Other news: Open science, e-cigarettes, book awards and more

A round-up of the latest stories

E-cigarettes - part of the problem, or a solution?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a report calling on governments to regulate the advertising and marketing of e-cigarettes more closely and to ban their use indoors. This has re-ignited debate between those who believe the devices can be a useful aid in quitting tobacco smoking and those who are concerned they could pose health risks (including their use as a ‘gateway’ to tobacco for young people).

In August the Department of Health ruled out a ban on using the devices inside. However, Dr Lynne Dawkins (University of East London) said some of the recommendations in the WHO and Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) were overly cautious. She said the objective of the WHO and FCTC was to avoid and protect against death and disease caused by smoking and second-hand smoke. ‘However,’ she continued, ‘in this report the WHO overstates the potential adverse effects of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS)/e-cigarettes and downplays the advantages for public health – for example, ignoring the recent report by West and Brown that among 6000 respondents, e-cigarettes are associated with a 60 per cent increase in odds of quitting compared with licenced nicotine products’.

Dr Dawkins said that by focusing on minor or implausible issues, such as their role in a pathway of addiction, the WHO was continuing to treat e-cigarettes as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. She told The Psychologist: ‘Whilst I agree with some of the recommendations for regulation, for example, to minimise content and emissions of toxins and ensure the use of pharmaceutical grade nicotine, many others, such as banning solutions with fruit, candy or alcohol like flavours, or a ban on indoor vaping, are overly cautious and not commensurate with the risks. Many smokers are unwilling or unable to quit despite multiple attempts even with licensed smoking cessation products: for these smokers, ENDS/e-cigarettes could be a lifesaver.’

- For more on smoking cessation see Dr Dawkins’s article in the May 2013 issue of The Psychologist.

Good showing in book awards

Clinical psychologists received commendations for several works at the British Medical Association book awards in September, including books about coping with breast cancer and complicated grief. The books were all highly commended in the Popular Medicine category.

Emotional Support Through Breast Cancer: The Alternative Handbook by Cordelia Galgut received a commendation. Cordelia, a breast cancer survivor herself, presents a person-centred guide to the emotional effects of breast cancer. The judges commented: ‘It's fantastic that it is written by a psychologist who is able to use her own experience.’  

Frances Goodhart and Lucy Atkins’ book How to Feel Better: Practical Ways to Recover Well from Illness and Injury looks at why a serious illness or injury does not just affect the body; it affects the mind-emotions, confidence, mood, relationships. It argues that the old idea of rebuilding your physical and emotional resources after a health crisis is just as relevant today as it was for the Victorians or Edwardians. Judges said: ‘This is a great book which gives sensible, practical, realistic advice and information to the person (and carer) recovering from illness.’ Frances said: ‘I was thrilled to receive this award from the BMA for a book with a focus upon the importance of the psychological recovery process after illness or injury – “a modern art of convalescence”. It was also great to see so many other excellent books by psychologists – or with a psychological theme – similarly endorsed. I think it reflects an increasing recognition within the medical community of the psychological impact of a life-limiting or chronic illness – as well as an appreciation of the practical, evidence-based, psychological coping strategies so clearly presented in these books.’

Living with Complicated Grief by Craig A. White was also highly commended. This book looks at how to cope with long-lasting grief following a bereavement, so that it becomes possible to accept the death and master its impact. Judges said: ‘I would recommend this book to be put on medical school reading lists. We have a few psychology lectures; however, they are often not hugely relevant. This book is very relevant to our career, both for ourselves and when communicating with patients and families.

  Finally Ray Owen’s Living with the Enemy: Coping with the Stress of Chronic Illness Using CBT, Mindfulness and Acceptance also received a commendation. Using the latest developments in cognitive behavioural therapy, which emphasise mindfulness and acceptance, and including links to downloadable audio exercises and worksheets, this book shows how people can live better despite a long-term condition. Judges said: ‘The main strength of this book is the case studies that are used throughout, which provide characters that readers can readily identify with and learn from. It is almost like being in a focus group within a book.’  

