerfully in studies by Dr. Andrew Livingstone, now at the University of Exeter. His research focused on students, and showed that participants with a positive attitude to heavy drinking and who identified strongly with the ingroup reported stronger intentions to…

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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.

Memory and sense of self may play more of a role in autism than we thought

lornaimageLorna Goddard, Goldsmiths, University of London

It’s well-known that those with autism spectrum disorders including Asperger’s syndrome develop difficulties with social communication and show stereotyped patterns of behaviour. Less well-studied but equally characteristic features are a weaker sense of self and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. These are connected with a weaker ability to recall personal memories, known as autobiographical memory.

Research now suggests that autobiographical memory’s role in creating a sense of self may be a key element behind the development of autistic characteristics.

Autism is much more common in men than in women, to the extent that one theory of autism explains it as the result of an “extreme male” brain, where autistic females are assumed to be more masculinised. Historically, however, research participants have been predominantly male, which has left gaps in our knowledge about autism in women and girls. Psychologists have suggested that the criteria used for diagnosing autism may suffer from a male bias, meaning that many women and girls go undiagnosed until much later in life, if at all

What we remember of ourselves

This is supported by research that suggests women with autism develop different characteristics than autistic males – particularly in respect to autobiographical memory.

Personal memories play a key role in many of the psychological functions that are affected in those on the autistic spectrum. Personal memories help us form a picture of who we are and our sense of self. They help us predict how others might think, feel and behave and, when faced with personal problems, our past experiences provide insight into what strategies we might use to cope or achieve our goals. Sharing personal memories in conversation helps us to connect with others. Recalling positive memories when we feel down can help lift us up, while dwelling on negative personal memories can induce depression.

What’s become clear from studies of autobiographical memory in autism is that while those with autism may have an excellent memory for factual information, the process of storing and recalling specific personal experiences, such as those that happened on a particular day in a particular place, is much more difficult. Instead, their memories tend to record their experience in general terms, rather than the specifics of the occasion. This might be due in part to their more repetitive lifestyle, in which there are less occasions that stick out as memorable, but also because they are less self-aware and less likely to self-reflect. However, our research suggests that this memory impairment may be exclusive to autistic males.

Missing or indistinct memories can add to the sense of otherness, confusion and anxiety experienced by autistic people.
Lightspring/shutterstock.com

Divided by memory

We examined the personal memories of 12 girls and 12 boys with autism, and compared them with an equal number of girls and boys of similar IQ and verbal ability without autism. We asked them to remember specific events in response to emotional and neutral cue words such as “happy” and “fast”. We also asked them to recall in as much detail as they could their earliest memories, and recollections from other periods of their life.

We know that girls tend to demonstrate better verbal skills and are better at recognising emotions. Might this affect the content and degree of detail they could recall from their own memories? We also wondered whether any gender differences we might find would be replicated between boys and girls with autism, or whether autistic girls would be more like boys – as predicted by the extreme male brain theory.

What we found was that autism did lead to less specific and less detailed memories, but only for the boys. The girls with autism performed more like non-autistic girls – not only were their memories more specific and more detailed than the autistic boys, but like the girls without autism, their memories contained more references to their emotional states than both the autistic and non-autistic boys. So rather than an extreme male brain, the girls with autism were more like girls without autism.

This better autobiographical memory might be one reason why autistic females are often better at masking the difficulties they have with communication and socialising with others, and so are more likely to go undiagnosed. Of course, this poses the question that if they have the building blocks of good communication – access to detailed personal memories – why are they still autistic?

There is some evidence to suggest that the automatic connection between our memories and knowing who we are, and how to use this information to inform how we act in problematic situations, is weaker in those with autism. This means that while women with autism can recall the past, they may not be using their experience to help them understand themselves and solve personal problems.

Even though they may be better able to socialise than boys with autism, this may come at a cost, as greater social interaction brings with it more personal problems, and when problems seem overwhelming this can lead to depression. Indeed, recent research suggests that among those with autism, depression in more common in women than men. This gender difference with respect to personal memories is an aspect of autistic characteristics that has been little studied, and should be explored further.


Lorna Goddard, Lecturer in Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London

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

An Academic Abroad: Tales of postgraduate conference attendance

 

beckyRebecca Wheeler is a PhD student in the Forensic Psychology Unit supervised by Fiona Gabbert and Sian Jones. Her work focuses on adding a new Self-Generated Cue mnemonic to the Cognitive Interview to maximize witness recall.

Rebecca has also begun working alongside Trident (of the Metropolitan Police) and Xcalibre (of Greater Manchester Police) on establishing psychological techniques to encourage reluctant witnesses to engage with the criminal justice system. Here, she discusses her experience as a postgraduate conference attendee…

Conference season is just about over for a year and here at the Forensic Psychology Unit (FPU) it’s been a busy time. Anyone following this blog series will no doubt have enjoyed Ashok Jansari’s post about the challenges of completing an ‘academic marathon’. Here, I wanted to focus on the toned-down (but no less exhausting!) experience postgraduates often face at conferences.

