Music and Memorisation

Whether concert soloist or conductor, artists often perform astonishing feats of memory. Yesterday afternoon’s prom (no 22), by the increasingly prominent Aurora Orchestra brought a new perspective to both programming and memorisation.

Under the baton of Nicholas Collon, Aurora embraced a bizarre choice of programming. The afternoon was topped and tailed with two Pastorals, Brett Dean’s (2000) and Beethoven’s (1808). The former was an astonishing work that almost forced the listener into visualising musical ideas through Dean’s clever use of electronics and sampling of real world sounds. It brought to the fore the terrifying, frightening, and raw beauty found in the natural and manmade world. Whereas the latter is a symphony that even the newbie classical listener would recognise. In between was one of the most perfectly poised and tailored renditions of Mozart’s Coronation Concerto (as you’d expect of soloist Francesco Piemontesi), and Anna Meredith’s Smatter Hauler.

The sub-theme running through this prom was memorisation. Meredith’s Smatter Hauler was a piece intentionally composed to aid memorisation – although an interesting idea I would question the value of composing for memorisation. Meredith appeared to chunk both the physical stage space occupied by the musicians and the musical text into groups. The concept of chunking is a core part of psych 101 – psychology and memory – how is it that we retain information in our short term (STM) and long term memory (LTM)?

Miller (1956) suggested our STM could hold approximately seven pieces of information at any one time. For example, instead of trying to memorise CRAHEDUPPNEWKOO (which is pretty tough) we could chunk it into smaller groups: CRA HED UPP NEW KOO. If we then encoded that information as a mnemonic, by making up a poem or a rhyme that sets the chunk into a linked context ‘the CRAnial nerve HEDs….’, or by taking the first letter of each group (C H U N K), we would be able to remember the groups of information and how they linked to each other.

So how do musicians memorise music? It is initially easier to memorise tonal rather than atonal music, because atonal music often lacks the aural structure and so needs to be memorised by rote rather than relying on previously learnt patterns or expectations. Beethoven’s pastoral is of course tonal. It helps if the piece is not new because this will remove some of the initial difficulty in memorisation as the musician will have a context for learning, and, yes, many of these musicians will have played it, as some movements were the staple musical food of youth orchestras. It takes time, and a lot of practice, and some good strategies to commit a piece to memory.

However, there is not only the auditory memory to consider, but muscle memory to consider too. This is the sense that when one performs action X then action Y will follow, and although we call it muscle memory it is not so much just the action of the fingers of a violinist but the training of their motor cortex.

Once you’ve learnt your part then there will be the social and musical cues to follow too: when you hear the horns play a particular chord, you know you must come in with your entry, or the conductor may cue you (and you’d better recall where you are)! Add to this the pressure of performing in a sold out Albert Hall, the need for perfect memorisation of your part which you may or may not be playing with your colleagues (violins will play the same as those around them, whereas the woodwind and brass are usually one to a part), and that they played standing up (changing the effort required to sustain notes for any woodwind or brass player).

Beethoven’s pastoral is, of course, tonal, and for many it won’t be the first time they have played it. Yet it is still an incredible feat by every single member of that band. It is a task which will have required many hours of dedicated practice, a process which no fully established band could afford to pay their musicians to do. (Many orchestral, West End, and session musicians will have little time to practice together before a gig, let alone to memorise entire symphonies).

For me, musically memorising and standing up completely changed the feel and sense of the piece; somehow there was more energy in the maidens I imagined skipping through the fields, and although at times the rendition felt looser than a piece from score with seated instrumentalists, there was a sense of new energy about the work.

On hearing the audience reaction—‘Wow, that raises the bar!’—I’m left thinking maybe it does, or maybe it is a fabulous audience experience, a heart-pounding musical task, a fabulous applied experiment in group memorisation and communication.

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Breaking Through To The Other Side: Coping With Death

Breaking Through To The Other Side: Coping With Death

Jessica Kane is a professional blogger who writes for Legacy Headstones, a leading Ohio-based headstone manufacturer and vendor.

The death of a loved one is something that is guaranteed to happen during the course of your life. Yet for many people, that unexpected happening creates a period of grief that can be hard to move past. While coping with death is something that is not easy and requires time, it is the case that there are strategies that you can follow that will help put your mind at ease sooner.

Here are some of the top ways to move past grief when a loved one has passed on:

Use family history to intellectualize

In modern psychology, one of the coping mechanisms that people have in dealing with the loss of a loved one is to intellectualize their feelings. Intellectualization is a coping device in which the person will gather as much information and knowledge as possible in order to analyze the situation leading to the loss. By doing this, an individual detaches emotionally and views the situation as an outside observer instead of being directly affected by it. Sometimes, intellectualization allows for an individual to feel that they more control of the situation.

While that can be a positive process from the standpoint that it creates a layer of insulation, it may help to channel the potential of intellectualization into a process that increases your perspective and helps you cope with grief. Using family history to learn about the lives and deaths of your ancestors can be a good way of adding perspective by creating a complete picture of how your family has died over time. Once you know the totality of the last few hundred years, it should make it easier to understand that your family has been dealing with death for a very long time. It can also help to work on a project like this that your loved one would have been proud of. In Japan, grief cycles tend to be shorter because families use a centralized crypt or grave for several generations of family member, which means that there is holistic perspective regarding the life and death of their family from the onset.

