Psychology at the cutting edge: A one-day conference for A level students
Dr Emma Dunmore – Head of Psychology, Harrogate Grammar School
11 March 2009
Harrogate Grammar School
One Night Only!
170 students and teachers from five schools (Harrogate Grammar, Malton School, Tadcaster Grammar, King James School and Harrogate High School) came together to hear about the work of leading researchers and applied psychologists. The aim of the day was to give A level students the experience of being at a conference and hearing from leading researchers. It also aimed to offer opportunities for learning outside the classroom with people from other schools. An overview of the day is presented along with a selection of reports written by Year 12 students attending the conference. We would like to thank all the speakers for generously giving their time.
The day began with a presentation by Dr Catriona Morrison (University of Leeds) who has done some fascinating research on memory. Those of you who would like to take part in her research on how ‘The Beatles’ music sparks memories can go to her website: www.magicalmemorytour.com
The Magic of Memory
Dr Catriona Morrison – University of Leeds
Catriona Morrison’s talk on The Magic of Memory was focused on the human senses and on how, through them, we can explore who we are and determine a sense of self. This, she said, was mainly through autobiographical (or episodic) memory, which enables us to remember specific events and personal facts. Autobiographical memory seems to rely heavily on verbal and visual cues and through it, we can understand who we are, as we have a past, present and future. Dr Morrison also explained about how the senses can be extremely important and powerful in evoking memories; one sense tool for evoking memory is music. In a study using ‘The Beatles’, music was found to be a good memory cue, providing accurate, detailed, believable accounts from a variety of people spanning 67 countries. It did, however, see a shift to the left in the reminiscence bump (the period of time when the most significant events are remembered), being 11-15 years instead of the usual broader band of 10-30 years. As music generally produces positive emotion, and emotion is essential in making events memorable, music is therefore an important tool in retrieving memories.
Smell was also shown to forcefully enhance memory, so much so that we are more likely to recall information if the same smell is present when we study and when we are tested. Although smell does naturally decline with age, we were told how a relationship has been shown between the decline or loss of smell and cognitive decline. A study was conducted of siblings and other adults (control) where 10 strong odour stimuli had to be matched to relevant pictures. Those siblings with the E4 (ApoE) gene present (a gene which can predict cognitive decline/dementia in ‘high risk’ people) had a lower mean score, and siblings generally performed poorer than the control group. Therefore, one of the conclusions from her presentation was that problems in odour identification can be an early indicator of cognitive decline, help identify those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and distinguish between depression and Alzheimer’s. The other main conclusions drawn from the presentation were that music is a good aid for memory retrieval (though is perhaps not as useful in memory storage), and that all of our senses are vital to create a sense of self. Brin Pearson.
Dr Sam Cartwright-Hatton (Manchester University) then explained about her ground-breaking treatment for children suffering from anxiety disorders. This treatment focuses on teaching parents how to encourage confident behaviour in their child and how to manage their child’s worries and fears. She role-played some of the things that parents say and do that lead children to develop anxious ways of thinking. Often this stems from the parent’s own anxiety. Dr Cartwright-Hatton then talked about how she designed a randomised controlled trial to test this new treatment approach allowing the students to see ‘How Science Works’ directly.
We then moved on to ethics and the role of ethics committees. Many students noted how Dr Mark Wetherell (University of Northumbria) managed to take what could have been a very dry topic and make it really interesting. His use of PowerPoint animation was marvellous. This was followed by an interactive exercise where students acted as ethics committees to decide on whether to accept or reject a proposal for a real study. Both Dr Wetherell’s talk and the exercise are summarised below.
The Role of the Ethics Committee
Dr. Mark Wetherell – University of Northumbria
We were addressed by Dr. Mark Wetherell from the University of Northumbria, Chair of the Undergraduate Ethics Committee. He discussed how ethics committees study new proposals of research, study materials and ensure that all the studies they review run according to the protocol and review any changes to the protocol. He outlined how the main priority of an ethics committee is to protect the participants taking part in the research. The three main principles of the ethics committee are respect, beneficence and justice; respect being that you need to treat every participant as an autonomous person – deserving their own respect. The idea of beneficence being that the research has to be doing overall good and justice being that the participants are being treated impartially and within the law. Dr. Wetherell went on to talk over some examples of ethical guidelines – The Nuremberg Code (1947) and the Declaration of Helsinki (1964). The first ethics committee was formed in 1966.
When conducting research, he emphasised the importance of gaining fully written consent from your participants. There are unique professional guidelines for psychologists. All research has to meet certain criteria to be passed by an ethics committee. These are informed consent, deception, and freedom to withdraw from studies as well as debriefing, confidentiality and the protection of participants from psychological harm. Dr. Wetherell gave examples of research that was ethically controversial, Milgram’s Obedience Study, but also asked whether Big Brother is unethical. Finally, he talked about the structure of the ethics committee.
After the ethics committee lecture, delegates were split into small groups and given different roles of committee. We considered a proposal for research on whether the drug propanol reduces artificially induced fear memories, and we made a decision about whether or not this research was ethical.
After coffee we were honoured to have our key-note speaker, Professor David Clark from the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Professor Clark is a world expert in cognitive therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Most recently he has been one of the leading figures in developing a government-funded strategy to widen access to psychological therapies across the country. This is known as the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies strategy (IAPT) and it will require the training of many more cognitive therapists. These therapists will not all need to have undergone full clinical psychology training – so lots of future opportunities for our psychology students. You can find out more about IAPT from: www.iapt.nhs.uk – Here is a summary of Professor Clark’s presentation on cognitive therapy for panic disorder.
