‘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: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2020.05.043
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: https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13288
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: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.50654
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.
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: https://doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2020.1754287
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 https://collectivenarcissism.com/pandemic/monitor
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
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.
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
Goldsmiths, University of London researchers working with adults recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder have found high rates of depression, low employment, and an apparent worsening of some ASD traits as people age.
The number of UK adults over 65 with ASD is expected to reach 155,000 by 2035, but little is known about the trajectory of wellbeing or cognitive and social abilities of people as they get older.
Goldsmiths’ psychologists believe that while anecdotal reports indicate an improvement in ASD symptoms with age, a lifetime developing coping strategies does not reduce traits, but may reduce the effects of them. As a result, the speed or likelihood of a formal ASD diagnosis could be reduced as symptoms are ‘hidden’.
Dr Rebecca Charlton and colleagues worked with 100 adults recently diagnosed with ASD by a specialist centre, to explore and identify patterns in characteristics. Participants were over 18 and had an IQ in the normal range, with no learning disabilities.
In the hope that new insights into characteristics could help healthcare officials with the diagnostic process, researchers also compared the group with 46 individuals referred to the centre but then not then given an ASD diagnosis.
Their study found:
- An association between age and autism traits such as difficulties with socialisation, communication and imagination. Autism Quotient (AQ) scores from self-testing increased by 2.19 points per decade. This did not happen in the group not given an ASD diagnosis.
- An association between age and the tendency to analyse and extract rules (‘systemising’). Systemising scores from self-testing increased by 10.4 points per decade in the ASD group. This did not happen in the group not given an ASD diagnosis.
- Older adults in the ASD group performed better than younger participants in some neuropsychological tests for processing speed and visuospatial ability, but not in others (for example, vocabulary or maths.
- Less than half of people from both groups were either studying or in full-time employment. This is a similar level to the ASD population as a whole, including individuals with IQs outside of the normal range.
- High rates of depression and anxiety in both groups. A third of the ASD group experienced these conditions.
- No differences between the ASD and non-ASD group in terms of having a family history of ASD.
- Notably lower rates of epilepsy than is found in individuals who have both ASD and learning disabilities.
Further research across individuals’ adult lifespan, and comparisons with a control group of typically developed adults, are now required says Dr Charlton, if we are to better understand ASD characteristics and the possible worsening of symptoms with aging.
She explains: “We observed a greater tendency among older participants with ASD to analyse and extract rules, to systemise the world. Is this a worsening of an ASD trait or something that also occurs in typically developed people as they get older?
“Or it could be that insight and understanding of autism spectrum disorder improves with age, leading to poorer self-ratings as people become more aware of their traits.
“The increasing severity of symptoms with age could reflect a referral bias, where young adults with mild symptoms, or their parents, may be motivated to seek a diagnosis as a way of accessing support, but older adults with mild ASD traits may not.”
‘Demographic and cognitive profile of individuals seeking a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in adulthood’ by Rebecca Charlton, Hassan Mansour (Goldsmiths), Francesca Happé (King’s College London), Pippa Barrett, Tony Brown and Patricia Abbott (Autism Diagnostic Research Centre, Southampton) was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders on 22 August 2016.
Shake, Rattle and Roll: baby science inspires musical for toddlers
Written by Sarah Cox
Published on 16 August 2016
Research by Goldsmiths and Birkbeck infant experts has inspired a new musical theatre show designed to literally have its young audience rolling in the aisles. Shake, Rattle and Roll premieres at the Brain Waves Festival this September.
Psychologist Dr Caspar Addyman (InfantLab, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths) and his Birkbeck Babylabcolleagues Sinead Rocha and Rosy Edey worked with Polka Theatre to produce the fun and lively 45-minute performance for children aged 6 – 18 months.
Acclaimed children’s theatre director Sarah Argent was inspired by their research into how and why babies laugh, move, and read body language, and designed a theatrical experience to get a young audience wiggling and giggling.
Shake, Rattle and Roll is part of the Brain Waves Festival, a new event for children and their families which spans theatre, science and learning, focusing on the latest advances in the study of child brain development.
From 21 Sep – 2 Oct Polka presents a programme of theatre productions, workshops and participatory activities, alongside talks and discussions for adults, scientists and artists.
Each performance of Shake, Rattle and Roll includes a short dance and play session at the end, and throughout the shows Sinead will be investigating infants’ spontaneous natural rhythm.
Dr Addyman is a developmental psychologist interested in learning, laughter and behaviour change. The majority of his widely-publicised research is with babies.
He explains: “Baby theatre is something new for me but I couldn’t resist the idea of a play for babies about baby science. I’ve learned a lot from collaborating with Sarah Argent and the team at Polka theatre. The challenges we face are rather similar – holding a baby’s attention and leading them through something new and unfamiliar. I can’t wait to see how babies like the show.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 astalkaboutautism.org.uk.
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
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.
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.