Quenching a thirst for knowledge

Ella Rhodes reports from a Pint of Science Festival event held in Birmingham in May.

A group of science lectures held in pubs across UK cities included three nights of psychology and neurobiology talks in Birmingham. The Pint of Science Festival takes place in nine countries and 50 cities across the same three nights, and on the second evening the audience heard two talks on animals and children.

Jackie Chappell, from the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham, began by outlining what creativity means from an animal research perspective, saying it involves looking into how animals use their brains to adapt to their environment. Chappell went on to say that testing animal creativity can be problematic: the usual approach is to give an animal a problem to solve that they have not encountered before and that will test their creativity rather than simply showing that an animal can learn with enough training and exposure.

New Caledonian Crows have been widely studied for their use of tools in the wild, and Chappell described an experimental study showing they can be flexible in their thinking. One female crow was given a clear cylinder containing a small bucket of food as well as a straight and hooked piece of wire. However when the male crow stole the hook, Betty, as she was called, simply picked up the straight wire and bent it into a new hook. Dr Chappell said: ‘This crow had seen a hook and used a hook, but she had never seen one made. She created a new tool manufacture technique.’

Not only can animals use inanimate objects as tools, orang-utans have been observed using their own young to help them retrieve food from hard-to-reach places. In another study bonobos and orang-utans were presented with a see-through box containing eight paddles which the animal could turn to make food fall through a hole at the bottom: there were several other places the food could fall where the ape would not be able to retrieve it. In one condition of the study, which tested advanced planning, all paddles were placed on the diagonal – the animal would need to plan ahead before moving any paddles to ensure the food fell into the correct hole. On this advance planning task only one of the participants performed above chance. In another condition all the paddles were straight, so if the monkey turned the wrong paddle it would simply fall onto the shelf below. The apes performed much more reliably in this condition.

Dr Chappell concluded her fascinating talk by saying that animals could be very creative and flexible in their thinking; however, proving this could be difficult. She also said that although advanced planning could be difficult for animals, humans can struggle with this at times as well.

Next, Sarah Beck, from the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, spoke about imagination in children, its purpose and whether children can use it in the same way as adults. Children, she said, have some of the most active imaginations of any age group, which can be seen in their imaginary friends and pretend play.

Much of Beck’s work has been into counterfactual thinking, the process by which adults imagine how the current world might be different if we had made different choices. At what point do children begin to use counterfactual thinking? Beck told children a scenario – that after their mother has taken some chocolate from the cupboard to use in baking a cake, she puts it in a drawer. The children were then asked where the chocolate would be if she had not baked the cake.

While four- and five-year-olds find this task easy, three-year-olds will say the chocolate will be in the drawer. Beck asked why younger children might find this task so difficult, and she used another task to test this. In this other experiment children are presented with a bear puppet and dragon puppet and told to do what the bear says but ignore the dragon’s instructions. Again, three-year-olds find this very hard.

Children who struggle on the puppet task find the counterfactual thinking task hard too. Beck suggested their difficulty may be due to a lack of inhibition and on the first task being able to inhibit their knowledge that the chocolate ended up in the drawer. She concluded that while children have very good and expansive imaginations they are less good at using their imaginations to solve tasks and think about alternative worlds. She said: ‘Children are both brilliant and rubbish at using their imagination.’

On the final day of the Pint of Science Festival Tony Belli, a trained neurosurgeon and Reader in Neurotrauma (University of Birmingham) spoke about some startling research into concussion in sport. He said research into the longer-term effects of sport concussions has become of huge interest, particularly in American football. One of the main issues with concussions is that many athletes do not realise they have sustained one: they expect to lose consciousness but this is not always a result of being concussed, Professor Belli said. He went on to say that, worryingly, concussions are increasing year on year and the most dangerous sport for them is cycling.

However, he insisted that there was no need for mass panic or for people to give up sport completely. The number of catastrophic injuries in sport is small, and one solution is to approach the treatment of concussions with more care. Belli said it was difficult for club doctors to spot concussions and a vast majority are not reported or not recognised as concussion. Some of this lack of reporting may be due to an athlete’s fear of losing playing time, and in some sports there is a culture of ‘bravery’ and returning to play as soon as possible. However, official advice is that adults should not return to play until at least six days after concussion, and children at least three weeks. Of all concussions around 80 to 90 per cent get better very quickly but 2 to 4 per cent will never get fully better.

Belli also spoke about the worrying role of multiple concussions in neurodegeneration. In mice it has been shown that multiple concussions leads to the accumulation of proteins that are seen in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Neurodegenerative conditions are also seen appearing in much younger professional American football players than in the general population.

However Belli was quick to point out that, in general, these players live longer than the general population, showing there is no need to give up an active lifestyle for fear of concussion. He added: ‘A lot of this sounds alarming, but people get a lot of benefits from an active lifestyle but at the same time we can mitigate the effects of traumatic brain injury.’ He added that it was important to be more aware of concussions and to train people to recognise if they have sustained one and to monitor the effects of concussion more closely.

Appropriately enough, the final talk in the Pint of Science Festival Beautiful Minds section was from Ian Mitchell (University of Birmingham) around the effects of alcohol on the brain. He began by speaking about the well-known acute effects of alcohol, caused by a one-night binge, which are reversible. However, he said, with repeated large doses of alcohol the chronic effects can lead to loss of brain volume, psychiatric problems and stroke.

Dr Mitchell said alcohol, being one of the three most commonly used drugs (along with caffeine and nicotine), is the most dangerous from a neurological perspective. He then went on to explain how alcohol works on an area associated with reward – the ventral tegmental area, as well as reducing responses to fear due to its action on the amygdala. Interestingly, alcohol also affects the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executive functions such as planning and organising as well as inhibition of certain behaviours in a social context. Mitchell then tested the, presumably slightly tipsy, audience on their executive function using a sentence completion test. Half the audience were told to complete the sentence in the conventional way while the other half were asked to come up with a novel way to finish the sentence. ‘He would often stop at the pub on his way home from work and enjoy a pint of…’ The novel group found it very difficult to inhibit the conventional response, ‘beer’, and come up with a different ending to the sentence – Mitchell explained while under the influence of alcohol it is harder to ignore the almost automatic response to finishing the sentence, a failure of inhibition.

Next under discussion was the ‘beer goggles’ effect. Mitchell said by having participants rate pictures of faces for attractiveness while drunk and sober we can see people are seen as around 10 per cent more attractive when an observer is drunk. However, interestingly, this effect only applies to a person’s own racial ingroup.

Of course, the effects of alcohol even in the short term can be worrying. Theory of mind, or the ability to understand the intentions or emotions of other people, is badly affected by drink. Indeed, some of Mitchell’s own test subjects who drank three bottles of wine each a night had deficits in this area comparable to those caused by dementia.

Mitchell pointed out that the potential for misunderstandings when lacking theory of mind were numerous and could be quite concerning. He concluded that alcohol was a friend on one level – it makes people friendlier with their ingroup and reduces fear and anxiety. However, it can be a foe – it makes us less attracted to outgroups, and can increase aggression in people who have a predisposition for aggression. 

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