Speakers, Dylan and Merideth (1)
Science

School of Psychology hosts lecture from leading children’s charity and child developmental psychopathologist

Alexey Underwood reports on the event with speakers Dr Sara Jaffee and Camila Batmanghelidjh

Cardiff University upheld its years-long tradition of participating in the British Science Association’s National Science & Engineering Week on March 9, as the School of Psychology hosted a number of educational activities throughout the day.

The event culminated in a public lecture titled ‘Changing Lives’ delivered by keynote speakers Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and director of the charity Kids Company, and Sara Jaffee, a developmental psychopathologist and internationally renowned researcher, which examined the theme of child development in stressful environments from two contrasting perspectives.

The annual event-led National Science & Engineering Week (NSEW) campaign is in its 18th iteration this year and aims to bring science and engineering topics to the masses through a series of public engagement activities. Cardiff University has long been a supporter of the initiative, having organised a wide assortment of intellectual events throughout the years.

This March, the university’s month-long ‘Big Ideas’ programme continues the trend, supporting both the National Science and Engineering Week (March 9-18) and the Brain Awareness Week (March 12-18). Highlights of the Big Ideas campaign include a public lecture on the potential future benefits of the electric automobile and a street exhibition in Cardiff city centre of striking brain images captured by University researchers:

Professor Dylan Jones, the head of the School of Psychology and host of the ‘Changing Lives’ event, was extremely positive about the impact of such initiatives on society.

“This is an excellent way of broadening the audience […] for our work and for us to ponder the meaning of our work for the everyday lives of the public,” he told gair rhydd. “It also serves as a means of drawing the public into our buildings […] and to begin to engage with us on a whole range of activities,” he added.

I attended the first of the Big Ideas talks, which focused on the needs of vulnerable and damaged children in Britain, and on what could be done to address these needs.

Camila Batmanghelidjh was the first of the two speakers to step up the Stanley Parris Lecture Theatre’s pedestal. Colourful and effervescent, it was immediately clear how she became such an internationally recognisable media darling. During her delivery, Batmanghelidjh discussed a number of important points relating to the demonisation of youngsters in the UK, the necessity of addressing their needs in order to reduce criminality, and the importance of compassion.

Sara Jaffee called upon her years of experience in international research to describe the stresses and psychopathologies experienced by children growing up in troubled households. Jaffee’s on-stage demeanour was as noticeably different to her peer’s as her research background – reserved and sanguine in comparison, yet still approachable and pensive.

Batmanghelidjh emphasised the physiological basis of behaviour, in particular the importance of the antagonising properties of the limbic and frontal areas of the brain.

It is well known that the frontal area helps regulate behaviour; Batmanghelidjh postulated that, due to overexposure to fear hormones in early childhood, the emotional limbic system can become overdeveloped and overpower the regulatory frontal area – the resulting hypervigilance and aggression being a necessary adaptation to survive in a threatening environment.

Thus, the frontal-limbic counteraction was thrown out of balance, leading to unchecked impulsive and socially inappropriate behaviour in “challenging” children. She followed on to say that, in most cases, challenging behaviour wasn’t due to absent morality. The behavioural difficulties in fact stemmed from physiological complaints, and that, therefore, traditional forms of punishment (taking away a child’s playtime, for example) weren’t appropriate or useful as a means of reducing difficult behaviour. Instead, she argued that profound biological changes had to take place. Jaffee supported the argument with evidence from animal trials which revealed that the biological changes brought about by parenting – or lack thereof – can be reversed in later stages of development.

The speakers emphasised the beneficial impacts of ‘re-mothering’, even going as far as to suggest that psychiatrists weren’t necessary in the rehabilitation of a troubled child. Instead, Batmanghelidjh explained that consistent exposure to love and care was all that was required – she theorised that the removal of threatening stimuli by placing a child into a safe and loving environment could cause cells responsible for hypervigilance and violence to atrophy, seeing as they no longer offered a selective advantage in a non-threatening environment, leading to an eventual increase in pro-social behaviour.

Not one to shy away from controversy, Batmanghelidjh brought up the topic of the nationwide riots of 2011, pointing out that many of the crimes were committed out of necessity, not greed. “The riots of the summer were initiated primarily by very disturbed young people and young adults. Numerous enquiries have illustrated that the drivers of the riot came from backgrounds of multiple disadvantage”, she explained. She accused the government of misrepresenting the “needy” as “greedy” to the public, while avoiding tackling the issue head-on. She ominously predicted that “if they don’t address this issue [of disturbances in young people], there will be more riots.”

A recurring theme in the discussion was the dichotomy between the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience – an issue that needs to be overcome in order to accelerate the process of resolving stress-related developmental issues.

Speaking to gair rhydd after the talk, Sara Jaffee described the steps that had already been taken towards bridging the interdisciplinary gap, particularly in higher education. “Many graduate programs have already instituted interdisciplinary MSc and PhD degrees, wherein students receive training in neuroscience and psychology,” she pointed out. Furthermore, she added that “increasingly, funding agencies are encouraging researchers to collaborate with researchers outside of their discipline”. However, Jaffee pointed out that there is still much work to be done, warning that “the field needs to move forward […] in translating the findings that come out of these interdisciplinary efforts into interventions that help vulnerable children”.

Organising the thought-provoking public lecture was no small feat, as Professor Dylan Jones explained. “The event was organised many months ahead – the speakers have hectic schedules – and a great deal of work was done in attracting members of the public and students to the event,” he told gair rhydd. He commended the work of the members of the school’s psychology society, in particular that of Matt Price – as well as expressing gratitude for the contribution of Dr. Merideth Gattis. “Matt worked with Dr. Merideth Gattis who is one of several specialists we have in the School in developmental psychology, who led the organisation of the day. She did a superb job of sustaining enthusiasm and in deciding on the format of the meeting,” he explained.

Walking home from the public lecture, I couldn’t help but feel affected on a truly personal level. As somebody who had felt first-hand the impact of the 2011 London riots, my earlier feelings of uninformed blind rage were now replaced with doubt and compassion. Haunted by the unjustness of my earlier emotions, I realised just how profoundly eye-opening the fruits of the combined efforts of the School of Psychology, the psychology society, and the two captivating speakers were. Bearing in mind that this is only the first talk of many ahead of us this March, the month ahead promises to be a great one.

 

Prof. Jones also thanked Paul Allen for filming the event. Footage will be available soon at psych.cf.ac.uk

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