Saturday, 4 April 2009

What is Brain Milk?

Simply, it's a blog to help the Experimental Psychology student out by someone who has done it already, namely me, Will. Hi.

I wrote it because people were asking me too many questions and answers were mentally writing themselves while I was trying to get some sleep; Brain Milk was a ploy to answer all questions with a simple link to this page and in so doing get some more shut-eye.

I also like helping. The revision wheel is continuously reinvented and that seems to me a horrible waste of time, especially as the sun makes its brief British appearance just around the time when you have to disappear into libraries to revise.

So with the aim of getting you some more fresh air - and maybe some more marks - here's where you should start, clicking 'Newer posts' at the bottom of each post will eventually get you back to here.

For those of you who wish to be a little more selective here's a list of tags to quickly jump to specific areas:

Friday, 3 April 2009

Testing Times – How to Beat Stress During Exams

Sarah Scrafford has very kindly submitted this post to Brain Milk to discuss how to control that exam beast, stress. Thanks very much Sarah; here you go ladies and gents:

No matter how many lessons you take, how much advice you receive, and how well you’ve studied, stress and exams are a pair that go hand in hand. One is never seen without the other. While a small amount of tension is needed to boost your adrenaline and make you want to do your best, you have to be careful of letting panic take over and making a mess of all the good work you’ve done over the year. So if you’re looking for ways to stay calm and collected when you’re preparing for or writing an exam, here’s what you need to do:

Study throughout the year: No amount of cramming a week or even a month before the exams will prepare you as well as a slow but steady process of studying throughout the year. Most of us have the tendency to study only when exam dates loom large, but if we were to adopt a routine of setting our own test schedules as and when each lesson is completed, you’ll find that preparing for your finals at the end of a term is a breeze.

Understand your lectures: If you don’t understand what you’re supposed to learn, you’re facing an uphill climb when you attempt to recollect the answers during an exam. Take the time to understand your lectures much before the exams. The ideal time would be a few days after your lecture’s over, the one that went over your head and seemed more of Greek and Latin to you. Seek the help of your classmates or your professors, much before your exams are due.

Set time limits: Whether you’re preparing for or writing your exams, you need to set time limits for finishing each portion. Set schedules for revising your topics, and when writing your exams, try and finish each question in the time you’ve set to answer it. This kind of forward planning helps you eliminate last-minute jitters and panic cramming (or writing), factors that don’t help your scores in the least.

Do things in the right order: You need to read the questions properly before you attempt to answer them and understand them properly. If you rush through your paper, there’s a high probability that you’re going to mix up your answers. When you think you don’t know an answer, take time to compose yourself and think back to your revision without freaking out. Panic is your worst enemy when you’re looking to score good marks.

Don’t discuss your answers: It’s not wise to rehash your exam and go over it question by question once you’re outside. If you realize that you’ve made a mistake, it’s going to weigh heavily on your mind and ruin your preparation for the next exam too. You can’t do anything about the answer you got wrong, but you certainly can avoid the stress of knowing you were wrong. So just focus on preparing for the next exam at hand, or if it’s your last paper, on relaxing and letting your hair down.

This article is contributed by Sarah Scrafford, who regularly writes on the topic of radiography technician schools. She invites your questions, comments and freelancing job inquiries at her email address:

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Well it's all over (for most of you anyway, sorry Consciousness people - not long!). Feels amazing, eh?

I don't like letting things whimper out so I thought I would officially end the blog.

I really hope that you got something out of it, that you learned a little about how to better prepare and handle all those scary exams. And if none of that happened, well, there were some pretty pictures.

My man on the inside says I may have bummed out a few of you a bit by being freakishly keen. I suppose I'll apologise for the anxiety but I wont for setting a standard. Life's brief. Excellence is worth doing.

And on that lofty note, I will wish you all the best and log out.

P.s. If you are scratching your head about post-Bristol life and you are interested in a job with a sprinkling of both logic and magic,
you might like to find out about Account Planning. It's perfect for psychologists interested in business, brands, ideas, communication, media and wearing trainers to work. If it takes your fancy, contact me for more info. If it really takes your fancy, come and work for Dare (applications open October), where you'll bump into me.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Finishing up

When I finished writing my answers, I'd get a feeling like this picture. Rays of tranquility, the stillness of having finished...aaah it's all over.

