Voice of Young Science media workshop

Until recently, I knew relatively little about the interaction between academic research and media exposure, being a first-year PhD student with almost no press coverage to date. My general impression was that it’s an abusive relationship neither end wants to quit, often fraught with misrepresentation, sensationalism, and general misconduct.

On the strength of this ignorance I decided to apply to attend the Standing Up for Science’s Media Workshop, a 1-day series of talks by high-ups on both sides of the equation complemented by group exercises, aimed at members of the Voice of Young Science branch of the London-based charity Sense about Science. I tried my hardest to make my CV look more “media”, whatever that means, and was fortunate enough to be given a place.

By the end of this informative, lively workshop, it’s fair to say my preconceptions were, for the most part, overturned. Continue reading

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Nudging the public into censorship: The effect of default opt-in on decision making

This post originally appeared on ORGzine for the Open Rights Group.

Last year the Government decided that it wanted ISPs to “actively encourage parents…to switch on parental controls”. Two weeks ago the Department for Department for Culture, Media & Sport released a policy paper in which they said:

“Where children could be accessing the internet, we need good filters that are preselected to be on, and we need parents aware and engaged in the setting of those filters.” (pp. 36)

Deploying a configuration screen with one or more options pre-selected raises questions regarding how ‘free’ a choice this is, how considered users decisions will be, and how many will choose the alternative (unfiltered) option. Continue reading

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I believe in CBT and my research shows it works! Therapy allegiance in psychotherapy research

Looking to find a psychologist to help you with your problems? Within the world of psychology, there are many flavours of talking therapy, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Although there are many similarities between different psychotherapies (e.g. empathy, trusting relationships, agreed goals), many of these therapies have distinct philosophies, theories, and specific techniques they employ to effect positive change.

Most psychologists have a certain degree of bias towards a particular flavour of psychotherapy. Perhaps a particular style of therapy makes more sense to one person because its philosophies and theories broadly match that person’s values and their way of seeing the world. Or a person’s personality or life experiences (possibly including therapy themselves) may draw them toward a particular treatment style/approach. Or the school where a person was studying concentrated on a specific approach or was taught by an especially charismatic professor. Suffice to say that the reasons are rarely simple and may span any or all of the above. Continue reading

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To activate or not to activate: does hippocampal hyperactivation cause cognitive deterioration?

After his famous opening words, Shakespeare’s Hamlet wondered “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer… Or to take arms”. Scientists, too, are puzzling about whether or not to take action, albeit of an entirely different kind: whether or not to suppress the increased brain activation seen in certain diseases. A paper published in Neuron earlier this month concluded that reducing excess brain activity by means of an antiepileptic drug has beneficial effects on memory in a condition called amnestic mild cognitive impairment. The authors also suggest that the drug’s effect may be able to slow down progression to Alzheimer’s disease. Another glimmer of hope for those at risk for or suffering from this devastating disease currently lacking any effective treatment? Or just another exciting discovery never to be heard of again if it fails rigorous clinical testing? Continue reading

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A new way of studying Alzheimer’s Disease:- Converting adult cells to brain cells

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and can occur sporadically in old age or less frequently can occur as Early Onset Alzheimer’s due to inherited genetic mutations. Individuals with Down’s Syndrome are at very high risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

Key symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease are progressive memory loss, changes in mood and issues with communication. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and it is estimated that 35.6 million people worldwide are affected by dementia (http://www.alz.co.uk/research/statistics). Alzheimer’s Disease provides great burdens on the health care system, is distressing for affected individuals and is very upsetting for family members caring for an individual with Alzherimer’s Disease. Research towards finding better treatments to halt disease progression and maybe even prevent Alzheimer’s is ongoing throughout the world. Continue reading

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Have connectionist models killed off beliefs?

 

Image from Arenamontanus

Guest post by Joe Gladstone ( jjg39@cam.ac.uk ), PhD Candidate – Cambridge Judge Business School, Cambridge University

Connectionist models are widely held to have had a revolutionary impact upon cognitive science (Marcus, 2001). However, they are also employed in a highly controversial doctrine known as ‘eliminative materialism’, which claims the central posits of our common understanding of human psychology, including our conception of ‘beliefs’, are entirely false (Ramsey, Stitch & Garon, 1990). If such arguments are accepted, a radical reorientation is necessary in how we perceive and predict human behaviour, one that does not allow for human desire, intention or beliefs of any kind. The cluster of psychological constructs under threat are known as ‘propositional attitudes’, with much of the controversy stemming from Ramsey, Stich and Garon’s (1990, RS&G from here) assertion that “If connectionist hypotheses…turn out to be right, so too will eliminativism about propositional attitudes” (p.500). What this means is not that reference to beliefs will be dispensed with as a psychological definition, but that it will turn out that beliefs and related ideas do not, and have never, existed in any form.

