What’s your story? When positive thinking works

This post is inspired by a book I read on holiday recently – Derren Brown’s Happy. In this book, Derren talks about ways we can change our mindset in order to feel more content, and builds on the Stoic principle that it is how we feel about events which causes them to affect us, not the events themselves. For example, we might worry about an upcoming presentation, getting ourselves really worked up and thinking of all the ways we could embarrass ourselves – tripping over, stumbling over our words, failing to hold the attention of the audience. The presentation becomes a source of dread. However if we were instead to put aside our worries and focus on preparing our slides we might feel more in control, and a whole lot calmer about the situation. Or alternatively noticing a scratch on our car could make us angry, wishing harm to come to the perpetrator and causing us to spend the whole day in a bad mood, being grumpy with others which makes us feel worse. Whilst to someone else this would be a minor annoyance, and not affect the rest of their day at all. So the same event can affect us differently, depending on how we feel about it, and our internal narrative.

In his book, Derren is unconvinced of the advice often given in popular modern self-help books, which state that we can achieve anything we want through the power of positive thinking. Want a promotion? All you need to do is think positively enough about it, convince yourself you’ll get one and the universe will reward you. If it doesn’t work out? Well you just weren’t thinking positively enough. This example seems fairly harmless, but what about when people with a serious illness are told they need to ‘think positive’ to help them get better? When of course some people don’t get better it is as though it is their fault, for not being positive enough.


However, he points out a type of positive thinking which can be useful, especially when it relates to our internal narratives, that is the stories we tell ourselves about our past. Some people are always lucky, others pride themselves in being hardworking, whilst some are always being hard done by. But is someone who thinks of themselves as lucky really lucky all of the time?   Our internal narratives are often affected by something call ‘confirmation bias’ – that is, we recognise all evidence which correlates with the theory we have about ourselves, and ignore anything to the contrary. So in the example of someone who thinks of themselves as lucky, they remember the one time they won first prize on a raffle, but forget that every week they play the lottery without reward, or all the other times where luck has failed them.

The affects of our internal narrative can be illustrated nicely by the following experiment, first done by Charisse Nixon at Penn State Erie University. To start, all you need to do is complete these 3 easy anagrams. They shouldn’t take very long, so if you haven’t solved it after 5 seconds, just move on to the next one. Here they are:


5 seconds.. if you don’t get it just move on.


Again, 5 second limit..



How did you do?

In this experiment, half the people in the room were given the same 3 anagrams to solve as those shown above. The other half were given the words TAB and LEMON instead of WHIRL and SLAPSTICK, but the last word, CINERAMA remained the same. Here’s the trick: the first two words that you were shown above were unsolveable (sorry), whereas the ones given to the other half of the people in the experiment were easy. Participants were asked to raise their hand when they’d solved each anagram, so of course the ones given BAT and LEMON raised their hands straight away. And this is the interesting bit – did you solve the last anagram, CINERAMA? The chances are you didn’t, and this was also the case for the participants in the experiment who had received that list of words too. Interestingly, most of the participants given the first two easy anagrams solved this last one without a problem. Whilst the first half had given up, thinking they were worse at this task than their peers, these participants were confident, having already completed two anagrams easily. So more of them were able to solve the last one too.

The phenomenon illustrated by this experiment is called ‘learned helplessness’. The participants given the unsolvable anagrams struggled with the task, whilst they saw their peers complete it easily. This caused them to feel like a failure, that this was something they weren’t very good at. And as a result, they were more likely to fail the last part of the task. This experiment shows the importance of your internal narrative and how it can affect different aspects of your life. If you’re interested, here’s a video showing this experiment in action.

As Derren says, the good news is that we are free to change our stories. They are concocted by us, and we have the power to alter our them – we don’t have to play out the same role every time.


