Science Week 2017: the source of human irrationality

Professor Nicholas Keep, Executive Dean of the School of Science, writes about Professor Mike Oaksford‘s Science Week 2017 talk on Tuesday 4 April
department-sliderProfessor Oaksford, the head of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, gave a talk on the source of Human Irrationality. There are proposed to be two systems for decision making.  System 1 is the older system shared with other animals and is fast and unconscious.  System 2 is slower and uses language and working memory to form a reasoned argument. It had been argued that irrational decisions arise from System 1 and System 2 is rational. However, Professor Oaksford argued the opposite. Studies of other animals such as starlings show that they are rational using System 1 and Professor Oaksford shows studies supporting the fast, unconscious response being rational in human. It is therefore, Mike argued, System 2 that leads to irrationality. It requires conversion of the unconscious processing into language and there is limited working memory to support system 2. Further, we do not (or cannot?) fully check all steps in our unconscious inference. The use of language can override our rational response and introduce errors of rationality.

What then is the advantage of language? It is that it allows us to be social and communicate our thoughts and plans with others thus accessing a wider range of experience and to store them in written form to recover them later. These social interactions should allow correction of our imperfect System 2 leading to better outcomes than System 1. I wold not be quite sure that this social correction is yet perfect judging by recent election results. There seems to be an ability to construct contradictory and mutually exclusive ‘rational’ views through social interaction.

Watch Professor Oaksford’s lecture on the source of human irrationality:

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Birkbeck graduate reaches milestone in psychology career dream

graduation_chirantha-ulapane-1114-resizedBirkbeck’s excellent research reputation in psychology attracted Chirantha Ulapane (CJ) to the university, but the evening teaching fitted with his lifestyle as well, and enabled him to combine his study with work as a healthcare assistant. CJ says: “Studying in the evenings appealed to me as it allowed me to gain professional experience alongside developing academically and applying that knowledge into the workplace immediately.”

In addition to combining work and study, CJ played university rugby and enjoyed a good social life with friends from Birkbeck and other University of London colleges.

Although CJ came to Birkbeck immediately after completing his A-levels, he feels that the mixture of ages and backgrounds in his class brought real advantages. He says: “Meeting students of the same age all the way through to already successful professionals expanded my career horizons and also gave me a much clearer career path to take on in the future by listening to so many different experiences.

“The lecturers were all fantastic and very approachable at anytime. At first I was slightly nervous approaching them as they are all revered globally but after having a few conversations with them they were absolutely fantastic to speak with. The lectures were also very enjoyable as they were all interactive and required a lot of student participation, which was what I needed after a busy day at work.”

CJ now plans to pursue a career in clinical psychology. He explains: “To become a clinical psychologist I will need to return to education for my Masters and PhD. For now, I have already attained a position within mental health and I am very grateful for studying at Birkbeck as the knowledge gained from the course has allowed me to progress along the right career path straight after receiving my results. I feel fortunate that I was employed straight after finishing university in the exact industry I want to be a part of but I know that I was able to attain my position having studied at a highly reputable university for Psychology. All that is left me to do is to persevere and keep rising from that position using the knowledge and guidance attained from my time at Birkbeck.”

He concludes: “100% apply to study at Birkbeck. Not only will you be getting a world class education, you will acquire skills and knowledge which will improve all aspects of your life.”

CJ graduates today at a ceremony at the University of London’s Senate House.

Further information:

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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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