Understand terror management

Terror Management theory is a simple theory that comes from the desire to live but knowing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror in humans. It is with culture that humans are able to handle the terror of death because culture gives meaning and value to life. Some psychologists have shown through research that those behaviour changes can include increased zealousness, strengthening of beliefs, and a willingness to go outside our current belief systems–all aspects of culture. Because a lot of these behaviours are unconscious, it is a good idea to go online and look at terror management theory so that you can have a deeper understanding of how grief is or will affect you. Once you know, it will be easier to navigate through your own feelings when the time comes.

Think about past times that you shared with your loved one

Some psychological researchers have shown that using nostalgia to cope with your loss can be a very positive way of helping you through the grief process. In one experiment, it was noted that people exposed to sad news following a recent death tended to think nostalgic thoughts about the happy times that they shared together with their loved ones. That type of response was then shown to make them happier overall.

Honour your loved one's memory

Another positive way of coping with death is to take up a project that honours the memory of your loved one. Whether that project takes the form of a hobby that they loved or is one that helps create a tribute to their life, you still end up forming a sense of completion and an understanding that you are not helpless in the face of grief. Both things can help you to cope with death better.

Don't grieve alone

Depending upon your culture, you may find that after the funeral most people that were close to a loved one tended to grieve for them on their own. If you are able to instead spend time with each other while you are still grieving, it can be a positive way of helping everyone move past the death and back to a focus on your own lives.

Coping with death is something that is important for everyone close to a deceased one to go through. It can be harder for some than others, but by approaching the grief process with strategies that help you both honour the departed loved one and help you to recover your balance, you can break through to the other side of grief.

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Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters!

This summer, I’m looking forward to putting together a new module for 2014/15 on artificial intelligence. What happens when we try to model the mind? Is it even possible to model the mind? These questions, and others, are fascinating, and I can’t wait to discuss them with students.

Meantime, I’ve been discussing them with journalists at the Kent on Sunday about the new Channel 4 drama
Humans. As a psychologist, I’m slightly more interested in operational aspects of AI, i.e. how models can be implemented and what they tell us about the mind, but that won’t stop me flapping my gums about the wider issues.

I agree wholeheartedly with Dominique Chu from the University of Kent, who is quoted as saying:

There will always be so many short-comings with artificial intelligence at a human level. That is because the brain is so complex, we still don’t understand how it all works. Until that has been done, we won’t be able to program robots to that level…I have to ask if really want to go that far.

The human mind is a complex beast, and maybe it can be modelled – but should it be?

That’s the question asked by Humans. I suspect the answer, in good science fiction tradition, is “Probably not”.

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How can psychology help you win the lottery?

So, how do you win the lottery? …Well, you pick the winning numbers, of course. OK so how do you go about picking the winning numbers? Well, perhaps what you should do is practice learning the numbers that come up so that this information can have a reverse time effect enabling you to literally precall the winning numbers. This might sound bizarre, even impossible (though you should always be wary of any scientist who bandies around the word impossible) but there are some intriguing findings that suggest such effects may be possible.

Precall is an aspect of precognition, also referred to as presentiment, all of which suggest that some future event can have an effect on behaviour in the here and now. Whilst this may sound impossible, researchers have found some very interesting effects. For instance, Dean Radin found that people can exhibit a physiological response prior to the exposure of an emotionally charged picture. More recently Daryl Bem caused a stir by reporting a suite of nine experiments focusing on what he called ‘retroactive influence’. Eight of these experiments showed that some future event was capable of influencing present behaviour.

These findings intrigued me and I wanted to test them for myself. So, I managed to convince the Society for Psychical Research to part-fund a small project that would look at precognition using a repetition priming paradigm. Repetition priming is a nice way of measuring memory that doesn’t rely on conscious recall. You simply present a stimulus (in this instance a word) and the participant responds to it. Later, you present the same stimulus in between other words not seen before and what you find is that people respond faster and more accurately to the repeated word despite the fact that they don’t need to consciously think about it.

I found that repeatedly presenting a word in the future did not influence the speed of people’s responses in the past but did influence their accuracy. That is, people were more accurate to respond to words that they would see again in the future compared those they wouldn’t see again. You can read about these results in my forthcoming paper published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (Exploring precognition using a repetition priming paradigm).

So, does this mean that it’s possible to see into the future? Well, a good scientist remains open minded and critical, and this result could simply be a random blip in the data. However, I don’t want to be accused of using Occam’s broom to sweep aside inconvenient findings, so it’s back to the drawing board for me to devise another experiment to test for such effects. Meanwhile, if you find memorising lottery numbers leads to a win don’t forget where you heard it first – funding scientific research is always such a worthy cause… 

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Multimedia Extravaganza

We’re still in the process of building up our research and knowledge exchange mini-sites (check out the widget on the right), but we wanted to flag up two videos to give you a flavour.