The category was won by Mindfulness for Health: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress, and Restoring Wellbeing by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman, which points to evidence that mindfulness is very effective for reducing pain. It also argues that mindfulness can significantly reduce the anxiety, depression, irritability, exhaustion and insomnia that can arise from chronic pain and illness. Judges said: ‘The authors themselves have written the book with their own suffering and pain and how the simple set of practices can help relieve chronic pain and the suffering and stress of illness.’ 

Twitter list

The news department of the journal Science has released a list of the 100 most-followed scientists on Twitter, a list that includes several psychologists. This comes after the website published a list of the 50 most popular scientists on Twitter, which caused ripples of controversy after questions were raised about the measurement of ‘Twitter impact’ that was used and the lack of female and ethnic minority scientists included on the list.

The news site’s initial list was part of a story looking at the use of Twitter by scientists. This came after a tongue-in-cheek proposal by genomicist Neil Hall for a so-called Kardashian Index (K-index). The proposed measurement compares a researcher’s number of Twitter followers with the number of citations to an individual’s academic papers. The article also created a list entitled The Top 50 Science Stars of Twitter, which caused controversy when some of the scientists named called it a ‘meaningless popularity contest’. However, on this new list, which has been expanded to include economists, several psychologists and female scientists are visible.

In the Top 50 Science Stars of Twitter the psychologists include author and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker with 145,000 followers; psychologist, author and Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire Richard Wiseman with 135,000; and professor of psychology and behavioural economics Dan Ariely with almost 79,000 followers. Richard Wiseman, when asked his opinion of such lists, quipped: ‘It depends where I am on them :-)’

I The BPS Research Digest keeps a list of psychologists who tweet: tinyurl.com/nmvbgzy

I The original list of 50 scientist Tweeters can be found here: tinyurl.com/nppknfn

I The top-100 list: tinyurl.com/o994a7r

Influential thinkers

Five psychologists and a cognitive neuroscientist have been named in the top 20 most influential thinkers of 2014 by HR magazine. At the top of the list, for inspiring leaders in people strategy, was Professor Sir Cary Cooper (Lancaster University Management School).

Professor Cooper told us he was overwhelmed at being named The Most Influential HR Thinker in 2014 by the leading HR directors in the UK. He added: ‘It surprised me, given that I work in the field of health and well-being in the workplace, which until recently has not been a high priority issue for HR. My getting this award, given the research work I do, means that health and well-being among employees in the UK’s biggest companies and public sector bodies has now come of age. Personally, it also means that the work of psychologists like myself is perceived by senior people at the coal face of UK plc, as making a contribution to human resource management and ultimately to British industry.’

Third in the ranking was Professor Rob Briner (School of Management, University of Bath) for his research into well-being, emotions, stress, ethnicity, the psychological contract, work absence, motivation and everyday work behaviour. He runs training courses about how HR managers can practise in a more evidence-based way through using evidence that is relevant to organisational problems and decisions.

Briner has also received the BPS Division of Occupational Psychology Academic Contribution to Practice Award, and will be giving a keynote talk in Glasgow at the Division of Occupational Psychology conference in January entitled ‘Why isn’t organizational psychology more evidence-based? Why does it matter and what can we do about it?. He told The Psychologist: ‘Having never really received any awards or honours of this kind before it was quite a surprise to several in such a short space of time. These awards were recognition for my work on evidence-based practice, which I’ve been banging on about for almost 20 years. I’m hoping they reflect a growing interest in the idea. It seems to me that as psychologists or HR practitioners, unless we start to take the critical use of different forms of evidence more seriously in our work, then what we do will just become increasingly ineffective and less and less relevant.’

Other psychology entrants on the list included Professor Adrian Furnham (University College London) at number 5, Professor Michael West (Lancaster University Management School and The King’s Fund) at 11, Professor Nigel Nicholson (London Business School), who originally trained in psychology, at 17, and Dr Geoff Bird, a research fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (University College London), at number 19. 

