What’s in a face? Birkbeck researchers delve into what facial expressions reveal


Birkbeck scientists in residence at the Science Museum have recently run a live experiment with members of the public, to discover how much we understand about people simply by looking at their faces. Two members of the team report on their experiences.  

Ines Mares, postdoctoral research assistant in the Department of Psychological Sciences: As humans, we possess the remarkable ability to extract a wealth of information from even a brief glance at a face: we can identify people, judge the emotion they are feeling, assign character traits (rightly or wrongly), and in doing so, continue to thrive as a social species. Because faces are so interesting and processing them well is so important to us as humans, they made an ideal topic to explore in the context of the Science Museum’s ‘Live Science’ initiative.

In the Science Museum we ran a series of experiments to understand what factors make faces more rewarding or appealing – such as how attractive they were, the emotions they were displaying or how old the faces were. We were especially interested to see how these judgements related to our ability to recognise faces, and to see how our results would change for younger and older participants (our experiments tested children from five years of age to adults of almost 90!).

Dr Ines Mares explains the experiment to a participant.

Dr Ines Mares explains the experiment to a participant. 

“This was a great opportunity for us to engage directly with people and discuss the type of research we do and the questions that motivate us. It is also a unique chance to reach out and test a much more diverse set of people than we are conventionally able to do, with anyone aged from five to 105 invited to take part in our studies.”

Dr Marie Smith, Senior Lecturer, Lead Scientist with Dr Louise Ewing (UEA) and Professor Anne Richards (Birkbeck)

Conducting this type of study, in which we focused so closely on individual differences with such a broad audience was outstanding.  It was a unique opportunity to interact with people from very different backgrounds and ages – something that can be challenging to do in the university labs.

To begin with, we were concerned about people’s willingness to take part in our experiments, but after the first day at the museum we understood that people were interested in being involved and actually wanted to know more about our hypothesis and what motivated us to do this type of work. It was an amazing chance to discuss these topics with members of the public and get feedback on our work directly from them. Initially this idea seemed quite daunting to me, but I ended up loving it, since the majority of people who took part in our experiments (and we had almost 2500 participants) were really motivated and interested to know more – not only about face processing, but also about other aspects of science in general.

Being part of a team running experiments in the Science Museum was an amazing opportunity.  Without a doubt, I would repeat this experience, not only because of the amazing breadth of data we were able to collect, but also because of the opportunity it gave us as researchers to disseminate our work and discuss science in general.


Professor Anne Richards explains the purpose of our study to an interested volunteer. 

Michael Papasavva, PhD student in the Department of Psychological SciencesEven when working in a hub-science such as psychology, lab life can become monotonous. Surrounded by friends and colleagues who share similar views and challenges, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the bubble of academia.

Michael Papasavva signs up another keen volunteer!

Michael Papasavva signs up another keen volunteer! 

I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to get out of the lab and be a scientist in residence at the London Science Museum. This prospect invoked childhood memories of navigating this huge and stimulating environment on school trips and family days out; I knew that the experience was going to be awesome (in the nerdiest way possible).

Working as part of a team of 12 researchers, we ran experiments in the ‘Who Am I? Gallery.’ This is perhaps one of the more interesting areas of the museum; the space houses visiting scientists from various disciplines and facilitates their research. Members of the public are free to wander over and volunteer to participate in experiments (or query the location of the toilets or dinosaurs). Our team conducted a range of different face processing experiments that examined the role of development and individual difference on face memory and emotion processing. By the end of the residency, almost 2500 people had participated (832 children, 1487 adults), creating masses of data for us to explore once we were back in the lab.

In addition to generating novel information, it’s the responsibility of a scientist to disseminate that knowledge to the wider public. Our residency provided us with an opportunity to engage with a very wide demographic. I must admit, it was heart-warming to see our younger participants having so much fun with the masks and games we had set up to help draw in the crowds and that so many of our  older participants chose to stay back to discuss our project with us. People genuinely enjoyed giving back to science.

I would strongly recommend the Live Science project.

Photo credits: Science Museum Group Collection

The full science museum team: Dr Marie Smith (Senior Lecturer, Birkbeck), Professor Anne Richards (Birkbeck), Dr Louise Ewing (Lecturer, University of East Anglia), Dr Ines Mares (Post-doc, Birkbeck), Michael Papasavva (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Alex Hartigan (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Gurmukh Panesar (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Laura Lennuyeux-Comnene (RA, Birkbeck), Michaela Rae (RA, Goldsmiths College), Kathryn Bates (MSc student, Birkbeck), Susan Scrimgeour (MSc student, Birkbeck), Jay White (Intern, UCL Institute of Education).

