Thursday, December 24, 2015

And so this is 2015, and what have you thought? My psychological year in review 2015

2015: I embark on a project on family dementia caregiving and its impact on the mind (and body). An interesting paper came from Brazil early this year looking at caregiver stress and cognitive performance. Family caregivers performed worse at tasks assessing episodic memory, executive function and working memory-the latter effect even persisted after controlling for age, anxiety, depression and medication use. The authors also observed reduced brain derived neurotrophic factor in caregivers, and this correlated with working memory performance, suggesting an underlying neural mechanism. 

As part of my current research we are looking at the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction in carers. It was therefore interesting to see a Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper on mindfulness with Posner, a major name in the cognitive psychology of attention, give his two cents in this area. There seems to be a sharp methodological distinction between cross-sectional research in this area, which often compares expert meditators to non-meditators, with intervention work, which (understandably) looks at more short-term periods of meditation (e.g. an 8-week course).  

An interesting paper on dual processes of reasoning caught my eye. It was interesting to see people breaking down cognitive processes into further steps that might help to tie up some of the differing hypotheses on how Type 1 and Type 2 thinking may interact (with a very quick-and-nifty graphical abstract). I previously discussed dual process interactions somewhat generally but particularly with regard to creative thinking, and I think Pennycook et al.'s ideas are perhaps particularly relevant to a longer-term cognitive process such as creativity.   

Books-wise I didn’t get around to many psychology titles this year. The paperback of "How We Are" by Vincent Deary was out. An apparent attempt to write somewhat of a “theory of everything” for practical psychology, Deary grapples with how the small worlds we inhabit as individuals can be shaken by change. There is a touch of "the granny could have told you that" about this book, although it would have to be a highly eloquent grandmother. "Black Sheep" by Richard Stephens is a very readable and entertaining book about how things that seem bad for us can often be advantageous (tell that to your grandmother...) 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mindfulness update: 6 months on

Christmas shopping, I hear someone asking a shop assistant for mindfulness colouring books. Six months on from the end of the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) course, how mindful am I?

Why not use the same questionnaire I ask research participants to fill in? I look through the questions on the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills? Some examples:

I don't pay attention to what I'm doing because I'm daydreaming, worrying, or otherwise distracted.

I am somewhat of a daydreamer, although when trying to be mindful (e.g. when walking home from work) I can bring my mind back in focus when it strays, albeit it will need to be brought back again after a while.

I pay attention to sounds, such as clocks ticking, birds chirping, or cars passing.

I do think I am slightly more attuned to things happening in the present-before going into the class I was someone very occupied with the future and the past, as well as imagined scenarios, schemes and dreams. This is still true of me, but I think the present tense is breaking through more frequently.

I believe some of my thoughts are abnormal or bad and shouldn't be that way. 

This touches on the non-judgmental aspect of mindful awareness. In general I haven’t been prone to telling myself I shouldn’t be thinking a certain way, at least not in many years, so I doubt the course was going to change that.

I had low to moderate stress levels going into the course, so perhaps I didn’t have the same motivation to use the techniques involved as someone coming to this technique with more problematic stress levels. Meditation is something I'm doing on and off at present. Nonetheless, sometimes when I feel stress coming on, or particularly when a broken-record stream of stressed consciousness arises, I can bring my attention back to the present (so maybe I do think some of my thoughts shouldn't be the way they are after all...).

The study I’m currently running involves a 6-month and a 12-month follow-up, to see if any changes induced by MBSR classes persist over time. Change is inevitable, progress in controversial. Changing people’s behaviour in a lasting manner, including one’s own behaviour, is tricky. Informal feedback from the caregivers has been positive so far, but it will be interesting to see what happens to cognitive performance (particularly sustained attention) and biomarkers of stress 6-12 months down the line. And I wonder if that shopper will be stressed if they don't get that colouring book... 

Related posts:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thin ice: the psychology of climate change scepticism

Today I participated in the local march to coincide with the climate talks at Paris.

What does psychology have to say on climate change? Clearly, behaviour change at an individual level will be hard-pressed to address the problem. Why change our behaviour in the sense of making large individual sacrifices when we can work as a society to make the things we enjoy renewable? Nonetheless, such change takes political will, and this is driven by social psychology. 

While working towards a PhD at Cardiff I became aware of the research of psychologists such as Nick Pidgeon and Lorraine Whitmarsh, who were working to gain a greater understanding of people's attitudes towards climate change. One aspect of public attitudes towards climate change they have looked into is scepticism towards anthropogenic climate change (no doubt a roadblock to political will to fight climate change).

Research by this team at Cardiff found that people who held sceptical attitudes towards climate change assimilated information in a given article differently from those with less sceptical views. A fairly classic result, although interestingly the attitudes of the two groups did not become polarised (i.e. the scepticism of the sceptical group did not increase more markedly). Another study indicated that levels of certainty on this issue were higher among "believers" in climate change compared to those holding more sceptical views, suggesting that the sceptics may be more amenable to change their viewpoint. However, it should be noted that levels of scepticism were low in the (British) cohort studied. 

Work done across Europe and the USA has brought home the idea that climate change is often secondary to other issues and concerns in people's lives. Efforts to build support for fighting climate change may have to frame concerns about climate change in a manner that chimes with other localised concerns (flooding in Cork?) to actually generate political will. Recent research from Australia*, which I dare say has broader applicability, has indicated that people with a stronger sense of global attachment have lower levels of scepticism around anthropogenic climate change compared to those with a stronger place attachment at a national level. Interestingly right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance seemed to mediate the effect of national place attachment on climate scepticism. (I wonder where these nationalistic climate deniers are going to send asylum seekers when Nauru is underwater, but I digress).

Clearly such scepticism is in the interest of those who gain from fossil fuels. Perhaps the biggest issue is to create more motivation/incentives to get more people moving us faster toward 100% renewables? As one speaker at our local event noted, if/when we make enough renewable energy to do everything we want to do, then much of this fight will be over.

