skip to content

Cambridge Science Festival reveals surprising new insights into the mind

A fascinating discussion that explores novel interventions to help change the way people think about and deal with violence and conflict headlines the list of events examining how our minds work at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival. 

The Festival, which runs from 11th – 24th March and has over 360 events most of which are free, includes a raft of discussions and debates on everything from adolescent mental health to a new type of brain cell with greater potential for repairing the brain and the latest insights into why some people find it hard to break drug addiction.

An international panel of leading psychologists and psychiatrists come together on 16th March to discuss novel interventions that help change the way people think particularly when it comes to violence and conflict in Thinking the healthy way: does thinking style relate to mental wellness?

The Mental Health Foundation estimates that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem. In addition to causing personal distress, mental health problems can drive disability and disease, affect close relationships, communities, and wider society. Several factors contribute to mental health problems, including how we think about ourselves, others, and the world around us, regardless of which beliefs we hold. Can we change the way we think without changing what we think?

For the past decade, the IC Thinking Research Group (Department of Psychology) has been developing a method for enabling people to hold on to their own core convictions while changing how they think. IC stands for ‘integrative complexity’ and describes our ‘thinking style’. In the face of difference and disagreement, we usually react by thinking in simple, rigid categories (low IC), predicting destructive conflict or even violence. However, we can learn to think in more flexible, complex ways, remaining open to new information and collaboration despite disagreement (high IC). This way of thinking predicts more peaceful outcomes to conflict.

During this chaired panel, four experts in public mental health from Pakistan, Sweden, Northern Ireland and the UK explore how ICthinking® group interventions developed by Cambridge University researchers can help to promote public mental health. Across very diverse cultures and populations, IC interventions have been empirically validated to increase both mental resilience and pro-social engagement. While there is no magic bullet for the challenges of mental health, the panel suggest IC intervention science has a key role to play in public mental health promotion.

The panellists include:

Dr Feriha Peracha, (CEO, SWAaT Pakistan) directs Sabaoon, a deradicalization and rehabilitation project for adolescents recruited by the Taliban. Over nine years, she and her colleagues have worked with 240 boys apprehended during counter insurgency efforts in the Swat valley. To date, 211 boys have reintegrated successfully into their communities with zero recidivism after varying lengths of residency in the Sabaoon project (currently 29 are enrolled). 

Professor Valerie DeMarinis (Guest Professor in Public Mental Health, Umeå University Medical School, Sweden; Professor in Psychology of Religion (Religion, Meaning and Culture), Uppsala University, Sweden; Professor in Public Mental Health, Innlandet Hospital Trust, Norway) is pilot testing public mental health and health promotion dimensions of the newly developed group intervention for Sweden to address and prevent destructive polarisations and extremist violence.

Dr Russell Razzaque (Consultant Psychiatrist, Visiting Professor London South Bank University, Hon. Senior Lecturer University College London, Director of Research North East London NHS Foundation Trust) directs research focusing on the way in which relationships can be key to changing thinking styles and behaviour. His research has found evidence that our thinking styles and behaviours become more cooperative, and our wellness increases, when families become collaboratively involved in our mental health treatment. These findings inform the creation of continuing professional development programmes for professionals in the field of community health, safety, and security to promote practitioner and community wellness and reduce extremist violence.

Professor Siobhan O'Neill (Professor of Mental Health Sciences, Ulster University, Northern Ireland) has researched the role of thinking styles in relation to ‘help seeking’ and other behavioural responses to crises, including emotional regulation. This research involved students as well as groups of people experiencing trauma as a result of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, examining the influences of older generations on younger generations and the transgenerational transmission of trauma. Professor O’Neill is planning a new IC intervention that focuses on changing thinking styles among Northern Ireland secondary school students, staff, and family members living with the legacy of the troubles, increased ethnic tensions, and the uncertainty of BREXIT.

The adolescent brain and mental health are also explored during the Festival. The following three events take an in-depth look at how the mind works in adolescents and how it can sometimes go wrong.