Further information:

Training attentional control improves cognitive and motor task performance

This post was contributed by Emmanuel Ducrocq, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. It is about a paper based on research he and his supervisor (Professor Naz Derakhshan) did in collaboration with Dr Mark Wilson and Dr Samuel Vine, and which is published today in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Emmanuel tweets at @manuduc and Professor Derakhshan at @ProfNDerakshan

tennis-player-676310Successful performance in sports is usually evaluated in terms of technical, tactical or physical abilities. However a crucial index of performance is the ability to perform under stress and high pressured situations. This is especially relevant sports demanding a high level of attention, such as tennis, golf, archery or shooting.

Recent research in sports psychology has shown that a key factor responsible for poor performance in sports under pressure is the inability to focus on what needs to be done and reduce distraction. This is often referred to as attentional control: the ability to resist distraction and attend to task goals efficiently. If athletes can’t exercise attentional control efficiently then they cannot plan and execute a skilled movement flexibly. The pressure to perform well, increases anxiety and so maintaining attention focus on task goals becomes exceptionally challenging giving way to worries, and doubts about performance  as well.

Attentional control has usually been targeted in sports by trying to promote specific gaze behaviours which has proven to show benefits to motor performance in sporting tasks such as golf or basketball. Crucially though, while this method is useful, it hasn’t been able to identify the underlying mechanisms responsible for sports improvement.

In a series of three exciting studies we wanted to improve motor task performance and we specifically focussed on tennis, which requires good attentional control to flexibly resist distraction. To this end, we trained inhibitory control using a computer-based training task to see how it could improve performance in a tennis task.

In the first experiment, participants were allocated to a training or control group and underwent six days of training on a visual search task that included task-irrelevant distractors requiring inhibition (training) or contained no distractors (control). Performance was measured pre- and post-intervention using an antisaccade task measuring distractibility. We found that training elicited a near-transfer effect; as performance on the antisaccade task was improved in the training group, and not in the control group. This was important to establish, as it showed that training on the visual search task could improve inhibition on another unrelated task.

In the second experiment training on the same paradigm showed transfer benefits on an attentional control index that we validated for tennis performance. Tennis players were assessed on a return of serves task and we found an initial far-transfer effect of training. Participants in the training group displayed an enhanced ability to focus on the ball around the time of contact with the ball.

The third experiment pushed the boundaries of this work further by assessing the potential effect of the training task on an objective gaze measures of inhibitory control during performance of a tennis task. Participants’ pre and post intervention performance was assessed on a volleying task performed under pressure while their gaze behaviour was recorded. We found a substantial effect of training on tennis performance when levels of pressure were elevated. Transfer effects of training were also observed on a specific gaze behaviour index of ‘inhibition’ in the field, confirming the mechanism by which training protected participants against the negative impact of anxiety.

Taken together, we have shown that a simple computer-based training task that reduces distraction and improves attentional control can have direct transfer benefits to tennis performance under pressure. This can obviously have great implications for improving motor performance in any competitive sport that needs to be performed under pressure.

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Make fear your friend

This post was contributed by Professor Naz Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences


“Fear is often thought of as a negative emotion, but a new idea in psychology suggests that using it the right way can turn it into an incredibly positive force in your life.”


So starts a three page health feature article in the February edition of Top Sante. Showcasing the expertise of Birkbeck’s Prof Naz Derakhshan, the article posits that  fear can be turned into a positive force in our lives – all we need to do is listen to it, trust in it, and learn from it. In other words, we need to befriend it.

“Instead of thinking of fear solely as a negative emotion, embrace it as an
important warning system,’ says Professor Derakhshan in the article. “Being afraid of something is a signal that its consequence is important to you so it should be attended to.”
Click below to read the full piece, which includes some handy tips on how to welcome fear as a positive friend in your life, and how to ultimately become its boss.
Make Fear Your Friend - page 1 (article copyright of Top Sante)

Make Fear Your Friend – page 1 (article copyright of Top Sante)


Make Fear Your Friend - page 2 (article copyright of Top Sante)

Make Fear Your Friend – page 2 (article copyright of Top Sante)


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Improving attentional control to reduce anxiety

This post was contributed by Prof Nazanin Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. Here, Prof Derakhshan describes her most recent study into how our cognitive flexibility can be trained and boosted to protect against the effects of anxiety

Anxiety-webAnxiety can be a debilitative emotion that can adversely affect our performance. For example, it is common for individuals with high levels of anxiety to worry excessively about a variety of issues ranging from their performance on upcoming examinations, job interviews, attending meetings, and giving talks to multi-tasking and managing everyday activities efficiently.

