Tag Archives: psychology

Back to school

leavesIt smells of back to school today. There is something about the change of season from Summer to Autumn that makes me feel, even in my mid-thirties, that I should be buying a new pencil case and trying on new shoes.

Research on memory suggests that smells are very powerful cues. One study, by Willander & Larrson, gave 93 older adults one of three different types of memory cue: a word, a picture, or a smell. The researchers asked the adults to relate any event from their life to the cue. The memories triggered by the smells were older than those triggered by the words or pictures. Smell-triggered memories were mostly from the first 10 years of life, whereas word or picture-triggered memories were most from early adulthood. The older adults who took part reported more of a sense of going back in time with the smells, and also reported that the memories they recalled were ones they hadn’t thought about as much as the memories that the words or pictures brought up.

I remember the night before the new term started as being quite terrifying, even though I liked school in general. I wonder if the smell of Autumn means that there is a collective feeling of that same anticipatory anxiety for us all as grown ups at this time of year. An excuse to have a minor existential crisis and not feel bad about it, perhaps. Or at least to buy a new coat.



Is living in the city bad for our state of mind?

app picture mechelliMental health problems are more common amongst city dwellers – but why? Is it the stress? The noise? The lack of green spaces? A study involving scientists from King’s College London, architects from J & L Gibbons, artists from Nomad Projects and design experts from the Van Alen Institute, is trying to find out how the urban landscape affects how we feel.

To take part, download their free app, called Urban Mind, which will prompt you at random, seven times a day for seven days, to answer questions about how you feel and where you are. The app gathers geotagging data, and if you choose to you can also upload images and sound files, to give a full sensory picture of your location.

The geotagging – which says where you are – can then be used to compare with existing mapping data to see whether you are in a deprived or affluent area, whether there are many trees or rivers nearby, and even what levels of pollution there are.

Dr Andrea Mechelli, Reader in Early Intervention at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and lead investigator on the project, hopes the app will enable a rich dataset to be collected.

“This has been developed to look at how the built urban evironment affects our mental wellbeing, Dr Mechelli said. “It’s important because within the area of urban planning and design a lot of decisions are made without much scientific evidence. The longterm aim of the study is to design some policy guidelines in this area.”

Dr Mechelli’s usual area of research is psychosis, and he sees the Urban Mind project as highly relevant to mental illness as well as mental wellbeing. Whilst some people may be genetically more vulnerable to developing certain mental illnesses, environmental stress can be a major trigger to make this more likely.

“Although we’re not looking at mental illness directly we’re looking at something that’s related,” said Dr Mechelli. “We’re all on a continuum, some of us tend to be more anxious, some less so… some may have slight psychotic symptoms that are much more common than we tend to think…. By understanding how the general population responds to the environment we’ll also understand how the environment becomes a risk factor. Longer term the study might reveal how the environment may contribute to the development of mental illness.”

Dr Mechelli, who grew up in a small village but now lives in London, thinks living in the city has many effects, socially, physically and culturally. “There are certainly aspects of urban living that are not very healthy but there are also aspects that can be very positive,” he said. “For example social networks, less risk of social isolation.”

Previous studies have shown downsides to urban life, Mechelli explained: “some aspects of city living are not good for us, for example increased sensitivity to stress and increased vulnerability to many mental disorders.”

Whether we find the city exciting or stressful might depend a lot on our individual characteristics, so Urban Mind asks some initial questions about what we are like and where we grew up to try to understand how this interacts with environmental factors.

Mechelli is excited about the project which he described as a “true cross-sector collaboration” between science, architecture and art. Anyone can download Urban Mind and participate, and Mechelli thinks using the app might make us appreciate the effects of our environment more.

To download the app check out the Urban Mind website. Images from the pilot data are available from the project-related Instagram and will be on exhibition at This Public Life – Festival of Landscape Architecture to be held in Melbourne, Australia, 15-18 October 2015.

For more on how where we are affects how we feel try these pieces on whether green spaces make us more creativehow natural light can make us feel more awake and how hospital architecture can make us feel better or worse.

This piece is cross-posted on Huffington Post UK

Pints full of science and how do you spot a psychopath when you’re dating?