The trouble is I got this feeling prematurely: when you finish writing you still have one job to do. Checking it over. If I am honest, not every essay I wrote in exams was read through and checked either because I ran out of time or steam (or had lapsed into a world of romanticised classical imagery.)

This is bad time management and a bad attitude to have. On those essays I did check over I always found a slew of glaring errors. On the ones that didn't get the once over I probably cost myself. I would advise you hold off the feeling of relief at the end of writing for a bit longer and leave yourself a couple of mins at the end of an essay to go back over and brush it up. Silly mistakes upset markers - and grumpy markers get stingy with marks.

The first five mins

Read the questions sloooowwwly

When the exam starts read the questions carefully. Sounds bleedin' obvious, doesn't it? But panic does funny things to us. Time feels like it's slipping away and reading the questions speedily is the outcome of this feeling. Besides, what you nod at here isn't often what you actually do. To make sure I read them properly, I didn't read them 'in my head' but as if I were reading them out loud, just with no volume.

I'd spend 2 minutes reading the questions over and over. Sometimes one will jump out and give you a big wet kiss, other times it will twist in front of your eyes, changing shape every time you look at it.

I like to choose both questions before I start under the belief that somewhere some portion of my brain might be thinking about the other question sub-consciously whilst I answer the other (I have no idea whether this is true, it just seems like it might be from experience).

Put your answer's gist in a nutshell

Before embarking on your answer have a casual sentence or two in your head to sum up what your main argument will be. Some examples:
  • [Human Factors & Error] 'Sure, human error is unavoidable but user-centred design can make systems more tolerant of error'
  • [Neuropsychiatry] 'Yes, psychiatry and neurology should be merged for theoretical reasons (they both deal with breakdowns in the same system)
For people confident with their stuff, I'd advise adding on a modifier to this mental statement. This will refine your argument, show caution (a good thing) and tick the box for critical analysis. Building on the examples I gave you a moment ago:
  • [Human Factors & Error] '...While systems can be polished, we must not forget - and remove all the blame from - humans: as operators, their cognitive systems can be polished too by training';
  • [Neuropsychiatry] '...Whilst Neuropsychiatry is theoretically ideal it may be practically impossible to be sufficiently expert in. Therefore, although the two should be reunited, the sub-disciplines of psychiatry and neurology should exist within the framework of neuropsychiatry';
If you do this, what you have is the last sentence of your introduction and the spine of your essay which you can add the muscle to when you are writing it. It will keep you focused.

If you are write-down-plan sort of person spend the next few mins making that. If you are a do-it-in-your-head-plan type (like me) make sure it's solid and then start writing...

Before the exam

Avoid the wafts of panic that hang outside exams; find somewhere quiet and unflustered

Outside the exam ignore those people. You know the ones. Well-prepared but nevertheless spreading their own brand of insecure worry-vibes out on a strong frequency. Get your desk number and picture where your desk will be in the room.

Then relax, perhaps find your revision buddies, talk about general course issues, the news, where you are going to eat after the exam, a few major references etc. This mix of getting into the intellectual groove whilst soothing the nerves is best.

Now, when you walk in you should be calm and confident and not letting nerves frazzle your mind and serve up blocks. On the other hand, a bit of natural edge is good. You don't want to be so completely relaxed you feel like a kip.

When you get in you can make a bee-line to your desk, as you know its location, and exploit the time at the start to get ready and even think about your answers if they are showing (n.b. useful skill to be able to read back-to-front text through paper. Or, just turn the question sheet over. Technically, there is nothing saying you shouldn't; it's just one of those funny obedience to authority things that we assume we can't. Do what you want - don't hold me responsible if some adjudicator elbow drops you.)

Keep the contents of your desk to a minimum. Check for table wobbles. Head up your booklets. Open any drinks or snacks before. Crackling or the "ft-sssss" of a bottle opening isn't appreciated during the exam. Hydrate before, not during.

