The evolution and development of the upright walking, talking, tool-using great ape

By Professor Gillian Forrester

photo of Gillian communication trough hand gesture with an ape
image credit: David Stock (New Scientist)

My research strives to understand how we became the upright walking, talking, tool-using great apes that we are today – both through the evolution of our species and through the development of infants. I study the behaviours and brains of both neuro-typically and non-neuro-typically developing children and our great ape relatives (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) and aim to develop comparative research approaches that place human cognitive development within an evolutionary framework.

My most recent project has both a developmental and evolutionary component. It seeks to reveal potential precursor/catalyst behaviours to modern human language. One prevailing theory is that motor action sequences that must be carried out in a hierarchical fashion to solve a problem may have prepared the brain for language syntax. For example, using our hands and tools to solve complex problems that require the solving of sub-goals in order to achieve the over-arching goal can be viewed as a physical syntax – not that different from the syntax found in language. Exaptation, the repurposing of neural regions for new or extended purpose via selection over evolutionary time, means that behaviours that may look different on the surface can still be powered by the shared underlying neural processors.

My research “Hand to Mouth” funded by the Leverhulme Trust is testing this theory using specially developed puzzle boxes that represent a physical syntax, complete with simple solutions for single word use, more complicated puzzles for phrases and the most complex boxes to represent full sentences. These puzzles were then used by gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and children (ages 2-5 years).

To validate our puzzles, we predicted that there would be positive relationship between children’s language level and puzzle solving ability. We also predicted that if non-human great apes can solve the sentence level puzzles then we should presume that humans inherited syntactic capabilities from at least a last common ancestor of extant apes and humans. Stay tuned for our results which will be published in the not-too-distant future!

One of the interesting by-products revealed through the Hand to Mouth project was that providing the puzzles on a voluntary participation basis to captive apes and nursery children afforded a focal point to collect information about enrichment activities, social dynamics, social transmission of information, cognitive ability and even psychological wellbeing. In a recent trip to Liberia, we were able to pilot the use of puzzle boxes with chimpanzees orphaned by the bushmeat trade for these new types of data collection, with a specific focus on behavioural and biological markers of wellbeing. This pilot work will continue in collaboration with sanctuaries, zoos and wild animal parks over the coming months to develop a scale of wellbeing for apes across a range of settings and social groupings in order to facilitate conservation, release and reintroduction programmes.

At New Scientist Live London 2022. Image credit left (G Forrester) and Image credit right (Tim Boddy, New Scientist)

In addition to my research, I strongly believe public engagement, widening participation and citizen science collaboration activities are integral to 21st century research. I treat outreach activities as an equal partner to my core responsibilities as a scientist and an educator. I make regular contributions to television (e.g. BBC’s The Incredible Human Hand), radio (e.g. BBC Radio 4, The Shock), podcasts (e.g. Level Up Human), newsprint (e.g. the i), expert panels (e.g. Ei:SMART), web-based news media (e.g. The Conversation, over 600,000 reads) and blogs (e.g. Psychology Today). Recently, I partnered with New Scientist for a video documentary and print piece to showcase cross-species cognitive research in great apes and children (documentary, field notes) and participated in New Scientist Live London in October. In January 2019, I developed the Wellcome Trust and Waterloo Foundation funded Me, Human project to act as an umbrella for all of my public outreach activities. Me, Humans explores how we are connected to the natural world. The inter-institutional Me, Human team have featured at Norwich Science Festival 2021, Bluedot Festival 2022 and Glastonbury Festival 2022.

Gillian Forrester recently joined the School of Psychology at Sussex as Professor of Comparative Cognition. You can find out more about Gillian’s work from her Sussex profile and websites: and

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Train over plane, Psychedelic breathwork & the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research 2022

By Guy Fincham

As part of our school’s green commitment, we have launched a new ‘Train over Plane’ travel fund which supports travel to conferences by train instead of plane. PhD student, Guy Fincham, has been one of the first to try it out, and shares his thoughts on the experience for a recent trip to the Netherlands.

Photo of Guy Fincham on a train and showing tickets to camera

I travelled to Amsterdam/Haarlem in the Netherlands for ICPR 2022 (Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research), and primarily for a workshop the day before on breathwork as this is my research focus (Breathwork as Psychedelic Therapy).

I had a profound experience that I could never have imagined nor expected from breathwork (and so much more). I have undergone a personal paradigm shift and have gained an increasingly newfound respect for the therapeutic potential of breathwork as/for psychedelic therapy. The experience was invaluable and has made me view psychedelic breathwork under a new lens, which will benefit my future research and work.