Dr Gemma Modinos, Neuroscientist, speaking at Pint of Science

Dr Gemma Modinos, Neuroscientist, speaking at Pint of Science

I went to some great Pint of Science nights recently, the annual festival where scientists give talks in pubs. I saw Professor Jon Cooper speak about his research into Batten’s Disease, Dr Claire Troake describe the Brain Bank where people can donate their brain tissue after death, Dr Gemma Modinos describe her research into social and emotional aspects of psychosis and Dr Nigel Blackwood talk about psychopathic traits.

Psychopathic traits are measured by a questionnaire called the psychopathy checklist-revised (PCL-R). They include callousness, a lack of empathy, a tendency towards relating to others in a grandiose way, or trying to manipulate others. Psychopathic behaviours also include persistent aggressive acts, both as a reaction and as a way of trying to get something. Studies also show people with psychopathy have difficulty being able to recognise fear and sadness in other people’s facial expressions.

Psychopathic traits can be thought of on a spectrum, like most human characteristics. The presence of a high level of these traits is really dangerous, as high levels usually go along with committing severe violent crimes. It is possible to have lower levels of these traits as well, perhaps not reaching a clinical cut off but still suggesting some problems in the same areas.

I asked Nigel Blackwood, clinical academic in forensic psychiatry, if it’s possible to spot someone with high levels of psychopathic traits when you’re dating. He acknowledged it could be difficult at first, that often they are very charming, although they might not be that interested in you. His top tips were “take your time, and seek collateral information.” Good advice for us all.

Why is our inner critic often so harsh? And what can we do about it?

I saw the film Birdman recently, where Michael Keaton’s critical alter ego looms so large as to become quite corporeal (and visually reminiscent of the amazing wings in the Digital Revolution exhibition described below). It got me thinking about the idea of the inner critic, how difficult inner criticism can be to live with, and what solutions contemporary talking therapies have to offer us.

An inner critical voice or a bent towards perfectionism can be helpful in some situations, to make us try to perform better, to keep us trying to improve… but it can get out of control so easily. This type of critical inner voice is a very human feature, and one which is sometimes linked to impostor syndrome, or many clinical diagnoses such as depression and anxiety.

Image by Professor Joseph Ciarrochi www.acceptandchange.com

Image by Professor Joseph Ciarrochi http://www.acceptandchange.com

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of talking therapy with some really helpful ideas around managing a rampant inner critic. ACT is one of the ‘third wave’ cognitive behavioural approaches, more recent than CBT but drawing on some similar foundations. “ACT focuses on helping people to live more guided by their personal values, rather than their fear,” says Eric Morris, clinical psychologist, ACT expert and Director of the La Trobe University Psychology Clinic, Australia. “ACT is a practical approach – encouraging you to consciously choose and act – and to learn from your own experience.”

ACT encourages us to try to identify key values we want to live our lives by, and use these as motivations for what we do, rather than listening to the negative chatter of an inner critical voice. So instead of listening when our inner monologue says things like: “don’t bother trying, you’ll just make a fool of yourself, everyone will realise you’re crap”, ACT would encourage us to notice these thoughts but not change our actions because of them.

But why is all this criticism there in the first place? Is it normal? Eric thinks it is – that it relates to part of what has made us evolve to be such a dominant species – our human ability to think, to problem solve, and to be influenced by ideas from other people. “Our ability as a species to use language is both a blessing and a curse.” says Eric. “This is tremendously advantageous, as we can share knowledge and build upon it. However, this ability also means that our judgemental minds can turn toward ourselves, and do comparisons, engage in unhelpful problem-solving, make dire predictions etc. It is the price of having a mind!”

Our minds have evolved to be good at spotting potential problems because of developing in a world where we weren’t always safe, and where we needed to be clever to spot danger and avoid predators. This contrasts with the situation most of us are in now. “Many of us live in environments where we are pretty safe, while also having these minds that are still focused on checking for threats,” says Eric. “Because of the many advantages of “being in our heads”, we can be a little blind to discovering when it is useful to pay attention to your mind, and when it is useful to be guided by your direct experience, here and now.”

Easier said than done right? Try these six suggestions from ACT to try to sideline your inner critic.

