Ho, ho, ho… it’s beginning to look a lot like (a Green) Christmas

By Maruša Levstek

With Christmas songs on repeat, a tree in the corner waiting to be decorated and an apple pie in the oven, I still struggle to comprehend how the year has come around so quickly. Although this is supposed to be the time when people reconnect with their loved ones and for some, their religion, it feels more like the time of stressful last-minute shopping mall marathons accompanied with wild guessing people’s hobbies and hidden wishes, often resulting in…, useless presents, if I may.
Since this year’s Christmas is going to be substantially different for many, perhaps we can extend the learning and re-learning we have all been forced into throughout the year. I hope to encourage you to re-think not only how to gift to those we cannot physically see this year, but also what businesses and values our gifts support and represent.
With colleagues’ lovely contributions, I have compiled a list of sustainable and ethical gift ideas and more. I hope we can all continue to contribute to this wonderful collection of ideas via Padlet.
Plants are personally my favourite present for any occasion (and perhaps the most literally appropriate for the purposes of this blog). I have never met anyone who was not happy to receive a plant. After all, they make a great decoration, purify the air and watching them grow can be a source of personal satisfaction. I think you might have just enough time to propagate your own plants in order to reduce the production and import burdens, as well as financial for yourself.
Books are probably my second favourite choice, but perhaps a slightly more difficult present to choose for those you do not know so well. I sometimes try to guess what kind of genres people like, but I am guilty of gifting books I have personally enjoyed and felt like people could learn a lot from. I would be happy to share my suggestions via email, but I have also added a column to the suggestions Padlet, if you want to share yours.
If you already have an idea for your present, why not exploring sustainable and ethical alternative products you could purchase instead. As part of a Green Tip about fast fashion, Charlotte and I made a Padlet collection of great businesses with ethical and sustainable clothes, shoes and accessories. If you are specifically keen on converting your recipients to a more sustainable lifestyle, zero waste kits are also a great idea. These range from cosmetic to utensil items and there are some great suggestions on the Christmas gift Padlet.
If possible, I encourage you to support small local businesses and avoid purchasing your presents via Amazon, despite the incredible convenience it represents. Why I avoid purchasing from Amazon should be a whole new Green Tip by itself, but I found a useful short blog for the meantime.
However, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we need a present this year at all. There are plenty of wonderful initiatives facilitating donations to those in need and ethical investments instead (e.g. lendwithcarechooselove), which sounds like a much better idea than a present you do not need or enjoy.
As promised, I would also like to share some tips on how to deliver your presents in a sustainable and ethical manner. Mar and Charlotte have shared a great range of resources on the Padlet about alternative gift-wrapping materials (e.g. newspaper, fabric gift wraps, cardboard boxes and many more), as most wrapping paper and plastic sellotape cannot be recycled. I would also like to encourage you to purchase your presents either locally to you if you are planning on gifting the presents in person or getting in touch with shops local to your recipient and arranging a delivery through them. This way you reduce the delivery costs and its carbon footprint, as well as support small local businesses, which might be crucial for their survival considering circumstances. Lastly, Kristy shares some great ways of how to await and celebrate Christmas sustainably on the Padlet, such as charity shop filled advent calendars and handmade cloth crackers, such great ideas! 
I want to conclude with some food for thought. There are many communities who did not get to spend their religious holidays with their families this year, and we should keep this in mind with gratitude. Moreover, in all this bliss and Christmas songs on repeat, it is easy to forget there are many who will not be able to spend this Christmas with their loved ones or have no one to spend it with. And I worry this year might be an especially lonely one for many elderlies and those at risk. Perhaps the best and the most sustainable gift you can give to many is letting them know you’re thinking of them, that be a call, a letter, a card, an email or a message. After all, Christmas is supposed to be about much more than just presents.
Happy almost-Christmas,

Maruša Levstek is a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Robin Banerjee.

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Reducing patterns of brain hyperactivity in individuals at genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease: an important avenue for early-life risk reduction?

By Dr Claire Lancaster

Fifty million people live with dementia worldwide, the most common cause of which is Alzheimer’s – a progressive, neurodegenerative disease. Although the past 12-months have seen Aducanumab expediated for FDA approval – the first new drug with the potential to reduce cognitive symptoms in over 15 years, we’re still without a treatment capable of reversing or slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease. Consequently, early prevention is a top priority, with our research at Sussex exploring new avenues to mitigate risk in individuals with a genetic susceptibility for future Alzheimer’s Disease.

Specifically, we will be investigating brain hyperactivity as a marker of Alzheimer’s Disease risk, proxied using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which measures how much oxygen is delivered to specific brain regions in support of various cognitive processes. Individuals with emerging Alzheimer’s Disease show brain hyperactivity across the network of regions which support memory, including in a structure called the hippocampus. This is followed by a period of hypoactivity as the disease develops. Whilst increased activation was first thought to be a strategy the brain uses to help overcome Alzheimer’s related damage, growing evidence suggests hyperactivity drives disease progression, highlighting an exciting new target for preventative interventions.

