Ethics & Sensitive Research

April 27, 2012 2 comments


The four ethical principles outlined by the British Psychological Society are identified as the need to consider autonomy (informed consent), non-maleficence (to do no harm), beneficence (the benefit of research must on balance out-weigh the risk) and justness (research strategies must be fair and just).  As most of us are now aware these guidelines form the basis of the occupational codes of conduct that research psychologists must follow throughout their working lives, Beauchamp & Childress, 1994.  This is so researchers can protect both the interests of their participants but also themselves from potential ill-effects.  So it is prudent to recognise, where ethical codes are most commonly challenged?

As the researcher moves away from the controlled environment of the laboratory to a situation where they enter into the lives of individuals it can introduce unpredictability and ambiguity.  Ethical concerns are therefore most commonly raised in situations of qualitative research as its emergent nature presents challenges to full and thorough assessment Robertson, 2000.  Participants’ lives may have been affected by either child abuse, or domestic violence, or rape, or prostitution, or homelessness, or disability and so researchers need to be mindful that they are interfacing with the both the marginalised and the vulnerable, and so with such emotionally charged topics inevitably ethical boundaries will be challenged.  Some researchers have even questioned whether such areas should ever be approached by research asking questions such as “should they be mining the minds of the vulnerable”, Cherry Russell, 1999.  Although, Morse 2000, rebuts such views and vehemently argues that there is greater moral reason for researching the vulnerable and thus consequently outweighs any cost of potential harm.  Additionally that development of services and provisions to support the vulnerable is dependent upon such research, Beaver et al., 1999.

Carol Gilligan, 1977, 1982 suggested an ethic of care, one that highlights the importance of care and compassion in research relations that not only applies to individuals but one that extends beyond to families and social groups, Israel & Hay, 2006.  The consideration of care within ethics signifies important implications for researchers as it broadens the moral and ethical frameworks to recognise the wider implications for both community and politics.  Paradis, 2000 reflects upon her own research conducted with homeless women and acknowledges that “homeless women are vulnerable to harm as individuals but also in the wider sense as a community because they are often stigmatized and many become victims of prostitution and suffer further marginalisation”.  

The challenge facing researchers then is to develop methods of enquiry that minimise the potential for further harm to be caused to vulnerable individuals as a consequence of investigation.   Therefore can you offer any other examples of how researchers may be comprised when investigating the vulnerable or marginalized and what methods might you apply in order to minimise and overcome the potential for further maleficence?

Categories: Uncategorized

IEP (Individual Education Plan) for SEN (Special Educational Needs) – Is it a valid & reliable measure of a Childs Progress?

March 25, 2012 1 comment

1993 saw the introduction of the Education Act, this set out a code of practice for the identification and assessment of children with special educational needs.  In 1994 the Department of Education recommended IEP’s as the designated method for measuring and monitoring the progress of children with special needs in various educational settings.  But how effective are Individual Education Plans and do they actually measure what they are supposed to measure?  Thus, obviously the educational progress of a child, evidence on the validity and reliability of the IEP is conflicting.

Butt and Scott (1994) claim that the IEP provides evidence to support educators are meeting with statutory obligations to children with SEN as set out in the Framework for the Inspection for Schools, Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) 1993/1995.  But this claim is fiercely debated by educators who hold contrasting views on which approaches may be best suited to special education.  In fact there are those who believe the IEP has no place within the education process.

The argument against the use of measures such as the IEP is largely rooted in rejection of the behavioural approach to education which is thought to underpin the concept.  Furthermore, because behaviourist approaches are essentially viewed as having origins in reductionism.  The most fundamental implication for education being that learning objectives should be set and thus accordingly, skills, concepts and knowledge should be broken down to enable understanding of the whole.

However, those in support of constructivist approaches to education like Goddard (1997) vehemently contest the application of the behavioural approach to human learning.  He argues current behavioural approaches to SEN, specifically the use of the IEP takes an over simplistic and reductionist view by rationalising a child’s education to the need for meeting objectives.  Rettinger, Waters and Poplin (1989) claim these methods discount other aspects of education of equal value such as creativity, socialisation and child led learning.  Moreover that complexity of human learning should be viewed as a process rather than fragmented stages as endorsed by the use of IEP’s, Popplin (1988).

