The Finalist Party, a time to celebrate our BSc Graduates!

By Chloe Ilsley

After several years of not being able to celebrate our graduates and their achievements, this year we were finally able to do so! On 21st July 2022, the Psychology Student Experience Team hosted the Finalist Party, and all graduates were invited from 2020 – 2022.

The Finalist Party took place the morning of the Class of 2022 graduation ceremony. It was a great day for celebration as the sun was shining and the sky was clear, this was perfect for the garden party theme. The Meeting House and its unforgettable colourful windows were the backdrop to the party. We wanted our Finalists to see the iconic building for one last time as we know it’ll be an image they will remember from Sussex for years to come.

The Meeting House Lawns had various places to enjoy the celebration, whether that was taking up a game of Jenga on one of the picnic blankets or sitting on the brightly coloured square sofas nestled under the trees. The gentle breeze moved the colourful pompoms and streamers in the trees overhead.

colourful pom poms in the trees above the colourful sofas for the party
The meeting house lawns was the perfect setting for the garden party theme.

The months of planning were rewarded by seeing beautifully dressed students with their families and friends, hearing them laugh and share stories with one another. It’s a special moment to share with students and one we don’t take for granted. It’s been a long time since campus has been a place for events like this so it’s great to see it again and we already look forward to the next one.

The party was attended by many faculty members, excited to see their students after a few months of working together on research projects. Head of School, Robin Banerjee, shared some words with the attendees, and from this, you could see how proud he was of everyone stood in front of him. Robin was thrilled to announce this year’s finalist prize winners to the crowd as it was the first year in a few that he was able to award these in-person.

Double prize winner, Alessandra Giuliani shared her thoughts on winning the prestigious awards and explained how a specific event had inspired the idea for her prize-winning dissertation which explores issues around street harassment:

The idea for my dissertation project, stemmed from an actual situation. I was in my second year when the case of Sarah Everard happened. Being a psychology student, I was interested to know what psychological factors lead someone to perpetrate street harassment acts as those can lead to more severe crimes.

Surprisingly, I noticed that the current literature mainly focused on street harassment’s consequences on the victim and not on the perpetrators. Therefore, I started reading about potential factors that could predispose someone to street harass women. Drawing from other research areas, I tested and found that cognitive empathy and social dominance orientation are linked to one’s acceptance of street harassment behaviours.

I did not know we could get awarded prizes at the end of our degree. It was a delightful discovery for me since having your job recognized is extremely rewarding.

During my third year, I genuinely felt overwhelmed by it all and I did not think I would have reached a first-class mark in my dissertation project. This demonstrates that winning a prize is within everyone’s reach as long as you work consistently.

Awarding students is a beautiful initiative as it makes us feel that our hard work does not go unnoticed.

Alessandra accepting her prize from our Head of School, Professor Robin Banerjee.
Alessandra accepting her prize from our Head of School, Robin Banerjee.

Another of our prize-winners, Wesley Wong, also expressed his delight at having been awarded the Allison Jolly Prize for the Best Final Year Project in Comparative Psychology:

I am really happy and honoured on winning the Allison Jolly prize. It felt like hard work really pay off in the end, but I couldn’t have done this without the tremendous support from my dissertation supervisor Dr Sarah King and academic supervisor Prof Martin Yeomans. So, a massive thanks to both of them for supporting me through my study. I am genuinely very interested in topics related to mental health. Therefore, I chose anxiety as my dissertation topic. The area of research aims to develop anxiolytic drugs with fewer side effects, and my dissertation evaluated the physiological effects produced by a developing anxiolytic drug – compound X. The result shows that compound X is effective as a non-sedative anxiolytic drug.

Wesley accepting his certificate with Project Supervisor, Sarah King
Wesley accepting his certificate from Project Supervisor, Sarah King.

It was wonderful hearing from Robin about all of the prize-winners and we congratulate them all. The winning projects cover an array of topics within Psychology, ranging from Criminology, Developmental, Mental Health & Wellbeing and more. The range of projects demonstrates that at Sussex, students can be recognised for their work from any psychological discipline.

Elouisa Huitson, the Student Experience Officer for Psychology Student Experience shared:

It was lovely to see the prize winners colleting their certificate and enjoying the event with their family before heading to graduation. Thanks to all of the students who attended, we wish you all the best!

graduates and staff celebrating together at the party.
Graduates and staff celebrating together at the finalists’ party.

It has been years since we’ve been able to host celebration events so this year will always be held as extra special. We’re really proud of all our students, as beginning a degree during a pandemic isn’t what you’d envisage when applying for University but instead of letting it phase them, you all embraced change and achieved your goals anyway!

Go over to our instagram to see the mini blog the team have put together of the event!


About the Author:

Chloe Ilsley, Student Experience Coordinator.

Chloe works within the School of Psychology’s Student Experience Team. She is a recent BSc Psychology with Education Graduate from the class of 2020.

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A PhD, public engagement event, and me

By Psychology PhD student, Louise Davidson

The Science of Teamwork

Teamwork is something that most of us engage in every day – for example, within a work team or a sports team. We know the members of our teams… their names, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their role within the team. We consider them to be part of ‘us’.

There is an abundance of evidence to show that when we feel like we belong to a team, we generally work well with its members. This sense of ‘us-ness’ provides a strong basis for coordination and cooperation that is vital for teamwork through providing team members with shared goals and norms, as well as expectations of support from each other.

However, alongside the teams that we belong to, there are also often others that we don’t. Rather than being part of ‘us’, they are seen as ‘them’.

But what happens when we find ourselves having to work with ‘them’? Is it possible to overcome this ‘us-them’ divide? And, if so, how?

Working together to save lives

This is exactly the challenge faced by emergency services in the UK when they tackle major incidents. In contrast to other emergencies, like a small fire or minor burglary, major incidents exceed the capabilities of any single emergency service to handle on its own.

Consider, for example, the Manchester Arena Attack in 2017, where a bomb went off at the end of a music concert, killing 22 people. Here, vital information about the nature of the incident wasn’t shared between the emergency services, resulting in the Fire Service being kept away from the scene for a considerable length of time.

In incidents like Manchester Arena, the Police, Fire, and Ambulance Services need to work together to save lives and reduce harm. But how can they do this, when in most situations the members of each of these different services see the other two services as ‘them’, rather than as ‘us’?

This is a critical question, and one that I have been seeking to answer in my doctoral research, and one that I tried to explain during the Soapbox Science Event in May.

photo of Louise Davidson in a white coat presenting to a group of people  people on Brighton seafront
Presenting to the public on Brighton seafront at the Soapbox Science event earlier this year.