Remember being a teenager? Rocked internally with hormones and outwardly with social pressures, you sometimes wondered what was going on in your head. So does Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, University College London, who presents the 2019 annual WiSETI lecture: the adolescent brain on 12th March. Her research concentrates on the development of social cognition and decision making in the adolescent brain.

Adolescence is characterised by the changes mentioned above as well as a rapid rise in mental health disorders. Around 45% of adolescent mental health problems are attributable to childhood adversity, such as poverty, parents having mental health problems, being bullied, neglect and abuse, but fortunately not all who experience adversity develop psychopathology. Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen discusses mechanisms that may aid resilient functioning in adolescents with a history of childhood adversity in Adolescent mental health: resilience after childhood adversity on 20th March.

During her talk, Dr van Harmelen discusses her on-going research, including recent findings that recalling positive memories can reduce adolescent depression, and which other factors may help increase mental health resilience in young people who have experienced adversity and how these factors relate to each other. “Mental illness often emerges earlier in young people who have experienced adversity and is more severe and less responsive to treatment, so it is vital that we have a better understanding of how we can reduce vulnerability before depression emerges,” commented Dr van Harmelen.

On 13th and 14th March, a series of events that includes a performance, installation and discussion explore how our minds cope with modern life, confronting audiences with complex issues around young people and mental health. Unkindest cut: harm and harmony in your head – performance combines dance, performance, text, film and an intricate light installation set inside a shipping container. After the performances are over, the discussion  takes place with artist Subathra Subramaniam, clinical psychiatrist Dr Partha Banerjea and Cambridge neuroscientists, discussing themes that inspired the work. The  installation is a collaboration with audio-visual artists Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden and lighting designer Aideen Malone in association with clinical psychiatrist Dr Partha Banerjea.

Poppy Jaman OBE, an internationally respected mental health advocate, national policy adviser and social entrepreneur who has played an instrumental part in making mental health a high priority for public and private sector employers gives her personal story in Mental health conditions are not synonymous with failure: a personal story with Poppy Jaman OBE on 21st March.  During the talk, Poppy looks at the factors impacting the mental health of staff and students across the University. Telling her own story, she describes the support she received during her recovery, how work was crucial to this, and how compassion and the ethics of supporting people are critical to the success of healthy organisations.

Poppy Jaman OBE is a co-founder of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), a coalition of City businesses working to increase understanding of mental health issues and to create a culture of good mental health in the City, and a non-executive director on the board of Public Health England. After briefing the Prime Minister and her cabinet on MHFA in 2017, the Secretary of State named Poppy as one of England’s mental health experts.

Three further events at the Festival deal with issues concerning the brain. On the 15th March, Professor Andrea Brand and her group talks about a new type of stem cell with greater potential for repairing the brain during In conversation with the Brand Group at the Gurdon Institute.

Professor Brand said: “A major goal of regenerative research is to repair the brain efficiently following injury, disease or ageing. The brain repairs itself poorly – however, it may become possible to improve repair without surgery by targeting stem cells residing in patients’ brains. Stem cells have the unique capacity to produce all the cells in the brain but are normally kept inactive in a form of cellular ‘sleep’ known as quiescence. Thus, any regenerative therapy targeting stem cells must first awaken them from quiescence.

“The Brand lab discovered a new type of quiescent stem cell (G2 quiescent stem cell) in the brain with higher regenerative potential than quiescent stem cells identified previously. Importantly, G2 quiescent stem cells awaken to make neurons and glia much faster than known quiescent stem cells, making them attractive targets for therapeutic design.

“Using the power of genetics in fruit flies, the Brand lab identified a gene (tribbles) that selectively regulates G2 quiescent stem cells. The tribbles gene has counterparts in the mammalian genome that are expressed in stem cells in the brain. Thus, chemical targeting of tribbles might be one route to awakening G2 quiescent stem cells.

“These results have significant implications for designing therapies to awaken patient stem cells. The search for G2 quiescent stem cells in other organs can now begin.”

