Royal Society Fellowships for BPS members
THREE psychologists and Society members have been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society.
Fellows past and present include such luminaries as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. Psychologists previously elected include Professors Lawrence Weiskrantz, Endel Tulving, Tim Shallice, Alan Baddeley, Chris Frith and Richard Gregory.
This year Professor Trevor Robbins of the University of Cambridge (see tinyurl.com/cnzey), was elected for his contributions to knowledge of how neurotransmitter systems determine behaviour and cognition. City University’s Professor Michael Morgan (see tinyurl.com/b94ok), becomes a Fellow
for contributions to the understanding of animal learning, brain lateralisation and, in particular, visual perception. Professor Uta Frith of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL (see tinyurl.com/bk2r8), gets the honour for her pioneering approach to developmental disorders, which has overturned the idea that autism is a social and emotional problem.
Professor Robbins told us that the Fellowship was ‘a wonderful honour’ – ‘I feel a bit overwhelmed, to be honest! There are many other deserving scientists who aren’t and won’t be elected, and that makes me even more grateful. I also think that my nomination, along with the other two psychologists on the list, does show that experimental psychology – in all its manifestations – is being accepted as a mainstream area of scientific enquiry. That can only be good for the future strength and diversity of the discipline.’
Professor Morgan studied Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, specialising in experimental psychology during his final year. After a period as university lecturer at Cambridge he occupied chairs in psychology at the Universities of Durham and UCL, and was Darwin Fellow at the University of Edinburgh for a while, before finally moving to City University. His main research interest is in visual perception, for reasons he explains in his book The Space Between Our Ears (winner of the Wellcome Trust Prize for popular science writing). Professor Morgan commented:
‘I am delighted at this recognition of the work carried out at the Applied Vision Research Centre, where we try to understand how the brain perceives the external world through the eyes, and to apply this knowledge to practical problems, such as the new standards for high-definition television, or the problems of extracting information from cluttered visual displays.
‘It is also very pleasing that the new list of Fellows contains no fewer than three members of both the BPS and the Experimental Psychology Society. I believe passionately in the application of the experimental method to the science of the mind, and it is wonderful that the Royal Society gives this discipline such strong support.’
Professor Frith agreed that the Fellowships were good for psychology, telling us that she was ‘incredibly pleased to join some of my heroes whom I admire for representing psychology as a relatively new discipline among the sciences represented in the Royal Society. I personally feel I have made only a small contribution, but standing on the shoulders of a previous generation of researchers who have perhaps not received the recognition they deserve.’
After a first degree in experimental psychology in Germany where she was born, Frith then trained as a clinical psychologist at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, before completing a PhD there in which she applied information-processing theory to autism. In 1968 she became a research fellow at the new MRC Developmental Psychology Unit, under the supervision of its founder Neil O’Connor. ‘My mentors, Neil O’Connor and Beate Hermelin, pioneered the approach to developmental disorders that I have continued and elaborated in the case of autism and dyslexia. This approach is to define the core symptoms of developmental disorders and then apply methods of general experimental psychology, neuropsychology and, more recently, methods of cognitive neuroscience to explain them.’
Frith explained that subtle problems in basic cognitive mechanisms can have far-reaching effects on high-level language and social functions, adding that John Morton crucially influenced her in how to make developmental models explicit. ‘These mechanisms’, she continued, ‘might well have remained hidden if we only investigated normal development. Now we can ask questions about the origins of apparently innate cognitive mechanisms and their power to put learning of language and social skills on a fast track.’
Finally, on the issue of women in science, Frith commented: ‘I would be extremely happy if I could act as a role model for young women who are currently facing the challenge of combining a scientific career and a normal family life.
I want to tell them – go right ahead – it is possible, and it is deeply rewarding.’
CJ and JS
THE science of showmanship and the psychology of magic are to be
explored at two unique evenings of spectacle, discussion and illusion
on 27 and 29 July at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. The events will
be hosted by psychologist and former magician Professor Richard Wiseman
(University of Hertfordshire), and will involve performances by
critically acclaimed Las Vegas magician Jeff McBride.