Moreover, I connected with researchers and clinicians, some of whom were very interested in The Breathwork Survey I am working on with the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College London. It was a lot of fun and had some lovely down regulation time the day after it had all finished.

I wanted to use the Train over Plane fund as train is my favourite form of transport by far and is fortunately more eco-friendly than flying (saving up to 90% of the carbon emissions). I’ve never been on Eurostar before so was glad to find out they travel to Amsterdam. For the first journey I changed at Brussels, and the return leg was direct. Another great thing is that trains between Brighton and London St Pancras International are direct.

Although the journeys took around two working days (one there, one back), I particularly enjoyed the comfort of travelling by train (compared with flying), feeling much less restricted and freer. I also made friends with a lecturer at Kings College London on their way to a conference in Utrecht. I’d encourage everyone at the Sussex School of Psychology to use the Train over Plane fund if travelling within the UK and/or mainland Europe.

Looking forward to ICPR 2024 now. Hopefully there will be some research being presented on breathwork this time! 😉

I’d like to thank the Open Foundation and Open Up for organising the ICPR conference and (breath)workshop, respectively, the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff Association, Tokyo) as my funder and making this all possible, Charlotte Rae and Harry Lewis for setting up the Train over Plane fund, along with Mitzi Tahsin and Fran Barnard for assistance when booking through the Key Travel platform.

Thank you for reading. Set and setting.

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What’s in a word? Using speech marker to diagnose Alzheimer’s early

By Alice Stanton

graphic of jigsaw puzzle pieces coming out the top of a head

September was World Alzheimer’s Month, an international event run by Alzheimer’s Disease International to spread awareness and challenge the stigmas that surround Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative neurological condition that is currently affecting more than 944,000 people in the UK and Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-70% of these cases. Alzheimer’s is progressive and, currently, irreversible with treatment limited to alleviating the symptoms and delaying the progression of the disease. But it isn’t all doom and gloom! Research is currently being done at the University of Sussex on the detection of preclinical dementia or dementia that presents neurologically before any cognitive symptoms are displayed. Although dementia is most commonly detected in people over the age of 65, I will soon be starting work on a PhD project that is motivated by research that has suggested that onset often begins long before detection and diagnosis! A preclinical diagnosis could lead to better and closer monitoring of the disease’s progression which could give patients and their loved ones more time to make choices about the future. As well as giving people more time to make choices, preventative action to slow the progression of dementia can be taken. I hope that my own research can help to make preclinical diagnosis more widely available. Earlier this year, I was accepted for the PhD project: Flower, flora, fauna run by Dr Claire Lancaster, Professor Naji Tabet and Professor Jennifer Rusted. The project asks whether novel metrics of verbal fluency performance can help to detect individuals at risk of future cognitive decline.

I come to the project from a background in linguistics and while previous research has established that there are links between impairment in linguistic processes and dementia, the PhD I will be working on will look specifically at whether patterns of words produced on a verbal fluency task can identify individuals vulnerable to future cognitive decline. A verbal fluency task is, most commonly, a task in which people are asked to produce words that either relate to a category (i.e., Animals – horse, cow, cat, dog) or start with the same letter (i.e., spoon, seat, sofa, sign) for 60 seconds. By measuring not only how many unique words a participant can relay in the given time but also the time taken to switch between broad clusters (i.e., animals to furniture), and internal clusters (i.e., farm animals to pets), as well as the amount of time between words and the length of the phonemes at the end of words, we can hope to find a link between language production on verbal fluency tasks and patients vulnerable to future cognitive decline. The project is funded by a studentship which is 50% funded by the NHS SPFT and I am extremely excited to work in clinics across East Sussex with patients right at the point where they seek medical guidance. Once the data is collected, computational tools will help in the measurement and analysis of the verbal fluency tests including measurements such as counting cluster switches (the switches between clusters of words i.e., from farm animals to pets), cluster sizes (the number of words in each cluster), incorrect responses (words that do not relate to the category given or have the correct first letter), and word frequencies (the number of times a single word is used). Using this interdisciplinary style I hope that my grounding in linguistics, knowledge of natural language processing and passion for finding a method to detect those vulnerable to future cognitive decline will help to aid diagnosis and prognosis in real-world health settings. 

This is my first week at the University and I am currently writing this from the library on campus! I have been to all of my master’s introductions as well as some PhD student introduction events and, although the journey ahead is a long one, I’m so thankful to be going down the road with some brilliant and supportive people. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can all achieve together to help pre-empt a dementia diagnosis and support not only the people affected by Alzheimer’s but also the family and friends of patients to make diagnosis a less scary prospect. 

