Adolescents and multitasking

This post was contributed by Dr Iroise Dumontheil of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences, and co-author of the newly published study “Multitasking during social interaction in adolescence and early adulthood”. The paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, can be read hereClick here to read the news article

Presentation of multitasking paradigm (published in Royal Society Open Science)

Presentation of multitasking paradigm (published in Royal Society Open Science) * Caption below

Humans are social beings. We have evolved to function in groups of various size. Some researchers argue that the complexity of social relationships which require, for example, remembering who tends to be aggressive, who has been nice to us in the past, or who always shares her food, may have been an evolutionary pressure leading to the selection of humans with bigger brains, and in particular a bigger frontal cortex (see research by Robin Dunbar).

However, we do not always take into account the perspective or knowledge of a person we are interacting with. Boaz Keysar and later Ian Apperly developed an experimental psychology paradigm which allows us to investigate people’s tendency to take into account the perspective of another  person (referred to as the “director”) when they are following his instructions to move objects on a set of shelves. Some of the slots on the shelves have a back panel, which prevent the director, who is standing on the other side of the shelves, from seeing, and knowing, which objects are located in the slots. While all participants can correctly say, when queried, which object the director can or cannot see, adult participants, approximately 40% of the time, do not take into account the view of the director when following his instructions.

In a previous study, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (UCL), Ian Apperly (University of Birmingham) and I, demonstrated that adolescents made more errors than adults on the task, showing a greater bias towards their own perspective.  In contrast,  adolescents performed to the same level a task matched in terms of general demands but which required following a rule to move only certain objects, and did not have a social context (read the study here).

The Royal Society Open Science journal is publishing today a further study on this topic, led by Kathryn Mills (now at the NIMH in Bethesda) while she was doing her PhD with Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at UCL. Here, we were interested in whether loading participants’ working memory, a mental workspace which enables us to maintain and manipulate information over a few seconds, would affect their ability to take another person’s perspective into account. In addition, we wanted to investigate whether adolescents and adults may differ on this task.

What would this correspond to in real life? Anna is seating in class trying to remember what the teacher said about tonight’s homework. At the same time her friend Sophie is talking to her about a common friend, Dana, who has a secret only Anna knows. In this situation, akin to multitasking,  Anna may forget the homework instruction or spill out Dana’s secret, because her working memory system has been overloaded.

Thirty-three female adolescents (11-17 years old) and 28 female adults (22-30 years old) took part in a variant of the Director task. Between each instruction given by the director, either one or three double-digits numbers were presented to the participants and they were asked to remember them.

Overall, adolescents were less accurate than adults on the number task and the Director task (combined, in a single “multitasking” measure) when they had to remember three numbers compared to one number. In addition, all participants were found to be slower to respond when the perspective of the director differed from their own and when their working memory was loaded with three numbers compared to one number, suggesting that multitasking may impact our social interactions.

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*Image caption: Presentation of multitasking paradigm (image published in Royal Society Open Science paper). For each trial, participants were first presented with either (a) one two-digit number (low load) or (b) three two-digit numbers (high load) for 3 s. Then participants were presented with the Director Task stimuli, which included a social (c) and non-social control condition (d). In this example, participants hear the instruction: ‘Move the large ball up’ in either a male or a female voice. If the voice is female, the correct object to move is the basketball, because in the DP condition the female director is standing in front of the shelves and can see all the objects, and in the DA condition, the absence of a red X on the grey box below the ‘F’ indicate that all objects can be moved by the participant. If the voice is male, the correct object to move is the football, because in the DP condition the male director is standing behind the shelves and therefore cannot see the larger basketball in the covered slot, and in the DA condition the red X over the grey box below the ‘M’ indicates that no objects in front of a grey background can be moved. After selecting an object in the Director Task, participants were presented with a display of two numbers, one of which corresponding to the only number (e) or one of the three numbers (f), shown to them at the beginning of the trial. Participants were instructed to click on the number they remembered being shown at the beginning of the trial.

