Cream of the crop

A round-up of reports from award winner presentations at the Society's Annual Conference.

Several British Psychological Society award winners presented at this year's Annual Conference, including the following:

Race, gender and caste in education

This year’s winner of the Award for Promoting Equality of Opportunity, Paul Ghuman (Emeritus Professor, Aberystwyth University), was recognised for his career promoting equal opportunities in education. After moving to the UK from the Punjab in the 1950s, and via an interlude as a bus conductor in Reading, Ghuman became a teacher in a secondary-modern in Birmingham in 1959. Moving to a grammar school post showed him how the educational system was perpetuating social class inequalities; Ghuman’s research has since confirmed the salience of social and cultural factors in educational performance. His first research project, in the mid-1970s, explored the cognitive development of Punjabi boys in Birmingham and found that their performance was significantly closer to that of their English peers than their counterparts in the Punjab. In later years his work has addressed the struggles of Asian girls trying to reconcile the often conflicting demands of home, school and wider society and shone a light on the impact of the caste system. Ghuman realised that the system has reproduced itself in Indian diaspora in the UK with consequences for children who may experience bullying in Asian majority schools as a result of a Dalit, ‘untouchable’, caste identity forced upon them.

- Alana James

- You can read more about Ghuman’s research on Dalit resistance and identity in the July 2015 issue of The Psychologist.

President's Award

Matthew Lambon Ralph (University of Manchester) was this year’s recipient of the Presidents’ Award, for research investigating the role of the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) in the neural basis of semantic representation. His journey so far has in a sense begun and ended with patients. Patients with semantic dementia experience impaired comprehension and anomia, with atrophy found in the ATL but not in other language regions; a puzzling finding given that the ATL is not implicated in classical aphasia models. Rather than accept this as a red herring, Lambon Ralph began utilising an array of technologies to uncover the mechanisms behind how semantics happen – describing himself as a ‘frustrated psychological engineer’.

He found that early PET research had not identified ATL involvement because scans were either not deep enough or had not measured the bottom of the brain, and that using TMS to knock out ATL function impairs performance on synonym, but not number, tasks. Further, he has recently collaborated with neurologists in Kyoto who use electrode implantation to link neurological structures with function in pre-surgery patients with epilepsy. They found that direct cortical stimulation of the ATL impairs picture naming and synonym judgement. By sparing this region surgeons can now achieve better clinical outcomes for patients.

- Alana James

Spearman Medal

Can brain stimulation lead to improved learning in arithmetical tasks? The 2014 British Psychological Society Spearman Medal winner Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh (University of Oxford, pictured above) has tested out this idea to see if transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS) can improve performance and learning.

Cohen Kadosh taught participants an algorithm to solve arithmetical problems either with stimulation or without – it is impossible for participants to tell whether they have received it or not. He found this type of stimulation had the greatest effect on learning for particularly difficult problems (an effect that was replicated).

However, he pointed out, subjects differ in the levels of connectivity between essential brain areas – in this case the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and parietal areas. In arithmetic training there is a shift from using the former to the latter as one becomes familiar with certain problems. Those with high functional connectivity between both areas tend to learn this type of problem better and do not benefit from stimulation. However, those with lower levels of connectivity showed a marked improvement with tRNS.

Stimulation for those with existing levels of high connectivity, Cohen Kadosh explained, can cause interference with these brain systems. He said in such experiments it was important to take into account the baseline physiology of individuals and how stimulation may affect certain people while interfering with the cognition of others. Cohen Kadosh dedicated his award to Alan Cowey, who died last year. He said: ‘When I joined the department as someone from outside it was quite overwhelming, and Alan was an island of sanity. His door was always open and he was always happy to give advice and mentor. It seems fitting that Alan was the second recipient of the Spearman Medal.’

The 2015 Spearman Medal winner, Dr Iroise Dumontheil (Birkbeck, University of London), followed with a whistlestop tour of her developmental and adult work looking into the brain systems involved in cognitive control and social cognition. She has found these two systems work in parallel, when an executive function task requires the use of social information and vice versa, however the two systems don’t interact. Dr Dumontheil is also looking into the differences between individuals’ dopamine systems and what role this plays in social cognition.

- Ella Rhodes

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