Alice Stanton is studying the MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience at Sussex and is working alongside Dr Claire Lancaster, Professor Naji Tabet and Professor Jennifer Rusted on the PhD project, Flower, flora, fauna.

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Annual conference of the ISPP, 2022: a delegate’s eye view

By Ian Hadden

In the Summer, I attended the 2022 annual conference of the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP). This took place over four days in a very sweaty Athens and was a pretty mad event, with over 850 delegates attending nine parallel sessions at a time. For me there were two standouts.

The first was a ‘commemorating panel’ in honour of Jim Sidanius, of whom, I freely admit, I had never heard. However, with Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington of the LSE as chair I couldn’t miss it, and I now know that Sidanius was a giant of social psychology whose book, Social Dominance, changed her life. This was plenty endorsement for me to buy a second-hand copy (new ones are expensive). Jennifer is an incredibly articulate advocate for people who are living with limited economic resources. She argues that expecting people in these circumstances to adapt their mindsets—like taking a longer-term perspective or adopting a more internal locus of control—entirely misses the point. The reality is, they have a short-term perspective and external locus of control because their daily experience is one of trying to meet their needs when they don’t have enough. To echo Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan of 1992—it’s the environment, stupid. Jennifer points out what might seem obvious to many: people need to have their needs met in a stable way if they are going to have real control over their life circumstances and a future worth investing in.

An unexpected bonus in the Jim Sidanius panel was a talk by Stacey Sinclair, whom I and my very impressive PhD colleague Lewis Doyle have been citing with abandon without realising who she was. Stacey presented her research on how universities’ diversity and inclusion practices can actually accentuate existing racial disparities if the rationale for those practices is instrumental (i.e., to provide educational benefits) rather than as a matter of moral justice. And the sight of an eminent professor trotting down the aisle with a mic for an audience member during the Q&A typified the sheer good-naturedness of the conference.

My other standout was dinner with the members of our symposium on inequalities in educational outcomes. There were five of us, two of whom I knew well—Lewis, and my fantastic supervisor, Matt Easterbrook—and two of whom I didn’t—Anatolia Batruch and Céline Darnon. Initially, however, I experienced a sense of foreboding, as the conversation tunnelled relentlessly into a detailed history of System Justification Theory. “What’s that?”, I wondered as I nodded silently and tried to look intelligent. What will be the next academic rabbit hole they go down about which I know nothing? How long is this dinner? Well, it turned out that my fears were unfounded. We had a tremendous evening with conversation ranging from regional accents (taking in a cross-cultural and class perspective, naturally) to the challenges of recruiting schools for large-scale studies, via tips on layering in cold weather (thank you for the technical follow-up, Anatolia). What an impressive and generous bunch my confrères and consœurs are.

Our symposium had been shunted unceremoniously to the last slot on the last day (a Sunday, to boot), and straw polling confirmed what we already knew—that most people would have cleared off home by then. Our expectations of filling the room to the rafters were low, and were duly met. But the diehards who turned out in support (thank you!) seemed to find what we had to say interesting, and we closed the conference with sweaty hands, glad hearts and plenty of food for thought and action.

Photo of author, Ian Hadden

Ian Hadden researches how social psychological interventions can reduce group-based educational inequalities in schools. He previously helped public and private sector organisations, including the Department for Education, define and deliver large-scale programmes of change.

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Dissertation to Publication: Barbershops as a setting for supporting men’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Georgina Ogborn, BSc Psychology Graduate

photo of Georgina in graduation gown, throwing hat in the air

My third-year dissertation project at Sussex was the culmination of my university studies and an important step towards realising my ambition to work in the field of clinical psychology. My project investigated the topic of barbershops as a community setting to support male mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic. This topic is important because around one in eight men experience mental health difficulties, yet most do not seek help and men are under-represented in mental health service referrals. Previous research has shown that barbers can successfully raise awareness about conditions such as hypertension and prostate cancer, building on the tradition of barbershops as a supportive environment where men can talk openly about health and personal issues. There is now growing interest in situating mental health promotion and prevention activities in barbershops. Such community-based settings are particularly important in the context of disrupted mental health care provision and surging mental health problems during the Covid-19 pandemic. Hence, my project addressed three questions: how do barbers prefer to engage with their male clients in relation to mental health issues? Second, what mental health impacts have been observed by barbers during the Covid-19 pandemic? And third, what is the scope for providing formal mental health support in barbershops?

