Social Support and Health

Having a strong network of family and friends around us is generally perceived as a good thing, meaning we have people to talk to if we have a problem or help us when we are in need. However, what if there’s more to it, and having a social network (the real, not the Facebook kind) can actually improve our health, and make us live longer?

To start – how have scientists defined social support? Rather than just being about the number of people in our social network, “social support refers to the clarity or
certainty with which an individual experiences being loved, valued, and able to
count on others should the need arise” (Turner & Lewis Brown, 2010). Therefore the quality of our social relationships is important, not just quantity.


The health benefits of having strong social bonds have been studied for decades. One of the first studies to suggest a link between social support and health was conducted in America in the 1970s (Berkman & Syme, 1979). They studied a random sample of almost 7000 adults, and followed them up for nine years. The results showed that people with lower social ties were more likely to die in this follow up period than those with higher levels of social support. Importantly, this finding was independent of general health, socio-economic status, and lifestyle factors such as physical activity and smoking.

As well as improving our physical health, social support also has benefits for our mental health. Research has found that perceived social support is correlated with depression, with those perceiving higher levels of social support experiencing fewer depressive symptoms (Stice et al, 2004) One other aspect of mental health which is thought to be particularly improved through social support is stress. Social support acts as a ‘buffer’ to stress, influencing whether we see stressful events as a threat, and how well we are able to cope with them (Lakey & Orehek, 2011).

We’ve seen that increased social support can lead to an improvement in our physical and mental health, but how does this effect occur? Uchino (2006) hypothesises that social support could influence health via two different pathways. The first states that social support acts as a positive influence and promotes health behaviours, such as taking medication or going to the doctor when ill, having a balanced diet, or not smoking. The second pathway states that social support directly influences our mood and emotions, which in turn helps to keep us healthy.

As described above, social support can help to act as a buffer and make us more resilient to stress. A reduction in stress levels can help cardiovascular health: several studies have shown that higher social support is correlated with lower blood pressure (e.g. Gump et al, 2001). Social support could also improve our health through our immune system: one study found that cancer patients with higher levels of social support had higher levels of tumour-fighting cells than those with less social support (Levy et al, 1990).

Of course, having a strong social network isn’t going to guarantee perfect health and a long life. But there’s a strong case to suggest that investing more time in our real world friendships could improve our health, as well as the health of those around us.



Berkman, L.F. and Syme, S.L., 1979. Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents. American journal of Epidemiology109(2), pp.186-204.

Gump, B.B., Polk, D.E., Kamarck, T.W. and Shiffman, S.M., 2001. Partner interactions are associated with reduced blood pressure in the natural environment: Ambulatory monitoring evidence from a healthy, multiethnic adult sample. Psychosomatic medicine63(3), pp.423-433.

Lakey, B. and Orehek, E., 2011. Relational regulation theory: A new approach to explain the link between perceived social support and mental health. Psychological review118(3), p.482.

Levy, S. M., Herberman, R. B., Whiteside, T., Sanzo, K., Lee, J., and Kirkwood, J. (1990). Perceived social support and tumor estrogen/progesterone receptor status as predictors of natural killer cell activity in breast cancer patients. Psychosom. Med. 52: 73–85

Stice, E., Ragan, J. and Randall, P., 2004. Prospective relations between social support and depression: Differential direction of effects for parent and peer support?. Journal of abnormal psychology113(1), p.155.

Turner, R.J. and Brown, R.L., 2010. Social support and mental health. A handbook for the study of mental health: Social contexts, theories, and systems2, pp.200-212.

Uchino, B.N., 2006. Social support and health: a review of physiological processes potentially underlying links to disease outcomes. Journal of behavioral medicine29(4), pp.377-387.


Self Care and Mental Health

Self care is a bit of a buzz word at the moment, with tonnes of articles about the benefits of taking time out to look after yourself. Sometimes, self care is used as another way to describe pampering, with things like bubble baths or face masks cited as a type of self care. Self care can also be more basic, for example simply eating regular, balanced meals, or getting enough sleep. This post will examine the science behind the magazine articles, to see what self care is, and whether it is really beneficial for your mental health.