Nevertheless the use of the IEP within special needs education still dominates, despite growing evidence weighted against its continuation.  Forness (1988), claims reductionist approaches of the past decade have failed to provide satisfactory special education.  Poplin (1995), suggests laws that endorse individual plans also set limits for special education.  Weist and Kreil (1995), intimate teachers feel constrained by the rigid objectives of the IEP.  Goddard (1995), proposes the IEP is evidence of failure to improve special education.  Evidence from Iano (1996),  reinforces educational measures of the IEP are not succeeding in improving standards of learning. 

In January 2011 the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) commissioned a new study by researchers from Birmingham University and St Patrick’s College of Education, Dublin.  The research aims to investigate and address how best to measure the progression of children with special educational needs and in doing so it will consider international practice.  The NCSE’s report that led to the commissioned research highlighted a serious lack of evidence on the outcomes of current methods applied to special education.  The commission appears to be pioneering research which could ultimately bridge the evidence gap within special education and it may provide long awaited answers of how best to measure and monitor a child’s educational progress.  Nevertheless, it is incredible to think that this oversight is only now being addressed.  The need for further research clearly validates scepticism in the viability of paradigm’s and measures such as IEP presently in use within special education.

ESPEN Act 2004, states “people with special educational needs shall have the same right to avail of benefit from appropriate education as do their peers to assist children with special educational needs to leave school with the skills necessary to participate, to the level of their capacity, in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and to live independently and fulfilled lives”.

A final thought.  If the validity and reliability of the underlying paradigms and measures of special education are questionable and there is presently is no evidence to support these measures lead to effective outcomes.  Can it truly claim to be delivering?

Categories: Uncategorized

Approaching Sensitive Research

March 11, 2012 6 comments

Research and literature on child abuse has increased since the 1960’s and it has initiated the International Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect.  Although despite increased awareness of the issue, there is still a lack of research in terms of intervention and treatment.  What may be available is not always transferable into agency settings either due to lack of resources or time constraints that prevent thorough evaluation of recommendations.

Research on the subject normally falls within five categories of studies.  This may involve definition of the issue because abuse can vary in form and overtime so definitions will evolve.  Or it may involve epidemiology studies that will consider the socio-demographics and the levels of incidence. Or it may involve typology studies which will consider the division of abusive families according to similar characteristics.  Or it may involve therapeutic studies which will describe the work that may take place with families.  Or finally management studies which will consider the law, service delivery and inter-agency interface.  Despite the diverse types of research common features of each will be the intimate nature of subject matter at its core and the necessity for sensitive research.

The term “sensitive research” has broad interpretations, it is only by exploring different scenarios of research that one can fully understand and appreciate the meaning behind the terminology.  Research has many variables, from the choice of subject matter under investigation, to the location at which it is conducted, to the type of methodology applied.  Consequently, the diverse scenarios have made definition of the exact nature of sensitive research difficult.   Many contemporary psychologists have deliberated over this matter whilst attempting to reach a consensus view. 

Sieber & Stanley (1988;49) defined ‘socially sensitive’ research as ‘investigation involving consequences or implications for participants or the class they represent’.  But this is an over generalised definition which could arguably be applied to most research.  Lee (1993:4) offers one of the more widely accepted definitions of sensitive research.  This is the topic, the consequence, the situation and any number of other issue’s that may arise by saying that sensitive research is ‘that which may pose a threat to those who are or have been involved’.  If then we consider the investigation of behaviours such as child abuse, rape, and domestic violence, it becomes very clear why some areas of research may be more challenging, complex and difficult to conduct.

Of course the perceived sensitivity of a research subject will often depend on factors such as culture, age or gender at which it is directed.  According to Lee (1993) sensitive research may pose an intrusive threat, such as revealing sexual practices.  Or it may pose a threat of sanction, such as exposing criminal conduct.  Or even a political threat, such as exposing flaws within the systems of social control.  Although more qualitative approaches may involve supporting the researched to reveal extremely personal experiences that may typically involve reliving either acts of deviance, force or control. 

