Neuroscience in the news
Newspapers in the UK frequently misappropriate new neuroscience findings to bolster their own ideological agendas. That’s according to an analysis of press coverage of brain research from 2000 to 2010 by Cliodhna O’Connor at UCL’s Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, together with colleagues Geraint Rees and Helene Joffe (Neuron: tinyurl.com/c7jwppe).
The researchers identified 2931 brain-based articles published in the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror and Guardian. Neuroscience coverage had increased dramatically over the decade (over 300 articles in 2010 vs. fewer than 200 in the year 2000), they observed, and there were clear themes: ‘the brain as capital’, ‘the brain as an index of difference’ and ‘the brain as biological proof’.
The ‘brain as capital’ refers to the idea of the brain as a resource that must be endlessly developed in pursuit of self-improvement – 48 per cent of the identified articles were on the subject of brain optimisation, including discussion of super foods, brain-enhancing drugs and other activities. This form of coverage often drifted into parenting advice and the consequences of various parenting practices for children’s brains. ‘Neuroscientists warn that a lack of love and stability has a devastating effect on children,’ the Daily Telegraph reported in 2008.
The ‘brain as an index of difference’ refers to journalists’ frequent invocation of purported brain differences as a way to demonstrate the essential biological basis of group differences. Many stories described differences in male and female brains, and there was a habit of referring to the ‘x brain’ be that ‘gay’, ‘adolescent’, ‘criminal’ or some other category. ‘Social groups were essentialised and portrayed as wholly internally homogenous,’ the researchers said. Less often there was a tendency to use neuroscience to pathologise ostensibly normal activities, for example by applying the terminology of brain addiction to shopping and computer use.
The final theme describes the journalistic habit of invoking neuroscience evidence as a way of providing biological support
for a social argument. This frequently involved going beyond the specific context in which the evidence had been acquired. For example, the Daily Mail extrapolated from a study on ‘information overload’ and empathy to conclude that social networking sites ‘rob people of compassion’.
‘It seemed clear,’ the researchers concluded, ‘that research was being applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas.’ They recommended that neuroscientists anticipate the way their findings might be applied to societal issues and used as a rhetorical tool. ‘If scientists are aware of the issues and contexts into which their research might be subsumed, they can explicitly address what their research implies (or does not imply) for these areas,’ O’Connor and her colleagues said. CJ
APA reports on diversity
Social diversity is increasing rapidly in many countries. In the USA, it’s projected that by 2042 no one ethnic group will make up more than 50 per cent of the population. The over-65s already make up more than 13 per cent of the US population and the number of older people is set to increase dramatically. It’s timely then that the American Psychological Association has published its workforce report Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity (tinyurl.com/cc8f5oq).
Led by James Jones of the University of Delaware, the report describes the deleterious effects of discrimination, ways to combat prejudice (much of it based on increasing contact between groups) and the benefits of diversity. In its recommendations, the report calls for more research into the effects of non-racial discrimination – an area that’s been neglected until now. There’s also a bias in the literature towards documenting the harms of prejudice with far less research on the social benefits of diversity and acceptance. The report also recommends more diversity training for psychologists and other mental health professionals.
Melba Vasquez, the 2011 APA President who commissioned the report, said she hoped the findings could be ‘used as a valuable resource for researchers, educators, practitioners (psychotherapists as well as workplace discrimination forensic practitioners), students, and policymakers. I also hope that this contribution puts a “dent” in one of the grand challenges in society.’ cj
New Royal Society Fellows
Two cognitive neuroscientists are among the 44 scholars newly elected as Fellows by the Royal Society. Professor John Aggleton, based in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, is described by the Royal Society as ‘a neuroscientist who has made major contributions to our knowledge of the neural basis of memory’. Professor Michael Petrides, director of McGill University’s Cognitive Neuroscience Unit and a member of the University’s Department of Psychology, is recognised as ‘an outstanding cognitive neuroscientist who has made seminal empirical and theoretical contributions to our understanding of the structure and functions of the frontal lobes’. Another newly elected Fellow who will be familiar to some readers is Daniel Wolpert, Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, described by the Royal Society as ‘a world leader in the computational study of sensorimotor control and learning, transforming our understanding of how the brain controls movement’.