Self care is really just another way of saying ‘look after yourself’ or taking time to do things you enjoy. The mental health charity Mind list different ways self care can help improve your mental health. Their suggestions include being aware of your mental health, being kind to yourself, making sure you interact and feel connected with others. They also suggest taking time to relax, either through mindfulness or getting outside, as well as keeping physically healthy. If you’d like to find out more about self care strategies, click here for further information.




But what is it about self care which improves our mental health? One hypothesis is that  taking part in these activities helps people have a sense of purpose and gives life more meaning, which in turn increases self-esteem (Deegan, 2005). Some participants in this study reported that taking part in self care activities which gave life more purpose (e.g. belonging to a singing group, or volunteering) had helped them stay well, decreasing symptoms and avoiding negative outcomes such as hospitalisation. Other more routine aspects of self care, such as shopping or talking on the phone were used as strategies to reduce anxiety or other unwanted symptoms.

Meditation, or mindfulness has also been explored as a way of using self-care to reduce burnout and stress in healthcare professionals. One study by Shapiro et al taught trainee therapists a mindfulness-based stress reduction programme, and found that participants who received the training had lower stress & anxiety levels, less rumination and higher levels of self-compassion than participants who didn’t receive the training. These results suggest that mindfulness is a way of improving the mental health of professionals at a high risk of burnout.

The evidence suggests that taking the time to engage in self care activities could be something we can all do to improve our mental health. Self care is more than just bubble baths; it includes look after our physical health, changing our diet or doing something like volunteering which gives us a sense of purpose. Have you tried self care before? Let me know in the comments if you think it worked for you!


Deegan, P.E., 2005. The importance of personal medicine: A qualitative study of resilience in people with psychiatric disabilities. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health33(66_suppl), pp.29-35.

Shapiro, S.L., Brown, K.W. and Biegel, G.M., 2007. Teaching self-care to caregivers: Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on the mental health of therapists in training. Training and education in professional psychology1(2), p.105.

image reference: Sacha Chua via

Introversion vs Extraversion

Introversion and extroversion are probably two of the most widely known personality traits. Stereotypically, an introvert is characterised by someone who is quiet and shy, and prefers to spend time alone. In contrast, an extrovert is usually loud and boisterous, and always needs to be surrounded by people.

The words extrovert and introvert were first popularised almost 100 years ago by Carl Jung in 1921. Introverts prefer the inner world and to focus on their thoughts, whereas extroverts prefer the external world of activities and other people. Introverts also gain their energy from being alone, whereas extroverts recharge by socialising with others.

In modern society, it is extroverts who are praised and rewarded; being called ‘quiet’ is often a negative adjective. In her book ‘Quiet’, Susan Cain explores why the extrovert has become the ideal, and made me realise that there is far more to introversion and extroversion than the stereotypes described above.

For example, Cain describes introversion and extroversion as opposing ends of a scale. People can be firmly at one end, but they can also be somewhere in the middle – known as ambiversion. People can also be extremely different depending on their current situation, with introverts who normally prefer peace and quiet able to enjoy performing on stage in front of thousands. This is characterised by the “person-situation” debate in psychology – are personality traits fixed, or do they just depend on the situation that the person is in? Psychologists on the “person” side argue that we have fixed personality traits which are based on our biology, whilst those on the “situation” side believe that we do not have core traits, but a range of traits which we exhibit in certain situations.

One psychologist in favour of the “person” side of the debate is Hans Eysenck, who developed his personality theory around levels of stimulation – the amount of input we are receiving from external factors. He used this to explain introverts and extroverts, with extroverts preferring higher levels of stimulation than introverts, and so seeking it through spending more time in social situations. The amount of stimulation you prefer has a biological basis, with Eysenck hypothesising that an area of the brain known as the ARAS (see image below) involved is in controlling the balance of stimulation. He believed that the ARAS functioned differently in introverts and extroverts, which is why extroverts seek stimulation, whilst introverts retreat from it (Eysenck, 2017).


Although psychologists now think that things are a bit more complicated that Eysenck’s theory, there is some evidence to suggest the basis of it is true. In one of his famous experiments, he put a drop of lemon juice on the tongues of introverts and extroverts and measured the amount of saliva they produced (which showed how stimulating they found the juice). He found that introverts produced more saliva to this stimulus, as they are more sensitive to stimulation (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1967). Another study asked introverts and extroverts to take part in a task whilst wearing headphones which randomly played bursts of noise. Participants were asked to set the level of this noise to what was most comfortable for them, and results showed introverts set this level at an average of 55 decibels, compared to 72 decibels for the extroverts. When introverts had to do the task with the same noise level as the extroverts (or vice versa) they performed much worse, despite their performance being equal before (Geen, 1984).

