Psychobiology – where mind meets matter

Members of the Society’s Psychobiology Section introduce the field and their network.

Psychology is the science of mind, but in any real sense a mind cannot exist without a body in which to reside. Studying relations between mind and body can greatly inform our understanding of psychology – which is where psychobiology comes in. Psychobiology describes the interaction between biological systems and behaviour. Psychobiologists research how cognition (what we are thinking) and mood (how we are feeling) combine with biological events. Striving to understand how psychological and biological connections shape the human experience provides psychobiology with a unique perspective in psychology.

Psychobiology research covers topics such as how psychological stressors like exams can lead to heart palpitations, or how foods, such as oily fish, or drugs, such as alcohol, can impact on the brain and behaviour. To give a more detailed example, a recent psychobiology study showed how sexual risk takers, defined as individuals for whom one of their last two sexual intercourse partners was someone they had just met for the first time, showed a greater increase in the stress hormone cortisol during a laboratory stress test (Harrison et al., 2014). In this case, observing interaction between a psychological variable (sexual risk taking) and a biological one (the cortisol stress response) furthers the psychological understanding of behaviour pertinent to sexual health. It appears that sexual risk takers have some awareness of the dangers posed by their behaviour.

The same team has recently developed a novel ‘real-life’ stress-inducing procedure based on skydiving. They have shown that repeated exposure to this potentially life-threatening stressor does not lead to a reduction in the physiological stress response indicated by cortisol as is often seen in stressors administered in the laboratory (Hare et al., 2013). This finding indicates that it is still necessary to mount a biological response to a potentially life-threatening stressor, no matter how many times we have encountered it.

Great science, great view
The academic discipline of psychobiology is represented within the Society by the Psychobiology Section (see the Section website). The Section provides a forum for discussion and collaboration in research on psychobiological topics via our flagship event, the Psychobiology Section Annual Scientific Meeting, and by regular symposia at other psychology meetings such as the BPS Annual Conference. In so doing the Psychobiology Section fulfils the learned society function of the BPS for this area of psychology.

Our Annual Scientific Meeting is held in the first week of September each year, and for several years it has been held in the beautiful surroundings of the Low Wood Hotel on the shores of Lake Windermere in the Lake District. The meeting is open to anybody with an interest in psychobiology and provides a great opportunity to showcase research findings and for researchers to benefit from insights and suggestions from experienced investigators (see www.bps.org.uk/events/conferences/psychobiology-section-annual-scientifi... for further details). As well as academic papers on varied topics from mindfulness (e.g. Lomas et al., 2014) to underwater helicopter evacuation (Robinson et al., 2008) and from herbal supplements (Jackson et al., 2012) to swearing and pain tolerance (Stephens & Umland, 2011), the enduring and popular highlights of our Annual Scientific Meetings are the evening lectures provided by eminent guest speakers from the world of psychobiology.

In 2014 the best-selling author, TV presenter and academic Sir Colin Blakemore (University of London) gave a talk entitled ‘What’s so special about the human brain?’. Colin provided fascinating insights into the similarities and differences between the brains of humans and animals. In 2013 Professor Sophie Scott (UCL) gave an entertaining and thought-provoking talk on the neuroscience of laughter. Sophie’s public profile is well illustrated by her appearance on BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific (tinyurl.com/pmg2tox). She explained the important social role of laughter, whereby if one person is laughing then others are likely to join in, and also that laughter is not unique to humans because rats have been shown to laugh in response to being tickled.

Professor David Nutt presented a fascinating evening lecture in 2013 arguing that banned drugs such as cannabis, Ecstasy and LSD could be put to good therapeutic uses if only politicians were willing to sanction it. The talk, which was strongly evidence-based, provided food for thought and lively discussion – staples of the Psychobiology Annual Scientific Meeting. Professor Nutt has since presented these views on Channel 4 television and was the winner of the 2013 John Maddox Prize in recognition of courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so.

Regular attendees will attest to how well the Psychobiology Section Annual Scientific Meeting facilitates networking and developing collaborative research with enthusiastic and friendly colleagues, as well as allowing delegates to keep up to date with the latest developments in psychobiology.

Young doctors
The Psychobiology Section is committed to supporting young scientists. Final-year undergraduate students whose third-year project involved research in any area of psychobiology are encouraged to enter the annual Undergraduate Project Prize sponsored by Salimetrics (it’s easy and free to enter – details at www.bps.org.uk/psychobiology/undergradprize – deadline is 10 July 2015). The winner receives complimentary registration and accommodation for the Annual Scientific Meeting and they are asked to present their research to the meeting. This may seem a daunting prospect, but it is a very friendly and supportive meeting and all winners have reported finding the experience extremely positive and beneficial. For example, winner Jennifer Fisk commented: ‘The Psychobiology cohort were very complimentary and have certainly helped to increase my confidence regarding research and presenting in the future.’ Over recent years the winning undergraduate submissions have covered topics such as noradrenergic modulation of arousal in rats, state aggression manipulation and pain tolerance, socio-sexual orientation and olfactory sensitivity to human pheromones, and the effects of acute flavanol consumption on dark adaptation and high frequency sound detection.