Soapbox Science, 2022

After taking part in the virtual Soapbox Science event in 2021, I was so excited to have the opportunity to take part in the in-person event this year. On a beautifully sunny day in May, I turned up on Brighton seafront, wooden sticks and playballs in tow. Having never done an event like this before, I was slightly apprehensive as to what to expect. However, as soon as I stood on the soapbox and began talking to members of the public and seeing their engagement, I felt instantly at ease.

Kids were drawn to the game I had created which involved three people representing Blue, Red, or Green Team (Police, Fire, and Ambulance, respectively). First, they had to work on their own get their colour balls out of the box and into their bucket using a stick. Then, they were able to work together. We counted the balls in the buckets to determine whether working as a team was more effective than working alone.

Interestingly, in some cases, people did not perform better when they worked as a team. But I explored why this was – in those cases, they didn’t communicate, they didn’t strategize, and they continued working as individuals (despite being allowed to work together).

I was able to use this as a starting point for talking about teamwork within the emergency services, as discussed above.  

The thing I enjoyed most about soapbox science is sharing my passion for my research with members of the public – seeing both children and adults getting involved and excited and hopefully sparking some passion in them too, as well as showing young girls that they can have a career in science. I would like to thank the organisers of this event for giving me the opportunity to be there.

About me

My name is Louise and I have just gone into the third year of my PhD in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. Alongside my studies, I also work as a research assistant in the Behavioural Science and Insights Unit at the UK Health Security Agency.

My passion for emergency response stemmed from my Masters degree in Investigative and Forensic Psychology at the University of Liverpool. Here I learned about the persistent challenges that emergency responders face during major incident response, and the subsequent impact this then has on their ability to respond and help those in need. At the same time as conducting my Masters, the Manchester Arena Attack took place, and I knew from that moment that I wanted to pursue a career where I could help in these situations.

Whilst we won’t be able to prevent all major incidents from occurring, this research helps us understand why challenges with multi-agency response occur, and importantly what can be done to prevent them re-occurring in the future. This understanding is so important in order to facilitate a more effective emergency response to major incidents in the future and, ultimately, save lives.

Demonstrating the challenges faced by the emergency services using coloured sticks and playballs.

Find out more about Louise’s research from her publication, preprint, and practitioner reports. You can also follow Louise on Twitter @loudavidson07.

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Michael Heap Interview

Psychology MRes student, Kev Sheldrake talks hypnosis theory, therapy and dissociation with retired clinical and forensic psychologist, Michael Heap.

I’ve been aware of Michael Heap since I first came across the book The Highly Hypnotisable Person, of which Michael is joint-editor. It was one of the first scientific books Anthony and I had indulged in at Head Hacking and I can still remember the surprise that we felt when we read the chapter by Graham Wagstaff: hypnosis was not a state! A lot of it was compliance! But I hadn’t actually met Michael when Amy and I first saw him speak at the 2019 UK Hypnosis Convention.

When I interviewed Zoltan, I asked him if he thought Michael might be up for an interview and he encouraged me to contact him. In the time between sending my email and Michael agreeing to it, he did his own research, asking Zoltan about me to make sure it was a good idea. I liked that – who doesn’t do research on anyone and everyone you come into contact with? No? Just us? Maybe it’s a hypnosis thing? Anyway, I hoped that Zoltan had said nice things about me and Michael assured me that he had done.

Michael read his first book on hypnosis when he was in his teens; it was by John Milne Bramwell and it came from his local library: “Some of the chapters are about his clinical cases and some are of the nice experiments he did; and the one that sticks in my mind: he would say to somebody, ‘In x minutes (x being in the hundreds or even thousands), you will do y (y being an action visible to others) . And of course, they did (some very accurately), but he didn’t do any control conditions. I didn’t realise this, I just took it at face value at the time. I thought, well, this hypnosis is remarkable!”

Image of Dr Michael Heap
Dr Michael Heap

This led Michael to acquiring a popular book on the subject, which included suggestions to cause participants who were amateur pianists to be able to play the piano like Chopin. Michael was impressed and wanted to be involved with it, but that wasn’t really the way things initially played out. He studied psychology at University College London and took a Master’s degree in clinical psychology. During this time he attended a couple of lectures and demonstrations related to hypnosis at the university, but it was the formation of the British Society of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis (BSECH) that really kick-started his career with hypnosis.

“I was doing a part-time PhD at that time at Birkbeck College, where they were holding meetings to put this society together, so I went along. I only heard about it because somebody just mentioned it; so if I hadn’t heard about it, you know, history would be entirely different now.” Michael was a trainee clinical psychologist at the Royal Free Hospital at that time and the BSECH started putting on hypnosis training courses. “I thought: this is a useful technique. I mean, when you’re training, you want to be the world’s best therapist.”

Fortuitously, a senior clinical psychologist at the Royal Free led to an opportunity. “He was leaving to go up to Liverpool and he said, ‘I’ve got some patients I’m doing hypnosis with and I’d like them to continue – would you like to take them over?’. And I said, ‘Well funnily enough, I’m doing some training in this.’ So I took over one or two of his patients, and carried on doing what he was doing, which was mainly relaxation.”

When the secretary of the BSECH resigned, Michael took over. “I practically ran the show, really, to be honest. I’m not boasting or anything, it was hard work. But it was a very successful society, and a lot of psychologists in those days were interested. We put on training events and specialised events, like workshops for the professionals, and I started the annual conferences.” Early on, the society launched its own journal, the ‘British Journal of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis’; “TX Barber said this was a really excellent contribution to the field.” Eventually, the publishers demanded a snappier title and Michael suggested ‘Contemporary Hypnosis’, which was accepted.

Michael pictured with with renowned magician and skeptic James Randi.
Michael with renowned magician and skeptic
James Randi.

I asked Michael what he thought hypnosis was back then and he told me that he “accepted the ‘party line’, that hypnosis was involved in the induction of a trance state and altered states of consciousness, that as yet we didn’t fully understand.” Originally trained by mainly medical practitioners, he elaborated that “medics prefer to talk about depth of trance, and high, medium and low trance capacity; and also claimed that it facilitated access to unconscious processes, memories, impulses, conflicts, and so on, that were not readily available in consciousness. And so yes, I accepted the traditional view. It was only the more I got into it, the more I was having my doubts; and also I was doing a lot of reading.”

