After studying at UNSW’s then College of Fine Arts in the late 1990s, aspiring filmmaker Joel Pearson changed tack. Interested in human consciousness, Pearson began a journey into psychology and the field of cognitive neuroscience.
“At the time, it wasn’t a term that was used a lot,” says Pearson of the discipline that investigates the neural circuits responsible for our mental processes.
Today, it’s a different story.
“The past five years or so have seen enormous progress on consciousness research,” says the 37 year-old, now leading a lab in UNSW’s School of Psychology focusing on hallucinations, the imagination and Parkinson’s disease.
Advanced brain imaging and neural stimulation technologies, coupled with new ways of analysing big data, are helping researchers “measure the full structure of the brain in high definition” and map functions across different regions occurring in unison, says Pearson, a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Fellow.
UNSW is at the forefront of this research as well as in more established fields of clinical and social psychology, cognition and perception. “Anything with hard numbers to it, things like citations, grants or publications per person, we tend to come out very clearly at the top in Australia,” says school head Professor Simon Killcross.
"It's an exciting field and an exciting time. There are always new questions to be asked and new methodologies to apply."
UNSW’s leadership is also lucrative. In the 10 years to 2015, the School of Psychology received $90 million in research funding, including a combined $74 million from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the NHMRC. Over that period, more than 80 UNSW psychologists have won major grants.
Among the recipients are established star researchers and clinicians like Scientia Professors Richard Bryant, who studies post-traumatic stress disorder, Joe Forgas (interpersonal behaviour) and Barbara Gillam (depth and 3D image perception). There is also Professor Mark Dadds, a world-renowned clinical child psychologist; Associate Professor Lenny Vartanian, who focuses on the psychology of eating and weight; Professor Colin Clifford who researches vision; Associate Professor Jess Grisham, who studies obsessive-compulsive disorder and hoarding; and Professor Skye McDonald, a clinical neuroscientist who leads an NHMRC Centre of Excellence helping people recover from traumatic brain injuries.
Now a new generation is making its mark. Early career researchers, like Pearson, are attracting international attention for their scholarship and developing potential new therapies. Bronwyn Graham and Thomas Whitford are unlocking secrets in the study of anxiety disorders and schizophrenia; Steve Most is turning heads in the field of perception; Lisa A Williams is discovering the hidden benefits of our emotions; and Angela Nickerson is leading research on refugee mental health.
"People don't realise when they see clinical psychologists they are receiving gold-standard, evidence-based treatments that have been very rigorously tested."
This emerging group is overturning lingering perceptions of psychology as a ‘soft’ science – a legacy, perhaps, of the field’s origins in philosophy.
“People maybe view it in those old Freudian terms, where the client is lying down on the couch, and the psychologist is sort of reading their mind or talking about their dreams,” says Graham. “I don’t think people realise when they see clinical psychologists they are receiving gold-standard, evidence-based treatments that have been very rigorously tested.”
“It’s an exciting field, and an exciting time,” says Williams. “There are always new questions to be asked and new methodologies to apply.”
Attaching new questions to old methodologies is central to clinical psychologist Bronwyn Graham’s next study, funded through an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.
Timed to coincide with Sydney’s spider season, beginning in September, the research aims to help women with arachnophobia overcome their fear – for good – by asking them to put their hand inside a box full of spiders.
It may seem cruel, but exposure therapy – in this case, having huntsman and St Andrew’s cross spiders crawl across gloved hands inside a terrarium – is the standard treatment for anxiety disorders and phobias, and is effective 50% of the time, says Graham.
It involves forming a new memory: that something once thought of as distressing is instead safe – what psychologists call a “fear extinction” memory.
Graham is looking at women, who are twice as likely to develop anxiety disorders and phobias compared with men. The 30 year-old suspects low levels of sex hormones during therapy are reducing their ability to form and retain these memories.
In 2010, Graham was named an American Australian Association Fellow, and conducted Pavlovian fear-conditioning studies at Harvard University.