Forming part of the Magic Circle’s centenary year, the events will be webcast live over the internet, allowing everyone to discover the psychology and science behind some of the world’s greatest illusions.
- For more information go to the Dana Centre website – www.danacentre.org.uk.
Remembering the reason to be wary
WHEN struggling to remember something, older people are particularly
prone to misinformation and suggestion. That’s according to a study by
Larry L. Jacoby and colleagues at Washington University. They asked 24
younger (average age 19 years) and 24 older participants (average age
75 years) to remember a list of associated word
pairs (e.g. knee bend). Afterwards, the participants were asked to complete fragments of these word pairs (e.g. knee b*n* ), each preceded by a clue that was either correct (e.g. bend), misleading (e.g. bone), or irrelevant (e.g. &&&&). The older participants were 10 times more likely than the younger participants to select the misleading clue as the answer, and to say that they ‘remembered’ that was the word shown to them earlier.
That’s despite the fact that the older participants were given longer to learn the list of word pairs, so that in a control test without the clues, they made the same number of correct recollections. ‘Greater susceptibility is not simply because of age differences in original learning,’ the researchers said.
Another difference between the groups was that the younger participants would often take the option of passing if they were unsure, whereas the older participants rarely did so. ‘The older adults did not know that they did not know,’ Jacoby said. ‘They falsely remembered having studied the invalid prime, and one does not opt out when one falsely remembers.’ In their report of their work in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the researchers concluded: ‘Our results suggest that there is good reason to worry that older adults are more vulnerable to scams [e.g. ‘You said you’d pay me X amount for this job’] that rely on interference effects, than are younger adults’.
Meanwhile, a team led by Ian Skurnik at Toronto University report in the March issue of the Journal of Consumer Research that older people tend to mistake the familiarity of a statement with its being true. In their paper ‘How warnings become recommendations’, they presented 32 younger (average age 21) and 32 older participants (average age 78) with a series of health-related statements that were identified as being true or false each time they were shown. Asked to categorise the statements three days later, the older participants were more likely to wrongly categorise a false statement as true, if that statement had originally been presented to them three times, rather than just once – a pattern not found with the younger participants.
In a second study, statements were either presented to participants once only, together with an indication of their accuracy, or they were presented twice before their truth or falsehood was revealed on a third presentation. In the latter case, the older participants, but not the younger participants, showed a particular tendency subsequently to misremember a false statement as true. ‘Attempts to update people’s beliefs about outdated information, to fight rumours, and to discredit misleading advertisements, may have the unintended effect of increasing the familiarity of a false claim, rendering
it more likely that older adults accept it as true later on, after the details of the phrasing have faded from memory,’ the researchers concluded. CJ
AFTER the disappearance of his wife in November 1999, Garry Malone
participated in a televised police press conference to appeal for her
return. ‘We missed you over Christmas…the boys missed you and asked
after mummy. Please put our minds at rest…come home,’ he pleaded. But
in May this year, Malone was convicted of his wife’s murder, after
being extradited from Spain where he had been living under
a new identity.
This tendency for murderers to participate in police appeals is neither new nor exceptional. One notorious case occurred in 1991 when New Zealand student John Tanner made an emotional television appeal for the return of Rachel McLean whom he had murdered and buried under the floorboards of her house. More recently, Soham murderer Ian Huntley was broadcast telling reporters: ‘While there’s no news, there’s a glimmer of hope.
I think that’s all we’re clinging onto. It’s just very upsetting to think I might be the last friendly face that these two girls had to speak to before something happened to them.’
Chartered Forensic Psychologist Professor Vincent Egan of Glasgow Caledonian University told us that sometimes press conferences can allow the police to observe potential suspects ‘under social and behavioural pressure’. ‘The police have seen many people who have been bereaved or harmed in this way, and so recognise typical emotional reactions and statements as compared to atypical ones,’ he said. ‘Inconsistencies of emotion, over-confidence and glib answers may all indicate an anomaly requiring further information.’