Research such as this suggests there is a biological basis to whether we are more introverted or extroverted. Which category do you think you would best fit in to?

Thanks for reading and if you want to find out more about this topic I’d definitely recommend reading Susan Cain’s book – referenced below.

References – as mentioned in Cain, 2013:

Cain, S., 2013. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Broadway Books.

Eysenck, S.B. and Eysenck, H.J., 1967. Salivary response to lemon juice as a measure of introversion. Perceptual and motor skills24(3_suppl), pp.1047-1053.

Eysenck, H., 2017. The biological basis of personality. Routledge.

Geen, R.G., 1984. Preferred stimulation levels in introverts and extroverts: Effects on arousal and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology46(6), p.1303.

Deep vs Surface learning

As we’re now approaching exam season, this week’s post is looking at the best way to learn new information. Hopefully this will be helpful to those of you revising at the moment!

Consider these two scenarios, and have a think about which one describes your learning approach.

1. You need to learn about the theory of intergroup conflict in social psychology, so you get a textbook from the library written by a leading researcher in the field, read and try to memorise the relevant sections.

2. You need to learn about the localisation of memory in the brain. You find as much evidence for each type of memory you can, and try to make links with what you already know, to understand why it would make sense for that function to be in that area of the brain.

According to Marton & Säljö (1976), approach number 1 would be an example of surface learning – which is based on reproducing information in order to answer anticipated questions (a common revision strategy!). In contrast, approach number 2 is focused on understanding, not just memorising. This approach is therefore known as deep learning.

In their experiment, Marton & Säljö asked students to read an academic paper using one of these two approaches. They found that students using the deep learning approach understood more of the paper and were better at answering questions on it later.

The table below shows more examples of deep and surface learning – which approaches do you use in your revision? If you notice the left column applies to you then maybe consider trying some new strategies from the column on the right.


However, this is not to say that students only use one of these approaches when it comes to learning. Students are affected by factors in their learning environment and other influences, such as how much they already know on the topic (Nijhuis et al, 2005). Some students also combine both deep and surface learning to achieve the best outcomes in the time available – this is known as having a strategic approach (Entwistle et al, 2000).

I hope this has helped you when it comes to revising for your next exam or learning something new. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of thinking you just need to memorise the facts – you’ll learn much more effectively if you focus on understanding the topic, evaluating it, and linking new information with what you already know.


Entwistle, N., Tait, H. and McCune, V., 2000. Patterns of response to an approaches to studying inventory across contrasting groups and contexts. European Journal of Psychology of Education15(1), p.33.

Nijhuis, J.F., Segers, M.S. and Gijselaers, W.H., 2005. Influence of redesigning a learning environment on student perceptions and learning strategies. Learning environments research8(1), pp.67-93.

Marton, F. and Säljö, R., 1976. On qualitative differences in learning: I—Outcome and process. British journal of educational psychology46(1), pp.4-11.

Not Ill Enough

Imagine living with depression. It affects every aspect of your life, from your work to the time you spend with your family. You experience intrusive negative thoughts. You begin to suffer from insomnia, which in turn increases feelings of anxiety. Imagine living with depression, but being told you are not ill enough to qualify for mental health treatment.

This scenario is unfortunately far too common in those seeking help for mental illness. Adult mental health services are often only able to treat the most severely ill, with their treatment focus on those with severe and enduring mental illnesses, such as psychosis or bipolar disorder (McGorry, 2007). This has led to strict eligibility criteria to be put in place when assessing whether someone is suitable to be cared for at their service, something thought to be in part due to a lack of funding and resources (Belling, 2014). If someone visits A&E with a broken arm we don’t wait for it to get worse before we treat it, so why does this happen if someone goes to their doctor with signs of an eating disorder? A recent investigation by the British Medical Associate found waiting lists of up to 2 years in some parts of the UK, (BMA, 2018). Once again this shows the disparity between our attitudes to physical vs mental healthcare.

