Dehumanisation – Something We Are All Capable Of

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City Psychology Society first guest speaker of the year was Dr. Lasana Harris. After a captivating talk, Dr. Harris gladly agreed to an interview. He would describe himself as an Inter-disciplinary Researcher, as he incorporates aspects of different fields such as Social Psychology and Philosophy into his research.

His talk was about dehumanisation, also known as dehumanised perception. The idea behind this is very simple, when we encounter other human beings we feature space map and infer. Feature space mapping is looking at the contour, size and shapes of objects and matching this up with similar dimensions already stored in our brains to figure out what the object is. It’s the same with human beings – for example we can use height, size, eye and hair colour to identify one human being from another. Dr. Harris explained that human beings are unique as we go one step further and infer to figure out what the other person is thinking.

A very reassuring theme is that professionals do not always begin their academic careers in the degree subject which you would expect. Dr. Harris completed his undergraduate degree in Media and Communications and wanted to be a journalist. However, through coming into contact with a developmental psychologist. He began to realise that Psychology did interest him.

Although Dr. Harris gave us a nice example of how Disney capitalises on the notion that we can humanise objects, and can infer emotions from objects given the right context. During question time it became apparent that our students were concerned that the media negatively use the notion of dehumanisation in news channels. For example, the news channels often has a ‘them versus us’ attitude on anything negative – which may lead the audience to dehumanise people who are need in of help. One student asked Dr. Harris if he believes that we can use what has already been researched to bring about a social change. His answer was that the context of what is shown on television has a powerful impact, and all the media does is reinforce the negative impact. However, Dr. Harris suggested that social change is possible as cultural shifts happen naturally. For example, the ‘hated outgroups’ from 80 years ago are no longer hated due to a change of social attitudes.

“Living in a social environment is very complicated. I think what separates us from other species is that fact that we can switch emotions on and off. All species will kill for food, but the want and act of killing for the sake of it is only found in a few species.”

Although dehumanisation can be seen as a negative in many cases, Harris showed the audience that the practical applications of dehumanisation can be positive. For example, doctors have to be able to have empathy towards their patients, and be able to dehumanise during surgery. For example, it may affect their performance if they are thinking about: how worried the patients family are, and how much pain the patient will be after the surgery. Another practical application which was quite striking for me is how the army often teach the soldiers -knowingly or unknowingly – to dehumanise the people that they may eventually have to face in combat.

I was interested in knowing what the most exciting thing for Harris was, as he has completed many years of research. Harris responded that the most exciting time for any researcher is when they are running their first initial analysis to check whether their hypothesis is correct. As many psychology students would agree, when conducting our own experience a significant effect is not always found. However, Harris pointed out that although there are many setbacks in the life of a researcher, it is very interesting when something unexpected pops up out of the data that you wouldn’t expect would happen.

Further expanding on the idea of having setbacks in research; I was curious about the secret to dealing with these setbacks without becoming too discouraged. Researchers encounter much more setbacks than students in the form of: papers and grants being rejected, and people not hiring you and so on. Dr. Harris’ advice was to not take criticism too harshly nor personally.

“You have to have ‘thick skin’. Don’t take criticism too harshly, don’t take it personally, you should use it to improve yourself. There’s always something from a criticism you can learn.”

On a more positive note, I wanted to know what kept Harris motivated to continue conducting research regardless of setbacks. He shared that the best part of his role is being able to give talks, as he loves storytelling, and his talks are his way of storytelling to the audience. Which I believe is the secret to giving inspiring, memorable talks.

Harris’ Advice to Students:

“Research experience, that’s the most important thing. Get as much research experience as you can. Take relevant classes and get the research experience.”

What makes you bored? Doing the same thing continuously for a very long time.

Favourite season? Summer! I’m from the Caribbean.

Are you usually late, early or right on time? Right on time. Maybe a little early, but never late.

