Departmental News

Musical interventions reduce anxiety and depression in Gambian mothers

Last month, researchers from the Music, Mind and Brain research group at Goldsmiths partnered with pan-African advocacy groups to host a symposium focusing on maternal mental health across Africa.

A crowd watch Gambian artist MLK in a commissioned musical performance

Alongside research presentations and testimonials from healthcare workers and women who with lived experience of perinatal mental health issues, the event also saw the formal launch of The Gambian Alliance for Maternal Mental Health. 

We caught up with Professor Lauren Stewart and Dr Katie Rose Sanfilippo to discuss CHIME for Perinatal Mental Health, a collaborative project working to investigate how embedded musical practices might support perinatal mental health in West Africa. 

Funded by the MRC and AHRC, CHIME brings together researchers from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, those from a wide range of disciplines at other international universities, and Gambian partners from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and the National Centre for Arts and Culture. 

Sarah Cox: What is CHIME and how did it originate? 

Lauren Stewart:  CHIME stands for Community Health Intervention through Musical Engagement – a novel intervention which aims to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in pregnant women. The intervention is culturally embedded and co-designed with so-called Kanyeleng groups – all female fertility societies within the Gambia – who lead participatory music making sessions with pregnant women where they address themes of resilience, social support and ways to deal with some common physical and psychological challenges of pregnancy. 

Backing this work is research which shows that group music-making can elevate mood, help form social bonds and can convey salient information. Early research by Chineze Nwebube, a student from the MSc in Music Mind and Brain, who was supervised by myself and co-supervisor Professor Vivette Glover (Imperial College), demonstrated that daily listening to specially-composed music during pregnancy reduced symptoms of anxiety. This is an important area of research because we know that stress and anxiety in pregnancy not only affects the mother but can also have physical and psychological effects on the developing child. Utilising low cost, stigma-free approaches such as music, are of high importance in mitigating the impact of stress and anxiety across multiple generations.

SC: Why was the Gambia chosen? 

Lauren Stewart: This research had been confined to the UK but took a global turn in response to a joint funding call from the MRC and the AHRC asking for research proposals that would bring interdisciplinary partnerships together to address a significant public health issue in a low or middle income context. Knowing that symptoms of stress and anxiety can be disproportionately high in low income contexts, owing to the exacerbating effects of poverty and stigma, we were motivated to explore the impact of music-based approaches in such a setting. We selected the Gambia because of its particularly rich musical cultural traditions, as well as the presence of Kanyeleng groups, whose expertise around the use of music to support reproductive health, made them natural partners for the research.

The work of our colleague, Dr Bonnie McConnell (Australian National University), had documented the role of the Kanyeleng in Gambian society, and her existing partnership with Mr Buba Darboe at the Ministry of Health provided excellent foundations. We also invited infant mental health specialist Professor Paul Ramchandani and music scholar Professor Ian Cross to join the team, along with historian Hassoum Ceesay (Centre of Arts and Culture, the Gambia) and Dr Victoria Cornelius (Imperial Clinical Trials Unit). After employing local research assistants, Hajara B Huma and Malick Gaye, we began three years of partnership building, which also included detailed qualitative work to inform the measurement, intervention development and evaluation aspects of the work. All this led to the development and evaluation of CHIME, which we trialled with 124 women, split across an intervention (CHIME) and control arm (treatment as usual). 

[Some members of the CHIME research team, including Professor Stuart, seated centre, and Dr Sanfilippo, standing centre]

SC: What were the outcomes of the CHIME feasibility trial, published in the British Medical Journal last year? 

Katie Rose Sanfilippo: The feasibility study looked at whether we could recruit participants, whether the intervention was deliverable, whether all sessions occurred as intended, whether participants attended and found the sessions useful and enjoyable and what, if anything, would need to be changed for a larger scale future version of the trial. We found positive results across the board, showing that a larger scale study would be practically and logistically possible. 

Perhaps the most interesting findings were comments made by participants and those delivering the intervention. One pregnant participant said, I realise that before I got pregnant, I used to become worried, but after [the intervention], I am not worried. Your programme is good to us. It is beneficial to us”. Another pregnant participant talked about what she had learned, “I learnt a new lesson from the programme. The first new lesson is not to isolate oneself thinking. When you are pregnant for six months you should [also] go to the health centres and take your Malaria medication for your good health.” We were really inspired by how the intervention empowered women to help others in their community. One pregnant participant said: “Right now I am helping someone and I am a teacher on my own.”   

Most promisingly, we found that participants in the intervention group had a greater reduction of anxiety and depression symptoms  compared with those in the control group who didn’t take part in any intervention. This needs to be replicated on a larger scale but our feasibility trial results already show the potential value of the intervention. 

Taken together, we are very encouraged by the potential of the CHIME intervention for scale-up. Not only is it low-cost and suitable for group-based delivery by community members with pre-existing expertise but because these groups exist in each neighbourhood, countrywide, the infrastructure for intervention delivery is highly scaleable. 

SC: How has the formation of The Gambian Alliance for Maternal Mental Health been informed by this work? 

Katie Rose Sanfilippo: To be able to develop CHIME, we created partnerships with the Ministry of Health, health workers, charities and cultural groups across The Gambia. Through these discussions we saw the desire and need for policy initiatives that focused on promoting maternal mental health. The Gambia is a small country and the ability for a grassroots movement to affect policy is remarkable. The members of CHIME felt that the partnership we were building could become more influential if a formal alliance was formed. This alliance will then be able to work together to continue to  advocatee for maternal mental health care initiatives and policies across the country. It will also join the African and Global Alliances for Maternal Mental Health which will help promote their efforts even further. 

 [Some of the participants in CHIME interventions, with their babies]

SC: What is happening now and next for CHIME? 

Lauren Stewart: We have two main priorities to take the work forward. Firstly, we would like to take the CHIME intervention to scale, and evaluate its efficacy and cost-effectiveness. Replicating the promising findings from our published feasibility trial in a full controlled trial would provide compelling evidence for policy makers to consider integrating CHIME into primary care for antenatal mothers.

We are in the process of exploring how CHIME can be adapted to other resource-constrained settings, particularly across Africa, where participatory music is often such an important part of the culture and daily life in the community. We have formed a new collaboration with colleagues in South Africa to scope out the existing musical practices and social and community structures and organizations there, with a view to developing a South African version of the CHIME intervention.  

Find out more about the Music, Mind and Brain research group at Goldsmiths: 

Read more about CHIME:


Mapping musical moods to help brands find their sound

A new project to create an ‘emotional DNA map’ that can predict the subconscious impact music used in marketing has on consumers will be led by Goldsmiths, University of London researchers and sonic branding testing company SoundOut.

Photo shows a pile of vinyl records

Insights from the project, which will involve analysing data from 500,000 people, could be used by brands and advertising agencies to select music that will trigger the desired subconscious emotional associations and responses from consumers.

It is estimated that over 30% of internet searches in 2020 were voice powered and voice-powered shopping is set to grow to £29bn worldwide by 2022. This change in consumer behaviour means brands have fewer opportunities to make an emotional impact with consumers through logos, video and other traditional advertising media alone. This has led to rapid growth in the demand for sound as a core asset for brands (‘sonic branding’). 

SoundOut and Goldsmiths psychologist Dr Daniel Müllensiefen have been awarded £400,000 in support from Innovate UK’s Smart, an open grant funding programme, to undertake the research. 

The Goldsmiths team will measure people’s subconscious reactions to hundreds of different musical compositions, with SoundOut using advanced data science and machine learning to create a commercial tool that can accurately predict the implicit impact any new piece of music would have with its commercial branding. 

Using data from some 500,000 consumers, a full benchmarking system against 200 personality attributes will be created, enabling brands to measure how closely any given piece of music resonates or matches with some 200 core brand values, such as trust, innovation, or freedom. These benchmarks will be created using Dr Daniel Müllensiefen’s experimental psychology methods which measure emotional associations to different sounds and the memorability of audio assets. 

The project will create a new gold standard for music testing in the context of advertising and sonic branding, ensuring effective and efficient allocation of resources for brands worldwide.

Several other sonic branding agencies from around the world have agreed to collaborate on the project, providing hundreds of original music compositions. 

David Courtier-Dutton, SoundOut Founder and CEO said: “With the rapid growth of voice assistants and voice activated devices, music and voice are increasingly being recognised as a core brand asset that, used correctly, can help to build brand equity.  

“Choosing the correct music for any given brand execution has historically been highly subjective and this project will create an immensely powerful platform to bring rigour and objectivity to the entire sonic branding industry.” 

Professor Daniel Müllensiefen, co-founder of the Music, Mind and Brain research group in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, is the project’s academic lead investigator. He has extensive experience as a music and advertising consultant and considers this project to be a unique chance for the industry. 

Professor Müllensiefen said: “For many years academia has been far ahead of industry in understanding the psychology of music and its impact on consumer behaviour and we are delighted to have secured this very competitive grant from Innovate UK together with SoundOut. 

“The grant represents a unique opportunity to conduct research of a size and breadth that will not only add significantly to academic knowledge on consumer behaviour but will also add meaningful value to brands and agencies worldwide.”

Innovate UK is part of UK Research and Innovation, and funds business and research collaborations to accelerate innovation and drive business investment into research:

Find out more about the Music, Mind and Brain research group at Goldsmiths:

Find out more about SoundOut: 


Sleep scientists debunk myths about ‘lazy’ teenagers

To mark World Sleep Day on Friday 19 March, researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Glasgow have come together to bust myths and share tips on teenage sleep.

A young man sits on a bed with a white pillow over his head

The pandemic has created many new challenges for teenage sleep, with most families reporting that their children have later bedtimes and subsequent wake times than ever before. 

Professor Daniel Smith is the lead investigator for the Sleep, Circadian Rhythms and Mental Health in Schools (SCRAMS) project at the University of Glasgow, leading a cross-disciplinary community of researchers working on adolescence, mental health and the developing mind. 

Co-investigator Professor Alice Gregory from Goldsmiths is an expert on sleep throughout development and author of Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave (2018) and The Sleepy Pebble and Other Stories: Calming Tales To Read at Bedtime (2019). Her recent studies include research into ‘exploding head syndrome’ and the link between poor sleep and teenage depression

Should parents be worried about their teenagers refusing to wake up and sleeping into the afternoon? And should we be trying achieve a ‘perfect’ eight-hour sleep? Professor Gregory and Professor Daniel aim to put minds at rest. 

Myths about teenage sleep 

Myth 1: Teenagers are lazy 

When teenagers struggle to wake up at the crack of dawn, this is not an indication of laziness – it reflects biological changes taking place. A shift in sleep timing during adolescence is found across the world, and is even found in other species such as the marmoset monkey. There might be good evolutionary reasons for this shift, such as encouraging young people to affiliate more with their peers and to move away from the family nest; or to allow societies to thrive (when members work on slightly different schedules someone is always alert to potential dangers). 

Ideally society should support this natural change in sleep timing, such as later school start times for teenagers. 

Myth 2: Biological patterns can’t be changed 

Although the shift in sleep timing during the teenage years is driven by biology, that does not mean nothing can be done. Lots of factors, such as the time we eat and exercise, can help tweak our biological clock to strike in time with the world around us. Light is critical for regulating sleep: healthy exposure to light in the morning (and avoiding light at night) can help to synchronise sleep rhythms. Those of us who already have delayed rhythms (such as almost all teenagers) should avoid light in the late evening.

You may have seen the new trend of orange-tinted (blue blocking) glasses in adverts. Bearing in mind the science, they might be best kept to the end of the day when you want to wind down towards a good night’s sleep, and avoided in the morning when you want to rise and shine. 

