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Humans have debated for a long time whether the language we speak guides our reasoning and understanding of reality. In the 1920’s, Sapir argued that speakers of the Native American language Hopi understood time differently to English speakers.

Sapir argued that because Hopi speakers don’t have any grammatical categories that relate to time, they are not able to understand time as a continuum of things moving from the past into the present into the future. This idea became known as ‘linguistic determinism’ and became part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; the language you speak shapes the way you think.

In a recent TED talk, Boroditsky explores this fascinating question in a more experimental setting and has some amazing insights. In an experiment she conducted, Spanish speakers and German speakers would describe objects with masculine and feminine qualities that corresponded with the object’s grammatical gender. For example, German speakers would describe a bridge (feminine ‘die Brücke’) as ‘elegant’ or ‘beautiful, whereas a Spanish speaker would attribute the bridge (masculine ‘el puente’) with qualities of being ‘sturdy’ and ‘strong’. The bottom line here is that the grammatical gender of a noun influenced the way speakers of a language think about it).

In English, if someone accidentally knocked over a glass, we are likely to describe the event as ‘the man knocked over the vase (accidentally)’. In languages like Spanish or Russian, this construction is not possible and speakers would say something like ‘the glass was knocked over’ or ‘the glass knocked over itself’. Therefore the grammatical constraints of our language influence the way we interpret events – so don’t go around accidentally knocking over things in an English speaking community because you’re more likely to be blamed!

Boroditsky argues that the language we use prompts us to attend to certain aspects of reality and therefore certain language speakers are ‘better trained’ to deal with certain types of cognition. Fascinating stuff!

Students going for English, MML, PPL, Linguistics or any language-related subject should explore the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and work of Boroditsky for an amazing personal statement and interview.

Recent developments in neural science have shone a ray of optimism on individuals suffering with high levels of depression. The latest technology on the horizon involves implanting sensors under the skull which release tiny electrode pulses that target specific parts of the brain.

Patients who undergo the electrode therapy report feeling more alert and poised after treatment, and the technology is also being used for patients who have epilepsy.

In a recent edition of Current Biology, researchers are moving full steam ahead with the ambition of being able to implant a sensor that will detect the on-coming of a depressive episode and will react accordingly, zapping the brain out of its negative associative patterns.

This new kind of treatment has entered the realms of possibility as scientists are starting to fully map out the brain and thus are getting closer to identifying where exactly depression ‘occurs’ in the brain.

In the past, depression was seen more as a “chemical imbalance” where adding more of what was ‘missing’ would restore a patient to better mental health. Now, researchers have switched to a circuit-inspired framework and argue that when different parts of the brain change the way they interact with each other, this can lead a person into a state of depression.

Medics and Psychologists would be wise to explore the science surrounding depression and the various treatments on offer to patients. Being able to talk about state-of-the-art medical practices will show your research skills and make your personal statement or interview really stand out!

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Responses (ASMR) are tingly feelings often elicited by certain experiences and sounds, such as stroking, chiming or rustling. A study into the phenomenon in 2015 showed that the most common ASMR stimulus was whispering, closely followed touch (especially on the face), sharp clear sounds, and then repetitive motions.

Videos showcasing these kinds of noises receive hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, however not everyone can experience these pleasurable sensations and they are often felt in different ways. Recent findings, as part of a small study in Canada, suggest that those with ASMR may have more cross-communication between the networks in their brains, but the mechanism is still very much a mystery as the stimuli and physical reactions vary so much. Preliminary results from a second study into the response in Virginia show that 95% of respondents experienced their ASMR sensation in the head or brain, and 71% felt the sensation in their spinal cord. Only 35% described the feeling as ‘euphoric’, but 60% labelled it as ‘relaxing’.

