‘Me, Human’ at the Science Museum: Your 500 million year old brain

Scientists from Birkbeck and collaborating institutions are in the ‘Who Am I?’ gallery all summer to present the ‘Me, Human’ project. Dr Gillian Forrester reflects on what led her to research this topic. 

Me, Human is a live scientific experiment which will investigate how traits from our 500 million year-old vertebrate brain still underpin some of our most important and human unique behaviours – like recognising faces and generating speech. At Live Science this summer you’ll use your eyes, ears and hands to find out more about how your ancient brain actually works. We are a multidisciplinary team of scientists at all levels of our careers from undergraduate students in psychology and biological anthropology to senior academics at leading London universities. We all have a passion to communicate science and demonstrate how we, as humans, share a common evolutionary history with other animals – and to reveal our extraordinary connection to the natural world.

We are all individuals, but we acknowledge that we might have inherited grandma’s nose or dad’s extrovert personality. Have you ever thought about what physical and psychological traits we humans – as a species – have inherited from our ancestors?

As a child, I was fascinated by our closest living relatives – the great apes. I wondered – what do gorillas and chimps think? How similar is their experience of life to mine? I scratched this itch by watching documentaries, reading books and eventually taking degrees in San Diego and Oxford. It was during my studies that I started to learn about brains and how they control behaviour. What struck me as truly incredible was that there are parts of the human brain that come from when humans and fish shared a common ancestor – over 500 million years ago!

As humans, we are able to think and act in ways unlike any other animal on the planet. Because of these unique capabilities, it is easy to forget that modern human abilities have their origins in a shared evolutionary history.

Although we are bipedal and comparatively hairless, we are indeed great apes. In fact, we are not even on the fringes of the great ape family tree – we are genetically closer to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas. As such, we share many brain and behaviour traits with our great ape cousins. But our similarities to other animals date back much farther than our split with an ancestor common to both humans and great apes (approximately six million years ago). Some brain and behaviour traits date back over 500 million years –present in early vertebrates and remain preserved in modern humans.

It is our similarities and differences to other species that allow us to better understand how we came to be modern humans.

One of our oldest inherited traits is the ‘divided brain’. While our left and right halves of the brain (hemispheres) appear physically similar, they are in charge of different behaviours. Because the left and right hemispheres control physical behaviour on the opposite side of the body, we can see these dominances revealed in the everyday actions of animals (including humans).

Animal studies have highlighted that fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals also possess left and right hemispheres that differentially control certain behaviours. The divided behaviours of these animals provide a window into our ancestral past, telling the story of our shared evolutionary history with early vertebrates.

Studies suggest that the right hemisphere emerged with a specialisation for recognising the threat in the environment and controlling escape behaviours and the left hemisphere emerged as dominant for producing motor action sequences for feeding (as pictured above). The divided brain allows for any organism to obtain nourishment while keeping alert for predators. We can think of the brain as acting like an ‘eat and not be eaten’ parallel processor.

Considering the consistency in brain side across different animal species, it seems likely that there has been a preservation of these characteristics through evolutionary time. Effectively, we have lugged our useful brain and behavioural traits with us throughout our evolutionary journey.

But why should we care?

Little is known about how these old brain traits support modern human behaviours, like the way we navigate social environments, kiss, embrace, nurture babies and take a selfie! – inhibiting a better understanding of how, when and why our human unique capabilities emerged and also how they still develop during human infancy and childhood.

By taking part in Me, Human at Live Science you will learn about cutting-edge research and engage with fun psychology experiments.  This project challenges you to use your eyes, ears and hands to find out more about how ancient brain traits still control some of your most human unique behaviours. Work with scientists to explore how you use a divided brain to experience the world around you. We invite Science Museum visitors to solve puzzle boards, test your grip strength, hold and manipulate objects, recognise faces and react to different sounds. Watch your brain in action, using portable brain-imaging, as you take part in activities that will help us to better understand human brains and behaviours.

The Me, Human team at the Science Museum.

Come and join me and the Me, Human project team on this journey of exploration to find out what it is to be human and how we are connected to all animals in the natural world. Open until Monday 30 September 2019.

Dr Gillian Forrester

  • Director of the Me, Human Project
  • Reader in Psychology
  • Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
  • Deputy Head of Department, Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London

Visit the exhibition at the Science Museum, London. Follow the Me, Human team on Twitter. #mehuman #livescience. 

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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?’

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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.

Find out more

 

 

 

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