Cognitive Training in Psychological Wellbeing

This post was contributed by Jessica Swainston, a PhD researcher under the supervision of Professor Nazanin Derakshan, investigating the effects of adaptive cognitive training on building resilience in breast cancer survivors. Jessica attended Professor Derakshan’s Birkbeck Science Week event on Thursday 14 April, titled ‘How can adaptive cognitive training improve resilience and mental well-being?’


A Crisis in Psychological Health

Emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression are of increasing prevalence. The world health organisation has recently estimated that 50 million years of work, an annual global loss of £651bn, will be lost to anxious and depressive disorders between now and 2030. This figure is not only critical for the state of the economy, but more importantly is concerning for the future psychological wellbeing of individuals, their families, and the society we live in.

As it stands, current pharmacological and therapeutic treatments have been shown to be only modestly effective in both the treatment and prevention of such disorders. It is imperative then that more research is carried out in order to better understand the underlying mechanisms involved in these conditions. By achieving this, there is hope that we can develop effective interventions to not only treat psychopathology, but further to build resilience against its onset and recurrence.

Building Resilience

So, how do we become more resilient? How do we continue to cope with the ever demanding stresses that society and life place upon us?

Professor Nazanin Derakshan and her team are currently attempting to address this very issue, and was discussed in her captivating talk during the Birkbeck Science week.

Derakshan is of the mind that our ability to flexibly direct where we place our attention, is the key mechanism in regulating our emotions and boosting our psychological resilience. In other words, the better we are at paying attention to our current goal (e.g. Writing this blog post), the less cognitive resources we have available to attend to irrelevant intruding and ruminative thoughts (e.g. ‘What if I fail my PhD?!’). Accordingly, there has been a wealth of research to support this claim.

A multitude of behavioural studies have indicated that individuals with high levels of Anxiety and Depression have inefficient levels of attentional control, which is a critical component of our working memory, a system that monitors the incoming and temporary storage of information. In addition, anxious individuals have been shown to require recruitment of additional cognitive resources, in a compensatory manner, to reach the same performance levels as non-anxious individuals, thus indicating poor processing efficiency and filtering of irrelevant information. That is, anxious individuals must invest more effort in reaching required goals than non-anxious individuals, a factor that will more quickly lead to cognitive and emotional fatigue.

Of further importance, neuroimaging studies have indicated that anxiety and depression are associated with irregular connections between the limbic (emotional) and prefrontal (cognitive) systems of control in the brain. More explicitly, increased activity in the limbic areas have been linked to decreased activity in the prefrontal areas of the cortex, further highlighting the association between inefficient pre-frontal cognition and increased emotional activity.

How can we improve our Attentional Control?

If then attentional control is the key mechanism by which emotional vulnerability can be moderated, how then can this process be targeted?

In a new and exciting line of research, it transpires that there is potential to improve our levels of attentional control through adaptive cognitive techniques that train working memory. For example, a series of studies have shown that improvements in working memory on an adaptive n-back task, in which participants are required to remember the position of a visual or auditory target n-trials back, have been shown at both the behavioural and neural levels. Importantly, gains in working memory abilities have been shown to transfer to other tasks requiring attentional processes, indicating that the training may help to improve cognitive control across varying tasks, not just on the task itself.

Benefits of Cognitive Training in Psychological Health and Sports Performance

So, considering that the well documented link between emotion and cognitive function, can attentional control training decrease anxious and depressive symptomatology? Further, is the training applicable to other circumstances, such as improving anxious states that can interrupt sports performance? Professor Derakshan presented some preliminary findings that show great promise.

As yet, compared to control groups, a course of adaptive attentional control training has shown to result in:

  • Reduced levels of state anxiety
  • Reduced levels of depressive and ruminative symptomatology ( at behavioural and neural levels)
  • A decrease in cancer related thoughts in Breast Cancer survivors
  • Improved tennis performance in a high pressure environment

Cognitive Training as an aid to current therapies

Professor Nazanin Derakhshan

Professor Nazanin Derakhshan

Professor Derakshan raised an interesting point in relation to the future directions and clinical relevance of cognitive training in psychological health. A number of current psychological therapies such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy are of varied success. This may in part be due to the lack of attentional resources that severely depressed and anxious individuals possess. If one’s attention is poor, how can one easily engage in a 10 week course of psychological therapy which requires focus and concentration?

