Maintaining the “entente cordiale” in the era of Brexit

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By Tony Ward

If you read the higher education press, you will be aware of the concerns of many British academics and universities following the 2016 referendum and the vote in favour of leaving Europe. How the UK leaves the European Union could have many important consequences for British universities.  It may become impossible for British researchers to access European research funds, which in the past have been a major source of funding.  Access to staff and student mobility schemes may cease, making it harder for people to travel abroad to study and collaborate.  Academic staff from Europe may no longer find the UK an attractive place to come and work, and vice versa.

As an academic that has had strong links with our nearest European neighbour for some time, the referendum decision has been personally painful, and the ensuing months and years since torturous. However, I am determined to do my bit in maintaining close working relationships with our continental colleagues, however the Brexit project turns out. So I thought I would use my PSRG blog entry to tell you a bit about French psychology, and the rewards of international collaboration.

This story really started for me in the winter of 2013, when I decided it might be useful to travel abroad to find out how other institutions were delivering online learning in post-graduate psychology. Having set up a distance-based MSc in the early 2000s, and by 2013 being the programme lead for the doctorate in counselling psychology at UWE, I was keen to see how professional courses could be delivered online. I duly wrote and submitted a travel grant application to the Higher Education Academy (HEA), with a view to visiting the Fielding Institute in California and Paris 8 University in France, both of which run distance courses in clinical psychology (if you are an undergraduate psychology student that speaks good French you might consider the Paris 8 Masters – though using this to get HCPC registered might be less straight forward after Brexit!). Unfortunately, the HEA hit a period of financial turbulence, and the travel grants were axed. As a result, the USA part of the plan had to go, but Paris 8 was possible with some university funding.

So in 2014 I spent a week at Paris 8 University, talking to staff and students, and finding out how their online MSc in clinical psychology was run. In France currently, access to the profession of clinical psychology is via a two year MSc, as it used to be in the UK (before Plymouth University pioneered professional doctorates in the 1990s, and everyone else followed suit). I soon discovered that an interesting aspect of clinical psychology at Paris 8 is that it quite closely resembles our counselling psychology course at UWE, in that students study both humanistic and psychodynamic foundations of therapy, as well as the ubiquitous cognitive behaviour therapy.

Paris 8 University is well known in France as the experimental university which was founded after the student led riots of 1968. Well known academics have included Foucault and Deleuze. Amongst the current psychology staff is Professor Arnaud Plagnol, who like me has interests in the application of cognitive science to understanding and working with client issues in therapy. Following my 2014 visit, Arnaud and I have collaborated on a number of projects.  The picture shown here is a poster we did on neuroscience and depression, at the DCoP conference in Harrogate in 2015. More recently we have written a book together called Cognitive Psychodynamics, which illustrates how psychodynamic insights into phenomena such as the unconscious and transference can be understood and further developed in therapy through a cognitive framework.

Since 2014 I have done a small amount of teaching on the Paris 8 MSc.  To help me communicate better with my French colleagues and students, I have attended a number of the annual conferences of the French Psychological Society. This year’s was in Poitiers, and the picture shown here is of the Hotel Fumé, which as the name suggests was built as a hotel by the  Fumé family in the 15th century. It became part of the University of Poitiers’ Faculty of Human Sciences in 1922. The University of Poitiers is one of the oldest in France, often seen as the number 2 after Paris (so the French equivalent of Oxford ;).  I was pleased to be able to present at the conference the excellent research carried out by one of my professional doctorate students, Sara Dowsett, on the utility of schema theory in understanding mental health issues in higher education students.  The great thing about attending this conference is also the opportunity to catch up on some of the research being done by our colleagues in the Francophone world. For example, I listened to an extremely interesting paper by Geoffrey Gauvin, who along with colleagues in Montreal has been looking at the utility of self-help groups for clients with depression.  It struck me that the holistic perspective being used with clients in these groups is something we might well benefit from here in the UK.

One of the highlights, as you would expect for a conference in France, was the conference dinner. I felt privileged to be seated opposite the president of the French Society, Rene Clarisse. In talking to Rene, one of the interesting things I learned was psychologists in France are pushing the government to extend psychology training courses by an extra year, which may well give rise to the development of professional doctorates in France.  Ironically, the similarities between British and French psychology may well therefore increase even further after Brexit, just as the possibility of professional mobility may well get harder.

I hope my blog entry encourages you all to reach out to our continental psychology colleagues and overcome the linguistic barriers, whatever language your rusty GCSE happens to be in.

A need for science to ‘slow down’? Experiences from the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience

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By Alice Stephenson (PhD Student)

BNA 2019 Festival of Neuroscience, Dublin

In April, I was fortunate to attend the annual and prestigious British Neuroscience Association (BNA) Festival of Neuroscience. The conference provided a unique opportunity to engage with contemporary interdisciplinary neuroscience research across the UK and internationally. Spread over four days the event hosted workshops, symposiums, keynote lectures and poster presentations. Covering 11 neuroscience themes, as an experimental psychologist, I was particularly interested in themes relating to attention, motivation and behavioursensory and motor systems, and neuroendocrinology and autonomic systems. 

Not only was this a chance to embrace cutting-edge interdisciplinary neuroscience research, this was a chance to develop skills enabling me to become a meticulous researcher. It was clear that an overall goal of the conference was to encourage high standards of scientific rigour by embracing the open science movement.

“Fast science… too much rubbish out there we have to sift through.”

Professor Uta Frith

The open science movement encompasses a range of practices that promote transparency and accessibility of knowledge, including data sharing and open access publishing. The Open Science Framework is one tool that enables users to create research projects and encourages sharing hypotheses, data, and publications. These practices encourage openness, integrity, and reproducibility in research, something particularly important in the field of psychology. 

A especially striking claim was noted by Ioannidis (2005): “most published research findings are false.” Ioannidis argued that there is a methodological crisis in science, particularly apparent in psychology, but also cognitive neuroscience, clinical medicine, and many other fields (Cooper, 2018). If an effect is real, any researcher should be able to obtain it using the same procedures with adequate statistical power. However, many scientific studies are difficult to replicate. Open science practices have been suggested to help enable accurate replications and facilitate the dissection of scientific knowledge, improving scientific quality and integrity.  

The BNA has a clear positive stance on open science practices, and I was lucky enough to be a part of this. Professor Uta Frith, a world-renowned developmental neuropsychologist, gave a plenary lecture about the three R’s: reproducibility, replicability, and reliability, which was arguably one of the most important and influential lectures over the course of the conference. 

Professor Frith summed up the scientific crisis in two words, “Fast Science.” Essentially, science is progressing too fast, leading to lower quality research. Could this be due to an increase in people, labs, and journals? Speeded communication via social media? Pressure and career incentives for increased output? Sheer volume of pre-prints available to download? Professor Frith argued that there is “too much rubbish one has to sift through.”

A potential solution to this is a ‘Slow Science’ movement. The notion of “resisting quantity and choosing quality.”  Professor Frith argued the need for the system to change. Often we here about the pitfalls of the peer review process, yet Professor Frith provided us with some novel ideas. She argued for a limited number of publications per year. This would encourage researchers to spend quality time on one piece of research, improving scientific rigour. Excess work would be appropriate for other outlets. Only one grant at a time should be allowed. She also discussed the need for continuous training programmes. 

A lack of statistical expertise in the research community?

Professor Firth argued that there is a clear lack of statistical knowledge. With increasing computational advancements, it is becoming easier and easier to plug data into a function and accept the outcome. Yet, we must understand how these algorithms work so we can spot errors and notice illogical results. 

This is something that spoke out to me. I love working with EEG data. Analysing time-series data allows us to capture cognitive processes during dynamic and fast changing situations. However, working with such rich and temporally complex data is technically challenging. The EEG signal is so small at the surface of the scalp, and the signal to noise ratio is poor. Artefacts, non-physiological (e.g. computer hum) and physiological (e.g. eye movements), contaminate the recording, meaning that not only does the EEG pick up neural activity, but it also records other electrical signals we are not interested in. Therefore, we apply mathematical algorithms to help with cleaning the data, to improve the signal to noise ratio. Once the data are cleaned, we also apply algorithms to transform the data from the time series domain (for which it is recorded in) to the frequency domain. The number of techniques of EEG analysis has risen hugely, partly thanks to computational power, and therefore there are now a whole host of computational techniques, including machine-learning, that can be applied to EEG data.  

