Post Of The Week – Friday 11th April

A day or two late …. but it is the holidays.

1) Two From The Naked Scientists

These podcasts are worth a listen. Both interviews are carried out by school students who ask the right questions.

This one contains an interview with Dr. Tim Fryer about how PET (Positron Emission Tomography) works. PET is used both as a frontline clinical tool for detecting cancer and as a research tool for understanding how the brain works. There are two things I like about this interview. First, it gives you an idea about how a career in science can work. Tim Fryer started his career in nuclear physics but now works in an area with very different applications and concerns. Secondly, he explains that we have really discovered all that we are going to discover in imaging techniques. There has been a huge growth in this area over the last 40 years but the challenge from here on is to refine what we have got.

This second interview is with Prof Ian Goodyer from Cambridge. His particular interest is in the growth of adolescent depression. This interview is great for understanding some contemporary ideas about depression. There’s some interesting thinking about how depression works in the brain, focusing on communication between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. Ian Goodyer explains how our knowledge of the genetic basis of depression is limited compared to what we know about environmental factors and uses the phrase “genes propose, environments dispose” to sum up current thinking. He also explains how “depression” may be a catch all term for a variety of conditions and distinguishes between the course of mild/moderate and severe depression. He’s worth listening to at least as reassurance that the things we cover in our course are things which people in Psychology actually talk about.


2) Smoking In The Workplace

If you’re on the A2 course, you will have seen the video from the NHS Smokefree campaign which features a chef talking about how he and his work colleagues successfully gave up smoking by going on a programme together. We might assume on the basis of this video that workplace interventions designed to help people come together to give up smoking are a good idea.

This proposition has now been researched. You can listen to a podcast and follow a link to read about the conclusions. Basically, as you would expect, interventions work at an individual level but the idea of combining interventions into a programme or employers offering incentives doesn’t.


3) Neuroscience And Education

You might have assumed that education would be making the most of the things which are being discovered about the structure and functioning of the human brain. This survey of teachers and parents commissioned by the Wellcome Trust suggests otherwise.

Essentially, the problem is that ideas which have been sold to teachers as having a neuroscientific rationale and evidence base don’t have much scientific validity while those ideas which might be valid have been insufficiently researched in a practical context. In your time in education as students, you might have come across VAK learning styles (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic), left/right brain distinction and brain training through Brain Gym. There is not a shred of evidence for the validity of any of these. At the same time, ideas that might be helpful, for example biofeedback, are not implemented because teachers do not know what they are or dispute their evidence base. It’s interesting that in our course, we still study applications of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories to education. These are interesting but they have been around for a long time. There are other things which we should be getting excited about but working out which ones is difficult. We need to be able to distinguish ….


4) Neurotrash From Neurotreasure

This naturally follows on from 3) above. Research receives media attention but the question is whether it is any good or not. Here are some pointers to think about.


5) An Illness, Inherited?

Jenni Fagan is an English novelist. In this blog, she talks about her recent bout of severe depression and her biological heritage.

It’s a powerful story. It should remind us that when we talk about the biological approach and about nature-nurture, we are not dealing with a dry academic discussion but with people’s lived experience and with how they see themselves.


6) Gaming Linked With Brain Thickening

This is a nice example of how Psychology works. Someone comes up with a finding. Playing games is associated with thickening in some parts of the brain which are associated with high level cognitive functions.

Here’s the link. However, as often happens, this raises more questions than it answers. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore raises a couple of them in her tweet here.

One or two more questions come up in the comments section on the Wired story. Good research generates interesting questions.


7) CBT And Psychosis

The controversy about CBT as a treatment for psychosis, an umbrella term for several different conditions, one of which is schizophrenia, rumbles on. Here are two contributions, one from Keith Laws in The Guardian and another from Peter Kinderman and Anne Cooke.


The arguments here get complicated but two things stick in my mind. Firstly, the text books we use make out that judging the effectiveness of a therapy is simple. For the exam, it is seen as OK to quote a research study and a figure for the effectiveness of a particular intervention. Laws’ article shows that the science behind these claims is complex and messy. Secondly, on reading the Kinderman and Cooke article, I’m reminded of conversations with Dan in Year 13 about the conversations he’s had with health professionals, the parents of the children he coaches for cricket. Doctors are acutely aware of the context to which people return after their ten minutes of consultation in the calm of a surgery. They know that they need to do something but that the medication which they prescribe is only a small part of what someone needs.


8) Ketamine As An Antidepressant.

Last week’s post included a link to a BBC story about ketamine. Please see here. This article from the Mental Elf explains some of the detail.

As with the article in 7) above, it is the methodological issues of judging effectiveness which catch the eye. More important still is the observation in the discussion about what antidepressants are supposed to be doing.


9) Treating Autism

This link comes from Simon Baron-Cohen.

It describes the use of oxytocin to help people deal with the effects of autism. This is important both for what it tells us about oxytocin and for what it tells us about how to treat autism. Researchers are still at a very early stage but are starting to get somewhere.


10) Susan Gathercole

We’ve come across Susan Gathercole’s work when looking at working memory.

Here, she talks more about her work and career.


11) Eating Disorders In Males

When we covered eating disorders as  part of AS Abnormality, we looked at the idea that these disorders are socially learnt. This can sound like a sexist idea: females are susceptible to the influence of images of models, celebrities and even toys in the way they think about the shape of their bodies. I made the point that this process also applies to males. This article from the BBC supports this.


12) Gambling: Distorted Cognition

When we look at the cognitive approach to explaining problem gambling, we look at the distorted thinking that problem gamblers report in relation to their gambling. For example, “near misses” are described as “near wins”.

This article explains how these distortions have been found to relate to damage in one part of the brain. This is yet another example of how we need to abandon the distinctions between models or approaches and understand better how to combine explanations.


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