Researchers are figuring out how sense of self develops differently in autistic teens

Teenage woman looking at herself in a mirrorBy guest blogger Dan Carney

Our autobiographical memory is fundamental to the development of our sense of self. However, according to past research, it may be compromised in autism, together with other skills that are also vital for self understanding, such as introspection and the ability to attribute mental states to others (known as mentalising).

For example, experiments involving autistic children have highlighted retrieval difficulties, “impoverished narratives”, and a greater need for prompting, while also suggesting that semantic recall (facts from the past) may be impaired in younger individuals.

Now a UK research team, led by Sally Robinson from London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, has published the first attempt to assess the nature of – and relationships between – autobiographical memory, mentalising and introspection in autism. Reporting their findings in Autism journal, the group hope their results will shed more light on the way that autistic children and teens develop a sense of self.

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More than 50 years on, the murder of Kitty Genovese is still throwing up fresh psychological revelations

KittyGenovese-2By Christian Jarrett

The horrific killing of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in New York in 1964 inspired research into what’s known in social psychology as the Bystander Phenomenon – our increased disinclination to intervene when in the company of others. That’s because early reports told how 38 witnesses to Genovese’s murder did nothing to help. But in fact it’s now clear that several people did intervene. So the tragedy that inspired research into the Bystander Phenomenon is actually a bad example of that real phenomenon.

But it’s not time yet to leave the sad story alone. As psychologist Saul Kassin documents in Perspectives on Psychological Science, hidden in the story in plain sight all these decades is an example of another important psychological principle: the power of false confessions. Moreover, in another twist, details have emerged recently of how a few days after her murder, Genovese’s killer, Winston Moseley, was initially detained by members of the public – ironically, given how the Genovese case inspired research into bystander apathy, these bystanders chose to act.

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5 Reasons It’s So Hard To Think Like A Scientist

Maria Goeppert MayerBy Christian Jarrett

Thinking like a scientist is really hard, even for scientists. It requires putting aside your own prior beliefs, evaluating the quality and meaning of the evidence before you, and weighing it in the context of earlier findings. But parking your own agenda and staying objective is not the human way.

Consider that even though scientific evidence overwhelming supports the theory of evolution, a third of Americans think the theory is “absolutely false”. Similarly, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has contributed to climate change, yet around a third of Americans doubt it.

We Brits are just as blinkered. In a recent survey, over 96 per cent of teachers here said they believed pupils learn better when taught via their preferred learning style, even though scientific support for the concept is virtually non-existent. Why is it so hard to think like a scientist? In a new chapter in the Psychology of Learning and Motivation book series, Priti Shah at the University of Michigan and her colleagues have taken a detailed look at the reasons, and here we pull out five key insights:

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What is it like to be the partner of someone who is transgender?

GettyImages-530594532By Emma Young

The experiences of people who’ve been through a gender transition have been studied and analysed by psychologists – showing, for example, improved psychological wellbeing and self-esteem after hormone treatment. But when it comes to their partners, there’s been much less research. According to a new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, though, they often go through a kind of life transition of their own, and while there are certainly challenges, there are often positive changes, too.

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A new study sheds light on “chemobrain”

Close-up of a sign and arrow leading to the cancer centerBy Christian Jarrett

After chemotherapy treatment, many patients say their mind has been affected. For example they describe symptoms such as feeling confused, memory problems and difficulty concentrating – a phenomenon that has been dubbed “chemobrain” (Cancer Research UK has more information).

The causes are little understood. Are these apparent neuropsychological effects due to a direct physical effect of chemotherapy on the brain? Or could it be the stress and worry involved in chemotherapy that is responsible? Perhaps it’s both. To find out more, Mi Sook Jung at Chungnam National University in South Korea, and colleagues, conducted repeated brain scans and neuropsych tests with breast cancer patients undergoing chemo and compared them with similar cancer patients not on chemo and healthy controls. Reporting their results in Brain Imaging and Behaviour, the researchers hope a better understanding of the nature of “chemobrain” and its causes will make it possible for health professionals to offer patients better support and care.