The benefits of ASMR have been claimed include stress relief and inducing better quality sleep, but the evidence so far has been limited to findings of lower heart rates. Students applying to Medicine may like to examine the physiological side of ASMR, whether it does actually have any positive effect on the body, and if there could be any detrimental effects of patients with serious depression attempting to use it to treat themselves. For those applying for Psychology, the state of blissful relaxation and the other mental impacts of ASMR could be of interest.

Scientists have conducted an experiment to understand why people have such strong aversions to words like ‘moist’.

Linguistics applicants should be interested to know that there were three clear hypotheses as to why people have an aversion to words. The first was the sound of the word, the second, the word’s connotations and finally, social transmission of the idea that the word is disgusting. In the first point, scientists were trying to understand if it was the phonetics and rhythms of the word itself which had an internally structured element of ‘disgust’ – if words in and of themselves can cause repulsion.

Paul Thibodeau, a cognitive Psychologist from Oberlin College and researcher on this topic, asked people’s opinions on words like moist, as well as words linked to bodily function such as phlegm and puke. He then asked people’s opinions on words with a similar sound to moist, like foist, hoist and rejoiced. The study found that people averse to the word moist were much more averse to words related to bodily function than they were to similarly sounding words, suggesting the meaning behind moist is what gives rise to its unpopularity.

Additionally, the researchers found a social component, as was part of their initial hypotheses. Participants in the study watched two videos – one where people were saying the word moist without relation to a particular object, and the second of people using the word to describe cake. Overwhelmingly, people who watched the first video had much more disgust for the word. Modern Languages and English Literature applicants should consider how the social transmission of language throughout history has also transmitted the weight and context of those words; for example, why slang comes in and out of fashion.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered by many to have only gained due recognition in recent times, with new research showing that it has increased within the British army amongst veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  But suggestions of the condition can be seen throughout the history of human warfare and its aftermath.  Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam has turned the mythological war hero into an ancient example of PTSD and this has led to further readings of other figures in antiquity. 

Epizelus was an Athenian solider who fought in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.  In Herodotus’ Histories he is recorded as having what we would now diagnose as hysterical blindness or a conversion disorder.  Herodotus refers to the events of battle as leading to his blindness and evidence that supports our contemporary reading, of these symptoms as those of PTSD, can be seen later in the European Middle Ages. 

The soldiers of William the Conqueror are recorded as nearly rebelling against their leader because they felt he had gone too far in the Harrying of the North, a brutal conquest that followed the Battle of Hastings.  Later, 15th-century French soldiers were in fact celebrated for going ‘berserk’ due to the traumas of war whilst non-combatants were mocked. 

But this viewing of historical trauma amongst soldiers through the filter of PTSD must not neglect the cultural norms of their societies and the attitudes towards combat.  Killing rivals was culturally just and was certainly not observed with the pacifist sentiments of today.  The rise of PTSD in our society can be in part be attributed to soldiers not receiving the validation and unquestioned approval of the majority of society. 

Applicants for Classics and History can consider the way in which we interpret sources within our modern ideological psyche.  Psychology applicants can try to apply this historical evidential support to other modern psychological developments.   

The fire at the old headquarters of Littlewoods served as a fitting visual to the slow downturn in the prosperity of department stores and there physical premises.  Homebase recently announced the planned closure of 42 stores putting around 1,500 jobs at risk.  This comes amid a climate where Marks and Spencer (whose share price has dropped 6% in the last year) and House of Fraser have also been forced into store closures and can be placed within a broader picture of the closing of British Home Stores and Woolworths.

Their recession is predominantly down to the changing of consumer habits and its impact goes well beyond the financial stability of the department store to affect whole town centres.  Architects have indeed been inspired by the pulling power of department stores in their designing of shopping centres – John Lewis is the linchpin in Birmingham’s Bull Ring and Manchester’s Trafford centre.  These stores bring an increase in footfall that attracts local business.  Applicants for Economics and Land Economy should consider the impact that the receding of physical department stores will have on local economy. 