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Structured Mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court

This post was contributed by researchers Jessica Jacobson, Gillian Hunter and Amy Kirby from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), School of Law at Birkbeck discuss a recent collaboration with the Criminal Justice Alliance an organisation which works in partnership with 90 member organisations to promote better outcomes across the criminal justice pathway.

Structured-Mayhem-webStructured mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court, is a digest of our research into what it is like to attend Crown Court as a victim, witness or defendant published in full earlier this year as Inside Crown Court (Policy Press).

The Digest describes the elaborate, ritualised and in many respects archaic nature of proceedings in the Crown Court, highlighting how these proceedings can be bewildering and alienating for victims, witnesses and defendants alike. The title of the Digest, Structured Mayhem, conveys the often chaotic nature of the criminal trial and other court hearings, and the inherent challenges involved in seeing a case through to completion. Trials often have a large cast of characters, which must be brought together along with vast documentation and a range of evidence in various forms including video or audio recordings and physical artefacts. Things often go wrong, and delays and adjournments are commonplace.

Participating in the court process

Court proceedings are highly theatrical; but these are dramas within which the legal professionals – particularly the prosecution and defence counsel – playing the starring roles, while the victims, witnesses and defendants having only minor parts. And if victims and witnesses occupy a walk-on role in proceedings, defendants could be said to take on the part of ‘ever-present extras’. Rather than being the focus of events, they often appear to be the least important characters at court: almost incidental to the proceedings that, in fact, largely revolve around them. One manifestation of this paradoxically central but marginal status in court is a marked passivity on the part of many defendants towards being in court. This passivity, which was frequently expressed in our research interviews, runs counter to the widely established principle in law that, in order to exercise fully their right to a fair trial, defendants should be able to participate effectively in the court process.

We have blogged previously about the often stressful and disaffecting experiences of Crown Court reported by victims and witnesses and also about the range of initiatives that have been introduced over recent years to help them at court. Examples include the introduction of the Witness Service, whose volunteers provide support to those giving evidence, and the ‘special measures’ made available for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, including being permitted to give evidence from behind a screen or via a videolink. Provision for vulnerable defendants is less extensive than that for vulnerable witnesses, but it is increasingly accepted that their ‘effective participation’ in the court process often depends on adequate support and practical adaptations.

What needs to be done to improve participation?

Structured Mayhem includes a series of recommendations from the Criminal Justice Alliance for the Ministry of Justice, HM Courts and Tribunals Service and other agencies, which are aimed at improving the experience of all court users and enhancing the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.

The recommendations include ensuring equivalence of provision of ‘special measures’ across all groups of court users; promoting the use of ‘plain English’ by professionals at court, and explanation of technical terms, to aid victims’, witnesses’ and defendants’ understanding of what is going on; greater use of restorative justice approaches to further offenders’ opportunities to take responsibility for their offending behaviour and to engage with the court process; and use of the dock during court hearings – which isolates defendants and further alienates them from proceedings – on a discretionary basis only, where the judge deems it necessary for reasons of safety.

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Discover Our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Heike Bauer of the Department of English and Humanities writes about her current research activity.

Dr Heike Bauer

Dr Heike Bauer

What is your current topic of research?

I’m working on an AHRC-funded book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. It examines how attack and persecution shaped the development of a collective sense of same-sex identity in the first half of the twentieth-century

Why did you choose this topic?

The book addresses a gap in the scholarship: the realization that, while we know of many lives which have ended tragically as a result of legal persecution, violent attack or the inability to cope with heteronormative social and emotional pressures, we know surprisingly little about the traumatic impact of these deaths on the shaping of modern queer culture.

I have come to this realization via a chance encounter in the archive. In my previous book, English Literary Sexology, I explored the emergence a modern vocabulary of sex – words such as homosexuality and heterosexuality – and how the new ideas were transmitted from German science into English literary culture.