According to the eating disorder charity BEAT, some people had to wait an average of 182 days to access care in some areas of the UK. This is despite all evidence pointing to the advantages of early intervention: an individual with an eating disorder is 50% less likely to relapse if they can access treatment early. Treatments have also been shown to be more effective if accessed at an early stage (BEAT, 2018).


This problem isn’t just specific to the UK – one study of carers with mental illness in Australia found that they had to push for their relatives to access appropriate care, with one of the main barriers being that they were not ill enough to be admitted to hospital for their mental health, in some cases despite being suicidal (Olasoji, 2017). Another study looked at the treatment gap in different countries (the percentage difference between the numbers needed treatment and those receiving treatment for it) and found the treatment gap for major depression to be between 36% in the Netherlands to 73% in Finland (Kohn et al, 2004). The international nature of this disparity in mental health care shows how global attitudes to mental illness need to change to allow people to access appropriate treatment as soon as they need it.

Young people can also experience disruption to care due to not meeting the eligibility thresholds in adult services, despite being eligible in the children’s service. In contrast to adult mental health services having high thresholds for care, those at children and adolescent mental health services can be much lower. Children’s services are generally perceived as being more supportive and nurturing than adult services, with a focus on treating emotional and developmental disorders, including autism and ADHD (McGorry, 2007). However this means that when young people reach the upper age limit of children’s services (at around 16-18 years old), they cannot be transitioned to adult care, as they do not meet the eligibility threshold. Therefore at this transition boundary, young people can ‘fall through the gap’ between services despite still being unwell. One study in Ireland estimated that two-thirds of young people do not receive a referral to adult services, despite still being unwell when they reached the upper age limit of children’s services (McNicholas et al, 2015). Those who do receive a referral can still experience a gap in care: adult services can have waiting lists of up to 6 months (Hovish et al, 2012).

It is clear that something needs to change to ensure that people with mental illness are able to access timely and appropriate support, without having to wait for their condition to get worse in order to qualify for treatment.

Please share and let me know your thoughts using the hashtag #MHAW18 and help raise awareness.



image reference: [accessed 13/05/18]

Belling, R., Mclaren, S., Paul, M., Ford, T., Kramer, T., Weaver, T., Hovish, K., Islam, Z., White, S. & Singh, S. P. 2014. The effect of organisational resources and eligibility issues on transition from child and adolescent to adult mental health services. Journal of health services research & policy, 19, 169-176. %5Baccessed 13/05/18]

Hovish, K., Weaver, T., Islam, Z., Paul, M. & Singh, S. P. 2012. Transition experiences of mental health service users, parents, and professionals in the United Kingdom: a qualitative study. Psychiatric rehabilitation journal, 35, 251.

Kohn R, Saxena S, Levav I, Saraceno B (2004). The treatment gap in mentalhealth care. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 82, 858-866

McGorry, P. D. 2007. The specialist youth mental health model: strengthening the weakest link in the public mental health system. Medical Journal of Australia, 187, S53.

McNicholas, F., Adamson, M., Mcnamara, N., Gavin, B., Paul, M., Ford, T., Barry, S., Dooley, B., Coyne, I. & Cullen, W. 2015. Who is in the transition gap? Transition from CAMHS to AMHS in the Republic of Ireland. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 32, 61-69.

Olasoji, M., Maude, P. and McCauley, K., 2017. Not sick enough: Experiences of carers of people with mental illness negotiating care for their relatives with mental health services. Journal of psychiatric and mental health nursing24(6), pp.403-411.



Creativity – why does it come naturally for some, but others struggle to use their imagination? What are the best ways to encourage creativity  and how do you be more creative? These are just some of the questions I’ve got about creativity, and I’d love to know how to beat the creative block. Read more to see what I found out..


When thinking about why some people are more creative than others, it might be useful to start looking at which parts of the brain are involved in creative thinking. One study involved participants with lesions in different parts of their brain, and investigated their ability to generate original ideas (Shamay-Tsoory et al, 2011). They compared their performance in a creative thinking test which involved generating novel images, and thinking of new uses for objects. Researchers found that having a lesion in the right medial prefrontal cortex (see below) had impaired creative thinking, whilst participants who had a lesion in the left medial prefrontal cortex actually had enhanced creative ability. The researchers hypothesised that this result could be explained by language lateralisation – language is controlled by the left side of the brain, and could normally interfere with the creative process. Therefore, when this part of the brain is damaged, our creativity improves.