The rise of online retailers that fulfil the same role as department stores has led to the restructuring of department stores to put much greater emphasis on their online presence.  This can in part be put down to the same behavioural activity that made department stores successful, browsing.  Applicants for Psychology can question whether online retailers are able to provide a comparative shopping experience for the consumer that will lead to an equal or greater level of purchase.

The owners of Homebase, the Australian corporation Wesfarmers, recently sold the company to Hilco for £1.  This is an enormous loss on their purchasing of the company in 2016 for £340 million.  This can in part be put down to their attempt to rebrand the company on structure of their successful chain, in Australia, Brunnings.  Was there failure due to not considering the habits of British shoppers compared to their Australian counterparts?  Is the local nature of department stores to blame for their being usurped by international companies like Amazon?

It’s normal to experience feelings of worry and fear as a response to stressful situations, as well as physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and difficulty sleeping. For people living with anxiety disorders, however, such feelings can start to take over their lives and don’t necessarily have a rational trigger. Despite around one in five adults suffering from such disorders, little is known about how they actually work on a neurological level. Hence, medication used to treat anxiety disorders control symptoms (for example by increasing levels of serotonin) rather than eliminating any underlying neurological cause.

A recent study, however, has contributed to our understanding of the brain chemistry behind anxiety. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health studied rhesus monkeys using MRI scanners to analyse early indicators of a susceptibility to anxiety disorders later in life. Led by Dr Ned Kalin, the researchers identified areas of the brain that may contribute to anxious behaviour patterns early in life; for example, the central extended amygdala, part of the brain’s reward system. Activity in this region has been shown to correlate with anxious behaviour; by analysing these tightly-woven networks, it is possible to estimate an individual’s overall chance of developing anxiety disorders.  

To test this, the team analysed each monkey’s anxiety level by introducing a human and observing their stress response. They also measured levels of cortisol as another indicator of stress. They then compared this assessment to the results found using MRI technology. As they predicted, monkeys who displayed more anxious behaviour were also found to have increased activity in the relevant elements of the central extended amygdala network. Because the monkeys used in the study were all related to each other to a greater or lesser extent, researchers knew exactly the family connections between all individuals and could calculate to what extent anxiety is hereditary. They found that interplay between Ce and BST, two different nuclei involved in the amygdala network, is highly hereditable. Understanding the hereditary element of anxiety disorders and how early indicators can predict later mental health could eventually point towards new methods of treatment and prevention.

Applicants for Psychology, Medicine, or related fields may wish to think about how such studies could contribute to our understanding of how to treat anxiety and other psychological disorders. Students could also consider the balance between neurological and environmental factors in the development, prevention, and treatment of such disorders

Reality TV shows, such as the hugely popular ‘Love Island’ or the fading favourite ‘Big Brother’, often exploit the human reactions created when a group of people are kept in close quarters for a long period of time. This process of incarceration often engenders extreme reactions that would often take more provocation in the outside world.

Following a recent episode of Love Island, Women’s Aid issued a warning about psychological abuse, urging viewers to ‘recognise unhealthy behaviour in relationships’. This comment was released after one of the male contestants showed some potentially worrying actions that were perceived to border on emotional abuse. The ‘islander’ in question was also deemed by the online community to be ‘gaslighting’ his fellow contestant – a modern term meaning a malicious process by which an abuser manipulates a victim’s perception of reality. The perceived emotional abuse doesn’t just extend to interactions between the personalities on the show, but also to the actions of the producers when dealing with contestants. Ofcom received over 2,600 complaints from fans of the show who regarded the treatment of a contestant by the show’s organisers to be distressing after the participant seemed visibly upset.

So why, if these kinds of television programmes do show such extreme behaviour, do these shows continue to have millions of viewers? In the first instance, it may be due our need for drama as fuel to our otherwise bland lives. In the second, it could be born out of our innate desire to be story tellers and to find highly-charged common talking points. Psychology applicants might be interested investigating the concept of schadenfreude in relation to reality TV. Students hoping to study HSPS or English could explore the concept of escapism from real-world life via different media.

