Agonists – what are they?

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Biological psychology has come to the fore over the past years.  The mapping of the human genome combined with improved brain-scanning techniques has meant that the biological correlation to psychological conditions is more easily identifiable, and it is clear that many mental disorders like major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia are explainable through a gene x environment interaction.  This usually means that an inherited genetic pre-disposition to a disorder, or a certain behaviour or addiction is triggered environmentally.

Talking of genes takes us to neurotransmitters.  How? Genes make proteins which make neurotransmitters and genes also transport neurotransmitters across the synapse. (See Caspi et al._2003 and the 5HTTR serotonin transporter gene).  Neurotransmitters are agonists –they bind with receptor sites on the post-synaptic neuron and cause an action potential.  Drugs are also agonists that act in the same way, but they are not natural in our nervous system.  Neurotransmitters are known as endogenous agonists (internal agonists); drugs, or any chemicals taken into the body, to deliberately stimulate a certain neurotransmitter or group of neurotransmitters, are exogenous agonists (external agonists).

An exogenous agonist for serotonin is MDMA (Ecstasy).  It works by binding with the serotonin receptor sites, causing these neurons to fire and temporarily increasing the serotonin in the synapse in the neocortex (part of the cerebral cortex), the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, affecting cognitions such as memory and perceptions, as well as mood. We party!

However, studies have suggested that there is a rebound effect, whereby damage to the serotonin transporters after several doses of MDMA over a period of a few days has resulted in an ultimate decrease of serotonin in the brain, and memory and mood impairment, leading to theories that this might be linked to a motivation to take more and eventually to possible addiction. (See McCann et al MDMA and memory).

Of course, the opposite to an agonist is…an antagonist, which will be the subject of the next blog post.

Is it all our parents’ fault?

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How attachment styles can affect later relationships.

This topic is part of the syllabus for developmental psychology, with a focus on inter-generational transmission of attachment styles, not through genetic inheritance, but through vertical social transmission, as our parents’ styles affect our own attachment styles as babies, which affect our later relationships and our parenting as adults. Psychology Sorted Book 2 will be out soon, and will cover all the options.

The idea of attachment was developed by Bowlby, but it was his student Mary Ainsworth who looked in detail at how infants developed different attachment styles. Ainsworth and Bell,_1970 conducted research into the correlation between parenting (n this case mothering) and children’s attachment styles, as measured through separation anxiety and fear of a stranger.  She identified three different styles:

Insecure-avoidant attachment (Type A) – seen in 10-15% of strange situation studies

Secure attachment (Type B) – seen in 70% of strange situation studies

Insecure-resistant/ambivalent attachment (Type C) – seen in 10-15% of strange situation studies

Type D (insecure- disorganized/disorientated) was added later by Main and Solomon in 1986, to extend the categories.

John Bowlby suggested that children create an internal working model (schema) that helps them pattern their behaviour  in later relationships, and it is through Ainsworth’s work that we can see one way in which this may develop. Hazan & Shaver developed a ‘love quiz’ that they distributed through a local newspaper, to test the hypothesis that childhood attachment patterns affected adult relationships, through the operation of an internal working model. There is a similar quiz here, if you would like to try it! They concluded that there was a strong positive correlation between (remembered) styles of one’s parents, one’s own attachment styles, and patterns of behaviour within adult relationships.

I can see lots of problems with this theory – especially as we grow older.  Can we really blame our behaviour on our parents once we are ourselves parents or even grandparents? There are response bias issues with ‘love quizzes’ as self-report studies. Memory – do we remember accurately how our parents’ treated us?  Attribution theory – aren’t the least happy of us more likely to blame our parents, and the happiest of us likely to claim our happiness is the result of our personality?  (See research by Gottman et al, which is highly relevant to the Human Relationships curriculum).

These are just some of the questions we should be asking in the classroom.

Extended Essays made easier

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It’s that time of year again, when students who have only been studying psychology for a few months are asked to think of an area of research in which they are interested.  And out come the titles, and questions: ‘What makes a psychopath?’  ‘Does the media cause eating disorders?’ ‘Why do more girls than boys get depressed?’ Aaargh!

Teachers sigh and raise their eyebrows, because none of these is a good question for an extended essay, though of course all are potential topics, and students’ interest in them is understandable.

This is where Psychology Sorted can help.  Underneath the overview tables are links to stimulating news articles, journal discussions and TED talks that will extend the students’ thinking beyond the superficial.  The hyperlinks and QR codes are included, and an hour or two of browsing can help direct students’ interests. For example, if students are interested in the area of new biological treatments for mental disorders, see this page.  If they would like to research the effects of digital technology, see here, and if they are interested in strategies of acculturation and immigrants, see this section.

Even if some students are determined to stick to eating disorders, the book can give them a new approach  – to opportunistic eating and obesity, for example.  Preface any of these topics with ‘To what extent?’ and you get much more nuanced, in-depth and interesting questions to research:

  • To what extent can neural feedback techniques treat phobias?
  • To what extent can artificial intelligence enhance working memory?
  • To what extent may marginalisation be responsible for terrorism?
  • To what extent can brain chemical dysfunction explain overeating?

It is not that there are any ‘off-bounds’ topics; just that a new approach is needed, to get your students out of the trees and on the sunlit route to extended essay success!

 

 

Can we learn to love anything or anyone if we just hang around them long enough?