Which brought us to books. Michael didn’t have a favourite, but he told me he had read Wagstaff’s Hypnosis, Compliance and Belief in those early days – “It’s dated now, but it was like a breath of fresh air. It was honest; it was logical; it explained things; and it adopted a more rational and scientific approach, testing hypotheses, disproving hypotheses and so on.” He also cited Theories of Hypnosis by Lynn and Rhue and, of course, Hilgard’s Divided Consciousness. “I mean, it’s old hat now and some of his ideas, like the hidden observer, they’re frowned upon a bit and not much investigated now. But I read his book and thought it was good. He sometimes would say he wasn’t a state theorist, but I think he really was, if you look at some of the things he said it was. But he did try to ground hypnosis in human psychology generally. And this has always been a problem with hypnosis – it’s kind of been an alternative reality that doesn’t obey the normal rules of psychology.”

In 1990 Michael launched a hypnosis training course with his colleagues at Sheffield University. “It was organised around eight weekends and the first weekend I had a chap called Brian Fellows come up and talk about theories of hypnosis. The people on our course were largely medics and dentists who had prior exposure to hypnosis, and they belonged to the old BSMDH [British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis]. And they were furious with me for having this man seemingly debunking the whole idea of hypnosis or the hypnotic trance!”, Michael chuckled, “So, from the next year onwards, I asked him to come the last weekend instead, which was more logical really.” 🙂 Soon after these courses were established, David Oakley persuaded Michael to help him establish very similar Diploma and Master’s courses at University College London.  

When it came to fiction, Michael had a subtle brag that Sophie Hannah – the writer of psychological suspense novels – had been in touch with him to ask him about hypnosis, for what became her Sunday Times top-ten bestseller, Kind of Cruel. “She wrote a novel about a woman who went for hypnosis, and Ms Hannah got in touch with me for advice to do with memory. She’d been on my website and was taking the trouble to find out how it worked.”

With regards to films, Michael recommended Compliance: “If I talk about this subject or do any teaching on hypnosis, compliance and persuasion, I always recommend this film.” He told me it was about a fictionalised version of a single case of a scam that had been carried out 70 times in America. I won’t spoil the plot by repeating what he said (look it up on IMDB) but, suffice to say, Michael was impressed. “This film is one the best I’ve seen, really remarkable. It gets the psychology absolutely spot on.”

And this brought us round to the topic that dominated the latter part of Michael’s career. “I went into forensic psychology and because of my interest in hypnosis now and again I would be asked my opinion in both civil (personal injury) and criminal cases involving hypnosis or some related procedure. I think there were four of these where a defendant was claiming that they committed the alleged offence while they were hypnotised.” Obviously the intersection of crime and hypnosis is a hot topic for this blog, especially with our interest in Estabrooks.

Martin Orne was a very influential psychiatrist and psychologist, and he was interested in compliance. One of the things he showed was that people taking part in a psychological experiment will do the most ridiculous things, even dangerous things and anti-social things, regardless of whether or not they’re hypnotised, because they’re taking part in an experiment.” So how did that fit with Michael’s forensic work?

“Where it does concern my forensic work is in the clinical setting; can you hypnotise somebody so they will accept your sexual advances? And indeed, can you hypnotise them so they will engage in sexual activity with you all the way up to the point of intercourse? Now, obviously nobody’s done a controlled experiment on this in a clinical setting, but I’ve looked at dozens of statements, and police interviews of people who have been complaining that this is what happened; when I read through them, I find them fascinating.

“They’re revealing so much about human nature, persuasion, compliance, and so on. But if you also read the accounts by (mainly) women who have been sexually, indecently assaulted, and have even engaged in sexual activity with their doctors and therapists, without hypnosis, they’re very, very similar; and indeed they’re rather similar to accounts of people who have said they were sexually abused in childhood and so on. For example, the questions that they are asking themselves at the time are: ‘What’s happening? Should this be happening? Is this okay? Is this part of the therapy? Will I be believed?’. Or, ‘Well, he’s a doctor, he knows best. I want to get well and if I complain, will he reject me?’. Well, that’s just classic transference. But hypnosis and suggestion doesn’t really inform me much in understanding the experiences these people are reporting.”

A photo of Michael Heap demonstrating dowsing at a scientific skepticism conference.
Michael demonstrates dowsing at a scientific skepticism conference.

Before the clock caused us to stop, I had chance to ask Michael what he thought about hypnotic inductions. “For the laboratory, and for stage hypnosis and demonstrations, or if you’re doing a training course for example, the induction is just a way of preparing the person and increasing expectation, to get them focused, maybe get them nicely relaxed, so that they can start to do what they’re required to do.”

But Michael explained that in hypnotherapy, the induction was significant. “Your induction is part of your therapy, so think about what is a good induction for your patient and for their problems. If it’s anxiety and stress, insomnia, something like that, then use the traditional relaxation induction, where you can talk about how you can relax your body, feel in control, and you can do this yourself and so on. You can incorporate that into your induction, so your traditional relaxation induction is fine.

“When it comes to depression, however, I don’t want to be saying you’re feeling heavier and heavier, tired, etc. So we’ve got to somehow – it’s not always possible – send the person out of the room feeling that their mood is lifted, that something positive is happening. And so you might use an alert method. You’re using imagery and you’re feeling alert, you’re walking along in the countryside, you feel that nice breeze and you feel, you know, that kind of thing. Think what inductions might make sense with other kinds of problems.”

And this randomly brought us back to trance and dissociation: “When we have people responding to hypnosis, some of them just go out; and they’re not asleep, they’re still listening. TX Barber identified a small group of people that show some amnesia as well, who had been responding and hadn’t zoned out completely. I think it’s a capacity that some people have, they zone out, they become so absorbed in something.

“Helen Crawford went along to a stage hypnosis show with some colleagues. And when she interviewed [the participants] afterwards, she found there were raised incidents of amnesia, not necessarily complete amnesia, but partial amnesia. She also incidentally tested their suggestibility, and it was only somewhat above average. It’s a myth, I think, that volunteers in stage hypnosis are what the medics called ‘deep trance subjects’ or even that they’re ‘highly suggestible’. They don’t have to be – there are other things going on as well – they don’t have to be the virtuosos at the tail-end of the spectrum of suggestibility.”

Michael went on to explain that he thought that the socio-cognitive theorists, such as Spanos, Kirsch, and Sarbin, had rejected the idea of dissociation but that actually “there’s some blockage, some dissociation, something being kept out of consciousness. And this is, I think, not unlike current theories of hypnosis, which get away from the idea of trance, but, nevertheless, posit that something is going on in the system, where you’ve got some dissociation, like cold control theory. This isn’t so different from Hilgard’s idea of ‘amnesic barriers’.”

So, there you have it, from the mouth of the man that runs one of the most informative websites about hypnosis and suggestion (other than this one, of course!), that perhaps there is more to hypnotic responses than that accounted for by pure cognition. Does that make cold control theory a dissociation theory? (Zoltan appeared to say not.) Does it make Michael partially a state theorist? Or does it simply highlight that there are still things unknown in how suggestion actually works?