The police’s task is aided, Professor Egan explained, by the fact that offenders often overestimate their capabilities. ‘It’s unlikely that the offender will have killed before, and their understanding of what is happening derives from fiction and television,’ he said. ‘They may also think the police dull-witted and slow, which the police are emphatically not.’ In fact, the police investigating the murder will probably have been doing this work daily for years, Egan explained.
Although the police have developed expertise in these situations, psychological research in the area is lacking, Professor Egan told us. ‘It would be a very good area to investigate so that an empirical and psychological formulation of what is going on can be obtained,’ he said. CJ
A place for shock therapy?
ELECTROCONVULSIVE ‘shock’ therapy (ECT) does have its place in the
treatment of schizophrenia, according to a systematic review of 24
randomly controlled trials by Dr Prathap Tharyan, Head of Psychiatry at
Christian Medical College in Tamil Nadu, India. The findings are
published in the April update of the Cochrane Database of Systematic
Reviews (full text available free at: tinyurl.com/dsyn7).
Antipsychotic drugs remain the preferred treatment for schizophrenia, the review concludes. But for the 20 per cent of patients who do not respond to drugs alone, there
is limited evidence to suggest that, in the short term at least, the addition of ECT to drug treatment can help relieve symptoms more effectively.
It’s arguable that such short-term relief could prove vital if a person with schizophrenia were suicidal. Adverse effects of using ECT were greater than for drugs, but only over the short term. The review could find no data comparing the efficacy of ECT with cognitive behavioural therapy or family-based interventions.
The UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence guidelines published in 2003 did not recommend the use of ECT for treatment of schizophrenia, based on the evidence available at the time. But given the fresh evidence from newer trials, the updated Cochrane review concludes: ‘Guidelines for the use of ECT that based their recommendations (at least in part) on the results of earlier versions of this review might wish to consider the results of this update.’ The review also calls for more research: ‘…even after five decades of clinical use, there remain many unanswered questions regarding ECT’s role in the management of people with schizophrenia.’
Responding to the updated review, Dr Lucy Johnstone, Academic Director of the Bristol Clinical Psychology Doctorate, said that the revised conclusions should be treated with caution. ‘People are more likely to say ECT helped if asked by doctors, or other professionals in a mental health setting, and when asked shortly after having had ECT. Equally, qualitative studies suggest that some people will say that they found ECT helpful if asked by their doctors, simply to avoid having it again.’
It’s also possible that cognitive impairments caused by ECT were not detected by the reviewed studies, Johnstone explained. ‘The recent review of service users’ views of ECT carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry found that standard memory tests simply did not address the kind of deficit that patients typically report – for example, loss of autobiographical memory.’
Moreover, recent research suggests that there are psychological alternatives both to ECT and neuroleptics (see BPS report: tinyurl.com/e49cy). ‘Some countries,’ Johnstone said, for example in Scandinavia, have minimal use of neuroleptics and none of ECT in psychosis, but instead have psychosocial treatment based on family and individual therapy plus help in getting back to work, and so on. Isn’t that the way we should be going, as psychologists?’ CJ
How messages are scent
THE idea that we release chemical signals that affect people around
us is controversial. If pheromones do exist, however, two chemicals
that might fulfil this role are a testosterone derivative (AND) found
in men’s sweat, and an oestrogen-like steroid (EST) found in female
As well as activating smell-related brain regions, these chemicals also have a different effect on the anterior hypothalamus, depending on the sex of the person doing the inhaling. AND triggers activity in this region of a woman’s brain but not a man’s, whereas EST triggers strong activity here in a man’s brain but not a woman’s. Ivanka Savic at Karolinska University Hospital, Sweden, and colleagues investigated whether the different brain activity might depend not so much on a person’s sex, but rather on
their sexual orientation. Their findings appear in the 17 May issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Savic’s team used positron emission tomography to scan the brains of 12 heterosexual men, 12 heterosexual women and 12 homosexual men while they inhaled AND, EST, a range of odours including lavender oil, and odourless air.
