Science Week 2019: A talk on the adolescent brain

Georgina Donati, a Postdoctoral student at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development reflects on a talk given by Dr Iroise Dumontheil, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience, that explores how various brain networks, in particular, those linked to emotional reactivity, the control of behaviours, and social interactions, continue to develop during adolescence.

Dr Dumontheil started the talk with a short film about the adolescent brain.

The paradox of adolescence, Dr Dumontheil begins, is that while individuals are at the peak of their cognitive ability, they do not necessarily use this ability to make good real-life decisions. This talk explored what cognitive neuroscience has found out why this might be the case.

Across development, the brain goes through a gradual structural process of decreasing grey matter (the cell bodies and connections) and increasing white matter (the fat that covers the connections making them faster).  During adolescence, this is happening most clearly in the frontal and temporal lobes while at the same time cognitive control, social cognition and emotion regulation are changing and developing.

(Lebel & Beaulieu, Journal of Neuroscience, 2011)

Cognitive control: Several key aspects of cognitive control continue to develop during adolescence including the ability to inhibit a response or distractor, monitor, maintain and manipulate information in the mind; sustain, divide or select things for attention; shift between tasks, plan for the future and even try and remember future needs.  The development of these skills behaviourally coincides with brain-based changes in activation interpreted as a process of increased specialisation in the pre-frontal cortex.

Social cognition: Social cognition is how we process, store and use information about other people and how this influences us.

The social cognition between people who are all sharing in the same experience or emotion.

Adolescents exhibit different social behaviours to adults; they struggle with perspective taking but are also more aware of and responsive to social situations.  For example, in a study where both groups partake and are excluded from an online game of catch, adolescents experience more anxiety and negativity in response to this exclusion than adults.  In the brain during social cognition, adults recruit their temporal lobes more where adolescents recruit their prefrontal cortex.  This has been interpreted as a difference in strategy – adults use previous experiences to inform their understanding, whereas adolescents, perhaps lacking in previous experience, rely on abstract thought and cognitive control.

Emotions and Sensation Seeking: There are also changes in subcortical areas of the brain during adolescence which coincides with an increase in emotional reactivity and sensation-seeking behaviours.  Adolescent brains seem to react more strongly to fearful faces as well as taking more risks.  However, this increased risk-taking behaviour is only evident when in the presence of their peers, when alone they act similarly to adults and this effect has been replicated across different species.  Adolescent mice, for example, drink more alcohol when with their friends than when alone but adult mice do not.

At an age when individuals are starting to make their own choices, carve their own futures and develop their own identities, these sensitive exploratory behaviours could have adaptive or maladaptive outcomes.  Scientists such as Dr Dumontheil are trying to work out what factors might increase the adaptive rather than maladaptive outcomes.

Watch ‘The Adolescent Brain‘ video here.

 

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The Birkbeck Training Series: Tailored workshops for counsellors working in Higher Education

Aura Rico, a Student Counsellor at Birkbeck reports on the training sessions for counsellors that was set up last year. 

The UK has a healthy provision of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses for counsellors and psychotherapists. However, for some time it has been evident that there is a gap in the CPD offering for counsellors working in Higher Education, who due to high demand and limited resources, work to a short term counselling model – a maximum of six sessions per academic year.

The third session of the 2018-2019 series: ‘Working with Trauma and Sexual Abuse in Short-Term counselling’ in Higher Education facilitated by Christiane Sanderson who has written and worked extensively in this area. Christiane was a lecturer at Birkbeck for over twenty years.

It is well known that university support services are experiencing challenging times; across the sector, with ever-growing demand and longer waiting lists of students with serious and complex mental health problems who require specialist long-term interventions.

With secondary mental health services being cut or even closed, and waiting lists for psychiatric assessments and psychological therapy increasing, we are faced with unprecedented challenges.

In response to these challenging times, the Counselling Service at Birkbeck University created a space for training and dialogue on key topics such as risk, suicide and trauma.  The intention was to open a space where different university counselling services across the UK could come together to learn from each other by discussing key topics and ultimately better serve the student population.

We were delighted to see the positive response of the sector to our first training series with over 200 attendees.  We were fortunate enough to have experienced facilitators who engaged us all with fruitful discussions.

Given the high demand that our training programme generated and the positive feedback that we have received, we have decided to continue to provide a space for training and dialogue and we are delighted to be launching our 2019-2020 training series.

 

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Birkbeck brings Higher Education to union learners

On Wednesday 26th June, Union Learning Reps (ULRs) and organisers from unions, including PCS, Unison and USDAW came together for Birkbeck’s first ULR Skills Workshop on the theme of bringing Higher Education to union learners. In this blog, event organiser Sophie Swain of Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement (A&E) reflects on the day and the importance of trade union engagement.