Coming back to how Michael found himself entering this field, he had a little story-twist to add. Remember that he spent the latter part of his career investigating people who claimed to have been abused by their hypnotist? Well, it turned out that the clinical psychologist that gave him his first ever hypnosis patients, was eventually suspended in Liverpool for having intimate relationships with his patients! (He wasn’t the only one as this other case shows.)

And with that, and with so many loose ends still untied, and so many more questions unanswered, Michael had to go. It was a fascinating insight into a wondrous career, and I sincerely hope to meet up with him in the future to find out more.

This interview was originally featured on hypnosis website Cosmic Pancakes.

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Posted in Masters students, Uncategorized

Digital Mental Health: the past, present and future

By Dr Faith Matcham

At the time of writing this, there were 52,564 healthcare and medical apps available to download on the Google Play store. According to a Deloitte report[1], global spending on mental health apps is likely to reach $500 million in 2022. Meanwhile, the smart-glasses, smart-textile and wearable electronics sector is expected to grow from $2.3 billion in 2021, to $6.6 billion by 2026[2]. This digital transformation has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the lockdowns pushing everything online: our friendships, education, employment and healthcare. With an increasing emphasis on private-public partnerships and expansive funding calls for more collaborative, digital research to meet the growing demand for innovation, we may all need to start thinking about how we can integrate technology into our research and clinical practice.

picture of a phone with colourful apps coming out of the screen

My introduction into the world of digital mental health started in my research assistant post at King’s College London in 2011. I worked on a healthcare service delivery project called Integrating Mental and Physical Healthcare Services: Research, Training and Services (IMPARTS), supporting general hospital services to implement routine web-based screening for common mental health problems. Patients would complete a series of tailored questionnaires on an iPad while they waited for their appointment; results would be sent immediately to their Electronic Patient Record for their clinician to review during the appointment, with in-built flags for risk assessments, or where onward referrals to mental health services might be needed. At the time, it was technically complex and a lot of my time was spent liaising with IT services to find out why the 20 questions a patient just completed had not turned up in the system in the 60 minutes they spent waiting to see their doctor.

Fast-forward ten years and I have just finished a 6-year post-doctoral post working on the Remote Assessment of Disease and Relapse – Central Nervous System (RADAR-CNS) project. This involved collecting data from wearable devices, smartphone sensors and app-delivered questionnaires from people with three long-term conditions over the course of 3 years. Depending on the source of data, we could have new information to process and store about every individual every 10 seconds. This data could then be collated and turned into a summary of each participant’s behaviour, physiology, mood or cognitive function every day.

The incredible leap in technological capabilities between my research assistant days and post-doc position still amazes me. We went from having to stand in certain areas of the clinic to make sure we had a proper wi-fi connection, to being able to collect immense amounts of data from people with very little burden to the individual themselves, or the researchers running the project. The use of digital technologies to collect data, and provide personalised interventions is the future of healthcare and it’s exciting. It also heralds the potential to adapt and change our healthcare provision; these data provide rich insight into individuals’ daily lives and may allow us to develop novel interventions which target previously un-measurable characteristics.

However, for it to be meaningfully integrated into clinical care, there are questions which remain unanswered. First and foremost: can this technology provide something of intrinsic value to the patient? Can we improve self-management and a sense of empowerment over an otherwise unpredictable illness? Might having access to one’s own health data inadvertently increase health anxiety, increase inappropriate help-seeking behaviour or even trigger a deterioration in symptoms or relapse? How can we integrate high-volume data usefully into our existing healthcare infrastructures without over-burdening already over-worked healthcare professionals? How do we make sense of what the data mean, and what actions should be taken in response to it? If risk is detected via any system, such as an adverse event related to treatment or a report of intent to self-harm, who’s responsibility is it to intervene?  Who “owns” the data, and how much data is too much data?

I was thrilled to start a new role as a Lecturer in Psychology in the School of Psychology in April 2022. In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I am a developing a portfolio of research activities which are starting to address these questions.  These include a series of EPSRC grants collaborating with multidisciplinary teams across the UK to test different types of remote measurement technologies in different clinical and societal contexts. For example, one of the teams I am working with are developing a smart monitoring textile for measuring loneliness and isolation in an ageing population[3]. Another group are developing an online peer-support intervention for family caregivers, using experience sampling and wearable devices to monitor real-time changes in mood and physiology as carers interact with different elements of the virtual platform. My hope is to build on these existing collaborations and develop new ones with colleagues across the University, to develop a wider understanding of how these technologies can challenge and revolutionise the way we measure and manage health and wellbeing. The future of healthcare is digital, and it’s our responsibility to make sure it’s done thoughtfully, conscientiously and ethically.

[1] https://www2.deloitte.com/xe/en/insights/industry/technology/technology-media-and-telecom-predictions/2022/mental-health-app-market.html.

[2] https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/smart-textiles-market-13764132.html#:~:text=%5B177%20Pages%20Report%5DThe%20smart,23.2%20%25%20during%20the%20forecast%20period.

[3] https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/new-project-addressing-loneliness


Faith Matcham is a Psychology lecturer at Sussex and a Health Psychologist specialising in mental/physical comorbidity and the use of digital technologies to measure and manage chronic health conditions.

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Posted in Faculty research, Uncategorized

Age is just a number: Cross-generational conversations are more positive than you expect

By Dr Joshua Moreton

Picture this: Walking through a park on a pleasant day, you decide to stop and rest on a park bench. However, only two benches are available, and both already have someone sitting there: one with someone you guess is roughly the same age as you, and one with someone who is much older or younger than you. Now, given that there is a strong likelihood of conversation emerging upon sitting down, which person would you rather talk to?

You might be apprehensive of even sitting down in the first place. People are often hesitant to talk to someone new. Following strict social norms,

we often avoid talking to strangers because we think conversations will consist of awkward small talk and generally feel unpleasant. Indeed, research shows people are often sceptical of thevalue of connecting with new people, despite the fact that people actually benefit, often more than they expect, from talking to strangers.

Such apprehension of talking to others we don’t know extends further in those we perceive ourselves to be different from, such as those of different ethnic or age groups. In fact, research shows we consistently give preferential treatment to people we share basic demographic traits with.

However, we also might stand to learn more from talking to others who are different from us. And though in some ways it may seem easier to talk to someone more similar to us, we might be more likely to care for their opinion, and thus might be more fearful of falling into potentially awkward small talk.