Each time algorithms are applied to the EEG data, the EEG data change. How can an EEG researcher trust the output? How can an EEG researcher sensibly interpret the data, and make informed conclusions? Having an underlying understanding of what the mathematical algorithms are doing to the data is no doubt paramount. 

Professor Frith is right, there is a need for continuous training as data analysis is moving at an exhaustingly fast pace. 

Pre-registration posters – an opportunity to get feedback on your method and planned statistical analyses

I also managed to contribute to the open science movement during the conference. On the second-to-last day, I presented a poster on my research looking at the temporal neural dynamics of switching between a visual perceptual and visuomotor task. This was not an ordinary poster presentation; this was a pre-registration poster presentation. I presented planned work to be carried out, with a clear introduction, hypotheses and method. I also included a plan of the statistical analyses. There were no data, graphs, or conclusions.

The poster session was an excellent opportunity for feedback from the neuroscience community on my method and statistical analyses. This is arguably the most useful time for feedback – before the research is carried out. This was particularly beneficial for me coming from a very small EEG community, and seeking particular expertise is vital. A post-doctoral researcher, who had looked at something similar during her PhD, provided me with honest and informative feedback on my experimental design. In addition, I uploaded my poster to the Open Science Framework, and the abstract was published in the open access journal Brain and Neurosciences Advances. I also received a preregistered badge for my work. These badges work as an incentive to encourage researchers to engage with open science practices. Check out cos.io/badges for more information. 

So, what next?

Practical tools and significant support are coming together to allow open science to blossom. It is now our responsibility to be part of this. I’ve created an Open Science Framework account and plan to start there, detailing my aims, methods and data, to improve transparency in research. I’m making the most of my last year of my PhD to attend data analysis workshops. I would like to pre-register my research in the near future. How do I contribute to the slow science movement? I can start by slowing down (perhaps saying no to additional projects?!), improving my statistical knowledge, and embracing open science practices.   

Not only was the conference an incredible insight into multidisciplinary neuroscience research (I did not realise you could put a mouse in an MRI scanner, anaesthetised of course, as it would never keep its head still!), it was an influential and motivating atmosphere. Thank you, British Neuroscience Association. Now, who else wants to join me in advocating open science, becoming a rigorous researcher, and improving scientific practices?!

References

Cooper, M. M. (2018). The Replication Crisis and Chemistry Education Research. Journal of Chemical Education, 95, 1– 2.

Ioannidis, J. P. (2005). Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Medicine, 2(8), e124.

A dormouse, a t-shirt made from bin liners and a jar of Nutella: Applying creative methodologies to understand athletes’ experiences of overtraining syndrome

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By Lindsay Woodford

Exceptional physical features, together with high commitment and motivation, are important attributes of high-performance athletes. However, when faced with frustrating setbacks, the same qualities of commitment and motivation that have elevated athletes above the pressures of competition can be their own worst enemies. It is not uncommon for elite athletes, especially young athletes to push themselves too far, to overreach and experience extreme tiredness on a regular basis and never reach their full potential because of excessive training load and insufficient recovery.

Unexplained underperformance and persistent fatigue – Exploring overtraining syndrome

Overtraining syndrome has been described as persistent fatigue and underperformance, which occurs following hard training and competition. The symptoms do not improve following two weeks rest and there is no other identifiable cause. It can be a devastating condition, as highly motivated athletes have to cope with the frustration of reduced performance and taking extended periods off training and competition to recover. Monitoring and treating a persistently fatigued athlete can be challenging, as the root cause of the fatigue is often not recognised until months of poor performance have passed. Accurate diagnosis is difficult as there are often numerous other medical and psychological conditions that present with similar symptoms. 

There is much debate in the sport science literature regarding the aetiology of overtraining syndrome. Various physiological mechanisms have been proposed to influence an athlete’s vulnerability to the overtraining state. These include low muscle glycogen, decreased glutamine, central fatigue, oxidative stress, an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, hypothalamic dysfunction and elevated cytokine levels. However, no single marker can be taken as an indicator of impending overtraining syndrome. Until a definitive diagnostic tool for overtraining syndrome is developed, regular monitoring of a combination of performance, physiological, biochemical, immunological and psychological variables seem to be the best strategy to help identify athletes who are failing to recover properly.

Making the familiar unfamiliar – Using visual methods in applied psychological research

My passion for conducting research in the area of overtraining syndrome was inspired by my personal experience of the condition when I was competing as a national level lightweight rower. I understood first-hand what a debilitating condition it can be and the devastating impact it can have on an athletes’ career. I desperately wanted to help further our understanding of the condition so that sport science and medical practitioners could better support athletes like myself. There is a wealth of research that has examined the pathology of the overtraining syndrome, but no comprehensive understanding of the subjective experiences.

When I started my research, I was excited to conduct my first interview with a triathlete who had suffered with the condition for the last five years. I thought long and hard about the questions I was going to ask, and I was eager to hear his responses. But at the end of the interview I felt bitterly disappointed that the answers I received told me nothing I didn’t already know. I could not understand why. Perhaps he had difficulty accessing and communicating his experiences, maybe he was offering a rehearsed narrative, or was it that I was asking the wrong questions? 

I attended a seminar organised by my colleagues Victoria Clarke, Nicola Holt and Elizabeth Jenkinson from the psychology department at the University of the West of England, in collaboration with Cathy Randle Phillips and Catherine Butler. The seminar focused on exploring the potential for creative and arts-based methods for applied psychological research. Whilst feeling demotivated and dejected about my research it was following this seminar that I experienced what can only be described as an epiphany. I realised that the problem was that I was asking questions I already knew the answers to; overtraining syndrome had become too familiar – I needed to make it unfamiliar.

It has been suggested that by introducing a visual element to the process of data collection we can potentially provide different ways of knowing and understanding. Art can address atomization by forcing us to slow down our perception, to encourage us to linger for a while and to notice new things. Perhaps if I utilised visual methods in my research I could disrupt the athletes’ narratives and allow the unsayable to reveal itself? If I asked my participants to play with Lego, paint and take photographs would it provide a platform for exploring their world in more reflexive depth? 

The Dormouse – Recollections of a lightweight rower with overtraining syndrome

In my role as a practitioner I have been humbled and privileged to hear the stories of athletes I work with. I have shared in their joy and their sorrow, I have played a part in their journey of self-exploration – my role has been so much more than enhancing athletic performance. Yet in my research, to date, I have not allowed my participants to tell their stories. So, like all mad scientists I conducted a little experiment on myself! I got my camera out and started taking photographs of what overtraining syndrome meant to me. These are the images that represented my experience of living with the condition and some extracts from the story they inspired, told as part of The British Journal of Sports Medicine’s Patient Voices series this month.

Making weight was a challenge for me and my crew, the extreme and frankly ridiculous weight loss strategies we employed in the days leading up to the National Championships in 2000 seem incomprehensible now. I was not at race weight the night before the finals, so I severely restricted my food and drink intake, to the point of dehydration. I remember feeling so thirsty it was uncomfortable to swallow. The blissful sensation of sucking the moisture out of my toothbrush – I savoured that moment when the cool, minty water slid down my throat, it could have been champagne! It was July and I had set the central heating in the house to full blast, I had put on as many layers of clothing as I could, and I slept motionless, restrained from the weight of the blankets pinning me down. Despite subjecting my housemates to a night in a sauna, the next morning I was still 500g over race weight. In a last ditch attempt to be able to compete, I fashioned a t-shirt out of a bin liner, layered all my cold weather kit on top and ran a few laps round the housing estate. I remember darting behind a dustbin when I saw my coach drive past, I did not want him to know the shameful extent of my weight loss strategies. But to me it was normal, it was just part of being a lightweight rower, we all did it, I think our coach did know but he chose to ignore it. 

