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Psychology For All
There may have been a time when psychologists preferred to keep the mysterious secrets of the mind to themselves. However, the current climate is quite the opposite, with psychologists being called on to comment on anything from the meaning of Katie Price's body language to the devastating psychological effects of a natural disaster. With funding cuts all around us and an increasing emphasis on impact, there has never been a time when public engagement with psychology has felt so vital to the health and development of our profession. It was therefore very exciting to see that the second Psychology For All event was once again a sell-out with 450 registered. As Gerry Mulhern explained in his welcoming address, this is our chance to share our science with the general public and to stimulate an interest and awareness in the many ways in which psychology contributes to society.
Richard Wiseman kicked off his keynote address with a simple but slickly delivered magic trick, generating an enthusiastic applause accompanied by a kind of nervous buzz. 'Ah, I can smell your disbelief!', Wiseman quipped but went on to reassure us that we were right to be sceptical because what we see in our mind's eye is often not what's really there. He explained that it was a chance sight of an illusion in a psychology textbook that convinced him in his teens he wanted to learn more about how to unpack the mysteries of perception. Wiseman continues to be intrigued and fascinated by the way in which context can fool our brain, and he illustrated this with an array of brilliant and entertaining illusions and a little more magic.
What did this have to do with 'The Luck Factor' - the title of his talk? Well, according to Wiseman, a very similar perceptual mechanism is behind why some of us consider ourselves lucky and some unlucky. Again, context is everything. Our notion of whether we're lucky or unlucky, says Wiseman, is all to do with where our attentional spotlight lies, the extent to which we spot opportunities and the context in which we place events that happen to us. A person caught in a raid and shot in the arm might consider themselves lucky to have only been shot in the arm rather than the heart, while a £4m lottery winner that Wiseman interviewed during his research considered himself unlucky because he'd had to split the £8m prize with another winner! This highly entertaining and informative lecture closed with Wiseman providing practical suggestions on how to make our own luck.
Love and lust
Wiseman was followed in the main auditorium by Lisa Matthewman, who attempted to unravel the mysteries of love and lust. She began by defining love and debunking some of the love myths before moving on to explain Sternberg's theory that love is a combination of intimacy, passion and commitment.
Matthewman addressed the role of hormones and neurotransmitters, describing these as the 'love brigade' that underlie many of the emotional and physical aspects of love and lust. She explained how these fluctuate throughout the days, weeks, months and even decades, suggesting that each period brings its own rewards and challenges in terms of love-making. The lecture concluded with a discussion around the compatability of love and sexual styles and an illustration of how this can feed into relationship coaching.
Rona Moss-Morris gave an excellent balanced and informed overview of the role that stress plays in illness, explaining how social and psychological factors influence our physiology via the autonomic nervous system and hypothalamic pituitary axis. She outlined a number of landmark studies in the area, showing that daily hassles and longer-term stressors, as well as perceived stress, each influence different aspects of illness development and recovery.
Moss-Morris concluded on a positive note, suggesting that management of stress and social support can both provide significant buffers.
The event closed with Geoff Beattie's keynote address 'Get the edge: Understanding the body's little secrets', which was so popular that a video link to a second auditorium had to be activated. Beattie began by challenging some of the more stereotypical ways of reading body language, such as those presented by Allan Pease in his book Body Language (1991). He used his own research to argue that bodily communication cannot be easily interpreted from static pictures because the real meaning lies in the dynamics and micro-expressions, the small fleeting changes. For example, a genuine smile has bilateral symmetry with gradual onset and a slow fade; a fake smile tends to be asymmetrical and to fade abruptly. A fascinating clip of Gordon Brown 'smiling' at Tony Blair demonstrated this perfectly and also illustrated Brown's use of 'self-adaptors' - small strokes to the face that are used as self-comforting gestures.
Beattie also stunned the audience by showing us how the change in use of self-adaptors revealed the point at which Charles Ingram began to allegedly cheat on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
Beattie went on to discuss his more recent interest in hand and arm movements as an integral part of communication, showing us that speech and gesture are significantly more powerful in combination than either on their own. Again he used clips to elegantly demonstrate how subtle differences in use of gesture can give away lying behaviour and how unnatural use of gesture in advertisements makes us distrust the actor or character.
Beattie rounded off this very compelling lecture by showing that consistency between speech and gesture supports our memory of what has been communicated, a finding that has many applications.
All in all, a great day for the 450 attendees.
University of Westminster
More from psychology for all...
How trusting are you? Ros Searle and Volker Patent (Open University) asked the audience to examine their own propensity for trust, using a psychometric tool. They went on to facilitate an assessment of mutual trust among delegates and to show how this might be experienced in real-life scenarios, such as when changing jobs.
Presenting a workshop on 'The secret life of happy and productive workplaces', Sarah Lewis asked the audience to think back to the aspects of the best place they had ever worked, and discuss this in pairs. Her own take gave 10 aspects that make for positive and happy workplaces, including authentic leaders, reward-rich environments and using our strengths.
Nash Popovic, an author, counsellor and lecturer at the University of East London, led an engaging workshop about 'pub psychology', an approach based on ideas from coaching psychology, positive psychology and the personal synthesis model. Pub psychology started after the Psychology for All conference in 2009 and involves weekly drop-in sessions in a pub focusing on a different subject each week, for example self-esteem, worrying or relationships. Popovic gave us a glimpse into the sessions by giving an entertaining example of a task in a session based on lying.
The scope and aims of neuropsychology were the subject of Catherine Loveday and Trudi Edginton's (University of Westminster) fascinating lecture on how brain injury can help us to understand the mechanics of the mind. Loveday used a series of well-known historical examples, such as Paul Broca's patient 'Tan' and Phineas Gage, to show early evidence of brain modularity: the notion that different areas of the brain have specific functions. These classic case studies provided a foundation for Loveday to explain our more contemporary understanding of the links between structure and function, but she also used examples from her own practice to elaborate on this and to raise awareness of the widespread causes and day-to-day effects of brain injury. Loveday concluded on a hopeful note with some insight into current approaches for rehabilitation, including reference to her own work with SenseCam, a camera that automatically takes regular pictures that can later help to trigger episodic memories [see February's 'Big Picture'].
Loveday took to the podium again after lunch with a presentation that outlined the biological and cognitive changes that happen to the brain as it ages and some of the ways in which we can protect against this. While it is true that many neurons die or become dysfunctional, the good news, Loveday pointed out, is that the brain is capable of 'plasticity', a remodelling of synaptic connections and even growth of some new neurons, throughout life and on into old age. She explained that although some cognitive decline is inevitable, there are many abilities that are spared and continue to grow, most notably those that are used the most. Physical health and regular exercise were cited as good ways to keep the brain and mind in good shape, along with psychological well-being. She also explained that keeping the mind active and employing specific cognitive strategies can all minimise or reverse the effects of age.
Miles Thomas gave an interesting and engaging presentation using psychology to describe the experience of wine. Thomas was able to clearly give a context and history of wine, bringing psychological theories and models to the world of wine. Studies were described that have shown how consumers are primed to enjoy a product more by it being described as more expensive and how fMRI scanning has been used to show this is a physiological effect. He recognised that wine buying can be a self-conscious experience and gave some useful tips on wine tasting and buying which were well received by the audience.
BPS London and Home Counties Committee Member
Educational Psychologist, Southend on Sea
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