Studies in the field of cultural psychology have suggested that Chinese people tend to express psychological distress in much more psychical ways than people from other cultures. In particular, psychologists now believe that certain clusters of physical symptoms often reported by Chinese people should be diagnosed as clinical depression and treated as such, even though these symptoms vary considerably from those reported by depressed individuals elsewhere in the world. An interesting historical example of this comes from the 1980s, when the Chinese Minister of Health told American Psychiatrist and Medical Anthropologist Arthur Kleinman that mental illness did not exist in China. Indeed, figures indicated that the depression rate in China was only 2.3%, compared to America’s 10.3%. However, a different illness known as neurasthenia was very common, with symptoms such as dizziness and chronic pain. After careful examination of 100 patients with neurasthenia, Kleinman concluded that the majority of them were actually suffering from depression.

This phenomenon whereby psychological disorders manifest physically is known as somatisation. In the past, these differences were attributed to the Chinese being a less sophisticated and emotionally immature people, incapable of “properly” expressing their feelings. Other researchers suggested that the Chinese language was incapable of conveying emotions, but this research was heavily biased in favour of the English language. Nevertheless, contemporary studies continue to find a greater degree of somatisation among Chinese people. For example, a 2001 study conducted at The University of New South Wales found that depressed Malaysian Chinese individuals were more likely to report physical symptoms than depressed Euro-Australian individuals. Likewise, a 2004 study at the Massachusetts General Hospital found that 76% of Chinese Americans diagnosed with depression reported physical complaints. The authors suggested that Chinese Americans on the whole do not see a low mood as something worthy of being reported to a doctor. However, other researchers are arguing that the actual lived experience of depression is culturally shaped, and that if depressed Chinese people report more headaches, for example, it’s because they do in fact experience more headaches.

Applicants for Psychology or Medicine might want to use this example to consider to what extent medical science and psychology can produce objective results. What are the implications of the idea that symptoms can vary significantly across cultures? Applicants for Anthropology may want to think more broadly about cultural differences, and students wishing to apply for Linguistics should consider the extent to which differences in language may play a role.

The results of a new study suggest a link between a person’s level of empathy and the way they respond to music. Empathy can be generally defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others; in psychology empathy is often divided into two categories, with the ability to understand other people’s feelings described as “cognitive empathy” whilst the ability to share those emotions is described as “emotional empathy”.

A study carried out by researchers at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas and  UCLA found that high-empathy and low-empathy people responded to music very differently on a neurological level. Participants underwent an MRI scan whilst listening to music that they were familiar with and unfamiliar with, as well as music that they liked and disliked, and were subsequently made to answer empathy-based questions to ascertain how easily they could pick up on the feelings of others and whether they could relate to them.

 Analyses of the MRI scans showed that all participants predictably showed activity in areas of the brain linked to auditory and sensory processing; however, those with higher levels of empathy also showed an increase in activity in the dorsal striatum (involved in the brain’s reward system) when a song they knew was played, as well as in areas of the brain associated with social interaction and interpreting the behaviour of others. This suggests not only that listening to recognisable music is more enjoyable for high-empathy people, but also that the brains of such people process music in similar ways to social interaction—relating to music on a neurological level almost as if it were another person. They suggest that these results could have helpful real-life implications; “If music can function something like a virtual ‘other,’ then it might be capable of altering listeners’ views of real others.”

Applicants for Music may wish to think about the implications of this research for both the study and the writing of music, bearing in mind that Psychology of Music is part of the undergraduate course at some universities (including Oxford). In what way, if any, can music be said to resemble social interaction? How can sounds produce emotion? Applicants for Psychology may want to consider whether such studies can be useful for understanding empathy and triggering it in those not predisposed to it.

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