One of the Cognitive Approach studies that we cover in our fabulous book, ‘Psychology Sorted, Book 1’ is by Slovic et al. (2017) and which concerns the Affect Heuristic. The Affect Heuristic is a cognitive bias composed of several dimensions, one of which is:

  • The ‘mere exposure effect’: this may be a factor in the affect heuristic. It involves a favourable (‘good’) judgement being made of stimuli by participants who had been presented with that stimuli several times over compared to less familiar material. In other words, the participants in the study preferred the stimuli they had simply seen/been exposed to more times than the other stimuli.

So, this finding shows we human beings to be fairly simple creatures: we like something on the grounds that it is more familiar than the alternative choice. This obviously saves us a lot of time and effort in trying to compare the relative merits and demerits of two possibly similar items or people. For example, I am interviewing two candidates for a job. One of the candidates already works at my company and I have known her for two years now. She’s a good enough worker, doesn’t cause any trouble and well, let’s face it, she’s a known quantity.

The other candidate is someone that I don’t know. On paper they seem far more interesting than the candidate I already know: they have some good ideas for the role and they may bring a breath of fresh air to the company. But…..what if they aren’t as good as they seem? What if they don’t get on with the team? What if their ideas never actually see the light of day? Can I be bothered training up someone new? Maybe the candidate I already know is actually the best person for the job. Hmm, yes, maybe the familiar person is best – I’m used to their face, they fit in etc, etc.

This choice may, in fact, turn out to be the best choice but it is still an example of the mere exposure effect guiding someone’s behaviour rather than a fair and unbiased assessment of the evidence. Could the mere exposure effect explain seemingly baffling phenomena such as particular politicians becoming less reviled and more accepted the longer they are in office? Could it explain you humming along to a song you detest simply because it is constantly being played on the radio? Be aware of this in your own life – we all do it and it’s not necessarily the best way to make decisions as to what is good and valuable in our lives.

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Child Poverty

cry-2764843_640Psychology comes right up to date with the study of the effects of child poverty on cognitive and social development.  In Psychology Sorted we make the link between child poverty, brain imaging technology and child development.  We could just as easily have also added in an abnormal psychology link to mental health, for as child poverty rates in the US and UK soar, so does the number of children in poor mental health.  (For a further cross-cultural perspective, the same is also true of Australia and New Zealand).

Luby et al. (2013) uses MRI scans to investigate the relationship between child poverty and brain development in pre-school and early school age children, and found that it was associated with less white and cortical grey brain matter and reduces hippocampal and amygdala volumes. The effects of poverty on the volume of the hippocampus were mediated by a close relationship with a good caregiver, but increased by stress and hostility. The effects on the cognitive development and  mental health of young people have been well documented.

While some subjects studied in schools may not always seem relevant to the world outside the classroom, psychology will never be one of them.

Are the ‘January blues’ a self-fulfilling prophecy?

January is not the kindest month but it doesn’t have to be as cruel as we are popularly led to believe (which is good news for those of us whose birthdays fall in this gloomy month – thank you mum and dad…) Research has shown that depression can be held at bay by engaging not only in physical activity but in a positive mindset, by simply not giving in to the feeling that ‘it’s all bad’.

Our fabulous textbook, ‘Psychology Sorted, Book 1‘ includes research which considers the role of biology – brain chemicals, specifically the neurotransmitter serotonin – in the experience of depression. Book 2 will look in even more detail at the etiology of depression (Abnormal Psychology) and the consequences of depression on health and well-being (Health Psychology). There is some validity to the idea that if you think you’re not going to enjoy something then you won’t enjoy it. So – here’s to January, the most rockin’, joy-giving month of the year! Just keep telling yourself that and you never know, you might start to believe it!

 

Social cognitive theory – so much more than Bobo-bashing!

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Most students and teachers of psychology are familiar with Bandura, Ross & Ross’s classic study into the role of social modelling in aggression*  It showed that children who observed aggressive acts committed by adults in one setting would, through play, reproduce those acts in another setting when the adult role model was absent. Bandura extended this social learning model in the 1980s into what is now a complex and comprehensive social cognitive theory, further developing and exploring concepts underpinning social behaviour: performance feedback, modelling, and – most importantly of all – moral disengagement.

Moral disengagement is the process by which we disengage our moral self in order to distance ourselves from our actions. It can be seen in soldiers who need to disconnect themselves from their actions in order to live with themselves, and in us every time we buy our food in non-recyclable plastic packaging. The decision to go to war in a just cause can be a moral one, but it still involves killing fellow human beings. The desire for conveniently packaged food is an understandable one, but it still involves environmentally degrading our planet.

Bandura uses social cognitive theory to investigate our moral disengagement from  harmful activities. He applies it particularly effectively to drone warfare and to the arms trade. In class I use it to explain how we dehumanise the homeless in order to ignore homelessness.

For Bandura, it is not enough to explain moral disengagement.  He believes that if we can understand the processes underlying it, then we can begin to change them, and this is why he promotes social change through locally-distributed films in Africa, Asia and South America, making the abstract explanations of social cognitive theory concrete to people’s lives. Nearer home, we need to use storytelling and media to keep advertising the environmental dangers of uncontrolled consumption. Psychology has a vital role in social change as well as social explanation, for “As a society, we enjoy the benefits left by those before us who collectively worked for social changes that improved our lives. Our own collective efficacy will determine whether we pass on a habitable planet to our grandchildren and future generations.” (Bandura, 2009

*For those of you who have already bought our book (thank you!), the description of the study design has been changed from a matched pairs to a ‘matched triads’ as the children were matched by measured levels of aggression across the three experimental groups.  The effect is the same, to control this variable. We will publish this change in an updated edition in the future.