What the Thunder Said: theatre-based intervention for children who have witnessed violent events

Natasha KirkhamThis post was contributed by Dr Natasha Kirkham from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences.

In 2012, I took part in a research project looking into children’s reaction to witnessing violent events. Working with a playwright from Theatre Centre, I conducted workshops in 10 primary schools, located in areas with high levels of violence. The workshops fed into the writing of a new play, which then toured primary schools across the UK. We handed out questionnaires to the children and their teachers about  responses to and understanding of violent behaviour and bullying before and after seeing the play.

Until now, my research has been solidly experimental, investigating theories on attention and learning. This project opened my eyes to just how important it is for developmental scientists to get out of the lab and into the field, to shake up their methods, and to listen to individual children.  And to remind ourselves that development does not happen in a vacuum. These children were extraordinary – tough, interesting, heart-breaking, and funny – and all of them had thoughtful, strong opinions about the very real bullying in their environments. I learned about ‘circle of friends’ (peer-groups assigned to befriend and look out for each other), I learned about the role of humour in the lives of these children (both appropriate and inappropriate), and I learned how easily these children shift between reality and fantasy (seamlessly moving from laughing about parents in prison to discussing Xbox characters). Importantly, I learned that with bullying, ‘walking away’ does not always work.

This experience was personally and professionally cathartic for me, offering new insights into modern-day parenting, coping strategies (for children and teachers), and developmental resilience. Ultimately, it proved to me that a lot of our ideas about how to deal with bullying need to be re-worked.

We hope that the pre and post play surveys will show a significant shift in people’s perspective on community violence and the effects of bullying, and provide some evidence for theatre-based intervention in areas rife with violence and trouble.

Dr Kirkham’s review of her experience with this project was originally published in The Psychologist magazine.

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Why on earth study babies to get a better understanding of Alzheimer’s dementia in adults?

Annette 400 x 400This post was contributed by Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who will be delivering a paper on this topic at the International Conference on Infant Studies, which is taking place in Berlin from 3-5 July.

Together with my team at the Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, I am studying babies with Down syndrome to identify risk and protective factors for Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

Why babies, when it’s an adult disease?  And why Down syndrome?

During my Invited Address to the International Conference on Infant Studies (ICIS) in Berlin I will argue that it is vital to trace adult outcomes back to their origins in infancy if we are to understand the developmental trajectory of dementia.

Interestingly, Down syndrome lends itself well to such research because one of the genes implicated in the brain pathology of Alzheimer’s in adults, the APP gene, is situated on chromosome 21, so it is over-expressed in Down syndrome from the very start of development because babies with Down syndrome have three copies instead of two copies of the APP gene. All individuals with Down syndrome ultimately get the amyloid-beta plaques typical of Alzheimer’s brain pathology, yet not all of them get dementia in adulthood.  Why?  What protects some and what makes others vulnerable?

The fascinating challenge is to understand how combinations of effects at the genetic, cellular, neural, cognitive, behavioural and environmental levels contribute to these individual differences over developmental time. My talk will explain how the study of babies with Down syndrome may yield clues to protective and risk factors for Alzheimer’s.

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Other posts by Professor Karmiloff-Smith:

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Picturing the Family: Media, Narrative, Memory

This post was written by Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine, Senior Lecturer in Memory and Cultural Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of European Languages and Cultures. There will be a conference held at Birkbeck on 10-11 July on ‘Picturing the Family: Media, Narrative, Memory‘; and an exhibition in the Peltz Gallery from 3-25 July, entitled ‘Family Ties: Reframing Memory‘.

© Rosy Martin 'In Situ' - from the forthcoming Family Ties Exhibition at the Peltz Gallery

© Rosy Martin ‘In Situ’ will be on display at the forthcoming Family Ties Exhibition at the Peltz Gallery

The family is seen as a privileged site of memory transmission both in terms of the stories which are told and passed down the generations as communicative memory, but also in terms of the unspoken and unspeakable memories which are acted out in families and passed on to children without ever being acknowledged. Marianne Hirsch has introduced the concept of ‘postmemory’, something that Abraham and Torok describe as ‘transgenerational haunting’, the ‘phantom effects’ that haunt the children of parents who have lived through unprocessed traumatic events or repressed and shameful secrets. The concept of ‘transgenerational haunting’ is not simply extended to or replicated on a collective level when the history of the nation is seen through the paradigm of the family: shared phantoms can be externalised and become inscribed in cultural practices in an attempt to ‘relieve the unconscious by placing the effects of the phantom in the social realm’ (Abraham 1994: 176) – phantoms which were never restricted to individuals to begin with but only ever existed in an interpersonal and intergenerational dynamic.

In contemporary commemoration culture the family has become the central trope through which national history is framed. Around the centenary of the First World War we are faced with a remembrance culture which relies in all its scripted rituals, TV programming and exhibition planning on the input of the public who is made to feel that they are provided with a forum for their stories, their family’s personal memories, rather than a top-down version of events. A pan-European website, Europeana 1914-1918, promises untold stories alongside official histories of WW1 and includes digitized documents and film material from libraries and archives but also 90,000 personal papers and memorabilia of some 7,000 people involved in the war, held by their families and digitised at special events – so-called ‘crowdsourcing’ –  in 12 countries. It provides access to ‘memories and memorabilia from families throughout Europe’ and users are encouraged to ‘contribute [their] own family history’. That the trope of the family is used to naturalise national alliances is not particularly new, variations on the concepts of ‘fatherland’ or ‘motherland’ can be found in many different languages and cultures, and the institutions of the family and the nation are reaffirmed and reaffirm each other in that process. However, the unpredictability of family stories can also provide an unsettling element and when current European heads of state are given the ‘Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC 1, 2004-) treatment, the results can be difficult to incorporate into an official narrative.

