Social networks are good for your health.

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One of the options in IB Diploma Psychology is Health – how to stay healthy, the relationship between biology, cognition and health, and of course, how social factors affect our health. More and more psychologists are concluding that social support is one of the main factors in maintaining good mental and physical health.

A recent longitudinal study conducted into the effect of work stress on health found that men with pre-existing diseases like heart disease, stroke or diabetes who also had stressful jobs with little control over their workload were at a much higher risk of mortality. (Interestingly, there was no similar relationship found between stress at work, heart conditions and early death in women – maybe female social networks are more protective?)

The Guardian summarised these results: “Men…who experienced job strain had a 68% greater risk of premature death than men in more manageable jobs. A greater risk remained even when the men exercised, controlled their weight and blood pressure, and did not smoke.”  It is therefore no use telling men under stress  who have a pre-existing heart condition to get out and exercise more and not smoke, unless we also provide social support, teach positive coping mechanisms, and encourage employers to provide more flexible working hours.

This would provide a good introduction to the Determinants of Health section of the Health option.  In Psychology Sorted Book 2, we summarise Haslam et al’s study into the tendency to underestimate the role of social factors in ill-health, and to also underestimate the ability of social support to keep us healthy. So, be social and stay healthy!

 

Book 2 out now! Free Theory of Mind sample studies below.

We’ve done it!  Click here to order your copy of Psychology Sorted Book 2. And just to thank you all for your patience, I am writing this blog on one of 0. FINAL. front.2the most frequently-asked questions: ‘What is Theory of Mind?’  Of course, I am including studies from the new book, so you can see how helpful our  text will be when teaching Psychology.

THEORY OF MIND is investigated when studying development.  It is a developmental process linked to empathy, and exam questions on the topic will take the form of ‘Discuss the development of empathy and/or theory of mind.’  The slight difference between empathy and theory of mind is that empathy seems to be emotionally driven, and  theory of mind is cognitive. Theory of mind is understanding what others think, and thus being able to predict their behaviour, while empathy is identifying others’ emotions and being able to identify with these. It develops in parallel with theory of mind, and the two seem to depend on each other. Links can be seen here with Piaget, who believed that taking the position of others takes place in the pre-operational stage (before 7 years old), and Hughes, who argued that with the correct task design, this could be shown much earlier.

By 4 years old a child knows that what they see and believe may not be the same as what others see and believe. Three useful studies that test for the presence of Theory of Mind, which can all be found in the book, are:

Baron-Cohen et al._1985– who used a false-belief test (the Sally-Anne task) to investigate whether or not children with autistic spectrum disorder have theory of mind. While there have been criticisms of the study, not least because it has since been shown that many of these children do indeed possess theory of mind, it is a classic in design.

Repacholi and Gopnik_1997 – studied children between 14 mths and 18 mths old, to see when they could identify that others’ wishes were different from their own.  The younger children would offer a researcher crackers instead of broccoli, because crackers were what the they liked, even though the researcher had already shown disgust at the crackers.  However, the slightly older children, once they saw that the researcher liked the broccoli, would offer that, even though they themselves didn’t like it.

Alison Gopnik was also part of a study investigating a possible gender difference in development of empathy.  See the hilarious film clip below.

Finally, a more recent study by Cowell et al._(2015) found that pre-school children with theory of mind were less willing to share their resources than children of the same age without theory of mind. So, it seems that understanding how another is feeling is not enough to make you feel empathy with them.

Antagonists – what do they do?

dementia-3761172_640Antagonists are any chemicals that fit into receptor sites on the post-synaptic neuron, inhibiting the neuron from firing. Well-known antagonists for serotonin, which we looked at in the previous blog post, are anti-psychotic drugs like Clozapine, which acts on the HT2A serotonin receptors to decrease the effects of serotonin in the brain. Many ant-psychotic drugs also act as antagonists for dopamine, as an excess of both dopamine and serotonin has been associated with schizophrenia.

However, easy-to-understand studies referencing this effect of Clozapine are difficult to come by, so while this is useful knowledge for students on how anti-psychotic medication works, when teaching about antagonists there is more available research on the effects of scopolamine on acetylcholine, and hence on memory.  (And incidentally on motion sickness, as scopolamine is excellent at preventing nausea and vomiting!)

Scopolamine acts by blocking the acetylcholine receptors, specifically the muscarinic receptors (see the link below). Atri et al (2004)  reported how blocking the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors (mAChRs), by injecting scopolamine impairs learning of paired words.

As an age-related deterioration in cognitive function is thought to be predominantly related to a decline in cholinergic neurotransmission (relating to nerve cells in which acetylcholine acts as a neurotransmitter), scopolamine administration has often been used to model dementia. Scopolamine has therefore been extensively used for preclinical and clinical testing of treatments for cognitive impairment.  For example, Tröster et al (2013) found that scopolamine negatively affected anterograde short-term memory and verbal and nonverbal learning in middle-aged men.

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 transporter genes and also with the receptor sites, 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.