Thoughts on starting a PhD…

As of last week, I am no longer a full-time employed person. Instead, I’ll be continuing working two days a week as a Research Associate, whilst being a full time PhD student! This isn’t really something which I was expecting to happen this year, as it was never in my career plan to do a PhD. The clinical doctorate to become a Clinical Psychologist always seemed more attractive, possibly because it seemed to flow quite nicely into a career I knew I’d find interesting, and you got paid whilst you were doing it. However, once I realised the tiny number of training places available compared to the number of applicants (probably because of the same reasons I wanted to do it!), I knew I needed to look at other plans.

This was where my job came in. I love what I do, working as a researcher on the Milestone Project – an international research study aiming to improve care for young people approaching the boundary of children and adolescent mental health services. There was an opportunity to do a PhD on the project, but no funding. I was encouraged to apply, and apply to a scholarship on the off chance (it was really competitive but no harm in trying) in case I was successful. A month or so later I found out I’d been offered a place – which led to another anxious 6 week wait until I discovered I had been lucky enough to be offered the scholarship!

Fast forward 6 months, and I’m looking forward to beginning the next stage in my career. It does feel quite daunting, about to being a project which I know will be extremely hard work, and last for the next 3 years (at least) but I’m excited to get started.

Is anyone else about to being a PhD? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

image credit: evocellnet.com




Ames Room Illusion

Today’s post is about a visual illusion which at first looks like there is some type of CGI or editing – but I promise it’s just how our brains interpret visual information! Have a look at this image below..

Ames room

In this ‘Ames Room illusion’ the girl appears to be much bigger when in the right hand corner of the room, compared to the girl on the left. However, if you were to take these girls out of the room and stand them next to each other, they would be exactly the same height. So what causes them to look so different?

The answer lies in the way the brain views objects in relation to their context. Even if we knew these girls were the same height, our brains would still interpret this image in the same way (therefore this illusion is ‘cognitively impenetrable’). At first glance, it looks like the girls are standing next to each other, although this isn’t strictly true. We assume that they are standing in a square room, because that’s generally the shape rooms are! However the image below shows it’s true shape, and explains why we view the figures in this way.2000px-Ames_room

The design of this room is so clever, because it is decorated to look square, but this illusion will only work if the scene is viewed from a specific point (see viewing peephole above). So the reason the girl on the left looks so small is simply because she’s further away. The two corners have the same visual angle from this viewing point, so they look as though there is a horizontal wall between them. Therefore, the image of this distorted room which is projected onto the retina is exactly the same as if the walls in the room are parallel. This is how we perceive the room, as our perception is influenced by prior knowledge of what rooms generally look like. This illusion is so strong that people seem to grow or shrink in size as they move from one corner to the other!

This illusion actually has some quite useful applications, mostly in film making instead of CGI when they need to create the effect of some characters being smaller. Notably – this was often used in Lord of the Rings to make the Hobbits seem smaller!

Piaget’s stages of development

Sorry this post is a day late – I had a job interview yesterday so didn’t have any time to write a post! This week, I thought I’d write about Piaget, who is regarded as the first psychologist to study cognitive development in children.

Piaget was interested in how children made sense of the world, and why they sometimes gave wrong answers to questions on intelligence tests. Through his observations, he realised that children think differently to adults, and that young infants think differently to older children.

He then categorised his findings into four stages of development, which he believed that all children must go through in order. These are shown in the image below.

Piaget’s stages of development:


Stage 1: sensorimotor

In this stage, infants knowledge of the world depends on their interactions with objects, and they are always experimenting with new objects. An important part of this stage is learning object permanence – that objects will continue to exist even when the infant cannot see them. Their knowledge begins to increase as they start to move around and learn to talk near the end of this stage

Stage 2: preoperational

Young children in this stage are learning to write and draw. However, at this stage they struggle with object constancy and logic. For example, they do not understand concepts of quantity and volume. Piaget demonstrated this in several experiments which involved manipulating the shape of objects. For example, he showed the child a short, fat beaker with water in, and asked them to say when he had filled an identical beaker with the same amount of water. He then poured the water from one of these beakers into a tall thin beaker, and asked them which beaker had more water in, or if they were the same. He found that children in this stage would pick the tall thin beaker, as they are influenced by the increased height.