A duty of care to be vocal

Claudia Hallett and Simon Riches (DClinPsy trainees at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience) report on Professor Tanya Byron’s visit

‘Clinical psychologists have a duty of care to be vocal in the media’, was the inspiring message left buzzing in the ears of DClinPsy trainees at the IoPPN after a group discussion with Professor Tanya Byron on her recently published work of ‘literary non-fiction’, The Skeleton Cupboard.

A selection of trainees across all three cohorts attended the lively session in which Byron repeatedly emphasised the importance of clinical psychologists, including trainees, speaking out about mental health in the mainstream media. Specifically, she encouraged trainees to respond to inaccuracies about mental health in newspapers, magazines and radio programmes and to share comments on behalf of the profession.

The book itself describes Byron’s time as a trainee clinical psychologist, with stories of the clients she worked with, teams she was part of, and mistakes she made. Responding to questions also raised in John Marzillier’s review of The Skeleton Cupboard (The Psychologist, September 2014) – about the genuineness of the clinical cases and notable omissions from the experience of clinical training – Byron explained that concerns with confidentiality motivated her to describe cases that are predominantly fictional but based on amalgamations (or ‘clinical constructs’) of clients from across her placements; and revealed that her decision to condense several supervisors into one and omit her fellow trainees were literary devices designed to provide a clearer narrative.

Although this might have seemed the ideal audience, Byron claimed that she had not written the book for psychologists. Her purpose had been to show the general public how valuable psychological therapies can be in helping people make sense of their experiences, as well as wanting to reveal her own vulnerability and uncertainties as a trainee.

Mind-blindness - a world of difference

Typically developing children show theory of mind, an ability to track what others are thinking, but children with autism struggle with this intuitive and automatic ability. This mind blindness, Professor Happé argued in a talk organised by the BPS and British Academy, may explain some of the social and communication difficulties of autism: why lying doesn’t come naturally, and jokes and irony are taken literally.

Professor Happé said the experimental work proving that children with autism lack this mind-reading ability is also reflected in their everyday behaviour. Although there has been much debate over this mentalising theory, Professor Happé said it had been useful: ‘If you explain to a teacher in a mainstream school that a pupil who is bright is not being cheeky but is genuinely having difficulty reading their minds, then it often makes the world of difference.’

Theory of mind, Professor Happé argued, acts as a ‘gatekeeper’ that opens the way to learning and acquiring skills. She said neurotypical children learn through social interaction and orient towards communicative gestures and are interested in what others are interested in. But children with autism tend to do what they find interesting, and therefore it is difficult to acquire knowledge and skills through socially mediated routes.

Happé also discussed the effects on language acquisition, pointing out that in neurotypical children, word-learning is extremely socially sophisticated, but it appears young children with autism don’t pick up language in the same way, as reflected in mis-mappings and words gained and then lost. Professor Happé also outlined evidence, collected with Dave Williams, that could suggest that mind-blindness extends to a person’s awareness of their own thoughts and perceptions.

With Paul Bloom and Uta Frith, she looked at the interesting way young children label their scribbled drawings ‘Mummy’ or ‘doggy’. Presumably, Professor Happé said, what they’re labelling is their intention to draw a particular thing. In an experiment children with autism were asked to draw one of four identical planes, which differed only in colour, using a black pencil. They were asked afterwards which plane they had drawn, which they found very difficult: to remember which plane they intended to draw they need to reflect on their mental state at the time of drawing.

Professor Happé said: ‘Many people with autism are very good at drawing and have a very exact and naturalistic style. And I wonder if, perhaps, that has something to do with this lack of intention or marking of your representation. When a little child draws a squiggle and says it’s Mummy, then it is Mummy because your drawing is what you intend it to be. But artists with autism may not have that intentional marking of their drawings. All they have to tell them that a drawing is a drawing of Mummy is its physical resemblance to Mummy.’

Happé concluded by pointing out that mind-reading isn’t everything in autism: ‘I think autism is a composite of neurocognitive features… We have three symptoms but probably not one cause. Theory of mind is part of the puzzle but only part. Similarly mind-reading isn’t all of social cognition.’

I See last month’s issue, or tinyurl.com/happe1014, for an interview with Professor Happé

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