It was during the completion of this project that I first came across the work of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a hugely influential Jewish doctor and reformer. He is best known today for his homosexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin in 1919. I found, however, that Hirschfeld was also a chronicler of hate and violence against people who were figured to be, in his words, ‘different from the others’ because of their gender or sexual desire.

He wrote, for instance, about the trial and death of Oscar Wilde, and how it affected the men who identified with Wilde; and he collected the first statistical figures on female and male homosexual suicide, arguing that persecution and social denial played a significant role in why (some of these) people felt their lives were unliveable. The realisation that these writings have yet to be explored was the starting point for The Hirschfeld Archives.

What excites you about this topic?

This is the first study to examine narratives about queer death, suicide and injury for the insights they provide into how such suffering was understood at the time. There is a thrill – as well as a sense of responsibility – in working with texts and images that have been overlooked or forgotten.

What is challenging about the research?

Arguing that negative experiences, as much as affirmative politics and subculture formation, shaped modern queer culture, the book addresses a critical paradox: that despite political gains and related social transformations, queer lives all too often remain precarious, subject to attack and rejection, because they do not fit real and imagined norms about what it means to live in a certain time and place, and in a body whose gender and desires challenge powerful but often difficult-to-bring-into-view social norms. The challenge in presenting this research is to make sure that it cannot be misconstrued: just because there is violence in queer history does not mean that queerness equates misery. You might be surprised about how important it is even today to be clear about this point.

What is your favourite thing about your work?

The history of sexuality is today a thriving academic field. I come to it from a feminist perspective and a background in literary and culture studies. I enjoy being able to test and develop my ideas in dialogue with colleagues from other disciplines. My most recent book, for example, a collection of essays entitled Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World, brings together literary scholars, historians, translation scholars and experts in gender studies who work on sexual cultures in Europe, Peru, Asia, and the Middle East. It is a real privilege to be part of such collaborations. I similarly enjoy working with my PhD students, and supporting the development of projects that can make a real intervention in existing scholarship.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

The humanities are vital to making sense of the world, laying bare the often hidden norms that govern society, and critically and creatively expanding not only what (we think) we know, but also how we know it, and to what the effect. In terms of my own project, there are obvious benefits to developing a better understanding of LGBTIQ history. As part of the AHRC Fellowship, for instance, I discussed my research with health professionals in a workshop on violence in queer and trans lives. But as the research comes to a close, I think it’s fitting to turn around the question and also consider the impact of everyday life on my research. Discussing work-in-progress with non-academic audiences has been a vital part of the development of this project, challenging me to be clearer about the claims I made, and reminding me that the sorrows and joys of queer history are very much alive today.

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Researching reading: Behind Dickens Day 2015

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Winyard has been a co-organiser of Birkbeck’s Dickens Day event since 2005, and is one of the organisers behind the current Dickens reading project at the College

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Birkbeck is a world-renowned centre for Dickens studies and, over the past 40 years, it has nurtured, trained and housed some of the most luminary Dickensian scholars.

In 1986, the preeminent Dickens scholar Michael Slater, now Emeritus Professor, established Dickens Day, a one-day event at Birkbeck to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836). Birkbeck contained no less than four distinguished Dickensians scholars at the time – Steven Connor, Barbara Hardy, Andrew Sanders and Michael Slater – so a day to celebrate and discuss all things Dickensian was a natural proposition.

The enduring format of the Day – scholars and aficionados speaking to a general and academic audience, rounded off with dramatised readings – was established from the outset and, following the first Day’s success, an Oliver Twist day followed in 1987 with proceeding events considering each of Dickens’s novels in chronological order. After we reached The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens’s last, semi-completed novel), the format shifted to a thematic one and we have since considered themes as diverse as history, popular culture, conviviality, feeling, science and adaptations of Dickens’s work.

Now in its 29th year, Dickens Day continues to attract a uniquely mixed audience of high-profile academics, researchers, students at all levels of study, members of the Dickens Fellowship, and enthusiasts and fans. The Day, which is now jointly run by Birkbeck, the University of Cardiff and the Dickens Fellowship, is well known for its convivial, welcoming atmosphere; postgraduate students and early career academics, in particular, are warmly invited to submit paper proposals.