It can often be problematic. Thus if, as a complimentary treatment, attentional control processes are improved through training, patients will be better enabled to pay attention and gain the most value from their psychological therapy. In fact, one recent study by Course-Choi et al., (2016) showed just this. Results indicated that a combined course of mindfulness and attentional control training showed greater reductions in trait worry, compared to a course of mindfulness by itself.

In sum, Professor Derakshan presented a compelling theoretical framework for improving our cognitive flexibility as a means to build resilience and protect against emotional vulnerability. With this in mind, there is promise for improving psychological health in the coming years. As poignantly remarked by Derakshan,

‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change’. – Charles Darwin, 1809.

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The Speech/Song Illusion

This post was contributed by Rosy Edey, PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Psychological Sciences. Rosy attended a Birkbeck Science Week 2016 event on Thursday 14  April – ‘Talk: The Speech/Song Illusion’ (led by Dr Adam Tierney)


Sadly all good things must come to an end, and the finale of Birkbeck’s 2016 Science Week was a compelling musical one, by one of Birkbeck’s newest members of the Psychology Department, Dr Adam Tierney. In a humorous and engaging way Adam took the audience through the scientific story of the “evolution of music”. Music seems almost completely purposeless, and let’s face it a little bit strange, so why do we love it so much?

What is music?

Adam placed the first known musical instrument (an intricate bone flute) back 40,000 years, which was way before the first record of written word (5000 years ago), but much later than (a good estimate of) when we first evolved to make vocalisations (400,000 years ago). The absolute origin of music is obviously very difficult to pinpoint – as it is possible (and probable) that way before we built tools – like the bone flute – to make music, we were signing our hearts out in the moonlight.

This questionable timing of the birth of music raises the question: what came first, speech or music? Whichever one came first, if one evolved from the other we would expect music and language to share similar characteristics. Indeed, Adam presented evidence that both the huge varieties of globally spoken languages and music from around the world share common universalities (which at first seemed very unlikely based on the diversity of music that was perfectly demonstrated through a bizarre example of washing machine “music” and also a collection of songs from the playlist from the Voyager I and II spacecraft gold plates).

These shared acoustic qualities included alternating beat patterns, descending melodic contours, and increases in final phrase duration. Using the very complicated sounding “Normalised Pairwise Variability Index” (i.e. jargon for a measure of rhythmic alteration, or a measure of paired stress in phrases) Adam showed there were also commonalities between languages and music within and between specific countries (basically English music sounds English, and French sounds French, but English music/ language does not sound like French music/language). All of these beautiful subtleties hidden in the acoustics of spoken word and music provide vast amounts of data, which signal meaning to the listener. These underlying similarities do hint that music and speech are distant cousins.

Music as Speech with added extras

Playing music with speech can change it into a song; The Jazzy Sarah Palin Interview was a good example of this:


And it seems even without music our brains can transform speech into music. Diana Deutsch discovered this phenomenon in 1995, while looping some spoken data.

After several iterations the phrase “sometimes behave so strangely” no longer sounded like speech, and had converted into song (I now cannot even read this phrase without hearing the tune). All the phrases in Adam’s Corpus of Illusion Stimuli turned into singing, but interestingly, the “control” sentences didn’t have the same effect. This illusion appears to be a useful tool to test further the idea of music evolution and ask more detailed questions, such as: “what is required for speech to become song?” and “what mechanisms are going on in our brains when we change speech into song?”

Testing the Science

Dr Adam Tierney

Dr Adam Tierney

Adam has pulled out the acoustic elements that predict what speech phrases are heard as song. He suggests there are two main factors which induce the illusion; increased beat variability and increased pitch intervals. Remarkably, there is large variability between people’s experience, and being a trained musician doesn’t improve your ability to detect the illusion.

So what is going on in the brain? Adam’s hunch was that these ‘musical’ phrases are processed in the same way as when listening to speech, but with a little added extra. And this does in fact seem to be the case, we activate a similar network to when we hear normal speech, but extra activation in regions that are highly pitch sensitive (e.g. Heschl’s Gyrus – a very early part of the auditory system), and also motor regions (e.g. precentral gyrus – which hosts a map of the body, but specifically the mouth region) when we listen to the ‘song’. Interestingly, there were no regions that were more active for just speech over the song phrases. Adam suggested participants were imagining singing and tapping along to the beat, and processing the pitch more deeply in these ‘song’ phrases. This evidence neatly fits the behavioural data, showing that phrases that have a strong rhythm and more of a melody are processed differently by the brain, which results in them being distorted from speech into song.

Although it is virtually impossible to know the true origin of music, Adam managed to make quite a convincing case that song is just speech with some ribbons on, and quite possibly did evolve from speech.

