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Cognition and perception

One on one... with Valerie Curran

‘Occasionally follow a hunch…’

02 September 2014

One article or book all psychologists should read
An essay written in 1946 by George Orwell called ‘Politics and the English language’. Like politics, psychology can sometimes fall victim to its own jargon and conceptual confusions. This essay helps you to write well.

One inspiration
Endel Tulving for putting semantics back into memory in the 1970s and for putting memory back into the future in the 2000s. His bow ties, linen suits and reflections on cat consciousness were awesome.  

One moment that changed the course of your career
My PhD and postdoc fellowship focused on the development of memory in 5- to 11-year-old children who spoke a tonal language (Yoruba). When my family and I returned from travelling in the Far East, my lovely friend Susan Golombok persuaded me to apply for a job at the Institute of Psychiatry researching an antidepressant drug. I had no interest whatsoever in drugs, but the two-day a week job fitted well with bringing up young children. My fascination with the neuropsychopharmacology of memory began then.

One proud moment
Lots with each of my three daughters. Workwise, I gave evidence based on neuroscience and psychological research in a New York court on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union versus the US Government. This resulted in a 60 per cent reduction in prison sentences for possessing Ecstasy.

One challenge you think psychology faces
Because some of the drugs we work with are illegal, there are some complex restrictions on the research we can actually do. There are also challenges when trying to ensure that research evidence on different types of psychotropic drugs influences policy. Scheduling a drug as having no medical use without researching possible uses is a particular problem.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Occasionally follow a hunch and piggy-back a new idea (task, measure, context) on a well-planned experiment.  

One cultural recommendation
I loved both 1Q84 (Haruki Murakama) and Half a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).  

One alternative career path   
Something in the arts – hand-built ceramics has been my hobby for many years (see right for my work). I doubt that it would have earned me a living!

One heroine from psychology present
Uta Frith – for her wisdom, humour and promotion of gender equality in science.

One plant that intrigues me  
Cannabis sativa has over 100 unique ingredients called cannabinoids, which are a potential treasure chest of future medicines.

One thing that organised psychology could do better
It could stimulate more interaction with the arts, including theatre, sculpture and architecture.

One problem that psychology should deal with
It is still the case that the vast majority of psychology undergraduates are women, but the majority of high-flying psychologists are men.

One hope for the future
As both a clinical psychologist and a psychopharmacologist, I am interested in how psychological and pharmacological therapies might interact to be more or less than the sum of their individual parts. I would also like to see the first treatment offered to a newly presenting patient being psychological whenever possible – too often drugs are given first and end up being given chronically.

One interesting anaesthetic
Ketamine has been used medically for 50 years. Psychologically it is not only a useful pharmacological model of psychotic symptoms but also a keyhole into treatment-resistant depression and chronic pain. Used recreationally in large doses, however, it is toxic.

One informative stimulant drug
MDMA (Ecstasy) impacts upon social cognition at least in part by stimulating oxytocin release. It has a fascinating, potential synergy with psychological therapies.

One hero from psychology past
Jean Piaget hugely influenced my early research.

One work satisfaction
Working collaboratively in research teams and helping promote bright young scientists.

One influential student  
Of the many inspiring students I have been lucky enough to work with, Celia Morgan shines brilliantly!

- Valerie Curran is Professor of Psychopharmacology at University College London