*Australia has been found have a higher level of climate scepticism than either the US or the UK.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Fiction review: "Daniel Martin" by John Fowles

"Daniel Martin" follows the character of the title back and forth through between his youth and middle age. Though it is not without plot, the book is more of a character study, and does not have the same narrative drive, as the more widely-read "The Magus". John Fowles does not follow the "show, don't tell" school of describing people's feelings. Inner lives are laid out in clinical detail, either in the protagonist's thoughts about himself and his life, or in conversations like chess games with other characters. Notwithstanding the rather postmodern self-awareness of the characters, the book manages to touch rather directly on some topics.

One theme running through the novel is that of intergenerational concerns (particularly the middle aged Daniel's concerns about his previously estranged daughter, as well as the contrast between his life as a film producer and his own father's quiet life as a minister). It's an interesting time to read the novel, when the characters in their twenties would now be around the age of an older Daniel Martin (the book was written in 1977). Some passages have interesting parallels with contemporary complaints which are often presented as if unique to a post-Web 2.0 era-consider the following, concerning people taking cameras on holidays: 

"A lifelong avoider of other tourists, he had forgotten the extent to which every man is now his own image-maker. It was almost frightening, this obsession with capturing through one sense alone, and one that little thought or concentration: a mindless clicking....Perhaps it was the ultimate privilege...merely to duplicate seeing, to advertise in some future that one had been there."  

The book also has a particular preoccupation with "Englishness". It's not outlandish to suggest that particular nations have distinct characteristics, including the case of one with a colonial past like England. At the same time I feel that there's little Fowles says about the Englishness that could be applied to other places. In writing a novel in my early twenties I recall wanting to write a book not about being an Irish person particularly but one about being a person of the Western World (hence the characters were a mix of Irish, UK and US citizens). As a film producer, Daniel Martin divides his time between the UK and US (as well as travelling to Egypt and Syria later in the text), although Fowles seems to use this more to draw contrasts than to note commonalities of the Western experience. Perhaps this urge on my part is partly borne of globalisation having taken great hold than in the 1970's.

If you're willing to spend some time with characters that aren't going to plead for their own likeability, this novel has enough enjoyable insight to reward the reader.

Related posts
Review: "A girl is a half-formed thing"

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Performance under pressure

Speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person...number two was death...this means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy

Jerry Seinfeld

There are various methods of inducing acute stress in order to look at its effects on psychology. Indeed, some people use psychological tests themselves as a stressor (e.g. an attention task that requires multitasking under time pressure). However, a method that's been of interest to my colleagues and me over the last few years is the Trier Social Stress Test (or TSST for short), a method that capitalises on most people's fear of public speaking.

Picture the scene: you are requested to take part in a study assessing the effects of stress. On appearing at the laboratory, you are then informed that the study will involve you giving a 5-minute presentation on why you are the ideal candidate for a job of your choice. You are led into a room with two evaluators who have been trained not to give any encouraging feedback (including non-verbal signs such as nodding or smiling), where you must make your presentation.  

This is a relatively real-world-style stressor (most people will have to make a presentation like this at some point in their lives, although hopefully to a more encouraging audience). Not surprisingly, most people find it fairly aversive. The TSST has been shown to increase reported stress, anxiety, and broader measures of negative mood in general, as well as heart rate, the stress hormone cortisol and immune system activation.

The TSST has been used to look at the effects of stress on cognition. There is some conflicting evidence on its effects on memory, with some findings indicating that higher cortisol spikes led to better word recall, but other findings indicated the opposite relationship. It is possible that the effect of stress on word recall may be moderated by the emotional valence of the words used, with more emotional and particularly more negative words being easier to recall. Context-dependent memory strikes again!

More complex cognitive tasks have also been put to the stress test. A particularly interesting paper has indicated that a modified version of the Trier with a greater social rejection component led to improved creative performance. This effect was more pronounced in those with high levels of the hormone DHEA-S, which the authors point out has been linked to depression. This could have some interesting implications for the whole creativity and depression archetype, although that's a whole debate in itself...

What is unfortunate (but understandable) in the area of research using the TSST is the lack of research using performance on the speech task itself as a measured performance outcome. It's unfortunate as this is cognitive performance that is occurring when the stressor is present, or at least at its most pressing. It's understandable as performance on a task such as giving an interview speech is harder to score objectively than a dry recall test. This would be the case even if everyone were applying for the same job, although in practice, as research participants generally choose the job they would want most as an individual, you end up with 30 people saying why they would be best for any number of different career types. Nonetheless, one could imagine a method like the consensual assessment technique being used in collaboration with someone from a recruitment agency (who could score talks for characteristics that are generally desirable in interviews across a variety of occupations).

Allen, A. P., Kennedy, P. J., Cryan, J. F., Dinan, T. G., & Clarke, G. (2014). Biological and psychological markers of stress in humans: Focus on the Trier Social Stress Test. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews38, 94-124.

Related Posts
Stress and creativity

Sunday, October 11, 2015

But is it creative?

If you write an article, draw a picture, or simply daydream of an interesting plot for a film, what makes your idea creative (or not)?

Typically, there are two aspects to definitions of creativity-one is that of novelty, the other is value/usefulness. Robert Weisberg (who has written one of the most interesting books on the psychology of creativity that I have read) begs to differ. In the book "Creativity" and more recently in an article in Creativity Research Journal he suggests that we define a creative product simply as being something novel that is produced deliberately-without the need for value.

As Weisberg points out, tastes in evaluating creative outputs change over time. Van Gogh would never have won the X-factor if there were an equivalent for the visual art of his time. Music that might have sounded chaotic and devoid of musicality to an earlier audience might be a rocking tune to (some) modern ears. A technical invention that does one thing when it is invented might be useful in other ways when combined with newer technology that gets made decades later, thereby increasing its value. However, if we want to take a psychological approach to studying creativity, is there not something absurd about implying that the same cognitive processes go from creative to uncreative, based on the fact that the critical appraisal or technical needs of the outside world change over time?