Oakley, 1981; Stanley & Wise, 1991; suggest that researchers need to form a special relationship with their participants.  Although, Oakley 1981:58 suggests that personal involvement can introduce unsafe bias, because inevitably it will involve participants and researcher needing to become familiar with one another and aspects of their lives.  This level of interface with a participant is an important element of researching sensitive issues but moreover highly influential to the subjective nature of qualitative interview.   Because rather than qualitative interview seeking to establish causes for behaviour, it aims to explore and seize the experiences of participants.

Ramos (1989:59) highlights concerns surrounding the use of in-depth interview referring to the ‘Pandora’s box’ effect, whereby the use of probing questionnaires will almost always evoke the distress and memories of trauma. By Contrast Hutchinson, Wilson & Wilson 1994; claim that participants express that interview provides the opportunity for release and expression which many claim acts as therapy, which in turn leads to empowerment and a regained sense of purpose. 

However Patton (1990) argues that although interview for all the aforementioned reasons may seem like intervention, its primary objective is to gather data and not to modify individual’s behaviours.  These are the diverse range of effects which researchers must be appropriately skilled and prepared to manage.  Therefore in researching sensitive issues researchers should demonstrate a fusion of good judgement, consideration of ethics and protection of participant well-being but whilst also remembering the main objective that is investigation.

Qualitative research is usually the favoured method of researchers who relate to constructivist theory.  A key concept of the theory is the belief that there are many truths and many realities (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005b; Daly 2007).  The concept is further explained by Vertsthen (Weber, 1949) with the notion that researchers should be prepared to impart their own experiences and emotions with the researched as a means to gaining access to their lives and in order to fully understand the meanings of their experiences. 

Qualitative methodology often receives criticism due to the subjective nature of the researched and researcher interpretation but it is often misunderstood.  Qualitative data can be converted to quantitative data using ratings scales from which more scientific claims can be made.  Therefore research should not choose to ignore sensitive issues because they may present more of a challenge to its methodologies.  But rather persevere with the challenges that sensitive issues present, because it can only ever hope to provide answers and prevention by exploring the how they affect individual’s lives.

 ‘Researchers must confront seriously and thoroughly the issues that these topics pose’.  Lee & Renzetti (1993:10). 

‘The province of qualitative research… the world of lived experience’. (Denzil & Lincoln, 2005). 

Categories: Uncategorized

Communication Disorders: Research, Approaches, Measurement & Intervention.

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

During the Brain and Mind lectures we were given insight to the complexities of speech, language and comprehension.  We were able to observe the distinct regions of the brain involved in these different processes.  Moreover, how patients with damage to specific regions, have provided evidence to support the double disassociation of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.  Damage to Broca’s region causing impairment of speech production, or damage to Wernicke’s area causing impairment of speech comprehension, also known as Broca’s or Wernicke’s Aphasia.    It’s important to note that whilst this distinction provided the beginnings of neuropsychological investigations of language.  There are however many communication disorders that exhibit combined impairment of both speech production and language comprehension.  These are disorders which are not a result of brain damage but rather children whose brains are developing differently.  Unfortunately, in such scenario’s plasticity theories offer little to no hope.

By four years of age most children have the ability to communicate through language and by seven years of age comprehension has typically developed.  So many take this ability for granted, yet there are growing numbers of children with (SLI) Speech and Language Impairment who do not develop speech and language typically.  Statistical figures for prevalence and incidence of language disorders for the UK are difficult to obtain this may be due to the following factors.  Often such disorders are accompanied by social stigma and therefore parents can be reluctant to register their child as having a disability.  As a nation we appear to be further behind the Americans in our approaches to identification and classification of such disorders.  Additionally similarities in the characteristic traits of communication disorders can make clear and accurate diagnosis a tricky process.  Furthermore a child’s circumstance and age may also contribute to whether or not they are identified.  Finally a general lack of awareness in society means that many children, especially those who are affected to a lesser degree can fail to be recognised as having difficulties.  All such factors may culminate and contribute to why the demographics remain so evasive.

