News and media

Including energy consumption, happiness, APA vote, brain injury scheme, a report on talent and autism and 'Media: the BBC Headroom campaign'.

Developing the most effective actions
Two US-based psychologists have published a list of the most effective actions American individuals and households can take to help prevent climate change – the gist of which is also relevant to the UK.

Writing in Environment magazine, Gerald Gardner, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Paul Stern, Director of the Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Climate Change at the National Research Council, argue that many people are motivated to change their behaviours to protect the planet, but have been left uninformed by environmental campaigns about which actions are the most effective.

American research conducted during the energy crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s suggested that without appropriate guidance, people tend to focus on highly visible, curtailment-based actions – turning out lights, turning down thermostats – which are actually relatively ineffective compared with more proactive behaviours, suchas installing insulation or switching to
a more energy-efficient car.

Gardner and Stern argue that investing in energy-efficient equipment, as well as curtailing the use of inefficient equipment, is the most effective way to reduce consumption, and has the advantage of being psychologically appealing. ‘Not only is efficiency generally more effective than curtailment,’ they wrote ‘but it has the important psychological advantage of requiring only one or a few actions. Curtailment actions must be repeated continuously over time to achieve their optimal effect, whereas efficiency-boosting actions, taken infrequently or only once, have lasting effects with little need for continuing attention and effort.’

These are important issues given just how much energy is consumed by households as a proportion of a country’s total usage (38 per cent in America, including non-business travel; 31 per cent in the UK, not including travel). If an American household were to carry out all 17 actions on Gardner and Stern’s list they could potentially reduce their energy consumption by half (assuming they hadn’t completed the actions before, and that old equipment was only replaced at the end of its natural life). For the complete list of actions, see tinyurl.com/5jd6f7.

Coincidentally, not long after Gardner and Stern published their article arguing that people need to be educated about the disproportionate benefits of adopting energy-efficient equipment and materials, the British government announced plans to supply free cavity-wall and loft insulation for pensioners and poor households, and to offer 50 per cent off the cost of insulation for all households (see tinyurl.com/6epj7q).

‘I’m glad to hear of this initiative,’ Stern told The Psychologist. ‘It certainly goes a long way towards overcoming the financial barriers – a 50 per cent rebate can be quite effective if it is easy to collect and if it is marketed strongly, using many approaches including personal contacts.’

Gardner agreed, adding that the non-financial aspects of such initiatives are particularly important: ‘factors such as how well it is marketed, the use of community groups and word of mouth; how easy it is to apply for the rebate, how easy it is for a typically busy homeowner to comply with the requirements’.However, while Stern and Gardner welcomed these recent initiatives by the UK government, they told us they felt psychologists could be doing more to help. ‘They tend to do the wrong things, such as focusing on attitudes only, or on relatively unimportant behaviours,’ they said.

World happiness on the rise?
Never mind that the world is in the grip of financial turmoil, global happiness is apparently on the rise thanks in large part to greater individual liberty. Psychologist Christopher Peterson at the University of Michigan and colleagues analysed five waves of cross-national survey data between 1981 and 2007, and found significant increases in subjective well-being among 45 countries including the UK, out of the 52 that were involved (Perspectives on Psychological Science: tinyurl.com/6pgzc4).

The new analysis contrasts with the traditional view that the happiness of societies remains fairly constant. This fixed perspective is based on longitudinal data from rich Western countries like America, where happiness levels have reportedly flat-lined since 1946. However, the data analysed here, from the World Values Survey, have several advantages over past studies. Reported well-being levels incorporated a measure of life satisfaction as well as happiness, and the same questions were asked across the world (with great care taken over translation), from countries at different stages of economic development.

The most important influence on the rising happiness levels was foundto be increased levels of individual freedom.‘Recent decades have seen unprecedented economic development in large parts of the world and a widespread expansion of political freedom,’ the researchers wrote. ‘Moreover, the people of rich democracies have also experienced major changes in social norms, with rising gender equality and growing tolerance of outgroups increasing freedom of choice for over half of the population and creating a more tolerant social environment for everyone.’