Myth 3: Try hard to get your 8 hours per night 

Lots of scientific reports suggest that we should not miss out on sleep if we want to function at our best. It’s important to allow ourselves enough time to sleep but we all differ in the amount of sleep needed. The idea that we all need exactly 8 hours of sleep each night is a myth. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers typically need about 8-10 hours of sleep each night (a minority will need as few as 7 hours and some as many as 11 hours). 

The idea that we must ‘try hard’ to sleep is also not true. Sleep at its best should be an automatic, natural and effortless process – ‘trying hard’ to sleep makes it particularly hard to nod off. What we should try harder with, however, is to make time for sleep when we feel we need it. 

Myth 4: A weekend lie-in is a bad idea

Sleep experts advise consistency when it comes to our sleep schedules. We should fall asleep and wake up at the same time each day. That is obviously fine if we have no commitments to get in the way. In reality, young people are often required to wake long before they are biologically ready to do so, and they may struggle to fall asleep early, meaning that most will be sleep deprived. So, some extra sleep at the weekend can help many young people to catch up.

But be warned, too much of a lie in can also result in a shift in sleep timing referred to as ‘social jetlag’. This has been associated with poor concentration and feeling low. The weekend lie-in is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it’s taken in moderation. 

This article was originally written for the SCRAMS website and is republished here with thanks to the University of Glasgow.

Visit the new website for the Gold Sleep Lab, directed by Professor Alice Gregory:

For further information about the SCRAMS Network visit:


Revealed: the magical secrets to tricking your free will

Understanding the psychological tools employed by magicians could help protect us from the politicians and marketers trying to manipulate our behaviour, new research from Goldsmiths, University of London shows.

Image shows a woman with hands positioned in front of her face to form a diamond shape

Writing in the journal Trends in Cognitive ScienceAlice Pailhès and Dr Gustav Kuhn identify the key forcing techniques most used by magic performers to covertly influence their audience’s decision making. 

The same “nudge behaviour” techniques are used in everyday life to influence everything from what we buy at the supermarket to which policies we vote for. 

Studying the psychological processes that underpin decision making and the ease by which decisions can be manipulated can help answer questions about our sense of freewill and agency over choices, the researchers say. 

Magicians have developed a wide range of psychological tricks to influence people’s choices. The intent is for people to feel like they are making a free choice, when the forcing trick means they are not. 

Forces can be grouped into two broad categories: Decision forces (techniques in which the magician directly manipulates the person’s decisions) and Outcome forces (when the spectator makes a genuinely free decision, but unknown to them this decision has no impact on the outcome of the trick). 

Decision forces include the use of either visual prompts, subtle gestures, words or restrictions which influence a spectator into picking a particular card, for example, or special positioning might be used to force people to pick in a certain way. 

Outcome forces such as ‘the Equivoque’ are powerful tools which give spectators the illusion of choice (picking a key or a wallet from a table, for example) but regardless of a spectator’s choice, the result is always going to be the outcome chosen by the magician. 

Alice Pailhès, Phd researcher in the Department of Psychology, said: “Many of the psychological principles that underpin these forces can be applied outside magic performance. Nudging people’s behaviours has become an increasingly popular way of modifying behaviour. 

“Most forcing principles have been tested in the real world, so they offer powerful tools to influencing people’s choices. They might provide new ways of encouraging better decisions in regards to health and well-being, for example, through the placement of items on a store’s shelf. Forcing techniques in the entertainment industry create a false sense of choice and autonomy, which helps create more engaging and interactive experiences. 

“But covert control and modification of people’s thoughts raises serious ethical issues too. We believe that understanding magicians’ forcing techniques is a valuable tool to raise awareness about the ease by which our choices can be manipulated. Such awareness may help protect people against unwanted influences such as political propaganda, and encourage policy makers to take the issue seriously.”


Decision forces include:

Visual Riffle force  a distinctive visual saliency and/or restrictions are used to influence a spectator to mentally choose a particular playing card. Two prior studies have found that between 54 and 98% of participants choose the target card, while feeling completely free for their choice 

Position force – this force relies on the fact that most people tend to act in the same way when presented with a specific situation. If a magician places four cards in a horizontal row on a table and asks the spectator to touch or take one, the majority will choose the third card from their left. This happens because most people are right-handed and tend to choose items that are more reachable. Two scientific papers have found that on average 60% of people choose the target card. 

Mental priming force – a magician uses subtle verbal and nonverbal primes to prime the spectator to name a target object. Created by Derren Brown, this technique relies on using subtle hand gestures and key words to prime people to think of, for example, the three of diamonds. This force has been shown to be effective for 18% of participants, when it would be expected less than 2% by chance. 

Outcome forces include:

The Criss-Cross force –  a magician asks a spectator to cut a pack of cards in half and place the top pile next to the bottom one. The magician takes the bottom pile and places it on the top one to form a cross shape. The magician asks the spectator a question to draw their attention away from the deck, then raises the top pile of the cross and asks the audience member to take the top card of the bottom pile. This technique has been shown to be extremely effective – the vast majority of participants fail to understand that their action of cutting the deck had no impact on their outcome card, and believe that they were in control of it.

The Equivoque or Magician’s force – considered to be one of the most powerful forcing techniques a magician can use. It relies on the failure to recognise ambiguous situations in order to create an illusion of choice. The magician deals two objects on a table, such as a key and a wallet. They then ask the spectator to touch one of them. If the magician wants the person to end up with the key and the spectator touches it, the magician keeps it and discards the wallet. But if the spectator touches the wallet rather than the key, the magician simply discards this choice and keeps the key anyway. Regardless of the spectator’s choice, the sequences result in the same outcome.

Mind Control Tricks: Magicians’ Forcing and Free Will by Alice Pailhès and Gustav Kuhn was published on Thursday 25 February 2021 in Trends in Cognitive Sciences: 

The Goldsmiths’ MAGIC Lab uses magic to study a wide range of psychological questions around consciousness, attention, perception, magical beliefs, deception and free will. Visit www.magicresearchlab.comto find out more.


Grit but not growth mindset linked to flow state in musicians

Grittier musicians are more likely to lose themselves in the ‘flow’ of a performance regardless of whether they believe their intelligence and talent can be improved by effort, new research suggests.

A study published in the journal Music & Science by psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London explored the non-cognitive traits which could determine whether musicians can reach the fully-absorbed and satisfying feeling of flow (or being “in the zone”) experienced during musical performance. 

Characterised as a state without self-consciousness, doubt or anxiety, flow is a psychological phenomenon which scientists have only recently begun to understand. 

The study, led by Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya, looked at two popular non-cognitive traits, grit and growth mindset, in 162 musicians between the ages of 18 and 57 years. The majority were based in Malaysia. 

Grit is defined as having perseverance and passion for long term goals, and growth mindset is the belief that abilities like intelligence and talent can be improved through effort. 

The researchers found that flow experience – as self-reported by the musicians – is correlated with their grit but not with their growth mindset. The authors suggest this could be the result of cultural beliefs on how much of a person’s talent is natural or the result of training. 

More musically trained individuals exhibited more grit and also experienced more flow. Musicians who practiced the most hours experienced the most flow. 

Grit did not predict flow experiences over and above other factors that have previously been linked to flow in musicians. These include personality traits like conscientiousness and emotional stability, daily practice hours, and music performance anxiety. Grit may be more relevant for experiencing flow by helping a musician get the practice hours in than as a factor in and of itself, the researchers conclude. 

Jasmine Tan, a PhD researcher and first author of the study, said: “Grit is exhibited by successful individuals who keep going even when the going gets tough and rough, and is particularly required for goals that are personally relevant and require a long-term commitment. 

“It is often claimed that grit and a growth mindset go together but our study indicates that musicians might not believe that having a growth mindset is beneficial for their training. In theory, if you have a growth mindset you would redouble efforts when faced with a challenge, but musicians might see this as a waste of time and energy. In fact, having a fixed mindset instead might help them achieve their goals more quickly and effectively.” 

The study also found that musicians with highest flow exhibited least performance anxiety. Music performance anxiety was also negatively correlated with grit, musical training and emotional stability. These findings could indicate that those who practice the most have lower performance anxiety, and so are more likely to reach flow. 

Study lead Professor Bhattacharya said: “Musicians value flow experience enormously because it is so rewarding. Here we investigated how two popular non-cognitive personality traits, grit and growth mindset, are related to flow in musicians. Growth mindset was not correlated with either grit nor flow.

“Our sample of musicians came predominantly from Asia and our results could indicate a cultural difference in the idea of a growth mindset. Prior research has found that, compared to learners in Western countries, natural talent is often perceived to be more influential than hard work. We understand growth mindset could be culture-dependent, and in certain cultures, creativity is considered to be more fixed and less changeable. Future research should explore the links between this idea and growth mindset. 

“Flow and grit were highest in those musicians with the most musical training, offering a tantalising hint as to the effects of non-cognitive factors and flow experience in motivating musicians to undertake long years of training and practice. So, it seems, putting in the hours of daily music practice may hold the key to flow.” 

‘What Does It Take to Flow? Investigating Links between Grit, Growth Mindset and Flow in Musicians’ by Jasmine Tan, Kelly Yap and Joydeep Bhattacharya was published in Music & Science on 19 February 2021:


Making virtual Shakespeare a Dream for audiences

Goldsmiths, University of London research into the impact of Covid-19 on audiences has helped shape an innovative new performance piece which could be a model for post-pandemic theatre.


Dream, created by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), in collaboration with Manchester International Festival (MIF), Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) and Philharmonia Orchestra, brings together the latest gaming and theatre technology with an interactive symphonic score that responds to actors’ movement during the show.

While theatres remain closed, audiences can experience a new performance environment on a mobile, desktop or tablet via the website, and are able to directly influence the live performance from wherever they are in the world. 

i2 media research is a Goldsmiths-based group using psychological principles and research methods to understand technology, media and consumers. As a member of the Innovate UK-funded Audience of the Future Performance Demonstrator consortium, they worked closely with NESTA to find out what audiences want and how new audiences can be engaged with live performance. 

Originally starting in January 2019, i2’s programme of research for the project changed drastically with the closure of UK theatres in March 2020 due to the pandemic and the cancellation of the originally planned location-based RSC event. 

i2 developed new in-depth research to guide the project’s pivot to the production of a digital only production addressing the moods, needs and capabilities of audiences at home.  

Key findings from a survey of over 2,000 people conducted by i2 media research via YouGov include:

  • 55% of audiences feel more troubled since lockdown
  • More than 50% say they feel unhappy and afraid
  • 37% say they are feeling more exhausted and 32% are more angry since lockdown
  • They have a desire for uplifting events which counter the emotional lows of lockdown life
  • Audiences miss live events but feel positive toward digital offerings and are willing to spend money on digital content

Surveys and consultations sought to characterise audiences to find out what they need, want, and are missing, and evaluate audience responses to the developing creative approaches and new technology. Specially developed metrics also looked at the audience’s quality of experience. 

i2’s work expanded to include a focus on post-pandemic sector recovery, exploring how new technology and remote audience engagement can be financially viable for the creative industries. All findings and research will be shared with the wider UK cultural sector after the project is completed this year. 

i2 media research founder, Professor of Psychology and Academic Lead for Knowledge Exchange at Goldsmiths, Jonny Freeman, said: “We’ve loved collaborating so closely with our creative and tech partners, and seeing the audience insights we’ve been gathering influencing so directly the production they have created. 

“This collaboration stands out for us, in being genuinely focused on audience needs. We’re also very mindful of the value of the project’s experience for the sector more widely and are developing plans, with our partners, to share what we have learned.” 