The American Speech, Language and Hearing Association report the following figures of incidence and prevalence in the US.  Between 2%-19% of preschool children have language difficulties.  Speech and language impairment is one of the most common childhood disorders, affecting approximately 7% of children entering school and it is associated with later difficulties in learning to read.  2003 figures for the numbers of children between ages 3-21 receiving services for speech or language disorders was 1,460,583 (24.1%).   Astonishingly, these figures do not include children who have speech and language problems secondary to other conditions. These figures highlight the necessity for continued research of communication disorders.  Speech, language and comprehension are the fundamental tools that mediate our functioning and behaviour within society and this is why differences need to be exhaustively researched.  

Research undoubtedly provides the foundations for designs of intervention.  Only through research of measures can we fully appreciate and validate the effectiveness of intervention.  There is then, a significant relationship between research and the scientific credibility associated with therapy.  Categories of research are split between the domains of either applied or theoretical.  (SLT) Speech and Language Therapy as one may suspect, aims to deliver intervention with positive outcome.  In contrast, theoretical research explores and investigates the likely causes of communication impairments.  Theoretical research can take time to complete and this is often the source of much frustration to therapist’s who are eager to deliver intervention.  Theoretical and applied researchers may be at opposite ends of a spectrum, but the relationship and interface between both parties is crucial to the success of any (SLT) programme.

There are alternative approaches to the research of children with communication disorders.  Approaches may involve experiments, quasi-experiments, observational studies, interviews or even questionnaires.  Researchers may even choose triangulation also referred to as “cross-examination” methods.  This would involve combining more than one method of investigation.  This method normally acts as a safe guard against any flaws, weaknesses or bias within the independent studies.

An example of the experimental approach may involve randomly dividing children into two groups thus ensuring comparability in their average effect.  Group one may be exposed to therapy whereas group two would be the control group that is not exposed to treatment.  In this true type of experiment therapy is the independent variable being manipulated and measured for effect.  However, in a true type experiment of this nature the study of behaviour is somewhat compromised by the need for control of other variables, of course this would never occur in a real life setting and so these type of experiments are criticised for inducing a-typical behaviours.

Quasi-experiments differ from true experiments because they cannot ever claim cause and effect.  This is mainly due to the fact that in this type of investigation variables are less rigorously controlled, normally due to the nature of the investigation.  For example, a researcher may be interested in the factors that are influential to language recovery in children having suffered seizures.  Therefore the researcher may wish to consider factors such as the age of subjects, severity and nature of epilepsy, the level of support the child is receiving from the family, the school and the type of intervention.  Therefore the researchers aim is to gather information on all of these variables and establish if a there is an apparent relationship between them and the child’s language recovery.  This is known as a correlational approach to investigation.

Other approaches to investigation involve either interview or observation.  These are the two most expansive methods and they stem from the belief that we can understand the most about behaviour from either asking or watching those who are directly engaged in it.  This may be achieved through either conducting interviews or questionnaires or by either means of co-vert or overt observation.  Typically a researcher may pre-define behaviours they wish to monitor before an investigation and measure how often it occurs.

Research in this area is met with serious challenges in terms of measure.  For example, will one measurement capture the entire picture to facilitate meaningful intervention?  Think about how we would approach measuring discussion with a child.  Children don’t naturally engage with strangers and less so in unfamiliar surroundings.  Therefore it may be more conducive to investigations to ask a family member to take part in the assessment.  Giralometto (1997) describes such a method where parents take on the role as assessor of their child’s communication, arguing that it is they who often know them the best.

Think about how we may measure the level of a child’s dysfluency.  We may be able to count a stammer but how do we characterise it?  Counting it may provide us with quantitative data but it tells us little about the impact it may be having on the child’s self-image, which if negative can often be further perpetuating factor.  Yaruss (2001), highlighted the need for development of research into this area, he suggested that historically designs were choosing measures of ease, such as stammer counts, rather than those measures of real merit such as social engagement because they may be more difficult to obtain.  Sadly such issues can also influence the types of therapy that are available.  For example, therapist may be required to deliver programmes that are geared towards resolving wider communication difficulties within children such as delay’s in speech development which then fails to address the needs of children with more complex difficulties.

