Birkbeck’s BabyLab: Investigating neural underpinnings of the social brain

Anna Kolesnik, PhD candidate in Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) discusses the research in motion at the BabyLab, and why we’re crowdfunding to extend this research to toddlers.

How do babies become experts at processing the social world? Can we identify early neural correlates of this specialisation?

Previous investigations carried out at the BabyLab have explored rhythmic activity in the brain in response to social stimuli, finding evidence for early specialisation to faces and gaze as early as 4 months of age. Throughout the second half of the first year, we have seen evidence for increased perceptual narrowing in several aspects of cognition, allowing more efficient processing of incoming information. We also know that by age 2-3 years, toddlers become experts at navigating the social world and tune their attention to relevant information sources. This is also the time where first behavioural symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism emerge. Majority of our current understanding comes from cross-sectional research, which captures a ‘snap-shot’ in development. Here at the BabyLab, we want to study the early years continuously, which will increase our ability to identify and propose intervention strategies for infants at risk.  

GAmma and Brain-Based LanguagE Specialization study (GABBLES)
As part of my PhD project, I am running a longitudinal study with typically developing infants which aims to understand the neural basis of auditory and intercessory processing in the first year of life by examining changes in rhythmic neural activity in the brain. Using the predictions set out by Professor Mark Johnson’s ‘Interactive Specialisation’ framework, one of the leading theories of development in the field, we hope to isolate the fundamental sensory processes which precede the infants’ first words

Families with 5-month-old infants were recruited to take part in the study at the BabyLab in the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, with additional visits at 10 and 14 months. Fourteen babies form a subgroup of bilinguals, as they are exposed to a language other than English for a significant time. The testing protocol included tasks to evoke oscillatory activity in auditory and visual areas of the brain (which we record from passive sensors placed on the baby’s head). They also completed an eye-tracking session, which measured several aspects of pre-verbal language development and comprehension– including word recognition, language preference, and syllable matching tasks. These were accompanied by a standardised assessment of the infant’s cognitive and motor abilities. After the three visits were complete, parents were asked to complete questionnaires on their child’s behaviour, language and sleep until their children turn 2 years. Currently, data collection is almost complete and our lovely participants are entering toddlerhood.

Future directions
At present time, we are only able to collect parent-report questionnaires about language and social abilities of their toddlers. In some ways, this is useful as we can capture some individual differences in development on a behavioural level (i.e. language experience and vocabulary), and then go back and look at possible biomarkers (activation to a native vowel or attention to native/non-native speakers). Being able to follow up these children using wireless technology once they are verbal and actively engaging with the outside world would provide enormously rich insight into how our early brain specialisation affects later functional development. Further, we may be able to identify critical periods of maturation and change in order to generate the most effective interventions and improve outcomes in children with autism.

We are aiming to secure £30,000 in donations for the equipment for the new ToddlerLab. If you are interested in donating and contributing to the centre’s crucial research into children’s development, please see our crowdfunding campaign page.

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Picturing the family: media, narrative, memory

Dr Silke Arnold-De Simine, Reader in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, discusses family photographs and cultural memory – the subject matter of her new book, co-edited with Dr Joanne Leal.

In the summer of 2005, during a Visiting Fellowship at the ANU in Canberra, I came across a rather eerie notice in a display cabinet of a small campus exhibition only to see it again and again in the following weeks at the beginning of television programmes and cinema screenings. It advised spectators to ‘use caution viewing these photographs/films, as they may contain images or voices of dead persons’. At first I was puzzled but then I came to understand that in aboriginal society, where people traditionally live in extended family groups, it is considered a taboo to refer to a dead person by name or to look at photographs or film footage of the deceased, partly out of respect but also to avoid painful memories.

As a scholar I was of course reminded of Roland Barthes’s iconic winter garden photograph of his late mother as a young girl, which he famously describes but refuses to share with his readers, and of W.G. Sebald’s omissions in his books, in which family photographs – some reproduced as actual images, some only described – conjure up a mournful mood. What makes photographically captured moments so powerful that they stay with us as a form of ‘afterimage’ even if they have been evoked in another medium such as language? It made me think about what difference it makes if we remember through language, through images, both still or moving, or a combination of mimetic and non-mimetic representations. While it draws out questions around mediated memory, the affective power of photography and the related tropes of death, loss and mourning, my Australian experience was also a stark reminder of the historical and cultural specificity of our encounters with photographs.

The contexts in which we peruse family photographs can be marked as a sad occasion (for example after the death of a family member) or a joyous moment in life (celebrations, birthdays or anniversaries). The viewing experience will not only be influenced by what is depicted and by the occasion that triggers a re-viewing, but also by the formats in which these images are available to us. Are they carefully collected and even annotated in a family album, stored away in shoeboxes or (half-)forgotten in attics? Or are these records of cherished or important moments at our fingertips on camera phones to be shown to a wide circle of acquaintances? Are they framed and on display in homes or in (semi-)public spaces such as social media or archived and exhibited in museums? Do they circulate across different media? Have they gone through a period of being lost, together with the identity of those depicted, to resurface in archives, junk shops or eBay auctions?