In subsequent experiments at UNSW, rats and humans were conditioned to associate a stimulus (in this case a light) with a mild shock. Once a fear response was evoked, the participant was repeatedly exposed to the stimuli without the shock – a form of therapy. The human participants returned 24 hours later to test their fear extinction memories.
“We found regardless of whether women were phobic or healthy, they showed fear relapse the next day if they had low levels of oestrogen,” says Graham. “It suggests women might be less responsive to exposure therapy if they’re receiving it during periods of low sex hormones.”
Her upcoming spider study will try to determine whether treatments clustered around periods of high sex hormones are more effective.
“Something as simple as changing the timing of treatment could be very significant,” says Graham, adding her long-term goal is to improve treatment success rates for anxiety disorders, which affect 30% of Australians, and cost the economy upwards of $6 billion a year.
One in three refugees will develop a psychological disorder resulting from the violence and trauma they've endured and this is often exacerbated by the stress of financial difficulties and uncertain visa status.
While that statistic is alarming, clinical psychologist Angela Nickerson, 33, is interested in the two out of three refugees who stave off psychological distress.
“They’ve gone through numerous traumatic events – often including torture – have been displaced from family and friends, and they come out the other side and are functioning well,” says Nickerson, who is an NHMRC Clinical Early Career Research Fellow. “We want to figure out what these people are doing differently internally to adapt.”
Nickerson has an NHMRC Project Grant to study emotion regulation in refugees and says her lab is “one of the first in the world to use experimental methodologies to investigate refugee mental health”. This involves showing volunteers trauma-related images, and having them trial different emotion control strategies to find out what works best.
The NSW Young Tall Poppy Award winner has found evidence that refugees who employ ‘cognitive reappraisal’ in response to the emotions and memories stirred up by the images experience fewer intrusive memories compared with individuals who suppress their emotions altogether – something that people with PTSD tend to do.
“Cognitive reappraisal involves thinking about the images in a realistic and helpful way,” she says. “If it’s something that’s helping people cope well on a daily basis, we can build it into our interventions.”
Nickerson’s research group – the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program (RTRP) – is also developing and testing an online intervention for refugee men from Arabic-, Farsi- and Tamil-speaking backgrounds. The collaborative study involving RTRP, Settlement Services International and the Black Dog Institute is funded by beyondblue and the Movember Foundation and is aimed at breaking down the self-stigma that prevents refugee men from seeking help.
Seeing what’s not there
For most of us, the world is experienced as we see it. But for people with neurological disorders, the brain can wildly distort reality.
Joel Pearson is trying to untangle the neurobiological mechanisms that trigger hallucinations by studying people with Parkinson’s disease, who suffer hallucinations as the disease progresses.
“Some people might see a snake in their bed, while others might encounter dead loved ones,” says Pearson.
To understand what’s happening inside the brain, Pearson is comparing hallucinations with a phenomenon known as mental imagery – the ability to ‘bring to mind’ a vivid visual experience of an object without it being in view.
Pearson and his team have pioneered methods of testing the strength of mental imagery, as well as behavioural tests that can elicit hallucination-like experiences.
In a recent study with colleagues, Pearson measured the frequency of hallucinations and the strength of mental imagery in 19 people with Parkinson’s disease and 10 healthy participants.
They found people with hallucinations had more intense mental imagery. After examining their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they also discovered both phenomena are characterised by abnormalities in the neural pathways passing through the brain’s attention control region.
The results, published in the Royal Society’s Proceedings B journal, suggest the phenomena could share a common underlying mechanism.
The team will soon begin testing brain stimulation as a possible treatment to control visual hallucinations, using a weak electrical current passed through the brain.
“We can already control visual images in healthy individuals using this same brain stimulation technology – so we are optimistic the same techniques may work to control visual hallucinations,” Pearson says.
Blinded by emotion
We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. Steve Most demonstrates the truth of this adage, conducting research that sheds light on how our motivations and emotions shape our perception.