The testosterone derivative AND found in men’s sweat, caused maximum activation in the same specific region of the brains of women and homosexual men, but not in the brains of the heterosexual men. This region, the preoptic area of the hypothalamus, is known to be involved in sexual behaviour. In contrast, it was the chemical EST that led to strong activation in the hypothalamus of the heterosexual men. The ordinary control odours affected all of the participants’ brains similarly.
So, why does this brain region in homosexual men respond to AND in the same way as it does in the brains of women? First, it’s possible that this brain region develops differently in homosexual men compared with heterosexual men. ‘Alternatively,’ the authors explained, ‘it could reflect an acquired sensitisation to AND stimuli in the hypothalamus [of homosexual men]…due to repeated sexual exposure to men. A third possibility is that heterosexual women and homosexual men associated (the smell of) AND with sex, whereas heterosexual men made a similar association with EST.’
Peter Hegarty, on behalf of the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section of the BPS, said: ‘This study has already been widely reported. Nature/nurture research on sexual orientation sells newspapers and magazines but has little practical importance, unlike other work in lesbian and gay psychology – see tinyurl.com/8y37h for examples. Why this preoccupation? Why report studies with neither lesbian nor bisexual participants as exemplary or interesting?’
In a separate development, due out in the September issue of Psychological Science, neuroscientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia have investigated the body odour preferences of 82 heterosexual and homosexual men and women. They found that without knowing each odour’s source, homosexual men preferred the smell of sweat taken from under the arms of other homosexual men, rather than from straight men or from women. In contrast, sweat odours taken from homosexual men were the least preferred by heterosexual men and women. Researcher Charles Wysocki told the press: ‘Our findings support the contention that gender preference has a biological component that is reflected in both the production of different body odours and in the perception of and response to body odours.’ CJ
A small class makes a big difference
A LARGE-scale American study has provided new, robust evidence for
the long-term benefits of young children being taught in small classes
of less than 17 pupils. The findings come in the wake of the latest
government figures for England showing that the average primary school
class has 26 pupils in it, the same as last year (see
Jeremy D. Finn at the University of Buffalo led a team investigating which of 4948 kindergarten pupils went on to graduate from high school 13 years later. The children had been allocated to different-sized kindergarten classes as part of an experiment – Project STAR – initiated in Tennessee in the 1980s (see www.heros-inc.org/star.htm).
Finn found that of those children who spent their first four years of school in a small class (13 to 17 pupils) 87.8 per cent graduated from high school, compared with 76.3 per cent of children who were in a large class (22 to 26 pupils), a difference of 11.5 per cent. This difference in graduating rates grew to 18 per cent when only children from lower-income families were considered.
The report, which appears in the May issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, calls for more research to investigate how small classes produce long-term benefits: ‘…the long term effects of small classes on drop out rates were not explained entirely by improvements in academic performance…other dynamics must have been occurring as well, for example, effects on students’ attitudes and motivation, or students’ pro- or antisocial behaviour, or learning behaviour.’ CJ
CBT in the dock
THERE wasn’t a spare seat in the house for the Maudsley Debate:
‘Cognitive behavioural therapy is the new Coke – Superficially
appealing but over-marketed and with few beneficial ingredients’. Dr
Peter McKenna, a consultant psychiatrist at the Fulbourn Hospital,
Cambridge, opened proceedings by pointing to the lack of empirical
evidence showing that CBT for schizophrenia – ‘the most important
psychiatric disorder’ – is any more effective than control treatments.
In fact, McKenna argued, only five properly controlled trials have been
conducted, and, relative to other treatments, none of them found a
statistically significant advantage of using CBT to treat psychotic
symptoms (and yet strangely, in their conclusions, most of these papers
went beyond their data and made unsubstantiated claims for the benefit
of using CBT).
Against the motion, Professor Paul Salkovskis, Director of the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma at the Maudsley, argued that when it comes to psychological therapies, ‘there is no Pepsi’ – CBT is the only empirically grounded treatment. As for over-marketed, just consider the behaviour of drugs companies. Last year, American marketing companies spent a whopping $45.5 billion promoting the 50 most commonly prescribed drugs for older people. And in February last year, the BMJ published a report showing that only 6 per cent of drug advertising material was supported by research. In contrast, CBT is under-marketed and unbranded. Most people who would benefit from it still don’t receive it, and most clinical psychologists and psychiatrists remain poorly trained in delivering CBT. As for schizophrenia being ‘the most important disorder’ – that’s ridiculous, Salkovskis exclaimed, ‘…the most important disorder is the one you’re suffering from!’