Dream is inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the live performance set in a virtual midsummer forest. Under the shadow of gathering clouds at dusk, lit by the glimmer of fireflies, Puck acts as the guide. Audiences are invited to explore the forest, meet four sprites and take an extraordinary journey into the eye of a cataclysmic storm. Together with Puck they must regrow the forest before the dawn. 

With seven RSC actors in a specially created 7x7m space, motion capture and facial rigging technology will reproduce their movements for virtual avatars, essentially creating real-time live animation made by live performers. 

The 50-minute online event will be a shared experience between remote audience members and the seven actors who play Puck and the sprites. Audiences can choose to buy a £10 ticket to take part and directly influence the world of the actors, or to view the performance for free. 

The Audience of the Future Performance Demonstrator consortium is a multimillion-pound investment into how developing immersive technologies such as virtual reality will bring new performing arts experiences to audiences around the world, funded by Innovate UK. Partners include De Montfort University, Epic Games, i2 media research limited, Intel, Magic Leap, Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast, Nesta, Phi Centre, Philharmonia Orchestra, Punchdrunk, University of Portsmouth, and The Space. 

More information and tickets for Dream are available from the RSC:

Find out more about i2 media research at



Covid-19 boosts appeal of right-wing authoritarianism

Support for right-wing authoritarianism has increased following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Poland, a study led by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.

Two red and white Polish flags hang from a building

Surveys of nearly 900 individuals found that an increasing desire for national cohesion has led to further rejection of dissenters to traditional norms, such as those regulating gender and sexual relations. 

In a report published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala and co-authors explain that their results are in line with prior research which shows that conventional attitudes and preference for authoritarian leaders grow in appeal as a response to threat. 

Their study supports research which shows that death anxiety and the threat of infectious disease increases support for authoritarianism, traditional worldviews, in-group cohesion and sexual restrictiveness. 

In April, an early analysis of survey findings indicated that people in Poland were becoming less susceptible to divisive populist messages as the Covid-19 crisis continued. But the study ultimately found that this desire for national cohesion meant a turn against social and political diversity. 

Nearly 900 people were surveyed three times between 28 February and 1 April 2020, and as the pandemic continued they became more likely to agree with statements such as “What our country needs most is discipline, with everyone following our leaders in unity”, “For the sake of the nation, men should control women”, and “Homosexuality is a threat to Poland.” 

Dr Golec de Zavala, Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, said: “In the midst of the pandemic, some authoritarian leaders tried to rally their electorates around prejudice toward non-traditional women and sexual minorities. Four weeks in, Poland’s government brought back propositions to tighten anti-abortion laws, which are already the strictest in Europe. Then in June, attacks on what was described as a ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ideology’ became a central feature of the presidential campaign of Andrzej Duda, candidate for the ruling ultraconservative populist party.” 

In a second paper based on data collected from the same participants and published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the research team show how ‘national collective narcissism’ predicted a decrease in solidarity in the face of the pandemic.

Some Polish citizens believe that their national ‘in group’ is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment but they think that this perceived uniqueness is not sufficiently recognised by others. This ‘national narcissism’ prevents them showing solidarity to people negatively impacted by the pandemic, the study found. 

Polish citizens who feel satisfied and happy being Polish (but do not believe at the same time that they are part of an exceptional in-group whose greatness is not recognised by others) exhibited much greater solidarity with those affected by the pandemic. 

Dr Golec de Zavala said: “Collective narcissism compensates for low self-esteem and reflects a desire for self-importance projected onto an in-group. Collective narcissism is motivated by a shared perception of threat to self-importance, rather than a sense of common fate conducive to social solidarity. This lack of concern for others is a defining feature of narcissism, whether it be at the individual or collective level. 

“Generalised feelings of national pride are associated with greater solidarity, but an exaggerated but fragile view of the national in-group’s worth appears to impede a willingness to unite and work together with others to face a global public-health challenge.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic, Authoritarianism, and Rejection of Sexual Dissenters in Poland by Agnieszka Golec de Zaval, Kinga Bierwiaczonek, Tomasz Baran, Oliver Keenan and Adrian Hase was published as an advance online publication by the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

Collective Narcissism, In-Group Satisfaction, and Solidarity in the Face of COVID-19 by Christopher Federico, Agnieszka Golec de Zavala and Tomasz Baran was published in pre-print form on 3 September 2020 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and is available online.

Global study links positivity about touch to lower loneliness

Positive attitudes towards touch are linked with greater well-being and lower levels of loneliness, according to a global survey conducted by researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London.

A photograph of a darker masculine tattooed hand and a pale female hand touching

The Touch Test – a collaboration between BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind and the Wellcome Collection – investigated public attitudes and experiences of touching and being touched. Running from 21 January – 30 March 2020, the majority of the online survey primarily took place before the UK went into lockdown. 

Data collected from 40,000 respondents based in 112 different countries, showed that (pre-pandemic) most people view interpersonal touch positively and nearly half of adults feel that society does not enable us to touch enough.

Some 88% of respondents liked public displays of affection from their partners and 79% said they liked it when a friend touched them. Women said that they like public forms of touch more than men. People who said they do not like touch were more likely to be people who find it difficult to form trusting relationships.

The survey also showed that older people tend to have more positive attitudes towards public forms of touch, but reported less positive experiences of childhood touch than young people. 

One part of the survey explored people’s favourite and least favourite materials to touch. The world’s top three emerged as fur, velvet and silk. The top three materials people dislike are slime, sandpaper and nylon.

The survey was developed and analysed by academics in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, led by Professor Michael Banissy in collaboration with Dr Natalie Bowling, who is now based at the University of Greenwich.  The project also involved collaboration with Aikaterini Vafeiadou and Professor Alice Gregory (both from Goldsmiths) and Professor Aikaterini Fotopoulou (University College London). 

Other results from the study include:

  • 72% of people reported a positive attitude towards touch
  • 43% of typical adults feel that society does not enable us to touch enough – the most common response across the study
  • The only region of the world where the most common response was that society did let us touch enough was South America
  • The leading reason people gave for why we did not touch enough was consent
  • People who like touch tend to score higher on extraversion, openness to new experiences and agreeableness, especially if it is touch involving non-family members
  • The three most common words used to describe touch were: Comforting, Warm, Love
  • 63% disliked being touched by a stranger.
  • 61% of people said a hug from a partner before sleep had a positive effect on their sleep, whilst only 4% said it had a negative effect

This largescale study provides one of the most detailed sources of insight on contemporary attitudes towards touch, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has brought the subject of touch into the heart of everyone’s lives. 

Professor Michael Banissy, Head of the School of Professional Services, Science and Technology at Goldsmiths said: 

“It was fantastic to have such a diverse and large group of people take part in The Touch Test – we are really grateful to everyone who completed the study. The data provide one of the most detailed sources of insight that we have on contemporary attitudes and experiences of touch. It indicates the importance of touch in our lives, and shows the crucial role that individual differences play in this. We’re looking forward to sharing and building on the results to further understand the personal and social contexts that influence the impact of touch in our lives.” 

Claudia Hammond, presenter of Radio 4’s All in the Mind and The Touch Test and Visiting Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Sussex said: 

“The response we had to the study shows what a critical topic touch is in society today and of course with social distancing due to the pandemic touch has taken on a new resonance. These results show that our likes and dislikes around touch are nuanced and vary from person to person. Half of the people who took part in the study feel even before the pandemic today’s society does not provide enough opportunities for interpersonal touch. But it’s clear that not everybody wants more touch. This shows we should always take other people’s personal preferences into account.” 

The full results were revealed in The Touch Test: The Results, which broadcast on Tuesday 6 October on BBC Radio 4, presented by Claudia Hammond and a panel of guests.

A week of programming on Radio 4 includes the series Anatomy of Touch, with guest contributors including Professor Banissy. Topics covered include touch hunger, touch and culture, technological substitutes for touch, touch and health and #metoo. Episodes of Inside Health and Inside Science devoted to the topic of touch and a poetry programme about poetry’s long relationship with touch will also be broadcast by BBC Radio 4. 

To accompany the research, Wellcome Collection has commissioned the arts organisations 20 Stories High in Liverpool, and Revoluton Arts and Sudha Bhuchar in Luton, to produce new works for theatre.



Desire, belief, and predicting with our brains

Our brains build a model of ourselves and our world, but how do these models generate our perceptions, actions and decisions? New research from Goldsmiths, University of London investigates.

A green outline of a human brain on a white background

Dr Daniel Yon recently co-authored a research paper, Beliefs and desires in the predictive brain published in Nature Communications, that attracted widespread attention on social media, particularly from fellow scientists. 

With his co-authors, Daniel (a cognitive neuroscientist and Lecturer in Psychology) argues there is a flaw in influential Bayesian models of the brain – which claim to have found a hidden principle behind all brain functions. He suggests this idea doesn’t work because it leaves key elements of cognition and behaviour unexplained. 

We asked Daniel to explain why his proposal is different, and what this could mean for studying how the brain works. 

Sarah Cox: Can you explain what Bayesian brain theories are?

Daniel Yon: If you cast your mind back to secondary school maths you might remember studying probability and ‘Bayes Theorem’. This branch of maths gives us a way to make inferences about the world by combining new bits of evidence with our prior background knowledge. If you start to hear the pitter patter of water droplets outside but you know it’s going to be a scorching summer’s day you might infer that it’s more likely your neighbour turned their sprinklers, rather than think it’s the beginning of a rainstorm. 

Bayesian theories in psychology and neuroscience suggest this kind of process – testing predictions against incoming evidence – is a good model of how our brains actually work. When we perceive the world around us we combine the actual evidence arriving at our senses (e.g. our eyes and ears) with beliefs about what should be there based on our prior expectations. Some Bayesian models have become particularly ambitious in recent years, suggesting that everything the brain does can be thought of in predictive terms – perception, cognition and action are all ways to close the gap between our predictions about the world and the way it really is. 

SC: What might this ‘predictive processing’ model mean for cognitive science and the broader natural sciences? 

DY: Some hope that one day science will be ‘unified’ – with one framework explaining all aspects of biology, psychology and the social sciences. The concept of prediction is a real boon for this project, because many living systems besides the brain can be described in the same conceptual language.

For example, a biologist could model a single-celled organism like a bacterium as a simple prediction machine. In this way of thinking, we might say a microbe ‘predicts’ to find itself in certain environments (e.g. not too hot or too cold) and behaves in ways that cause this prediction to come true. In this way, both the brain and bacteria are thought as similar kinds of prediction engine. 

This attempt to unify cognitive science (the study of mind and brain) with the wider life sciences could have some downsides. For example, talking only in the language of ‘predictions’ makes it hard to account for some distinctive mental states that humans and other animals have but microbes probably don’t, like beliefs and desires. 

SC: Some neuroscientists and philosophers argue that “desires emerge as a web of prior beliefs”, why do you think this argument is flawed? 

DY: In everyday language we might think of beliefs and desires as explicit thoughts in our heads (“I think there is milk in the fridge”, “I would like to make a coffee”). But lots of cognitive scientists (like me) think that the beliefs and desires that control our decisions and behaviour could be ‘subpersonal’ – mental states that your brain encodes but which you might not necessarily be aware of. The main issue is that beliefs and desires play opposite roles in our mental life. 

SC: So what is the difference between our beliefs and our desires? 

DY: Whether they’re conscious or not, beliefs and desires are different because they have different ‘directions of fit’. A good belief tells you the way the world is, and you should update your beliefs to match the world. In contrast, a desire tells you how the world ought to be, and a desire is fulfilled when you change the world to get what you want.

SC: You argue that the theory that everything is based on prediction is problematic, and retaining the distinction between belief-like and desire-like states is important. Why?