Stage 3: concrete operational

Children in this stage have an improved understanding of logic, and are able to answer the above questions correctly, although they will struggle with more abstract concepts. It is during this stage that children develop a theory of mind, and realise that others can have different thoughts to them.

Stage 4: formal operational

Children in this final stage have a better understanding of logic and the world around them. They are able to apply their existing knowledge to solve problems and think more scientifically. They are also able to use abstract concepts such as algebra. This stage is the basis for an expansion of knowledge during adulthood.


Piaget emphasised that there is not just a change in the amount of information the child has as they get older, but a fundamental change in how they think about the world.

Thanks for reading!

Mirror Neurons

This post will explore a bit deeper into the functions of the brain – in particular how the brain learns to coordinate our movement and behaviours.

To put it simply, mirror neuron ‘fire’ a signal when an individual is carrying out an action or when they watch another person carry out the same action. This was first shown by Rizzolati et al in monkeys, when they found that the same neurons fired when they put a peanut in the their mouth, and when they watched another monkey do the same. This same effect was later found in humans.

Although this might seem useless, mirror neurons are thought to be involved in helping us learn to carry out new actions and social behaviours. They are located in the front part of the motor cortex, called the premotor cortex (shown below).


How else are mirror neurons important? Williams et al (2001) reviewed the evidence for a hypothesis for autism which states that certain social deficits are caused by problems with these mirror neurons, and concluded that early deficits with these neurons result in a “cascade” of later social issues. One of the characteristic deficits in children with autism is a lack of a ‘theory of mind’ (Baron-Cohen et al) – read more about this here. Theory of mind is the ability to know that others can see the world differently to ourselves. Several studies have shown that early imitation plays a role in developing social behaviour, as well as the fact that autistic children can show deficits in imitating actions. A slightly different view has also been put forward – that mirror neurons directly allow us to understand others (and so develop theory of mind). Baron-Cohen et al (1999) provided further evidence in an fMRI study, and found that participants with autism showed less activation of mirror neuron areas during a task which involved interpreting emotions (when compared to controls).

Although it is definitely too simplistic to view autism as solely a disorder caused by a problem with mirror neurons, I found this link really interesting and thought I’d share it with you all. Thank you for reading – see you next week and for those of you who wanted to read the whole Williams et al paper find it here.


Hey, I hope you’ve enjoyed my last few posts about developmental psychology, here is the last one in this mini-series: Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

ADHD is an umbrella term for a developmental disorder which can be split into 3 different subtypes: inattention, hyperactivity, or combined (this is the most common form). In total, around 2-5% of school children in the UK are thought to suffer (NHS choices). Different levels of explanation have been hypothesised to account for these symptoms, including brain structure and cognitive function, but I’ll explain these later on. First, lets look at the rigorous diagnostic criteria – there has been a lot in the press about ADHD being over-diagnosed as an excuse for bad behaviour, and some don’t believe it is mental health condition at all!  See what you think about this after reading the DSM-IV criteria for yourselves.

A: child must exhibit 6 or more of the symptoms in each category (inattention & hyperactivity) and symptoms must have persisted for at least 6 months, at a level inconsistent for developmental level.

B: these symptoms must occur before the age of 7.

C: the symptoms must occur in 2 or more settings.

D: there must be clear evidence of clinically significant impairment in social functioning or academic performance.

E: symptoms cannot be explained by another disorder.

The figure below outlines the symptoms of the different subtypes of ADHD:


Now you know the symptoms, and how ADHD is diagnosed, lets move on to possible causes:

1: Brain Function

Durstan et al (2003) carried out an experiment using the Go/NoGo task using children with and without ADHD. In this task, participants have to respond when they see a certain cue, e.g. press a button when they see a green square, but refrain from responding when they see a different cue e.g. red square. The researchers found that children with ADHD were more likely to respond on NoGo trials – they failed to inhibit their response. This corresponded with lower levels of activity in control-related circuits in the brain, such as the caudate nucleus and the frontal lobe.