According to the WHO (World Health Organisation) anxiety (and depression) will be the biggest cause of disability worldwide by 2025. People with high anxiety frequently report that they have difficulty concentrating on tasks that need undivided attention and are easily distracted. It goes without saying that the implications of anxiety’s effects on our everyday activities as well as on the challenging tasks demanding our attention are vast.

Unfortunately, anxious individuals remain at a disadvantage of getting stuck in a viral chain of worries and over-thinking, consequently needing to invest more effort as compensation to their worries in getting tasks done (see Berggren & Derakshan, 2013, for a review).

How can we explain the nature of the relationship between anxiety and performance?

In a theoretical breakthrough, we have proposed earlier (see Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos & Calvo, 2007; Derakshan & Eysenck, 2009) that a central mechanism by which anxiety impairs performance is via its adverse effects on attentional control. Attentional control is an important function of our working memory, a system that regulates incoming information and helps with temporary storage of information.

Attentional control or cognitive flexibility directs our attention towards what is relevant and away from what is irrelevant. Attentional control is thus a vital ingredient of our lives, it helps us be cognitively flexible, concentrate on tasks and resist distracting thoughts/information when we need to. When we have poor attentional control we become inefficient and can do badly in tasks; we can’t keep worries at bay, and get trapped in cycles of over-thinking that can hold us back from performing well. There is now substantial evidence to support the prediction that anxiety impairs performance via its impact on attentional control (see Berggren et al., 2013).

How can we reduce the effects of anxiety on performance?

If attentional control is a causal mechanism that can explain anxiety’s effects on performance then it can be trained and boosted to protect against the effects of anxiety on performance. In the current study, which will be published in the journal Biological Psychology, we asked participants with a high anxiety disposition to train on an adaptive cognitive task for a period of 15 days over three weeks, for half an hour every day, and all training was performed online.

The special thing about the training protocol is the adaptive nature of the task that increases and decreases in difficulty based on participant performance levels. Elsewhere, we have shown that training on this task improves attentional control in subclinical depression (see Owens, Koster & Derakshan, 2013; see also our BBCR4 programme on How to Have a Better Brain.

In the current study, we assessed participants’ levels of attentional control using a number of tasks measuring distractibility (e.g. a flanker task that was performed under stressful and non-stressful conditions), an antisaccade task measuring inhibition of threatening faces and resting state attentional control using electrophysiological measures. Participants completed these tasks before and after the intervention. We also had a control group who performed a non-adaptive version of the training.

Did training improve attentional control?

Graph from Prof Derakhshan's current study showing changes in anxiety as a function of engagement with training

Graph from Prof Derakhshan’s current study showing changes in anxiety as a function of engagement with training

Our results showed that those undergoing adaptive training compared with the control group showed greater transferability of training related gains onto attentional control measures. Specifically, they were better at inhibiting distractors in the flanker task, and this superiority was especially apparent when stressed, i.e. they could exercise attentional control much better than the control group when they were under stress.

The training group also had better resting state attentional control compared with the control group. Importantly, engagement with training as shown by improvement on the training task, from first to last day of training, correlated with reductions in anxiety levels after the intervention relative to before the intervention. This meant that those who improved more on the training task had lower levels of anxiety vulnerability after training.

Why are the results of the current study important?

The most important message here is that attentional control can be trained with transferrable effects on unrelated tasks measuring relevant cognitive functions such as distractibility, inhibition, and concentration in individuals suffering from high levels of anxiety. Furthermore, our findings showed that improving attentional control can reduce anxiety in individuals with an anxious predisposition.

They also attest to the causal mechanism of attentional control protecting against anxiety vulnerability especially under stress. The implications of improving attentional control are enormous in education and clinical science. Targeting and training working memory using adaptive tasks that exercise attentional control holds the potential to protect against longer term under-achievement in anxious pupils. It can also protect against the development of clinical anxiety which can be debilitative to the individual.

How can the current study be extended?

There are a few ways in which future research can build upon the current findings. First, if attentional control training shows promise to increase processing efficiency then it can be used as an adjunct to traditional therapies such as mindfulness and CBT that rely on pre-frontal functions such as concentration and attention focus.

Second, it is essential to examine the sustainability of the effects of adaptive cognitive training on performance and anxiety vulnerability and get an indication of how training effects consolidate with the environment over time. How are behaviours changed? Finally, it seems essential from a clinical point of view to look at how training can impact on a person’s quality of life and levels of resilience throughout time.

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