Written by Dionne St Rose

Not Enough Time in the World

danai_dima-200pxThe term is moving fast. Deadlines are piling up this month, and we all can’t wait for the festive season to begin and term to finish so we can hibernate until the new term. However, amongst all the class tests and deadlines, I was excited to do my first interview with a lecturer at City. We turn up to lectures on a daily basis (well, most of us do) and we hear about the research that our lecturers have conducted in the past. However, we don’t always have the chance to find out what it was like for our lecturers to study at university. 

As a fairly new lecturer to City and my current Biological Psychology lecturer in year 2, Dr Danai Dima has made my Wednesday 9am’s (sigh) much more enjoyable with her enthusiastic teaching. Dr. Danai Dima is currently a Cognitive Neuroscience lecturer at City, and has been interested in Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience from a young age as she enjoyed maths. Her main interests in Psychology developed from her love of reading Oliver Sacks books on neuroscience. She obtained her Bachelors from her home country Greece, and completed a Masters in Integrative Neuroscience and a PhD in Germany and London. It’s safe to say that she’s an expert in her field with the world class training she has received.

After travelling all over Europe studying and conducting research, Danai reminisced on her Bachelor’s Degree in Greece when I asked which was her favourite place to study. ‘I’m going to be a bit cheeky here. I did my first degree in Greece and there are some pros and cons’. Danai explained that her first degree involved a high demand for good memory as she described that studying involved learning a lot of models. ‘University is free in Greece for your first Bachelor’s Degree, but you don’t do any research like you can do in the UK. So here, you have a lot of people who do world class research and your projects can be much better’. Danai further agreed that in the UK we get what we pay for when it comes to university: ‘world class research and world class lecturers’. Even though university rates are known to be high in the UK, we can sometimes forget that high amounts of money are spent on funding research that enables us know more about how we function and how we can resolve issues in fields such as Mental Health.

‘Psychology changes all the time. It’s still an infant. Every day in a baby’s life is like a year in psychology. So if you’re not up to date, then you don’t get the correct world view of psychology.’

As you could imagine it was very difficult for Danai to choose a favourite research project out of the 30+ published research papers she has been involved in. ‘You end up thinking that your favourite project is the one you’re currently working on’. She is currently working on machine learning (i.e. using brain scans) in differentiating between disorders such as Bipolar patients with Depressive patients, as it can take up to 8 years to get an accurate diagnosis. On working with ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics Through Meta-Analysis), a consortium involving a network of research establishments, her work involves investigating how the brain ages and how structures change as we develop throughout our lives. 

‘I can never publish a paper on my own because we never have all the expertise. It’s not only a time limit but also a capacity limit because there’s not enough time in your lifetime in years to study.’

Danai has worked at City in the Psychology department for the last 6 months so she describes herself as a ‘newbie to City’. She describes that having a nice work environment is vital in her work, and City students are ‘nice and polite’ which makes the job easier. Working with her colleagues is a ‘lot of fun’ and the work ethic of students makes her enjoy being a lecturer. ‘Ask me again next year, who knows?’

At university, people often ask us what we want to do after completing our degrees, but it’s not often as straightforward for everyone. Danai confessed that the first role or job you try may not necessarily be the career you want. After spending time on becoming a clinical neuropsychologist, she didn’t enjoy the year in training. ‘Sometimes our ideas become romanticised and you can always make mistakes. But usually life is not as strict and you can always change what you want to do’.

Danai’s advice to students:

‘Support your peers. I know it sounds silly, but you will get the best advice usually from your peers. Like the ones that are one or two years above you. There should be a lot of love between you because you are all in the same boat. You are a big cohort and it’s really difficult to become friends with all of you. But help each other with notetaking. Don’t suck up to the big ones. It doesn’t matter so much. Be nice to each other. Sounds a bit cheesy, I know.’ 