You should be calm, ready and excited. Panic will be detrimental. So will apathy. Now the exam starts...

Exam technique

"Two point drop-down....There it is."

'Any tips on exam technique?' seems to be the question of the moment.

Technique is very important. It's the bottleneck through which all your knowledge must squeeze.

The next few posts will address some techniques that might be useful before, during and after the exam.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

How to be the cream

I had this scheduled to post a while back before all the exams kicked off but something went wrong with Blogger for some strange reason. Here it is now though.

A pint of Guinness tonight and a couple of emails from you lot got me thinking about the difference between a 2.1 and the a First. What does it take to be the cream at the top?

Having produced essays that range from shrugging 2.2 all the way up to a party-throwing nineteen, I have had a crack at analysing what I think works.

I know it says a little bit in the handbook about what a makes a First but here's my take on the sine non qua of the undergraduate black belt.

Flawless basics

Getting the basics right might sound obvious and easy but it is often neither. Perfect writing takes skill, which means practice. You might also be thinking that it is the quality of your ideas inside an essay that are of importance, not other things like proper spelling, grammar and vocabulary. You'd be wrong. Basic errors will piss off your marker and reduce your essay's readability. You have to respect that these guys have spent years grooming their own writing and they are seriously sharp and unforgiving on errors. A First class essay will have mastery over these basics. This is the first hoop.

Advanced understanding

This is the single most important thing to have if you want to write at a First class level. Not only does this tell the reader you know your stuff but it also sets you up for all those other things a First needs, which I'll speak about in a sec.

How to do it? Read. Read. And then read a bit more. A good benchmark for when you have read enough is that the references start becoming achingly familiar and no important new ones pop up. Considerable investment of time is needed; cramming simply won't work at this level.

Once this is done you will need to get it straight in your head. There are several effective ways to do this: teach someone else what you know, write a brief article about for a newspaper, make a diagram.

In all these cases, you are translating your knowledge into a simpler form that forces you to be clear by getting intimate with the logic flowing through material. It also gives you the chance to enliven and have fun with the concepts, which should forge better memories.

Once you have reached this level you will be fluent with in-house debates (e.g. modularity/connectionism, user-centred design/system-centred design, mind-brain dichotomy/mind-brain holism, serial/interactive, nativism/empiricism and so on). These arguments, their proponents and the evidence that is used in their support should be achingly familiar to you. Beyond this bifurcated, black and white - 2.1 - view, you will know the subtleties of theories and arguments - you will be at one with grey.

This refined understanding of the big picture and its smaller brushstrokes will mean you can quickly set out an argument in a pithy introduction, write with brutal clarity and relentless relevance and - most important - be unabashedly critical and glitteringly creative. I'll expand on each of these a bit.

A super-concise introduction

See my post on introduction writing for more on this. Briefly though, you should have a quick introduction to the area, a specific statement about the issue at hand, an idea of the route you are going to take and the conclusion you will arrive at. (Note how this is almost identical to an abstract.)

Brutal clarity

This means the reader is treated to an effortless journey through your argument, free from tangling structure, overgrown vocabulary and irrelevant obstacles. Every sentence will be suffused with a crispness and will elegantly pass the baton from the previous sentence to the next.

Relentless relevance

Every sentence should be working for you; use it to answer the question, or lose it. Anything not maintaining the flow of logic or evidence will be spotted by a marker's keen eye and cause upset. So many essays fall down because they give answers to adjacent questions. Keep referring back to the question with explicit sentences that actually answer it.

Unabashed criticism

Take a very low view of academic papers. Assume they are wrong and that they have something to prove to you as you are reading them and you will see the weaknesses more easily. When you do this don't tip-toe around flakiness, attack it explicitly. Don't be afraid of published scientists with lots of letters after their name. The whole point of this degree is to get you thinking for yourself. It's a great feeling taking giants down a peg and actively looking for the opportunity to do so will sharpen your nib.