Research of the impact of communication disorders on social interaction is another important factor which is notoriously difficult to simulate in a laboratory setting.  Children are less likely to engage freely in play when they are aware of being observed by researchers.  To resolve this problem it may be more conducive for researchers to encourage teachers to conduct assessments and interpret a child social ability and thus providing a more accurate and objective measure.  Fujiki et al. (2001) investigated social interaction within a group of children with language impairment whilst comparing them to a controlled group of non-language impaired children.  The researcher video recorded interactions and classified behaviour every 5 seconds and evaluated the scores from both groups.  The merit of this type of research is that it facilitates realistic behaviours within a realistic setting and therefore the findings are high ecological validity.

To conclude communication difficulties can be painfully frustrating for a child and they can lead to maladaptive behaviours which can be difficult to separate and distinguish from other conditions.  Communication disorders are recognised as having similar characteristics, especially in the young.  Because of such overlaps, they have been difficult to distinguish and correctly treat.  With continued research classification systems can improve and we can expand on our understanding of these types of disorders, in future we may then be able to provide better treatment in terms of therapy.   

Latest Technological Advances:

Dr Brian Pasley of University California and his team have developed new technology that has the capability to decode auditory information.  This technology has huge potential and it could provide the key to un-locking the Aphasic world.  At present the technology is able to decode and distinguish spoken words but this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the technology can offer.  The developers are optimistic that in future they will have technology that can reconstruct speech from thoughts. 


Categories: Uncategorized

Twins Studies & Epigenetics

February 4, 2012 8 comments


I have friends who are non-identical twin brothers and I am pretty sure that most people who have socialised with twins will agree to how intriguing their behaviour and mannerisms often are.  Like many people I am fascinated by their physical similarity in appearance, but moreover by what intriguing similarities or differences may lie beneath the superficiality.  These very factors are at the core of scientific research involving twin’s studies and have led to important discoveries in terms of the role of genetics and heritability of disorder and disease. 

What about the Science?

Twin studies have provided the scientific community the opportunity to dissect and scrutinise the nature versus nurture debate. Research has involved the comparison of monozygotic or identical twins who share 100 % of their genes, to Dyzygotic or fraternal twins who share only 50% of their genes.  This type of comparative research has enabled the exploration of the roles that genes play compared to the environment and the balance of such factors involved in shaping individuals personality, behaviour and susceptibility. 

What have Twins Studies revealed to date?

Scientists have investigated rates of concordance for disease such as Schizophrenia and disorder such as Autism.  Research has revealed higher rates of incidence for those who share greater genetic similarity.  Evidence from this research supports the claim that genes and heritability are more influential to development of disease or disorder as opposed to the environment. 

Twins Studies & Epigenetic Research…the missing link!

Most recently, a new field of investigation has entered the realm of the nature versus nature debate.  Whereas past research involving twins has focused on their similarities, the new field of Epigenetics considers the likely cause of difference between twins.  The field of Epigenetics has extended previous research and it claims to offer a third factor that may be the key to unlocking the nature versus nurture debate. 

So what is Epigenetics?  Epigenetics investigates how factors such as stress and nutrition can affect gene performance.  Research suggests that Epigenetic tags or chemical mechanisms are attached to genes that can mutate in cases where individuals are exposed to environmental factors such as stress or poor nutrition.  

Epigenetics provides a feasible explanation then, for why in certain cases of monozygotic or identical twins, who despite sharing 100% of their genes, present with dramatic differences in the degree to which they are affected by disorders such as Autism.   

Epigenetics is an exciting new area of research that is receiving wider acknowledgement and acceptance as an additional intrinsic factor in the shaping individual’s behaviour.  Consequently it is receiving greater access to funding from within the global scientific community. 