I carried out my dissertation project in a group with three other Psychology undergraduates, working under the supervision of Dr Daniel Michelson, who is a Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at Sussex. In the first instance, Daniel directed us towards background reading on community mental health approaches and provided feedback on our planned research design and specific research questions. By working together, my fellow group members and I were able to pool efforts and identify and contact barbers remotely at a time when Covid-19 had disrupted ‘business as usual’ for barbershops. In total, we collected data from 30 barbers using an online qualitative survey. In a second phase of the project, three of the survey respondents were interviewed to verify our findings and explore practice implications. An initial qualitative coding framework was developed jointly by our group and refined in supervision meetings with Daniel. We were then individually responsible for finalising our own thematic analysis and write-up.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the survey responses, interviewing barbers, and thematically analysing the data. The analysis was a chance to explore lived experiences, reflect on their meanings and wider significance, and develop suitable recommendations for further research and practice. I was struck by the care and compassion that barbers expressed towards their clients, as well as their openness on the subject of their own mental health. Indeed, several of the participating barbers mentioned how they had experienced depression and anxiety during the pandemic themselves.

The findings were organised into three overarching themes. The first, ‘more than a haircut’, described how the physical and relational contexts of barbershops can offer a supportive environment for clients. The second, ‘impacts of COVID-19’, described stressors related to the pandemic and implications for clients’ mental health and barber-client relationships. The third, ‘formal mental health strategies’, described opportunities for, and potential barriers to, formalising mental health support in barbershops. Barbers highlighted the difficulties faced by clients, particularly the loss of social contacts – including those afforded through customary visits for haircuts. Many barbers expressed their interest in receiving formal training to recognise mental health problems and ‘sign-post’ clients to appropriate services. On the other hand, some participants expressed concern about overstepping professional boundaries, and potentially impacting upon confidentiality. The feasibility of fitting formal mental health initiatives around workplace demands was also questioned by some barbers. Future work is needed to develop credible and resource-efficient initiatives that harness the ability of barbers to build and sustain supportive relationships with men who may not otherwise engage with conventional mental health services. More generally, the study reaffirmed the value of community assets and social connections for promoting positive mental health and helping people to recover from episodes of mental ill-health. 

After handing in the dissertation in May 2021, I was really pleased when Daniel raised the possibility of revising the dissertation report into a journal paper. He explained how writing for publication differs in important ways from a dissertation project, particularly in terms of the need for concision and the process of academic peer review. During the summer of 2021, I took lead in drafting and redrafting the paper. By the end of January 2022, the manuscript was finally ready to be submitted to our chosen journal, BJPsych Open (the sister journal of the British Journal of Psychiatry) for peer review. We received anonymised comments from reviewers in March and submitted a revised draft in May. By June, the paper was finally accepted and published online.

My experience of the dissertation project has enabled me to strengthen key research skills, including conducting evidence-based literature searches, collecting and critically analysing data, and drafting reports. These skills have been essential for planning and carrying out audits and service evaluations in my current job as a Senior Assistant Psychologist for Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. My role involves developing the new ‘Complex Emotional Difficulties Pathway’ for people presenting with personality difficulties and complex trauma. Looking further ahead, I am sure that the knowledge and skills developed through my dissertation will be of great value as I work towards my goal of training as a Clinical Psychologist. I would encourage all third-year students to see their dissertation project as a great learning opportunity, and also an experience that can contribute directly to your career aspirations.

If you are interested in finding out more about my experience, please watch the video below.

Georgina Ogborn is a BSc Psychology graduate (Class of 2021) and currently works as a Senior Assistant Psychologist at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Here Georgina shares her experience of conducting and publishing her undergraduate dissertation, and discusses how it relates to her career aspirations. Click below to watch a short video produced by Georgina:

The paper mentioned in this blog is available through the citation below:

Ogborn, G., Bowden-Howe, C., Burd, P., Kleijn, M., & Michelson, D. (2022). Barbershops as a setting for supporting men’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative study from the UK. BJPsych Open, 8(4), E118. doi:10.1192/bjo.2022.520

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Co-developing sustainable solutions to shared resource dilemmas in Maasai land

By Dr Anna Rabinovich

I am excited to join the vibrant and friendly School of Psychology at the University of Sussex as a Reader in Social Psychology and Sustainability.