Meanwhile, across the pond, British Psychological Society Fellow Professor Uta Frith of UCL and the University of Aarhus, has been elected a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences; and BPS Fellow Professor Jane Wardle of UCL, Chartered Psychologist Professor Sophie Scott of UCL, and Paul Fletcher, Professor
of Health Neuroscience at Cambridge University, have been elected Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Our congratulations to them all. cj
Down’s syndrome success for reading intervention
Psychologists have reported encouraging results in the first randomly controlled trial of a reading intervention designed specifically for children with Down’s syndrome (Journal of Child Psychology
and Psychiatry: tinyurl.com/d4xvzgk).
Chartered Psychologist Kelly Burgoyne (Down Syndrome Education International) and her team trained teaching assistants to deliver a tailored reading intervention to 29 children with Down’s syndrome (aged 5 to 10). After 20 weeks, these children’s performance on single-word reading, letter-sound knowledge, phoneme blending and taught vocabulary showed greater improvement than an age-matched waiting-list control group of 28 children with Down’s syndrome who received one-on-one teaching as usual, only joining the intervention later on.
The intervention comprised 40 minutes one-on-one tuition five days a week and featured two strands – one focused on teaching phonics and other skills to help with reading, the other focused on language and the use of new vocabulary. Children who were younger, had better initial skills and received more tuition showed the greatest improvements. Although the effect sizes obtained for the intervention were modest and the gains failed to generalise to skills, such as non-word reading, that weren’t directly targeted, Burgoyne and her colleagues said that ‘the study does provide evidence to support the efficacy of the intervention’. They also stressed its cost-effectiveness in that the teaching assistants were already assigned to the children.‘We are…pleased with the feedback that we have received from teaching assistants and families about how helpful and enjoyable the intervention has been,’ Burgoyne said. ‘We are already starting to pursue new avenues of research based on these results and considering how we will be able to continue to improve the programme in the future.’ cj
Mental health in prison
Prisoners suffer disproportionately from mental health problems – the suicide rate in prisons in 15 times higher than in the general population, and more than 70 per cent of prisoners have one or more mental disorders. Now the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has announced that it is to develop guidelines aimed at improving the mental health of this population. The advice will come in the form of clinical and public health guidelines for professionals who work with offenders. Andrew McCulloch of the Mental Health Foundation welcomed the news and the plans to integrate care across professionals.
New research centre
A new research centre has opened at Oxford University to investigate how intelligence and behaviour arise from circuits of brain cells. According its website, the Oxford Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour will do this by ‘studying the brain from the top down rather than the bottom up: we reason from behaviour to cellular and molecular mechanisms’. Eventually the centre will have a 60-strong staff, many of whom will conduct research on the fruit fly by manipulating the insect’s neurons directly. Funding comes from the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, each contributing £5 million.
App for carers
Carers UK has teamed up with Sidekick Studios to develop an app to help carers juggle the responsibilities of caring alongside a full-time job – a challenge faced by three million people in the UK. Helena Herklots of Carers UK said, ‘As we struggle to balance the many responsibilities in our everyday lives – childcare, work, social and community activities – with support for older or disabled loved ones, we will need exactly the kind of innovative solutions that this partnership offers.’
Child protection centre
BPS member and basketball star John Amaechi OBE headed the opening ceremony for a new NSPCC centre in Manchester in April. The facility’s staff of 22, including psychologists and language therapists, will offer child protection services to children and their families. This will include therapeutic programmes to help children move on after suffering sexual abuse, and to help them live safely and happily with a parent or parents who have alcohol problems or mental health difficulties. cj
A shocking game show
French psychologists have replicated Stanley Milgram’s classic findings on (dis)obedience to authority, with the twist that their study was conducted in the context of a TV quiz show funded and broadcast by the channel France 2. They claim this is the first time the notorious paradigm has been conducted without a scientific figure being the source of authority.