A focus on novelty over value could perhaps move the field in a more objective direction. If you look at methods used within creativity research, the consensual assessment technique involves judges appraising the value or quality of a creative work-it would be very difficult (and perhaps contradictory) for these judges to set aside their ideas on the value of a creative work. Not that appraising originality is always easy, but it should be easier for two people with the same information in front of them to judge whether the latest contribution to the field overlaps with something that has gone before. As Weisberg points out, there are different levels at which we can judge novelty-coming something that's new for everyone is a high bar, but coming up with something that new to you requires a certain creativity, even if you could have relied on rote memory had you known it before.

Although these are valid points, I feel that focusing purely on novelty would lose some of the nuance of studying creative output. Certain psychometric tests of creativity look at the level of elaboration of an idea. A particularly complex new idea, even if it does not meet certain other criteria for "high value" within its field, may nonetheless draw on different cognitive processes than a more minimalist idea (notwithstanding the deliberation that can go into ideas that are very simple on the surface-hence it's good to look at the process and not just the product). Thus, even though two ideas may both be completely (and thus equally) new, they may differ in other relevant characteristics. However, I will admit that elaboration is more an interesting aspect of creative work rather than a defining feature.

Frankly I'm undecided on whether this would be a good move. At a first blush, there seems to be something liberating about not having to worry about whether a song is going to push a genre of music in new directions. However, when creativity is a driving force behind (sustainable?) economic development, and improved lifestyles, I can understand why some people are happy to live with the contradictory idea of someone becoming creative after death.  

Weisberg, R.W. (2015). On the usefulness of "value" in the definition of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 27(2), 111-124.

Related posts
The Zoo of the New
Creativity and two different modes of thought

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Mindfulness update: week 5 onward

I previously reported on how my initial attempts at mindfulness were going during the first half of a course of mindfulness-based stress reduction. Rather belatedly, here are some thoughts how the second half went:

Week 5: On the bus from Cork to Dublin I attempt some more body scan (slowly paying attention to different parts of one's own body). A captive audience to my own mind, I run through a full bodyscan a few times-I think I'm getting the hang of it. Or at least I'm becoming more accepting of my mind-wandering.

Week 6: At class, an exercise in compassion. Initially we think about compassion for ourselves and others we care about, then for people we encounter in our daily lives we don't know (I think of a few staff I see in a shop). Then the tricky one: compassion for someone who we don't get on with. We're told this doesn't have to be someone who's done us wrong-it could just be someone we're distant from. Ever in search of challenge I pick a randomer who knocked a book out of my hand in the street and threw it over a nearby pub.

Another idea is to start using a self-compassion mantra. When a day-long bout of nasty sickness hits on Friday I am in need of a mindful approach to how I feel-I come up with the simple "I am doing well". When I get headache I find that focussing closely on my head makes me wonder if what I feel is REALLY pain or more of a dull pressure near the skull.

Week 7: At this week's class we are doing a mountain and a lake meditation. The meditations involve imagining either a mountain or a lake. You think of how they persist over time, retaining their essential selves despite the wind, rain, snow and sun that wash over them over the years. Then one imagines becoming this mountain or lake. We are seated in chairs; I have a feeling one might feel slightly more mountain-shaped sitting in the lotus position. It's tricky initially to move from visualising the mountain to try to think of actually embodying it. I find my imagination wandering to the scene from "Fantasia" where a mountain is actually a huge demon.

For some reason (maybe a practice effect?) I find it easier to imagine myself as the lake. I feel myself melt into the back of the chair, flattening out against the bed of the water. I can picture someone jumping into the lake, visualising how they descend below the surface, where the great depth of the lake becomes apparent.

I have a lot of songs in my head (particularly doing the mountain meditation). It's something I knew before beginning this mindfulness course, but it's something that seems to persist even as the practice continues. Of course, this does come back to the point that it's not necessarily about having an EMPTY mind. What still concerns me more is that I do still find a certain impatience with the body scan-when thoughts of things I want to do creep in I find myself moving through the scan more quickly.

Looking through the online course, as well as the mountain and lake meditations, they highlight some ways of dealing with interpersonal conflict. Some of the advice given here about forgiveness may be easier to hear than to practice. (Particularly if someone throws your book over the book, uurrr).

Week 8: The focus is on developing one's own practice. Some suggestions from the mighty Kabat-Zinn include a focus on one's breath. He also suggests lying in bed just after waking up to focus on breath (not likely for me-I wake up early most days and jump straight out of bed to avoid getting groggy). His closing remark is that the real meditation is your life. (It reminds me somewhat of the idea that Mass is not about being a good Catholic just for an hour or so on a Sunday). Being mindful is something you can do just you set time aside to meditate, but it can also be a more pervasive approach to one's psychological life.

Indeed, one aspect of practice I do find myself having some success is in drawing on mindfulness when confronted with a stressor. I can be prone to ruminating on negative thoughts when faced with stress (often going off on a tangent of negative things to think about that are irrelevant to what set me off in the first place). Bringing my awareness back to the present-either my physical self or even just my immediate surroundings-is a good way to interrupt any cycle of stress.

Related posts:
Mindfulness and the mind
Mindfulness update weeks 1-4

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Zoo of the New: Innovation in Universities

The following article (including the pic of me in my PhD office) originally appeared in The Psychologist's "New Voices" section in 2011. It is reprinted here with permission.

Allen, A.P. (2011). “The Zoo of the New”: Organisational innovation in universities and the psychology of creativity. The Psychologist, 24(11), 862-863.

Despite the image of the university as a hub of learning and imagination, many of its inhabitants feel that they are failing to use their creativity to bring about something useful. They may look at their research and see the same technique being applied to trivially differing questions. Others read through a syllabus, see that it’s not engaging and yet do not know what to do with it. And yet pressure to be more innovative seems to be everywhere; for example, the “New technology, innovation and skills investment” webpage of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC, 2009). They note that much of the UK’s value added is coming from high-tech manufacturing and, more relevant for psychologists, knowledge-intensive services. But what might help or hinder organisational innovation? And in whose interest is it that universities become more innovative?