Another recent study has examined why some people are more creative than others (Beaty et al, 2018). They used fMRI imaging to scan the brains of participants whilst they took part in a creative problem solving task, and identified a network of structures which was used for generating creative ideas. The researchers then compared the strength of the connections between these areas in people who had low or high creativity scores, and found that the people who had the strongest connections between different brain structures came up with better ideas during the task.

However looking at brain structure isn’t enough, and would be oversimplifying the impact of our physical and social environments on our ability to be creative (Damasio, 2001). Damasio argued that in order to be creative, we must meet the following criteria:

  • the motivation to create
  • the courage to face scrutiny and criticism
  • extensive experience and expertise (e.g. to know what has been done before, what is original)
  • insight into your own mind, and the minds of others
  • the ability to generate and recall a variety of images
  • a large working memory capacity, to be able to hold these images in mind at the same time
  • the ability to make decisions, to choose which ideas to keep and which to discard

When trying to improve our creative performance, one study has examined the role of seeing examples in helping creativity and generating novel ideas (Kulkarni et al, 2012). Participants in a creativity task were either shown examples early, late, or repeatedly in the process, and their performance was compared with those who didn’t see any examples.  They found that seeing examples anywhere in the creative process reduced originality, and that participants who saw examples also produced fewer drawings. The authors hypothesised that this result could be because viewing examples raises the bar of what is an ‘acceptable idea’, so they spent more time refining current ideas as opposed to generating new ones. However, participants who saw examples early in the process were judged to have improved creativity, as measured by number of novel features of drawings and subjective ratings of performance.



Beaty, R.E., Kenett, Y.N., Christensen, A.P., Rosenberg, M.D., Benedek, M., Chen, Q., Fink, A., Qiu, J., Kwapil, T.R., Kane, M.J. and Silvia, P.J., 2018. Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, p.201713532.

Damasio, A.R., 2001. Some notes on brain, imagination and creativity. The origins of creativity, pp.59-68.

Kulkarni, C., Dow, S.P. and Klemmer, S.R., 2014. Early and repeated exposure to examples improves creative work. In Design thinking research (pp. 49-62). Springer International Publishing.

Shamay-Tsoory, S.G., Adler, N., Aharon-Peretz, J., Perry, D. and Mayseless, N., 2011. The origins of originality: the neural bases of creative thinking and originality. Neuropsychologia49(2), pp.178-185.

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Gut Microbiomes and Mental Health

One exciting and emerging field of mental health research which is gaining in popularity is the relationship between microbiomes in our gut, and our mental health. Our gut microbiome contains up to 1 trillion bacteria, as well as viruses and fungi, which form a kind of ‘eco-system’. Our microbiome begins forming after birth, and can be influenced by factors such a environment, diet, travel, hormones and illness (D’Argenio & Salvatore, 2015). It is crucial in digestion and our immune system, and recent research suggests that having a healthy microbiome is important for a healthy brain and nervous system (Foster & Neufeld, 2013).

Research into the link between the gut and brain (known as the microbiota-gut-brain axis – see image below) has found links between dysfunction in the microbiome and mental illness such as depression and anxiety (Foster & Neufeld, 2013).


For example, one study carried out at Stellenbosch University compared the gut microbiomes of people with and without Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after experiencing a traumatic event. They found that three bacteria were different in people who did and did not have PTSD, with those with PTSD showing lower levels (Hemmings et al, 2017).

Lots of research in this area has also been carried out using mice, which has shown that the microbiome can directly affect behaviour. For example, one study transplanted bacteria from mice who had high anxiety to mice who had low anxiety. The mice who had received the transplant then started to show symptoms of anxiety (Bercik et al., 2011a).

The interaction between the gut and brain can also work the other way, as stress and emotions can influence the microbiome via the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis (Montiel-Castro et al., 2013). The HPA axis is involved in cortisol production and controls our immune system. Stress results in increased inflammation, which impacts the equilibrium of the microbiome which can lead to diseases, allergic reactions or risk of infection (Glaser & Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005).