These strategies proved effective as I won a bronze medal at the Nationals, and later a coveted place on the England lightweight women’s rowing squad for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.Everything was going to plan, when one morning at 5.30am as I reached over to turn my alarm off, I felt my head begin to spin, my heart was pounding, and I felt violently sick. I threw up to ease the nausea, sipped some water, put on my kit and drove to the rowing club. I managed to complete the training session, but my legs felt like lead and my heart was racing. This was the start of a progressive decline in performance.

One of the most debilitating symptoms I experienced was the need to sleep. I became affectionally known as “The Dormouse” because I slept over 10 hours a night and during the day. When I stood up my heart rate would go through the roof and my blood pressure would drop, I felt constantly dizzy and sick. I caught cold after cold and I felt like I had a pair of golf balls permanently lodged in my throat. Despite these debilitating physiological symptoms, I was more motivated than ever to represent my country. 

It took me two years until I was well enough to do a full training session on the water with the rest of the squad. I had various relapses along the way, but none as severe as the first one. By the time I was fit enough to trial for the national team again I was completely burnt out. The sport that I loved more than anything else in the world, became something I despised and not long afterwards I quit (Woodford, 2019).

My current research has embraced some of the methods offered by the creative arts and has empowered my participants to shape its direction. I am excited about how this new approach can further our understanding of this debilitating condition and help us develop strategies to support those athletes with overtraining syndrome. 

Intergenerational Contact: Connecting Generations and Connecting the Research

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By Jennie Ferrell

Intergenerational activities and programmes have become a popular topic in the United Kingdom recently with the success of projects involving older adults and children as portrayed in television programmes such as Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds and The Toddlers Who Took on Dementia, through media attention of innovative projects including the Apples and Honey Nightingale co-located nursery-care home, as well as from societal issues of media-grabbing headlines of tensions between ‘baby boomers’ and ‘millennials’ and generational differences in political attitudes such as toward Brexit. As society becomes more age-segregated and resources become stretched, intergenerational activities have become a necessity beyond the feel-good aspects of such projects, a point argued by many who promote the need for intergenerational contact in society, such as Nancy Henkin, founder of Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning, and Stephen Burke, founder of United for All Ages. In addition to the initiation of such projects, it’s vital to also consider the evidence base in this area as well as ways to evaluate such programmes and increase the accessibility of this information to those interested in running intergenerational programmes.

Why Intergenerational Contact is Important

There’s an interesting phenomenon when it comes to psychological research; as much as we often characterise scientific research as being objective and neutral, like many researchers, our own personal experiences often guide us and inform us through our exploration of research areas. I am an immigrant raising my daughter in a different country than her grandparents. I was thrust into a new lifestyle of motherhood 3 years ago and had to re-evaluate my identity, my purpose and how I fit into society. As my maternity leave ended and I came back to the world of academic life, I became involved with Acorns ‘n’ Oaks Playgroups, a new organisation which was organising playgroups in care homes across the Bristol area, as a parent participant, a group leader and the research coordinator. I could immediately see the benefits of activities such as these playgroups to not just the older people and the children, but the parents, grandparents, caregivers, student volunteers and staff as well. 

We are currently experiencing a crisis of providing mental health support and reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness in our society, whether it’s for older adultsnew mothers, or university students, three groups vulnerable to these issues as they experience life transitions. Intergenerational activities have been proposed as a way to prevent and alleviate some of these issues, providing the connections and relationships that allow for improvements in mental and physical health, changes in ageist attitudes, learning opportunities, and stronger communities. 

Why is Research Important?

Key to any programme or intervention is the research; activities should be evidence-based and evaluated. For decades, researchers have been investigating the effects of intergenerational contact on its participants, particularly the physical and mental wellbeing of the older participants and the attitudes and social development of the younger participants, finding overall positive consequences from intergenerational experiences. Constructing a coherent picture of intergenerational benefits has been tricky, however. The nature of evaluating programmes that have not been set up as controlled experimental studies means that research often suffers from issues such as small sample size, lack of control groups or control activities, and variation of participants and structure both within and across studies. 

Research on intergenerational contact, however, has also been useful to identify what qualities can make a programme more or less successful. Focussing on programmes that aim to reduce negative attitudes toward ageing and stereotypes of older adults, publications such as a recent report for Age UK by Drury et al. (2018) and a review article by Christian et al. (2014) give a thorough review of intergenerational programmes and research findings to highlight, backed by social psychology theory, recommendations for planning and structuring successful intergenerational activities.

Intergenerational Contact and Research: The Next Steps

Research can be greatly beneficial to any organisation interested in setting up and evaluating an intergenerational activity. Although it’s positive that so many nurseries, care homes, community organisations and councils are interested in developing intergenerational activities, the fact that so many of these projects are initiated from the ‘bottom-up’ means they aren’t able to benefit from a top-down structure or organisation that can provide the evidence for planning, the evaluation tools, the practical guidelines such as risk assessments and data protection and funding opportunities. There are, however, some excellent resources, for example the United for All Ages’ webpage which includes tips for planning parent and toddler groups in care homesSt Monica’s Trust’s guide for intergenerational activity, and the Together Young and Old Programme, which provides a number of resources and training opportunities, a toolkit for training people in intergenerational activities and an online course. The more a network of those interested and working in intergenerational activities and research can be developed, the stronger this area will become. Currently I am part of an interdisciplinary intergenerational research group that has recently been awarded funding from the NIHR to do a systematic review on intergenerational programmes and research. This research group grew out of last year’s Innovation in Care: Stories of Intergenerational Action conference, which was a very informative gathering of those working in the area ranging from one-off and pilot projects to regular activities to co-located facilities.

I am currently working with Acorns ‘n’ Oaks to evaluate their playgroup experiences, looking at some of the motivations and perceived effects of participating in the playgroups from the perspectives of the older adults, those that bring children to the group and the staff involved. Psychology students researching this area for their final year undergraduate dissertation have been key in this data collection. Findings will be presented later this year at the 11thInternational Social Innovation Research Conference in Glasgow. I have also been working with BS3 Community in South Bristol, who have run a number of successful intergenerational programmes, including linking their nursery with a local care home, Tech and Talk and their current pilot Grandparent-Toddler playgroup, which will feature as a case study in Children’s Centre Leader magazine later this year. We also have a fantastic opportunity now with the new ExtraCare Stoke Gifford Retirement Village situated next to UWE Frenchay Campus for intergenerational connections to be made with university students, as well as special projects with the local community. Psychology students have been instrumental in working with the new village to develop and run an intergenerational playgroup, funded by a UWE Community Fund and Quartet, and we’re working with ExtraCare to help keep their intergenerational programmes sustainable with a general plan for intergenerational activities across their facilities. 

I’m very interested to grow a local Bristol/Southwest network of those involved in intergenerational activities and help provide resources and workshops to those interested in starting and evaluating programmes. If you’d like more information, please contact me at jennie.ferrell@uwe.ac.uk.

 

Who is sport psychology for?

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By James Byron-Daniel and Manuela Teti (UWE MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology graduate)

What is sport psychology? 

Sport psychology is a broad subject, covering such things as the enhancement of athlete performance, dealing with pressure, enhancing focus, working with addiction and an infinite number of other issues. In terms of these services there has traditionally been a focus on athletes at the professional end of the sporting continuum, and there is a wealth of research which has shown very convincingly the efficacy and worth of these services for this group of athletes. All sport psychologists who work in practice have a smorgasbord of techniques they can bring to any given athlete or team, from psychological skills training (goal setting, visualization, relaxation techniques and self-talk) to more intensive therapeutic techniques (mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, REBT), all of which can be adapted and used collectively to address the issue or issues we face in applied sport psychology work.  

We can also say from our own experience, both from an applied sport psychology perspective and as a professional coach, that athletes and teams almost all believe in the importance of the mental side of their sport, regardless of what that sport is, and that despite an emphasis on the importance of this side of their training and performance in competition situations they do very little, and often feel they don’t have the opportunity, to enhance the psychological side of their game. 

Sport psychology, in an applied sense, therefore fills this gap. Indeed the discipline as a whole has been developed and continues to evolve in order to provide a way to enhance and support athletes to be the best they can be. So, taking both the focus of sport psychology and the need and enthusiasm for it in sports in general then it seems rationale to assume sport psychology is widely available to all and that sport psychology services are integrated across all levels of all sports. This unfortunately isn’t necessarily the case. 

