Mind mysteries at the Big Bang

Ella Rhodes reports on the British Psychological Society presence at the Birmingham science fair.

As tens of thousands of children and teenagers flooded into Birmingham’s NEC for the Big Bang science fair, the BPS and representatives from several universities were on hand to inspire an interest in psychology. The Society’s Mind Mysteries stand amazed the youngsters with live demonstrations of psychological phenomena.

The University of Nottingham were among the guests at the stand and Roger Newport was causing gasps and shrieks among willing participants using his specially designed equipment which distorts how people perceive their own bodies. Volunteers place their hands beneath a monitor screen which seems to give the person an image of their hands on the table, but using a delay in the visual feedback given to the person and subtle psychological manipulation Dr Newport can make it seem as if a person’s finger is being stretched or as if one of their hands has disappeared entirely.

He said: ‘The machine helps us to show people how they know what shape their body is, it demonstrates that the body they perceive to have is made up of sensory inputs, and this shows how these are all put together.’ Having tried the machine myself, I can attest the results are alarming. Newport said one participant leapt back around three metres after he felt his hand ‘disappear’. He added: ‘The reactions are mixed, it ranges from squealing to hysterical laughter, most people describe it as ‘weird’. But in quite a few children it really prompts discussion from how it works to the psychological theory behind it.’

Kevin Silber was also demonstrating visual perception experiments, on behalf of the University of Derby. Using prism goggles Dr Silber showed how difficult it is to use inverted visual information to trace around drawings or even write your own name.

Students from the University of Leicester, along with lecturer Dr Caren Frosch, were demonstrating a physical illusion. Volunteers were given a large object and asked to choose one of a number of smaller objects which weighed the same, usually underestimating the weight. Frosch said this was caused by an illusion that bigger things are perceived as heavier, thus most people choose a smaller matching object thinking it weighed about the same. They also demonstrated optical illusions including an explanation of ‘the dress’ illusion, which exploded on social media after people perceived the same picture of the same dress as either being blue and black or white and gold.

Warwick University PhD student Zorana Zupan was demonstrating the galvanic skin response and pulse rate to show that psychological reactions also have physical manifestations. As well as electrodermal activity Zupan was measuring heart rate further explaining how psychology can be measured in an objective way. She said: ‘So far the children have been really interested in what we’re doing. We’re also showing people a diagram of the brain and explaining the functions of the various different regions which has fascinated a lot of the people here.’

BPS Psychology Education Policy Advisor Kelly Auty said the Big Bang Fair was a great opportunity for the Society to give young people and their teachers and families a hands-on experience of psychology. She added: ‘Many people think they know what psychology is and are really surprised when they come to the stand to find out about psychological phenomena and how they might be used in "real-life" research. Our university partners are experts at communicating the science behind the demonstrations and explaining how psychologists study different aspects of the brain and behaviour to visitors of all ages.

‘This year, we also took part in the "Maths Counts" initiative, explaining why numeracy is important for psychologists. It's been a great experience and our volunteers have all stepped up in making sure visitors to the stand come away with a really positive experience of psychology, have learnt a bit of psychological science and have had a great time."

The Big Bang Fair is only one activity in the Society's core public engagement portfolio, through which it aims to promote the public understanding of psychology as a discipline and its contributions to society.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber