Self-representation: do you really know yourself?

Satwat Bashir, MSc Cognition and Computation student, reports on Dr Lara Maister’s Science Week talk.

Dr Lara Maister

In our daily life, we spend a great deal of time focusing on ourselves; whether we are buying shoes, preparing for a job interview, posting on social media or impressing a date. But how exactly are we aware of ourselves? Do we ever think about it? Ehh… no.  When Donald Trump described himself as a ‘not smart, but a genius and a very stable genius’, he was accused of being mentally unhealthy and lacking self-awareness. But scientific research is beginning to reveal that people’s self-awareness is not as accurate as we think, despite the fact that we are the only ones in the universe with direct access to every thought and feeling we come across. Lara Maister’s talk took a very thought-provoking, curious and engaging way to share the science behind our ‘selfhood’. What could be more interesting than to know about your own body and mind?

At the start, Lara gave a general introduction on how we perceive the ‘self’. She made a distinction between two often-related forms of ‘self’, namely; bodily-self and conceptual-self. She explained the conceptual-self as concerning our beliefs, feelings, preferences and attitudes, and that its formation and development is strongly related to social interactions and comparisons. In contrast to this, bodily-self is understood through our subjective experiences of bodily ownership and physical appearance. For example; I experience my body moving when I tell it to move, and I always have a mental image of how I am appearing in the world. Interesting!

Lara went on explaining the cognitive neuroscience story behind these selfhoods and how these two forms are malleable and can influence each other, eventually changing the whole ‘self’. First focusing on the ‘bodily self’, she discussed a rare neurological condition that leads to the loss of the sense of bodily ownership which has motivated the investigation into the nature and processing behind our ‘self-hood’.

The rubber hand illusion is one of the methods used to probe the ‘bodily self’. Researchers were able to induce a feeling of ownership over a prosthetic hand, using synchronous visual-tactile stimulation. She explains that it is basically the result of the brain’s ability to synchronize the touch felt on real hand with the touch seen on the prosthetic hand. This discovery extended the scope of bodily illusions investigations and researchers are now able to produce and observe the similar effects with other senses that result in illusory body ownership, like voice illusions and face illusions.

Lara kept the curiosity high and went on unfolding the mysteries and shared the studies in which she and her team tested how accurate people are when they picture their appearance in their mind, compared to what they actually look like. She uses a task, which allows participants to develop a ‘self-portrait’ via the computer, which represents how they think they look in their mind’s eye. The results showed people are generally good at predicting their facial characteristics; for example, if someone has a bold nose or striking eyes, their self-portrait will have these features, so in general, people are well aware of how they look like in the real world.

The most attention-grabbing result from her investigation demonstrated that participants’ beliefs about their personality traits influenced what their self-portraits looked like. For example, if they think they are considered neurotic in their social circles, then their self-portrait contains such features that look ’neurotic’ – irrespective of their real facial features. A very interesting example shown by Lara was of two females which are very alike in their physical appearance, but they have exactly opposite self-conception about themselves; one thinks she is attractive and trustworthy and other thinks she is unattractive and untrustworthy. Importantly, they made very different self-portraits too; the one who believed she was unattractive and untrustworthy saw her face as being much less attractive and agreeable than the participant who was more self-confident. Why is this so? Another mystery! Lara explained that researchers believe our feelings and beliefs about ourselves affect our bodily mental representation of our own appearance.

But how is self-esteem affecting the representation of our bodies, as well as our faces? Lara shared another investigation focusing on self-esteem and our mental images of our body shape. The results are very fascinating and confirm the previous finding that self-esteem plays a significant role in a person’s beliefs about themselves and that most of the time we are inaccurate in determining how we look. Specifically, the researchers measured the hip size of people’s mental pictures of their own bodies, and what they thought a ‘normal’ body looked like. Not only were people’s mental pictures of their body shape quite inaccurate, the data pattern depicts that hip size is inversely related to self-esteem; the larger the hip size of the self-portrait, the lower the self-esteem. So, what’s going on with our self-esteem, and how can we know our true selves?

The studies explain a variety of phenomena from our daily life, ranging from our choices when buying clothes, to our social worth and comparisons. Lara excellently explained a potential method to look into the self in different personality disorders, as well as mental disorders such as dysmorphic disorders and eating disorders.

The investigations are still ongoing and we are anxiously waiting for the new findings so we can better understand and welcome our true selves!

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Volcanoes without borders

Neill Marshall, undergraduate Geology student, discusses a recent event on diplomacy in scientific research, as part of Birkbeck’s 2018 Science Week.

Studying Earth Sciences offers unique opportunities to travel to remote and exciting places around the world, and this has certainly been the case for geophysicist Dr James Hammond. As part of the #BBKScienceWeek 2018 talks, Dr Hammond presented his work on Mount Paektu, a remote volcano straddling the North Korean and Chinese border. He spoke of the unique experience of studying a poorly understood active volcano capable of catastrophic eruptions that has a significant cultural importance to all Koreans.

The cultural significance of Mount Paektu

Mount Paektu is the highest point on the Korean peninsula with importance to all Koreans as a strong-hold against the Japanese invasion. Dr Hammond described how it is the symbolic birthplace of the communist revolution and Kim Jong-il was thought to have been born there. Now many North Koreans go on a pilgrimage to Mount Paektu to rejoice in their leader’s birthplace. Dr Hammond showed videos of performances of the mass gymnastics at the Arirang Festival depicting Mount Paektu and of school children singing songs about the volcano.

Geopolitics and science diplomacy

Studying a volcano in a politically volatile region rarely visited presented Dr Hammond and his colleagues with logistical and diplomatic challenges. Following the increased activity at Mount Paektu, North Korea called out for collaboration with world scientists. It took two years of negotiation between the UK, US and North Korean governments with involvement from the Royal Society and the AAAS before a joint North Korean-UK scientific expedition could be mounted.

Dr Hammond and his colleagues became the first western scientists to visit the Mount Paektu volcano observatory. Dr Hammond described how the project ultimately enabled scientific communication with North Korean scientists allowing knowledge to be shared between this politically isolated nation and the wider scientific community outside North Korea.

Scientific interest in Mount Paektu

Dr Hammond gave a brief background on the eruptive power of Mount Paektu describing the last large eruption in 946AD as one of the biggest eruptions in human history. He described colossal eruption, bigger than Krakatoa in 1883 and on a similar scale to the Tambora eruption in 1815, with deadly lahar and pyroclastic flow deposits in the region.

Despite the scale of the 946AD eruption little is known about the volcano. It does not lie on a tectonic plate boundary unlike the vast amount of volcanoes on Earth.

Recent activity has been observed at the volcano in the form of earthquakes, increased gas emissions and deformation of the volcano. These are key indicators that the magmatic plumbing system is recharging.

The deployment of seismometers in a linear array was an attempt to use seismic waves to image the Earth’s crust near to Mt Paektu. He explained the processes involved in deployment; meeting local farmers, dignitaries and North Korean scientists; dealing with mountain weather; and travelling in this remote region.

Dr Hammond explained how seismic waves can be utilised to image the Earth in a similar way to a CT scan of a human body. From this method of imaging, a low seismic velocity zone was found 7km beneath the surface was found. Combined with other analysis of seismic velocities the results suggest the presence of fluid (likely magma) in the crust beneath the volcano.

However, more research needs to be done to fully understand the volcano with the key question of why this volcano is present in this region is still yet to be answered. Dr Hammond is planning an additional wider deployment of seismometers (potentially in 2019) to try and answer this question.

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How can cognitive neuroscience build resilience in breast cancer patients?

This post was contributed by Bethany Chapman, PhD candidate at Birkbeck. From October she will be working with the Building Resilience in Breast Cancer Centre (BRiC) to investigate ‘The efficacy of neurocognitive training on improving the processing efficiency and long-term quality of life of breast cancer survivors returning to work.’ Bethany attended Professor Derakshan’s Birkbeck Science Week talk on Thursday 21 June.

Breast cancer and its impact on emotional and cognitive health

Breast cancer is the most prevalently diagnosed form of malignancy amongst women, with recent figures revealing that a new case is diagnosed every 10 minutes in the UK. Given, its exceptionally high prevalence (75% increase since 1970s) breast cancer is currently considered across the world to be one of the most leading causes of health concern. Interestingly, evidence has denoted a significant increase in the number of younger pre-menopausal women being given a diagnosis. In particular, younger women appear to be diagnosed with more aggressive forms of breast cancer reflective of a higher grade (higher rate of cell multiplying) and stage tumour.

At present, breast cancer is targeted by a diverse range of interventions and treatments including, surgery (mastectomy), chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy as well as endocrine therapy. Whilst these interventions have greatly decreased the mortality rate most women that enter breast cancer survivorship following the completion of active treatment experience both emotional and cognitive vulnerability.

Professor Nazanin Derakshan revealed that women frequently report experiencing a range of emotional symptomologies (vulnerabilities) including:

  • Chronic anxiety and depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Intrusive thoughts regarding breast cancer recurrence
  • Poor quality of life (provoked by social isolation)

and cognitive dysfunctions (commonly known as ‘chemo-brain’) including:

  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Everyday memory loss
  • Difficulty retaining information
  • Poor Processing efficiency (i.e. slower responses)

So, is there a relationship between cognitive vulnerability and emotional vulnerability?

Crucially, Professor Derakshan divulged during her fascinating Science week talk that her team at Birkbeck have identified a directional causal relationship, in which cognitive dysfunction highly exaggerates the severity of psychological (or emotional) vulnerabilities (i.e. anxiety) experienced by breast cancer survivors. Furthermore, she stated the team extended their research to discover that this relationship is moderated by the grade of breast cancer diagnosed. For instance, women diagnosed with a higher grade (grade 3) of breast cancer exhibit a stronger relationship between cognitive vulnerability and emotional vulnerability.

Taking, all this novel research into consideration Derakshan raised an interesting point promulgating that it is imperative for future research to examine the cognitive health and emotional health of breast cancer survivors in unison, a previously problematic issue within the field of psycho-oncology.