Conscious perception depends on more than where you turn your eyes – you also have to pay attention. “If our mind is elsewhere it’s possible to look directly at something and miss it,” says Most, 43, an ARC Future Fellow.
This kind of lapse in perception is known as inattentional blindness, and has been famously demonstrated with a video of two colour-coded basketball teams passing two balls.
While most people succeed in counting the total passes, around half fail to see the most obvious thing – a person in a gorilla suit walking across the screen.
“Eye-tracker studies have shown people who do and don’t see the gorilla actually look directly at it for about the same amount of time,” says Most, who was one of the players in the video as a doctoral student at Harvard University.
About 10 years ago, while a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, Most showed this temporary blindness could also be caused by emotional responses to our environment – something he termed emotion-induced blindness (EIB).
Although relatively short lived – it lasts about half a second in the lab – lapses like these could be fatal while driving. He’s now working with engineers at UNSW’s Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation, using a driving simulator to test whether some billboards might trigger EIB in drivers.
“Advertisers use images designed to evoke emotional responses,” says Most. “We want to know what consequences this has on drivers’ attention and their ability to see brake lights, lane changes or pedestrians.”
Most has also shown moods can influence susceptibility to EIB with one study revealing jealousy between romantic partners can increase temporary blindness in response to rapidly displayed emotional images.
Lisa A Williams, 33, is interested in the benefits of ‘social’ emotions – those emotions that arise from and shape our social interactions with others.
In the same way that primal emotions like fear help us deal with our physical environment in order to survive, social emotions help us navigate the complexity of social life, says Williams.
She’s specifically interested in positive social emotions and has demonstrated that a simple “thank you” truly can go a long way.
In a recent study, 70 university students were told they were mentoring a high school student, and were asked to comment on a university admissions essay. Afterwards, the mentors received a handwritten note from their “mentee”. Only half the notes included an expression of thanks.
The mentors were told the study was over, but were given an option to write a note back to their mentees. The mentors who were thanked were more likely to provide their contact details.
The results – published in the journal Emotion – suggest gratitude can be an impetus to build new social bonds.
“Our findings represent the first known evidence that expression of gratitude facilitates the initiation of new relationships among previously unacquainted people,” Williams says.
Williams is also the chief investigator on an ARC Linkage Grant with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, studying the emotions people experience before, during and after donating blood, to encourage repeat donations.
“If we know that people who feel a lot of anxiety are less likely to return, we can try to help them down-regulate that feeling,” she says. Likewise, if a donor is feeling proud, a simple message boosting that emotional response may get them back through the door.
Anyone who’s tried knows – it’s impossible to tickle yourself. This is because healthy individuals suppress self-generated sensations, says NHMRC Career Development Fellow Tom Whitford, 36.
Similarly, when healthy people speak, their brains exhibit less electrical activity than when they hear their voices played back.
Whitford explains: When we move, our brain generates two signals – one signal produces the intended movement, while a duplicate signal informs the brain about the sensations it expects as a result of the movement.
But people with schizophrenia – who often hear voices and believe external forces control their thoughts and actions – don’t self-suppress the sound of their spoken voice, and some evidence suggests they can also tickle themselves, says Whitford.
It’s suspected their duplicate signal is flawed. This means they can’t predict and suppress the accompanying sensation, which leads to confusion as to what is actually generating the action.
A NSW Young Tall Poppy Award winner, Whitford is examining the neural mechanisms underlying these unusual symptoms to develop new treatments, and potentially stave off the onset of the disorder.
He’s working with people with schizophrenia as well as psychologically healthy individuals, comparing their brain activity in response to self-generated and externally generated sensations, and searching for patterns – particularly in people with a high genetic risk for developing the disorder.
“If we can identify these self-suppression deficits before the transition to psychosis, it could provide a basis on which to treat high-risk individuals prophylactically, before they get ill, which might delay or prevent full-blown schizophrenia.”