Our recent research study attempts to shed light upon this complex picture, potentially helping you choose who to sit next to on the imaginary park bench. Specifically, we asked people (aged either 25-30 or 65-70) to have a conversation with someone of the same age group or the other age group, and first report how they expected the conversation would go. 

Although we anticipated that people would expect conversations with their own age group to be more positive, participants expected to enjoy conversations more with a partner of the different age group, despite thinking they would have less in common.

After the conversation, our participants reported how the conversation went. One finding, consistent with previous research, is that conversations went much better than expected: people overwhelmingly reported they enjoyed conversations more, found conversations easier, thought their partner found them more interesting, and had more in common than they initially thought they would.

Interestingly, the differences we observed pre-conversation diminished; people enjoyed conversations more and found things in common with their partners regardless of who they spoke to, and reported a strong interest in talking further with someone of the same age as their conversation partner. 

Delving further, the overall effect of participants expecting to enjoy cross-generational conversations more was largely driven by younger participants being especially pessimistic about having a conversation with someone of the same age. This may indicate that younger people are overtly more apprehensive with their own peer group, caring more about appearing conversationally fluent and interesting. 

Our results, consistent with previous research on minimal interactions, indicate that any apprehension about talking to others different from us, particularly in the form of worrying about not having much in common, may be largely unfounded. For example, one younger participant pointed out, “I was worried it was going to be awkward and we would have nothing in common or to speak about. However, as soon as the conversation started I realised how wrong that expectation was and I actually had a lovely time chatting with her and we had so much in common!”.

Moreover, not only were conversation fears unfounded, but those who spoke to someone of a different age reported learning much more than those who spoke to someone of the same age, as well as feeling they had learned new perspectives. As one older participant pointed out, “I learnt that age …can actually make for a much more interesting conversation …as you speak about things that are actually interesting and not small talk.”

One reason we might have mixed expectations about talking to those different to us may simply be a product of limited exposure. When asked about opportunities for daily interactions, both age groups overwhelmingly reported many more opportunities to talk to their own age group than the other.

Thus, the park bench provides an all too rare opportunity for making a cross-generational connection. We heartily encourage you to sit on the park bench with the person who is a different age than you. Our research suggests that both you and your partner are likely to enjoy your conversation more than you expect.

Joshua Moreton is a Senior Research Officer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex. Joshua has been conducting research on the mental health benefits of cross-generational conversations as part of an ongoing project with Sussex Psychologist, Dr Gillian Sandstrom.

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Traumatic Experiences Among Late-diagnosed Autistic Women

By Sophie Longley, MSc Experimental Psychology student

I was diagnosed with autism last year, at 28 years old. Strangely, the diagnosis was not a surprise. In fact, it finally provided answers for why I felt so out of place in the world and why I would get so incredibly overwhelmed by things that others simply took in their stride. It also explained why I had trouble with maintaining friendships, why I tried so hard to fit in with everyone else to the point of exhaustion and why it felt like my environment was too loud, too bright, too much.

What I’ve just described are some of the many distressing experiences that autistic people encounter every day.

Autism research has come a long way in identifying our neurological differences compared to the non-autistic population. However, to truly understand our autistic experiences, research needs to go beyond our neurology towards investigating how we experience the world and in turn, how we are treated by others because of these differences, which as research suggests, results in lasting emotional harm and trauma.

This autism awareness week, I want to draw attention to research that I am conducting with my brilliant supervisor, Dr. Sophie Anns, on how late-diagnosed autistic women make sense of traumatic experiences. Using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), we will interview participants to identify the types of traumas they have each experienced and explore how getting an autism diagnosis later in life has affected how they make sense of these traumatic experiences.  We’ve chosen IPA over other methodologies as we are not looking to generalise our findings across the entire autistic population (gasp!). Instead, we think it’s important to focus on how our autistic participants make sense of their own individual traumatic experiences since current literature highlights that these experiences are incredibly diverse across the autistic population.  

To date, there is little qualitative research highlighting how autistic adults, particularly autistic women, experience trauma despite quantitative studies showing the prevalence of probable PTSD among the autistic population (Haruvi-Lamdan et al., 2020; Rumball et al., 2021). For clinicians, autism professionals and wider society to get a better grasp of what autistic people deem traumatic, not just how many of us may experience trauma, there is a need for further qualitative research on this topic. This will allow autistic people to describe, in-depth these experiences that may be perceived as not traumatic by others.

Although autistic people experience higher rates of trauma compared to the non-autistic population (these rates are higher for autistic women than autistic men), autistic people overall are less likely to receive a diagnosis for PTSD compared to non-autistic people (Rumball, 2021). This is partly due to these traumatic experiences being nuanced and not ‘traumatic enough’ to meet the PTSD diagnostic criteria, despite many autistic people reporting heightened arousal and intense anxiety following a traumatising experience – commonly associated with a clinical diagnosis of PTSD (Brewin et al., 2009)

Only until recently, research has identified a broad range of traumatic events experienced by autistic people, which may not be widely understood by clinicians.  For instance, a recent study by Kerns (2022) found several sources of trauma among autistic adults such as social marginalisation, social exclusion at school and in the workplace, sensory trauma, and difficulties in seeking institutional support. Additionally, other research has identified difficulties with professional interactions and social relationships, offhand comments, challenges in finding supportive networks and repeated instances of stigma and discrimination (Gates, 2019; Sweeney, 2016; Botha & Frost, 2020) as sources of trauma. Interestingly, even the autism diagnostic process itself was cited as a traumatic event, particularly for those diagnosed in adulthood (Crane et al., 2018).

Likewise, Fulton, Reardon & Richardson et al., (2020) found that commonplace activities such as showering, brushing teeth, getting dressed, having breakfast or being in the company of others can be physically or emotionally harmful to autistic people, due to the sensory overwhelm often associated with these situations. The reason why these situations are deemed traumatic for autistic people and perhaps not others, is two-fold: not only do autistic people have a heighted sense of vigilance and hyperarousal to potential harm and are therefore primed to look out for traumatising sensory information (Fulton et al., 2020), but misunderstandings from others who label these events as not traumatic, lead to further distress (Fulton, et al., 2020). This brings to light a broad range of traumatic events that are not yet recognised by clinical measures for PTSD but are nonetheless still valid traumatic experiences for autistic people and should be taken seriously.

Stressful events not involving an immediate threat to life or physical injury such as the ones listed above are not considered trauma in the clinical sense (Paiet al., 2017) and therefore fall under the DSM-5 non-Criterion A category for PTSD.  It’s the non-Criterion A trauma that our research is particularly interested in because unfortunately, no matter how many of these traumas autistic people experience, they may not be able to receive a clinical diagnosis for PTSD as such events are perceived as ‘less intense’ or even ‘harmless’. So, when assessing potential trauma among autistic people, it’s important to understand that what may be perceived as mildly distressing for most of the population, might be extremely traumatic for autistic people.