Roughly a year ago the German media reported that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s grandfather, Ludwig Kasner (Kazmierczak), who had been of Polish origin but was drafted into the German Army in 1915, had – after becoming a prisoner of war – joined the Blue Army, a unit that fought for Polish independence on the side of the Entente Powers which meant that he probably took part in fighting against Germany. But rather than using this information against Merkel, the image conscious German press celebrated the fact that this made her the most favored foreign politician in Poland. Merkel’s Polish colleague Donald Tusk also had a ‘grandfather affair’ of his own and knows all to well about the pitfalls of the wrong family history when it comes to the conflicts of the twentieth century. During the national elections of 2005, surveys showed him clearly in the lead, but when it was revealed that his grandfather had fought in the German Wehrmacht he lost to the National-conservative party of Lech Kaczynski.

These examples show that ‘picturing the family’ is an activity that is clearly fraught with unexpected dangers and while it can be used as a conservative and stabilizing force it can also lead to a defamiliarisation of the past and ask uncomfortable questions about the ways we define our identities in ‘imagined communities’ (Benedikt Anderson).

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‘All they want is my money’; a relationship in crisis

This post was written by Dr Bruna Seu, from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies and Dr Shani Orgad from the LSE.

Donating Money To Charity‘All they want is my money.’ This is the most common rejoinder from participants in a UK nationwide study carried out between 2011 and 2014 by Birkbeck and LSE on public attitudes towards humanitarian and international development issues and responses to humanitarian communications.

The study found that we, the UK public, are emotionally responsive to humanitarian problems but we are also fatigued and disillusioned. Although people give generously to one-off appeals in response to natural disasters, they struggle with maintaining an on-going and meaningful connectedness with humanitarian and international development issues. This is a big problem for NGOs long-term work. Part of the problem is how humanitarian and international development crises are communicated to the public by NGOs. Financial pressure and increased competition within the field means that NGOs’ communications have become increasingly geared towards raising funds from the public via methods derived from advertisers and commercial retailers. Yet data shows that as soon as humanitarian communications are perceived as advertising the public switches off.

This predominantly fundraising-driven approach is proving detrimental. With the exception of humanitarian emergencies, the public is expressing widespread fatigue and resentment to being targeted solely as monetary donors. They resist engaging with the communications because they believe that ‘all they want is my money’. The public expect to and accept feeling sad and upset by humanitarian communications but too often they believe that NGOs manipulate their emotions in order to make them donate. We become desensitised and resentful towards NGOs, which leads us to further distance ourselves from humanitarian issues.

In order to decide what action we should take when faced with a humanitarian crisis of almost incomprehensible scale, such as the Syrian civil war, floods in the Philippines or the earthquake in Haiti, we need to be able to understand and contextualise the human suffering that they cause. NGOs can help us to do this by providing concise information which clearly sets out how our support can improve the lives of others. Rather than evoking an extreme emotional reaction, this information can be processed, managed and then used to consider what social responsibility we have towards these distant sufferers , as well as the humanitarian imperative to help and care for them.

Although the UK public respond overwhelmingly with compassion and empathy to the suffering of those affected by humanitarian crises, several factors prevent this emotional responsiveness from turning into action. When talking about helping distant sufferers, people think and respond as if the world were a small village and apply principles and practices of care they are familiar with. They want a relationship with those they are helping that is more ‘human’, close and embodied. They believe that sufferers ‘need more than money’, and overall doubt that their monetary donation will make any difference, particularly in the long term.

However, there is a clear discrepancy between the model offered by NGOs, and the one wished for by the public. This increases a sense of alienation between the public and distant sufferers as well as between the public and NGOs.

NGO communications and fundraising professionals in humanitarian and international development believe that the UK public trust them and view their work as valuable, but the Birkbeck/LSE study found that the public overall distrust and resent NGOs for behaving as a business.

If NGOs want a more sustainable relationship with the public, it is essential that they revisit their view of the public, to one predicated on understanding of and respect for the psychosocial complexities of the public’s responses – how we understand, process and emotionally respond to humanitarian causes, and what moral principles govern our responses.

It is urgent that both governmental and non-governmental organisations reflect on their current practices and make a concerted effort to foster and sustain public’s connectedness with humanitarian issues if they wish to create a civil society, where the public feels connected to and globally responsible to others. NGOS need to invest in rebuilding trust with the UK public, by complementing the interest and efforts geared at making the public donate, with a better understanding of how to evoke and enable appropriate emotions, foster understanding by providing manageable information, and offer possible actions which correspond with practices of care the public is familiar with.

NGOs can support connectedness between the public and humanitarian causes which is sustainable over time but it will require a reassessment of how they conceive of, interact with, and communicate to the public.

The findings from the project were discussed at the ‘Caring in crisis?’ colloquium, held at Birkbeck on 7 June 2014. Listen to the podcasts of the colloquium.

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