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!

 

 

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.

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.

Research from Psychology Sorted: Social Identity Theory

sitHow we develop our social identity is still a hot topic today, and for those of you studying the effect of technologies, especially social media, on social identity, there is a developing literature on the subject.  But we should start with the classic minimal groups paradigm from Tajfel (1971), found in our new book Psychology Sorted, as it is still so relevant today.

The predominant 1960s theory of social identity formation came from Sherif et al.’s (1961) study which led to the development of his 1966 realistic conflict theory that competition for scarce resources is the foundation for group (social) identity, and also one cause of conflict. Think of the worldwide competition for water and oil on a large scale and maybe sporting competitions on a smaller scale. Why do you think that schools have ‘houses’, ‘sporting colours’, ‘house badges’?

However, Tajfel’s research contradicted this, demonstrating that only minimal conditions were necessary for group identity to form: his experiment randomly allocated schoolboys to two groups.  The boys thought they had been allocated their group according to their preference for a painting by either Klee or Kandinsky, but this was a deception and the allocation was random. This perception of belonging to a certain group was enough for boys to show in-group favouritism when allocating virtual money via a complex matrix of rules.  The minimal groups paradigm formed the basis of Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory, which remains a powerful explanation of in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination.

The three sequential steps Tajfel & Turner (1979) deemed necessary for social identity to form are:

  • social categorisation – we understand that people (and things) can be grouped
  • social identification – we identify with a group
  • social comparison – we compare ourselves favourably with another group

Social comparison underlies stereotyping, gang fights (though these can also be seen as competition for scarce resources), between-class competitions, girl/boy competition, online identities…how many more can you think of?

Tajfel’s theory can be used extensively in the curriculum, from his lab experiments in the 1970s (research methods), to an argument for the formation of stereotypes (sociocultural approach), to an explanation of how competition and maybe even conflict is generated in human relationships, to how images are cultivated socially on Snapchat, Instagram and (amongst us oldies) Facebook for cognitive psychology.  This is an example of a classic theory that can be easily accessed through Psychology Sorted.

Research from Psychology Sorted: Poverty and childhood cognitive development – a biological approach.

This is the first in a series of posts using research directly from our new bookpoverty3349068_640 Psychology Sorted.  The study we’re looking at today is Luby et al. (2013) on how children’s brain development and therefore their cognitive development are affected by poverty. The researchers found that exposure to poverty in early childhood impacts cognitive development by school age. However, the effect is mediated positively by good caregiving and negatively by stressful life events.

This is highly relevant in light of reports from the UK, USA and  South-East Asia of the large, and in some cases growing, number of children living in poverty.  This research can be used as an example of both localization and neuroplasticity within the Biological Approach,  and to illustrate the influence of poverty/socio-economic status on cognitive development, for those studying the Developmental Psychology option.

This was a longitudinal study of 145 children from a sample of children already enrolled in a 10-year study of preschool depression who, prior to being scanned by MRI,  had undergone regular testing.  Once a year (for a duration of 3-6 years) the children had taken part in a series of tests aimed at measuring their cognitive, emotional and social aptitudes. The involvement of significant adults in their lives was also recorded (e.g. how close they were to their caregivers) as well as the occurrence of any negative and stressful events in their lives. Once this collection of information had been amassed, each child underwent two MRI scans – one of the whole brain and one of the hippocampus and amygdala only. This study can therefore also act as an example of the use of brain-imaging technology as a technique used to study the brain in relation to behaviour.

Both the hippocampus and the amygdala showed less white and grey matter in the MRI scans of the poorer children in this study, with a positive correlation between income/needs being met and brain volume. While both the hippocampus and amygdala showed less development in poverty-affected children the researchers found that in cases where the child experienced positive care there was less negative effect on the hippocampus. Difficult and stressful life events only affected the left hippocampus.

Of course, students and teachers need to evaluate the use of this research as well: how valid is the study as an illustration of both localization and neuroplasticity? This was a relatively small sample of pre-schoolchildren from the USA who exhibited symptoms of depression.  Moreover, attempting to measure complex variables (e.g. the nature of caregiving and behavioural responses) is beset with difficulties as these variables are not exact and may lack construct validity.  Nonetheless, there was triangulation of methods, with the background data from cognitive testing providing a rich backdrop for the results of the scans, and this research is supported by other studies, such as that by Duval et al. (2017). 

Encourage your student to find and read media and academic examples of evidence and counter-evidence, and to engage in critical thinking and evaluation. For example, some poor families often cannot afford pre-school kindergartens for their children, who may be raised to some extent in isolation as well as in poverty.  This could be a confounding variable. Are there others? The student who is thinking like this is well on the way to writing a good argumentative essay on the effects of poverty on childhood cognitive development.