Post Of The Week – Thursday 1st August

1) What Makes Us Human

I met a former student, Matt, this week who has just completed his degree at Plymouth University. He’s chosen to specialise in Comparative Psychology. That’s basically about comparing the brains and behaviour of humans with those of non-human animals. He’s been involved in research projects at a couple of the local zoos and hopes to start a master’s degree in this area in 2014. Comparative Psychology has dropped out of the A Level: I used to cover a bit of it with students a couple of specifications ago. Matt explained some of the areas where he thought there was some interesting research being done and drew my attention to this link.

There’s lots of thought-provoking stuff here. For the purposes of the A Level, it is worth noticing the emphasis placed on social interaction and culture as the uniquely human processes which are central to our development. That’s something we look at when we study the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky in Cognition And Development. There’s a neat connection between some of the ideas about the development of babies’ brains and this lecture from Jill Bolte-Taylor.

To find out more about Jill Bolte-Taylor, please see

Thanks Matt.

2) Extreme OCD Camp

This is part of BBC3’s mental health season. Here’s the link.

I started watching this with quite low expectations because I thought it might turn the story of people suffering OCD into a drama as they tackled a trip to the American wilderness. It turned out to be a lot better than I expected, mainly because there was a genuine attempt to understand both the condition and the therapy. As with other programmes in this season, we were able to understand the perspective of people living with OCD. I’ll be using the term less flippantly from now on. The therapy was interesting because it contained both cognitive and behavioural elements. It was based around exposing people to the objects and situations which made them anxious: that’s the behavioural element. It also had a cognitive element where the therapists asked the people in the programme to confront their obsessive and distorted thinking. They had to think about what if their obsessive thoughts were true. The other striking element was the ethics of this therapy. Although being asked to confront their fears, there was no doubt that the clients of the therapy were in control of the process and were not being forced to do anything. The BBC has done its bit ethically by giving those involved the opportunity to blog about their experiences.

3) Outcomes Of Therapies For Mental Disorders

The therapies which we study as part of our course are on the course because they are used commonly to treat mental disorders. They are used commonly because they have been shown to work. However, the evidence gets a bit more complicated than that as these three articles show.

This article explores a paradox in research into psychotherapy.

While research is being cut back into the effectiveness of psychotherapy in some developed countries, those same countries are funding research into the effectiveness of therapy in developing countries.

This article explores a second paradox.

On the one hand, there is over-treatment of mental health disorders, with normal life experiences turned into mental disorders which need treatment. On the other hand, across the planet, the impact of mental illness on the health and well-being of everyone is only just beginning to be recognised.

Finally, this article explains clearly the limits of what we know or don’t know about the effectiveness of treatments for depression.

The text books we use tend to pick out a couple of studies which support each treatment and leave it at that. This article delves a bit deeper.

4) Addiction

To go with three articles about treatment of therapies, here are three new articles about addiction.

This article from Dana Smith at Cambridge takes as its starting point the addiction to heroin of soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Vietnam. It explores both the social psychological and the biochemical explanations of why some soldiers develop an addiction on active service which they give up when they get home. The article refers to some research by Karen Ersche which we use as part of our course. If you’d like to know more about this, please go to

A second article from Mark Griffiths draws attention to gambling on social networking sites.

On the face of it, this gambling is harmless because no money changes hands. It reminded me of playing cards and board games with my grandmother when I was a child. Griffiths suggests however that playing these games gives young people an insight into how gambling works. He suggests that more work needs to be done to understand the long term effects of this phenomenon.

A third article looks at why poor children are more likely to smoke than their richer counterparts.

I thought when I started reading it that this article might contain a high moral tone and no substance. In fact, it says something quite interesting about the psychological processes which might be involved.

5) Sexual Selection As An Explanation Of Human Reproductive Behaviour

I watched this programme yesterday and realised that even though it was made some time ago, it is relevant to the work we do on relationships.

You don’t need to buy the video: it’s now on YouTube here.

I’ve also been looking again at the work of Joan Roughgarden again, partly because of this programme and partly because of a conversation with Professor John Spicer of Plymouth University earlier in the week. Here’s Roughgarden in a recent lecture.

Here is a slightly older TED talk.

We’ll be using edited versions of these in lessons in the autumn but this material is worth a look now. Warning: do not watch if you are easily offended by pictures of non-human animals copulating.

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