APA vote on interrogation
Members of the American Psychological Association (APA) have voted by 8792 to 6157 in favour of a new resolution banning members from working in locations ‘where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution’.

The vote was triggered after more than 1 per cent of the membership signed a petition calling for the new resolution, and it comes after several years of controversy surrounding the role psychologists play in national security. Once enacted, the ban will prohibit APA members from working at sites like Guantanamo Bay, unless they are ‘working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights’.

APA President Alan Kazdin was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the new ban ‘will have teeth’. Although some local licensing boards in America do reportedly take violations of APA ethics codes into account, the opportunities for the APA to restrict members’ ability to practise is fairly limited. It is therefore not entirely clear at present what effects the ban, once enacted, will have in reality.

Under normal APA rules, the new resolution would become official policy at the organisation’s next annual meeting, to be held in August 2009. However, Kazdin has acknowledged that there is some sentiment among members to make the policy effective sooner. He has therefore announced that he will be appointing an advisory group on the resolution’s implementation. Two members of the Board of Directors, six members of the Council of Representatives, and one of the petition authors will be charged with clarifying the resolution and identifying actions necessary for the new ban to be implemented at a meeting in February.

Oliver Sacks case study brought to the stage
For 11 days in September, a cast of five actors at Jacksons Lane Theatre in North London recreated the musical hallucinations and seizure-induced reminiscences of Mrs O’Connor – the 88-year-old nursing home resident first described by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

The play, Reminiscence, raised some profound questions about the interaction between our biological brains and our subjective mental lives. While the music Mrs O’Connor hears and the childhood memories she revisits are clearly brought on by seizures in her
temporal lobe, questions remain over the part played by her psychological motives. Given the blandness of her nursing home existence, together with her sense of a lost childhood (she was orphaned at age five), Mrs O’Connor actually finds relief in her symptoms and turns down the offer of medication to eradicate them.

A related point of mystery highlighted in the play concerned the accuracy of Mrs O’Connor’s relived experiences. In his original account of the case Sacks believed strongly that her awoken memories were unembellished: ‘her sudden epileptic “transports” back to the world of early childhood…were undoubtedly “reminiscences”, and authentic, for, as [Canadian neurologist] Penfield has shown beyond doubt, such seizures grasp and reproduce a reality – an experiential reality, and not a fantasy: actual segments of an individual’s lifetime and past experience’. However, where once human memory was seen as a
permanently etched record, today’s experts recognise that memory is a reconstructive process prone to errors– a fact acknowledged by Sacks in his return to the case in his latest book Musicophilia.

The challenge of portraying Mrs O’Connor’s experiences on stage was met with the use of an intricate rope-controlled set, energetically performed Balkan folk music, and inventive props (at one point, an overhead projection of jelly generated a disturbingly realistic brain on the stage backdrop). A particularly notable scene featured Mrs O’Connor aware of her doctor’s real presence, but simultaneously inhabiting a memory from her childhood – a splitting of consciousness known as mental diplopia.

There’s no doubt the play made for a lively audio-visual experience and that it raised some profound issues. But whether all this, the music, the lights, the props, amounted to a convincing portrayal of Mrs O’Connor’s story remains for each audience member to decide.

One certainty was the scientific integrity of the play, thanks to the input of Society member Dr Vaughan Bell. From the authentic clicking sound of the brain scanner to the balanced handling of the philosophical issues, Bell’s erudition was written all over the performance. He was also a shining ambassador for the profession at two post-show scientific forums, where he answered questions from the audience with encyclopedic eloquence.

The play was supported by the Wellcome Trust, and Bell was approached by the production team through his involvement with the medical charity’s Sciart funding scheme. ‘It was an incredibly stimulating experience,’ Bell told The Psychologist, ‘not least because I was working with a company who were drawing drama and personal meaning from the scientific literature, when as a psychologist, I’m often trying to do the reverse to find how personal meaning can be understood scientifically.’