Anxiety and how to deal with it
Professor David Clark – Institute of Psychiatry
Professor David Clark, Director of the Centre of Anxiety Disorder and Traum, has done a lot of research on the development of ‘Cognitive Therapy’ for anxiety. This is the use of discussion and behavioural experiments to stop people feeling anxious, as opposedto more direct methods, such as drugs.
Anxiety develops when we think something bad will happen, often due to the unpredictability of a new situation. We focus upon an apparent danger, causing our hypothalamus to trigger the sympathetic nervous system. This results in sweating, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure and nervous feelings in one’s stomach. This is the common ‘fight or flight’ response, however as Professor Clark points out, in ‘normal’ people it occurs only when there is genuine cause for anxiety. Clinical anxiety is when anxiety is based on mistaken beliefs about how dangerous a situation is and is diagnosed in about one in ten people. It can be caused by many factors: traumatic events, the modelling of a fear from parent to child, misleading information and vulnerability. The most common treatment is drugs, usually
Benzodiazepines or antidepressants, for example Prozac.
Professor Clark first began researching a psychological approach to treatment in the early 1990s. The specific technique involves proving to the patient that their fears are mistaken. People who suffer from panic attacks are more sensitive to their heart-beats than other people. They notice perfectly normal phenomena, like the heart skipping a beat, and interpret it as the beginning of a heart attack, which then of course makes them anxious. Patients with panic disorder may have thousands of panic attacks during which they believe they nearly died. They engage in various ‘safety behaviours’, like lying down or breathing deeply, to stave off the heart attack, which of course goes away as it isn’t real. The therapy consists of discussing and encouraging other explanations of the sensations, meanwhile pointing out that it is near impossible for someone to survive two heart attacks, let alone thousands. The patient is told to recall a time when they were having an attack which went away when they got distracted, proving it must be psychological rather than physical. Finally, one has the patient bring on the attacks without doing their safety behaviours. Eventually, most people will begin to realise the attacks don’t have a physical basis and are caused by their catastrophic beliefs. This can often lead to many people being completely cured of their panic disorder. Roslyn Forman
We then moved on to consider psychology in prisons as summarised below.
Riots in prisons and the reality of prison psychology
Sue Baron – Senior Forensic Psychologist,
HMP Holme House
This session began with a re-enactment of a prison riot by a group of Sixth Form drama students. Afterwards, each group was asked to comment on aspects of the play and prison riots in general, using their knowledge of psychology. The group who produced the best sheet of comments won an edible prize! Issues raised included: what factors contributed to the prisoners rioting?; how did the prisoners interact during the riot?; and what caused them to be sent to prison in the first place? Students found this task both interesting and thought-provoking, as it helped them see the challenges faced by prison officers everyday, and allowed them to apply their knowledge of psychology to a real-life situation.
Afterwards, Sue Baron, a forensic psychologist, gave a talk on the methods used in prisons to help prisoners rehabilitate and prepare for the outside world after their release. A lot was learnt from this talk, including: the problems prisoners have when they get sent to prison; the types of schemes used to help them and the aims of these schemes. For example, many prisoners come to prison from a chaotic lifestyle, possibly with a history of abuse. Just two of the many schemes available are Anger Management and the Enhanced Thinking Programme, which would help prisoners cope with their emotions and improve their chances of succeeding in the real world.
The day ended with a presentation on the practical applications of the famous working memory model of memory by Professor Susan Gathercole from York University.
Working Memory and Classroom Learning
Professor Sue Gathercole – York University
Professor Gathercole began by introducing herself and her studies. She is the Head of Psychology at York University and is part of a research into cognitive psychology spanning 30 years. Her main topic of study is memory, particularly focusing on short-term memory. She stresses that cognitive psychology is vitally important in everyday life, particularly in a classroom setting.
She then moved on to the facts behind her research; beginning with the key features of the working memory. She outlined the Working Memory Model which was initially developed by Baddeley and
• CENTRAL EXECUTIVE (control)
• VISUO-SPATIAL SKETCHPAD (visual patterns)
• PHONOLOGICAL LOOP (verbal information)
She then evaluated working memory; saying that it is a good feature due to its ability to become a mental workspace, which is particularly useful in classroom situations such as mental arithmetic. However, working memory has negative aspects as well, as it only has a limited capacity meaning there is only so much information it can hold and for a short amount of time. Professor Gathercole then talked about the characteristics which are common in children with poor working memories. These include poor academic process; poor social ability; difficulties following instructions; place-keeping difficulties and problems with activities combining storage and processing information. Unfortunately, for these children, most, if not all, of these features become present in a classroom. Professor Gathercole discussed typical responses from teachers when evaluating children with this problem, which is almost always stating that the child has a poor attention span and highly distractible. Very rarely does a teacher realize that these symptoms are a consequence of a poor working memory.
Professor Gathercole asked herself the question: How can we help these children? This is where she discussed her own research and the results of it. By looking at children with poor working memories, warning signs can now be given to children to tell them what the symptoms of this are. Not only has Professor Gathercole achieved this, but she has also been part of a highly successful training programme for 10 year olds with working memory problems. This consists of a computer game based around a robot character to test the working memory of children. The main feature of the game, which differentiates it from other treatment options, is that it is adaptive to the child playing, meaning that they can set their own personal limits and can develop at a pace and a way that suits them. The result of this was very triumphant as, compared with other, nonadaptive treatments, it was highly successful. This was particularly true in the improvement of reading and maths in children.