Glittering creativity

There is usually a painful discord in the recent literature. That's what being at the fractious, creative edge of science is like. Armed with your advanced understanding and critical outlook you will be able to spot weaknesses in how people are uncovering and making sense of the unknown. Critiquing is good but real rewards await for those not only satisfied to criticise the food, but go ahead an open their own restaurant. That is, propose your own theory.

One way of doing this is to hook up the best bits of other theories that haven't met before. This is something I did lots. Another way of doing this is to come up with something truly new and amazing. I've never been good enough to do this.

And a conclusion to hold all the strings together and announce lift off

See my post on conclusion writing for more on this. Briefly though, gather up all the points you have made and then package them up for the reader in a neat sentence to finish the essay on, which undeniably answers the question and avoids the platitudes.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The big day: getting ready

The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin (1853, Oil on canvas)

Exam days don't have to be the emotional equivalent of 'Mad Martin's' apocalyptic vision. It's probably much better if they aren't because all that worry is bad for performance, soaking up valuable working memory. At the same time total indifference is unlikely to get your brain fired up for sharp thinking. Instead, you want to aim for a happy medium - a calm tinged with a brooding sense of drama, a restrained excitement, like Turner perhaps.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth by J.M.W. Turner (1842, Oil on canvas)

So, as requested, here is some advice for preparing for the big day.

Exam days begin the night before with a solid amount of sleep. Read the this paper (the intro at least) out last year if you don't believe me. Doing revision at the expense of sleep is pointless. Set several alarms to get you up for at least 2hrs before the start of the exam. This will give your brain time to warm up and allow you to calmly go about your morning activities.

One of these should be to eat well. Nerves may try to fend off your meal. Ignore them. Your brain is going to make a energy-demanding journey so fuel it up well (see here for more on eating). Also, don't eat too close to an exam otherwise you'll get the unhelpful "post-lunch dip'' (Smith et al., 1991).

Absolutely no new learning should be attempted on the morning of the exam; cramming is a seriously dodgy exercise (Glenn, 2007; Rohrer & Pashler, 2007). Just go over your condensed notes, making sure you focus on arguments first and references second.

Monday, 19 May 2008

No trousers?

You sit down, turn over the paper. The questions are revealed. You read over them quickly. An out-of-body experience begins to creep in. Your palms start prickling with sweat. What the hell are they asking? This wasn't even on the course, was it? Your heart is jumping in your chest. You look around. Heads are down. Please - someone give an indication that they are in the same position. No one. No one? This is just like the nightmare of turning up somewhere without any trousers, except it's worse: it's real.

But unlike the bare-legged moment, this probably happens a lot more than people care to let on. I'll come clean, it has happened to me many times. The words are swimming on the page, you are telling yourself to concentrate and then in that horrible recursive way you start thinking 'I should be actually concentrating instead of thinking about concentrating. Ah! I am wasting time!' And then - snap - you are back looking at the questions. Everyone around you seems to be getting on - and time is running out! What to do?

Take a deep breath.

Calmly read through the questions again and stop worrying about time. You will have missed something in your panic earlier. Sometimes a question comes disguised as an ogre whereas when you take off the ugly phrasing there's a hottie underneath.

Here are a few things to be on the lookout for when undressing the ogre:

1. Inversion

This is where a common theme is disguised by flipping it on its head. 'To what extent is language a cultural invention?' is getting at the biology of language. 'System-centred design is wrong. Discuss' is inviting you to talk about user-centred design. 'Social anxiety is a 'illness' 'suffered' only by malingerers. Discuss.' is opening the gate for a discussion on the neuropsychiatry of the disorder. Be careful not be led down the wrong path with questions like this. If you feel your thoughts drifting off into new territory ask yourself if the question is rotated whether you can get back to familiar ground.

2. Tricky language.

This is the use of unfamiliarity to mask a familiar topic. For example, 'Does matter matter?' - here the familiar theme - functionalism - is disguised by the seeming complexity of the question. Another might be, 'Discuss the evidence for 'insulated processing islands' in the visual system?' - here the usual term - a module - is substituted to throw you off the scent. Take a moment to translate back into terms you are familiar with.