Inverted U-shaped trajectory of brain activity as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) progresses from the asymptomatic, preclinical stage through Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and subsequent dementia diagnosis.

Like Alzheimer’s Disease, epilepsy is characterised by aberrant patterns of brain activity. Supporting the potential for treatment overlap, administering a very low-dose of a well-tolerated, anti-epileptic – Levetiracetam, is reported to decrease brain hyperactivity in adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment, a diagnosis which often precedes progression to Alzheimer’s Disease. This pharmacological manipulation was associated with improved memory performance, motivating a number of clinical trials to investigate the clinical benefit of Levetiracetam for reducing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. Repurposing existing drugs in this way offers a number of advantages; being much more cost-effective than the development of new compounds, with the potential for more rapid translation from the lab to current healthcare practice.

Our ongoing research, funded by Alzheimer’s Society, explores brain hyperactivity in carriers of an APOE e4 allele – the strongest genetic risk factor for sporadic Alzheimer’s Disease, found in ~ 20% of the population. This gene is an important target for early life intervention as e4 differences in brain function and cognition are reported from youth, with my doctoral research establishing the onset of subtle cognitive disadvantages by the end of the 5th decade. Critically, young and middle-aged APOE e4 carriers show increased activation across the same network of memory-associated brain regions as individuals in the very earliest stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, highlighting an exciting new avenue for lifespan risk reduction.

In a series of studies at the University of Sussex, we will be establishing how the cognitive consequences of brain hyperactivity changes across the lifespan in e4 carriers. In addition, we will test for the first time if a very low dose of Levetiracetam can reduce patterns of hyperactivity in mid-age e4 carriers, using this manipulation to more directly test how aberrant brain activation patterns contribute to the emergence of cognitive disadvantage in this ‘at-risk’ group. By focusing on risk reduction earlier in the lifespan, this research contributes to the discussion between scientists, clinicians and policy-makers around how we identify individuals at greater risk for Alzheimer’s Disease prior to symptom onset, and best utilise our advancing knowledge for individualised risk management. A recent Lancet commission reports 40% of dementia cases can be prevented or slowed through lifestyle management; a personalised approach to medicine which additionally considers an individual’s genetic make-up may further reduce the emergence of Alzheimer’s Disease dementia.

Dr Claire Lancaster is an Alzheimer’s Society Research Fellow working as part of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience group.

Find out more about our research on Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience.

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Alzheimer type dementia

by Prof Jennifer Rusted

Age is not synonymous with poor health, but Alzheimer type dementia (AD) is a disease of the brain for which age is the biggest risk factor – the older you are, the greater your risk of developing the disease.  But it certainly is not inevitable, and in the School of Psychology, we have been exploring some of the other risk factors that play a significant role in determining who ages well and who develops changes in the brain and cognition that indicate all is not progressing normally.

Alzheimer type dementia doesn’t happen overnight.  It involves a gradual process of change, transition states that progress idiosyncratically in each individual. And we know that they make be happening for several decades before the ‘classic’ symptoms of AD -memory problems and difficulties with independent living – begin to show.

In collaboration with colleagues in BSMS, we have been studying the changes from early adulthood onwards that occur in carriers of a variant of the Apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene.  APOE functions to regulate the movement of cholesterol around the body but like many genes, it comes in different ‘allelic’ variations. Everyone has two alleles, some combination of 2 of its 3 major alleles: e2, e3, e4.  Most of the population have two e3s; but around 20% of the population carry at least one e4 allele. The e3 and e4 alleles differ by one amino acid, but having an e4 rather than an e3 allele vastly changes your lifetime risk for Alzheimer type dementia – around 4-fold if you have a single e4 and around 12-fold you have a double e4.  Your individual APOE genotype therefore represents an important risk factor for late-onset AD.

Through funding from the BBSRC, the Alzheimer’s Society, and some additional funded PhD posts, we have been researching APOE associations with cognition and brain changes across adulthood. The research topics have included human brain imaging, human cognition, as well as brain imaging and behaviour in transgenic animals. We have identified subtle differences in brain and behaviour that help to build a detailed picture of the changes that mark accelerated ageing and potential for pathological trajectories, including brain energy differences, brain structural changes, and differences in performance on certain cognitive tasks. Our work has highlighted that even from early adulthood, carrying an e4 allele means that your brain is behaving differently.  The image below is a composite image showing brain regions where our studies have indicated that the e4 brain is working harder than a typical e3 brain. 

Our work has shown that as we get older, the brain regions identified in this image gradually activate less well – they seem to age prematurely. Our ongoing animal studies include work translating human tests of cognition into mouse behavioural paradigms, so that we can explore this effect more clearly across the age span, and in highly specific brain regions.  Our ongoing human studies are exploring early blood-brain barrier changes, and computational measures of brain region inter-connectivity between APOEe3 and APOEe4 individuals, with a focus on specific key regions of the brain. We are excited also to welcome back Dr Claire Lancaster, who completed her PhD with us in 2018, and who has been awarded an Alzheimer’s Society Research Fellowship to explore the detailed consequences of, and the potential ways to counter, the early brain changes observed in APOEe4 carriers.

