A recent study by researchers from University College and Kings Cross College in London and the University of Hertfordshire made headlines at the start of January 2015 with its conclusions that some women would find childbirth easier if their partner was not with them during labour.
The study was actually about attachment, because the researchers were interested in whether women with different attachment ‘styles’ or types had different experiences of pain depending on the presence or absence of their partners. The study worked like this:
1) Respondents, all female, completed a questionnaire to measure the extent to which she avoided emotional intimacy in relationships.
2) The respondents were then subjected to moderate pain, caused by a laser beam on one finger. The size of the brain’s electrical response to the pain were measured as well as a verbal report from the respondent as to the level of pain experienced.
3) The test was carried out both with the respondents’ romantic partner present, and without.
Those women whose questionnaire results indicated that they avoided emotional intimacy in relationships experienced more pain when their partner was with them than they did without their partner. This was true both of the electrical measure of brain response to pain and the subjective reports of level of pain. Women who were more emotionally intimate in relationships did not exhibit the same variation in response.
Despite the extrapolation of the study’s results to childbirth in the media, one of the researchers did point out that the pain a mother feels during childbirth may be different from the pain studied in the study.
The Wellcome Collection has launched a six part digital narrative called Mindcraft about theories of the mind of the late eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries: just late enough to cover Freud. Worth a look for an interesting way of telling a digital story.
Psychologists have known for many years that memories are primarily stored in the cerebral cortex of the brain, and that a ‘control centre’ buried deep in the brain, is involved in both creating memories and retrieving them from their store in the cerebral cortex: made up of the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex.
In November 2014 a team led by researchers from Germany’s Magdeburg University and the German Centre for Neurogenerative Disease used a highly sensitive form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), called ‘7 Tesla ultra-high-field MRI’, to pinpoint the precise regions involved in processing memories. By studying the brain’s activity in very precise detail, the researchers could see that memories were created in particular neuronal layers within the hippocampus, and the information then travelled from the hippocampus out to the cerebral cortex.
The research team believe their results have identified the location of the ‘gateway’ or ‘doorway’ to memories. Next they want to see if it is damage to this gateway region that is the cause of memory loss in dementia, or whether memories remain intact at this point for dementia sufferers, with problems then occurring at later stages in memory processing and storage.
The BPS has recently launched an interactive timeline called Origins which presents key developments in the evolution of psychological sciences from 1842 until the opening of the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain in 1998. AQA favourite Wilhelm Wundt makes an appearance, naturally, coming in at 1875. The timeline features some excellent photos and should be a very useful tool for students to use in exploring the chronology of different approaches in psychology and identifying some of its key moments.
According to a recent article on the Guardian’s ‘Notes and Theories’ section, approximately 10 million people in the UK are believed to have some form of phobia: that’s out of a total UK population of 64 million. (I would tell you what percentage that was but I have a fear of calculating statistics.)
The vast majority of those phobias are not causing these people to visit their GPs or report them in any other way (so the 10 million figure is an estimate and we don’t know from the Guardian what this estimate is based on), but for some people their phobias cause them to make significant changes in the way they live their lives. The NHS lists the top ten phobias in the UK (from a survey by Anxiety UK) as:
social phobia – fear of interacting with other people
agoraphobia – fear of open public spaces
emetophobia – fear of vomiting
erythrophobia – fear of blushing
driving phobia – fear of driving
hypochondria – fear of illness
aerophobia – fear of flying
arachnophobia – fear of spiders
zoophobia – fear of animals
claustrophobia – fear of confined spaces.
The new AQA A Level specification puts phobias together with the behavioural approach to psychology, in which we learn about (amongst other things) the two-process model as an explanation for why phobias develop, and systematic desensitisation (SD) as a technique for treating phobias. This Guardian article is mostly about using virtual reality SD techniques as a way of treating phobias that are difficult to recreate in other ways – for example the phobias for public speaking or flying. What is good about phobias, in virtual reality terms, is that the simulation doesn’t need to be entirely realistic because the parts of the brain that produce the initial anxiety – the insula and amygdala – pick up on any trigger relating to the feared situation: a waggly, spidery leg is enough for someone with arachnophobia.
