Multifaceted and intricate

Ella Rhodes reports on some of the psychology and psychiatry events at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival fortnight.

A play inspired by research on bipolar disorder, thinking styles and emotion was shown at the Cambridge Science Festival; Pictures of You told the moving story of two old friends reunited and attempting to re-establish intimacy. The two characters presented two different styles of thinking; one a free-spirited and joyful woman who thought mainly in images, her friend a more controlled and negative person who thought in a more verbal style. The two, both psychology graduates, meet atop a hill after a traumatic break in their friendship, to discuss their potential future and troubled past. The play was interspersed with discussion led by Martina Di Simplicio, a psychiatrist and Career Development Fellow at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit working on mental imagery in bipolar disorder, whose research inspired the production (

Doctoral students at the unit Alex Lau-Zhu and Julie Ji, along with clinical psychologist Caitlin Hitchcock, discussed how mental images, rumination and other thinking biases can change the way we feel. Lau-Zhu spoke about studies that have shown that when processing the same written scenarios using mental imagery, as opposed to focusing on verbal meaning, one tends to report higher emotional impact, both for positive and negative scenarios. He added: ‘Further, imagining from a first-person perspective has shown to produce more intense emotional responses than a third-person perspective. The multifaceted and intricate aspect of imagery is what captured the imagination of Menagerie Theatre Company to produce their play.’

Hitchcock suggested that people fall on a continuum when it comes to verbal or visual thinking, and some will use the former when thinking about negative or troubling memories to avoid reliving an event in pictures. After the emotional denouement of the play, funded by the MRC, a second panel took questions from the audience; psychiatrists Muzaffer Kaser and Akeem Sule, playwright Craig Baxter and cognitive scientist Phil Barnard spoke about their experience of collaborations between arts and sciences in mental health.

Viren Swami (Anglia Ruskin University) attracted a packed lecture theatre for a talk on the rules of attraction, using comic book hero Scott Pilgrim as the protagonist of the talk – explaining why Scott’s love of Ramona Flowers made perfect sense according to science.

First, Swami pointed to some early sociological research showing that a majority of people start relationships with those in close proximity. In fact, geographical proximity is one of the biggest predictors of forming a relationship. Even in the age of online dating, people still look for matches who are close by.

Second, just being familiar with something, or someone, Swami said was enough to make them more attractive. The ‘mere exposure’ effect shows we like things or people who are familiar. What about appearance? Although we know beautiful people are seen as better and have better chances at getting good jobs, getting paid more and generally being adored, it is not the most important factor in a relationship. In short-term sexual relationships, Swami said, it’s a big factor, but those people looking for long-term partners are often seeking warmth, humour, understanding and kindness rather than attractiveness.

The third and 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 left the audience with three general tips for successful dating; be nice, don’t send pictures of your genitals to other people (unless they ask) and, importantly, be kind to yourself.

Picture yourself floating above your bed, looking down on… yourself. The science behind out of body experiences (OBEs) and some lesser-known forms of so-called autoscopic phenomena were discussed in a fascinating lecture. Anglia Ruskin cognitive neuroscientist and psychology lecturer Dr Jane Aspell has explored the reasons some people have this experience and how it is linked in with the body-location information that our brain processes in one key area.

She gave examples of the most common OBE – usually a person will feel their self is no longer in their body, they will usually be lying down and can see their body. However, this can vary in surprising ways: Aspell gave one example of a lecturer who experienced an OBE while still delivering his lecture.

Although the samples of people used in experiments in the area are understandably small – it is after all a rare phenomenon – one finding that has persisted is abnormal function in the tempero parietal junction (TPJ), an area that seems to combine proprioceptive and vestibular information, which gives rise to our conscious experience of where the body is in space.

So what can OBEs tell us about our brains and experience of ourselves? Aspell said they show that our bodily self-consciousness has different components that can come apart when the TPJ is not functioning correctly. Aspell said the OBE is one of a number of autoscopic phenomena, which also include autoscopic hallucinations and heautoscopy. In the former a person will see a double of themselves appear but their sense of self will remain in their body. In heautoscopy, a condition which has been described as ‘disturbing’ by sufferers, a person will see their double, or even multiple doubles, and their sense of self can switch from their actual self to the double and back again, occasionally they may feel their self is located in both at the same time.

This ‘existentially awful’ experience, Aspell said, had driven several patients to commit or attempt suicide. She gave an example, reported by Wigan in 1884, of a man who could evoke his doppelgänger at will; this double eventually became more autonomous and would appear randomly to humiliate the man. He eventually shot himself.

But what do we know about what’s happening in the brain? One patient with epilepsy had experienced episodes of heautoscopy since adolescence and happened to experience it while having an EEG scan – her double appeared during an epileptic seizure and disappeared once it had subsided. Aspell explained heautoscopy was linked to abnormal activity in the TPJ and how it integrates information about the body within the world, including vestibular information.

As these are rare phenomena, Aspell has developed ways to study them in healthy participants. Using a camera placed behind a participant and a virtual reality headset, subjects ‘see’ themselves standing in front of themselves. To increase the power of the illusion Aspell also measures participants’ heart rate and places an aura of light around the ‘double’, which beats in time with the participants’ heart. People in these conditions feel as if their self is outside of their body and that the virtual-reality body is their own.

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