The twin brothers with whom I am friends both have sons who have been diagnosed with Autism and I too have a son diagnosed with Autism, we have also had subsequent children who do not have the disorder.  A common thread that seems to run through our stories is that all of our children with the disorder suffered trauma either in-utero or during the first year of their lives.  Our stories and I’m sure many others provide evidence that corroborates the claims of Epigenetic research.

The Take Home Message!

This field of research is further demonstrating that nature and nurture are complex inter-twined causal explanations for the shaping of individuals behaviour rather than separate alternative explanations.  By understanding how gene mutations occur as a consequence of environmental factors, we may in future be able to prevent disease and disorder or at least have greater understanding and awareness of the causal factors.

Other Twins Studies & More Scientific Advances:

Once a year a festival takes place in the town of Twinsburg Ohio, aptly named so by its founders who were twin brothers.  During the festival period the town is besieged by many hundreds of twins.  Each year the festival has exhibitors of relevance to all matters pertaining to twins. 

Most recently exhibitors have included Patrick Flynn and colleagues, Computer Scientists from University of Notre Dame who have pioneered the latest in face-recognition software.  Flynn and his team took twin volunteers to participate in being photographed, finger printed and providing retinal scans.  Flynn’s objective is to establish whether this innovation in technology has the precision to distinguish between identical twins. 

Other exhibitors include the Monell Chemical Senses Centre of Philadelphia who can test and compare twins taste responses to alcohol.  Medical Doctors from Cleveland University hospitals whom are investigating women’s heath issues and Dermatologists from Proctor and Gamble whom are investigating the effects of skin damage.

Categories: Uncategorized

The God Blog.

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Blog Week 12

The journal article I have chosen to blog about in Week 12 is concerned with the “Neural Correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns”.  The Article was published in 2006 by co-contributors Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette.  This particular article provides intriguing reading and reveals the possibility that neuroscience may provide scientific evidence of Religious, Spiritual and Mystical Experiences (RSME’s) in individuals. 

The objective of the experiment was to establish the neural foundations for experiences that are Religious, Spiritual or Mystical in nature. Therefore the Researchers Hypothesis is that “’there is a relationship between RSME’s and neural activity”.  The sample selection considered a group of fifteen Carmelite nuns with ages ranging from 23-64 with a mean age of 49.93 and a standard deviation of 11.27.   This sample involved nun’s whose average affiliation with the order was 19.27 years standard deviation 11.49, range 2-37.  Nuns were reported to have no known psychiatric or neurological disorders and neither were they smokers or taking any medications.  Additionally nine of the nuns were discovered to be menopausal.

The investigation involved a within group design who were exposed to three manipulated conditions.  During the experimental Mystical condition participants were asked to relive their most intense mystical experience whilst practising as a nun.   The controlled condition involved participants reliving their most intense state of union with another person whilst being associated with the order.  The third and base line condition involved participants just assuming a restful state with their eyes closed.  Participants were asked to relieve these conditions one week prior to the actual treatments in order to familiarise themselves with the test parameters. 

The test parameters where as follows:

Rest Block (30 seconds)

Controlled Block (5 mins)

Rest (1 min)

Controlled Block (5 mins)

Rest (1 min)

Mystical Block (5 mins)

Rest (1 min)]

Mystical Block (5mins)


Test parameters for the investigation were motivated by factors such as providing enough time for transfer between states, to avoid contamination from Mystical block to control block and to reduce participant fatigue.  Subsequent to the investigation participants experiences during the study were measured according to a numerical rating scale.

0)      No experience of union to 5) most intense experience of union ever felt.


General findings provide evidence to support that many brain regions and systems mediate mystical experiences.  The study revealed that during Mystical experiences complicated functions are at work such as perception, cognition and emotion.  Moreover that during the Mystical experience that scans showed very specific regions of brain activation.  Although of most intrigue is the fact that in the conditions of Mystical and Control, were one would expect patterns of brain activation to be fairly comparable due to similarities in the experiences of union.  That conversely mapping actually revealed very distinct and separate regions of brain activity.