Creativity and/versus organisational innovation
For this discussion, I will refer to organisational innovation(s) (OI) as creativity that enhances income and/or organisational efficiency. Simonton (1988) has argued that creativity requires social persuasion. Although such a strong view is obviously controversial, dissemination of an idea is a typical part of the creative process for many creative people. Most theorists of creativity (though not all; c.f. Weisberg, 2006) suggest that the main criteria for creativity are novelty and usefulness. A creative thought that becomes an OI can be thought of not only as having been disseminated, but as also having passed the test of usefulness.
Sharing an idea is all well and good, but some may baulk at the idea of a creative idea needing to prove itself in the workplace or marketplace. Nonetheless, creative ideas need to overcome organisational barriers in order to manifest themselves as innovation (c.f. De Dreu, Nijstad, Bechtoldt, & Baas, 2011). I would argue that, for example, turning an idea into a marketable product is sufficient for meeting the usefulness criterion, but not necessary. Figuring out how to make an idea appeal to others can contribute to the creative process. Indeed, Boden (e.g. 2004) has argued that constraints are what make creativity possible. Constraints placed on thinking create a conceptual map of creative possibilities; breakthroughs can come by explorations of these conceptual spaces (and at the boundaries, where the rules can be bent). Turning one’s idea into OI will create new constraints (e.g. “laypeople” need to understand this thing in the way that I do) and these can help to refine one’s ideas.

OI and creativity in psychology
As scholars of the mind we should be able to generate useful ideas and apply knowledge about creativity to our own work. To take an example of relevant research, surveys of R & D employees has found that time pressure hinders creative outcomes, but only in organisations with a strong innovation climate (Hsu & Fan, 2010). This could have clear implications for universities that have committed themselves to fostering an innovative climate (although applying this finding may not always be easy).  A series of experiments have indicated that thinking on behalf of others tends to lead to more creative thinking (Polman & Emich, 2011). Asking colleagues for their opinion may thus lead to more original work if one takes their advice.
Psychological research on creativity is obviously useful, but broader psychological theories of creativity can also contribute to the debate. Both Boden (2004) and Weisberg (2006) have argued that ordinary thought processes are sufficient for the creation of creative ideas. The implication is that most people have the potential to develop OI – someone’s creative ability shouldn’t be written off just he/she does a particular type of work.
But if anyone can be creative, why aren’t we all coming up with amazing ideas? Both Boden and Weisberg have also argued that one must spend a long period of time developing expertise in a field before one can make a major creative contribution. Perhaps some who find themselves frequently changing jobs may never make a major breakthrough as a result. However, I don’t believe that geographical mobility should be seen as an impediment to creativity. Consider the finding that people who have spent time living abroad tend to perform better at creative thinking tasks (Maddux & Galinsky, 2009).
One barrier to problem solving is functional fixedness (thinking about an object in terms of its typical function, when a solution requires one to think about it in a different way) (Duncker, 1945). It can be difficult to overcome: Jansson and Smith (1991) demonstrated that engineers and engineering students included a bad aspect of a prototype when asked to create a new design, even though they were instructed to avoid this bad aspect. One advantage of moving to a new lab or department is that one’s “fresh pair of eyes” may use a novel approach to a research question or invention that’s under development. Even if new members of staff do not spot an idea by themselves, their relatively na├»ve questions may inspire the more experienced members of staff to overcome a functional fixation that had previously trapped them.
It is probably uncontroversial to assert that academics have to work hard to bring a fully-fledged creative project online. But does this imply that researching a number of different topics could undermine creative potential?  Not necessarily. Useful insights may often strike due to opportunistic assimilation (c.f. Seifert et al., 1995). This is where one encounters useful concepts that help to further an idea when one is not in the midst of trying to develop the idea. For example, a group of behavioural scientists who undertake to learn more about the organisation of the brain may, during this process of learning, get the inspiration for a new piece of experimental equipment for their animal lab. However, opportunistic assimilation is more likely to occur when a problem has been deeply considered, although not fully resolved. Consequently, the more one has considered an issue, the easier it is for opportunistic assimilation to occur. It seems one simply has to juggle working hard at a major project while staying abreast of other developments.
Many psychologists have already shown opportunistic assimilation by involving themselves in the emergence of multidisciplinary areas (cognitive science and behavioural economics are fecund examples). One example of how psychology can interact with other disciplines is the tension between organisational psychology and economics over how to handle job security (Alsop, 1996). Organisational psychology has found that psychological security can foster innovation (c.f. West, 2000, for a discussion), while many economists encourage a push for increasing labour market flexibility. Alsop suggests that enhancing employability (as opposed to job security) may help to ease this tension somewhat. You may or may not agree with this proposed solution (bearing in mind the above point about frequent job changes). Nonetheless, questions like these have clear social relevance…the upshot is that the dialogue between psychology and other disciplines should help universities to increase their influence.

