Lifelong learning – old dogs and new tricks

dog-2183114_640You can’t teach an old dog new tricks – or so the saying goes.  Developmental psychologists like Piaget tended to assume that cognition and the corresponding brain development were complete by the age of about twenty.  However, recent research into brain neuroplasticity shows that adults, even older adults, can continue to learn throughout their lives, and improve their brains in the process.  Lisa Pauwels and her colleagues published a paper this month, describing the structural and functional brain changes that occur with practice of a new task.  They found that older adults may be a little slower than younger ones in attaining new skills, but they were equally capable of learning, and intensive practice led to modulation of GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter) and an increase in neurons and connections  (neurogenesis) in the corresponding brain regions.

The brain doesn’t only respond to learning, as Sandrine Thuret describes in her TED talk (below).  When you eat and what you eat, exercise and sleep all increase neurogenesis in adults.

So, if some days you are struggling with your studies, remember,  it is never too late to grow some more brain!

Coming soon – ‘Psychology Sorted’, the book!

Hi Psychology teachers from all over the world! Yes, I know that summer is beckoning but wouldn’t you like a sneaky peak at a BRAND NEW RESOURCE that is due to be out around October 1st? Written by Laura Swash and Claire Neeson, this resource will solve all those pesky teaching dilemmas such as: ‘Which studies should I use for each topic and how can I re-use them to create less bulk for the students to learn?  How can I find a streamlined, easy, cross-referenced resource that’s user-friendly (for me and my students)?  What can I use for both teaching AND revision?’ Here is a sample for you to taste, to get the ‘flavour’ of what we’re doing. Add us to your school shopping list: #1 Order ‘Psychology Sorted’ next term.  Sorted!

Sample_Section 1_Bio. updated

Bio KS1 Fisher et al_2005

What is a ‘key study’?

keys-525732_640 (1)

Key studies are studies that are the most useful for any Psychology course, because they provide the ‘key’ to understanding a concept or theory.  For example, Maguire’s famous ‘taxi driver’ study, Loftus and Palmer’s ‘car crash’ study or Rosenhan’s research into the validity of diagnosis on admission to mental hospitals.

Teachers and students can benefit by summarising these studies according to Background, Aim, Participants, Procedure, Results, Conclusion, Evaluation.  This can be done on 1-2 sides of paper and kept to be used for essays, revision and even for HL Paper 3 practice if you are an IB Diploma teacher or student.  Below is a short example of what this could look like, from the biological approach.

KEY STUDY: Caspi et al. (2003) Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene.

 Background

Looked at the relation between inherited short alleles on the 5HTT serotonin transporter gene and incidences of stress and subsequent depression.

Links to:

  • Abnormal Psychology: Genetic explanation for inherited predisposition to depression as a response to environmental stressors.

Aim

To investigate whether a functional change in the 5HTT gene is linked to a higher or lower risk of depression in an individual.

Participants

The researchers used an opportunity sample from a cohort of participants who were part of another longitudinal study. There were 847 participants of 26 years old and they were split into three groups, depending on the length of the alleles on their 5HTT transporter gene.

Group 1 – two short alleles

Group 2 – one short and one long allele

Group 3 – two long alleles

Procedure

  1. Stressful life events occurring after the 21st birthday and before the 26th birthday were assessed using a life-history calendar.
  2. Past-year depression was assessed using the Diagnostic Interview Schedule.
  3. A correlation was tested for between stressful life events and depression, between the length of the alleles and depression and an interaction between perceived stress and the length of the alleles.
  4. A further test was done to see if life events could predict an increase in depression over time among individuals with one or two short alleles.

Results

The participants with two short alleles in the 5HTT transporter gene reported more depression symptoms in response to stressful life events than either of the other two groups. Those participants with two long alleles reported fewer depression symptoms. Moreover, childhood maltreatment was predictive of depression in adulthood only in adults with either one or two short alleles.

Conclusion

While there is no direct relation between short alleles on the 5HTT gene and depression, there is a relationship between these and incidences of stress and subsequent depression. The long alleles seem to protect against suffering depression as a result of stress. The effects of the gene adaptation are dependent on environmental exposure to stress.

Evaluation of Caspi et al. (2003)

Strengths

  • This was a very large cohort of males and females and the age was controlled in order to isolate the variable of number of stressful life events between the ages of 21 and 26.
  • It was a natural experiment, with the naturally occurring IV being the length of the alleles. If the results are replicated this would suggest high reliability.

Limitations

  • Gene action is highly complex, and actions of other genes could not be controlled. While the stressful life events were standardised as employment, financial, housing, health and relationship, whether or not a participant experienced a certain event as stressful is highly personal.
  • The symptoms of depression were self-reported, although each participant was contacted in order to verify the symptoms; self-reporting can be unreliable.

Reference

Caspi, A., Sugden, K., Moffitt, T. E., Taylor, A., Craig, I. W., Harrington, H., … & Poulton, R. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science301(5631), pp. 386-389.

Overstimulation of newborn mice leads to deficits in cognition and attention

mice-579687_640

This research could be a useful counter argument to the classic Rosenzweig, Bennett and Diamond study (1972) into enriched environment and neuroplasticity.   It suggests disco lights are out, but toys are in!

This study was based on earlier findings by Christakis et al. (2004) that young children’s excessive television watching led to later attention problems. Christakis, Ramirez and Ramirez (2012) subjected ten mice to overstimulation by flashing lights and noise for six hours a day for 42 days.  They then compared them with a control group on four different cognitive tests, and found that the experimental group subjected to the stimulation performed the tasks significantly worse than the control group in terms of memory and attention, exhibiting ‘increased activity and risk taking, diminished short term memory, and decreased cognitive function.’

The results suggest that overstimulation during periods of critical development can have unexpected negative effects on cognition.  However, this is a very small experimental study, and no measurements of brain changes were taken, so its reliability remains open to question.

 

Describe or Discuss? Applied to a biological approach question.

easter-3204589_640Every question on your IB Diploma exam paper, indeed every question you answer in class, begins with a command term.  A command term is a word (or a few words) that tells you the focus to take in your answer.  If it is a response to a short-answer question, then one of the most common command terms is ‘describe’:

Describe one ethical consideration in research at the biological approach.

However, an essay question might be:

Discuss ethical considerations in research at the biological approach.

For describe you will need to think of one ethical consideration that is very important for biological research, and describe it in detail – why it is particularly relevant to the biological approach, why it is necessary for studies to implement this consideration, and what the implications are if it is not applied.  Then find one biological study and show why this ethical consideration is vital for this study.  It doesn’t have to be a study where there is an ethical problem, and should be a study that you will be using anyway for other answers.

Discuss requires you to review at least two ethical considerations, say why they are particularly relevant to the biological approach and how they can be assured. There will need to be discussion over the role of ethics in biological research, which are the most important (two is plenty to discuss), and an in-depth analysis of the role of these two ethical considerations in specific studies.  There should be an argument (How important is anonymity? Is fully informed consent given by parents for children and young teenagers enough, or should the youngsters have to consent as well? Is it ever possible to meet all ethical requirements and have a valid study?)  Your conclusions should be supported by empirical data from studies that show a good knowledge of the research you have chosen.

But you knew this anyway, really: if a parent says to you, ‘Describe your new girlfriend/boyfriend’ you are not nearly as ready for an argument as if they say ‘Let’s discuss your new girlfriend/boyfriend.’  Are you? So – apply the same thinking to your writing, and you’ll be fine!