As part of the blog task I am required to respond two specific questions.  The first is whether the title of the journal article accurately summarises and reflects the nature of the studies design and finding?  Following appraisal of the article I find the title to be both a fair and true representation of the study’s design and findings.  I arrive at this conclusion because firstly the investigation undertaken used objective scientific methods in its use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) to facilitate mapping of brain functions and neural activity.  Furthermore the evidence provided as a consequence of experimental design supports that during the Carmelite nuns induced state of union with God, brain activity was observed in specific regions of the brain and this therefore supports the likelihood of a correlation between the experience and actual neural activity.  Furthermore that there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that RSME’s seems to be linked to Temporal Lobe Epilepsy TLE.

It is important to acknowledge that although the investigation used scientific and objective methods of brain mapping it also utilised qualitative methods of data extrapolation such as interviewing all participants following scanning.  This is an area of weakness within the study because the term Mystical may have alternative meaning for many.  How therefore can it be categorised?  Although the researcher’s has made attempts to control such subjectivity by implementation of a Mystical ratings system, however many will argue that such qualitative data is subjective and unsafe from which to make generalisations.  Additionally the choice of a within group design is reductionist in approach, as it has limited the opportunity to investigate differences between groups.  An extension of the study may consider other religious or spiritual groups to ascertain whether there are similarities or differences between religions groups.  Or differences or similarities in religious experiences between the genders involved such religious orders. 

The second question is what conclusions are the news report and headline inferring and is it warranted given the description of the study?  The news headline gives the reader the false impression that the science is contesting the existence of god which is completely misleading.  Although in contrast half way into the article there is a quote from the Neuroscientist Dr Mario Beauregard which categorically states that the study “neither confirms nor disconfirms the existence of god”.  The news headlines do exactly what new headlines are supposed to do which is to get the attention of the reader, although technically yes it is media misrepresentation of facts.  However, what better way is there than to take the angle of belief v non-belief in order to attract a buyer, who in most cases will be ignorant to developments in Neuroscience.  I think the article conveys the science in a fairly accurate way that uses language that can be understood by the masses making the science accessible to the masses.

The websites liisted below highlight the importance of further investigation into Spiritual Neuro-Science or Neurotheology as it is sometimes known, but also even Parapsychology. I once watched an intriguing documentary concerning Exorcism in which Neurological Scientist provided scientific explanations for previously unexplainable behaviours believed to be demonic possessions.  Explanations from the scientific perspective included Epileptic Seizures but also Tourette’s syndrome and even Autism.  Please take a look at the links for further information, I couldn’t find the exact documentary but these are just as informative and fascinating. 🙂

Website of Interest:

For further series of the Real Story of Exorcism see U tube.


Beauregard, M. & Paquette, V. (2006) The neural correlate of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns, Science direct. Doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2006.06.060.

Highfeild, R. (2006) Nuns prove god is not figment of the mind. The Telegraph.

Categories: Uncategorized

Decisions, Decisions “Bad ones make good Stories”!!!

November 27, 2011 2 comments

I have had plenty of inspiration for Week 10’s blog from both personal circumstance and from other sources.   I read an interesting article in New Scientist which is extremely relevant to our Health and Clinical Psychology Module and I feel it is particularly associated to “Risky Behaviours”.   I may even elaborate a little on my good self as a case study.  This week’s blog will therefore consider the processes involved in “decision making”.   Decision making is something that at times unfortunately I can confess to being very poor at.  In fact some decisions I have made have led to undesirable outcomes.  Yet even with the passing of time, I continue on with my intentions regardless, heading single minded for the desirable outcome.  This is often in spite of the fact that I know, that most likely, all will not end well.   Anyway’s there is no-one more risky than my screen idol Samantha re: (Sex in the City), like her I never seem to learn that sometimes making less bad decisions may actually lead to more positive outcomes ha!