This exciting work is complemented by additional studies being completed in the School of Life Sciences that focus down on the cellular mechanisms that drive these changes.

Our work is contributing to developing a detailed picture of one of the key risk factors for late onset AD.  We take this opportunity to thank all of those individuals who have given their time by volunteering to participate in our research studies.  We couldn’t have done it without you.  

Jenny Rusted is a Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Group. She specialises in dementia and cognitive ageing and is co-director of the Alzheimer’s Society Doctoral Training Centre.

Find out more about our research on Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience.

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Enhancing Essay Feedback

By Dr Dave Smalley

The topic of student perceptions of written feedback is an under-researched area which is surprising given that universities typically struggle disproportionately with the Assessment and Feedback questions in the National Student Survey (NSS). We know that feedback is very much valued by students but we also know, both from peer-reviewed research and from simply asking students, that they often find it hard to actually use their feedback and that they get very frustrated by what they perceive to be inconsistencies in the quality and quantity of feedback they receive across markers. With that in mind, I set about exploring the student perception of feedback further with the hope of developing our systems and improving our students’ experience of receiving feedback on their work.

Focus groups conducted in 2020 revealed that students wanted more guidance to help them understand the essay marking criteria. It is quite common for students to think that they understand what they are supposed to be doing with regard to a particular element of essay writing (e.g. structuring an essay), only to be marked down for it in the next submission. Part of the issue, it seems, is that the marking criteria can be vague when it comes to describing specific elements of essay writing. This leads to an incomplete understanding of what the marker is looking for and subsequently confusion when interpreting feedback. So how can we remedy this? I propose a more specific and structured framework of marking criteria that identifies individual elements of essay writing that are important (e.g. how to signpost the reader effectively by means of paragraph structure). For this to be effective, it is crucial that students have sufficient guidance to help them understand what the individual elements mean and – and this is key – are able to identify what it looks like in an essay when this is done well or inadequately.

The same focus groups unanimously agreed that students wanted consistency in their feedback, particularly with regard to how useful it is. Students want practical suggestions as to how they could go about improving an area of their essay writing, and this, they said, was in short supply. I argue that giving meaningful practical tips to help students improve their essay writing is actually really hard to do. In my experience, even excellent essay writers struggle to explain exactly what they do that makes them excellent essay writers. They just, kind of, learn how to do it. What we need therefore are experienced educators who have acquired a toolbox of tips and tricks to help students improve their essay writing. The problem is that there are not enough of these to cover the sheer volume of scripts that need to be marked. A solution – we complement our structured and detailed framework of the marking criteria with a set of specific and practical suggestions compiled by experienced educators, each linked to specific elements of essay writing.

So this is what I did. I started by creating a 15-item rubric that breaks down and details the key elements of essay writing identified in the existing marking criteria. When essays are marked the marker links each comment made to one of the elements so the student has a specific idea about what exactly they did that was ‘good’ or ‘needs attention’. Each item in the rubric is explained in detail in a series of marking criteria videos in which I use previously marked essays to demonstrate what effective and not-so-effective practice looks like. Next, I created a supporting feedback guidance document in which I exhaustively list all the issues that markers observe in student essays, organised by the 15 criteria of the rubric. Issues are colour coded into a traffic light system so that students can see how severe an impact the issue has on their grade. Next to each issue are practical suggestions about how to avoid the issue reoccurring in the next essay submission. The magic of the approach is that markers can simply link an in-essay comment to the issue in the guidance document. That means that there is less room for inconsistencies across markers, and markers have more time available to focus on being extra clear when making more individualised feedback comments in the essay.

Evaluation of this new approach is in its infancy but early indications are that it is very well received by both students and markers alike. We know that feedback is an essential component in the learning cycle so fingers crossed we’ve just succeeded in oiling the wheels a little!

Dr Dave Smalley is an Education-Focused Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology.

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Do Changes in Emotion Regulation Affect Decision-Making in People with Alzheimer’s Disease?

by Dr Rotem Perach, Prof Jennifer Rusted, Prof Pete Harris, Dr Eleanor Miles

Ever felt so excited that you found yourself telling your life story to a stranger? Or so anxious about something that you could think about little else? We know that our emotions often affect our decisions, for example, by shaping the kind of information we attend to and the goals we hold. People with Alzheimer’s type Dementia (AD) often experience changes in both their emotions and judgements. So, for people with AD, does this change the way their emotions influence their decision-making?

‘Emotion regulation’ is the term used to describe the processes by which people exert influence on their emotional experiences and their subsequent responses. Persons with AD can experience difficulties in some aspects of emotion regulation. For example, as the disease progresses, the ability to recognize emotion in people’s faces decreases. However, it seems that other emotion regulation capacities that are less cognitively demanding, such as automatic control over emotion, are unchanged. Given that people with AD continue to make many decisions in different areas of their everyday lives, including decisions involving leisure and social activities, care arrangements, and financial issues, we completed a literature review to investigate the state of knowledge on the relationship between decision-making in everyday life and emotion regulation in persons with AD and other types of dementia.