How are researchers at Birkbeck aiming to build resilience to cognitive dysfunction and emotional vulnerability?

Neuroimaging research has shown structural and function changes in the brain related to the cognitive dysfunction(s) experienced following the completion of anti-cancer treatment, such cognitive dysfunction(s) is described by researchers as a ‘hidden cost’ of treatment as there are no significant behavioural differences observed when performance is compared with a control population. Interestingly, cognitive neuroscientists have evinced that breast cancer survivors recruit additional cognitive resources in order to compensate for the inefficiency (dysfunction) of their chemo-brain, this process is known as ‘compensatory effort’.

Furthermore, clinical research has reported that psycho-therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are ineffective in adequately reducing the severity of emotional symptomologies encountered by the breast cancer population. Taken all this research into consideration, Derakshan and her Birkbeck laboratory in partnership with the BRiC centre are experimentally analysing the effect of exercising cognitive function through the use of neurocognitive interventions including, the Adaptive Dual N-back Training on emotional vulnerability—with promising results already being discovered.

One captivating study highlighting these incredible that was discussed by Derakshan during the talk, revealed that women that received 12-days of Adaptive Dual N-back training presented with significantly reduced levels of anxiety and distress, with these effects being sustained at the 14-18-month follow-up. Additionally, the study also showed a decrease in women’s rumination at the final follow-up, 14-18-months post-training. Derakshan disclosed that one possible explanation for these highly promising findings is that exercising cognitive function through adaptive training increased the fronto-parietal connectivity by enhancing the process of myelination and/or strengthened the synaptic connectivity.

In sum, Professor Derakhshan presented a highly insightful talk, outlining the incredible role that cognitive neuroscience has in promoting sustained cognitive and emotional resilience in women diagnosed with one of the most prevalent malignancies in the world.

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Graduation stories: building a better future

Valquiria Godoy collected her BSc in Psychology with Neuroscience at Birkbeck’s Autumn Graduation Week 2017. She began her studies during an extremely difficult time in her life, coming to terms with the loss of her partner and bringing up a one-year-old as a single parent. It was far from plain sailing but with the support of family and Birkbeck staff, she has achieved great things. Here she tells her story:

I started at Birkbeck on the day of my son Victor’s first birthday. It had been a very difficult few months. Victor was just 40 days old when lost my fiancé Christian, six months before we were due to be married. He was working as a pizza delivery on a motorbike and lost control on a rainy winter day. He passed away at the scene with a neck injury. It still upsets me to this day, but I’ve learnt how to deal with my pain without letting it control me. A lot of my strength to get through it came from the fact that I had a purpose and a goal to become a good mother and provide for my child. I wanted to have a profession and a career so I chose Birkbeck.

I had finished my A-levels back home in Brazil and arrived in London when I was 18 in 2003. But I had to work and learn English before I could think of studying. I had discussed university with my fiancé and I was originally planning to start  when Victor reached the age of two. But with the change of circumstances, I adapted my plans.

My first year was very tough as I was still breast-feeding and Victor was too young for the Birkbeck nursery but I got help with money towards childcare for him while I was at lectures. My cousin looked after Victor for me for the 1st year and later he stayed at the evening nursery. Friends and family helped during exam time (nursery was only for when I was at lectures) but my son was allowed to come into the Birkbeck library so I could study during his nap time.

At the end of year one I considered quitting because it was too tough to combine a young baby and studies. Also I had to pick-up my son from my cousin’s house around 9.30pm and I wouldn’t be home before 11pm. I felt quite guilty to be out at that time with a baby three times a week, particularly when I was given dirty looks from people on the street who obviously had no idea I was actually coming home from university.

I saw a psychologist for around two years because I was suffering from PTSD, depression and anxiety because of what I had been through. At the beginning of my second year at Birkbeck, I met with Mark Pimm (Birkbeck’s disability coordinator) to tell him I was finding it very hard to cope with it all and was thinking of leaving. He suggested I should apply for DSA to help me with my studies, and with his help I managed to continue, going home from Birkbeck nursery by taxi. Victor loved it at the nursery and he’s genuinely upset he’s not going to see the staff anymore!

I was also able to get someone to help me with extra tutoring and note-taking from my lectures which were a huge plus. I could only study and revise when Victor was sleeping really. It was hard to concentrate at the beginning, but the thought of what I was doing it for would make me keep going. I guess that was my way to cope with it all and wanting my son to be proud of me. The studies also kept my mind busy to avoid unwanted thoughts. I guess it made me feel like it was all worth it and gave me more of a purpose in life.

I’m now working in a secondary special education needs school in west London as a learning support assistant in West London, working with pupils with all sorts of conditions, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Next, I would love to try for clinical psychology or educational psychology but I know how competitive they are so my back-up plan would be a Master’s in an area of behaviour or well-being.

I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard and challenging because it was. However, what I can say for sure is that it was possible and I made it happen even when I doubted I could. I can’t thank everyone enough as I can proudly say I’ve finished my studies with a 2 (i) and I can’t wait to continue with studying again.

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