Bristol University's School of Experimental Psychology is one of the country’s leading psychology departments and conducts research of international quality in a number of key areas of experimental psychology. In the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) it received the highest possible 5* rating for the quality of its research, and in the more recent 2008 RAE, over 60% of the research produced by all academic staff in the School was rated as “internationally excellent” or “world leading”. Members of staff within the School have won awards for their research from the American Psychology Society, the British Psychological Society, and the European Society for Cognitive Psychology. The School’s main research strengths are in brain and behaviour, developmental psychology, language, memory, social cognition and vision.
An obvious way to hide something is to make it like the background, which is called “crypsis”, and experiments with paper moths are contributing to the understanding of this kind of camouflage. Innes Cuthill, Tom Troscianko and colleagues have developed a simple method for testing the effectiveness of crypsis. Small triangles of paper are printed with the relevant pattern and pinned to trees in Bristol’s Leigh Woods. Attached to the middle of each triangle is a dead mealworm, which birds find delicious, and the number of mealworms eaten over time is recorded. This research found that high-contrast elements (i.e., blobs) located near the border of the object increase the “survival” times of the paper moths, and parallel studies with human “predators” show that this and other principles of camouflage generalise across animals with very different visual systems. [ Nature, 434, 72-74.]
A recent study by Jeff Bowers, Sven Mattys and colleagues found that adults exposed to a foreign language only in their early childhood showed traces of the early exposure decades later even though they had no explicit proficiency whatsoever in that language. This was revealed by their ability over a series of training sessions to learn to distinguish sounds of their childhood language - e.g., pairs of Zulu sounds that sound like a "b” to English ears. Control participants did not progress much beyond chance on the task. The important implication of this work is that early exposure to a language has a long-lasting impact on a person’s ability to learn that language. [Psychological Science, 20, 1064-1069.]
Caffeine, the most widely consumed drug worldwide, is valued for its psychostimulant effects. However, recent research by Peter Rogers and colleagues has shown that actually little or no benefit is gained, as frequent consumption causes tolerance, with the result that withdrawal sets in within hours of being without caffeine. So the effects felt by caffeine consumers after their morning tea or coffee amount to no more than the restoration of alertness to normal for the time of day. [Biologist, 53, 98-103.]
Finding the gene “for” various complex traits and diseases has become a major theme of modern biomedical science. Research at Bristol has shown that many (if not most) of the findings reported almost weekly may just be statistical flukes (known as false positives).
A simple solution to this problem is to invest in very large studies such as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a cohort of over 10,000 children who have been followed since birth in the early 1990s. Genetic research includes a large project to look at factors which predict cigarette smoking and other drug use jointly led by Dr Munafò.