The first is brief overview of a study conducted by David Vernon and Ian Hocking in the Creativity and Cognition group. The second shows Nicola Abbott and Amanda Carr of the Learning and Development group in our new observation lab.

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Research and Knowledge Exchange Sites Now Live

If you look carefully, you’ll see a new widget on the right hand side of the blog page. That’s a list of research and knowledge exchange groups within the Psychology Programme. The links will take you through to individual websites where you can read about what we’re doing, sign up for updates on projects that interest you, and discover the results of our studies.

They’re very much ‘work in progress’, but check out, for instance, this the cool video on the Learning and Development site.

Watch this space!

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Plotted sustainability: For Mind, Body and the Environment

To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves

Mahatma Gandhi

It is becoming increasingly recognized that the natural environment, in its many forms, may provide health and wellbeing benefits to people who have some degree of contact with it.

Dig for Plenty

Allotments have been an integral part of working communities for many years, providing social, economic and ecological benefits.

While there has been a recent trend towards greater interest in allotments, there is a paucity of empirical research exploring the value of gardening for enhancing wellbeing in non-clinical populations. Generally, the wellbeing benefits and social influences on such activities are not well known, albeit with some notable and recent exceptions showing that allotment gardeners are significantly more active and report higher levels of life satisfaction than their non-allotment holding neighbours.

Recent research is beginning to uncover the range of benefits derived from the experiential nature of gardening. In one case, these benefits mirror the psychological needs espoused by Maslow in his hierarchy of human needs – from food as basic physiological requirement through to those higher needs involving transpersonal interactions.

In a forthcoming paper, appearing in the Journal Ecopsychology this month, a mixed methodological study has determined that allotment gardeners’ wellbeing and quality of life were significantly higher than other people’s. (The wellbeing of allotment gardeners: A mixed methodological study) Importantly, analysis showed that the amount of time gardeners spent on their allotment during summer predicted a particular type of wellbeing called eudemonic wellbeing – one that entails some degree of meaning. This relationship was fully mediated by feelings of connectedness to nature. Essentially, it suggests that wellbeing is achievable through the activity of gardening via developing a sense of meaningful connection to the environment.

In addition, four themes emerged from the qualitative data. Allotments provided: a space of one’s own, meaningful activity, increased feelings of connectedness, and improved physical and mental health. Further development of a broad evidence base for the psychological benefits of allotment gardening have great potential to provide both a justifiable argument to increase, for instance, sustainability through provision of ‘green space’ (particularly within urban areas) and the provision of a low-cost community based intervention to tackle a range of psychological health issues – two birds with one stone.

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Young children using technology

Has a toddler got your iPad?

Touchscreen technology has become ever-present in our daily lives. As adults, our smartphones and tablets are constant companions that we use for communicating with others, accessing information, organising our commitments and, of course, having fun and relaxing. The [digital] world is literally at our fingertips.

Touchscreens are also very appealing to young children. Toddlers and pre-schoolers can find traditional technologies frustrating and difficult to use. For example, using a mouse and keyboard requires an understanding of cause and effect; that an action initiated in one place (e.g., on keyboard) causes an effect to take place in another (on screen). This type of understanding, or mental representation, is lacking in children under the age of about 2 or 3 years old.

In comparison, touchscreen interaction does not require this same level of understanding; the effect of one’s action can be seen in the same location it takes place. There is an immediate action-feedback sequence – arguably the same type of feedback children get when playing with real objects.

So, if a toddler you know won’t give up your iPad it is likely because they are experiencing a sense of mastery within the digital world. After all, one of the primary ways in which infants learn about the world around them is through sensory exploration – in this case using touch to explore their surroundings.

But how does this affect development?

Of course just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Understanding why young children enjoy using touchscreen technology is interesting, but perhaps a more important question is what effect does ‘screentime’ have on longer term development?

An article published last month in the journal Pediatrics undertook a review of all published research which addressed this question. In particular, the authors examined the effects of using interactive media on young children’s educational, social and emotional development. Although the article resulted in some sensational reporting (see Telegraph and Guardian articles) the overwhelming conclusion was that there simply isn’t enough research to provide definitive answers. In fact the article only cited seven published studies in the area and urgently called for more research.

Current research at Christ Church

My own research here at Christ Church is addressing some of these very issues. I have been working in collaboration with CBeebies Interactive looking at how children under the age of 3 years use touchscreens and in particular what effect touchscreen play might have on focused attention. I measured children’s attention span before and after they played with a touchscreen tablet, and also before and after they played with toys and then compared this to a baseline measure of attention. Children were divided into two groups; one group played with the tablet first and the other played with toys first.

Across 18 children (aged 10 months to 3 years old) there was no immediate difference in the attention shown between the two groups (tablet versus toy play). In other words, playing with interactive media on iPads did not have a negative effect on immediate focused attention within this sample of children.

Alone we cannot draw too many conclusions from just a single study; larger scale research is needed. Also, this study looked at the immediate effect straight after playing with iPads or toys; future research is needed to look at the possible long-term effects. However, it is a first step in gathering evidence that can begin to address the question of the effects of interactive media on young children’s development.

Follow @CCCUPsych for further updates on this research.

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It's not rocket science. It is psychology.