The replication was first shown on French TV in 2010 as part of a documentary, but it’s only now that Jean-Léon Beauvois and his colleagues have published their findings in a scientific journal, the European Review of Applied Psychology (tinyurl.com/bncmmft).
The researchers rejected claims that the fake shock procedure is unethical and they decided against limiting the highest voltage level.
‘We believe that this ethical standard is more comfortable than rigorous’ they said. ‘It is the very willingness to harm a fellow human being which is immoral, regardless of the degree of suffering being inflicted.’
With approval from the French Society of Information Science and Communication Science, the experiment took place in a TV studio in front of a live audience, with the quiz host in the role of authority. This contrasts with Milgram’s set up, which took place in a lab with a scientist in the authority role. Participants were told that they were taking part in a pilot show of ‘The Game of Death’ and so no prize money was available. Their task was to electrocute a fellow contestant when he answered questions incorrectly (four recruits were rejected because they’d heard of Milgram’s work).
Despite hearing cries of pain, 81 per cent of 32 participants obeyed the TV host’s instructions to administer the highest shock level of 460 volts, compared to 62.5 per cent of Milgram’s participants. The researchers also included conditions designed to test contexts that might provoke disobedience. To their surprise, they found that a TV producer running on to the set and declaring the show immoral made no difference to obedience levels; neither did telling the participants that the pilot show would be broadcast. Only a condition in which the quiz host left the scene led to reduced obedience (just 28 per cent of seven participants delivered the highest shock). There was evidence across conditions that some participants tried to cheat by using their tone of voice to give away the correct answers; others coped by talking over the screams of the suffering contestant.
In a departure from Milgram, Beauvois and his team incorporated a fifth and final ‘prod’ for disobedient participants, which took the form of the audience encouraging the participant to administer more shocks. To the researchers’ surprise this was ineffective at encouraging further obedience from the minority of stubborn participants.
‘[T]he hold that television has on people is such that, for persons on the stage of a TV game show, it represents an authority strong enough to make them commit clearly immoral or dangerous acts,’ the researchers concluded. The lack of disobedience after a producer expressed his moral outrage led the researchers to go further in their interpretations. Taken together with a recent partial replication by Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University, in which (contrary to Milgram) a disobedient accomplice also failed to encourage greater participant disobedience, Beauvois and his colleagues proposed: ‘[P]erhaps the period we are living in predisposes people to greater disobedience. What we found here in the television studio is that obedience continues to be a reality, at a time when many authors believe that our societies are evolving instead toward greater permissiveness, toward more “negotiated” powers and even toward the end of authority altogether.’
The Psychologist asked Beauvois, who’s retired since this work was conducted, if his findings say something about obedience being a fundamental part of human nature. He told us such an interpretation would be inappropriate. ‘Human nature is not in question in this type of experiments,’ he said. ‘People have learned to behave in a certain way. Our subjects, like those of Milgram, have learned the obedience to social power both in family and at school. They obey in their work and when they are at the hospital. So, what is studied is more the obedience behaviour in a relationship model in social exercise of power than a characteristic of human nature.’
In related news, a new book Behind the Shock Machine has been published by the Australian writer Gina Perry, in which she describes replications of Milgram’s work that were conducted at La Trobe University in the 1970s. A participant in the La Trobe experiments told ABC News in Australia that the experience affected her for years. cj
I’d deactivate my frontal lobes using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), take loads of hallucinogenic drugs, and hook myself up to Twitter, so that I could broadcast all my new ideas.’ That was the (tongue-in-cheek!) advice on how to be more creative from Anil Seth, Director of the Neurodynamics and Consciousness Laboratory at Sussex University. Seth was speaking as a ‘local respondent’ as part of a Sussex Conversations event at his university on human creativity and culture. ‘Don’t try this at home’ the chair Mark Lythgoe (UCL) added nervously.