To our surprise, we found only two studies on this association in people with AD. In one study, people with AD showed higher levels of apathy (often a symptom of AD), in comparison to cognitively healthy people. However, differences in apathy were not associated with decision-making performance. In the second study, people with AD and cognitively healthy people showed no differences in physiological (autonomic) arousal (used to measure emotional processing) relating to making a moral decision in a fictitious scenario. In neither study of people with AD, therefore, was there evidence of an association between the measures of emotion regulation and the decision being made. However, in studies of people with other types of dementia, we found evidence in support of the association between emotion regulation and decision-making, depending on the measures used.

Overall, our review found mixed evidence concerning the associations between emotion regulation and decision-making in (AD and other types of) dementia in seven studies and identified important gaps in the dementia literature. For example, dementia studies so far have focused on emotional experience, but not investigated the use of emotion regulation strategies in association with decision-making. This gap raises important questions. For example, does a person’s tendency to suppress their emotional expressions or to positively frame everyday experiences affect their decision-making in everyday life and consequent wellbeing?

At the University of Sussex we are examining such questions as part of a large long-term study called DETERMIND (DETERMinants of quality of life, care and costs, and consequences of INequalities in people with Dementia and their carers).

Free access to our scoping review on decision-making and emotion regulation in persons with dementia will be made available here when the article is published.

The authors of the article are part of the DETERMIND team at the University of Sussex:

  • Rotem Perach is social and health psychology research fellow. His areas of expertise include older persons, health behaviours, sleep, and wellbeing. 
  • Jenny Rusted is a Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Group. She specialises in dementia and cognitive ageing and is co-director of the Alzheimer’s Society Doctoral Training Centre.
  • Pete Harris is an Emeritus Professor. Until his retirement in September 2020, he was the lead of the Social and Applied Psychology Group. For the last 15 years, he has been studying the effects of self-affirmation, largely on health and more recently on educational attainment and on pro-environmental behaviour.
  • Eleanor Miles is a Senior Lecturer and part of the Social and Applied Psychology Group. Her research focuses on self-regulation, and how it interacts with emotional, physical and social functioning

Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology and on our research on Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience.

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Do bad blood vessels trigger dementia?

By Dr Catherine Hall

Dementia affects increasing numbers of people as they age (one in 14 people over the age of 65 suffer from dementia). It changes how the brain functions, gradually stopping brain cells and brain connections from working so that people progressively struggle with remembering things, thinking and speaking. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is characterised by the build-up in the brain of two proteins, beta-amyloid and tau, which are thought to damage cells and cause them to die. Up to now, most drugs have targeted these proteins, but have not been successful and there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

However, changes happen in the brain years before people start reporting problems with memory and thinking. It is therefore likely that the most effective treatments will act early in the disease process to interfere with its progression before brain cells become damaged making it important to understand what happens to cause the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Increasing evidence suggests that damage to blood vessels feeding the brain might first trigger the disease. Firstly, risk factors for dementia are the same as risk factors for cardiovascular disease (e.g. obesity, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, and the main genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, APOE4), suggesting that unhealthy blood vessels could cause both diseases. Secondly, brain blood vessels show the first signs of dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease, as brain blood flow is disrupted before the build-up of beta-amyloid and tau, and before neurons are damaged and memory is impaired. 

Pericytes and smooth muscle cells (red) regulate blood vessel diameter (in green). This process may go wrong early in Alzheimer’s disease

In a project funded by the Medical Research Council, my lab is trying to understand how changes in blood vessels in the brain are linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Brain cells need a constant supply of energy in the form of oxygen and glucose provided in the blood, and previous research has shown that if they have only low levels of oxygen, brain cells accumulate more beta-amyloid. We are creating new genetically modified mice that allow us to investigate whether the critical trigger for Alzheimer’s disease is if blood vessels in the brain stop working properly, producing a decrease in brain oxygen levels which causes the build-up of beta-amyloid.

Our previous work, funded by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust, shows that the main genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease (APOE4) causes some blood vessels to become dysfunctional even in young mice. However normal mice cannot make beta-amyloid, so we have not yet been able to study how this damage to blood vessels affects beta-amyloid production. Our new genetically modified mice can produce beta-amyloid but in a controllable way (by changing the amount of a drug we feed the mice), and also carry the APOE4 gene. This allows us to first identify which blood vessels are not working correctly, and then turn on beta-amyloid production. We can then study whether beta-amyloid accumulates near the dysfunctional vessels and in areas with low oxygen levels. Because beta-amyloid itself can stop blood vessels from working well, we expect that affected vessels will gradually become even more dysfunctional, accelerating beta-amyloid accumulation until nearby brain cells are damaged.

These experiments will reveal how changes in blood flow lead to the build-up of beta-amyloid and damage to brain cells. The new mice will allow us to test the effect of drugs and lifestyle interventions such as exercise on this process, identifying new approaches for treatments targeting the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.   

Dr Catherine Hall is a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology and the director of the Brain Energy Lab.