2. Cognitive Deficit

This problem with inhibition has also been explained in terms of a cognitive deficit, for example, Barkley (1997) hypothesised that impairments in executive function cause deficits when sufferers have to inhibit a response.

3. Genetics

Franke et al (2009) carried out a review of studies which has estimated the heritability of ADHD, and found the average was 76%, suggesting a genetic cause. Although this research is still in its infancy, they suggested that some abnormality of neurotransmitters could contribute to the symptoms.

Thank you for reading, I’m doing my best to upload every Thursday so check back next week for another post!

Theory of Mind?

As adults, we take it for granted that we know what others are thinking may be different to our own view. Not everyone likes the same things, or has the same beliefs. However, knowing that others have their own interpretations of the world is a skill which is acquired during childhood, and is known as Theory of Mind.

One of the methods used to test at what age children develop this skill are false belief tasks, e.g. the Maxi task (Wimmer & Perner, 1983). In this task, infants see a puppet, Maxi, put a chocolate in a green draw. Maxi leaves, and his mum moves the chocolate to a blue draw. Infants are then asked ‘Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?’ To check any mistakes are not caused by a memory error, they are also asked if they remember where Maxi put the chocolate at the beginning. There is a 50/50 chance of infants getting the right answer, however this study found that only children over the age of 5 performed above chance level – in other words, had developed a Theory of Mind. 80% of children who answered the false belief question wrong got the memory question right showing that their mistake was not due to forgetfulness.


However, this task has been criticised for being too complicated for young children to understand. The question ‘Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?’ could also be misleading, as it could be interpreted as ‘where will he look for (and find) the chocolate?’ Therefore, Seigal & Beattie (1991) repeated this task, but asked children either ‘Where will Maxi look?’ or ‘Where will Maxi look first?’ They found that only 35% of 3-4 year olds answered correctly when asked the original question, and this rose to 71% for the new manipulation. However, as 29% still did not answer correctly, it shows the question does not explain all of the poor performance.

Another method used to measure Theory of Mind are deception tasks. To deceive someone shows that you understand they can hold a different belief to your own. Chandler et al (1989) tested this with young children, who were shown a video of a doll with dirty shoes hiding a treasure in a container, leaving a trail of footprints. The child had to think of a way of deceiving someone who did not see this, so that they would not know where the treasure was hidden. Interestingly, they found that younger children (aged around 2 ½) were better than slightly older children (around 3 ½) at choosing deceiving strategies such as wiping out the genuine trail or laying a false one. However, from 4 years of age, performance increases.

These studies suggest that Theory of Mind is acquired at around the age of 4-5. However, there is still some debate about whether this ability is caused by gradual development, or a sudden shift. It is now thought more likely that this is skill is gradually learnt, as older children can fail to show complete Theory of Mind, without passing false belief tasks.

There is also evidence that Theory of Mind is not fully acquired in children with autism until they are much older. Baron-Cohen et al (1985) carried out a false belief tasks with children with autism, and healthy controls. They found that at the same age, 80% of the autistic children failed, whereas 87% of controls passed. While deficits in Theory of Mind cannot account for all of the symptoms of autism, and not all autistic children fail false belief tasks (20% passed in the Baron-Cohen study), problems with this skill could be a result of other cognitive deficits, such as planning, inhibition, and belief flexibility.

I’ll stop here before this blog post turns into 1000’s of words long, but please check back soon for my next post on autism in childhood.


Hi everyone, welcome to my new blog 🙂

My name’s Becky Appleton and I’m an Experimental Psychology student at Oxford University. I’ve been wanting to write a blog for a while, but didn’t really ever get round to it but – finally – here it is!

I want this blog to be a bit of everything psychology-related, from neuroscience to memory, pyschological disorders and social conformity. Although I’m not aiming this at people studying psychology, I’d like to think it will be useful in explaining some key topics. Most importantly, I want this to help explain psychology to those who just find the topic interesting and enjoyable, and are keen to learn more.

Hope you like it!

Becky 🙂