  1. Remember this advice from Eric: “The inner critic is there, because you have a mind that likes problem-solving and judging everything, including you. The trick is to consider this as just your mind doing it’s thing, and that you don’t have to follow it.”
  2. Eric suggests trying to view all the different inner voices you have a bit like advisors: “It’s like you are the President of a country – the United States of You! – and all these different parts of yourself – the optimist, the pessimist, the father, the daughter, the music-lover, the critic – are like government advisers.” Instead of only listening to the loud and bossy voices, we can try to listen out for other points of view as well.
  3. ACT encourages us to try not treat critical thoughts as a problem (your inner critic can also criticise itself!), but instead to gently notice them, be curious about them, appreciate them as part of your ability to problem-solve. “Your inner critic is along for the ride,” says Eric “you don’t need to worry that it will disappear – you can use that perspective when it is useful, as well as notice and connect with life as it is being lived.”
  4. Forget trying to ‘fix your mind’ or push away critical thoughts (they often get louder).
  5. Try to practice noticing what your mind is doing, like an observer, watching your thoughts without having to get caught up in them. Mindfulness is fab for practising this.
  6. Identify your key values, the ones you want your life to stand for, and try to call these to mind when you’re making decisions about what to do or how to behave. Use these as a compass instead of immediately doing what your inner critic would suggest. 

“This is not to say that life will get easier,” says Eric. “However it may get more meaningful.”

Eric Morris is co-author of ACTivate Your Life: Using Acceptance and Mindfulness to Build a Life that is Rich, Fulfilling and Fun, to be published by Constable & Robinson in February 2015.


by Monogatari on Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Monogatari on Flickr Creative Commons

A couple of interesting links here relating to using technology therapeutically.

This whole episode of Frontiers from late December is all about using virtual reality in therapy – there are some great interviews with very interesting psychologists about all sorts of virtual reality projects, including self-compassionate avatars and virtual reality tarantulas.

And this episode of All of the Mind has me chatting with the brilliant Claudia Hammond about psychology apps – from 19.40 although the rest of the episode is well worth a listen too – on hoarding and also legal psychology.

Virtual reality boosts self-compassion

Virtual reality, in the form of a unique avatar-based experience, can help people be less self-critical and more self-compassionate, scientists have found. The new study published in PLOS ONE showed positive results in naturally self-critical individuals and is now being tested in people experiencing depression.

Psychologists and computer scientists from University College London (UCL) designed a virtual reality experiment in which, by the use of avatars, people could experience the compassion they would show to another, but directed towards themselves.

43 healthy but highly self-critical women used virtual reality technology to embody a life-sized avatar. They were shown a separate avatar of a distressed child and taught to give compassionate feedback, both verbally and using physical gesture, which was specifically validating and non-judgemental. As they spoke to the virtual child it appeared to respond positively to them.

After a few minutes, 22 of the women were swapped into the perspective of the virtual child. From here they saw their original virtual adult self showing compassion and speaking using their own voice. This allowed them an unusual self-to-self virtual experience of themselves being compassionate, using their own voice and mannerisms.

The remaining women viewed this situation as if they were a third person.

Experimental set-up“This is very different from an online gaming experience where you’re looking at a body on screen the size of your finger,” explained Professor Mel Slater, co-author from ICREA-University of Barcelona and UCL Computer Science. “In virtual reality everything is life-size. You turn your head and look down and you see your virtual body. As you move your virtual body does the same. The brain very quickly accepts that this is your body.”

The participants who experienced the virtual perspective which received compassion from their previously embodied adult avatar showed a large increase in self-compassion, whereas the group which watched this interaction from the third person perspective did not. Both groups showed reduced self-criticism.

“I was surprised that it was such a potent effect” said Dr Caroline Falconer, first author from UCL Clinical Educational & Health Psychology. “An increase in self-compassion was what we had predicted but it was such a large effect size. It was very encouraging. It’s a simple paradigm but that makes it even more beautiful really.”

Both Slater and Falconer think virtual reality’s increasing accessibility will make this type of intervention more feasible in the future, both in the clinic and at home: “The technology is becoming more accessible because of the gaming industry driving it,” said Falconer. “Embodiment is potentially a very powerful tool. It is a very useful platform to address aspects of the self. I could imagine it in GP surgeries, and even businesses.”

The team is already using the technology to investigate what would happen in a mixed gender sample and with people who are experiencing depression. They also want to see how long the effects can last.

“We’re finding this self criticism in healthy individuals too.” said Falconer. “People have a fear of self-compassion. It’s quite alien for Western cultures. We think self-criticism keeps us on track or that we don’t deserve self-compassion.”

Falconer emphasises that self-compassion is a vital buffer to make us more resilient to negative life events: “It’s alright to be kind to yourself,” said Falconer. “That should be promoted more often.”