If the photographs or photo albums have been displaced and the oral forms of communication which accrue around them have been lost, if they themselves have no annotations or captions, they can be full of mysteries and invite imaginative investment: not only the questions of who and what the photograph shows, but also why, how, where and when it was taken are open to speculation. Who is behind the camera lens? Who do these people in the photograph look at, smile at, frown at? Once they have forfeited their function as family memento, family photographs can lead a complicated after-life in which they become decontextualised and recontextualised, triggering and shaping memories, inviting storytelling, helping us negotiate the past and the future, deconstructing and reconstructing notions of family, kinship and community, and helping us cope with ruptures and (re)establish connections and elective affinities in empathic encounters.

It is important to remember that we perform our identities in relation to the cultural contexts that shape who we are. How we practice intimacy and share our lives with others is determined by the very specific family dynamics in which we grew up, just as much as it depends on the media technologies that are at our fingertips, but it is also historically and culturally contingent. The boundaries between what is considered private and what can be shared with a wider public have experienced a seismic shift over the last few decades: from chat shows and reality TV to social media, blogs and YouTube, ‘sharing’ has become part of how we define our identity as connected beings. We are encouraged to connect to ‘Others’ through empathy, a feeling of relatability that is very much modelled on the notion of kinship and just as often limited by it.

With the increased mobility of people across the globe and the encounters resulting from this, it becomes more and more necessary to question what we mean by ‘family’, ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, to reconceive these concepts so that they enable us to understand and come to terms with the complex realities that we will have to face and to enable us to build alternative modes of social belonging and new forms of community.

These are some of the themes that are explored in this collection of essays (edited by myself and Joanne Leal) that introduces a dialogue between academic, creative and practice-based approaches. From the act of revisiting and reworking old, personal photographs to the sale of family albums through internet auction, each of the twelve chapters presents a case study to understand how these visual representations of the family perform memory and identity.

Picturing the Family is available from Bloomsbury. 

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Crime and global justice: the dynamics of international punishment

Daniele Archibugi, Professor of Innovation, Governance and Public Policy at Birkbeck, and Alice Pease, a researcher working on a modern slavery campaign, discuss a new system of global criminal justice which has emerged over the last quarter of a century, and which they have written about further in their new book.

The Hague, International Criminal Court

International criminal justice is still sailing in uncharted waters. At the end of 2017, after 24 years of activity, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) closed its doors after handing Ratko Mladić a life sentence and the spectacular live suicide of Slobodan Praljak. In 2018 we will celebrate – with little enthusiasm – the twentieth anniversary of the International Criminal Court. The great hopes that impunity of governors would have been contrasted by an emerging global justice have faded away. Where are we at? Our book tries to outline the strengths and weaknesses of the new international criminal justice system which emerged at the end of the Cold War, to identify its connection with the post-World War II tribunals established at Nuremberg and Tokyo and to explore how it could further help to protect human rights in the changing political contours of the twenty-first century.

Is international criminal justice an effective tool to prevent atrocities and to hold powerful politicians accountable? An assessment of what has, so far, been delivered by international criminal justice is highly unsatisfactory. Those indicted at the bar often appear to be mere scapegoats and seldom have the trials effectively contributed to reconciliation in areas devastated by civil wars. More seriously, some of these trials have been shows of power used by wars’ winners to discipline their opponents.

Is this motive enough to abandon altogether the idea of a supranational system of criminal justice? This is the core question addressed in our new book, Crime and Global Justice. Even if, so far, it has been highly selective, all the defendants judged by international trials have committed atrocious crimes. It is certainly true that many authors of international crimes are still at large, and far too many have not been targeted at all by any investigation. But the fact that the international judicial system is not able to incriminate all culprits is no justification for letting them all off the hook.

Saddam Hussein, who was hanged in 2006 after being convicted of crimes against humanity.

While much of the existing literature has addressed the issue by exploring the potentials of the judicial devices available, we have approached it from a different perspective, namely to look at a few spectacular trials with very different outcomes. We have tried to show that the incrimination of Augusto Pinochet by a Spanish judge helped Chilean society to face up to its own past. Judging Slobodan Milošević while ignoring the war crimes committed by NATO in its war versus Serbia showed instead how biased international justice could be. The conviction of Radovan Karadžić gave at least some solace to the victims of the civil war in the Balkans. The hanging of Saddam Hussein led to an explosion of sectarian violence in Iraq as well as in neighbouring countries and almost succeeded in transforming one of the most brutal dictators of the twentieth century into a martyr. The fact that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, after two warrants of arrests were issued in 2009 and 2010, is still firmly in control of Sudan has seriously discredited international justice.

We argue that so long as international criminal tribunals continue to operate in an inter-governmental logic, it will hardly be able to deliver its promises. Governments are providing the budget, selecting the judges, even providing the prisons for the few convicted and this seriously hampers the independence of the judicial power. The hope of a genuinely impartial judiciary will, therefore, rest on the ability of civil society around the world to pressure the official institutions through opinion tribunals, independent investigations, and by carefully watching the proceedings of the International Criminal Court.