But CBT is just common sense redefined and rebranded, retorted Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, a Hackney-based GP and trustee of UK lobby group Sense About Science. We’re in the midst of a therapy-obsessed culture, he lamented: in the 1950s just 0.5 per cent of us were depressed but today estimates are between 12 to 15 per cent! So there’s a huge demand for therapy, but what psychological therapy is there? ‘Just look at Freud,’ Fitzpatrick said. ‘His theories are bogus, he invented his data, abused his wife and he was a “coke head”.’ CBT has come to psychotherapy’s rescue. Now there are all these ‘new’ conditions: ADHD, PTSD, phobias, addictions, and it seems the newer the condition, then supposedly the more effective CBT is at treating it. CBT is essentially just the rebranding of the now unfashionable behavioural therapy of Skinner and Eysenck. ‘What exactly does “cognitive” mean, anyway?’ Fitzpatrick asked. ‘Who cares? It sounds great! Maybe the Conservatives should rebrand themselves as the Cognitive Conservative Party,’ he suggested. ‘CBT is the treatment of choice for the conditions of choice, and can be delivered by de-skilled therapists,’ he concluded.
Dr Roz Shafran, a clinical psychologist at Oxford University, addressed McKenna’s initial claim that there is a lack of evidence supporting CBT for schizophrenia. ‘Lack of data?’ she asked – ‘Well, that’s what the National Institute for Clinical Excellence carry out systematic reviews for, they apply the same standards across medicine, and they recommend CBT for psychosis.’ As for Fitzpatrick’s remarks on behavioural therapy, Shafran explained that such therapy still exists, especially for treating bulimia, and is a crucial part of CBT. Fitzpatrick might say CBT is cheap, cheerful and common sense, ‘…but if it works, what is wrong with that?’ Shafran asked. Moreover, the ‘cognitive’ aspect is also important and not just a gimmick: for example, relapse rates in bulimia are drastically reduced with the addition of a cognitive component to behavioural therapy.
Among comments made from the floor, one young lady described suffering from
a phobia for 16 years. She finally underwent a psychological assessment
last August only to be told that the CBT intervention recommended to her won’t be available until September this year at the earliest. Another service user asked ‘Why can’t just a fraction of the money invested in drugs companies be used to fund the urgently needed computerisation of CBT?’
Before the debate, the audience voted 156:38 against the motion (53 undecided); afterwards they voted 158:34 against (with 21 undecided). CJ
York opens world-class brain-imaging centre
SAID to be one of Europe’s most important centres for the study of
the human brain, The York NeuroImaging Centre was officially opened by
Lord Sainsbury, the Minister for Science and Innovation, at the
University of York in May.
The centre, on York Science Park, boasts two of the most powerful brain scanners in the UK. They produce visually stunning images, allowing detailed study of a huge range of brain functions and conditions. The university’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian Cantor, said: ‘This centre places York in the forefront of the study of the human brain, not only in the UK but worldwide.’
The centre’s £1.1 million magnetoencephalographic (MEG) scanner, the first of its kind in Europe, provides a non-invasive way of mapping the magnetic fields created by electrical activity in the brain. Its £2.4 million high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine has twice the power of a typical hospital device.
The 248-channel whole-head MEG scanner is in a room constructed of specially developed alloys to exclude all background magnetic fields. Its use in research is connected with perception, language, memory, emotion and motor tasks, and is being used by staff and students in the university’s Department of Psychology.
The York NeuroImaging Centre is a Department of Psychology initiative, in partnership with various other university departments and the Hull York Medical School. Professor Gary Green, Director of the centre, said: ‘The unique combination of these particular MRI and MEG scanners in one site provides unparalleled facilities for the study of the human brain in health and disease. Within a month of their commissioning both scanners have delivered new insights into how the brain achieves its remarkable abilities. The next few years will offer exciting prospects for the centre’s research workers.’