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Computational modelling of the mind

This post was contributed by Nick Sexton, PhD student in the Department of Psychological Sciences

Prof Rick Cooper

Prof Rick Cooper

How can computer simulations help us understand the human mind? That was the main topic of the Rick Cooper Inaugural Lecture, in which Professor Cooper outlined 15 years of research on cognitive computational modelling.

Cognitive computational modelling boils down to designing computer simulations of how the mind processes information. While computers that appear to think in a human-like-way (whatever that means) are increasingly commonplace in our everyday lives – driverless cars, the Google Deepmind model which learns to play Atari games, and intelligent personal assistants, are all examples – the talk revealed that a more difficult challenge is not only to mimic (or improve on) human behaviour, but to produce it in the same way that humans do – using the same types of mental process.

For example, certain computer programs have succeded in being indistinguishable from humans on Alan Turing’s classic test of artificial intelligence: however, when one digs under the surface, it is readily apparent that their responses are generated in a not remotely human-like way.

So if modelling how the human mind actually works is tricky, how does one go about doing it? Cooper’s approach is to build on theories of how the mind works, from cognitive psychology, often pieced together through painstaking use of behavioural experiments on human participants. These theories, describing how the mind processes information, often resemble flow-chart-like schematics – but often the details are left vague.

This is where cognitive modelling comes in – a fully operational computational model must provide exact details on the inputs, outputs, and algorithms computed, at every stage of mental processing, so the modeller must fill in details that the theorist has left blank. It is a test of whether the psychological theory really is sufficient to explain what it purports to explain, and if not, suggest what details it might be missing.

One element that makes Cooper’s research stand out is his focus, not just on abstract tasks conducted in a sterile psychology or neuroscience lab, or even on a less defined realm of behaviour, as in the Atari game player – but on distinctively human, often startlingly everyday behaviour.

For instance, a large amount of what we consider normal human behaviour is routine – habitual actions, like preparing meals or hot drinks, dressing, commuting. One particular branch of Cooper’s modelling work has been on developing a computational theory of how the mind accomplishes routine actions with minimal attentional oversight, and how this mental apparatus can be applied to non-routine situations.

One model of routine everyday actions simulated preparing drinks. It manipulated objects in its (virtual) environment, like utensils (cups, knives, juicers) and resources (such as hot water, coffee, tea, milk, sugar, oranges )- to achieve an end goal – such as preparing coffee(milk no sugar). The model needed to account for normal human behaviour – successful preparation of the drink most of the time, with occasional lapses – sometimes forgetting to put milk in the coffee, or adding sugar when it wasn’t required.

So what is interesting about a model which prepares drinks (sometimes badly)?
Well, the model was also able to explain what happens when normal mental processes break down – say, in the event of brain damage. With certain setttings, the model not only simulated the lapses of neurotypical people, but also the more extreme lapses observed in
patients with particular types of brain damage – putting butter in the coffee, or forgetting to add water, say.

The model was also able to simulate the behaviour of patients with specific conditions – Ideational apraxic patients struggle to retain a sense of an object’s purpose – say, trying to use a fork to cut an orange. Patients with utilisation behaviour tend to perform actions
appropriate to a given object, but inappropriately to the current situation – take off your glasses and hand them to the patient, and they are liable to put them on.

Here, a cognitive model is rather more use than more everyday artificial intelligences which perform everyday tasks, such as Siri – because Siri might ‘think’ in a way completely differently to humans, there is no reason to believe that if we deliberately damage part of the program, she will produce behaviour typical of people with brain damage. However, because Cooper’s model was based on  neuropsychological theories where routine actions depend on the correct interaction of different cognitive processes – simulating damage to specific processes in the model was able to account well for the
differrent patterns of behaviour typical of different neural conditions.

This approach isn’t just useful for understanding what might be damaged in people unfortunate enough to suffer brain damage, then – it is also a powerful tool for trying to understand what role those cognitive processes play in the human mind when it is functioning normally, and whereabouts in the brain they might take place.

The hour-long talk gave a fascinating glimpse into how – as the knowledge gained from the brain and mind sciences continues to accelerate – computational cognitive modelling has an important role to play in drawing together different disciplines – taking cutting-edge research in psychology, neuroscience, and machine learning – showing how the individual pieces fit together, to give us a better glimpse of the overall picture of how our minds work.