The discussion (viewable online at tinyurl.com/dyeeeqk) began with panellist Ernst Edmonds (University of Technology in Sydney and De Montfort University, Leicester) reflecting on whether computers can be creative. Edmonds believes they can, in the sense of being creative partners with humans. He provided evidence in the form of a program he’s written that generates original abstract patterns. ‘We already refer to devices as having thoughts –as in “My satnav thinks we should go this way”,’ Edmonds said. ‘By 2050 I think we’ll talk routinely about devices as having great ideas.’ Local respondent Margaret Boden, Professor of Cognitive Science at Sussex, agreed that there was no reason why computers cannot be creative in the sense of coming up with something ‘new, surprising and variable’.
The conversation turned to how creativity is affected by different modes of consciousness. BPS Fellow and panellist Chris Frith (UCL and University of Aarhus) said that it’s in their nonconscious processes that more creative people differ from the less creative. We’re prone to copy our past actions and to copy the behaviours of others, he said, but creative people are less constrained by primes and expectations.
There’s evidence that this freer form of nonconscious thought often manifests in people with schizophrenia and with autism – for example, they’re less susceptible to visual illusions such as the ‘hollow mask effect’, which are driven by visual expectations. There are claims that drugs can help induce this unconstrained mode of thought, and recent studies have also linked creative benefits to grogginess and mild intoxication for the same reason. In the same vein, Allan Snyder (University of Sydney) claims to have improved people’s creativity by using TMS to ‘knock-out’ their frontal lobes. Frith stressed that conscious processes are also required to communicate original ideas to others – what he called ‘effective creativity’. ‘The truly creative person is changing the consciousness of us all,’ he said.
The last panellist was Carol Steen, a world-renowned artist based in New York. Steen is a synaesthete who sees numbers, sounds, touch, pain and smell in colours. ‘It’s like the Aurora Borealis,’ she said, ‘when you see that phenomenon and how it moves and changes – that’s what it’s like. Like seeing the sun through a stained glass window in a church, brilliantly bright.’ No mention of synaesthesia was made to Steen during her formal art training and for years she focused on sculpting. Only 15 years ago, after discovering the work of Heinrich Klüver, did she embrace her condition and begin painting what she sees. ‘We believe that all of us see the world the same way,’ Steen said, ‘but do you really see what I see?’ cj
As part of the RCUK Global Uncertainties Programme the EPSRC and ESRC are jointly inviting proposals for research consortia to explore cyber security challenges. Proposals with a significant novel mathematics and or social science content are particularly welcome. Examples of the scope of the call include logical or formal techniques to enable modelling of behaviours, threats and interactions and inter-relationships between people, machines and systems; security behaviour; and organisational forms. Full details and an annex about social science issues are available on the website. Outline proposals should be submitted by 14 June 2012.
The Wellcome Trust Broadcast Development Awards support the development of broadcast proposals in any genre that will engage audiences with issues around biomedical science. TV, radio or new media projects are all supported. Funding of up to £10,000 is available. Partnerships between broadcasters and other professionals such as scientists, ethicists and educators are especially welcome. The next deadline for applications is 20 July 2012.
The Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government has research grants available for research that is aimed at improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of services offered by NHS Scotland and that assists in securing lasting improvements to the health of the people of Scotland. Applications can be made via two panels, Experimental and Translational Medicine and Health Services and Health Population. The remaining closing dates for 2012 are 3 August and 7 December.
The HSC Public Health Agency has funding available for research workshops and conferences that promote evidence-based practice and research dissemination relevant to health and social care services in Northern Ireland. Applications must have secured some funding from another source and the event must be non-profit making. The level of funding provided does not usually exceed £2500. Applications can be made at any time, but should be submitted a minimum of six weeks before the event. Retrospective applications are not accepted.
The Society for Educational Studies is inviting applications for its small grant scheme. The scheme provides grants of up to £10,000 for research in education. Applications are welcome from those who are in the early stages of developing their research careers. The next closing date is 15 September 2012.
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