Bell said he’d definitely recommend that other psychologists get involved in similar projects if they’re given the chance. ‘It’s fascinating seeing how people trained in a completely different school of thought make sense of the same material, which has taught me a lot in itself, and the result was a gripping way of engaging the public in ethical and scientific issues.’
-    Reminiscence, produced by Theatre DeCapo with support from the Wellcome Trust, ran from 9 to 20 September at Jacksons Lane Theatre, Highgate, London
 

From the Research Digest…Mother’s ambition breeds success
‘I always knew our Karen would do well’… these words, so typical of a proud mother, have taken on profound significance following a new study by Eirini Flouri and Denise Hawkes at the Institute of Education in London. Their research shows that a mother’s expectations about her daughter’s future educational attainment may actually affect that child’s future success at work, as well as her sense of control in life.

Flouri and Hawkes used data collected from 1520 men and 1765 women as part of the British Cohort Study, which began in 1970. When the study participants were aged 10, their mothers were asked when they thought their child would leave school – at age 16, 17 or 18.

Crucially, those female participants whose mothers predicted that they would stay in school longer, tended to earn more money at the age of 26, and to report having a greater sense of control over their lives at 30, than the female participants whose mothers predicted they would leave school early.

Writing in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, the researchers say that this is an important conclusion, ‘given that women are particularly at risk for poor psychological and economic outcomes in adulthood’.

This association between mothers’ expectations and their daughters’ later occupational success and psychological confidence remained even after controlling for a raft of other relevant factors. In other words, mothers’ expectations appeared to be exerting an independent effect quite separate from other influences, such as the child’s ethnicity or general ability, that might have simultaneously influenced both the mothers’ expectations and their daughters’ outcomes.

In contrast to these findings, mothers’ expectations had no association with the later occupational success or psychological confidence of sons.

Shivers down the spine
Not many scientific workshops feature a lunchtime piano concert.But this was ‘Music, Science and the Brain’, held at the University of Plymouth to celebrate the climax of the European Commission-funded EmCAP musical cognition project (http://emcap.iua.upf.es).

As the performer Lola Perrin tickled the audience’s auditory neurons, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to feel a shiver dance down my spine. According to David Huron, appearing via video-link from Ohio State University, such shivers or frissons occur when the frontal cortex dampens down a fear response triggered by some feature of the music.

Specifically, it tends to be loudness, low pitch, infrasound, surprise, crescendo and scream-like sounds that trigger a frisson. However, not everyone experiences musical frissons, and women are seven times more susceptible than men. We also know that frisson-responders tend to be less adventurous and daring than non-responders.

While Perrin’s performance certainly moved me, it was also a reminder of my own musical ineptitude. But despite what I might think, Lauren Stewart of Goldsmiths College said that simple tests (see www.delosis.com/listening/home.html) show that many non-musical types like me aren’t tone deaf at all. We can hear a change in pitch direction and we wince when there’s a clash of dissonant notes. Our problem is with musical output, not musical perception.

There are, however, a small minority who are impaired on these perceptual tests – these ‘amusics’ have a specific learning impairment akin to dyslexia. Many amusics actually find music unpleasant or offensive, and they seldom use it for reminiscence or for mood-altering purposes. Amusia is heritable and associated with abnormal brain functioning in the form of a disconnect between the frontal and temporal lobes. Stewart is currently studying three generations of a family in Northern Ireland (the middle generation features four normal siblings and four siblings with amusia) with the hope of identifying those genes that are involved in the condition.

Amusics aside, a message permeating the workshop was, as Stewart put it, that ‘just being able to make sense of musical sounds is an incredible accomplishment’. The innateness of our musical ability was strikingly demonstrated by the research of Istvan Winkler of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Using EEG recordings of the brains of newborns, Winkler has been able to show that babies detect when a beat is missing from a short sequence of notes, or when there is a change in a repeating pitch interval.