The book makes ample reference to films and novels that have been inspired by controversies associated with the global criminal justice system. We hope very much that this wealth of non-academic sources will motivate students to engage with the question of global criminal accountability.

Crime and Global Justice: The Dynamics of International Punishment is available from Polity. 

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An archaeologist’s life (or how I learnt to love the pickaxe)

Dr Melissa Butcher from the Department of Geography discusses a recent trip to the Greek Island of Despotiko for her first experience of an archaeological excavation, ahead of Birkbeck’s new BA Archaeology & Geography, which launches this year.

Archaeologists at work

As a human geographer studying the complexities of contemporary urban cultures, I have the distinct advantage over my archaeological colleagues in that if I need to understand ‘why’ I can ask someone. I am immersed in a world of material objects that can be traced and described in real time. Yet the contemporary never escapes the markers of the past. Our present is a palimpsest: the uppermost layer of thousands of years of human history reflecting that which we think we are at this moment in time.

Working out how we got to be where we are today requires excavation, figurative and literal, and if you think the latter is all about fancy trowel work and air-brushes think again. If you want to be an archaeologist, learn to love your pick-axe and your wheelbarrow. This was my first lesson after accepting an invitation (or perhaps more accurately, pleading to be allowed to go) to spend a week at the Paros Ephorate of Antiquities’ excavation on the Greek Island of Despotiko, run by Yannos Kourayos and his assistant Ilia Daifa, with collaboration from Birkbeck.

The site itself constitutes the only activity on Despotiko apart from the resident shepherd and his goats (the team stays on the neighbouring islands of Antiparos and Paros). But its position in the centre of the Cyclades archipelago suggests some past importance in maritime trade in the Mediterranean, and ritual significance in the Archaic (6th century BCE) sanctuary, possibly dedicated to the Ancient Greek deities Apollo and Artemis, that has already been uncovered and reconstructed in parts.

The excavation site

The excavation is only open for six weeks each year to allow the team to work on the site, and they are joined by international undergraduate and postgraduate volunteer students from Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Spain, the USA, and the UK, including students from Birkbeck. Starting at 7.30am (ish) with a ferry ride to the site, it’s then pickaxes and shovels, with the occasional sweeping up of dirt, until lunch at 11.30am (ish). We finished by 3pm (ish) so there was always time for a swim in crystal clear blue water before the ferry ride back to Antiparos.

On paper, this may not sound like a particularly difficult schedule but any romantic visions I had of spending days delicately dusting off ancient finds were soon dispelled by a relentless sun and the head-to-toe film of dirt disseminated by a prevailing westerly, giving me my second important lesson: always stay up-wind of anyone with a shovel. The first layer of an archaeological dig is all spade work and shifting large rocks out of the way by hand. It is rare in an academic life that our labour makes us so tired we are in bed and asleep by 7pm, but then it’s also not often that you can have a solid piece of work done at the end of the day: to look at your trench and say ‘I did that’ is highly satisfying.

However, my third lesson in archaeology was understanding the difference between digging a trench and digging holes, the latter being very bad. Each layer of an excavation has to go down as evenly as possible and if that means leaving exposed ancient pottery on the surface then so be it until the next layer is removed. Each layer is photographed, and finds from that depth carefully bagged, cleaned, re-bagged and labelled so that the research team knows exactly which part of the excavation they came from. It is painstaking work most definitely not for the disorganised, and randomly digging out individual artefacts just disturbs the layers and creates confusion. But leaving pieces of pottery exposed for any length of time was for me like putting a chocolate bar within arm’s reach and saying ‘don’t touch’. It is an incredible feeling to hold something in your hands that is over 2500 years old and such did my obsession with digging up bits of amphorae become that I almost had my trowel confiscated and had to banish myself to the cleaning area for a day for my own good.

A sunset over St Georgios Antiparos

My love for pottery remains undiminished, perhaps because these battered shards of the everyday (cooking pots, water jugs, lamps) remind me of the continued importance of the quotidian in contemporary geographical research. They are part of the material record that tell us about our present, yet, given that we are ‘reading’ them thousands of years outside the context of their use, they also generate intrigue and controversy. In material artefacts, it is possible to see traces of trade, migration, war and civilizational collapse, but the pieces can’t always say why it happened.  The order in which artefacts are found and analysed can change how a site is understood. For example, if household pottery is found first and only later a major ritual shrine is unearthed, or vice versa, does that change how we view what happened? And along with the mundane are the mysteries: at my trench, we discovered an alignment of rocks that could have been a wall, or maybe not. Like detectives, the archaeologists tried to determine where it might begin and end, if it had collapsed, what may have been built on top of it. We needed to determine this before we started moving rocks around in case we accidentally removed a 2500-year-old structure. It is the archaeologist’s expertise, gained through years of digging trenches, reading the archives and debating the alternatives with colleagues, that brings back to life a pile of rubble that can give us some explanation of the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of ancient history.

If you are interested in excavating such questions, as well as contributing to the material history of human existence, explore our new BA Archaeology & Geography. Students will get the opportunity to work on Despotiko as well as our other excavation, the Buried Humanities Field School at Must Farm.

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