Left, right, left, right
Some may perceive the drive towards OI in academia (rather than creativity in general) as a ham-fisted attempt to turn university staff into (1) lapdogs for industry, rather than its collaborators and/or (2) administrators that are expected to make their institution run more smoothly instead of pursuing their intellectual ideas. If either of these concerns is true, the creativity of university staff may be stifled.
The first anxiety may turn to panic with the funding for “blue skies” research beginning to feel the pinch under the latest UK government – with this push coming in a context where people have already suggested that public/private collaborations may not be in the public interest (James, 2002). Where such collaborations go sour, the second anxiety may be vindicated if university researchers find themselves spending their time organising the collaboration instead of staying at the coalface of research. Although there is an argument that innovation only needs to be original for the organisation implementing it (e.g. De Dreu et al., 2011), my own fear is that the label “Innovation” could undermine radical, groundbreaking creativity in research – is there still anything original about universities assisting in clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies?
But let’s not forget the genuine innovations of both university staff and students. Some computer scientists at a university I previously attended (who went on to set up a successful business) grumbled that a sufficient support structure was not there for them to develop patents for technologies emerging from their work. However, there are now many organisations helping graduates to establish spin-off companies based on their ideas. Many universities have innovation centres - ideally, businesses and universities can collaborate here, although again people will fret that more open-ended research (which, ironically, can lead to the most lucrative ideas) could be undermined.
Much of the creativity of psychologists in universities does not translate into obvious OI. Let’s say one puts a newly-developed questionnaire online for free. If many other researchers/clinicians use it, then clearly this is a successful idea, whether or not it is actually making anyone rich or helping one’s own university to top some league table. It should not surprise us that creativity is not always “cashed in”; research (albeit with children) has indicated that more creative ideas are driven by intrinsic motivation (i.e. motivation that comes from within oneself), rather than extrinsic motivation (i.e. motivation that comes from others) (Amabile, 1982). However, recent research with undergraduate students has indicated that while intrinsic motivation should be important for radical creativity, extrinsic motivation drives more incremental, step-by-step creativity (Gilson & Madjar, 2011). Nonetheless, the point stands that the most creative ideas may come about when people are allowed to pursue their passion.

An invitation
Realistically, “hard science” departments will probably continue to dominate in terms of technological innovation. But psychology departments, and certainly their members with an interest in positive psychology, creativity, or problem solving, can play a key role in turning their universities into environments that encourage creativity. At a broad level, here are some of the challenges we can take up:

·         How can the cognitive and social psychology of creative thinking be applied to research, invention and teaching?
·         How can we involve students to a greater extent in the learning and research process?
·         How can we develop administrative systems that structure and organise our research without excessively slowing it down?

Clearly, answering some of these questions will be a lot easier if we work with administrative staff and researchers in education and sociology. 
Fostering a general potential for creativity in universities may not be as financially rewarding as coming up with the latest industrial advance. However, I hope that all this does not just sound like an appeal to pure altruism; to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in The Departed, your job is most rewarding when you are not a product of your work environment, but rather your work environment is a product of you.

Alsop, A. (1996). Innovation and research: Themes and research funding. European Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology, 5(1), 149-153.
Amabile, T. M. (1982). Social psychology of creativity: A consensual assessment technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(5), 997-1013.
Boden, M.A. (2004). The creative mind: Myths and mechanisms (2nd Ed). London: Routledge.
De Dreu, C.K., Nijstad, B. A., Bechtoldt, M.N., & Baas, M. (2011). Group creativity and innovation: A motivated information processing perspective. Psychology of Creativity, Aesthetics and the Arts, 5(1), 81-89.
Duncker, K. (1945). On problem solving. Psychological monographs. 68(5, whole no. 270).
ESRC (2009). Strategic challenges. New technology innovation and skills. Retrieved from
Gilson, L.L., Madjar, N. (2011). Radical and incremental creativity: Antecedents and processes. Psychology of Creativity, Aesthetics and the Arts, 5(1), 21-28.
Hsu, M.L.A. & Fan, H. (2010). Organisational innovation climate and creative outcomes: Exploring the moderating effect of time pressure. Creativity Research Journal, 22(4), 378-386.
James, J.E. (2002). “Third-party” threats to research integrity in public-private partnerships. Addiction, 97, 1251-1255.
Jansson, D.G. & Smith, S.M. (1991). Design fixation. Design studies, 12(1), 3-11.
Maddux, W. & Galinsky, A. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1047-1061.
Polman & Emich, (2011). Decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 37(4), 492-501.
Seifert, C.M., Meyer, D.E., Davidson, N., Patalano, A.L., Yaniv, I. (1995). Demystification of cognitive insight: Opportunistic assimilation and the prepared-mind perspective. In R.J. Sternberg & J.E. Davidson (Eds.) The nature of insight. (pp. 65-124). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  
Simonton, D.K. (1988). Creativity, leadership and chance. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.) The nature of creativity (pp. 386-426). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Weisberg, R.W. (2006). Creativity: Understanding innovation in problem solving, science, invention and the arts. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
West, M.A. (2000). Creativity and innovation at work. The Psychologist, 13(9), 460-464.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book review: "Dignifying dementia: A caregiver's struggle" by Elizabeth Tierney

I recently picked up this book (published a few years ago) by Elizabeth Tierney, which details the drawn-out loss of her husband to dementia. It is a book that sticks in the mind not just for its unflinching depiction of a pitiless disease (which I won't dwell on here), but also for the variability in the behaviour of those people charged with helping these patients.

The book opens with a description of the author's husband during his younger days. The author paints a picture of a cultured Irish emigrant with a dull job and a wicked sense of humour, dividing his time between the North and South of the USA, a life not unlike many others. The onset of symptoms of dementia sets off a string of visits to a variety of physicians. After many consultations and failures to respond to medication, he is given a diagnosis of probable Lewy body dementia. Even when this diagnosis is finally made, the author expresses a nostalgia for ailments that receive a simple recommendation for treatment. Like many people who suffer from Lewy body dementia, he has a bad reaction to many of the medications used in trying to treat dementia and associated problems that go with it, although the book doesn’t stray into an anti-pharmacological polemic.

The bedside manner of at least some doctors, however, is another matter. Having sat in on a memory clinic that treats caregivers and patients with respect, I found the behaviour of some physicians striking. Some of the doctors the author encounters seem to automatically assume she should just allow her husband to die. Another offers the author a recitation from The Bible. When she protests that she is not religious, the doctor replies that he is, and continues unphased with his quotations. 