‘We’re born with capabilities perfectly suited to extracting the main components of music,’ Winkler said. It’s likely these skills also play a role in language development. For example, the ability to recognise melodic contours contributes to the processing of prosody (the lyrical emphasis in speech). And the ability to extract beats probably aids conversation, allowing a person to judge when it’s the right time to reply. Indeed, other research shows infants learn these skills even before they start to speak. ‘Our genetic inheritance and skills are geared towards communication,’ Winkler said, ‘and music is an important form of communication.’

Another talk gave clues to why music videos have become such an essential part of the pop industry. Stefan Koelsch of the University of Sussex described research showing that horror music and light-hearted jingles both led to more amygdala-related activity when they were combined with a neutral video-clip. It’s as though the addition of visual imagery fires up the effect of music on the imagination.

Koelsch’s talk also served up some late-afternoon controversy. Specifically, the amygdala was shown to be not just the brain’s ‘fear centre’, as it is popularly characterised, but also involved in the processing of positive emotions. Blaming Joseph LeDoux (neuroscientist and lead singer with the Amygdaloids), for the persistence of this misapprehension, an exasperated Koelsch said: ‘We can’t hold on to this wrong notion any longer.’

As easy as 1-2-3
There’s a closer link between basic number sense and more formal mathematics ability than previously realised (Nature, tinyurl.com/52sfno). Justin Halberda at Johns Hopkins University and colleagues repeatedly tested the ability of 14-year-olds to say which of two briefly presented groups of dots was the greater. The task taps into a basic sense of number that even some animals possess. The teenagers’ performance showed strong associations with their school maths performance all the way back to kindergarten. ‘There are many factors that might affect a person’s performance in school mathematics,’ Halberda said, ‘what is exciting…is that success in formal mathematics and simple math intuitions appear to be related.’ Future research will test whether basic number sense can be trained.

Brain injury ID card scheme
The lives of people with brain injury could be made easier by their use of an identity card that highlights the communication and memory difficulties that they sometimes experience. That’s according to a survey of 68 card-carrying service users by the East Kent Community Clinical Neuropsychology Service, which found that of 36 respondents, 77 per cent said they found their card to be useful.

The credit-card-sized identity card carries the NHS logo, a photo of the card holder, and includes the wording: ‘The holder of this disability card has suffered an acquired brain injury and has various ongoing difficulties. Your patience and understanding would be appreciated.’ The idea is that presentation of the card helps encourage patience and understanding if a person with brain injury encounters difficulties whilst carrying out routine activities in the community.

The majority of the respondents (64 per cent) said that people tended to be more helpful after presentationof the card, although some negative reactions were also reported. Issues that need clarifying for the future include ensuring that card holders realise the card doesn’t entitle them to use disabled parking, and ensuring that local GP surgeries are aware of the scheme.

Assistant psychologist Ashleigh Stewart, who conducted the research, told The Psychologist that he was pleased with the response rate of the survey, given the everyday difficulties that this client group have. ‘For many in this study it is about increased confidence, and the card has helped encourage increased access to and participation in the local community,’ Stewart said. ‘We’re not planning any further research at this point, but it’s hoped that the East Kent brain injury database and identity card service will continue to grow and develop in line with the needs of service users, and we expect future evaluations to be carried out in the years ahead.’

Timetabling multiple medication
While modern medicine extends people’s lives, it leaves many of them, especially those who are older, juggling a mind-boggling array of prescription drugs. Each pill tends to carry its own demands about when it should be taken, in terms of meal times and bedtime, and which other drugs it mustn’t be taken with simultaneously.

It’s little wonder then that so many older people take their medication incorrectly, in some cases even leading to their hospitalisation. Now Daniel Morrow and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have tested whether a specially designed ‘medtable’, which allows a patient to organise their pill-taking schedule, could help avoid these mistakes

In two experiments, dozens of participants with an average age of 69 years, formed into ‘patient-provider’ pairs and were given 10 to 15 minutes to devise a safe schedule for taking between two and four tablets. The first study found that using a medtable was better than having no aid at all, but no better than simply having a notepad. A revised medtable in the second experiment, with a clearer design and allowing greater flexibility in planning timings, showed benefits in terms of accuracy and efficiency compared with simply using a piece of paper.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (tinyurl.com/475sgl) the researchers said: ‘The medtable’s organisation (explicitly mapping medications in rows onto daily event times in columns) externalised relationships between multiple information sources, reducing the need to store, manipulate, and access this information from working memory.’ Future research will test the medtable with actual patients and medical practitioners. 