We hope that our research, among other emerging studies in this field, could potentially offer a case to revise the current clinical tools used to diagnose PTSD in autistic adults. But, with such a broad spectrum of traumatic experiences, the challenge for clinicians will be deciding which ones warrant a PTSD diagnosis. If anything, we hope our research will help to validate the traumatic experiences of our participants and raise awareness of different situations that some autistic people might find traumatic.

If you would like to find out more about this study, email Sophie Longley s.longley@sussex.ac.uk or Dr. Sophie Anns s.anns@sussex.ac.uk. They will be looking to recruit participants in April, following ethical approval.

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Desserts of the World

By Saara Musadick, Graduate Associate

‘Desserts of the World’ returned to the Pevensey 1 building for One World Sussex Week!

Hosted in the Bridge Café, the event celebrated our diverse student and staff population. Desserts were used as a way to learn about different cultures, traditions, and countries in a language that everyone understands: good food!

Staff and students were encouraged to make or provide dishes from their home country, as well as provide information about what their dessert was and why they were making it. Countries represented included Brazil, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Romania, Italy, and England!

Due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, this event was also an opportunity to fundraise for the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

The event was a huge success, with both staff and students turning up to sample the amazing food. Not a single dish was left! We also raised an incredible £196 for Ukraine, which will make such a difference!

A prize was awarded for the Most Inspirational Dessert, with 3rd Year student Semini Karunasena winning by popular vote with her milkmaid caramel pudding from Sri Lanka. We asked Semini why she made this dessert, and this is what she had to say:

“I was really excited when I heard that the Psychology department was hosting ‘Desserts of the World’ for One World Week. I’ve never really made any Sri Lankan desserts (I’m more of an eater), so I decided to make something relatively easy and went for a Sri Lankan caramel pudding. This is a great dessert to eat, especially after having spicy food as a main meal.  I used my mum’s recipe which was passed down to her from her mother, so I knew it was going to taste great! My mum would always make this for me as a kid (and still does!) for special occasions and now she makes it for me when I leave home for uni after the holidays.

I want to say a huge thanks to my Mum and Dad who I face-timed at 10pm because I was struggling to steam the caramel, couldn’t have made this without your help!”

If you would like to try and recreate Semini’s winning dessert, follow her recipe:

Thank you to the Student Experience Team for organising this event, and to everyone who provided a dessert and donated!

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Make It Happen Events and Sussex Connect

By Louise Drake, Psychology Careers Connector

The Make it Happen events are an amazing new set of panel events targeting several different job sectors and career types, where you can hear how graduates from the University of Sussex got into their careers, their tips for job hunting, and their top tips for you after University. As a Psychology student, the ‘Careers in Life Sciences’ talk happening on the 16th of March, where a graduate from Sussex will be speaking about her career following her degree in Neuroscience in 2021 sounds interesting. However, your degree in Psychology can open you up to so many different industries and career paths that there’s valuable knowledge to be gained from all of these talks.

This is an exclusive opportunity to get some invaluable advice and have a chance to ask questions with a Q&A after each session.

The events are taking place throughout March 2022, with different events covering specific career areas. During the events you will also hear all about Sussex Connect, which is an online platform (a bit like LinkedIn, but just for Sussex grads) where you can connect with fellow graduates once you’ve graduated and get in touch with graduates in your chosen career path. This can be a great first step in starting to build your professional network, which can be invaluable in opening doors or making you aware of courses or job advertisements and so on which may not be advertised elsewhere.

Students who have attended the Make it Happen events in previous years have said things like:

“Not only did I learn about what Sussex connect was and how it could benefit me in my future career plans, it made me understand what career path I would like to go down plus how to get there! It’s left me positive about my future and the next steps I am going to take after uni.”

“The talk was very inspiring, and the face-to-face networking was very helpful and fun. I could ask as many questions as I wanted and all the alumni were very friendly and supportive.”   

So, what kind of events are happening?

Wednesday 16th March

Topic: Careers in life sciences

Speakers:

Layla Burn (BSc Neuroscience, 2021): Medical student at Queen Mary, University of London

Melina Matthiessen: Trainee Clinical Scientist (Audiology) at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Steve Acquah: Research Professor of Chemistry and Digital Media Lab Unit Coordinator at University of Massachusetts Amherst

Wednesday 23rd March

Topic: Careers in media, arts and communications

Speakers:

Amy Alipio: Associate Managing Editor at National Geographic Travel

Charlotte Newell: Senior Press & PR Officer at FareShare

Jordi M Carter: Taking Part & Directors Prog Associate at Young Vic Theatre

Jonathan Gaiger: Global Senior Digital Creative at LEGO

Wednesday 30th March

Topic: Careers in government and public services

Speakers:

Arran Pedder: Corporate Relations Manager at Imperial War Museum

Declan McClean: Policy Advisor at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Dr Neil Churchill: Director of Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England

Vincent Parisi: Preparedness Analyst at US Federal Emergency Management Agency

You can book your place on one of these fantastic events using CareerHub.

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Careers Advice – Where Do I Start?!

By Louise Drake, Psychology Careers Connector.

picture of feet with arrows in all directions

Thinking about your career, at any point during your degree, can feel like a daunting prospect. In first year, it feels much too early, in second year your schedule is chock-full, and in third year it all feels too late!

The Careers and Entrepreneurship team can help you at any point during your degree, and even afterwards, as the C&E team can offer you advice up to 3 years after you graduate. It’s never too late!

In terms of online presence, the C&E offer two websites:

CareerHub, and the main C&E site.

But where do you go first, and for what? In this blog post, myself and the C&E team have provided a breakdown of each site with advice on where to go for your specific set of career-related queries.

CareerHub

CareerHub is where you can book appointments with a Careers Consultant (more on that later!), see upcoming events, browse job and placement vacancies, and more. By clicking on the ‘Vacancies’ page, you can view all the job (part/full-time) vacancies, placement adverts, voluntary opportunities and more. It’s a great place to find and apply for jobs or just to get an idea of what’s out there to help your further research.

CareerHub is also where you can book appointments with a Careers Consultant. You can arrange a 20-minute appointment via telephone, Zoom, or in-person, either in advance or for the same day. You can book to see specific Consultants, who have different areas of speciality (Vicky Raynard is our Psychology Careers Consultant) or just check ‘Any’ if you don’t have a preference. You can then pick a specific topic to discuss, such as interview preparation, finding part-time work, postgraduate study, and many more – or you can just pick ‘Careers’ if you don’t know what you want to ask about. If you’d rather speak to someone over email, you can click ‘Ask a Question’ at the top of the CareerHub site to submit your questions via email.