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The idea that humans have a poor sense of smell is an outdated myth, argues new review

The Nose For Wine
It’s estimated that humans may be able to distinguish up to a trillion different smells

By Alex Fradera

In the early 1950s, while investigating rabbits’ sense of smell by recording the activity of their brain cells, the scientist Lord Adrian noticed something curious. As his team mixed up odours of increasing strength, to see at what point the rabbits’ neurons fired in response, they found the critical threshold appeared around the same point that they were able to smell the odour themselves: in other words, this suggested that the smell had become noticeable to animal and man at the same time.

On publication of the research, Lord Adrian mentioned his observation, but it didn’t provoke a serious response, presumably because informed scientists knew that the human sense of smell is generally pathetic. Everyone knew… but they knew wrong. In a new review in Science, John McGann, who runs the Rutgers Laboratory on the Neurobiology of Sensory Cognition, takes us through the historical misunderstandings to reach the truth about what the human nose knows.

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New findings suggest it might be better to read toddlers an e-book than a print book

Mother and daughter using a digital tablet at bedtimeBy Emma Young

Reading with a young child is important for their language development and early literacy skills. But does it matter if you read from an electronic book (e-book) or traditional print? As any parent knows, toddlers are generally keen on screens. So the finding, from a new study in Frontiers in Psychology, that very young children enjoy e-books more than print picture books, may not come as a huge surprise – but these additional findings might: both parents and toddlers behaved differently when reading electronic vs. print picture books. And the toddlers who read the e-books learned more.

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With leader charisma, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing

Team GB Arrive In Olympic VillageBy Alex Fradera

If there’s one quality you absolutely want in a leader, it’s surely charisma. Celebrated leaders are invariably associated with this magic word, and evidence suggests charismatic people inspire more trust, commitment, and results from their followers. But across a number of other supposedly virtuous traits, such as political ability or assertiveness (pdf), researchers are starting to realise that it’s possible to have “too much of a good thing.” Could charisma fall in that category? That’s the suggestion of new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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False economy? Half of “low intensity” CBT clients relapse within 12 months

Members Of Support Group Sitting In Chairs Having Meeting
Low-intensity CBT can include group-guided self-help, computerised CBT and telephone support

By Christian Jarrett

Heralded as a revolution in mental health care – a cost-effective way to deliver evidence-based psychological help to large numbers – low-intensity Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is recommended by NICE, the independent health advisory body in England and Wales, for mild to moderate depression and anxiety and is a key part of the “Improving Access to Psychological Therapies” programme in those countries. Prior studies into its effectiveness have been promising. However, little research has looked at whether the benefits last.

A new study in Behaviour Research and Therapy has done that, following a cohort of people with depression and anxiety over time. Disappointingly, the team led by Shehzad Ali at the University of York, found that after completing low-intensity CBT, more than one in two service users had relapsed within 12 months.

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“Reverse ego-depletion”: People in India find mental effort energising

Hindu Devotees Celebrate Holi Festival In IndiaBy Christian Jarrett

Exercising self-control leaves you feeling drained. That’s what many of us in the West believe and it’s what we seem to experience – think of the fatigue after a morning spent dealing with difficult clients or focused on spreadsheets on a computer screen. But in Indian culture, there is a widespread belief that mental effort is energising – that the more concentration and self-control you expend in one situation, the more invigorated you will feel for the next challenge.

Psychology has, so far, mostly backed up our Western intuitions. Over 100 studies – nearly all conducted in the West – have shown that participants are less able to resist temptation or exercise mental focus after completing a mentally taxing task, an effect that researchers call “ego depletion”. But now a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has tested Indian participants and it shows for the first time a “reverse ego-depletion effect” – the more difficult an initial mental task, the better participants performed on a subsequent challenge.

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