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Spatial Distortion in Perception and Cognition

This post was contributed by Elena Azañón and Luigi Tamè, postdoctoral fellows in Birkbeck’s BodyLab

matthew-longoProf Matthew Longo gave his inaugural lecture about “Spatial Distortions in Perception and Cognition” on June 4th. He has been a lecturer in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, University of London, since 2010, and has recently been appointed Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the same Department.

He completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in 2006 and spent several years at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London as a postdoctoral researcher before joining Birkbeck. The main focus of his research concerns the psychological and neural mechanisms underlying body representations, and how these affect all aspects of our mental lives.

Longo’s inaugural lecture was introduced by the Master of Birkbeck, Prof David S Latchman, who commented on Longo’s exceptional achievements during his remarkable career. Professor Latchman highlighted the high quality of his research and impressive publication record in high impact journals. Indeed, Longo has been recently awarded by two of the major internationally recognised early career awards, in Europe (i.e., the 2014 Experimental Psychology Society Prize) and overseas (i.e., the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career).

Pathological conditions

Longo started his lecture by highlighting that in many situations healthy people appear to have distorted representations of their bodies. However, despite these distortions, people are able to appropriately interact with the environment. Longo continued by describing several bizarre pathological conditions characterised by distortions in the representations of the body.

The underlying idea is that pathology is a continuum and, in one way or another, healthy people might share some features of these deficits. One of the paradigmatic examples he mentioned was the phantom limb experience, a condition in which a patient who has suffered the amputation of a limb, continues to experience the limb. In this respect, he recounted an elegant historical anecdote about Horatio Nelson’s phantom limb experience after loss of his arm, which was described by the admiral as proof of the immaterial soul.

He finally mentioned a patient, described by Oliver Sacks, who repeatedly fell out of her bed. When asked the reason of this behaviour, the patient complained that the nurses were secretly introducing a severed arm in the bed with her. The nurses finally realized that the patient was affected by somatoparaphrenia (i.e., the lack of awareness of a part of the body). It was the patient’s own left arm, which she believed was somebody else’s arm that she was throwing out of the bed!

Spatial distortions in perception

Before starting to describe his own work, he explained more about the idea of spatial distortions in perception. This is somehow a counterintuitive concept considering that the goal of perception is to create a veridical model of the world.

If people perceive a distorted world, how can they possibly act on it in an appropriate way? As an example of normal distortions, he described the representations at the level of the primary sensory and motor cortices in which the body parts are represented with different levels of magnification. Longo explained that these distortions are necessary steps to achieve complex behaviours.

Indeed, if we had homogenous tactile sensitivity across the body, then apparently simple tasks such as lacing up our shoes would be impossible. What allows us to perform everyday actions, which seem simple to us but are incredibly complex from a motor control perspective, is that different bits of the skin are represented differently in the brain. That is, bits of the skin able to produce fine-grained movements, such as the fingers, have extremely high tactile sensitivity, while others, such as the back of the leg have much less sensitivity.

Examining distortions

In the second half of the lecture he demonstrated that body representations are not only distorted at the level of the primary cortices, but also, though to a lesser degree, at higher levels of perceptual processing. Across several experiments, Longo made use of Weber’s illusion. In this illusion, the perceived distance between two touches is larger on skin regions of high tactile sensitivity than on those with lower acuity. His research suggests that the dorsum of the hand, but not the palm, is implicitly represented wider and squatter than it actually is. He argued that these distortions are partly explained by the shape of the tactile receptive fields of cortical neurons on the different parts of the hand.

Longo continued describing similar distortions of the representation of our bodies that are independent from touch. In order to isolate and measure this implicit body representation, Longo developed, jointly with his former supervisor, Professor Patrick Haggard from UCL, an elegant, simple and effective paradigm.

Participants used a long baton to judge the location of the knuckle and tip of each finger of their own occluded hand. By comparing the relative location of each landmark, he was able to construct implicit maps of the represented shape and size of the hand, which could then be compared to the actual hand shape. He found that these maps were drastically distorted, and in a highly consistent manner across individuals. In particular, across a number of studies, Longo revealed a general underestimation of finger length and an overestimation of hand width. These distortions are similar to those he found in the tactile modality. He further noted that this pattern of results was highly stable across body parts.

The event concluded with a final speech by Professor Martin Eimer. He thanked Longo for his exciting and entertaining lecture. He further highlighted the high productivity and creativity of Longo’s research during his early career, exalting the elegance of his experimental approach and design. He also highlighted that despite being a great scientist, he is likewise an excellent colleague, who is always available and willing to perform mundane duties that despite being unexciting, are fundamental for the department’s life.

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