The general financial challenge of a spouse with dementia is confronted (albeit in a family that are not as bad off as others), as well as the difficulty of finding good professional to act as home help. Again, the lack of compassion of at least some of the people who work in the area is striking (Oh, you mean speak to him like a REAL person?). When one reads through the litany of reasons why various staff are rejected one can imagine how, from the outside, the author might come across as highly demanding as an individual. Nonetheless, from inside the author's view, the demands of dementia quickly put this all back in context. 

Towards the end, the author has received help from excellent doctors and assembled a good care team, and sometimes has a little more free time on her hands than she had earlier in the disease. One can understand how healthcare professionals can get jaded about "heartsink" conditions such as dementia, where the patient is unlikely to ever return to "normality". However, even in the absence of a cure for this disease, one comes away from this book thinking that there is much room for improvement in the consistency of how people with dementia and those that care for them are treated.

Related posts:   

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Depression treatment: ketamine and biological effects

Along with talking therapies, pharmacological approaches are often used to tackle depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI's) are often a first choice for depression treatment, and while they work well for many people with depression, oftentimes they don't. When they are effective, SSRI's typically take weeks to kick in (an interesting recent paper has suggested a possible reason why).

But other drugs are being used to fight depression. Although ketamine is known as a drug of abuse, it is also used for a number of medical purposes, including as an anaesthetic. However, at sub-anaesthetic doses, ketamine may also have antidepressant effects. For psychiatrists and their patients, the exciting aspect of ketamine is that it has a positive effect in many patients who do not respond to other antidepressants, and this alleviation of depression has been evident within a matter of hours rather than weeks. The downside is that this positive effect may not persist for much longer than a week, so repeated doses may be required to maintain the effect.

What may be driving the effect of ketamine? It has been suggested that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF for short) may play a role in depression. BDNF is used in the maintenance and function of neurons, but chronic stress may reduce BDNF levels, and this could act as a mechanism through which long-term stress leads to depression. Previous evidence has indicated that ketamine treatment can increase BDNF in people whose depression is alleviated by the drug. However, this previous study just looked a single dose.

A recent study from our group looked at multiple doses of ketamine, to examine whether multiple doses would lead to comparable effects on depression, and also on BDNF. Patients were recruited who had failed to respond to first-line pharmacological therapy-even after the time it would take to show an effect these classic antidepressants, they were still depressed. Ketamine was administered under controlled conditions, with doctors supervising patients for a sufficient length of time to ensure patients would be protected from any potential adverse effects. Patients reported on their levels of depression before and after three doses of ketamine, and blood samples were taken at these times to assess patient's levels of BDNF.

We defined a clinical response in depression severity as a 50% or more reduction in scores on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, a widely used scale for quantifying depression severity. Ketamine significantly improved depressive symptoms in a majority of patients, both after two hours and one week later, and this was the case after each dose. (It should be noted however that not all patients continued with a second or third dose).

As had previously been shown, BDNF was reduced in those suffering from depression at baseline compared to healthy controls. Ketamine increased BDNF at one week after the first dose in those patients whose depression was alleviated by ketamine. However, this rise in BDNF did not occur after a second or third dose. So, although ketamine was keeping depression levels down for most of these patients, BDNF was not showing a persistent increase that mirrored this. The results, in this case, did not seem to support the idea that changes in BDNF goes hand-in-hand with an alleviation of depression.

As a comparison, we also looked at depression levels and BDNF in response to electroconvulsive therapy* (ECT), which is also used to treat depression in people who have not seen improvement after first-line treatment. Again, ECT was administered under controlled conditions, with patients being monitored for any side effects. Similar to ketamine, ECT reduced depression in the patient group. ECT did not increase BDNF at a one-week follow-up, although previous evidence has suggested that BDNF may be increased one month post-ECT.

Future research may tell us more about how ketamine has the rapid impact that it does upon depression. Understanding these mechanisms in greater depth may ultimately allow for treatments which target these mechanisms more specifically, thus minimising the risk of side effects.

Allen, A.P., Naughton, M., Clarke, G., Dowling, J., Walsh, A., Ismail, F., Shorten, G., Scott, L., McLoughlin, D., Cryan, J.F., Dinan, T.G. (in press). Serum BDNF as a peripheral biomarker of treatment-resistant depression and the rapid antidepressant response: A comparison of ketamine and ECT. Journal of Affective Disorders. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2015.06.033

*I should note here that although ECT has had a very negative portrayal in some classic films, ECT as it is administered today is not only effective, but is also not the painful experience one might see in a film, as patients are prepared by being given an anaesthetic and muscle relaxant before the procedure. Nonetheless, like other treatments for depression, it is still associated with the risk of side effects.

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I felt a funeral, in my brain

Friday, July 31, 2015

FormaLabs: Bringing science to the 99%

FormaLabs are a new “biomaker” space in Cork who describe themselves as aiming to “bring science to the 99%”. I recently attended a really interesting event by Professor Steve Potter, about DIY neuro-hacking, and how the increasing affordability of neuroscience and biomarker technologies will make it possible for non-professional scientists to conduct their own research. He used the interesting analogy of astronomy, where amateur astronomers have made relevant discoveries for years with their home telescopes.

The event included a demonstration of a number of these pieces of equipment, including kit for measuring EEG (albeit with not as many electrode sites as the type one would see in a well-funded lab) as well as heart rate and heart rate variability. Unfortunately, we couldn't get a demo of the most out-there equipment that monitors rapid eye movements in to induce lucid dreams (Prof Potter says he has used this and found it effective-want want want). 

It was great to see a wide variety of attendees, from professional researchers to kids, and the audience contributing so many ideas.

As FormaLabs are still being established, they are always looking for labs/groups etc. to help with setting up workspaces where non-professionals can engage in science. Check them out here:

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Book Review: "Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad" by Richard Stephens

Senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University and fellow blogger Richard Stephens has a new book out. Aimed at a general audience, it concerns the hidden benefits of bad things, from drink to sex to death. To be fair, the review won't be totally unbiased when the author does cite a review paper I published with Andy Smith, but I hope it will be informative.