Who uses sport psychology? 

Sport psychology services (SPS) have traditionally been directed at professional athletes, perhaps not exclusively, however when one looks at any number of sport psych textbooks there tends to be a skew to this group, or at the very least when describing and discussing applied techniques the assumption often is that who you are working with has significant access to sport psychology and other resources. This may well be the case for professional or semi-pro athletes however this is almost universally not the case for the hundreds of thousands of us that play and compete outside this professional group. If one were to look at a current issue of a popular sport psychology academic journal (for example Journal of Applied sport psychology; The Sport Psychologist; Psychology of Sport and Exercise), there is a trend toward elite and professional levels of sport in academic research as well (not exclusive but certainly the focus tends to be on semi professional and professional sports women and men). There are undoubtedly many reasons for this focus however this shouldn’t lead us to conclude that sport psychology services have no place in amateur sport, be that competitive or non-competitive amateur sport. It is in the authors experience that far from not having a place there is in fact just as much demand for sport psychology support and that sport psychology interventions and support at this level can be just as effective. There is however a sub group of this already unrepresented group that have even less access to sport psychology services and are further under researched, and that is young (non-adult) non-elite athletes.

Sport psychology support for young amateur athletes 

Even less research and applied work has been dedicated to youth non-elite athletes, with a lack of guidance for Sport Psychologists working with young athletes which in recent years has sparked streams of research aimed at generating developmental frameworks and attempts at understanding young athletes’ progression in sport, from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood.  

Authors of the ‘International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development’, reported an “urgency to address the culture of specific sports and youth sport in general, which have become disproportionately both adult and media centered”. The IOC recommendations advise on the need for widening the definition of success in youth sport, focusing on the development of young athletes in their whole and as “persons”, and committing to their psychological growth. The historical paucity of literature on developmental sport psychology is even more surprising when considering that young athletes are placed at the “ideal window of opportunity” for developing mental qualities and competencies. 

Many researchers agree on the need for developing comprehensive and holistic models and programs to support young athletes at a vital transitional period of physical and psychological development.  This is of course challenging for all sorts of reasons, perhaps one of the most important being the already existing challenges for young people, be they pre-adolescent or be they 12-18 years of age.  

Due to the high demands of competitive sport and more general life demands, young athletes are faced with the need to take ownership of their psychological growth: this often leads them to intuitively (through experience) and/or informally (taught by significant others) acquire a repertoire of mental skills necessary to cope with the pressures their sport places upon them. Consequently, young athletes may gain an implicit understanding of a range of psychological skills, albeit at various levels of awareness

Furthermore, the lack of easy-to-access sport psychology services to young athletes might drive them to spontaneously seek information, gain understanding and share experiences. In this context, in addition to relying on members of their support network, they might explore the internet and access online communication tools, such as social media platforms etc. However, a lot of this is assumed as so little work is done at this group, and it is in this context that we have conducted an initial investigation into sport psychology in youth amateur sport.  

Our research into sport psychology and young athletes 

The main purpose of our research was to investigate non-elite young athletes experiences by giving young athletes voice and an opportunity to express feelings and communicate thoughts in relation to their sporting engagement. The study revolved around three main research questions:  

  • What are young athletes’ perceptions of psychological needs and experiences of challenges?  
  • What is their understanding of the psychological dimensions of sport?  
  • What spontaneous ways do they resort to when seeking psychological support? 

An online survey, including quantitative and qualitative data collection and qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted in a sample of 13-19 year old girls and boys who regularly engaged in extracurricular sporting activities (outside of school and within clubs, associations, organisations), involved in a number of sports (including multi-sport engagements), at any level of training and competition, but not included in any talent development programs or professional level sport structures.  

Through these interviews what the participants said clearly showed the discrepancies between young athletes’ needs and their sporting realities. The young athletes’ all desired sport psychology support, specifically access to independent sport psychology professionals and availability of ‘in-house’ and ‘easy-to-access’ services consistently integrated in their ‘ideal sporting world’. Participants sometimes resorted to Screen-Based Media (SBM) as a spontaneous way to seek psychological support: however, the young athletes were favourable to online communication technology to get that support as well as face to face support with a sport psychology specialist. (This work is currently being prepared for publication, as well as a follow-on study to this initial work.) 

So what does this mean and where do we go from here? 

In summary, it certainly seems that there is a need for a greater understanding of how sport psychology services could be used to benefit young athletes, and that irrespective of level of athlete this support is desired and sought out. Our work with these young athletes clearly shows that demand and perhaps points to a way we can get sport psychology into amateur club and team settings (through screen-based media and social media being one possibility). The lack of research into this group also needs to be addressed, specifically deepening our understanding of how sport psychology can be integrated within a young athletes life, and what the subsequent benefit for future engagement and performance might be. We believe that integrating sport psychology into youth sport has the potential to reap huge benefits for youth sport and the sport psychology profession in general, and we hope in the years to come a greater focus on this group of athletes will lead to not only to the next generation of elite levels sports women and men but perhaps more importantly a much greater engagement with all sports across all age groups at all levels. 

Shining the light on implicit bias: Do we really know what we believe?

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By Charlotte R. Pennington

In everyday life, you will be asked to report your attitudes and opinions towards a whole host of different things.  When buying a TV, you may be asked retrospectively to provide ratings of the product, or even the person who sold it to you. The reporting of attitudes has become so sought after by companies that specific websites have been developed providing people with an open forum to post their opinions and evaluations of accommodation, restaurants, and services, and even receive arbitrary points and badges for their reviews (e.g., Trip Advisor).  Given the plethora of surveys and questionnaires utilised on a daily basis, you may therefore think that measuring attitudes is relatively easy. Simply ask someone what they think and they will respond with an honest answer. However, psychology has shed light on the limitations posed by self-report tools, such as questionnaires and surveys, which are so readily used by companies and organisations alike.  

Gauging attitudes: A problem of measurement or construct?

Explicit attitudes refer to consciously accessible thoughts and feelings towards people, objects or concepts. They are introspectively accessible, meaning that you can reach inside your mind and report your feelings and thoughts. However, there are many issues when it comes to measuring people’s attitudes accurately. Reflect on the following example; a builder may measure the height of a window frame to fit double-glazed windows. Each time he/she does this, the window measurements remain the same. Windows can be measured, and the builder has the best tools to yield the correct measurements. Unfortunately, the same is not true when it comes to measuring attitudes; they are mental constructs and not tangible things. They are slippery and shape-shift depending on context. This presents numerous issues for researchers trying to measure them.

Studies have shown consistently how people’s attitudes can be altered by systematic factors, such as how the questions are framed and even what order they are presented. For example, a recent study demonstrates how the number of scale points in a questionnaire affects the extent to which gender stereotypes of brilliance are expressed. Specifically, female course instructors were more likely to receive a top rating on a 6-point scale relative to a 10-point scale, whereas this difference did not emerge for male instructors. The author’s reason that this effect occurs because of cultural meanings assigned to the number ‘10’ – perfection. As such, a top-score on a 6-point scale does not carry such strong performance expectations. To me, this is a landmark study demonstrating how the features of tools that are frequently used to judge merit can powerfully affect people’s responses. Who knew that something which appears meaningless can shape our answers in a way that tells a completely different story?

Another issue plaguing questionnaires is that psychologists – or whomever uses them – need to trust that the questionnaire can tap into exactly what we want to measure. When asking people about socially sensitive topics, such as prejudice or discriminatory behaviour this is rarely often the case. Consider how you would answer the following questions when asked by a researcher, someone you barely know: “Do you treat people from other races the same as you treat people from your own race? Do you willingly give to charity or those who need it the most? Think hypothetically about your answers for a minute. Now, reflect on your previous behaviour and try to gauge whether the answers given provide an accurate representation of how you really act. What you might uncover about yourself here is called the ‘willing and able’ problem; people may not be willing to report their honest attitudes, and when put on the spot, may not be able to accurately reflect and report what they truly feel. Answers to questions are usually influenced by self-presentational motives – that is, people’s desire to look good in someone else’s eyes.