In Autism in a dish on 16th March, Dr Susanna Mierau explores how the cutting-edge techniques of growing brain cells in the lab with the same genetic changes found in autism allows researchers to study brain development that can lead to therapies for autism and related disorders. Dr Mierau discusses her on-going research and how researchers can study the very foundation of how brain cells form connections with each other in autism in a laboratory setting and how this can be used to discover new therapeutic targets. She also presents some preliminary data from her work.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that traumatic brain injury is and will remain the most important cause of neurodisability in the coming years, with physical, cognitive and mental consequences that may persist for many months or years after injury despite many advances. On 24th March, a fascinating talk explores how AI and VR promise to be game changers for the assessment and rehabilitation of traumatic and acquired brain injuries in Why virtual reality can be a brain health game changer.

AR and VR have the potential to radically change how patients are assessed and rehabilitated after traumatic and acquired brain injury, but much work is required to develop and validate such novel technologies. Controversy surrounds the idea that it is possible to use gaming and VR technologies to improve our ability to think.

The NIHR Brain Injury MedTech Co-operative has brought together teams of patients, carers, inventors, industry and clinical researchers to develop and translate promise into useful technologies. During the event, a group of innovators present their cutting-edge technologies to illustrate what progress is being made and what the barriers are to implementation. One example includes a demonstration from Dr Michael Grey, Reader in Rehabilitation Neuroscience at University of East Anglia, who presents a VR based concussion assessment prototype. This prototype could be used to aid the pitch-side return to play decision.

Further events related to brain function and mental health:

  • The joy of steps (12 March). Dr Matt Wilkinson reveals how our minds have been shaped by the need to move and gives tips about how to keep them working in our modern world.
  • Discovery night: a journey through the brain (13 March). An evening exploring research in psychology and neuroscience through hands-on activities, experiments and short talks with the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
  • A gut feeling about the brain: microbiome as a key regulator of neurodevelopment and behaviour (14 March). Professor John F Cryan, University College Cork, Ireland, shares surprising facts and latest insights about how our thoughts and emotions are connected to our guts.
  • The psychology of cognitive illusions: or why the mind is tricked (14 March). Professor Nicola Clayton and Clive Wilkins explore what cognitive illusions reveal about the psychology of the human mind: not just perception but also memory and the ability to mentally travel in time, to revisit our past experiences and reflect upon them, and to explore places we have yet to visit and imagine what they will be like.
  • Transformation and mind: using science to fight mental illness (15 March). Mental illness has dramatic effects on individuals, their families and communities. Professor Peter Jones discusses how clinical and population studies can be integrated with health services to promote mental health wellbeing.
  • Addiction: a back door in the brain (16 March) Dr David Belin shares recent insights into the mechanisms by which commonly abused drugs hijack our learning and motivational brain systems to trigger the maladaptive, compulsive, drug-seeking habits that typically those who suffer from an addiction find hard to break.
  • Discoveries leading to new treatments for dementia (18 March). Giovanna Mallucci, Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and Associate Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute discusses how research is transforming our understanding of the cellular mechanisms that make brain cells go wrong in dementia and degenerative brain diseases, and how these insights may be translated into new treatments. 
  • The neuroscience of out-of-body experiences (20 March). Dr Jane Aspell, Anglia Ruskin University, discusses scientific explanations of out-of-body experiences (OBEs), and describes why the science of OBEs can help us understand how the brain creates a ‘self’.
  • Bibliotherapy for wellbeing: poetry and prose as Prozac? (23 March). Can reading be a cure for mental health problems such depression and anxiety? In this event, researchers from Anglia Ruskin University and the Open University examine how ‘bibliotherapy’ has gained growing interest as social and cultural practice.

Download the full Cambridge Science Festival programme here.  Bookings can be made here or by calling the Festival on 01223 766 766 between 11am and 3pm.

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media via Facebook and Twitter #CamSciFest.


Cambridge Science Festival brings science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine to an audience of all ages through demonstrations, talks, performances and debates. Run by the University of Cambridge, the Festival draws together independent organisations in addition to many University Departments, Centres and Museums.

This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, MedImmune, Illumina, TTP Group, Science AAAS, Anglia Ruskin University, Astex Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust. Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.