DY: We think the problem arises because you can’t use a prediction in a belief-like and desire-like way at the same time. In these predictive processing theories, to explain how I make a morning coffee we’d say my brain has a prediction like “I am drinking coffee now”. If this state in my brain is like a desire I would need to start changing the world to make it come true – e.g., opening the fridge to get the milk. But if it is like a belief I would need to start changing the prediction so it matches the world as it is right now e.g. updating the prediction to say I’m not drinking coffee now, I’m just standing bleary eyed in the kitchen.  So these theories can’t yet explain how we can monitor our actions (beliefs) while we pursue our goals (desires).

This distinction might be especially important in explaining pathologies of cognition. In drug addiction or conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder there seems to be a decoupling of beliefs and desires about action. Somebody may believe that taking a drug will be unpleasant, or report knowing that a compulsive behaviour (such as flicking light switches) is pointless, but nonetheless still feel strong urges to perform the action. These dissociations are hard to account for without suggesting the brain compartmentalises what we believe from what we desire. 

SC: The new research paper was shared widely on Twitter. Why do you think people were so interested?

DY: The paper did attract quite a bit of attention. I think this is partly because ideas around predictive processing have been really influential in the cognitive sciences over the past few years – and many think this framework presents a ‘paradigm shift’ in how we should think about the mind.

I also think one reason the paper received positive feedback in some quarters was because it tried to bridge the gap between computational models and psychological theory. My hunch is lots gets lost in translation on both sides of this equation since most scientists expert in one of these topics don’t have much training in the other. Trying to put the two approaches side-by-side hopefully means different kinds of researchers can share and compare their perspectives rather than working away in their own disciplinary silos. 

Reaching across disciplines in this way will be really important to advance our understanding of the mind and brain. One of the things I have really valued about being in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths since joining last year has been the opportunity to interact with colleagues with different theoretical perspectives who are also very open minded about how ideas can be combined in new ways. 

Beliefs and desires in the predictive brain by Daniel Yon (Goldsmiths, University of London), Cecilia Heyes (University of Oxford) and Clare Press (Birkbeck, University of London) is available to read online:


‘Exploding Head’ study reveals hopes and fears of sufferers

New research into the mysterious phenomenon of Exploding Head Syndrome explores who experiences the condition, why they believe it happens, and how they try to prevent it.

Exploding Head Syndrome (EHS), also called episodic cranial sensory shock, is a sensory disorder characterised by the perception of a loud noise or sense of explosion in the head, usually when transitioning into or out of deep sleep.

Little is known about the exact cause of EHS and, while it is not dangerous, it can lead to fear, anxiety, and interrupted sleep.

A team of psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London, St Mary’s College of Maryland, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Sussex analysed self-reported data on 6,686 people who answered questions on EHS as part of a survey about sleep and sleep disorders run through BBC Science Focus magazine in 2017. 

The magazine published an article on the findings today (Monday 13 July).

The study, the largest survey of EHS to date, shows that just under half of sufferers reported moderate or high levels of fear during EHS episodes. 

Previous research suggests experiencing EHS is common. The sample of people with EHS taking part in this survey was large, with 3,286 people reporting EHS episodes. Another 446 people initially reported EHS symptoms, but were excluded due to other medical conditions or excessive pain during episodes. 2,954 people surveyed said they had never experienced EHS.

While 161 people said they experienced EHS several times a week, it occurred infrequently in most people. 1,147 people had an episode several times a year, and 1,318 experienced it twice or several times in a lifetime.

44.4% reported clinically significant levels of fear during EHS episodes. 25.5% reported clinically significant levels of distress and 10% impairment as a result of episodes. This risk increased with episode frequency. 

Participants were asked if they attempted to prevent EHS episodes and could list up to four prevention strategies and rate their perceived effectiveness from 0-100%.

The prevention attempts listed first, and their perceived effectiveness were: 

Increasing the use of alcohol (which was given an 81% perceived effectiveness rating by those who listed it) or medication (70%) before sleeping, avoiding sleeping on the back (80%) or sleeping on an unspecified side (64%), going to bed earlier (50%), getting more sleep (52%), using mindfulness (63%) or relaxation (49%) techniques, trying to stay awake (40%), getting up (92%), trying to wake up (81%), and adjusting sleep environment (40%). 

When asked what they think causes EHS, 60% of sufferers said that they believe it is due to “something in the brain”. “Stress” was frequently endorsed (by 1,136 people or nearly 35%), while 235 people (7%) think EHS might be a side effect of their medication. 92 people (3%) theorised it could be “something supernatural” while 75 people (2%) think “electronic equipment” might cause the condition. Participants could endorse multiple causes. 

The average length of sleep for all survey participants was six hours 42 minutes per night. People with EHS reported that their sleep duration was on average about six minutes shorter than those without, and it took 30 minutes longer for them to transition from full wakefulness to sleep.

Study co-author Professor Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, said: “Previous research has suggested that a substantial proportion of the population worldwide will experience EHS at least once in their lives. So although only a small percentage of our sample opted for unconventional explanations such as ‘something supernatural’ or the effects of ‘electronic equipment’, this phenomenon is probably explained in such terms by many millions of people around the world.”

Study co-author Dr Brian Sharpless said: “Although they can be dramatic and scary, EHS episodes are relatively harmless. However, a small percentage of people have them so regularly that normal sleep patterns are disrupted and others worry that EHS episodes may be a sign that something is seriously wrong with their mental or physical health. Our hope is that future studies will help to identify effective treatment options for the minority of people who suffer from severe EHS.” 

Exploding Head Syndrome: largest ever study of mysterious condition was published by BBC Focus on Tuesday 14 July 2020

Exploding Head Syndrome: Clinical Features, Theories about Etiology, and Prevention Strategies in a Large International Sample by Brian Sharpless (St Mary’s College of Maryland), Daniel Denis (University of Notre Dame, Indiana), Rotem Perach (University of Sussex), Christopher French and Alice Gregory (both Goldsmiths, University of London) is published in the journal Sleep Medicine



Poor sleep significantly linked with teenage depression

Teenagers who experience very poor sleep may be more likely to experience poor mental health in later life, new research suggests.

In a paper published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers analysed self-reported sleep quality and quantity from 5,033 teenagers and found a significant relationship between poor sleep and mental health issues. 

Teenagers with a depressive diagnosis at the age of 15 were found to be sleeping on average a total of three and a half hours less per week than those without anxiety or depression.

The team, based at the University of Reading, Goldsmiths, University of London and Flinders University found that among participants, those who experienced depression reported both poor quality and quantity of sleep. Those with anxiety had poor quality of sleep only, compared to those teenagers who took part who didn’t report anxiety or depression.

Teens were asked to self-report on sleep quality and quantity. The researchers found that those teenagers who did not report anxiety or depression were on average getting around eight hours of sleep a night on school nights and a little over nine and a half hours sleep on weekends. 

Meanwhile, the group who had a depressive diagnosis were getting less than seven and a half hours sleep on week nights and just over nine hours sleep at weekends. 

The researchers note that the numbers of young people who report anxiety and depression are still low overall. They encourage anyone with concerns for their child’s wellbeing to seek support from a doctor, but say that short term negative impact on sleep is not a cause for alarm. 

Dr Faith Orchard, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Reading said: “This latest research is another piece of evidence to show that there is a significant link between sleep and mental health for teenagers. This study highlights that those young people who have experienced depression and anxiety had overwhelmingly experienced poor sleep during their teens.

“What’s noticeable is that the difference in average amount of sleep between those who experienced depression, which amounts to going to sleep 30 minutes later each night compared to other participants. Within the data, there were some participants who reported hugely worse quality and quantity of sleep, and the overall picture highlights that we need to take sleep much more into account when considering support for teenager wellbeing.”

Co-author, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths Alice Gregory, said: “The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adolescents aged between 14-17 years typically need around 8-10 hours of sleep each night. What is notable here is that those with a diagnosis of depression most clearly fell outside of these recommendations during the week – getting on average 7.25 hours of sleep on each school night.” 

“The Department for Education is aware of the importance of sleep in children and adolescence – and it is really good news that from September 2020 Statutory Guidance will mean that they will be taught about the value of good quality sleep for many aspects of their lives including their mood.” 

Data was derived from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a birth cohort study of children born in 1991–1992. Data was explored from a subset of participants who took part in a clinical assessment aged 15, with subsequent analysis of anxiety and depression at ages 17, 21 and 24. 

While the team noted that although the data was based on self-reporting of sleep which may differ from objective measures of sleep, the associations reported is still of interest as our subjective sense of sleep is important.

Self‐reported sleep patterns and quality amongst adolescents: cross‐sectional and prospective associations with anxiety and depression by Faith Orchard (University of Reading), Alice Gregory (Goldsmiths, University of London), Michael Gradisar (Flinders University) and Shirley Reynolds (University of Reading) was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry on Wednesday 17 June 2020:

This story is based on an original University of Reading press release 

Music vital for transitioning through the day in lockdown

Music is used as a tool to manage transitions between working, relaxing and socialising from home, new research from Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.

Commissioned by Google Nest, research by Dr Diana Omigie reveals how music is being used to transition through daily activities and mood states during the extended period of home lockdown. 

The study revealed that in over 40% of episodes in which people were listening to music, management of mood and energy levels were given as a reason for listening.

Music listening was most associated with better moods when people were waking up and getting ready for the day and during transitions into activities like socialising, play, and exercise. During the week, using music for aesthetic pleasure and to create the right atmosphere peaked after 5pm when the working day for most was over. 

The results showed that mood peaked between 5 – 8pm during the working day, and between 2 – 5pm at weekends when people were engaged in recreational activities. These time periods coincided with the moments in which people were most likely to have reported listening to music to change their mood and energy levels.

The study found that pop music was the most popular genre listened to across the whole day. However, people’s attention to different musical features hinted at how music was being used differently over the course of the day. Following a tendency to focus on melody first thing in the morning, temporal aspects of the music ‘beat, tempo, rhythm’ were attended to most prominently from noon to early evening. Movie soundtracks and ambient music, which were barely listened to during the day, were the second most popular genre post-8pm. 

Dr Omigie, a cognitive neuroscientist and course leader for the MSc Music, Mind and Brain in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, surveyed more than 200 people over five days at the beginning of May 2020. Participants came from a range of age groups, employment statuses, living situations other demographic backgrounds. 

Participants were questioned four times a day at random intervals about a range of aspects of life in lockdown, covering their mood, activities, sounds they could hear, if music was present and how and where they listened to it. 

The research set out to discover how the use of music and its effects changes over the course of a day as people transition between different activities, exploring how this maps to different areas of the home. 

The results showed that people were exercising more at weekends than during the week, and that exercise was the time they reported the greatest control over what they were listening to. Synchronising our body to music during exercise can help exertion feel a bit more effortless prior research has shown, while music during exercise also increases pain control and raises feelings of empowerment and self-esteem.

Cooking was the time people were most likely to be listening to music. Dr Omigie explains: “We may listen to music during mundane tasks for the company music offers. We have a tendency to engage empathy processes when listening to music and we may conceptualise music as a companion. 

“Cooking and housework are not activities that tend to use up a lot of our cognitive resources so we have some to spare during these activities. Music offers cognitive stimulation because it is information that we are constantly processing and constantly trying to making sense of.”

Accompanying the study was a consumer survey of 2,500 people which gave a wider breadth of insight into the nation’s mood. The Google Nest survey found that 63% of Brits are not feeling relaxed at home and are relying on music to create different atmospheres. 

Google Nest produce smart speakers which can be controlled by voice from different rooms, and play music from online providers.

Nest Sessions – a mood-lifting music experience inspired by psychology takes place online this Bank Holiday (23 – 25 May). For more information on Nest Sessions and how to tune in, please visit the Google Store here. To tune in via your Nest smart speaker, just say ‘Hey Google, talk to Nest Sessions’. 


