Psychology 4 Students

Ella Rhodes reports from two of the Society's flagship events.

The Mercure Hotel in Sheffield saw more than 250 A-level psychology students swarm through its doors for five inspiring talks covering a vast range of topics, including the role of glucose in memory and the rules of attraction. Dr Catherine Loveday, from the University of Westminster and the Society’s conference committee, welcomed the students. She apologised for the lack of female speakers, but said the event aimed to give students a ‘taste of something different’ within psychology.

Richard Stephens (Keele University) was first to take to the stage giving the audience an enlightening view into his research into swearing and pain, for which he won the IgNobel Peace Prize (see also our September 2013 issue). He started by running a Stroop test on the gently chuckling audience, using swear words. Those gathered quickly lost track of the test itself, with Dr Stephens saying: ‘This really nicely demonstrates the power swear words have.’

He went on to tell students that in cold pressor studies of pain tolerance, when participants repeated a swear word rather than a neutral word as they immersed their hand in ice water, they experienced less pain as a result. He concluded that swearing was a form of ‘stress-induced analgesia.’ But Stephens also pointed out that these pain-relieving effects are less pronounced in people who swear more generally in their day-to-day lives. When the time for questions came around scores of hands shot in the air. One student asked Dr Stephens if he had a favourite swear word, to which he replied: ‘I have the usual repertoire.’

When the next speaker, Daniel Gurney (University of Hertfordshire) took to the stage outlining his work with body language, there was a perceptible shift in the audience as everyone adjusted to sit up that little bit straighter. Dr Gurney ran several demonstrations on the audience, showing that holding a pen between one’s teeth, forcing a smile, can make a psychology joke seem funnier – showing that body language not only affects those around us but our own emotional experience as well. He then went on to demonstrate that one’s posture could affect thoughts, as well as emotions. Half the audience were told to lean left while the other half leant right. Those leaning right estimated that the Eiffel Tower was taller, as our mental perception of numbers runs from left to right, lowest to highest.

Gurney then asked the crowd to try to guess a word, the description of which he told the audience, while sitting on their hands, without using gestures. This took a considerably longer time than when hands were free to ‘act out’ the word in question (‘glockenspiel’). But aside from the intrigue of body language, he also pointed out that gestures of questioners in eyewitness interviews could affect subsequent testimony, for example doing a stabbing motion while questioning can cause people to say they saw a knife involved in an attack.

Just before lunch, Alan Gow (Heriot-Watt University) took to the stage with an intriguing set of props. He started by asking five volunteers on stage, each was asked to blow up a balloon, the first to show the small size of a baby’s brain, the last to show the size of a 20-year-old brain. He then asked the audience, who were also clutching balloons, what they thought happened to the size of the brain after the age of 20. Rather disconcertingly, many of the students let go of their balloon brains entirely. While the reality may not be quite so extreme, Dr Gow did confirm that after a certain age the volume of the brain does begin to decrease. To illustrate connections within the brain Dr Gow then threw several balls of wool into the audience asking each person to grab a piece and throw it back, explaining that as people age the myelin sheaths ‘insulating’ neurons gradually degrade affecting cognitive skills. He said: ‘There’s a linear decline from its peak in your early 20s, in terms of being able to take in information and quickly process it and respond accordingly.’ But he did point out that there were still cognitive processes that improved with age and experience, giving the example of word knowledge.

Gow then went on to quiz the students about what lifestyle factors they thought could worsen cognitive decline with age. The audience were on top form throwing out suggestions such as drugs, alcohol and low cognitive stimulation. He also pointed to his own research, which had been published on the day of the conference, showing that having more complex jobs can lead to slower cognitive decline. This showed the students first-hand how exciting the world of research can be.

Appropriately, following lunch, Michael Smith (Northumbria University) spoke about research into the effects of glucose on memory. He began by handing out sweets to the crowd, explaining that the brain, though a relatively small organ, uses around 20 per cent of the body’s energy resources. A comprehensive review of previous research has shown that glucose does seem to enhance certain aspects of the brain, but the picture is not as clear-cut as giving people sweets to enhance cognitive performance. Dr Smith said that in healthy young participants, glucose seems to be most effective when attention is divided. If participants are carrying out a memory task and are simultaneously asked to perform a motor task, they perform better after a glucose drink.

Smith also outlined one of his PhD student’s research into people with diabetes, who have problems regulating glucose levels, as well as healthy people whose bodies are less good at coping with glucose. He said: ‘We’ve found that diabetes and poor glucoregulation impacts on memories for faces and words.’ He also said that people with diabetes are poorer at walking in a straight line when their attention is on something else, such as maths problems, and that he would also be looking in to the number of falls that older adults with diabetes have (higher than average).

Viren Swami (University of Westminster) was the final speaker of the day, presenting a very popular talk on the rules of attraction. He outlined that humans were social animals and drawn into relationships. Dr Swami then went on to use comic book hero Scott Pilgrim as an example of a guy who meets a girl and is attracted to her, and centred his talk around giving Scott tips on how to attract her.