A more interesting question is that we might not know what we actually believe. To a lay audience with no psychological training, this may sound surprising. How can we hold attitudes that we are unaware of? Psychology holds the answer. The past three decades of psychological research have revealed the frailties of introspection (the inner workings of our mind), and how little control we possess over our own thoughts. This has led researchers to coin the term ‘implicit attitudes’; introspectively unidentified traces of past experience that mediate favourable or unfavourable feeling towards social objects. The general argument is that individuals harness attitudes that they are not aware of, and these can manifest as judgements or actions.

How do we measure attitudes that people aren’t aware of?

The development of implicit measures have afforded remarkable insight into the human mind, and opened up a new research field termed implicit social cognition. This may leave you wondering, how do we measure such attitudes, and how do they develop in the first place?

Whereas explicit attitudes are measured by asking people directly about their thoughts and feelings (e.g., through questionnaires), implicit attitudes are assessed indirectly through tasks that typically measure response times towards various stimuli and compare systematic variations in people’s performance. One of the most well-known tasks of this kind is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which tests how quick (or slow) people are at pairing different social categories with various attributes. The race IAT, for example, requires test-takers to categorise pictures of White and Black faces with positive and negative terms as quickly as possible. The underlying theory is that people will be quicker to pair concepts with attributes that are strongly associated in memory, compared to those weakly associated. In order to understand this better, think about learning a new language for the first time; you will always be quicker to think about words from your own language compared to those from a newly learned language because of the automaticity of your native tongue. Going back to the race IAT, research has consistently shown that White people are quicker to associate pictures of White faces with positive terms and Black faces with negative terms. This is referred to as implicit bias.

Social psychologists theorise that implicit bias, such as that demonstrated by White people taking the race IAT, are learned through experience. This occurs either directly through encounters with a particular social group, or indirectly through exposure to information about this social group. In Western cultures, White people are inundated with cultural messages and stereotypes that portray Black people as uneducated, relatively poor and more likely to be in trouble with the law. Consequently, implicit bias may form through exposure to cultural milieu. Do you know what your own IAT test result shows? Anybody can take these tests through the Project Implicit website. Your test result may surprise you, but it’s important to recall that this might not reflect your personal beliefs but rather learned associations imbued through exposure to your cultural or social environment. Research has revealed remarkable findings through the use of the IAT.  For example, a recent longitudinal study shows that implicit attitudes towards race, skin-tone and sexual orientation have trended towards neutrality over the last 12 years (i.e., people’s implicit bias towards these social categories seems to be decreasing). However, attitudes towards age and disability have remained stable, and have increased in relation to body-weight stigma. Moreover, implicit attitudes appear to hold predictive validity; studies have shown that people’s preference for White people on the race IAT predicts intention to vote for a White relative to Black presidential candidate. Now that’s a cool finding!

However, implicit measures have also received their fair share of criticism. Research indicates a weak relationship between explicit and implicit attitudes, suggesting that they may reflect separate attitude representations. An alternative theory, however, is that explicit and implicit measures allow people to edit their responses to varying degrees. In 2016, as a PhD student I wrote my first commentary reflecting on what exactly do implicit measures assess? In addition, although the IAT has shown some predictive validity (e.g., voting behaviour), other research indicates that for more socially sensitive attitudes, the IAT does not predict resulting discriminatory behaviour. Although the IAT was heralded to provide new insights into human cognition and behaviour, some researchers believe this test has been oversold. Nevertheless, I argue that the reason that implicit attitudes may not predict real-world behaviour is influenced by the same issues that plague self-report measures – social desirability. That is, people may think negatively about a certain out-group member, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will act upon this. The same may be true for weak correlations between explicit and implicit attitude measures; people distort their attitudes on self-report questionnaires, whereas implicit measures aren’t susceptible to these self-presentational motives. Should we expect correlations between these two measures when one is tapping into controllable beliefs and the other is uncovering introspectively unidentified traces of past experience?

In order to answer these questions, I was awarded funding through the Vice Chancellor’s Early Career Research Awards (VC ECR Award) at UWE Bristol to investigate other implicit socio-cognitive mechanisms that may predict implicit bias. The blue sky thinking behind this research is to develop other measures that can potentially measure implicit behavioural manifestations of bias. At this stage, we are too early in our research endeavour to reveal any findings; however other influential and impactful avenues have already stemmed from this research.

At the same time as I have been conducting my research, Ellie Bliss (Adult Nurse Lecturer) and Alisha Airey (BME Project Officer) have been running staff workshops at UWE Bristol, reflecting upon how implicit (unconscious) bias can play out in the higher education classroom. I am now involved in supporting these workshops, providing research-led guidance on how we access implicit bias, and answering the many questions that staff have about this rather ambiguous construct. One interesting discussion centres on whether implicit biases can be viewed as unconscious when we are increasingly acknowledging them through teaching and training. The majority of attendees come away from the workshop with new reflections on how teaching practice is orientated towards Western culture, and with classroom strategies to implement to prevent implicit bias playing out. However, a handful of attendees are surprised and doubtful of the concept of implicit bias and the tools that purportedly measure it. They have difficulty in accepting that they may hold certain biases. But the truth is, we all do.

Where is implicit social cognition headed?

In this blog post I hope I have demonstrated that we are shining the light on what implicit bias really is and the nature of our unconscious attitudes. Such research has paved the way for training workshops which teach people to acknowledge their deep-rooted attitudes and reflect upon how these may impact our thinking and behaviour towards other people. But what’s next for this research arena? There are still lots of unanswered questions and controversies surrounding implicit bias, which makes it an exciting topic to study. Do implicit measures really provide a window into the unconscious mind? Is implicit bias relatively stable when measured at different time points? Can implicit bias be changed, and if so, are such changes short or long-term? Are attitudes towards some social groups easier to change than others? Can we, as a field, develop other (implicit) behavioural measures that more accurately predict implicit attitudes better than self-reports? Such investigations will represent the future of implicit social cognition and I, for one, am extremely excited to see what’s to come.

The arts and wellbeing: A burgeoning research area

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By Nicola Holt

“I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” Frida Kahlo, artist

“To write poetry is to be alive.” Rainer Maria Rilke, poet

The therapeutic role of the arts in fostering healing, growth, well-being and emotional expression is well-attested and long-standing. Whether painting, creative writing, crafting, singing or colouring, arts-based approaches are beginning to be recognised as credible and effective ways to promote good psychological health for all.

There is currently a burgeoning of research on the arts and health, that is impacting policy and treatment. For example, recent research has suggested that singing can help reduce post-natal depression and improve lung-functioning, dance can help improve the balance and gait of people with Parkinson’s disease, poetry therapy can be a useful intervention for patients recovering from anorexia, expressive writing can decrease stress and improve immune system functioning, art making can help to reduce pain and distress in cancer patients, improve mental health and enable positive experiences such as happiness and mindfulness. Bodies such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing  have assimilated such findings, and, based on these have made policy briefings recommending the increased commissioning of the arts to improve health and wellbeing (including ageing well, mental health, and the self-management of chronic conditions). While this may be having some impact (for example, the Government’s recent plans to increase access to arts on referral), caveats remain. There are limitations with the evidence base and numerous questions about the efficacy of the arts remain unanswered. For example, effects require replication, many reviews include heterogenous interventions, groups of people and wellbeing outcomes. This can make it difficult to know which art treatments work best for whom, and why. It is also unclear how interventions should best be delivered, for example, the number of sessions required and the optimal spacing between them. The long-term benefits of arts interventions are also little known. Much profitable research has yet to be conducted on the arts and health, which will help to answer such questions.