This field of research could influence therapies for mental illness, with anxiety and depression treated by interventions targeted to alter the microbiome, as well as traditional drug or talking therapies. What are your thoughts about this new branch of medicine? Let me know in the comments below!



Bercik, P., Park, A. J., Sinclair D. Khoshdel, A., Lu J. Huang, X., Deng, Y., Belnnerhassett, P. A., et al. (2011a). The anxiolytic effect of Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 involves vagal pathways for gut–brain communication. Neurogastroenterol. Motil. 23, 1132–1139.

D’Argenio, V. and Salvatore, F., 2015. The role of the gut microbiome in the healthy adult status. Clinica Chimica Acta451, pp.97-102.

Foster, J.A. and Neufeld, K.A.M., 2013. Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression. Trends in neurosciences36(5), pp.305-312.

Glaser, R., and Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2005). Stress-induced immune dysfunction: implications for health. Nat. Rev. Immunol. 5, 243–251. doi: 10.1038/nri1571

Hemmings, S.M., Malan-Müller, S., van den Heuvel, L.L., Demmitt, B.A., Stanislawski, M.A., Smith, D.G., Bohr, A.D., Stamper, C.E., Hyde, E.R., Morton, J.T. and Marotz, C.A., 2017. The microbiome in posttraumatic stress disorder and trauma-exposed controls: an exploratory study. Psychosomatic medicine79(8), pp.936-946.

Montiel-Castro, A.J., González-Cervantes, R.M., Bravo-Ruiseco, G. and Pacheco-López, G., 2013. The microbiota-gut-brain axis: neurobehavioral correlates, health and sociality. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience7, p.70.

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In the Zone

Have you ever had that feeling when you’re working on something where you are totally focused on the task and don’t notice time passing? This feeling of being completely absorbed and ‘in the zone’ is known in the field of psychology as flow. It has been described by one researcher as being the “optimal experience” under which to perfom (Csikszentmihályi, 1990).

According to Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi (2014), this state has the following features:

  • Intense concentration
  • Merging action and awareness
  • Loss of reflective self-consciousness (loss of self-awareness)
  • Feeling in control of your actions
  • Feeling as though time is passing quicker than normal
  • Feeling as though the task is rewarding

Whilst being enjoyable, research has shown that flow can also improve our performance in a range of situations, including sport, music and work (Young & Pain, 1999; Wrigley & Emmerson, 2013; & Bryce & Haworth, 2002). Flow is also commonly experienced whilst playing video games, and games are designed to make sure that players can stay in the flow state for as long as possible (Murphy, 2012) – which is what makes them so addictive!

However not every task can result in flow. If it is too hard, or so easy that we get bored and start to relax, we don’t experience flow.  Researchers in Denmark have investigated the workplace activities which can result in increased feelings of flow, and found that taking part in planning, problem solving and evaluation predicted a transient flow state (Neilson & Cleal, 2010). These activities all fit into the above criteria – being hard enough to be interesting but not so hard that they cause feelings of frustration.


As flow has been shown to improve performance, are there any ways we can practice entering this state of mind?

Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi (2014) argue that entering flow is all about our attention, or more specifically our ability to keep our attention focused on the task at hand. If we want to enter the flow state then we need to make sure that the task is challenging, with clear goals and appropriate feedback on our performance to ensure prolonged motivation. If we meet the challenges of a task we increase our skill, which means we can attempt slightly harder activities with a chance of succeeding, meaning we stay in the flow state (see diagram above).

As well as helping us improve our task performance, there is evidence to suggest that flow can also have longer lasting positive effects (Demerouti et al, 2012). One study measured levels of flow during working hours and found that workers who experienced flow had more energy at the end of the day.  When we’re busy or stressed at work, maybe it would be beneficial to structure tasks to help us enter a state of flow, both to improve our performance, and make sure we’re not too exhausted at the end of the day.



Bryce, J., & Haworth, J. (2002). Wellbeing and flow in sample of male and female office workers. Leisure Studies, 21, 249 –263

Csikszentmihályi, M. 1990 “FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1997. Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. HarperPerennial, New York, 39.

Demerouti, E., Bakker, A.B., Sonnentag, S. and Fullagar, C.J., 2012. Work‐related flow and energy at work and at home: A study on the role of daily recovery. Journal of Organizational Behavior33(2), pp.276-295.