Dickens Day 2015 — Reading

This year’s event will look at reading and readers in Dickens’s work, a fruitful subject considering how often the act of reading, and its associated objects – books, newspapers, diaries, and all manner of printed material, from wills to adverts, playbills to tailors’ bills – occur in Dickens’s novels.

Reading is a powerful, transformative experience in Dickens – for good and bad. We might consider, for example, David Copperfield’s lonely devouring of the eighteenth-century epistolary and picaresque novels of Fielding, Smollett and Stern. David says of his childhood that ‘reading was my only and my constant comfort’, a source of emotional succour and nurturing in an emotional stultifying household, run with domineering cruelty by David’s loathsome stepfather Mr Murdstone.

For Oliver Twist, though, reading the Newgate Calendar, with its gothic, melodramatic and fantastically bloodthirsty tales of criminal violence, has disturbing physiological effects, with the pages turning red with gore and its words ringing in his ears.

There are more touching, tutelary scenes of reading, though, in Great Expectations, when Pip patiently teaches illiterate, gentle-hearted Joe to read. Other novels, such as Bleak House, are absolutely stuffed with paper and the paraphernalia of reading: think of the hoarder Krook, almost buried alive by the piles of scrap paper he obsessively collects (he isn’t killed by his tottering piles of paper, but instead spontaneously combusts); or the law-stationery shop of Mr Snagsby; or the endless bundles of papers relating to the interminable case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. More humorously, we might consider Mr Pickwick’s innocent request to his landlady, Mrs Bardell, for ‘Chops and Tomata sauce’ for dinner, which is deliberately misread as risqué and salacious during his trial for breach of promise to marry her.

Our Mutual Friend — Reading project

BookReading Dickens also had a profound effect on his readers and the theme for this year’s Dickens Day was chosen because it dovetails with a reading experiment at Birkbeck, which has been following Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) in its original monthly parts from April 2014 to November 2015.

Our Mutual Friend also contains fascinating scenes of reading: we might think of the bitter, mercenary Silas Wegg, posing as a man of letters and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall aloud to the kind-hearted, illiterate Noddy Boffin, who wishes to improve himself after coming into fortunate possession of the lucrative dust heaps at the heart of the novel’s symbolic economy; or Bella Wilfer, newly married, perplexedly pouring over manuals of domestic management and cookery.

Each month, we read a digital scan of the original monthly part, while an accompanying WordPress blog features a guest post and acts as a virtual reading group for any readers to contribute to. All of Dickens’s novels were serialised and his readers encountered his work in a variety of formats. Our Mutual Friend was published in nineteen monthly parts of thirty-two pages, each costing one shilling, and featuring two illustrations by Marcus Stone and, astonishingly, over seventy pages of advertisements.

Multimedia Dickens

Dickens continued to innovate and experiment in what we might call multimedia publishing, issuing his novels within the pages of journals, in weekly and monthly parts, and in single volume form. As Dickens’s novels are increasing made available online in their original formats, digitalisation constitutes another multimedia mode of disseminating Dickens to a mass audience, to accompany the Victorian formats and the cinematic, televisual, and radio adaptations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Dickens’s readers have always consumed his work in a variety of media formats, with new technologies of reproduction, circulation and broadcasting disseminating Dickens’s stories to new readers.

We also know that Dickens enjoyed, and worked hard to deepen and cultivate, a special, intense, and transformative relationship with his readers. Consider, for example, his famous public readings, which he partly undertook for financial reasons, but also to strengthen the close bond he felt with his readers.

For Dickens, fiction enacted the radical potential of imaginative work to create sympathy and build and strengthen the emotional and social bonds that bind together disparate peoples. Events such as Dickens Day, and projects such as the Our Mutual Friend reading experiment, testify to the continued ability of Dickens’s novels to bring people together and forge communities.

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