I became interested in the arts and wellbeing when studying for an MSc in consciousness studies twenty years ago. I became interested in the shifts in conscious experience (e.g., perception, attention, cognition, mood, awareness of body, time and agency) that I personally experienced while painting and began to explore the literature for explanations, leading to an MSc thesis and a PhD on consciousness and creativity. One common type of experience, described by humanistic psychologists such as Rollo May and Abraham Maslow as a form of ‘peak experience’ or ‘creative attitude’, and popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the ‘flow state’, involving detachment from time and space, absorption in the activity of the present moment, deep fascination and concentration. The accounts given by Marion Milner, in her book ‘On not being able to paint’, were my favourite ones at the time, for example, she described what she called moments of ‘creative participation’ in the following way:

“The process always seems to be accompanied by a feeling that the ordinary sense of self had temporarily disappeared, there had been a kind of blanking out of ordinary consciousness; even the awareness of blanking out had gone, so that it was only afterwards when I had returned to ordinary consciousness that I remembered that there had been this phase of complete lack of self-consciousness.” (Milner, 1950, p. 152)

Indeed, my recent research suggests that ‘flow’ might be one mechanism to explain the health benefits of engaging with the arts. The arts might offer people the opportunity to experience degrees of absorption or flow in their daily lives, in a way that promotes wellbeing, either by being temporarily distracted from one’s pain or worries, or through engagement, joy and a consequent sense of mastery. Various crafts and arts activities might facilitate this experience, including drawing, knitting, and colouring. Colouring is an and accessible art activity that has been increasingly advocated for wellbeing, and evidence supports its use as a stress-reduction tool for University students. Recent research that I have conducted at UWE, with students on our undergraduate psychology programme, suggests that, not only might colouring, temporarily, at least, improve mood and promote the flow state, but might also improve cognitive functioning – both selective attention and creativity, potentially helping students to solve problems in everyday life.

Of course, the flow state can be experienced in many activities in everyday life, and a range of other mechanisms have been proposed to explain the health benefits of art-making, some specific to particular forms of art. For example, it has been proposed that expressive writing may reduce cognitive rumination and anxiety following stressful events, creating a meaningful and more manageable narrative, impacting both psychological and long-term physical wellbeing (by improving immune system functioning). Further, many art groups perform an important social function, helping to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation and improving people’s ability to relate to and communicate with others. Research on the mechanisms behind any wellbeing effect is important because we can help to identify to active ingredients of arts for health interventions (e.g. type of art, skills of the arts practitioner, group interaction) and modify these accordingly to optimise wellbeing.  

In the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at UWE we have a number of academics interested in the arts and health, including our music therapy team. Academics from different disciplines come together as a teaching team on the Level Three Psychology module, The Arts and Mental Health, led by myself, delivering an exciting and diverse array of topics, including art psychotherapy, music therapy, music in prisons, poetry therapy, craftivism, and the arts and dementia. As a next step I have begun a multidisciplinary Special Interest Research Group at UWE with Dr Liz Jenkinson, hoping to facilitate research collaborations on the arts and health, within and beyond UWE. This is entitled DRAW: Developing Research on the Arts and Well-being, housed within the Promoting Psychological Health strand of PSRG (Psychological Sciences Research Group). Interests of DRAW include developing new arts interventions, evaluating existing arts interventions, researching mechanisms to explain the health benefits of engagement with the arts and the use of the arts in creative research methods.

The members of DRAW bring together a diverse range of knowledge and expertise and we are looking forward to collaborating and extending our research and evaluation of arts for health. For instance, Dr Liz Jenkinson and the health psychology team at UWE are experts in understanding patient experiences of acute and chronic health conditions, and the design and evaluation of effective psychosocial support. The use of the arts in health care as a therapeutic tool in promoting good psychological and physical health is an area in which DRAW has begun to collaborate with organisations such as Fresh Arts, who provide arts-based interventions for patients at Southmead Hospital, including arts on referral for cancer patients. Liz is also working with colleagues at UWE in Visual Culture and the Arts with the aim of developing a new arts for health intervention with young mums. Another DRAW member, Dr Mike Chase has over 20 years of experience of working and researching in the voluntary and statutory community sector, and has been using mixed-methods to evaluate the use of music and arts interventions in community settings, including the Outsider Gallery, in London. Mike hopes to extend this collaboration further, for example taking arts and music interventions to young people’s forensic units in Bristol.

At DRAW we have also been evaluating whether ‘prescribing’ a course of art workshops to people experiencing depression, anxiety or loneliness can improve wellbeing. ‘Arts on prescription’ or ‘arts on referral’ forms part of the wider remit of social prescribing, where doctors, nurses or other primary care professionals prescribe non-clinical activities (including nature walks, cooking or singing workshops) with the expectation that this will improve the health of participants. Although the Government plans to increase the use of social prescribing in the NHS, including arts on prescription, there is only a limited, but encouraging, evidence base for its efficacy. I have been working with the recently formed Bristol Arts on Referral Alliance (BARA) to help contribute to the evidence base for arts on prescription. BARA provides 13 art workshops across Bristol, and 6 follow-on groups, embedded within a larger social prescribing scheme, funded by Bristol City Council, Bristol CCG and charitable foundations. We have been using a mixed methods design, including semi-structured interviews with participants, and drawing on existing pre-post intervention evaluation frameworks. Further, based on my research using the experience sampling method, participants have been tracking their mood over time, for the duration of each 12-week-long art course. Indeed, this has become a meaningful part of the art workshops for participants, reflecting on their current mood at the start and end of each workshop. This data will enable us to test whether any increases in wellbeing at the end of each course are predicted by reductions in stress, increased energy and happiness, directly following making art. The first round of data collection is now complete and will be analysed and disseminated over the next few months, some initial outcomes having been presented at the 1st International Social Prescribing Network Research Conference in June 2018.

The team at DRAW are interested in using the arts themselves as tools for collecting and disseminating data. Led by Victoria Clarke, and in collaboration with Psychologists at the Universities of Aston and Bath, Liz and I have received funding from the BPS to run a seminar series exploring the potential for creative and arts-based methods for applied psychological research. You can learn more about this venture here. We hope that this series will inspire us to use the arts more creatively, as a research tool, in future projects. Using the arts and evaluation tools might offer a creative, more empowering and enjoyable way for participants in arts for health interventions to communicate their experiences and to disseminate these to others.

These are exciting times to be conducting research on the arts and health, with potential for new and innovative projects and collaborations. We hope to grow our research and evaluation at UWE on this topic and develop collaborations with others, within UWE and beyond.  We welcome members to our new special interest group, DRAW, and hope you can join us for our upcoming seminar series which runs from May-July 2019. In the meantime, why not have a go at some arts for health activities – for example UWE’s Feel Good February events include crafting and creative writing!

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be… or is it? Exploring the psychological benefits of nostalgia for people with dementia

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By Gary Christopher

In this blog, I shall talk a little about my research on nostalgia, and in particular how it relates to dementia.  I am interested in exploring the power of nostalgic recall on a person’s sense of self and well-being.

Dementia is forever in the news.  It is now seen as being the most feared of all conditions.  It is generally thought to be intrinsically linked to old age, and it is true that age is the biggest factor associated with various dementias, but it is important to be aware that it can affect people relatively early on.  Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of conditions, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.  Dementias start off by causing very specific problems in cognitive functioning but, with time, decline is global, impacting on all areas of a person’s life.  Rate of deterioration varies but, in all cases, progression is unceasing.  There is also no known cure at this stage for dementia.

The sheer terror of the word ‘dementia’ sets off a cascade of mental and physiological responses, all of which, if not carefully managed, could quickly spiral out of control.  Our wider research programme is concerned with helping people confront the existential threat of dementia while at the same time better managing the associated feelings.

Back to nostalgia.  It is worthwhile exploring what I refer to when using this term.  Before doing so, let’s consider what people generally understand it to mean.  Nostalgia as a concept seems to crop up in many places.  In fact, it might be seen as being the new buzzword.  For my colleagues and me, this is unfortunate as the true meaning of ‘nostalgia’, or more accurately ‘nostalgic recall’, is very specific and has powerful psychological effects.

Again, I digress.  So, nostalgia.  What is?

The origins of the word ‘nostalgia’ bear little resemblance to the common interpretation of the word.  It derived from two Greek words, nostos (return home) and algos (pain), and was first coined in the 17th Century to describe soldiers’ poor state of mind during the time of war where many experienced an overwhelming longing to return to their homeland.  Initially, it was looked upon as a somewhat negative state to find oneself in.  Now, nostalgia is getting better press.  So much so that, as one leading expert describes it, nostalgia is “absolutely central to human experience“.  That quote was by Constantine Sedikides, to whom I shall return very soon.