What is your favourite TV show/series? Crime series (currently watching ‘The Missing’)

What is the first thing you notice when you first meet people? Their voice

What’s your favourite day of the year? My birthday (it’s in December)

Written by Sandra Ku

Small Steps Matter

marie_poirierAny Psychology student who has studied at City, would have been supported and taught by Dr Marie Poirier. Marie specialises in the field of Memory, and has accomplished several publications in Journal Articles and books. So as you can imagine, I was very pleased when Marie accepted our interview invitation! Marie is a charismatic lecturer, so the Psychology Society and I were very interested in what she had to say.

It’s November, and the deadlines are fast approaching. This is often the time where University gets stressful. Only the strongest can survive. I was curious to see if Marie ever felt this way, and what strategies she used to cope to get the most out of university. Marie remembered her first degree being very challenging, as she had to teach herself to be more disciplined and organised. Up until University, Marie explained that she didn’t have to work all that hard in College. However, she gained a place in a University where there were 1000 applicants, and only 55 students were accepted. Marie described herself as a sociable student: she went to all the parties, was part of the Students’ Union, and was a Student Representative. Although she enjoyed all, after her second year she became tired. So her advice to current and future students would be to become more disciplined, but also make sure you have time for yourself, as you have to have the mental health to keep going.

“Small steps matter sometimes just working an hour or two every day, at a specific time can create a habit.”

Marie is originally from Quebec, Canada which is where she obtained her PhD. I thought it would be interesting to ask her thoughts about studying abroad. Personally, I have always liked the idea of it, and I believe that Marie would be a good person to ask her opinion on the topic. Marie agreed that studying abroad is easier said than done. As although it sounds good on the paper, the reality is that you “go to a strange place, you don’t like the cheeses, you don’t have your favourite foods, you don’t know how to take the bus. Everything is new, and everything has to be learnt and you don’t know a soul, so that makes it quite hard”. On a brighter note, Marie explained further that if you are confident, and conduct appropriate research, it can be a fantastic experience and you can reap great rewards. Marie went abroad in the States for a while to work, and she remembered being very worried about how she was going to cope. She believes her experience made a difference in her thinking, in her way of functioning and it still influences her to this day. It had a massive positive impact to her confidence.

Marie moved to City in 2001, and says that City is “the absolute best environment” she has worked in. Her three main reasons are that: her fellow lecturers are great to work with, the administration is great, and the levels of students are high here. Some students also work part-time and can agree that there can often be work politics, but Marie says that within the Psychology department the people are lovely and are all very focused on their work – and this makes it an enjoyable place to work.

“Our facilities here now are great and it’s a very well rounded department. Best kept secret in London.”

Working at City University has also provided Marie with some of her proudest moments of her career. Marie mentioned that her PhD students make her very proud, as they have all graduated and progressed to either academic careers or in employment. The PhD students put an incredible amount of work in, and that being able to help them by giving them an opportunity and supporting them in starting their careers is one of the best parts of the job for Marie.

As a third year student, I often feel pressured into knowing exactly what career I want to do for the next 40 years of my life, which is daunting for anyone in my position. Psychology entails a number of different areas, which does make it harder for me to choose. I wanted to know how Marie chose the research area of Memory. Marie’s PhD was actually in Time Psychophysics, and although it was her first love and she still enjoys learning about it and attending talks. Marie admitted that she wanted to do something that has more scope for applications. Marie was attracted to memory as she already knew a bit about it, and at the time the famous Working Memory Model was really starting to hit its stride. There were also practical reasons that Marie had to consider as in Canada, lecturers had to get grants to fund their research – and therefore Memory was an area where you can collect data fairly quickly. Marie’s final choice “was a choice of heart and reason”.

Marie’s advice to students:

“Go out there and knock on as many doors as you have to. I know it’s hard, but it can make such a difference. If you meet one person that just mentors you even a little bit. It can make a big difference for your own confidence and your opportunities later. The degree is very challenging and it’s hard to make space for that, but people should go for it.”

Favourite Time of Day? Morning

Favourite Leisure? Cycling

If you could visit any place in the world, where would it be? Japan

Written by Dionne St Rose