Stephens has not been one to stay on a single research topic, so the diversity of the book takes in varied subjects Stephens has researched. This includes his Ig Nobel -prize winning research on swearing, which found that swearing increased people's tolerance for pain (particularly people who habitually swear less; save it for a special occasion). He also covers work looking at whether chewing gum can alleviate stress (to be honest the jury's still out on that one-it seems to be better at maintaining alertness). The chapter on alcohol also makes reference to his ongoing interest in hangovers, and how those who are prone to alcoholism are counter-intuitively prone to worse hangovers.

The net does widen to some weird and wonderful stuff that Stephens (to the best of my knowledge) has not been directly involved with, This includes attempts to go beyond retrospective accounts of near-death experiences to prospectively examine a large number of patients with conditions that might lead to a near death experience prior to having one. (Quite a tall order, and one that unsurprisingly hasn't proved successful so far). He also covers classic research on whether inducing a state of (non-romantic) fear makes men more likely to ask someone out on a date, and the intriguing topic of boredom.

For a book teeming with different ideas, at times it feels as though Stephens does have to make an effort to keep things under one overall, unifying theme. It's a good skill to have when one has restless interests, although perhaps it's a bit regrettable in our postmodern age that theses and monographs have to conform to always having their own "grand scheme of things". The breadth of human experience, even within a single aspect of cognition, doesn't always lend itself to a unifying theory.

Despite the tongue-in-cheek "bad to the bone" posturing, this is a prosocial book. Stephens does not only want to create an enthusiasm for science, but also to make it more approachable. This book is also an attempt to defend psychological science in particular, and especially any such science which does not smack of the "harder" science end of psychological research ("but where was the fMRI scan???"). Stephens is careful to bring the non-psychologist along with him whether he is discussing theory or comparing double-blind experiments to short online surveys. If the book gets the broad audience it courts then I'd be surprised if a few of its lay readers don't feel motivated to begin their own pursuit of psychological research.

Related posts:
Book Review: "Predictably Irrational"
The Perks of a Pack of Gum
The Hangover

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Exhibition review: "We Do Not Leave Pyramids"

And if you must build pyramids along the way, build them in the knowledge that they will soon crumble and disintegrate, disappearing in the distance as you move onto the next phase.
Chris Clarke, from the program foreword

I try to take in art galleries when I get a chance; I particularly enjoy going to final year exhibition. This review of 2015's final year art exhibition at the Crawford is somewhat belated, but then again maybe it's good to write about these works a little later, if only to show that they are not just vanishing into the ether.

On the topic of final year exhibitions, I remember severely disliking a series of paintings at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin a few years back. They were were very small drawings that depicted vaguely gross activities, but drawn in the manner of a 9-year-old child. Even though I can enjoy ugly art (Bacon springs to mind) I didn't care about the artist's point, it was just lacking in skill.

One set of images that strikes me is Elaina Walsh O'Reilly's pictures. Although these images may not be pretty, they are the antithesis of that kind of delibrately childish, wilfully shit art that annoyed me at the NCAD exhibition. They have depth and richness that shines through any layer of dark and grot.

They are inspired by melacholy. The deep greens and blacks of these images wash a wave of sadness over the frame. The human figure could be swimming or dancing, but the face seems sucked downwards into the heavy cloth. Walsh O'Reilly describes the figures as trapped in a perimeter that on one level can be easily broken. However, to me the density of these images hint that there is some level of difficulty in moving away from these feelings.

Jennifer Ahern's work is a walk-in spiral wall of collage. It reminds me somewhat of the artwork of "In Utero" by Nirvana, or a less violent version of "Reek of Putrefaction" by Carcass. In fact, with the torn fragments of text this could be like many postmodern album notes for Radiohead, ...Trail of Dead, ZooTV-era U2 etc.

Despite this initial impression of image overload, the focus on the female body, and how our media represent it, means this is not just a (comment on) info saturation. The changing dominant colours of the spiral give it the feeling of a life cycle, However, the spectre of objectification hangs over the collage. The body can be exposed at any point-wherever you go, there you are, and of what use are you?

Two works touching on similar themes also catch the eye. Victoria Callinan looks at the concept of the selfie; composing a particular image of oneself for the online world. Killian O'Dwyer's work is about gender performativity through the lens of "low-brow" culture (you can hear the bassline of "Anaconda" pounding as you approach his installation). Besides the thematic similarity between these two pieces, they both use the installation space to the full, turning artwork into a bedroom. Although O'Dwyer's work seems at some level to be confrontational in its use of pornography and USA hubris, and although the implicit fug of moral panic and cyberbullying hangs over Callinan's, there's a strange homeliness to these voyeuristic and consumerist pieces that suggest they've both caught a little bit of the zeitgeist.

Obviously these are just snapshots of a small minority of the work at the exhibit. As with any of these things, in a few years most of the students won't be working full-time as artists. But a few of these pieces remind me of a snippet of a review on the blurb of Euginedes' debut novel "Virgin Suicides": they are not just "promising"-they have arrived fully formed.

Related posts
Creativity and two modes of thought
I felt a funeral in my brain

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mindfulness update: Weeks 1-4

"Much of the practice is simply a remembering, a reminding yourself to be fully awake" 
Jon Kabat-Zinn

In a previous post I discussed mindfulness. I’m putting my time where my mouth is and doing an 8-week course in mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR). Here’s the story up to half-time:

WEEK 1: At the first class we perform body scan. With our eyes closed, we slowly bring our attention to different parts of the body. If our minds wander off, we are encouraged to bring the focus back to what’s going on with our body. No need to have a go at yourself for letting your mind wander-just bring the focus back to the body scan. After the first meeting we are encouraged to engage in body scan 5-6 times over the coming week.