When you ask for synonyms of ‘nostalgia’ in your preferred search engine,  you see listed terms such as wistfulness, longing, regret, reminiscence, and sentimentality.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “Sentimental longing for… the past.”  A nostalgic memory is something that is meaningful and generally positive.  It is a specific memory of an occasion that holds high personal value.  It is a memory that can be brought vividly back to one’s mind by a particular trigger.  This could be a certain smell, taste, location, or myriad other forms of stimuli.

There is another component to this definition that I left out, where nostalgia also describes a “regretful memory of a period of the past”.

There is a sense, then, that nostalgic memories can be bittersweet in nature.  The memory you bring to mind is powerful, full of positive emotions, but there might also be a sense of dismay or sorrow that you are recalling a memory of a time that is now past, reflecting a life once lived.  However, a characteristic of nostalgic memories is that, although there may be an initial sadness evoked by it, positive emotions associated with the event win through in the end leaving the person feeling strengthened.

Credit: MusicOomph.com

One particular nostalgic memory for me is triggered by hearing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.  This piece of music immediately unleashes a clear sense of being at an open-air concert listening to a world-class orchestra.  It was a beautiful evening.  The sun was setting.  Peacocks were peacocking (or whatever the word is for the noise they make).  All was sublime.  The bittersweet element comes into play as I was there on my own, with no one at that time to share the moment with.  With that, there is a tinge of sadness, but the beauty and power of the moment soon leaves me feeling all is right with the world.  It was a true Morse moment.

A great deal of work has been carried out within social psychology exploring the benefits of nostalgia.  The leading experts in this field are Professors Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut at the University of Southampton. Throughout their career, they have amassed a vast body of experimental evidence to back up their claims that nostalgic recall boosts a range of psychological resources.  They have shown that nostalgic recall strengthens a person’s belief in themselves.  It makes them feel as if they are the same person they have always been.  It increases their sense of connection to other people.  Also, after recalling a nostalgic memory, people feel more optimistic and experience a greater sense that their life has meaning.

The research on nostalgia that I will be talking about here is a collaboration with Professor Rik Cheston, Emily Dodd, and Dr Sanda Ismail at UWE Bristol.  This work developed out of an existing collaboration we had with Constantine and Tim where we had been working on exploring how memory often functions to protect us by filtering out information that we might find threatening.  We were interested in seeing if we could show the same effect in people with dementia that they found among healthy adults.   I am happy to report that we did.  Regarding nostalgia, again we wanted to see if we could obtain the same effects in people with dementia.

Our work on nostalgia started with Sanda who was a PhD student at the time.  He began by conducting a systematic review of the relevant literature.  Given that ours is the first series of studies to examine nostalgia in dementia, he focused on reviewing the literature looking at the impact of nostalgia on well-being.  Reminiscence therapy is concerned with discussing the past.  There was little evidence to suggest reminiscence therapy is effective.  That is not to say it does no good, it just means that, when looking across a range of studies, the overall statistical effect is weak.  Reminiscence therapy appears to have an impact on people’s lives.  However, we argue that any positive results are due to people recalling nostalgic memories, and so it is this component that we need to emphasise in order to maximise benefits to the individual.  I shall come back to this shortly when I talk about the intervention we are developing.

We ran a series of experiments where we induced nostalgia.  In one experiment, we looked at the impact of a nostalgic piece of music on a person’s mood and outlook.  In all cases, we found the positive effects of nostalgia that we talked about earlier, but this time in a group of people who had been diagnosed with dementia.

We are continuing to explore the benefits of nostalgic recall in dementia.  We are seeing that nostalgia helps people deal with any disconnect between their current experience and what happened in the past.  One of the things to develop from this work is a new intervention.  Indeed, we are currently trialling a nostalgia-based therapy explicitly aimed at people with dementia.  It explicitly asks people to bring to mind the highly nostalgic memories I talked about earlier.

The findings so far are encouraging.  When developing any intervention, there are some practical issues to take into account.  Will people be able to fit it into their daily routine?  Will it take up too much of their time?  Will they lose interest?  This is before we can consider whether it has any beneficial effect or not.  We also need to assess if there are any negative implications for this form of intervention.  So far the feedback has been positive.  Both the person with dementia and their carer/spouse have been able to find times throughout the week to actively engage in nostalgic recall, and the effect has been beneficial for both parties.

An essential part of any intervention, especially one aimed at improving quality of life, is to obtain feedback from those you are trying to help.  For this intervention, both the person with dementia and their carer play a pivotal role in helping us modify the procedure so that it will be more acceptable and useful.  This careful, iterative process will enable us to have more confidence that the intervention we offer will have substantial practical benefits for all concerned.  Once revised, we will conduct a larger trial to assess its impact on a broader range of people and settings.

I started this blog by reflecting on how the word nostalgia has been adopted into everyday language, and as a result, its true meaning has been lost.  It is important to remember these words were around long before people like us decided to give them specific psychology-related definitions.  What we are arguing is that, when it comes to the therapeutic use of nostalgia, we need to be explicit what we mean.  The reason why we need to be precise is that we believe it will improve a range of key psychological resources.

Nostalgic recall is something we can all do.  It does not require a massive amount of time or effort.  In fact, a few minutes, listening to a particular piece of music, contemplating a photograph, bringing to mind a profoundly personal memory that the sound or the image instils, will make us feel better.  It will enable us to better deal with what life throws at us, especially at times when we feel threatened.  In the case of people with dementia, nostalgic recall is something that can be carried out on one’s own, or with a loved one.  After all, believing in oneself, knowing we are the same person regardless of our health, being surrounded by people we care about, feeling optimistic, and knowing our life has meaning is central to living well with dementia.

Promoting resilience and questioning resilience

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By Miles Thompson

Your 30-second summary. This blog is about resilience. A term that is now, seemingly, everywhere. Below I provide a quick overview of the term and of psychological research into the resilience of children. Then I contrast these research findings which note multiple contributing factors at multiple levels, with the focus of many resilience interventions: often the individual in isolation. I note how this reflects an old but important debate within psychology that sparked the emergence of community psychology from clinical psychology in the 1960s. I also explore how resilience researchers today are adopting the same guiding frameworks as community psychologists. This again might make us wonder about the appropriateness of individually focused resilience interventions when what make us all more or less resilient might stem from broader, more systemic levels.

Back in September I wrote my first post for the Psychological Sciences Research Group (PSRG) blog. It was about a session colleagues and I were delivering at the 4th community psychology festival in Hertford. It focused on student mental health and on the potential of community psychology to complement or even replace “resilience workshops.” In this post I’d like to focus on the topic of resilience itself, but notice that community psychology will get brought back in later.

The word resilience derives from the Latin for rebounding, leaping or springing back. A large amount of psychological research in this area has focused on children. This research goes back to at least the 1970’s, although in those early days terms like “invulnerable” and “stress-resistant” were also used.

Of course, in recent years the term resilience seems to have crossed over into the mainstream and is now a desirable characteristic in many contexts including working age adults, teams, organisations, cities, even countries. We will come back to this later, but for now, let’s focus on the psychological research into children and more recently wider child / parent units.

Professor Ann Masten
Professor Ann Masten

Very simply, after some form of adversity, some children seem to fare well – they bounce back – and others fare less well. The obvious question is why? Is there something “special” about those who bounce back? One of the leading contemporary figures in this research is Ann Masten. Her answer to this question has often been summed up by the phrase: Ordinary Magic. Here Masten is suggesting that resilience is both common and that it arises from ordinary rather than extraordinary protective factors. More specifically, research in this area consistently talks about the importance of: individual, relational and community attributes. Borrowing terms directly from a recent review, these include:

  • Individual: problems-solving skills, self-regulation skills, hope or faith, mastery motivation, and meaning in life.
  • Relational: secure attachment relationships early in life and later good relationships with extended family, friends, mentors, and romantic partners.
  • Community: connections to effective schools and community organisations.