As we know, many people can relate their phobias directly to personal experience – they were once sick on a train, for example, and now they are worried about being sick every time they go on a train. Others pick up fears from the media even if they have not had a bad experience themselves – this is common for those with aerophobia. But for around one third of sufferers, the cause of their phobia is not known. It might be that they have simply forgotten it – perhaps it happened when they were very young. However, this Guardian article offers another possible explanation which might be useful for those evaluating the behavioural approach to phobias:
‘While there is currently no evidence that this occurs in humans, research involving animal models suggests the effect of traumatic experiences can be passed from the brain to the genome and inherited by future generations. Scientists found that the offspring of mice conditioned to experience fear when exposed to a particular odour became fearful when they were exposed to the same smell.’
The new AQA spec (soon to be approved, we hear) includes, at A Level, ‘ways of studying the brain: scanning techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)’. This YouTube video gives a functional, magnetic and resonant view of what fMRI involves and what its results look like in practice.
The AQA spec is concerned with the appropriateness and effectiveness of ways of studying the brain, and this clip could be useful for showing how fMRI works well for comparing brains between different types of people (in this case people in vegetative states with people who are not), and is effective in picking up changes in the brain at the superficial level (the motor cortex in this case).
The clip then goes on to look at a brain scan produced by diffusion tensor imagining (DTI), which is a magnetic resonance imaging technique but students need to be clear that these DTI images are not produced by fMRI. DTI images white matter structures in the brain through measurements of water diffusion, fMRI images changes in brain activity through changes in the supply of blood to brain tissues.
Judit Lőcsei-Campbell contacted Cara to let us know her students spotted a discrepancy between the current (third) edition of The Complete Companion student book (AQA A) and the previous (second) edition.
While the second edition says (on page 35) that Yarmey (1993) found no significant differences in the accuracy of recall that could be attributed to the age group of the witnesses, we have changed that for the third edition where the text reads (also page 35): ‘There were significant differences in the accuracy of recall also – the oldest group was inferior to the other two groups in terms of accuracy of recall.’
So what happened? The error in the second edition came from the abstract to the original article, which you can read here. It was only when our authors rechecked the original article itself that they discovered the error, which is why we have made that correction for the third edition.
As Cara says, ‘getting research right is not always easy as there are many Chinese whispers – Mike and I try as far as possible to consult original papers’.
Thanks very much to Judit and her students for giving us this opportunity to explain the reason for this change.
Identical twins – helping research methods stay ethical
An excellent article on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog considers why it is so difficult to establish cause and effect in studies of links between intelligence and education. One difficulty is that it is not ethical to remove one randomly-selected group of children from education to test what happens to their intelligence levels in later life. Another is that genetic differences between children may have as much to do with later differences in their IQ scores as the education they receive. Again, it seems unlikely that psychologists will consider it ethical (or practical) to clone children in order to remove this genetic influence from research on education and intelligence.
Such is the ingenuity of psychologists, however, that studies have tackled both these difficulties without unethical methods being resorted to. So for example, identical twins have pretty much 100% genetic similarity, so any differences in reading ability between twins should be due to differing environmental influences.
The difficulty then comes in establishing what those differing environmental influences are. The researchers writing the article could identify an effect, but could only speculate on the possible causes – and all the possible alternative explanations for their findings. But they hope that by using twin-studies in this way, they are ‘edg[ing] further up the causal ladder, away from the basic correlational study’.
Our fabulous authors Cara Flanagan, Mike Cardwell, Ros Geillis and Mike Griffin have been VERY hard at work on the A Level Year 1/AS Complete Companion student book (Cara and Mike C) and Teacher’s Companion (Ros and Mike G), making sure they are the best resources possible to support the new AQA specification.
You can see two sample spreads from the new student book here and also two sample worksheets from the new Teacher’s Companion. These aren’t in their completely final form yet, but we hope you like what you see.