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Can research on meditation help bridge the gap between phenomenological and neuroscientific approaches to consciousness?

Although consciousness continually resists a clear definition, there are roughly two principal approaches that populate contemporary western thought: the phenomenological and neuroscientific accounts of consciousness. Both offer a compelling perspective on the nature and function of consciousness, but before delving deep into these opposing schools of thought, we must first examine their epistemological roots.

For the sake of brevity, the best point of departure lies in Descartes’ dualistic contention that body and mind are distinct entities. In this view, the body is simply an arrangement of matter – sensory organs and so on – while the mind is composed of a nonphysical substance, an “immaterial spirit” (Descartes, 1641). This gives rise to the popular image of consciousness as a “ghost in the machine” (Ryle, 1949), a pre-existing self-aware entity inhabiting a shell-like body:

The Homunculus argument

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Cyberchondria: Online health information and health anxiety

Wondering what that rash on your arm is? If the cough you’ve had for a few days warrants making an appointment to see your doctor/physician? If you’ve ever used the internet to answer these sort of questions then you’re in the 60-80% of internet users who regularly do so.

In theory this is a great idea – you get access to the collective knowledge of medicine, and you don’t get kicked out of the appointment room after 15 minutes.

However, there are a few problems – research tell us that: Continue reading

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The merits and shortcomings of positive psychology

Incidentally, what IS happiness?

Positive Psychology is a movement founded by Martin Seligman which aims to “increase the tonnage of happiness on the planet” by measuring, classifying, and increasing positive emotion and positive traits. It explicitly positions itself as the anti-DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; American Psychiatric Association, 2001), having created its own ‘diagnostic’ manual, the Classification of Strengths (Peterson and Seligman, 2004), encompassing 24 human strengths within 10 criteria. Its roots are in humanistic psychology, and positive psychology’s seeming reluctance to properly acknowledge this has been much to the chagrin of parts of the humanistic psychology movement and community. Additionally, positive psychology has positioned itself on the side of science, aligning itself with a reductionist, quantitative approach, and claiming this as superior to the anti-scientific methods used by humanistic psychology. However, there are a number of philosophical, cultural and empirical problems with positive psychology’s current position, which suggests it is still at a rather immature stage in its development. Positive psychology’s application to clinical practice is unsurprisingly also in its infancy, with only a handful of well designed studies, but even with these issues the potential benefits of the interventions are tantalising.

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Computational Modelling of Reading and Dyslexia – Symbolic vs. Connectionist Approaches

 

Man Reading Computer/Book
Reading is a new skill in terms of evolutionary history, and it is therefore unlikely that sufficient time has passed for any adaptive benefits to become coded in the human genotype. Reading therefore represents a novel skill to be learnt, presumably in the absence of some inherited predisposition to acquire the necessary specific skills. Thus it is of particular interest to ascertain how humans read, given that a number of systems are involved; for example, when reading just a single letter, one must recognise the visual symbol, match it to a previously stored representation of the letter, retrieve the name of the letter, its sound (phoneme), and be able to integrate these, not only on a letter-level, but also on a word level. Additionally, as one becomes a more skilled reader, one has to develop the ability to recognise words on the whole (sight) level, as well as develop a system for decoding non-words, by means of mapping symbols to their sounds. This enables the reader to develop a method for dealing with regular words (e.g. gave/pave, hint/mint) as well as irregular words (e.g. pint, have), a skill particularly essential for less regular languages. The regularity of a language refers to the complexity of the rules regarding how the visual patterns of words (orthography) are converted into their sounds (phonemes), with some languages (e.g. German and Italian) having more transparent (shallow) orthographies, compared to English, which is quasi-regular (Plaut, McClelland, Seidenberg & Patterson, 1996). Given the complexity of the reading process discussed above, it is of interest to psychologists and neuroscientists to develop methods to examine how reading  processes (both skilled and abnormal) emerge.

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