Study explores how anxiety impacts on learning new movements

New research from Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Birmingham shows how anxiety negatively affects our ability to learn new motor skills.

It is well established that feeling anxious can hinder how well someone performs a task – a phenomenon known as “choking under pressure” – but it remains unclear exactly how this happens. 

Dr Maria Del Carmen Herrojo Ruiz and PhD students Thomas Hein and Sebastian Sporn designed a series of experiments for 60 individuals, who had no musical training. Participants were split into three groups, with each group asked to learn short sequences of notes on a digital piano under different conditions. 

The team measured how the performances of those learning in an anxious state differed from those who were not anxious while learning, and recorded which areas of the brain were activated by anxiety at different times.

First, in the ‘exploration’ phase, all participants had to play a piano sequence using any timing they liked and were encouraged to explore different rhythms. Then, in the ‘learning’ phase, all participants were rewarded with a higher score the closer they got to playing new notes with a certain rhythm, without being told that this was their specific goal. 

The team wanted to test whether trying out more different rhythms during the exploration phase would improve their learning abilities in the next phase, when they had to use the scores to find the target movement. 

To see how anxiety affected performance, one group was told in the initial exploration phase that they would have to give a public talk after they completed the piano task, which reliably made them more anxious. A second group were told about the anxiety-inducing public speaking only during the learning phase. The third group (the controls) were not aware of any public speaking task.

Participants who were made anxious during the exploration phase scored fewer points and were less likely to learn the piano sequence in the learning phase. They also varied their movements less in the first phase.

As a follow-up, the research team repeated the experiment with 26 people but without the initial exploration phase. This time the anxious participants were less able to learn the piano sequence and scored fewer points. This suggests that the initial exploration in the previous experiment had enabled later anxious participants to succeed in the learning phase despite being anxious.

The team interprets these findings as an indication that exploring our movements in a new setting when we are not anxious can be beneficial for later, when we must follow a very specific training scheme to reach a specific goal. 

Electroencephalography (or EEG) imaging technology was used to record brain activity during the study. The researchers observed differences in participants with and without anxiety, particularly when they received their scores at the end of the test. The EEG signals showed that anxiety altered rhythmic patterns of brain activity called “sensorimotor beta oscillations”, which are known to be involved in both movement and learning.

Dr Herrojo Ruiz, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, said: “Our findings support the idea that people learn better if they are able to explore and experiment first.”

“Anxious individuals are known to exhibit an intolerance of uncertainty, which contributes to excessive worry.  Anxiety states also lead to more ritualistic behaviour, characterised by movement redundancy, repetition, and rigidity. This study shows that those features of anxiety can decrease people’s flexibility to adapt to changes in a task structure during learning, by making their adaptations more constrained and conservative – none of which is helpful for learning new movements.”

Alterations in the amplitude and burst rate of beta oscillations impair reward – dependent motor learning in anxiety by Sebastian Sporn, Thomas Hein and Maria Herrojo Ruiz is published in the open access journal eLife on Tuesday 19 May 2020:



How to sleep through a global pandemic

Professor of Psychology Alice Gregory is an expert in sleep and its associated difficulties and a member of the Pediatric Sleep Council.

Ahead of the release of the new paperback edition of her popular-science book Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave we asked Professor Gregory how sleep and sleep research has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Sarah Cox: How has two months of lockdown impacted people’s sleep health?

Alice Gregory: Covid-19 is so new that published data are only beginning to emerge about sleep and the pandemic – but there are certainly lots of hypotheses. Social media tells us that many people are reporting many changes to their usual sleep patterns. The situation we find ourselves in at the moment seems to impact almost every aspect of life, including factors affecting sleep such as exposure to bright light, the consistency of our routines, the amount of exercise we are getting and our stress levels.

Some people are reporting waking during the night, which could be because of the anxieties they may have; or perhaps because they are trying to get more sleep than they might need. Others, who struggle to get enough sleep under usual circumstances, perhaps because of long commutes, a demanding work schedule or busy social life, may have new-found opportunity to sleep. 

Some are reporting odd dreams too, and there are many possible explanations for this. For example, we need to wake up in order to remember a dream – so increased night waking or more relaxed starts to the day may help to explain why dreams are being recalled more than usual. 

SC: It’s been a time of huge upheaval for children, with most unable to go to school or see friends. How might this have affected their sleep?

AG: Lockdown has had the potential to impact sleep for better and for worse. As with adults, a reduction in sunlight exposure, an irregular routine, and increased stress levels can all negatively impact sleep in children too. Other factors could have an effect on sleep too – such as an increased use of electronics, which can be particularly problematic when present in the pre-sleep period.

But there are also potential up-sides of this situation for sleep too. As discussed in Nodding Off, for many years there have been campaigns around the world arguing for school to start later in the day for adolescents. This is because we see a change in sleep timing during this stage of life – where sleep timing becomes later. This change appears to be associated with puberty, occurs internationally and is also found in some other mammals. In line with this, adolescents may find it difficult to fall asleep early, which can mean that under normal circumstances the wake time necessary for the school day is problematic. 

This situation can also contribute towards ‘social jetlag’ where sleep timing shifts between week days and weekends and has been linked to multiple problems. The increase in home-learning associated with the pandemic means that some adolescents now have greater flexibility in setting their sleep timing and schedules to be more in line with their own biological rhythms. However, schedules should not shift too late – as this could result in problems when school resumes. 

SC: Can you share some advice for parents, to help their child’s sleep? 

AG: My top tips include establishing a consistent routine (ensuring that the family wakes up at the same time every day, for example) and not letting bedtime become too late. It can also be useful to avoid screen time – particularly before bedtime and to discourage children from working in bed so that space does not become associated with arousal. Getting exposure to bright light during the day and obtaining regular exercise is also helpful. 

There are multiple other tips available to parents and information has been posted about this elsewhere. For example, the Pediatric Sleep Council has produced some tips online. A task force of the European Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) academy has also issued some tips for dealing with sleep problems during home confinement due to the pandemic. 

SC: Earlier this year The Touch Test was launched to survey public attitudes to touch. You’re now analysing data collected relating to sleep – what do you think you might find?

AG: The Touch Test was launched in January and data collection continued until March 30th. The main aim of the study was to explore people’s attitudes towards the physical experience of touch which is particularly important to establish following movements such as #MeToo. My role in the project was to think about how touch might be related to sleep. 

Of course what none of us could have realised as we designed the study was that there would be such seismic shifts in touch-experiences over the period during which we were collecting data. Certainly, as COVID-19 spread in the UK we were encouraged not to shake hands with others or even touch our own faces – and social distancing and shielding has left many without hugs from loved ones.

Other factors may have shifted over this period too, such as the way we sleep. Given the changes in the number of Covid-19 cases in the UK over the time-period of data collection, we hope to also use the data collected to tell us more about this period in time. For example, will people who provided data at an earlier date report better sleep quality (perhaps reflecting lower anxiety levels and a more standard routine) than those who provided data later in the study? Will sleep length change – perhaps increasing as the study continues, due to a reduction in commuting and fewer social events? We have ideas as to what we might find but have not yet run these analyses so don’t know for sure. 

Find out more about sleep, sleep science and Covid-19 from Professor Alice Gregory via her recent interview with The Telegraph and co-authored editorial in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology 

Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave is published by Bloomsbury and available to buy in paperback from 21 May 2020 



‘Peace efforts’ take longer to recognise than threats, study shows

Our brains detect threats ‘automatically’ but the process of understanding conciliatory gestures is far more complex, new research from Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.

A 2019 study found that acts of terrorism are over 350% more likely to be covered by US media if the perpetrator is Muslim, which promotes negative stereotypes

Dorottya Lantos and colleagues aimed to gain a better understanding on a neurological level of how people respond to threats and intergroup conflict; for instance, conflict between people of different races or religions. 

Their work helps contribute toward our understanding of what happens in the brain when we are faced with existential threats that challenge our way of survival, be it terrorism or a global pandemic such as Covid-19. 

Evaluating and responding to a reconciliation effort triggers different areas of the brain than a threat does, their study found. It takes more cognitive effort because we have to quickly consider multiple questions and weigh up more information during the process before drawing a conclusion. 

The hope is that this kind of research can help us understand how to prevent stereotypical thinking and negative bias, with that reinforcement often coming from biased media coverage.

Their study, published in the journal Social Neuroscience on Monday 4 May 2020, looked at the parts of the brain which activate when threats are perceived and which parts are triggered into action when observing reconciliation. 

Researchers showed non-Muslim Western Caucasian participants video clips of Muslim men in traditional Middle Eastern dress making a threatening statement, offering reconciliation, or making a neutral statement. 

Using neuroimaging techniques (fMRI), the researchers observed which areas of participants’ brain were activated while watching each of the scenarios. 

Threatening statements led to increased activation in the amygdala, insula, supramarginal gyrus and temporal lobe areas of the brain. The amygdala is associated with responding to high-arousal situations and fear-related stimuli and converting this to threat and distress. The supramarginal gyrus has been associated with increased attention to specific semantic information, suggesting that threats capture the attention of participants more.

When participants watched video clips showing reconciliation efforts, the results of the fMRI showed increased activation in other areas: the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate gyrus, and caudate. The prefrontal cortex has been associated with forgiveness as well as impulse control, inhibition, and emotion regulation. 

These findings suggest that threat detection is a relatively automatic process, while evaluating and responding to reconciliation offers elicited responses in more cognitive regions (such as the prefrontal lobe).

Continuous exposure to media representations of certain groups as harbouring evil intentions promotes the endorsement of negative stereotypes and hostility, prior research has shown. This can lead to the escalation of intergroup conflict and violence.

Dorottya Lantos, PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, said:

“Attention-grabbing headlines of terrorism threats have become a part of our everyday lives. Data suggests that this threat is overexaggerated by the media, compared to that warranted by the actual number of deaths caused by terrorism. A 2019 study also found that acts of terrorism are over 350% more likely be covered by the US media if the perpetrator is Muslim.

 “To prevent the escalation of intergroup conflict, we must gain a better understanding of the way individuals respond to threats and reconciliation offers from perceived dangerous outgroups.

“The COVID-19 outbreak brought with it instances of blatant hostility and xenophobic attitudes globally between different racial groups. Our research may help shed light on how we can foster intergroup peace while also inform social scientists and policy makers about the neural responses to threat posed by outgroups, and the ways in which targeting reconciliation efforts may be the most beneficial.”

‘The Neural Mechanisms of Threat and Reconciliation Efforts Between Muslims and Non-Muslims’ by Dorottya Lantos (Goldsmiths, University of London), Yong Hui Lau (University of Melbourne), Winnifred Louis (University of Queensland) and Pascal Molenberghs (Institute for Social Neuroscience, Melbourne) is published in Social Neuroscience:



Populism loses its appeal as pandemic continues

People in Poland are becoming less susceptible to divisive populist messages as the Covid-19 crisis continues, early research from Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.

Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala spent six weeks collecting real-time data on the relationships between authoritarianism, national cohesion and sexual prejudice as the coronavirus pandemic spread and the Polish government enforced lockdown measures.

Her survey showed that support for right-wing authoritarianism, national cohesion and the belief that non-traditional women and sexual minorities threaten national survival by not having children, increased during the first four weeks of the pandemic, peaking at week four. 

But by the sixth week authoritarian attitudes and stigmatisation of sexual minorities had started to decrease, indicating disenchantment by the government’s divisive social politics. This decrease was accompanied by a significant drop in trust in the government, while trust towards fellow citizens during the pandemic remained the same between week four and six. This fall in support coincided with the time the government was pushing to ban abortions and sexual education and trying to rally public support for the idea. 

