CHASING MEMORIES OF TRAUMA FOLLOWING EARTHQUAKES IN CENTRAL ITALY

Alessandro Massazza photo 1

Alessandro Massazza (PhD, UCL Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology).

Co-supervised by Prof. Helene Joffe and Prof. Chris Brewin

 

We generally tend to struggle with remembering certain things in our day to day life, whether it is where we parked our car or the name of that person we have known for ages. However, following highly emotional events, some people might struggle with the opposite problem: remembering too well.

 

I am a first year PhD student in Psychology at UCL and my research is focusing on intrusive memories. These are very detailed and vivid memories of part(s) of a traumatic event that pop up unwanted in one’s mind. At times, the person can feel like they are reliving that moment all over again. This can be very distressing. In particular I am interested in exploring the reason why certain moments of a trauma later appear as intrusive memories whereas other moments do not. Contemporary cognitive theories of traumatic stress suggest that what happens at the time of the trauma, such as panic, dissociation, and freezing, might play an important role in the shaping of this peculiar type of memory. These reactions are called peri-traumatic responses.

 

Alessandro Massazza photo 3

The town of Amatrice following the earthquake

I decided to investigate this research question among a sample of survivors of a powerful earthquake that struck Central Italy on the 24th of August 2016 causing the death of 299 people and widespread damage. In particular I focused on the small town of Amatrice which suffered the greatest amount of human losses and was virtually razed to the ground. I collected 104 qualitative interviews on memories of the worst moments of the trauma and accompanying peri-traumatic phenomena, as well as 310 questionnaires. Overall, I collected detailed descriptions of 51 different intrusive memories. This will hopefully allow me to explore, both qualitatively and quantitatively, if something different happens in certain moments of the trauma that affects whether they later return as intrusive memories or not.

 

The support of the ESRC has been paramount in conducting this piece of research. I hope this work will contribute to shedding some light on the aetiology of this complex phenomenon and provide some answers to guide future prevention and management of this distressing symptom.

Visiting the University of California, Davis

Eleanor Palser

Eleanor Palser (PhD, UCL Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology)

I am a fourth and final year multidisciplinary PhD student, studying Clinical Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. I am interested in how signals from the body are used by the brain to help us think and feel.
There are theories that suggest that these signals are affected by conditions like autism and anxiety, and this might explain some of their symptoms. So far, I have been using behavioural methods to research this. However, I also want to develop skills in neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A combination of both methods might better enable me to answer this question.

As such, I chose to visit an institution that had a strong track record in conducting neuroimaging research with younger populations, particularly with individuals diagnosed with developmental conditions like autism. There isn’t much of this kind of research happening in the UK, so I decided to travel further afield. I spent six months (three of which were funded by the DTP) in Professor Susan M. Rivera’s Neurocognitive Development lab at the UC Davis MIND Institute . There, they specialise in conducting research on the brain basis of developmental disorders, such as autism.

MIND Institute building at University of California, Davis

MIND Institute building at University of California, Davis

Going in the MRI scanner can be challenging – it is noisy, claustrophobic and you have to stay still. I wanted to learn about what procedures can be put in place to help young children, especially those diagnosed with autism, take part in these kinds of experiments. It turns out there are lots of ways to help participants stay calm, including familiarisation training in a pretend scanner.

While at UC Davis, I worked on a project investigating brain and behavioural differences in how gesture is used and understood by autistic children and adolescents. We found out that gestures are processed differently in the brains of autistic people, and they sometimes struggle to produce the hand posture necessary for others to understand their gestures. This may explain some of difficulties autistic and non-autistic people face when communicating with each other.

I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity to travel to another institution during my PhD. It is hoped that I learnt will help me bridge the gap between my two disciplines, and conduct more powerful research in my population of interest.

Researching the EU referendum through web archive and ephemera collections – British Library PhD Placement

Alexandra Bulat

Alexandra Bulat (PhD, UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies)
A call for applications circulated through the UCL ESRC mailing list in February. The British Library invited research students to develop their skills outside academia through placements. As my PhD focuses on attitudes towards EU migrants in the UK, I was intrigued by a three-month placement researching the EU referendum. I filled in the written application form, was invited to an interview, and found out I was selected in March.

During the summer, I explored two collections while in the British Library offices –  the UK Web Archive’s EU referendum special collection and the LSE Brexit Collection. I also worked with the EU referendum collection at the University of Cambridge Library. I used those three collections to see how immigration was presented in the 2016 EU referendum campaign.

The placement outputs include two blog posts, one for the British Library, and the other for the LSE Brexit Blog. I organised a roundtable at the British Library with curators from different EU referendum collections, research development staff, and academics, to discuss how can researchers make best use of library collections. I also delivered a report on my user experience with the web archive.

Alexandra presenting at the roundtable event, British Library

Alexandra presenting at the roundtable event, British Library

This autumn I will talk about this summer’s placement results to different audiences at the British Library, at academic events, and during the Bloomsbury Festival at Conway Hall. An academic article situating this research project into the emerging literature on Brexit, and providing detail on the findings, will also be available in due course.

As a qualitative researcher mainly working with interviews and observations, I would have never thought that I would explore political campaign leaflets and archived websites in such detail. My placement with the British Library helped not only to inform my doctoral research, but also to develop my transferable skills, in particular presenting to and writing for non-academic audiences, which are essential for public engagement.