It is interesting to note the broad scope of factors that potentially contribute to resilience (individual, relational and community). The evidence seems clear that this is not something that comes from within the individual alone. This sits somewhat in contrast to the target of many mainstream resilience interventions. In psychology, these interventions can sometimes seem very individually focused. Sometimes they closely resemble the mental health interventions delivered by clinical psychologists, like myself, simply repackaged and resold as a “resilience interventions”.

For example: the aptly titled “Penn Resilience Programme” is a programme delivered to school aged children based on cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT). Equally, an examination of the contents of books about resilience can look almost identical to the chapter headings from an individually focused CBT self-help book. This may seem odd, because remember the evidence for resilience also points to the importance of relational and community attributes. We might also wonder whether traditional CBT, or any other psychological intervention, is evidenced to reliably move all of the individual attributes potentially relevant to resilience. In short, it seems possible that there is a disconnect between the findings from contemporary resilience research and the contents of contemporary resilience interventions.

Part of the reason for raising this concern, is that it points to an old but important debate within the field of clinical psychology and applied psychology more generally. The debate centres on the concern that applied psychology and our interventions can sometimes be too individually focused. That, perhaps without meaning to, we can too easily place both the problem and apparent solution to problems within the skin of an individual. Sometimes even seeming to “blame” the individual. As I say, this is not a new debate, in clinical psychology it has been going since at least the 1960’s. An entire field, community psychology, (remember the festival from earlier?), arose in response to it and tries to promote a broader response to these issues.

Interestingly, this old debate has direct and recent echoes in resilience research. For community psychology, systems thinking and ecological theory is very important. Very simply this means thinking beyond the individual. For example, developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner noted the importance not just of the individual, but of different systems of broader scales around the individual including micro-, meso-, exo-, macro- and also time (chrono-). These ideas are key in community psychology.

What is interesting is that Masten and others psychologists interested in the resilience of children and families have relatively recently started defining resilience as: “the capacity of a system to adapt successfully to significant challenges that threaten its function, viability, or development”. They use the word “system” deliberately because their thinking is explicitly influenced by exactly the same systems thinking and ecological theory as community psychology.

As a clinical psychologist, I am very aware that there is a place for individually focused interventions. But I am also aware that sometimes the key to the solution does not lie there. It is interesting, for example, that in recent reviews promoting resilience frameworks for children and families Masten highlights the importance of wider systemic interventions (e.g. boosting resources like housing support, health care, food programs, tax credits or cash transfers) as much if not more than individual or family focused work (e.g., the quality of parent–child relationships, maternal depression).

As resilience gets talked about more, in more and more settings – we perhaps need to be a little more alert as to where the problem and solution is being situated. Perhaps we need to wonder aloud whether all the responsibility, and even implicitly the blame, is being placed on the shoulders of the individual and if that is appropriate.

For example, are individually focused resilience workshops “the” answer for stressed colleagues working in the NHS? Maybe. I can imagine a place for them. Especially if everything else is working well in the NHS at wider levels – if waiting lists aren’t heaving, budgets aren’t being cut, and pressure isn’t being put on individual staff to deliver more and more, with less and less. But if some, or all, of those things are happening, are individually focused resilience  interventions really the answer? See here for one local account of how these workshops are experienced by some NHS staff. Like the Doctor interviewed in the article, I am in no way anti-mindfulness (see my publication record), but there does seem to be a potential tension if adopting an individual approach to resilience ignores wider issues, or even more problematically situates the problem within the individual.

Articles like the above are small signs that a public debate around resilience is growing and becoming more nuanced. This is to be welcomed. Another example is a recent, short, Radio 4 programme about resilience, from the series “Keywords for our time”. Here GP and broadcaster Farrah Jarral discusses the term, its popularity and, like this blog, wonders if there might be a possible dark side to its use.

Finally, rightly, other academic areas are also involved in the conversation. In geography, the resilience of urban and regional places is a subject of study. And here similar discussions are being had. Specifically, the potential risk of placing the problem and solution within the smallest unit (e.g. a disadvantaged community) while ignoring the wider factors that are as, if not more, responsible for causing the issues in the first place. Interestingly, in disciplines like geography, terms like: political critique, power structures, material resources, global capitalism and neoliberalization seem to appear more often than they do in mainstream psychology publications. Perhaps we should all take note. If resilience is increasingly talked about at many different levels of society, and psychology and psychologists are asked to comment or deliver interventions – what is our response, at what level, and how effective can it be?

Research Experience as an Undergrad: My summer internship and placement

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By Josh Lee

I’m a second-year psychology student at UWE, and throughout my first year I found myself developing a keen interest in psychological research. The more I engaged with my degree, the more interested I became, and I started actively seeking opportunities to gain research experience towards the end of first year. I was interested in learning more about the research process, and I also know how valuable experience can be for postgraduate applications.

In May of this year I went on an animal behaviour research trip to the island of Lundy. This was shortly after applying for my first research role, a paid summer internship with Drs Kait Clark and Charlotte Pennington. I learnt a lot on Lundy and made friends with the other student researchers. Towards the end we realised we were on the same wavelength…three fellow Lundy attendees and I had been invited to interview for the same position. The interviews were scheduled for the week after our return from Lundy, and we were now friends competing against each other. All we could do was wish each other luck in the interview and hope for the best.

The interview was competitive, and we were all given a short programming task to attempt in advance. Maybe there was something in the sea air, but when an email came through from Kait offering the job, all four our names were on it. Taking the extracurricular opportunity to learn and conduct psychological research on Lundy perhaps led to an edge in the interview, and we now had the chance to contribute to a legitimate paper together.

The main aim of the project was to develop a set of visual and social cognition tasks for the purposes of establishing test-retest reliability, building on a recent study by Hedge, Powell, & Sumner (2018). Our first task was to complete a comprehensive review of visual cognition literature. Although I had experience of examining research papers to get references for essays, this was much more in depth and specific. The process of comparing the different papers took a while to get used to, but it has been eye-opening to review papers with a view towards designing our own study rather than evaluating a proposition for an essay. It highlights different issues within and between papers that I would not have considered otherwise, and I feel like it has helped me develop a more complete approach to evaluating research papers in general. We were given lots of freedom to conduct the review and research – this was hugely beneficial as it left a lot of potential for creative ideas and individual contribution.

We chose measures for which the test-retest reliability had not already been established so our research could have the most impact. Each of us then chose one measure and worked through writing the Python code to implement parameters in alignment with previous studies. We are using PsychoPy, open-source software, to program our measures. I have limited coding knowledge (but enough to pass the interview stage!) so using Python has been a learning experience. Although frustrating at times, help has always been available and through a combination of initiative, trial and error, and advice, the measures shaped up nicely. I developed a motion coherence task, and piloting it on my friends has been interesting – explaining what the task is for and the wider context requires a thorough knowledge of it, and I am genuinely passionate about it. I never thought I’d be excited about a spreadsheet.

During our summer internship we also had an opportunity to meet with Dr Craig Hedge, whose recent paper has inspired our current work. We got to hear about his research first hand and discuss our project and how it related to his paper. It was interesting and insightful to talk about his work and how our test-retest reliability project came about.

Now we’ve finished the development stage of the project, and with all the tasks up and running, it’s time for data collection. I’m continuing to work on this project as my work-based learning placement for my Developing Self and Society (DSAS) module. Time slots are available on UWE’s participant pool for students to book in, and so we have all been running sessions for up to four participants at once. This involves briefing, setting up the experiments on the computers, giving instructions, addressing issues that arise, and ensuring that the conditions are the same for every session. It’s fun to discuss the study when debriefing the participants, to raise awareness of what is being investigated and help them understand why they did the tasks involved. The integration of my internship with one of my second-year modules shows how beneficial an opportunity like this can be. In isolation, it is good experience on its own, but linking it with my regular studies and incorporating my experience into university work has made it invaluable.

It’s been great working closely with Kait and Charlotte in addition to Austin, Triin, and Kieran. Chatting with staff as well as students in a different year to me has given me insight into the university and the course itself. I have learnt a lot already and will continue to do so. The project will also help me with my own research project and my degree in general. I’m excited to see what the rest of it brings.