Typically, a crisis which increases perceptions of a threat causes a ‘conservative shift’ in populations. This so-called ‘rally around the flag’ effect can then be exploited by populist leaders. In the case of Covid-19 in Poland, data suggests that while this conservative shift happened in the early weeks of the pandemic, more people are now starting to support socially cohesive values, such as collective responsibility, and are moving toward greater co-operation and compassion.

Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths suggests that people in many countries – not just Poland – are beginning to realise that populist governments have mishandled and downplayed the pandemic and it has led to increases in loss of life.

Dr Golec de Zavala says: “In Poland it is quite a dramatic change, but this can also be observed here in the UK, where the current government is being criticised more and more.”

Her data also show that as the pandemic continues the number of people who say they would vote in an upcoming presidential election decreased dramatically in week four. This indicates that they may have become disillusioned with current politics, and would not support unconstitutional measures proposed by the government – including bringing forward the election during a pandemic to be held on 10 May.

Writing on the Department of Psychology blog ahead of a formal publication of their study, Dr Golec de Zavala and PhD student Oliver Keenan, who helped with the write-up of the analyses, say that there is now widespread realisation that “despite all their rhetoric, populist leaders do not actually care about the people they claim to represent.” 

Data was collected from a final sample of 829 adults in Poland four times over a six week period, before the first coronavirus case was detected in the country (4 March), then after two, four, and six weeks. 

The first lockdown measures were introduced between 10-12 March and strengthened on the 25th.

The anti-abortion project came back onto the Polish parliament’s agenda on 7 April, to be discussed on 16 April. Governments in Hungary and the US have also aimed to extend or enact policies which attack women and sexual minorities during this time period.

PrejudiceLab, headed by Dr Golec de Zavala, continues to monitor social attitudes in Poland in the unfolding pandemic. Their results are updated every two weeks on the website

Read more on the Department of Psychology blog

Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala is a Reader at the Department of Psychology and head of the PrejudiceLab. Her research covers social identity, narcissism and collective narcissism, and the psychological predictors of political conservatism among other subjects. Oliver Keenan holds a BSc (Hons) in Psychology and MSc in Psychology of Social Relations from Goldsmiths and is working toward his PhD in the PrejudiceLab, a unit in the Department of Psychology.






MagicLab’s Gustav Kuhn contributed to a fascinating article on the role of magic in the age of deep fakes and augmented reality. Check it out below!



Life lessons from laughing babies

Dr Caspar Addyman is a developmental psychologist and director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab, a unit set up to study how babies and toddlers perceive the world around them.

Caspar’s first non-fiction book, The Laughing Baby, is published on 16 April by Unbound, bringing together a decade of research into laughter and happiness from birth to childhood. We spoke to him ahead of the launch:

Sarah Cox: What’s The Laughing Baby about?

Caspar Addyman: It’s a popular science book about why babies have so much fun being babies. It’s about all the things they learn in the first two years of life and why they have a great time doing it. Friends and family help babies learn but we’re also a great big mystery in ourselves. Laughter helps babies connect to and cope with the wonderful world they’ve just joined. 

SC: How did the Baby Laughter research project start, and why you think that studying and understanding laughter in a child’s early years is so important?

CA: Back in 2011 I was a baby scientist, my brother was a comedian, and my sister had just had a baby. I suggested my brother make the baby laugh and I would explain why. That jokey suggestion planted a serious idea and so I surveyed parents all over the world to find out more about baby laughter. I watched a lot of laughing baby videos. I ran studies in the lab (with varying success). I learned that laughter and positive emotions play a central role in many aspects of early human development. It turns out it would take a book to list them all.

SC: Your work explores why babies are so happy. How can adults be more like babies? 

CA: That’s a great question. Ultimately, I think babies laugh more than adults because they are happier and there are definitely things we learn from them. Their two big secrets are authentic relationships and constant challenges. Babies are deeply loved by their families but they have a disarming quality that gets the best out of everyone. Babies don’t hold anything back because they don’t know how, and they are genuinely interested in anyone who takes the time to interact with them. We can certainly learn from that. 

Additionally, research on adult happiness has found greater life satisfaction in people who are always learning new skills or making small improvements to their daily routines. These are little victories that add up to a deep sense of wellbeing. Laughing babies bear this out, many of their squeals of delight come as they gain mastery of a new skill. 

My TEDx talk from Bratislava 2017 has more Life Lessons from Laughing Babies.

SC: You took the slightly unconventional route for an academic publishing their first research-focused book by fundraising with Unbound, achieving 215% funding. Why do you think this worked so well?

CA: I wanted to write an accessible rather than academic book but when I took the book to mainstream publishers they didn’t get it. Was this a joke book for babies? Was it a new approach to parenting? I knew from public lectures and meeting many new parents that there was a real interest in the science of early life and who can resist laughing babies? So Unbound’s crowdfunding approach was perfect for me. 

The idea is that if an author can persuade enough readers to buy the book in advance of publication that covers the costs of production and proves there’s a market. It was hard work but I am hugely grateful to all the people who supported the project and then waited patiently for me to finish writing the book. We got to 215% thanks to particularly generous support from Pampers and musician Imogen Heap – both of whom I had collaborated with previously – and from my mother, who always believes in me. 

SC: What are some of the funniest baby laughter reports or moments from your research in lab or in public surveys?

CA: I am grateful to all the families who have shared their laughter with me over the years. On my website, I keep collections of laughing babies videos and some of the memorable laughs they’ve sent me. If you need your spirits lifting I can recommend them. 

SC: What’s up next for your research?

CA: I have two projects underway at the moment. One, inspired by my colleague Dr Guido Orgs, looks at the physical synchrony between parents and babies as they play. The second being run by PhD student, Zehra Karademir, will measure how babies’ dancing changes as they grow to like songs. 

Writing the book was hard work but I’m hoping that part of the payoff will be in interesting new collaborations. In the meantime, I hope people will continue to send me videos and short “field reports” of their laughing babies. 

The Laughing Baby by Dr Caspar Addyman is published in the UK by Unbound on Thursday 16 April and in the US on May 19. It is available to order in hardcover or Kindle via Amazon

Find out more about the Goldsmiths InfantLab


Magicians exploit your ‘lazy’ brain in pick-a-card tricks

Written by: Sarah Cox


When asked to choose between four playing cards on a table, two-thirds of people will choose exactly the same one, research into how magicians manipulate audiences shows.

Dr Gustav Kuhn demonstrates a card trick

A new Goldsmiths, University of London study proves what magic professionals have long known: the majority of people will pick the card in front of their hand, simply because it is the easiest one to reach.

Over centuries, magicians have developed powerful cognitive tricks to misdirect audiences or covertly influence spectators’ choice.

In pick-a-card tricks, an audience member might think they have selected a random card, but in reality, the magician has forced the card by positioning it in a specific way, increasing the chance that it will be chosen.

Led by Dr Gustav Kuhn, a research team worked with 60 participants at Tsinghua University.

They found that when four cards are lined up in a row, 66% of people will pick the third card from their left. This is significantly higher than chance, which would be 25% for each of the four cards in a four-card line-up.

However, the third card from the left bias only worked for participants who selected the card with their right hand. Those who used their left hand tended to prefer the card that was immediately in front of this hand instead.

After selecting a card, participants were asked how free they felt about their selection. Almost all participants were completely oblivious to the ‘placement force’ – they had no idea that a magician had led them to make an unconsciously biased choice through strategic physical positioning of the cards.

The research team also found that participants had a ‘moderate’ (5.5/10) sense of wonder when the prediction of the magician matched their choice of card. This was caused by people vastly underestimating the percentage chance the magician would get it right (35% compared to 66%). 

Dr Gustav Kuhn, Reader in Psychology, said: “Prior research has shown that people are more likely to select an object from the middle of a row, and they’re also more likely to select objects that are convenient to reach. Essentially, we’re quite lazy.

“We’ve shown what magicians and those who make decisions about supermarket shelf stacking, have long known: our behaviour and decisions are remarkably predictable, and driven by unconscious mental processes.”

Forcing you to experience wonder: Unconsciously biasing people’s choice through strategic physical positioning by Gustav Kuhn (Goldsmiths), Alice Pailhes (Goldsmiths) and Yuxuan Lan (Tsinghua University, Beijing, China) was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition on Friday 28 February 2020.


Artists drive our music download choices

Written by: Sarah Cox

Gay rights support improves in Jamaica but anti-gay sentiment grows, new research suggests

Written by  Sarah Cox
Published on 15 August 2016
Three years of intense activism and awareness raising in Jamaica have helped increase support for gay rights and reduce approval for the country’s “buggery law”, new research from Goldsmiths, University of London has found.


But while support for structural prejudice, including the threat of ten years imprisonment for consensual homosexual sex, has reduced, Dr Keon West (Department of Psychology) found that personal prejudice against LGBT individuals has increased over the same period.

In Kingston, 2012, two male students at the University of Technology were caught engaging in sexual activity. One escaped, while the other was pursued across campus by fellow students calling for his death. Seeking refuge with security guards, the guards then turned on him and beat him themselves.

This was followed by a period of intense debate with many arguing that the gay student should have been killed.

But less than three years later, in August and October 2015 Jamaica’s first Pride events were held in Kingston and Montego Bay respectively. Here persons of all classes, sexualities and gender expressions, including straight allies, could gather in a safe environment.

How did this change happen? Between 2012-15 organisations such as AIDS-Free World, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica, the Jamaica Anti-Homophobia Stand and J-FLAG engaged in activities intended to increase LGBT visibility in the country, call attention to prejudice and encourage politicians to take prejudice more seriously.

Social psychologist Dr West – an expert in anti-LGBT prejudice in Jamaica – analysed the results of two surveys from 2012 and 2015 of almost 1,900 people, to see how attitudes have changed.

The surveys show that, over the 3-year period, heterosexual Jamaicans reduced their support for the country’s “buggery law” and became more supportive of gay rights. However, they simultaneously became more likely to say they do not trust or like gay people, or that they would threaten, hurt and insult them.

(Dr Keon West, Lecturer in Psychology)

Dr West’s research into changes in attitudes appears in The Journal of Sex Research.

He explains: “What should we make of these findings? Taken together my conclusion is that these changes in structural and personal prejudice suggest that heterosexual Jamaicans now respect LGBT Jamaicans more, but like them less.”

Dr West believes that this pattern of results could be expected considering the strategies recently used by pro-gay rights groups in Jamaica. These have focused on protest and visibility – strategies that tend to increase support for legal rights and equality.

However, there has been a relative scarcity of strategies involving friendly, cooperative interactions – strategies that promote positive attitudes. Jamaican gays and lesbians continue to be killed, and reactions to some pro-homosexual protests have been negative.

“This does not indicate a failure of Jamaican pro-gay activism,” Dr West adds. “All organisations have limited resources and anti-gay prejudice is a multi-faceted problem. The focus on legal equality is showing some signs of success.

“But it’s also important to achieve more positive attitudes and a reduction in day-to-day violence and negative behaviours. With those goals in mind, it might be time to accompany the closed fist with a bit more of the open palm.”

“Jamaica has been described as the most homophobic place on earth, but consensual gay sex remains also remains illegal in 75 other countries.

“Jamaica can be seen as a testing ground for comparable anti-gay nations; like those in Jamaica, activists in these strongly anti-gay countries must select strategies that best suit their challenging social climate.”

‘Jamaica, 3 years later: Effects of intensified pro-gay activism on severe prejudice against lesbians and gay men’ is published in The Journal of Sex Research.

Read more on Gay Times

Do you want to Get in2science? Read on!