The latent savant?
Christian Jarrett and Jon Sutton report from the 'Talent and autism' conference, London, 29-30 September 2008

Few topics fascinate the public and psychologists alike as much as autism. Theory follows theory, each as plausible as the last, but this neurodevelopmental condition still stubbornly refuses to give up its secrets. Not least among these is how social, communicative and behavioural impairments can coexist with rare talent. ‘Savant’ skills are much more common in autistic spectrum condition groups than in the general population, and almost all such individuals are surprisingly good at something, even if this ability – for example, noticing minor changes in a room – can be a curse. In September, eminent names in the field gathered under the joint auspices of the Royal Society and the British Academy to examine what drives these talents, and to ask whether there could be a savant lurking inside all of us.

Francesca Happé (Institute of Psychiatry), who organised the event with Uta Frith (University College London), began proceedings by suggesting that the mindblindness aspect of autism may enhance talent. Imagine not having to spend time and neural space on all the social ‘savant’ skills that ‘neurotypicals’ manage on a daily basis. But Happé thinks that the real ‘starter motor’ for talent is an extraordinary eye for detail, a processing bias that allows people with autism to ignore the ‘known gestalt’, which among neurotypicals can inhibit tasks like realistic drawing. With new data from a twin study, Happé showed that it was the detail focus associated with repetitive behaviour and interests that was most strongly linked with parental reports of ‘striking skills’.

Other speakers agreed. Michael Fitzgerald (Trinity College, Dublin) said that unlike typical accounts of creativity that focus on divergent thinking, autistic creativity was founded on a convergent style of thought – a narrow focus. Simon Baron-Cohen (University of Cambridge) spoke of how children with autism display this narrow focus in their concept learning, for example choosing to familiarise themselves with all the different types of apple rather than the prototypical concept. He pointed to strong systemising and sensory hyper-sensitivity as the origins of that tendency.

Evidence suggests that autism is characterised by the drive to analyse or build systems, whether that system is mechanical, natural, abstract or taxonomic. A good example of this drive was provided by Ellen Winner (Boston College), who talked of ‘precocious realists’ – young children who produce strikingly accurate drawings – trying to ‘crack the code’ of representational artists.

However, unlike Happé, who has suggested it might be time to move away from a single explanation of autism, Baron-Cohen feels there could be an underlying common factor to autistic talent in the molecular neurobiology of sensory hypersensitivity. Supporting this, he and his colleagues have found new evidence of superior acuity amongst people with autism across auditory, tactile, olfactory and visual senses: in the latter, to near the level of birds of prey. New brain-imaging findings presented by Laurent Mottron (MacGill University Montreal) are also consonant with this account – his team found additional activation in the extrastriate (i.e. perceptual) areas of autistic brains relative to typicals. Mottron proposes an ‘enhanced perceptual functioning’ model, by which savants detect patterns and fill in missing information: important mechanisms in their talents.

A candidate for the neurobiological explanation Baron-Cohen seeks was provided by Manuel Casanova (University of Louisville), who believes autism is a ‘minicolumnopathy’. Minicolumns are the smallest processing module of neurons in the cortex; vertical arrangements of cells that seem to work as a team. Casanova has found that people with autism have more neuronal minicolumns in their brains, and that they are smaller, thinner and closer together. A possible consequence, according to Casanova, is that activation suffuses to adjacent minicolumns more easily, removing the ‘curtain of inhibition’ that characterises neurotypical processing.

This idea linked neatly with Allan Snyder’s (University of Sydney) assertion that knocking out that inhibition via the use of magnetic coils on the side of the head (TMS) can bring out the latent savant in us all. Adults receiving TMS to the left inferior temporal lobe tended to improve on numerosity and drawing tasks, and even reported fewer false memories.