My research ambition is to address the global challenge of cooperation around sustainable management of shared environmental resources by conducting impactful research that makes a real difference for stakeholder communities. It has led me to develop multiple interdisciplinary collaborations and to engage with diverse communities who face the shared resource management challenge across the world.

One of my recent projects, funded by the British Academy, has taken me to Northern Tanzania, which is home to Maasai, an iconic pastoralist tribe. One of the problems that Maasai pastoralists have been facing in recent decades is soil erosion on shared pasture land. Deep gullies make the land unsuitable for cattle grazing, threatening livelihoods of the population.

photo of deep gully on the Maasai farm land

Traditionally, cattle are the backbone of the Maasai economy: Cows and goats are sold to help cover the cost of housing, clothing, and school fees for children. They are also an integral part of cultural identity: “If you don’t have a cow, you are not recognized as a respected member of the community,” we were told by local elders. While cattle herds are vulnerable to soil erosion, they also play a role in the onset of this devastating process. Growing herds, together with shrinking of land available to Maasai people, restrictions on traditional mobility routes, and lack of effective grazing management can lead to pastures becoming depleted.

Most previous attempts at resolving this problem haven’t engaged with the social side of the issue. Much research tends to rely on the information deficit approach, which is based on the assumption that the problem is only there because of the lack of understanding and information. One thing this approach doesn’t account for is the gap between attitudes and intentions. People who face a problem may already know what needs to be done, but unwilling or unable to take action. To address this gap, it is important to pay attention to group dynamics, social norms, cultural values, and communication. In our project, we put local communities and social dynamics within them at the centre of everything we do.

photo of cow herd walking over dry earth in Maasai land

We designed several workshops with Maasai communities of the Monduli District, the area particularly affected by severe soil erosion. Our primary long-term aim was to strengthen community cohesion by providing space for participants to work together, to share existing knowledge – and to start building sustainable plans for the future. We made sure that people of all genders and age groups were equally represented at each of the workshops, because, similarly to any other climate-related problems, we can only win this fight against severe soil erosion if the whole community works on it together.

During the first set of workshops participants completed questionnaires, where they shared their individual opinions about soil erosion and attitudes to various types of action that could be taken to mitigate it. We collated that data and came back to share our findings with the participants. Some of those findings showed that many people believed that certain things, such as grazing practices, should be done differently, but never voiced their opinions in community discussions.

Having seen the results, community members started to realise that not only they can do things differently when dealing with soil erosion, but they can do those things together, and that would not contradict the group norm. So, in the next set of workshops, through group discussions, we started building explicit group norms consistent with sustainable land management practices that would help tackle soil erosion. It has become clear that immediate action is not only necessary, but is also desirable and approved by the community, because it is consistent with the Maasai ways of doing things. At this point participants would focus their group discussions on finding best ways to manage their land, acting as a community. The idea is that because these decisions are based on a local community norm and are coming from inside the group (rather than being imposed externally), they would lead to sustainable action.

photo of Maasai tribe members gathered round a table talking and looking at workshop materials

Indeed, several months later, noticeable changes have started taking place in the communities we worked with. Land management plans have been put in place in many villages, and local champions have started active work on promoting gully restoration and prevention initiatives. Many communities have agreed to allocate certain areas of shared land to grazing during a particular time of year only, which gives vegetation time to restore and prevents further soil erosion. A number of community planting initiatives have also started, including test plots for observing effects of planting and grazing restrictions on soil health. This is just a beginning of a long journey towards tackling soil erosion in Maasai land, and we’re hopeful to see how the community initiatives develop and support them into the future. We have been working closely with the local District council in Tanzania to ensure institutional support is in place to maintain impact.

The approach we’ve been using to co-develop sustainable solutions to shared land management can be used for other shared resource dilemmas as well. In this project, communities are working to protect the shared pasture land, but there are many other communal resources that require protection across the world, from fisheries and coasts to shared urban environments. If you have a shared resource challenge you would like to collaborate around, I would be happy to hear from you!

Further reading:

Rabinovich, A., Heath, S., Zhischenko, V., … Ndakidemi, P. (2020). Protecting the commons: Predictors of willingness to mitigate communal land degradation among Maasai pastoralists. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 72, 101504.

Rabinovich, A., Kelly, C., Wilson, G., Nasseri, M. et al. (2019). “We will change whether we want it or not”: Soil erosion in Maasai land as a social dilemma and a challenge to community resilience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 66, 101365.

photo of Anna Rabinovich

Dr Anna Rabinovich recently joined the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex as Reader in Social Psychology and Sustainability.

Posted in Faculty research

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.




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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