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MVST IB Experimental Psychology option

MVST IB Option: Experimental Psychology (2013-14)

This is an Option course offered as part of the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos, Part IB (second year).

Course Organiser: Dr Jon Simons, Department of Psychology []

The course consists of 14 lectures plus 2 practicals.


Psychology is a huge subject that extends in its coverage from neurobiology through to complex social interactions. The course will give students the opportunity to explore different aspects of the discipline as it is applied to medicine, and to emphasize those aspects they find of most interest.

Students will be presented with a range of explanatory frameworks for understanding phenomena such as consciousness, attention, memory and language. They will have an opportunity to evaluate the strength and weaknesses of different interpretations in the light of empirical data.

The course will give students the opportunity to place ‘core’ knowledge from the Neurobiology & Human Behaviour (NHB) course in a wider scientific context. It will illustrate how the scientific investigation of psychology relates to broader social and medical issues.

This course emphasises human psychology and builds on material covered by the medics’ core course in Neurobiology & Human Behaviour.


Lent Term

All lectures are in the Biffen Lecture Theatre, and start at 2pm [except the first lecture, which is at 10am]

Lecture 1 (Dr G.J. Davis). Introduction to Course; Vision [10am, Wed 26 February]

Brief introduction to Experimental Psychology Option. Perception of motion. Stimulus variables from which depth information is extracted.  Perceptual constancy.  Conscious vision.

Lecture 2 (Dr G.J. Davis). Attention [2pm, Wed 26 February]

Theories of spatial attention and capacity limits. Executive control and its failure in normal and pathological cognition. Attentional biases in normal life and in clinical conditions.

Lecture 3 (Dr L.M. Saksida). Conditioning and Learning [2pm, Fri 28 February]

Predictive Learning. Pavlovian and Instrumental Conditioning. Habit vs goal-directed learning. Factors affecting strength of learning.

Lecture 4 (Dr L.M. Saksida). Memory [2pm, Mon 3 March]

The factors influencing how information is acquired and retained in, and recovered from, long-term memory.

Lecture 5 (Professor S. Baron-Cohen). Psychopathology: Autism [2pm, Wed 5 March]

This is considered to be the most severe of the childhood psychiatric conditions. Cognitive theories such as the mind-blindness, central coherence, and executive accounts are introduced, the diagnosis is summarized, and its infancy onset is explored. In this lecture (as with the other clinical lectures), videos will be shown which illustrate patients with the condition, to bring the topic alive.

Lecture 6 (Professor S. Baron-Cohen). Psychopathology: Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) [2pm, Fri 7 March]

This is one of the most challenging of the adult neuroses. The lecture explores the difference between the identification of the obsessions as distinct from the compulsive aspects. Both cognitive and neurobiological factors are considered as causes, and behavioural treatments are described.

Lecture 7 (Professor S. Baron-Cohen). Psychopathology: Anorexia [2pm, Mon 10 March]

This is the major eating disorder. The lecture considers how the diagnosis is made, to what extent it is caused by social factors, and some of the problems surrounding treatment.

Lecture 8 (Dr B. Chakrabarti). Psychological Aspects of Medical Treatment 1 [2pm, Wed 12 March]

Expectations influence our sensory perception of the world, as well as of ourselves. This lecture will introduce the intriguing phenomena of the placebo and nocebo effects, their common manifestations in clinical settings, and some of the experimental approaches for studying these.

Lecture 9 (Dr B. Chakrabarti). Psychological Aspects of Medical Treatment 2 [2pm, Fri 14 March]

This lecture will focus on the underlying neurobiology of the placebo effect, and discuss its implications for clinical trials.

Easter Term

Lecture 10 (Dr K. Plaisted-Grant). IQ Testing and Intelligence [2pm, Wed 23 Apr]

The origins of IQ testing and the ways in which modern IQ tests evolved; what do IQ tests test? The heritability of IQ; environmental effects on IQ; reasons for persistent group differences in IQ.

Lecture 11 (Dr J. Russell). Cognitive Development 1 [2pm, Fri 25 April]

Infants' knowledge of the physical and social world, from birth to the second year of life. This will include early vision, cross-modal abilities, early memory, number abilities, object individuation by kind, object permanence (by search and dishabituation), face perception, social referencing, agency concepts.

Lecture 12 (Dr J. Russell). Cognitive Development 2 [2pm, Mon 28 April]

Two major processes in mental development: (a) acquiring language, (b) acquiring a 'theory of mind'. Under language development we will look at cognitive prerequisites, lexical development, and syntax. In the latter case, Chomsky's linguistic theory will be briefly sketched and an experiment described relevant to one of his claims.  The standard account of theory-of-mind development will be described as well as simulation theory, meta-representational theory, and the executive theory.

Lecture 13 (Dr M. Bozic). Language Across the Adult Life-Span [2pm, Wed 30 April]

Many cognitive abilities including everyday language skills are affected by normal ageing. This lectures examines what abilities are impaired in old age and which are spared, addressing the questions of whether impairments in language may be caused by other cognitive factors, and whether some apparent impairments actually reflect age-related expertise.

Lecture 14 (Dr E. Limbrick-Oldfield). Judgement and Decision Making [2pm, Fri 2 May]

This lecture will consider some higher-level cognitive processes involved in thinking and reasoning. As we will see, humans display some common flaws in judging probabilities and making decisions: rather than analysing a problem or decision in depth (using a normative model, such as logic or probability theory), humans often use quick and simple heuristics. Medical doctors are certainly susceptible to these tendencies, which pose some important considerations when communicating health and illness information to patients.


The practicals will also take place in the Biffen Lecture Theatre.

1 (Dr S. Morein-Zamir). Psychopathology [3-5pm, Wed 12 March]

Many different forms of psychopathology are characterised by biased processing of disorder-relevant information. In this practical, we will study a number of experimental paradigms used to look at 'attentional bias', and examine these biases in relation to common forms of healthy anxiety.

2 (Dr K. Plaisted-Grant). IQ [3-5pm, Wed 23 April]

We will study a selection of IQ tests, in particular parts of the WAIS and Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices.

Assessment (examinations)

Students are examined in the Experimental Psychology option within the MVST Special Options paper.  The examination will consist of two essay questions from a choice of five.

Note that prior to 2004–5, a different format was used; take this into account when visiting the Faculty of Biology's past paper collection. Note also that lecture content can vary from year to year; students will only be examined on material taught this year.