Find out more about our research on Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience.

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“They don’t know we’ve got legs”: meeting online and in-person

By Prof Nicola Yuill

Covid-19 restrictions haven’t just stopped us meeting in person – instead, they have nudged us into new ways of connecting. Humans are the ultimate social species: evolutionary biologists regard the human tendency towards cooperation as having created the complex coordination we manage in politics, the arts, economy and belief systems. At the micro-level, we know that people in conversation talk and move in fine synchrony together: the more synchronised the interactive dance, the better people get on and the happier they are to help each other. A conversation is as much the work of the body as the mind.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

So what happens when our interactions suddenly shift online? For many, work in a Covid-19 world now consists of sitting in front of a screen interacting with a succession of talking heads. Parents and toddlers join their playgroups with online singing and dancing from home. Schoolchildren spend some time in small social bubbles with the same peers, and some time at school online, maybe joining in a virtual class assembly or talking individually to a teacher via Skype. Health appointments such as diagnostic assessments may be held via Zoom, with the practitioner having a glimpse into our personal space at home, a window into our world, raising some new possibilities for social faux pas. Will anyone notice my polka dot pyjama trousers on a Zoom call? What happens if my online delivery driver rings the doorbell? Who might appear in the room, and will they be properly dressed?

These experiences are starkly different from their previous incarnations. For example, a medical appointment would involve preparing for a trip to the local hospital, sitting with strangers in the waiting room and taking part in a conversation – and the necessary interactional dance – with a nurse in the pared-down public space of a clinical setting.

What difference does moving online make to the attunement that skilled therapists and practitioners can build into their conversations with clients? On the Zoom or Room project, funded by the National Institute of Health Research through the Applied Research Collaboration Kent Surrey Sussex, we are looking at exactly this question. The aim is to provide guidelines and good practice to support practitioners in this situation. We are analysing videos of therapeutic conversations taken from in-person and online settings for the same kind of intervention, Video Interaction Guidance. VIG is the perfect setting for this project because trainee practitioners routinely record their meetings and have moved from in-person to online, so there is a ready source of data. What’s more, VIG itself is based on the principle that practitioners and clients will learn and change through observing and reflecting on videos of their own interactions. Much of our work in the ChatLab involves coding video interactions in very fine detail. The quality of interaction often rests on small but significant moments of attunement or disruption. By seeing how these patterns might be different in online meetings, we can understand what factors contribute to people feeling connected when they need to meet online.  As well as analysing the videos, we are conducting interviews and surveys with practitioners and their clients.

It’s too early to give definitive results yet but some things are already clear. First, there are the technical barriers to moving online. Some clients simply don’t have the equipment, internet service or suitable private space to join a meeting online, and there are important data protection and privacy issues, with different agencies making different judgements about what is possible. Second, having to move online has been very disruptive, but has also led to creative solutions being adopted, such as using phone or text-based media for clients who find it uncomfortable to talk via video and having greater flexibility, such as a health visitor ‘popping in’ later in the day if the baby is asleep on the first visit. Then there are those matters of etiquette already mentioned: they might seem trivial but they make a difference to how comfortable people feel.

Our survey is live now for practitioners and educators who meet clients or students online in a supportive capacity. For those who meet students online, we ask that supportive interactions are considered, such as mentoring or supervision meetings, rather than online education.

Take the survey here: http://bit.ly/ZoomRoomExperiences

or sign up for an interview here: http://bit.ly/VIGresearch

Nicola Yuill is a professor of Developmental Psychology and director of the Chat Lab. In addition to Prof Yuill, the Zoom-Room project includes Research Fellow Dr Devyn Glass (Chat Lab) and Education Psychologists Zubeida Dasgupta.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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Do you know what I’m thinking? – a Journey from Mozambique to Sussex

Paloma Manguele is a PhD student in the Attention Lab. She studies mind wandering, a concept she is cautious to translate into her first language, Portuguese. “I guess the word could be ‘divagaçao’ – digression – but not exactly,” she explains. There are not many studies about mind wandering in Portuguese. In fact, there are only a few people researching mind wandering around the world. One of them is her supervisor, Dr Sophie Forster, here at Sussex. Paloma’s research involves cutting edge neuroscience techniques such as functional neuroimaging and electrophysiology to understand the brain underpinnings of spontaneous thoughts.

Paloma’s interest in Neuroscience started in Mozambique when she had just come back from completing a year of postgraduate studies in Norway, and she had secured a teaching position at the Eduardo Mondlane University, a very esteem institution in her country. She thought she would be teaching Clinical Psychology, her undergrad specialisation, but instead, they asked her to teach Neuropsychology and, now from a teacher’s perspective, she fell in love with the subject. “I was teaching about the brain, this amazing device that exists in the Universe, which is so beautiful and fits in our hands. I just wanted to know it more and more.” At the same time, she was also working at the University’s Centre for Studies and Psychological Support providing counselling to students: “I noticed that many of the students’ psychological problems came from the way they perceived the world and how they thought. A bit in line with cognitive theories of mental health. I was very interested in this aspect, why do we think the way we do and how the contents of our thoughts can affect our mental health.” Cognitive Neuroscience was calling her.