To have an experience that we can use as a practice of acting mindfully, we very slowly eat a sweet. (I pick up a piece of fudge that’s stuck to another piece of fudge-yuusssss). The activity’s a chance to really focus on the sensation of eating. Our instructor makes the analogy of how many young children act when they eat an ice cream-poring over its texture and appearance as they enjoy it. Probably not something we do every day if we’re in the habit of “grazing”. I know I often nosh a sandwich at my desk while in the midst of swearing at the desktop screen.

Back home, at my first attempt at doing a body scan by myself I have a false start when a funny thought makes me laugh too much. The next few attempts I avoid laughter, but it’s definitely difficult to avoid daydreaming when doing the body scan. As suggested in the classes, I try to picture a spotlight shining on the different parts of my body as I move from the toes upwards.

WEEK 2: At the class we describe the steps and sensations involved in making a cup of tea. With our eyes closed, we take turns in describing a different step involved in the whole process. Must say that I’m tempted to shout out something silly like “and then I make the tea and drink the tea and then go for a walk with my granny”, but maintain my composure. The avoiding judgment thing is probably even harder when other people are involved in one’s mindfulness-I can’t help but think some people are jumping too far ahead in the tea-making process to allow the rest of the group enough material to work on. I'd like to bring more maturity to my mindfulness, but then again, I should withhold judging myself too harshly. 

After a whopping 7-8 days, my initial enthusiasm for homework practice wanes slightly. With a lot going on at work I'm not doing quite as much mindfulness practice as I did before. So much for not judging myself as well! 

WEEK 3: At the classes we are expressing frustration about need being able to sustain attention to the present when we do things like body scan, but the instructor reminds us that what is key is our intention to become more mindful, and our the adaptation of a non-judgemental approach to our own thoughts (including judgement about whether or not they are "mindful enough").

We're starting into mindful yoga, a gentle form of yoga. Essentially it involves gentle stretching of the limbs. Like the body scan, you try to keep the attention on your body and its sensations.

Outside class, toothache strikes, bringing my attention forcefully back to my present bodily sensations on a regular basis. With my the rest of my body bringing the brain’s attention to it, as opposed to my brain deciding to focus on the rest of my body, I’m reminded to do the mindful yoga most days.  

As I'm getting more into watching the recommended videos, I'm learning about non-striving, an attitude related to not trying to get anything out of one's awareness of the current moment (perhaps tricky when most people want to get something out of mindfulness).

WEEK 4: One thing I note one or two other people at the class saying is that they want to have an “emptier” mind when doing meditation. I don’t think that’s really what mindfulness is about. Your attention still has content, it’s simply that you adopt a different attitude towards it.

A 4-day weekend knocks my mindfulness schedule off somewhat, although I work some body scan into moments between awakening and getting out of bed. I also do more of the “informal practice”. Part of our informal practice is to note unpleasant experiences. One particular moment was an email I received that induced a mix of annoyance at myself and the person sending it. My heart rate probably increased, although with hindsight I doubt I noticed as much when it actually happened, wrapped up as I was in the possible implications of what was being said to me. However, after the initial wave of negative feeling I decided to focus on how I felt at that moment, and then what I could do step-by-step to respond. Whether or not my thoughts were “mindful enough”, a little bit of focus on the actual present killed of the perils of an imaginary future.

Stay tuned next month for the second half of my Mindfulness Odyssey!

For an intro to the ideas behind mindfulness-based stress reduction, you could check out the following resource: 

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Conference review: CINP Thematic Meeting 2015

Early June. I am back where I first studied psychology, Trinity College Dublin. Crossing the historical front square for the unapologetically brutalist architecture of the Arts Block. It’s the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology (CINP)’s thematic meeting, and the theme of the meeting is stress, inflammation and depression.

The charm of a thematic meeting is that one knows that there’s going to be a lot of work that’s of interest to you. I make no secret of the fact that I’m not a big fan of enormous, “GloboConference” type meetings. I can recall a least one occasion when I was presenting in a session where the theme was clearly “a bunch of studies that have nothing to do with each other, but couldn’t be matched up with anything else on this day”. Ah well, maybe I’m just bitter because a 1,000-strong poster session can confront you with your own insignificance as a little researcher star in the vast galaxies of Science.

When I heard my poster number was to be P001 I was nervous that this meeting would have the opposite problem: a lack of other posters. However, these nerves were unjustified. There’s an active session of over 100 posters, with topics of interest to me such as depression, ketamine and probiotics being covered.  

With a keen focus to the meeting there is a risk of repetition at the talks. However, although some introductions do cover some common ground, this is a complex enough topic for there to be plenty to cover, and each researcher brings something different to the party. NB: they also (generally) skip through stuff that previous speakers have covered already in their earlier intros-let that be a warning not to spend an entire conference prior to your own talk locked in your hotel room practicing your PowerPoint! The speakers often differ in their presentation style, but all are accomplished researchers with plenty to show.

A highlight is getting a chance to meet and hear from Ron Duman, an influential figure in the idea that neurotrophic factors in the brain might be implicated in depression. At his talk he discusses new pathways linking inflammation to depression that he is interested in. Like most researchers at the event he turns out to be a very approachable person too, as we find out at the social evening in Temple Bar. (The touristy trad band at the venue wind up some of the indigenous crew, but what are you gonna do? Better that than the wave of Weatherspoon’s about to descend upon our poor capital.)

Another talk of interest is by Phil Burnet of Oxford. He discusses recent findings that prebiotics (fibres that help the growth of friendly bacteria) can lead to a reduction in cortisol output, as well as changes in processing of emotional stimuli. These findings chime nicely with some results that Timothy Dinan presents, indicating that probiotics can lead to a subtle reductions in stress. Speaking of senior figures from our group, the mighty John Cryan also gives a highly engaging talk covering broad ground, taking in stress as well as hunger-related hormone ghrelin.

Future thematic meetings from CINP will be worth watching out for people interesting in neuropsychology and mental disorder, although be warned that the talks can have a heavy focus on molecular pathways and preclinical work. If you want the "globo" equivalent, than check out next year's World Congress

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Conference Review: ECNP Congress 2014