Murphy, C., 2012. Why games work and the science of learning.

Nakamura, J. and Csikszentmihalyi, M., 2014. The concept of flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer Netherlands.

Nielsen, K. and Cleal, B., 2010. Predicting flow at work: Investigating the activities and job characteristics that predict flow states at work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology15(2), p.180.

Wrigley, W.J. and Emmerson, S.B., 2013. The experience of the flow state in live music performance. Psychology of Music41(3), pp.292-305.

Young, J.A. and Pain, M.D., 1999. The zone: Evidence of a universal phenomenon for athletes across sports. Athletic Insight: the online journal of sport psychology1(3), pp.21-30.

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Remarkable Women in Psychology

This week’s post is a special one in honour of International Women’s Day 2018. Whilst some of the most famous figures in psychology are men (think Freud, Jung, Milgram etc), this doesn’t mean that women haven’t made a massive contribution to the field. The work of female scientists should be celebrated, so I’ve picked 5 women who have made a real difference to the field of psychological research to profile below.

1. Mary Ainsworth


Born: 1913. Ohio, USA

Studied: University of Toronto

Most famous for: Devising the Strange Situation – a test to observe attachment type between an infant and their primary caregiver (to find out more about the Strange Situation read my blog post here). Her work makes up the cornerstone of attachment theory – that is the type of attachment an infant has to their primary caregiver (usually their mother). If an infant does not have secure attachment then it may result in emotional or behavioural problems later on in life.

2. Mamie Clark

mamie clark

Born: 1917. Arkansas, USA

Studied: Columbia University

Most famous for: Doing some of the first work into racial bias with young children in segregated America that went on to provide pivotal evidence in the United States Supreme Court case which ruled it was unconstitutional to have separate schools for white and black children. Her experiment used dolls of different skin tones and children were asked questions such as “show me the doll that looks bad” or “which doll would you like to play with?”. The experiment revealed a preference for the white doll, mimicking society at the time. It concluded that racial segregation caused psychological harm to children.

3. Anne Treisman


Born: 1935. Yorkshire, UK

Studied: University of Oxford

Most famous for: Developing Feature Integration Theory with Gelade in 1980. This states that the individual features of a stimulus (such as colour or shape) are processed simultaneously through an automatic process before object recognition occurs at a later stage. This process explains how we search for a target in a crowded field – if it has a distinctive feature like being a bright colour (e.g. a pink circle in a field of blue ones) then it seems to pop out automatically. However, processing takes longer if the target shares a feature with the distractors (imagine looking for a blue circle in a field of blue squares). In the first example processing happens automatically, whereas the second example requires more attention to find the target. This work has since gone on to form the basis of several new experiments in the field of cognitive psychology, and her paper with Gelade (Treisman & Gelade, 1980) has been cited over 100,000 times.

4. Elizabeth Loftus


Born: 1944. California, USA

Studied: Stanford University

Most famous for: Her work on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. In her well-known experiment, she showed participants a video of a car accident. She then asked half of them “How fast was the car going when it bumped into the other car?” and the other half “How fast was the car going when it smashed into the other car?”. The participants who were asked the second question were more likely to overestimate the speed the car was travelling. Her work in this field shows how careful interviewers must be when talking to eyewitnesses as leading questions can alter their perception of the event. She has gone on to advise courts in several famous cases, including that of OJ Simpson.

5. Dame Vicki Bruce


Born: 1953. Essex, England

Studied: University of Cambridge

Most famous for: Being a leader in the field of face recognition and eyewitness testimony. In 1986 she developed a Functional Model of Face Processing with Young (Bruce & Young, 1986) which states that there are 7 different codes that we use to process faces which, include expression, pictorial, and structural codes. The model explains how familiar faces are processed differently to unfamiliar ones, and why we have the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon, when we know we know someone’s name but can’t remember exactly what it is. She was awarded an OBE for services to psychology in 1997 and was made a Dame in 2015.



Were there any people profiled here that you hadn’t heard of before? It’s be really interesting to put this post together, but also frustrating at times – some female psychologists who I wanted to feature don’t have their own Wikipedia page, making it hard to find out their biographical information. This just goes to show that we should celebrate women in science! Please share, using the hashtag #internationalwomensday and if there’s anyone else you think I should have featured here please let me know in the comments below.



Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E. and Wall, S.N., 2015. Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.

Bruce, V. and Young, A., 1986. Understanding face recognition. British journal of psychology77(3), pp.305-327.

Loftus, E.F. and Palmer, J.C., 1996. Eyewitness testimony. In Introducing psychological research (pp. 305-309). Palgrave, London.

Treisman, A.M. and Gelade, G., 1980. A feature-integration theory of attention. Cognitive psychology12(1), pp.97-136.


Why do we forget?

I realised earlier today that whilst I’ve written several posts about memory, for example this one, about the different types of memory, the link between smell and memory, whether our memory is trustworthy, and about those with perfect memory syndrome, I’ve never actually written a post about the opposite – forgetting. Why is it that we often can’t remember something so simple as what we had to eat yesterday, or a piece of information we need to know for an exam? Read on to find out more..


One theory is the Trace Decay Theory of forgetting. This assumes that memories leave a trace in the brain, and if we don’t activate this trace (by thinking about the memory) then it fades, or decays. This theory involves our short term memory, which has a limited duration and can only hold onto information for around 30 seconds. However, it is actually pretty hard to test, meaning there isn’t much evidence to support it. It also doesn’t explain why people can remember things even though they haven’t thought about them for years, which is at odds with trace decay theory.

An alternative theory involving the short term memory is Displacement Theory. This theory is based on evidence which has shown the capacity of the short term memory to be between 5 and 9 items (Miller, 1956). Once new information enters our short term memory, other items in there are displaced. This has been illustrated by asking participants to remember a list of words. Results of experiments using this method have found that people are more likely to remember the words at the beginning and at the end, the ones in the middle have been ‘displaced’.


Interference Theory explains forgetting in terms of our long term memory. Have you ever typed in your old password and wondered why it wasn’t working? That’s an example of proactive interference – old knowledge interfering with what we know now. Or how about if you’ve broken your new phone and have to go back to using your old one, but keep pressing the wrong buttons? That’s retroactive interference – new knowledge interfering with what you used to know. Anderson (2003) explains interference as a failure of inhibition in the brain, whilst it might be useful to forget some things over time (e.g. what you had for dinner 3 weeks ago), there are other things which we need to remember, despite new learning. A single retrieval cue (such as sitting at your computer) can link to more than one memory (your old and new password), meaning the correct memory needs to be selected. However a problem with this mechanism means that as well as forgetting potentially distracting memories, problems with inhibiting other memories triggered by the same cue means that useful things are forgotten too.

The above theories assume that the memory has been forgotten because it no longer exists. But what if the problem isn’t with the memory itself, but the process of remembering known as retrieval? Retrieval failure happens when the memory is still contained in our long term memory, but we are unable to access it because certain cues are not there. These cues can be anything such as context about where you were when you learnt the information (external), or how you were feeling (internal). Goddon & Baddeley (1975) asked a group of divers to take part in a memory experiment. Half learnt a word list on land, and half underwater. Half of the group who learnt the list on land then had to recall the list on land, whilst the other half had to do this task underwater. The same happened to the participants in the underwater learning group. They found that participants who had to recall the words in the same setting as they learnt them in performed significantly better than those whose context had changed.

What about when forgetting is more serious? Amnesia is more severe than the types of forgetting we experience in day to day life, as it can involve forgetting large proportions of previous life events or information and is often caused by trauma to the brain. Perhaps the most famous case of amnesia was in Patient H.M., who had most of his hippocampus (structure in the centre of the brain which is thought to be responsible for long term memory) removed to cure his severe epilepsy. Whilst successful in reducing his seizures, he was left unable to retain any new information for more than a few minutes. If you’d like to read more about what H.M.’s case taught us about human memory, I’ve also written a post about that here.



Anderson, M.C., 2003. Rethinking interference theory: Executive control and the mechanisms of forgetting. Journal of memory and language49(4), pp.415-445.

Godden, D.R. and Baddeley, A.D., 1975. Context‐dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. British Journal of psychology66(3), pp.325-331.

Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.

Scoville WB, Milner B. J. 1957. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry. 20:11–21