Swami said there were three things which facilitated attraction. First, he pointed to some early sociological research showing that a majority of people start relationships with those in close proximity – 60 to 70 per cent of long-term relationships are formed with people we work with or go to school with. Research has even found that people tend to be more attracted to those who live in the same London borough as them. Second, don’t get too hung-up on looks. Swami said although attractive people are perceived as having better personal qualities, succeed more in their occupations, and have a higher starting wage, people looking for long-term partners are often seeking warmth, humour, understanding and kindness rather than attractiveness. The final lesson for Scott Pilgrim was that ‘birds of a feather flock together’: many people say opposites attract, but there’s actually little or no evidence of this in the literature. Swami said we should choose partners who are of similar levels of intelligence and attractiveness in order to form more stable attachments.

The Psychology4Students event in London was held at Kensington Town Hall, welcoming more than 700 students to hear another excellent collection of talks in hugely varied areas of the discipline.

Jim McKenna (Leeds Beckett University) was first to take to the stage with a talk on behaviour change. Professor McKenna’s talk focused mainly on attention and the way this impacts on the success of behaviour change interventions. He opened his talk by convincing the gathered students of his magical abilities, performing a card-disappearing trick to illustrate the importance of attention. ‘If I’m offering anything to you today it’s to do the smallest thing you can do for the greatest effect in behaviour change.’

McKenna went on to outline the roles of the ‘reptilian’ brain and mid-brain in forming habits and the prefrontal cortex in executive function and inhibition, giving examples of the way our ‘habit brain’ leads us to occasionally make erroneous snap judgements. He also spoke about the roles of emotion in effective behaviour change. Helping people to focus on positive emotions can be helpful in adopting new behaviours. Willpower may be a finite resource which should not be relied upon too heavily, McKenna said. Instead, we should focus on small and easy-to-achieve goals as well as using triggers in our everyday lives as reminders for carrying out a particular activity.

Dr Almuth McDowall was next to present her work, on work life balance. This is a topic which is important across generations, she said, showing a clip from her 10-year-old daughter speaking about what it was like having two parents who work full time. McDowall discussed whether a poor work life balance was a modern epidemic, with dual-earners being the norm in the UK, people having greater job demands and the use of technology which makes it difficult to escape work. She added that there is considerable regional variation: ‘London is a real hotspot for unhappiness.’

McDowall went on to say that different occupations pose different problems. She gave the example of police whose shifts cover 24 hours per day, seven days a week, and who don’t know what next day might bring. Some people’s work and life are entirely separate while some do not make the distinction between work and private life: McDowall concluded that it is not necessarily better or worse to be either, but what you have has to match your needs.

Helen Fisher (Kings College London) spoke about childhood psychotic symptoms, whether these are a bad omen or a developmental hiccough (see also her article in our November 2013 issue). She demonstrated that most people had been through some psychotic-type experience, for example having the feeling of being followed, but said psychosis is on a continuum. In the general population magical ideas and strange experiences are common, but in more serious cases this can be a diagnosable psychotic disorder. Dr Fisher also spoke about other psychotic symptoms including hallucinations, showing a YouTube clip to give the whole audience a visual hallucination, delusions and disorganised speech and behaviour.

Fisher went on to say that psychotic symptoms are common in a small proportion of young people. She worked on the New Zealand based Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study – a longitudinal study of just over 1,000 babies born between 1972 and 1973 who were studied up until the age of 38. A psychiatrist interviewed the participants at the ages of 11, 18, 21, 26, 32 and 38. In later life it was found that children who showed psychosis symptoms at 11 were more likely to have schizophrenia, PTSD and were much more likely to have committed or attempted suicide. Only one of the children who had symptoms at 11 had no psychological problems upon reaching adulthood.

Dr Andrea Oskis (Middlesex University London) was the penultimate speaker with a talk on relationships, stress and parents. She started by outlining attachment research from its beginnings with ‘cupboard love’ theories by people such as Freud and Skinner, to Harlow’s work with monkeys and the development of Bowlby’s attachment theory. Oskis then spoke about her own PhD work on adolescent attachment styles and gave examples of quotes from securely and insecurely attached people. She has also looked at the relationship between attachment style and the Cortisol Awakening Response – the peak in cortisol levels typically seen upon waking in healthy participants. The ‘anxious insecure’ group had a much flatter cortisol profile compared with securely attached and insecure avoidant type.

Dr Caspar Addyman (Birkbeck University of London) drew countless numbers of ‘awws’ from the audience with his presentation on laughter in babies, complete with a number of hilarious video clips. He started his talk by suggesting that laughter goes back around 60 million years in human history. His recent work has involved asking parents to fill in online questionnaires and field reports on what made their babies laugh, finding that laughter and smiles start as early as three weeks.

Addyman said his research has also shown that babies laugh around 100 times per day, most often prompted by tickling or favourite games such as ‘peekaboo’. ‘Crying starts early but laughter starts before they can communicate in other ways,’ Addyman concluded. ‘It’s babies telling you whatever you are doing keep doing it, it’s fantastic. We think that learning is about people forcing facts into your head but when you’re a baby you learn for yourself. You discover almost everything by doing it.’ An apt conclusion to a highly interactive pair of events, which gave myself and the large audiences plenty to smile and think about.

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