Snyder believes that we have evolved the ability to inhibit raw sensory input, in order to form concepts and make decisions more quickly. Creativity could stem from freeing ourselves from ‘top down’ interpretations and gaining access to another level of perceptual processing, in much the way people with autism seem to do .

The idea of such ‘trade offs’ permeated other talks during the event. For example, Eleanor Maguire (University College London) highlighted a lesser-known finding from her famous study of the hippocampal volume of London taxi drivers. She found increased grey matter in the mid-posterior part of the hippocampus of those with ‘The Knowledge’ when compared with bus drivers, and this correlated with experience. However, these drivers had less grey matter in the anterior part, and were much worse at acquiring new visuo-spatial information. Maguire said that expertise is a story of loss as well as gain, and she called for more research into the costs of talent.

Kate Plaisted Grant (University of Cambridge) has explicitly tested the idea that autistic strengths might be the result of compensation for weaknesses elsewhere. Using Navon stimuli (a big letter made up of little letters) and other tasks, Grant’s team found no evidence for superior processing at a local level at the expense of group-level processing (results that do not sit comfortably with the theory of detail focus). Instead, other research, using visual stimuli and IQ test items suggests that the mental processing of children with ASC is qualitatively different from that of typical children, even if final performance is the same. ‘They have unique ways that they come to the same conclusions we do,’ she said.

Other speakers discussed the output from autistic talent. Ian Hacking analysed four autobiographies by authors with autism: Temple Grandin, Donna Williams, Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, and Daniel Tammet. Hacking’s was a mixed message. ‘I encourage you to read these books,’ he said, whilst also cautioning that there’s no way these books can be seen to be representative of the typical person with ASD. He was particularly critical of the marketing of such books as offering a view from ‘inside the autistic mind’ as if there were only one kind. Douwe Draaisma (Universit of Groningen) was similarly cautious, warning of the intricate interaction between the scientific view of autism, the way it is prolifically portrayed in literature and film, and the reality of life for and with an individual with autism. The label may change the child, and the child may change the label.

Turning to art, Roger Cardinal (University of Kent) presented a slide show of ‘outsider’ works, ‘wild, thrilling and spontaneous’ pieces outside of the stereotype of any mainstream genre. For example, there’s the mimetic, photo-realistic art of Stephen Wiltshire; the erotic overtures of Roy Wenzel’s dominant female forms; the ‘truly visionary’ alternative worlds of George Widener; and the mundane stillness of James Castle’s farm scenes. ‘Art is a privileged medium of human contact,’ Cardinal said. ‘We can begin to move beyond a superficial reading of these paintings, beyond pleasure to learning something about ourselves.’

Meanwhile, in a blind comparison, Ilona Roth (Open University) had asked experts and non-experts to compare the poetry of people with autism and those without. She found no evidence for prodigious talent among the poets with autism, but there was clearly some accomplishment. The poets with autism weren’t confined to a single form, nor were they confined to formalisms as one might expect (given systematising tendencies). However, the content of their poems was narrower, tending to be about the self, and there were fewer examples of wholly original metaphor.

So what do people with autism stand to gain from their talents? Are they simply destined for life as performing seals? Patricia Howlin (King’s College, London) said it was important that savant skills are developed more effectively to enhance social functioning and social inclusion. A video presentation from Darold Treffert (University of Wisconsin) seemed to confirm this: Kim Peek, the inspiration for the film Rain Man, said that it changed his life. ‘These skills are not frivolous,’ said Treffert. ‘They can act as a “conduit to normalisation”.’

Celebrated professor Temple Grandin (University of Colorado), who has autism, agreed. She said that ‘talent has to be trained into employment’ (as hers has been, designing handling facilities for livestock using an uncanny eye for minor details which can stress the animals). In particular, she argued that ‘young Aspies’ need to be taught job skills and the importance and pleasure that can come from doing tasks for others.

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