So what are the processes of decision making all about, I hear you ask?  Well in 1654 Blaise Pascal and Pierre Fermat two respected mathematicians were discussing games of chance and these discussions formed the basis for the theory of probability.  The theory of probability was developed throughout the 20th Century and eventually it led to decision theory.  Decision theory proposes that humans are “rational optimisers”.  So in simple terms this can be explained by when we are given choices we often weigh up our options and our intentions are based upon a cost versus benefit analysis.  In most situations we make our choices based upon achieving the most desirable outcome, also referred to as the reward.  However if we think carefully about many of our own individual experiences of decision making, I’m sure many of us would question this theory.  For example, are we rational at all times?  Or do we just make spontaneous and accurate estimates of probability in situations where relevant information is available. 

Decision theory tends to adhere to the assumption of the cognitive approach that views humans similarly to computers, as mere logical processors of information but if taken in isolation this is also a reductionist perspective.  So we should return to the question that is whether we are always logical in our decision making.  Well obviously there are many situations when humans demonstrate illogical and irrational decision making in life.  Examples include, when a young man with alcohol related problems decides to drive his car to work in the morning following an all-night drinking session.   Or when a married woman risks destroying her marriage and family for a few hours of guilty pleasure with another man, what drives such decision making?  Surely these examples demonstrate that we are just slightly more adapted versions of the apes with cognitive functions which at times may or may not guide us through our decision making processes.  Decision theory tends to overlook this reality, preferring rather to band aid such weaknesses in the theory.

 However recently the Ernst Stringmann Forum met in Frankfurt Germany during which the world’s most influential scientists discussed, deliberated and corroborated on whether decision theory should remain or be replaced by a more evolutionary based concept.  The meeting produced important information on the processes involved in decision making and other human behaviours.  There is no doubt that at times decision making can seem more than unusual but surprisingly they often lead to our desired outcomes and when considered in retrospect they are often viewed positively.  It is also prudent to acknowledge that most of our judgements are made spontaneously and often without much in the way of appraisal.  In fact research suggests that in an average day we can make anything between 2500 and 10,000 choices.  Such choices will range from the type of tea we purchase to the types of people with whom we choose to associate.  Furthermore these types of choices are thought to emanate from the subconscious areas of our mind.

Recent research by Ap Dijksterhuis of the Radboud University Nijmegen has revealed that our subconscious thoughts are most effective in the making difficult decisions such buying a house or a car.  Research has examined the drivers for such decisions and acknowledges the role of Heuristics.    Heuristics have been put forward as explanations for these decision making types of processes.  Heuristics are mental conventions that we apply to circumstances to facilitate efficient decision making and thus involving less cognitive processing.  Recognition Heuristics then, will apply to most scenarios involving uncertainty and these rules guide our choices toward safer alternatives.  In contrast satisficing heuristics will apply to situations when delay hinders rather than benefits and thus we are attracted towards the first option. 

  Why we sometimes make ourselves look like clowns!!

So we have learnt so far that although our decision making is mostly effective, that we are not completely rational and logical like computers.  As humans we are subject to biases, in new situations there may be limited information and so our decisions are based upon chance connections.  These chance connections are known as “Anchoring effects”, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and also Amos Tversky studies provide elaboration on the effects.

Kahneman and Tversky discovered that when individuals at an auction were asked to write a high number, they subsequently went onto to bid a higher than those who had written a low number.  The conclusions from the study revealed the following attitudes towards risk, that we are more cautious than logical in circumstances were there may be large gain as opposed to small loss.  Furthermore that risky options become attractive in situations where there may be small gain compared to large loss.  Most recently researchers have referred to the process of underestimating disastrous events as the Black Swan Effect. 

Other effects that influential to decision making include:

Confirmation Bias – This can be explained as when we place more value or importance on decisions that meet with our own beliefs.

Loss Aversion – This can be explained as protecting what we have rather than taking the chance of making gains.

Sunk Cost Fallacy – When considering whether to persist in a venture, we often over emphasise the investments we have already made.

Short-term bias, Temporal Discounting – we make decisions often because we have a preference for immediate smaller rewards in favour of larger ones which maybe be delayed.

Links to sites with related articles:

For further information see New Scientist 12th November Page 39 Article “Making Your mind up”.

Categories: Uncategorized