Postgraduate students can apply for two free places at the Annual Scientific Meeting. Sponsored by the Psychobiology Section, these cover registration and accommodation costs for students, which would usually total £300 for the full three-day meeting (for details, see www.bps.org.uk/psychobiology/postgrad). In addition, there is a special postgraduate package allowing attendance on the afternoon of Thursday 3 September and morning of Friday 4 September including student workshop, poster presentation, keynote speaker, scientific talks and ‘meet the experts lunch’ at the discounted rate of £62.40. This is a first-rate opportunity for postgraduate students to develop confidence in the art of academic presenting and networking.

Catch us on tour
As well as its own Annual Scientific Meeting, the Psychobiology Section hosts a symposium each year at other academic conferences. In 2014 the Section organised, jointly with the Cognitive Section, a symposium at the Society’s Annual Conference in Birmingham. The title of the symposium was ‘New Directions in Cognitive Neuroscience’ and the keynote speaker was Professor John Aggleton of Cardiff University. John is considered among the most eminent cognitive neuroscientists in the world, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has made an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the neural basis of memory. John’s keynote was on the topic of ‘memory beyond the hippocampus’. He referred to anatomical, behavioural and clinical evidence to suggest that conceptualisations of memory should not place the hippocampus at the top of a neuroanatomical hierarchy, but should instead view memory as being mediated by a vast extended-hippocampal network. The talk outlined a number of very impressive studies conducted by John and his colleagues, and highlighted John’s clear passion for both the cognitive neuroscience of memory and history, as John drew some very witty parallels between the neuroanatomy of memory and key historical events.

In 2015, thanks to the support of a BPS International Conference Symposium Scheme grant, the Psychobiology Section is hosting a symposium at the European Congress of Psychology at University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy, 7–10 July 2015. The title of the symposium will be ‘The Psychobiology of Stress’, and some of our most talented stress researchers will be presenting their latest findings.

To old friends and new acquaintances
So that’s been a very quick introduction to psychobiology and the work of the Psychobiology Section. Please check out the website for details of how to become a member of the Section (it costs just £10 per year for Society members) and how to register for the next Psychobiology Section Annual Scientific Meeting. We have some fantastic guest speakers lined up, not least Professor Michael Maier (London School of Psychiatry), curator of the Corsellis Brain Collection – one of the largest collections of its kind in the world, comprising more than 6000 specimens, including cases of Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt Jacob disease and depression.

Each year at the Annual Scientific Meeting we look forward to welcoming old friends and making new acquaintances. Our meeting slogan does not exaggerate – on the shores of Lake Windermere the science really is as good as the view.

The BPS Psychobiology Section contributors:
Richard Stephens Senior Psychology Lecturer at Keele University and Chair of the Psychobiology Section
Michael Smith Senior Lecturer in Psychobiology and Health Psychology at Northumbria University and Treasurer of the Psychobiology Section
Sarita Robinson Senior Psychology Lecturer at University of Central Lancashire and Committee Member of the Psychobiology Section
Trudi Edginton a cognitive neuroscientist at University of Westminster and Committee Member of the Psychobiology Section
Philippa Jackson Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Northumbria University and is Webmaster of the Psychobiology Section

References
Hare, O.A., Wetherell, M.A. & Smith, M.A. (2013). State anxiety and cortisol reactivity to skydiving in novice versus experienced skydivers. Physiology & Behavior, 118, 40–44.
Harrison, C., Ratcliffe, J.M., Mitchell, M. & Smith, M.A. (2014). Cortisol reactivity to psychosocial stress is greater in sexual risk takers. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine, 2, 221–230.  
Jackson, P.A., Reay, J.L., Scholey, A.B. & Kennedy, D.O. (2012). DHA-rich fish oil modulates the cerebral hemodynamic response to cognitive tasks in healthy young adults. Biological Psychology, 89, 183–190.
Lomas, T., Ridge, D.T., Cartwright, T. & Edginton, T.L. (2014). Engagement with meditation as a positive health trajectory: Divergent narratives of progress in male meditators. Psychology & Health, 29, 218–236.
Robinson, S.J., Sunram-Lea, S., Leach, J. & Owen-Lynch P.J. (2008). The effects of exposure to an acute naturalistic stressor on working memory, state anxiety and salivary cortisol concentration. International Journal on the Biology of Stress, 11, 115–124.
Stephens, R. & Umland, C. (2011). Swearing as a response to pain – effect of daily swearing frequency. Journal of Pain, 12, 1274–1281.

 

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