These appointments can be great for making contact with someone in the working world who can help broaden your perspective, which is probably narrowed by being stuck in a University for so many years and with the stress that brings, especially working within a pandemic, which we have all had to do.

Careers & Entrepreneurship Website

Now, we’ll take a look at the Careers site embedded within the UoS website, which is a good catch-all to direct you to where you need to go: you can also find links to CareerHub and SkillsHub here.

When you go to this page, you’ll see a huge amount of options directing you to different sites, resources and more.

For career choices, and information related to your specific degree, take a look at ‘Making Career Choices’. Here, you can look at Job Sector Guides, Using Your Degree

 and see info about further study you might look into. If you’re not sure where to start, click Making Career Choices, and then ‘What stage are you at with your career planning?’. Here you can pick between choices such as ‘I’m not ready to start thinking about my career yet’, ‘I have a career in mind, but I’m not sure how to get there’ and more. The page will then take you to suggestions tailored to your specific situation. For example, if you click ‘I have a career in mind, but I’m not sure how to get there’, you will be directed to the Job Sector Guides, where you can find sector overviews and job profiles to help you find out more about what is involved, as well as training routes and ways to gain experience. There are also directive goals suggested, such as getting in touch with people in your desired career over Sussex Connect, or volunteering during your studies to gain relevant work experience.

This tool is really fantastic as you can get directed, tailored suggestions, instead of trawling through all the resources available to try and pick ones that will help you.

If you want to think about your career path starting from a more bottom-up approach (i.e. starting with you!), you can use the online questionnaires and personality tests linked on the C&E website (Making Career Choices; Your interests and motivations) to identify your strengths and skills and start thinking about your career that way. It’s often helpful to start this way and try to find a career that fits you, rather than trying to fit yourself into careers that might not be a great match.

SkillsHub

SkillsHub is somewhere you can go with pretty much any academic problem you’re struggling with. From digital skills, critical thinking, writing essays, referencing guides – it’s got it all! I personally used SkillsHub when I was struggling with the Statistics module in my Psychology degree – unless you’re part of a lucky (and, I think, mythical) few, you’re probably struggling with Stats too. No worries – there’s no need to do it in your third year! (Apart from your dissertation, but that’s a whole other blog post). There’s links to resources, videos from lecturers specialising in that topic, and student perspectives too. SkillsHub is great to use when you don’t feel the need to reach out to a staff member (or maybe feel too scared to), as it focuses on self-directed learning and gives you real-life tips on how to improve your grades and confidence in your skills.

Events

Lastly, you can find upcoming C&E events in lots of ways. You can see events on CareerHub, through the C&E’s Instagram page (@sussexunicareers), or through the C&E website (sussex.ac.uk/careers). The C&E team run a great timetable of events, most of which are open to all current students and recent graduates. Some examples of these events include ‘STEM Women’, ‘Time Management Webinar’, ‘Aspire: an event for students of Black heritage’, and so much more. I’d really recommend trying out one of these events, and many of them have online attendance options, which makes it all the easier to fit them into your schedule.

There is also a Canvas module specifically for Careers in Psychology, where you can access previous talks from professionals from different fields, current vacancies, career profiles and more. 

If you’ve made it this far, well done! As you can tell, there are so many resources offered by the Careers & Entrepreneurship Centre it can all feel a bit daunting and like you’re not sure where to start. Hopefully, this blog post has helped to break down the different offerings into a more manageable source of information, and if there’s anything we’ve missed off, or you have a question about Careers in Psychology, please feel free to contact me Louise Drake, as the Psychology Careers Connector, and most importantly: you’ve got this!

This is a time of life where these things are bound to be scary and feel overwhelming. It’s a really good idea to put the effort in to utilise some of these resources to help alleviate your fears and get your questions answered.

Louise Drake is a final year Psychology Student and Careers Connector at the University of Sussex.

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How Does Prior Knowledge Affect Learning of New Information?

By Petar Raykov, Psychology Research Fellow at Sussex.

I am not one to enjoy promoting myself, yet I have been in Sussex for a while now and I quite like the research I have been doing here, so here it goes. Back in the day I started my PhD with Prof. Chris Bird and Prof. Jane Oakhill. My research focused, and I guess still focuses, on how prior knowledge and experiences affect the learning and representations of new everyday information.

Ok, so let’s slightly unpack this. By new everyday information, I mean my research often uses naturalistic video stimuli that show narrative plots unfolding over time. There is a rather new trend in psychology to use such stimuli, since they may be more easily generalizable to everyday life, or indeed can be particularly useful to address psychological questions such as how do we comprehend events and discourse, and how do we integrate information over time. Notably, as most trends this one also has very much been inspired by work done previously – seminal psychological studies have investigated how we comprehend and remember text (Bartlett, 1932; Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Johnson-Laird, 1983)[https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(72)80006-9], and process events and actions from videos (Newtson et al., 1977)[https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.35.12.847].

To comprehend everyday situations, we often rely on our prior knowledge. For instance, when we go into a library, we expect to see a lot of books and people studying rather than dancing. My research focused on distinguishing the effects on different types of prior knowledge. For instance, we have more general knowledge about how a typical library might work – such general or schematic knowledge has been learned over multiple experiences with libraries. However, we might also have prior specific knowledge about one particular library (e.g., what happened yesterday at the library at University of Sussex).

In different studies I tested how specific and general prior knowledge might affect learning and what brain regions might support integrating prior knowledge with new incoming information.

For instance, in one study I showed that simply knowing the previous topic of conversation can lead to improved memory for a continuation video. This study also replicated previous fMRI (brain scanning technique) results from Chris Bird’s lab (Keidel et al., 2017)[ https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhx218] and further extended them by showing what brain regions are involved in integrating this specific prior knowledge with the newly incoming information. Furthermore, by using newly developed machine learning methods we were able to show that having specific prior knowledge changed the comprehension and memory for the continuation video among participants. Specifically, having prior knowledge increased the consistency of interpretation of the second half videos leading to more similar memories across participants that had the prior knowledge (Raykov et al., 2018)[ https://doi.org/10.1101/276683].