“Do you know what I’m thinking,” Paloma would be continuously asked in Mozambique. Obviously not, but what if we could somehow predict or infer what people are thinking? What tools would we need? “I was thinking a lot about spontaneous thoughts and how intrusive they are. How they just pop in our minds when you least expect them and sometimes distract us from whatever we’re doing. So, I was leaning towards mind wandering, although at the time I didn’t even know there was a term for it.” And this is how the idea for her PhD started.

Paloma arrived at Sussex in May 2017, on Neuroscience Day, and she went straight to attend the annual conference organised by Sussex Neuroscience. When Paloma got into the lecture theatre, she realised she was the only Black person in the large room and started doubting whether she belonged there. But the next day her lab mates took her out for a coffee and a hot chocolate at the Bridge Café, and despite the usual awkwardness of meeting people for the first time, they made her feel welcome and part of the community. It’s with a smile that she tells me: “We’re lab sisters now, we support each other”. And she continues: “Even during the lockdown, apart from lab meetings, we kept having our ‘sister’s meetings’ over Zoom, sometimes just to know how each other was doing and to offer help.”

However, three years in she’s still the only Black PhD student at the School of Psychology. “I wonder about that. A percentage of the British population is Black. I’ve taught Black students in the undergraduate and masters courses here. How come I’m still the only Black PhD student? Where do those UG and MSc students go? Where are the British and the international Black students? Wouldn’t they want to continue to a PhD in Psychology and Neuroscience?”

Paloma adjusting the electrodes of a participants

The lack of diversity in academia goes beyond a simple problem of representation. It has a real impact on research. On the first year of PhD, Paloma volunteered in an EEG experiment ran by one of her lab mates. EEG stands for electroencephalography, and it uses electrodes placed on the scalp of the participant to record electrical activity in the brain. Even though at the time Paloma had short hair, the electrodes could not reach her scalp well enough to create good impedance, which is the measure of how good the electrical signal is, so her data had to be discarded. At first, Paloma thought that she was the problem, but when she started running her experiments, she discovered the same pattern with other Black participants. She realised that EEG electrodes were designed with White people’s hair in mind, and they didn’t work as well with her coarse hair. This means that even if researchers are not being purposefully racist, the results will be biased because the data from Black participants will have to be discarded.

“I want to take Neuroscience to Mozambique because it’s not a field there yet and EEG is a very affordable way of conducting neuroscience experiments to answer the questions I’m interested in,” Paloma explains. “It’s more affordable than fMRI and other techniques, but the way it’s currently designed I cannot use it with Black people, who are the majority in Mozambique. The same way science developed EEG with White people’s hair in mind, we can design a similar instrument that can be adapted to other types of hair. This goes back to taking it seriously and doing actual research to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be fixed.”

I wanted to know Paloma’s opinion about being the only Black PhD student in the School of Psychology and what we could do to encourage other Black students to continue to postgraduate studies. This is what she told me:

Why do you think Black students don’t continue their studies into a PhD? 

I’ve never looked at myself as a minority. I come from a country where I am the majority, therefore I do not have racism always on my mind. When I came here and realised that I was the only Black PhD student, it was quite a shock. I knew I was coming to the UK and I didn’t expect there would be many of us, but I was not expecting the underrepresentation to be so shocking. Of course, I should not be expecting for all my mentors to be Black or female, but it would be good if I could have the opportunity to see another Black person in Neuroscience, Cognitive Science or Psychology just to be able to look and think ‘yes, what I’m doing is possible for people who look like me’. It would have been important. I think not having Black people as academic staff could make the students a bit shy to apply.

I started teaching as a doctoral tutor, and I feel that I kind of have this role of being ‘the Black teacher’ and I hope it does make a little difference for some of the BAME students. For most of my PhD, I’ve also taught Clinical Psychology at the International Summer School and the American students are the most vocal ones. They would tell me directly how important it had been for them to find a person from Africa teaching in England. So even if I didn’t have that referent, I can be that person for other minority students. I really hope it helps inspire them to apply.

What can we do to encourage and support more Black students into academia?

We need to do what we do best: research, rigorous research. Because, unfortunately, one Black person can only speak about their own experience and it’s very personal. To understand what the shared experience is, we need to do some research and learn how to categorise things. Conversations like this are a small step, but we need to think on a bigger scale. There are a lot of assumptions on what it means to be a Black student. Those assumptions must be rigorously tested for meaningful changes to occur. They can be tested the same way we test our other research questions, with funding, with research teams, and with collaborations. It should not be the sole role of people within the group to test these assumptions. Racism exists, we live with it, but it impacts society.

We also need to address our personal biases more assertively, in our modules, and maybe even in our lab meetings. My lab does that. We must talk about it. For example, in a school seminar (where I was again the only Black person in the room), someone showed faces of people and categorised them in groups according to their power and, unintendingly (I hope) pointed out that probably some faces would be considered as having less authority in a context of teaching, and those happened to be Black and female ones. Well, I am a Black female teacher in the UK, and I’ve never imagined myself as having less authority than my White counterparts, or when I was teaching in Mozambique. Anyways, I would be delighted to see more research on this before a person makes assumptions and carries them to a seminar.