Written by   Maria Cristina Cioffi

Published  12 August, 2016

Disproportionately few students enrol in a university degree from low-income families; 16% of those entitled to free school meals go on to enrol at university compared to 96% of those from independent schools. In 2010, a few people decided to do something about it and founded in2scienceUK. This organization is a charity that gives A-level students from low income backgrounds the opportunity to take part in a summer placement working alongside scientists.

Around 150 research groups in the UK offered placements this year and with over 5000 applications, competition for places is fierce. None more so than for our placement, which is the only psychology department placement across the whole scheme. For the past four years, James Moore and I have been hosting a student from the programme for one week, and this year, like all the others, it’s been a great week.

Cristina with one student on the programme

Each year, we look at the research currently going on in the department and arrange for the student to watch and help out with some of the experiments. We also talk them through our research topic and get them to shadow us in our daily work. Throughout this, the student doesn’t just get involved in the psychology research, but they have the chance to discuss their ideas, aspirations and their future. The students we have hosted have told us that the placement inspired them and the in2scienceUK data speaks to that effect, with 75% of participating students going on to enrol in a university degree and 59% enrolling onto a degree at a Russell group university.

This experience is of great value not only for the students, but also for us hosting them. Each time, I am asked questions that challenge me to reflect and discuss aspects of my work that I tend not think about. Their fresh, naïve look on my work turns out to be very useful.

With such all-round rewarding internships, I hope other researchers, departments and donors will support in2scienceUK. We look forward to continuing our support next year.

If you want further information, go to their website:

James Moore is on Twitter @Neurocog

Goldsmiths’ Psychology Department collaborates with The International Centre for Research in Human Development.

Written by Tom Bloniewski

Published on 9 August 2016

TomTom’s PhD research investigates the way in which anxiety taxes cognitive resources and the main study is run on a sample of twins. This allows for one of a kind design in which we can address the covariation of different neural responses across twins and to see how the general variation in neural activity is partitioned into genetic and environmental sources. Here he talks about a recent collaboration at the Tomsk State University in Russia.


At the beginning of 2016 Professor Yulia Kovas was awarded the Erasmus+ Learning Mobility Grant which gives students and staff the flexibility of collaborating with institutions abroad. Tom Bloniewski, PhD student, was the first one to be awarded a share of this grant to travel to Tomsk State University (TSU, Russia). The exchange program allowed Tom to participate in numerous projects such as the Neural Correlates of Anxiety in Cognitive Performance (in collaboration with Psychological Institute in Moscow), The Spatial Ability Project (in collaboration with King’s College London), and Genetically Informative Longitudinal Investigation of Early Mental Development of Children (in collaboration with Université Laval, Canada).

Tom was involved in large-scale data collection and management, got the opportunity to teach statistics to postgraduate students, and to run the journal article seminars. Collaborating with TSU gave him exposure to cutting-edge research techniques including genetically sensitive neuroimaging data analyses.The grant awarded to Tom resulted in a presentation during the International Society for Intelligence Research 2016 conference organised by Yulia Kovas in Saint Petersburg.

You can ask Tom about his research through his Twitter feed: @AnxCog

BPS Undergraduate Research Assistantship: Ageing with Autism Traits: Examining Ageing in the Broad Autism Phenotype.

Written by: Gavin R. Stewart

Published: 1 July 2016

Over the summer Gavin has been given the opportunity to continue his development as both a researcher and a student. He’s been working with Dr Rebecca Charlton over the past year on a variety of her studies in the GoldAge Lab into both typical and atypical ageing, primarily with a focus on the Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP). Now, he has been successful with his application to the British Psychological Society Undergraduate Research Assistantship Scheme, which gives a grant allowing a second year student to design and conduct a full research project over their summer break. Here he says more about it.

The aim of this study is to improve our understanding about how the BAP affects the ageing process. The BAP describes a set of characteristics related to the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. These characteristics are common in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), however they also occur at a subclinical level in the typical population and relatives of those with ASD.

Very little is currently known about the impact of ageing on the BAP/ASD. Previous research conducted by the GoldAge Lab has indicated that some abilities that decline during ageing are also affected in ASD, such as difficulties with memory, organising information and the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. We want to further examine this overlap, which will give us further insight into both typical ageing and ageing with ASD.

Time expands after blinking: research explores dopamine and time perception link

Written by Sarah Cox

Published on 6 Jun 2016

One of the first studies to explore moment-to-moment fluctuations in individuals’ perception of time found that time is perceived to last longer after we spontaneously blink.

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Researchers in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London found that temporary increases and decreases in dopamine levels within the striatum (a brain region known to be involved in time perception) are associated with moment-to-moment changes in how we perceive time.

Previous studies have demonstrated that spontaneous eye blinking is a reliable biomarker of dopamine levels in the striatum, and in the Goldsmiths study led by Dr Devin Terhune participants had a tendency to overestimate the length of short intervals after they had blinked.

The effect was present for short intervals of half a second, and longer intervals of two seconds, and occurred with both auditory and visual intervals. These short intervals are important as they are closely tied with a range of psychological and motor functions including fluctuations in conscious states.

Evidence from pharmacology, neuroimaging and genetics indicates that striatal dopamine – a neurochemical that plays an important role in a range of cognitive functions – influences time perception.

But the study by Dr Terhune and colleagues is one of the first to explore the way individuals’ perception of time changes from one moment to the next – a characteristic that could influence how we perform in contexts requiring precise timing of the environment.

The researchers say that increases in dopamine availability may speed up dopaminergic pulses in the brain that are triggered when we start to time an event. As a consequence, there is an earlier onset of the timing mechanism, or more frequent accumulation of timing-related information, resulting in the relative overestimation of time.

Fluctuations in dopamine availability may underlie variations in the characteristics of the dopaminergic pulse and introduce variability in the perceived duration of time, the researchers explain.

As is the case with time perception, spontaneous blinking is altered in clinical conditions characterised by dopamine levels below or above normal levels, such as Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. Drugs designed to manipulate dopamine levels can also affect blinking.

Dr Terhune, an expert in consciousness, hypnosis and time perception, concludes: “Relating dopamine to interval timing within individuals helps clarify why our perception of time varies from one moment to the next and may provide insights into fluctuations in consciousness more broadly.”

‘Time dilates after spontaneous blinking’ by Devin Terhune, Jake Sullivan and Jaana Simola was published in Current Biology on 6 June 2016.


Study shows drawing and maths ability link in children is down to general intelligence


Written by Sarah Cox
Published on 18 Apr 2016

Behavioural geneticists from Goldsmiths, University of London have published new research exploring the link between a young child’s ability to draw a human figure and their skills in maths later in life.

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Drawing is an activity enjoyed by children worldwide, but it reflects more than artistic talent: researchers have found that early drawing expresses a child’s cognitive competence, and predicts children’s later mathematical achievement and cognitive abilities.

Four-year-olds who performed well in a ‘draw a person’ test appeared to be better at maths at age 12 than four-year-olds whose drawings weren’t as accurate. This ability to draw the human figure predicted mathematics achievement eight years later, when the children were 12.

Young children show large differences in their ability to draw the human figure, with some children drawing all the human features very accurately and others only scribbling marks on a page.

Genes or environment?

Because the children who produced the drawings were twins, researchers were able to explore to what extent genes and environments explained differences in drawing ability between children.

They found that while genes partly explained these differences in drawing ability between young children, environmental factors were the main source of influence on young children’s drawing performance.

The researchers had originally predicted that four-year-olds who scored highly in drawing an accurate human figure might also demonstrate higher achievement in mathematics eight years later because of several features that maths shares with figure drawing – such as proportionality, appropriate use of space, and symmetry.This association between early drawing and school mathematics achievement was mostly explained by genetic factors (82%).

The same factors influence general intelligence

Contrary to expectations, researchers found that the relationship between drawing a human figure at four and how good you are at mathematics at 12 isn’t specific.

While a genetic link between early drawing ability and later maths ability was found, it can be explained by genetic and shared environmental factors that also influence general intelligence – not just maths.

However, the researchers found a small specific genetic link between early human figure drawing ability and teachers’ ratings of children’s mathematics ability.

About 20% of the genes that contributed to the relation between preschool drawing ability and mathematical ability when the same children were 12 were not shared with general intelligence.  This shows that some of the genes that are responsible for differences between children’s drawing performance at four years of age are also implicated in mathematical skills later on in life.

The specific genetic link between drawing and mathematics was not found when mathematical ability at age 12 was measured using formal online tests of mathematical ability.

Lead author Margherita Malanchini (Department of Psychology) suggests that the more positive teacher-ratings in maths for children good at drawing might have more to do with specific characteristics like the child’s creativity and motivation.

The study’s results are consistent with previous findings demonstrating that the link between drawing ability and general intelligence 10 years later is largely explained by genetic factors.

The study supports the “generalist genes” theory, which proposes that most genes associated with common learning abilities and disabilities are general, rather than specific to each domain. Genes that influence one area of learning (for example, drawing an accurate human) are largely the same as those that influence other areas (such as maths ability and intelligence).

Gender difference and stability in ability

The researchers also found that at age four, girls performed only marginally better than boys at drawing a human. The study also found stability in drawing ability between ages four and four and a half – a six month period that seems short but is a large portion of a child’s life at this key developmental stage.

Children who showed good drawing skills at four were also good in their drawing production when they produced another drawing six months later, at four and a half.

The study used data from 4,999 monozygotic and 9,581 dizygotic twins from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), based at King’s College London. The human figure drawings were assessed both with the established McCarthy scale, and the researchers’ own criteria: the newly developed Drawing Maturity Scale, which taps into a number of different factors such as maturity of lines, realism and aspects of spatial cognition.

“The links we’ve observed between drawing, mathematics and general intelligence could to some extent also be related to motor development,” the authors explain.

“For example, drawing scores may reflect maturity of lines that in turn depend on motor skills. Recent neuroimaging research suggests that partly overlapping cortical and subcortical brain regions are associated with the development of both general cognitive ability and motor skills.”

‘Preschool Drawing and School Mathematics: The Nature of the Association’ was published in Child Development on Sunday 17 April.

Social perception expert wins Spearman Medal for outstanding research


Written bySarah Cox
Published on: 15 Apr 2016

Goldsmiths University of London’s Dr Michael Banissy has been awarded this year’s Spearman Medal from the British Psychological Society in recognition of his outstanding body of published work.

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Reader in Psychology Dr Banissy is a leader in the study of conscious vicarious perception – where individuals consciously experience the same sensation they see another feeling.

He has led developments in our understanding of these experiences by conducting pioneering studies on mirror-touch synaesthesia (where individuals experience touch on their own body when seeing touch to others) and developing the existing neurocognitive model.

He has also used this understanding to explore the general mechanisms of interpersonal representation and social processing we all use.

Additionally, he has made significant contributions to other areas of psychology, including face perception, emotion processing, social cognition, and memory.

Dr Banissy said: “I am delighted to have been awarded the Spearman Medal and feel extremely honoured to be amongst the list of winners. I’d like to thank the BPS for the award and Professor Andrew Bremner for nominating me.

“This achievement would not have been possible without the help of some excellent colleagues, collaborators, and lab members. I am very grateful to them all. I would particularly like to thank my mentors, Professors Vincent Walsh and Jamie Ward, for their insight and support from the start.


My lab is currently working on a number projects that seek to determine mechanisms that contribute to our ability to determine social signals displayed by others, how these abilities vary between us, and means by which they can be improved.

Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, President of the Society, said: “The Spearman Medal is one of the British Psychological Society’s most prestigious awards and is given to early career researchers, such as Dr Banissy, whose work is excellent in quality and influential in nature. Dr Banissy receives my wholehearted congratulations.”