Lord Sainsbury said: ‘The government’s aim is to make the UK the best place in the world for science. World-class facilities like the NeuroImaging Centre will help make this a reality.’ PDH
Self-punishment, frustration and despair
A YEAR before winning two gold medals in Athens, Olympic heroine
Kelly Holmes was cutting her arms with scissors. Unable to train
properly because of injury, Holmes was in despair. ‘I made one cut for
every day I’d been injured. With each one I felt
I was punishing myself, but at the same time I felt a sense of release that drove me to do it again and again,’ Holmes told the News of the World.
Holmes’s honesty has been welcomed by mental health professionals for highlighting what the charity Sane has described as a nationwide problem of ‘epidemic proportions’.
‘Unfortunately, too many people, often young women, feel ashamed of their self-harm, and as a result they don’t talk about or seek help. As a consequence they are at increased risk of continued psychological problems,’ Chartered Health Psychologist Dr Rory O’Connor (University of Stirling) told us. ‘There is support available, and with continued de-stigmatisation, more people will seek help and choose other, more constructive, methods of coping in the future,’ said O’Connor.
‘At least two of the characteristics of Kelly Holmes’s behaviour are common to many instances of self-harm,’ Dr O’Connor explained. ‘The first is the reporting of a sense of release; the self-harm serves to regulate the individual’s emotion in the short-term. However, in the longer term, this strategy may become less and less effective, often resulting in increased severity in cutting, which could be fatal. The second characteristic concerns her motivation to self-harm. She is reported as saying that she was punishing herself for her injury – she was frustrated and in despair because she couldn’t race and as a result she couldn’t achieve her goals. Many self-harmers report feelings of self-blame, frustration and a sense of failure. It seems that the pressure, either from themselves or others, is too much to bear and they need a physical release of the pain they are experiencing. And self-harm is their answer.’
Meanwhile, interim figures from a national inquiry into self-harming among young people indicate that 24,000 teenagers are admitted to hospital in the UK each year after deliberately harming themselves, with some people starting to self-harm at just eight years of age (see: www.selfharmuk.org). ‘Although the prevalence statistics are not as reliable as one would like, there is no disputing the fact that self-harm has increased markedly in the UK in recent years. Indeed the rate of self-harm in the UK is amongst the highest in Europe,’ Dr O’Connor told us. CJ
– The national clinical practice guidelines on self-harm were published by the BPS and the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2004. See tinyurl.com/c8rnu for a free copy. The Society’s leaflet for the public is available at tinyurl.com/77xpt.
LOTTERY GRANT FOR RETHINK
THE mental health charity Rethink has been awarded a Big Lottery Fund grant of £287,210. Rethink will use the money to develop a project to empower users and carers to influence both mental health services and mental health policy, locally, regionally and nationally and to help change people’s attitudes about mental illness through increased communication with the media. The grant will also fund three user and carer involvement officers.
TEACHING ENHANCEMENT SCHEME
THE Higher Education Academy Psychology Network is making a fund of
£45,000 available to psychology departments for 2005/6 to enhance
teaching and support improvements
in learning environments for students. The maximum single award is £15,000.
o Full details of the scheme are available at tinyurl.com/awz9v.
MENTAL health staff, service users and others working in and around
UK mental health services can apply to the Mental Health Foundation for
a travelling bursary of £2500.
The bursaries aim to encourage people to broaden their knowledge and experience through travelling to see mental health provision or activities in other settings in the UK and abroad. The application deadline is 15 July 2005.
o For further information and an application form, visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk or call 020 7803 1100.
INTERNET DISSERTATIONS SCAM
ACCORDING to an item in the Times Higher Education Supplement, dissertations that are openly published on university websites are being sold to students to pass off as their own work. With dissertations being freely sold on internet auction sites, sometimes for as little as £10, it seems that there is little that university managers can do to counter this new aspect of plagiarism without removing papers from
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