I’ve attended conferences before, both national and international, as part of my Masters and PhD research experience. This summer was the year that I had my most varied conference experiences to date. The first stop for the FPU gang was the annual International Investigative Interviewing Research Group conference. This a quite focused academic-practitioner conference with a great mix of professional interviewers, academics, and policy makers. We also attended the five-yearly (which Google tells me is quinquennial) International Conference on Memory in Budapest. I presented some of my PhD work on self-generated cues as a retrieval aid (coming soon to journal near you!) at both of these conferences, but the experience was quite different in each case.

The IIIRG Annual Conference

This year’s IIIRG was hosted at the beautiful Latimer Place in London (Zone 8, which we weren’t even sure existed!). A small army of FPU staff, PhD students, and Research Assistants attended (it’s great fun and a fantastic source of support when you can attend in a ‘research gang’), and the majority of the attendees were staying at the conference venue, so it had a very residential feel to it. This does mean that it gets even more important to grab down-time when you have a chance! Conferences can be exhausting!

The academic-practitioner nature of the conference was also completely new to me. It made it quite difficult to know how to pitch my talk. This is where supervisor support, and lab group support if you have it, becomes invaluable. Each one of us presenting (and there were a few FPU presenters, including fellow PhD-er Ale Caso for her first ever conference talk – she did amazingly!) had the chance to sit down together and do a few run-throughs and prepare for questions. This meant we could walk into our talks feeling a little more prepared, and having had Fiona’s advice on balancing academic and practitioner expertise. This can be a really daunting side of applied research – for example, how do you talk about improving investigative interviewing to people who interview at a high level for living? For what it’s worth, it’s probably not something to stress about! In my experience the practitioners who attend conferences like this are particularly open to hearing about the contribution academics can make to easing their workload and maximizing their effectiveness. Above all, as an applied researcher I’d say it’s definitely worth approaching the people working in the field you’re trying to have impact in – they bring a unique perspective and can make some really valuable contributions to shaping your research questions.

We had a great time at IIIRG. We had some great chats and heard some amazingly varied talks that sparked some fantastic research ideas (watch this space!). I’m also pleased to note that the FPU PhD students did ourselves proud at the Murder Mystery Social – we were part of the team in second place for solving the ‘whodunnit’. Looks like our experience with Jane Doe paid off…(you can read blogs about our Jane Doe experience here and here).

 

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Team captain (and fellow FPU PhD student) Laura Oxburgh is pleased as punch with our efforts.

 

The ICOM Conference

ICOM for me was a very different experience. For starters, it comes around every five years and it was absolutely HUGE! A week-long conference, with two keynotes a day and eight parallel streams of talks. Safe to say it was absolutely exhausting! ICOM this year was held in Budapest, a city I’d never visited before, but would highly recommend. So last month I packed my bags, waved goodbye to the FPU and headed to the airport. IIIRG was the first time I’d been to a conference in a lab group, and I had attended conferences before (usually solo or just with one or two other people), so I didn’t really realize how much I would miss my gang at ICOM! Conferences can be lonely places when you’re flying solo! Fortunately, I had my super-supervisor Fiona, former boss Rob Nash, and a handful of people I’d met at other conferences around to keep me company. Conferences are also a great time to get to know others working in the field. At my first big international conference Fiona told me to befriend the other PhD students, as they’ll likely become my future colleagues. This feels like pretty sound advice.

 

On Budapest’s Chain Bridge with my future-colleagues!

On Budapest’s Chain Bridge with my future-colleagues!

 

It’s also worth remembering that people at conferences are usually pretty nice, and almost certainly interested in similar things to you. Watching talks and visiting the poster sessions can be an opportunity to arm yourself with some conversation starters if you’re struggling. It’s also worth approaching the bigger names – say hello, ask how they are enjoying the conference, ask about their current work…or do some acutely embarrassing fan-girling (see below with Roediger and McDermott – the R and M in the DRM paradigm!)

 

Roediger and McDermott (with a slightly giddy me in the middle). Lovely people!

Roediger and McDermott (with a slightly giddy me in the middle). Lovely people!

Well I’m running out of words and I haven’t said half of what I want to say – this won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. All in all, conferences can be exhausting and slightly scary places at times, but it’s worth putting yourself out there and chatting with anyone you can. You never know when you’ll strike up a conversation that leads to a great idea, a grant application, a job opportunity, or when you’ll meet the person who will become a close collaborator. Get advice from everyone you can before you go, ask people for introductions while you’re there (a couple of the PhD students I met at ICOM introduced me to people they knew and vice versa – it’s a relatively easy way to grow your network!), and above all enjoy every minute. It’s difficult not to feel incredibly lucky when your work takes you to beautiful places to chat to amazing people…and on that note I’ll leave you with a photo’ of beautiful Budapest. I know the academic life is for me.

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Rebecca tweets at @R_L_Wheeler and as part of the FPU team on @ForensicGold