Do you have any advice for Black students who are thinking of doing a PhD?

I would like to tell BAME students not to be scared, that this path is open to them too. That it might not be the easiest thing, but it is okay, we can do it anyway. Black people have come a long way in history, despite insurmountable circumstances.

Paloma is currently focusing on writing up her thesis, to submit in a few months. But she already has some plans for the future: last academic year she received a grant from the British Experimental Psychology Society to carry out cross-cultural research on mind wandering in Queen’s University Belfast and in Mozambique. They had to postpone it due to Covid-19, but Paloma hopes to resume it once the pandemic is over and extend it to include children. She’s also applying for post-doctoral funding with her supervisor.

Paloma Manguele is a PhD student under the supervision of Dr Sophie Forster. She is also a member of the Sussex Attention Lab.

Find out more about our research on Cognitive Neuroscience.

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Celebrating the 25 Black women making history in UK’s Professoriate

By Dr Varuni Wimalasiri

Overall there were 85 Black Professors in the UK’s Professoriate of 21,000 in 2019 (Rollock, 2019). Whilst 11.2% of White faculty occupy the senior role of Professor, at 4.6%, Black faculty are two and a half times less likely to make to this position (Advance HE, 2018).  There are just 25 Black (African Caribbean) female professors in the UK today, making them the most under-represented group in academic faculty (Rollock, 2019). Research has shown that there are significant barriers to progression including injustices and systemic racism to prevent progress (Arday, 2020). In these circumstances, a celebration of the 25 Black female Professors in our UK Professoriate is significant and important. Especially when we consider the arduous journey’s they have seemingly overcome to arrive at these positions. Earlier this year, photographer Andrew Knight hosted an Exhibition in London called ‘Phenomenal Women’ showcasing portraits of some of these Professors.

Nicola Rollock (2019) of Goldsmiths College led a study to understand reasons for lack of progress in Black female faculty by interviewing 20 out of UK’s 25 Professors, which then led to the release of the ‘Rollock report’.   There are repeated accounts in this report by this group of being undermined regularly in meetings, ignored during daily interactions by colleagues and repeatedly being passed over for progression in favour for lesser skilled faculty. Passive bullying and racial micro-aggressions are reported as being normal place for most of these academics throughout their career. A staggering 72% of Black and Minority ethnic (BAME) members, working in higher education, have been subject to bullying and harassment from managers. Unsurprisingly, quite a few of this group have considered leaving HE institutions altogether at some part of their career (Rollock, 2019). It is likely that most do, as at entry-level the representation of BAME staff is comparable to percentages in the general population in the UK (Advance HE, 2019).

Recent discourses and academic debates have started to unearth deeper levels of institutionalised racism that systemically disadvantage BAME groups (Arday & Mirza, 2018; Rollock, 2016). One such problem arises out of the label ‘BAME’ itself. This category holds all non-White people including- Asian – Asian or Asian British; Bangladeshi, Asian or Asian British; Indian, Asian or Asian British; Pakistani, and other Asian backgrounds, Black – Black or Black British: African, Black or Black British; Caribbean, and other Black backgrounds, Chinese, mixed, other ethnic backgrounds, including Arab. Even the word ‘Black’ is often used interchangeably to refer to people of other BAME backgrounds (i.e. Chinese and Indian ethnic groups) and is reflected in the varying statistics for this group. This blind acceptance of thinking that such a diverse range of ethnic groups can fall into just one category is problematic. Advance HE, the body that reports on statistics in HE has recognised this limitation and started reporting data disaggregated by more detailed ethnicity categories (Advance HE, 2019). Universities UK and National Union of Students in a combined report, have also recognised the barriers to creating realistic equitable outcomes for students due to limitations that arise out of the current system of categorisation (UUK-NUS, 2019).

Moreover, Eurocentric Epistemological perspectives dominate HE curriculum in most disciplines in what Delaguo et al (2002) call an ‘Apartheid of Knowledge’. More Universities are talking about decolonising the curriculum to address this, in a call to challenge long-standing biases and omissions that limit how we understand knowledge and society (Muldoon, 2019). In addition, research methods are also largely dominated by Epistemologies from the Global North where they were initially developed. Research with marginalised communities in the UK and elsewhere are helping us to understand threats to validity that arise out of these limitations. We are starting now to use methods guided by decolonised approaches to understand the lived experiences of ethnic minorities in a way that is true to their authentic lived experience, instead of trying to interpret them through a predetermined lens (Wimalasiri, 2020). Widening participation by deliberately finding ways to engage and include more individuals from BAME communities is also seen as a key to improving inclusion in HE (UUK- NUS, 2019) and is likely to have an impact on retention and progression of BAME communities in HE in the future. Race Charters and Diversity programmes are some of the effective instruments at our disposal to allow us to make effective and lasting changes to redress balances and provide equitable solutions. Seemingly, we are at a pivotal moment in HE history where we are openly starting to acknowledge limitations and shortfalls and actively looking to change these. Changes are afoot, yet there is a long way still to go.  