My role as Access and Outreach Officer (Adult and Community) involves supporting trade union members with their transition into higher education.  Alongside Birkbeck’s 10% fee discount for trade union members, I coordinate an outreach programme providing information, advice and learning activities for trade union members who do not currently have a qualification above level 4 or whose jobs may be affected by automation.

This outreach work reflects the importance of the trade union movement in promoting learning and development, and I work closely with officials and reps who are involved with supporting trade union members to access further learning.

Together with a toolkit produced in conjunction with unionlearn, June’s event is intended to be the first in a series with the aim of equipping ULRs and organisers with useful knowledge and skills to both help them in their role and in providing advice and guidance for members considering studying at university.

Following an introduction to Birkbeck, attendees at the event took part in a coaching skills session led by Head of Access, Sahar Erfani, in which they were able to put into practice new techniques for supporting members to explore their options around further study. Andrew Liddell from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni department spoke about Degree Apprenticeships at Birkbeck and Lucy Crittenden of Birkbeck Futures ran a session on how to promote the benefits of higher education to employers. Emily Harber and Andrew Jones of Linking London led an interactive workshop on the various higher education qualifications and the many different entry levels and to finish a number of attendees took part in a campus tour led by a member of Team Birkbeck.

Feedback from attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Sue Lapworth, ULR at PCS’s Criminal Justice Branch in Croydon said “I really enjoyed the event, it was good to learn what Birkbeck can offer our members and to look round the University. I enjoyed networking with other ULRs and the staff at the college, I am in a better position to advise members who may be interested.” Another event is planned for the Autumn.

To find out more about the union outreach work taking place at Birkbeck, email union-learning@bbk.ac.uk or visit http://www.bbk.ac.uk/professional-services/access/trade-union-outreach

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Eila Campbell Memorial Lecture 2019

Ben Hughes, an MA Social and Cultural Geography student, shares insights from this year’s Eila Campbell Memorial Lecture given by Professor Laura Vaughan on her recently published book, ‘Mapping Society: The spatial dimensions of social cartography’.

Some people just love maps. Whether it be well thumbed road maps, atlases coloured by finger marks tracing mysterious routes, the rain-stained Ordinance Survey maps so beloved of ramblers, or big wall maps of the world – often with places of specific interest pinpointed, all maps tell a story. As fascinating and important as these physical maps are, they don’t capture – or reflect – the complexity of human existence. Addressing this is what lies behind social ‘cartography’, a technique first developed in eighteenth century to illuminate social issues. As a tool social mapping has grown in importance as a means of highlighting the spatial realities of a multitude of social and human features such as health, class, wealth, race and migration and the spatial distinctions they create.

Building on material from her recently published book, Mapping Society: The spatial dimensions of social cartography, the theme of Professor Laura Vaughan’s Eila Campbell Memorial Lecture spanned the most ‘recent’ 200 or so years of social mapping. She took us on a journey starting with a rare map of yellow fever in eighteenth-century New York to Charles Booth’s famous maps of poverty in nineteenth-century London; from an Italian racial zoning map of early twentieth-century Asmara, to a map of wealth disparities in the banlieues of twenty-first-century Paris.

Reflecting her background in architecture and her current role as professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Vaughan brought to life the spatial realities of social divides and inequalities that lie behind the concept of the divided city – a contemporary and timely area of study for human geographers. Drawing on current day human challenges such as climate change and (forced) migration, Vaughan identified the value of some of the emergent open source software packages such WorldMapper and GIS that are increasingly used in social media-led commentaries, around the social polarization of space.

The discussion highlighted many of the specific spatial issues that relate to social cartography. From the practical complexity of reflecting height vs breadth vs depth to ownership, and the inevitable power held by those controlling the production of maps, and so the stories that are portrayed, objectivity, recognizing that maps tend to be built on assumptions, perspectives or ideologies – e.g. is the UK really that big? Why are western nations often colored in calming pastels, when much of Africa and Asia is depicted as dangerous through use of stronger reds and oranges?

Also highlighted was the evolution of ‘non-literal’ maps, used to powerful effect by social geographer Danny Dorling and writer Rebecca Solnit, who sought to reflect human feelings and knowledge of place through maps that, in depicting social rather than physical actualities, result in distortions to the scale and shapes of physical places that we are all so used to.

It was telling that the discussion concluded with reflections on the increasing dominance of multi-national corporations such as Google, who through deployment of new satellite technologies are increasingly powerful in gathering data that is open to misuse and manipulation. With current algorithms able to instantly track and reflect your personal profile, Vaughan concluded with a note of both warning, that there is undoubtedly potential for an invidious market control, and hope, that these same technologies offer potential for counter-mapping to re-balance this.

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