Here I will digress a bit but hopefully the reader would find the trivia about these new machine learning methods very cool (e.g. see this cool visualization https://projector.tensorflow.org/ ). There has been a recent explosion in the development of new natural language processing algorithms that allow engineers and researchers to quantify relationships between text automatically. Specifically, such analyses methods can detect topics of conversation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latent_Dirichlet_allocation (Heusser et al., 2021)[https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01051-6]), synonyms, quantify the similarity between sentences (https://tfhub.dev/google/universal-sentence-encoder/4), answer questions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BERT_(language_model)) and even generate and predict new text (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPT-2). These methods are particularly helpful since they could to some extend resemble the semantic memories (people’s encyclopaedic knowledge of knowing what objects and words mean) people have (see Fig. 1. and this amazing review – (Kumar, 2021)[https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-020-01792-x]). The methods also allow psychologists to quantify semantic coherence and similarity and fit new models to address how people comprehend language or predict upcoming words (Goldstein et al., 2021; Huth et al., 2016)[ https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.02.403477; https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17637](see this interactive walkthrough of Huth’s results https://gallantlab.org/huth2016/).

In parallel, researchers in cognitive neuroscience and psychology have also started to adopt new machine learning methods (various decoding and encoding models) to examine how different stimulus features may predict brain activity. Indeed, this has proven very fruitful approach. Combining brain imaging with such machine learning methods can be helpful to address longstanding questions in psychology. For instance, Ediz Sohoglu who works at University of Sussex recently used encoding models to show how prediction errors affect speech perception (Sohoglu & Davis, 2020)[https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.58077]. Warrick Roseboom and colleagues have used neural network models to build a computational model of how we might perceive time (Roseboom et al., 2019)[ https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-08194-7]. Interestingly, this model has been further updated and currently also has implications for episodic memory and event processing (how we distinguish one event from another) (Fountas et al., 2021)[ https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.17.953133]. These methods are not only useful for neuroimaging data. Nora Andermane, Jenny Bosten, Anil Seth and Jamie Ward applied a clustering algorithm to examine individual differences in a set of perceptual tasks that measured how prior expectations affect perception (Andermane et al., 2020)[ https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2020.102989]. Notably this is just a small sample of the incredible research done at Sussex University. But hopefully, it can highlight the usefulness of such methods, especially when combined with rigorous experimental design, and point out to students that sometimes coding pays off. Now to stop wasting your precious time I will stop with my digression. 

Figure 1. Highlighted words in yellow are words the algorithm identifies are related to the word ‘king’. These synonyms relationships are automatically learned by computational algorithm (word2vec), but may resemble the knowledge we represent about these objects in our brains.

In another study, we familiarised participants with one TV show and later asked them to watch and remember new video clips taken from the trained show and clips taken from a similar but untrained show. The training allowed participants to learn schematic information over multiple episodes about the main characters and their personalities. This design allowed us test how prior generic person knowledge affected the processing of new related information. I showed that person schematic knowledge helped participants remember more story specific information from the new clips taken from the trained show. We were able to identify brain patterns of activity that were specific for the person schematic knowledge. Interestingly, these patterns were present in medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region often associated with complex thought, reasoning and emotional processing. We observed that participants showing more robust evidence for these schematic patterns showed higher memory benefit for the trained videos (see Fig. 2). Furthermore, using videos and pattern recognition methods we were able to show that schema patterns were likely present throughout the whole duration of the video. These results start to elucidate how and when schema knowledge exerts its effects on new learning (Raykov et al., 2020, 2021)[https://doi.org/10.1080/02643294.2019.1685958; https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhab027].

Figure 2. More robust schema representation in the remedial prefrontal cortex (MPFC; the yellow blob in the brain) predicted better memory for the trained video clips when compared to the untrained video clips.

In more recent work I examined what information do we actually represent when we remember an event (Bromis et al., 2021)[https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01802]. In a collaborative project with Konstantinos Bromis we tested how repeated and unique elements are remembered. Specifically, most psychological work often examines memory for unique items or narratives, however, in our everyday lives a lot of information is actually repeated and shared among events. For instance, on Monday and Tuesday I might work in the office and see Sam on both days. So, when I am remembering an event from Tuesday, I have to differentiate it from my memories from Monday on which I also saw Sam. Apart from these repeated elements there also event unique elements, e.g. I might have had different conversations on Monday and Tuesday, furthermore I might have seen different combination of people (e.g. on Monday I saw Sam and Dominika, but on Tuesday I saw Sam and Flavia). Traditional views in memory research are that since each event is composed of unique combination of elements, we simply represent all elements equally. However, this has not been tested empirically. Furthermore, since our memories may be particularly important on how we make predictions and decisions for the future, it might be the case that we do not represent frequently and predictably occurring elements equally to event unique elements. Me and Kostas addressed exactly this question in a two-session fMRI study using conversations written by Leah Wickens (an ex-undergraduate student at University of Sussex). We asked participants to learn very well conversations that comprised of repeated and unique elements. Participants could remember the conversations and both types of elements very well. Indeed, behaviourally they rated the event unique elements as more important and remembered more from them. Yet when we examined how their brains represented these memories, we found that actually the repeated and predictable elements were more strongly represented during retrieval. This result argues against the standard view of holistic retrieval where we represent all elements equally, and start to elucidate that our memories may put more weight on repeated and predictable elements, since they may be more important in the future (Anderson & Milson, 1989; Gershman, 2017)[https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.96.4.703; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.05.025]. You can see more about the research in this presentation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_cVAIKPyFE&t=0s).

More recently, I have started to investigate how prior knowledge can lead to memory errors, and biases in interpretation. Indeed, although prior knowledge often benefits learning sometimes it makes learning more difficult and can lead to false memory errors – where people falsely remember things that never happened. Furthermore, I am interested in how we learn information that contradicts our prior expectations. This new line of research is done in collaboration with Dominika Varga (you can see an interview she did posted on the Sussex Neuroscience channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMhBRvfePUb1T_1XRn9hhcA ).

Apart from how prior knowledge affects processing of new information there are still multiple questions to be addressed. For instance, it is clear that prior knowledge effects are not necessarily linear and additive, so future research is needed to better understand the conditions that affect new learning. Furthermore, recently there has been large leaps in technology (e.g. development of various new brain imaging techniques and new computational and analysis methods) that allow us to empirically test new research questions and gain better understanding on how certain psychological processes are implemented in the brain. Yet there are still multiple questions to be addressed in future research. Indeed, it is still not clear how best to examine representations that are not currently active or in working memory, which may be necessary to best understand the effects of prior knowledge. One of the biggest remaining questions is also how newly learnt information becomes integrated with our previous memories and become part of our general knowledge about how the world works.

Hopefully, you enjoyed my blabbing and found the research interesting. And who knows, you might even consider participating in brain imaging research. One cool bit of it is that you can get a picture of your brain (the Van Gogh brain in Figure 2 is actually mine) and even get a 3D print of your brain (that can glow in the dark).

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