The Spearman Medal is awarded annually by the Society’s Research Board to recognise a body of outstanding published work produced by a psychologist within eight years of the completion of his or her PhD.

The British Psychological Society is the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK. It is responsible for the development, promotion and application of psychology for the public good.

Urban living and access to schooling shapes how kids perceive size, research indicates

Written by: Sarah Cox

Published on: 7 Apr 2016

Children who have grown up in urban environments fall for a well-known optical illusion more often than kids from remote cultures – because access to schooling has changed the way we look at pictures, a Goldsmiths, University of London study suggests.

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Researchers from the Department of Psychology showed children from 3-years-of age the Ebbinghaus illusion on a computer screen.

Participants were from remote Himba villages in Northern Namibia, or from a town called Opuwo – the nearest urban development to the Himba. Data from UK residents, collected in an earlier study, was also analysed.

The illusion shows two circles placed near to each other, with one surrounded by large circles and the other surrounded by small circles. For many people, the central circle surrounded by large circles will appear smaller than the central circle surrounded by small circles, even when this is not actually the case.

In UK children this illusion develops in early childhood. When judging which of the target circles was larger, 9-10 year-old UK kids were fooled by the illusion and made more mistakes than younger UK children.

But the Himba children were not much fooled at all until they were of secondary school age.

From 9-10 years, traditional Himba children were much more immune to the illusion than British kids, correctly stating more often which circle was larger. This age group of Himba children also beat the illusion more often than the urban Namibian children who had received formal schooling.

In fact, the study authors found that the number of years urban Namibian children were at school was the main factor predicting how much children were fooled by the illusion.

The 50 Himba children who took part (from a total of 336 participants) were from a community of semi-nomadic herders who have limited contact with Western culture and artefacts. Their ages had to be estimated, as the community does not usually keep birth records.

Why does this happen?

The researchers believe that Western children have developed to process visual context (in this case, the circles surrounding the central circle) differently to Himba children because of the way they’ve engaged with pictures and print as they’ve grown.

The study showed that while UK children are processing context by the age of 9 or 10, Himba children are completely unaffected by it.

It’s likely that cluttered urban environments impact on the development of a child early in life, but pictorial and printed materials become particularly relevant in middle-childhood around the age of 9-10 – the same point at which a divergence between Himba and UK children was observed in the Ebbinghaus illusion test.

Lead researcher Professor Andy Bremner, Head of Psychology at Goldsmiths, explains:

We believe that living in a cluttered urban environment and going through formal schooling plays a role in changing the way we involve context in our visual perceptions.

“There are some well-known differences in the way different cultures perceive visual shapes and patterns, but our study goes further in providing an account of how these differences emerge through the interaction of nature and nurture in early development.

“We found that development of differences between the cultural groups was complete by about 10-years of age, which helps us hone in on one particular explanation.

“Rather than being due to differences in how we focus our attention – something that continues to develop in later childhood – we believe that cross-cultural differences in the Ebbinghaus illusion are due to how we take context into account when we look at the world.

“Perceiving and understanding context isn’t a universal human feature, but something that develops quite differently depending on where or how you grow up.”

‘Effects of Culture and the Urban Environment on the Development of the Ebbinghaus Illusion’ by Andrew J. Bremner, Jan de Fockert, Karina J. Linnell, Jules Davidoff (Goldsmiths), Martin Doherty (University of East Anglia) and Serge Caparos (Universite de Nimes) is published in the journal ‘Child Development’.

Big Data and Open Access projects win British Academy Rising Star Engagement awards for Goldsmiths psychologists

Written by: Sarah Cox

Published on: 30 Mar 2016

Goldsmiths, University of London psychologists Dr Sophie von Stumm and Dr Caspar Addyman have been awarded Rising Star Engagement research awards 2016 by the British Academy.


Now in its second year, the British Academy’s Rising Star Engagement (BARSEA) Scheme provides funding of up to £15,000 to 29 distinguished Early Career Researchers to assist their career development through organising interdisciplinary events for other Early Career Researchers.

Dr Caspar Addyman is a developmental psychologist with research interests in learning, laughter and behaviour change in infants. A member of the Department of Psychology’s InfantLab, he joined Goldsmiths in 2015 from Birkbeck.

Open Access is one step in a bigger journey that researchers have been slow to take, Dr Addyman explains. His award of £10,682 will allow him to organise a one-day workshop with a strong practical element that will inspire and educate researchers across all social sciences disciplines on how to do better.

“Our research is publically funded and is supposed to have an impact on the world,” he explains. “I strongly believe that the whole process should be open to more scrutiny and outputs shared more freely. Open Access is just one small part of this. It also requires sharing code, data and materials to improve reproducibility.

There should be greater public engagement before, during and after research is conducted. And we should write and communicate without jargon in venues beyond traditional journals and monographs.

“The workshop will be led by experts already doing these things. The support of the British Academy and of Goldsmiths as hosts is hugely important in getting these ideas out beyond STEM into the wider research community. It is, of course, free and open to everyone.”

As a lecturer in psychology and head of the Hungry Mind Lab, Dr Sophie von Stumm’s research focuses on individual differences in cognitive ability and personality traits. She has received £14,801 from the British Academy for work empowering early career researchers to collect ‘big data’ with innovative assessment tools.

Recent technological advances have led to a vast number of research tools that enable collecting ‘big’ high-quality data. However, many early career researchers lack expertise and resources to apply these tools in their own studies, which creates a loss for their individual careers and for science in general.

Dr von Stumm and her Hungry Mind Lab team will organise a showcase event at which established scientists, technology companies, and media and crowd-sourcing experts will introduce early career researchers to the latest assessment tools from different scientific disciplines.

She explains that it’s an exciting time for early career researchers in the social and behavioural sciences: “Modern technology has opened an unprecedented wealth of possibilities to produce innovative and high-quality research – but this also comes with challenges. What are the latest methods available for collecting ‘big data’? How do we best engage the public to participate in research? And who can we consult on modern assessment technology?”

Find out more about this year’s BARSEA award winners on the British Academywebsite.


New research to explore intentionality biases in interpreting human behaviour.

Written by Siân Jones
Published on 17 Mar 2016

The Leverhulme Trust has offered Goldsmiths, University of London a research project grant for  three years, for £164,459. The project will be directed by Dr James Moore,  and will look at why we seem to prefer intentional over unintential accounts of human action.


“The ability to distinguish between intentional and unintentional movements is integral to our social lives. Judging someone else’s action to be intentional carries with it the assumption that they are also responsible. Not only is this important in terms of the day-to-day navigation of our social world, it is also important in our systems of law, where criminal responsibility rests on judgements of intentionality”, explains Dr. Moore.

“Interestingly, recent evidence suggests that people usually prefer intentional explanations to unintentional or situational ones. This inclination towards intentional attributions has been termed “the intentionality bias”.

“Our project will investigate this bias, looking at the psychological and neural processes responsible for it. In doing so I hope to shed more light on the nature of intention attribution in humans”.

Isolation and poor mental health in over-60s with elevated autistic traits is cause for concern, research suggests

Written by: Sarah Cox

Published on 11 Mar 2016

Older adults with mild autistic traits are much more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and difficulty ‘getting things done’ than adults without such traits, research by Goldsmiths, University of London indicates.


With autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the elderly an under-explored area, and older individuals with ASD difficult to recruit to studies, the psychologists believe that studying people who have mild autistic traits could inform our knowledge on aging and autism.

Previous research shows that 20-50% of family members of an individual with ASD display behaviours characteristic of ASD; these traits also exist in the general population and are known as the broad autism phenotype (BAP).

About the study

Adults aged 61-88 years were asked to report traits common in ASD such as social problems, ‘aloofness’, appropriate use of language in social situations, as well as ‘executive functions’ – including the ability to plan and organise behaviour.

The 66 participants were then categorised into two groups: 20 adults with the BAP and 46 adults without the BAP.

Individuals in the BAP group, even after controlling for age, education, sex and health problems, exhibited more real world ‘executive function’ problems, and reported lower levels of social support, and higher rates of depression and anxiety than the control group.

Older adults in the BAP group were likely to have a smaller social network, fewer close friends, and less frequent social interactions than those in the control group.

The study was led by Dr Rebecca Charlton with MSc student Jessica Budgett (Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths) and Dr Gregory Wallace (Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, The George Washington University), and is the first investigation into the BAP in the context of older adulthood, and its association with mental health difficulties.

Why is this important?

“Only recently has there been a focus on adulthood and aging in ASD so the knowledge on it is woefully small,” explains Dr Charlton.

“The first individuals diagnosed with ASD in the 1940s are now reaching old age so we hope there will be more opportunities for study.

“But there have long been difficulties in recruiting older individuals with ASD to take part in research. Studies such as ours – which utilises individuals with BAP traits instead – may be less impeded by difficulties, but can still inform knowledge on aging and ASD.

“A combination of a rapidly growing elderly population, and increases in adulthood ASD diagnoses poses a growing social and financial challenge. Greater knowledge is important for identifying risk factors that might affect the management and planning of services for this elderly population.

A survey by the National Autistic Society conducted in 2008 found that only 8% of individuals with ASD had most of their support from professionals, with 46% having most support provided by their families.

“With an aging ASD population, as individuals start to lose family members, we could begin to see more devastating isolation, loneliness and depression, an increased risk for dementia and the onset of both physical and social impairments.”

Participants were recruited via the University of the Third Age in Ealing, two West London GP surgeries, and by posting information on online forums for older adults and relatives of those with an ASD diagnosis, such

Aging and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Evidence from the Broad Autism Phenotype will be published in the journal Autism Research on Friday 11 March.

New research to ask if toys work best in helping UK and immigrant kids’ friendships

Written by Sarah Cox

Published on 10 Mar 2016


Psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London will start new research this year to find out whether just three minutes of play with diverse Playmobil toys could encourage friendly interaction between UK-born children and recent arrivals from overseas.

A study led by the same researcher indicates that wheelchair-using Playmobil™ models can help children better imagine friendships with wheelchair-using peers.

Dr Sian Jones and Professor Adam Rutland (Department of Psychology) will test whether British children are better at imagining a friendship with an immigrant child if Playmobil™ is used, compared with other methods that don’t use physical stimuli, and simply ask them to imagine friendly contact.
With a small grant scheme award from the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust, the researchers will work, over a year, with 5-9 year olds in London’s culturally diverse schools.
By bringing imagined contact with kids from other cultures into a 3D realm, where children use Playmobil ™ children in a Playmobil ™ school to imagine interacting in a physical space, it’s hoped that their ideas about friendship will be better stimulated, and this will then transfer into a real-life setting.
The toys are expected to increase the ease by which children imagine positive interactions and then significantly improve their reactions to immigrants when they interact in the classroom or playground

Participants will be asked to play with the toys just once, for three minutes.

To confirm the toys’ effectiveness, the children will then be tested on their interaction with the profiles of immigrant children online, and whether they would fairly distribute resources, such as stickers, in a game with them.

Dr Jones’ research over the past few years has suggested that interacting in a Playmobil ™ playground improves friendship intentions towards disabled children. Kids get used to a Playmobil ™ toy figure in a wheelchair and see that model to be as socially important and capable of playing as the other models who do not use wheelchairs.

“A government drive towards inclusion in schools opens up opportunities for dialogue and engagement between groups, yet at the same time presents schools with new challenges, including dealing with bullying on the grounds of disability or ethnicity,” explains lead researcher Dr Jones.
“Everyone knows that encouraging interaction between different social groups improves children’s attitudes about others who they might see as ‘different’ to themselves. What we’ve shown, and hope to show with our new study, is that an intervention as cheap and simple as diverse plastic toys could be a great way to encourage that interaction, and really benefit school cohesion.”
Read reports on the BBC News website and TES online.