In reaching academic excellence despite of the significant barriers they have faced these 25 women are making history in UK’s professoriate today!  Their stories help our awareness and understanding of not just Black Faculty but of the strength of the human spirit told in a way to empower us to consider how we might all be part of this change. They are an inspiration to us all and the true embodiment of the acclaimed poem by Maya Angelou, ‘And Still We Rise’!


Delgado Bernal, D. & Villalpando, O. (2002) An apartheid of knowledge in academia: the struggle over “legitimate” knowledge of faculty of colour, Equity & Excellence in Education, 35 (2): 169-180.

Rollock, N. (2019), ‘Staying Power’: Career experiences and strategies of UK Black female Professors. UCU report.

Arday, J. (2020) Fighting the tide: Understanding the difficulties facing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Doctoral Students’ pursuing a career in Academia. Educational Philosophy and Theory: 1-8.

Arday, J. & Mirza,  H.S. (2016) Dismantling Race in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.

Wimalasiri, V. (2020) Ethical and Methodological dilemmas in research with Refugee populations: At the intersection of Gender, Displacement and Work. British Academy of Management, Conference on the Cloud,2020.

Dr Varuni Wimalasiri is a lecturer in Organisational Psychology and part of the Social and Applied Psychology Group at the School of Psychology.

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The psychology of youth empowerment through music

by Maruša Levstek

For the past two years, I have been researching young people’s experiences of inclusive music-making and the psychology behind it. I have worked closely with a variety of inclusive music projects also known as the Our Future Music programme, funded by Youth Music and run as a collaboration of five music education hubs across the south of the UK. This has been the biggest focus of my PhD so far, the results of which are currently being reviewed for publication by an academic journal and summarised in this blog.

You can follow Maruša on Twitter @LevstekMarusa

The main aim of this research was to better understand not only the effects music-making has on the young people and their wellbeing, but also how these changes take place and what particular aspects of such environments drive them. I have worked with young people, parents, and creative practitioners involved with inclusive music projects targeting young people recognised as marginalised, at risk, or otherwise in need of support. We used music tutors’ session notes and surveys about young people’s personal and social progress. I have conducted several focus groups and interviews with the staff members, parents, and young people themselves, which discussed how making music affects young people and why. The results enabled us to model the route of youth empowerment through music, which consists of identified developments, psychological mechanisms driving these changes as well as the environmental factors that appeared to be crucial in supporting these processes.

In particular, over the time of their engagement with the sessions, young people appeared to improve musically and socially, especially in their communication skills and ability to work in a team. Growth in confidence was mentioned in every single discussion, visible in young people gradually becoming more comfortable around others and increasingly more active in their engagement with the sessions. Music-making also appeared to have a huge positive impact on its participants’ wellbeing. Many described how young people became calmer and better at managing their moods and emotions while making music. Interestingly, such benefits were visible the most in those young people who seemed to particularly struggle at first. I have encountered incredible stories of socially anxious young people making new friends, non-verbal young people singing out loud and individuals with symptoms of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) sitting still and just listening to music.

When exploring the underlying processes of such developments, there appear to be two main routes, one happening internally and the other in the context of the community formed around music. Making music, writing lyrics and developing personal music taste allows young people to explore and express their emotions and who they are. For this process to take place, I have learnt that it is crucial for tutors to allow the young people freedom of dictating their own musical learning within a structured framework (e.g. session regularity). This remarks the route of self-development, visible in increased wellbeing and calmness described above. The second route of development emphasises the significance of the community formed around the young people, practitioners and in some cases parents and youth workers. Although these young people come from different schools, friendship groups or neighbourhoods, there was always an incredible sense of connectedness, where everyone feels accepted and enough. Many reflected on the power of music in bringing people together, which was further nurtured by the incredible support participants offered each other, especially by those older or more able ones. Additionally, support, acceptance and validation offered by the staff members can be an unusual and unique experience for participants stigmatised by various sources of their marginalisation, for example disability, who might experience new versions of able and competent selves for the first time.

Working with such incredible music projects and being able to combine my love for music and psychology degree has made the best part of my PhD extremely enjoyable and unique. I was astonished by how welcoming and keen to share their experiences everyone has been, which has enabled me to not only survey but observe and experience the transformative power of music on everybody around it. Through this research, I realised how inclusive music projects provide marginalised young people with the tools for becoming active agents in dictating their own development and supporting others around them. Such opportunities can change the ways young people view themselves and even challenge the views of a wider audience through performance. This is why projects like Our Future Music can not only empower individuals, but also communities as a whole.

Please feel free to email me if you would like to reference the results of this project, read the academic paper, or just chat about my research. I truly hope these results will enable the continuation of such amazing projects and motivate for more in the future.

Maruša Levstek is a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Robin Banerjee. Her research project was enabled by Future Creators and the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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