3. Quoting.

This is the use of external quotations, often couched in the practical, which then demand theoretical clarification. For instance, '"Women need a reason to have sex; men just need a place". Discuss this statement in relation to Parental Investment Theory.' Or, '"Most of the focus in product design is on the product itself, and I realised that's just a small piece of it" (Norman, 2005). Discuss.' In these cases, the meaning of the quotation needs unpacking and translating back into something you are familiar with. I found it helpful to write a couple of re-phrasing words over the top of quotations just to get the meaning pinned down. Just make sure in your answer you address a quotation directly.

So, take your time when reading the questions at the start. If you feel panic setting in push it away, take a deep breath and have another look because a second reading without the dizzying effect of anxiety will be much better if you are looking out for the things questions are getting at and not their window dressing.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Exam drinking

No, this is not a drinking game where you take a shot for every page you write. It's about that habit some people have to continuously sip away at a bottle whilst they sit their exams. My advice is to hydrate before the exam and top-up on fluids (and sugar) between your two essays. All that sipping wastes precious time.

It is also a cognitive no-no. The department's very own Peter Rogers and his minions have written a paper on this (Appetite, 2001, 36, 57-8). They say, "Many students take a drink into a long exam. If you are not thirsty and use the water as a distraction or comfort tool it may have a detrimental effect on your performance."(source).

They found 15% lower scores (than controls) in people taking a test where water was sipped continuously. They also found 10% higher scores where water was consumed and people were thirsty, hence why I say hydrate before the exam.

Saturday, 17 May 2008


winmac @ Flickr

Creatively, digitally, altruistically, commercially and pedagogically, Brain Milk has been a bit of an experiment. From the fact that around 150 of you keep coming back every day together with all your lovely emails, it seems to have been successful.

As you may have picked up on from various posts, I am dubious of the current way things are done when it comes to work throughout the year and revision - mostly solipsistically and without any 'top down' - to steal a popular cognitive term - feedback. That is, alone and without any input from people who have done it already. The revision wheel is continually reinvented, which seems rather pointless.

However, it does genuinely interest me how my twenty minutes a day of babbling affects you lot. So, I have put a poll over on the right to see the results of my little experiment. I realise I have been a bit naughty with the framing of third question, but you get the idea: best to worst as you go down. And don't worry it's completely anonymous - Google Analytics tells me a lot about you but not who you are (yet).

The Profound Sign-off

Still thinking about conclusions, I starting thinking about The Matrix, which tickles me and annoys me a bit.

It tickles me for for galvanizing a generation of pale guys to go out and buy long leather coats, adopt a slightly creepy, deadpan vernacular and walk around with knitted brows looking like they are cogitating the nature of Choice. (Aside: anyone else notice they always carry thin HMV bags? What is in those bags?) It annoys me for the final scene of the first film: I think it was rather overindulgent of the Wachowskis. Listen to it here (may not work on Internet Explorer because it's lame; use Firefox):

Neo's frothy spiel to the Matrix (or whatever he is talking to, himself most probably) and his extravagant 'Superman thing', as Link later dubs it, set against Rage Against the Machine's Wake Up, captures a tendency in writing, speeches and film to shoehorn some mawkish wider meaning into the end of the script and finish on a big, splashy note.

US TV series are especially guilty of this, typically signing off with some life-affirming message or manifesto for making the world a better place. Something like, 'I guess the thing about identity these days is [insert your own pseudo-profound statement].'

Back to academia though. Whether or not this need to inject some wider meaning into conclusions is a product of our reading and viewing diets or whether it's from something else, it has no place in your essay's conclusion. Try and purge yourself of the temptation to imbue your final sentence with a fat dollop of real-world import.

Your final sentence in your essay should be a place for you to pithily state your answer to the question, so it is ringing in the ears of the marker as she finalises your mark. It is not the place for your personal manifesto.

Don't do a Neo and dip into the platitudes when you finish up; just answer the question.

Conclusions and Balloons

I have blogged about getting the flavour of your introduction right to impress your reader. Now it's time to think about how to finish off.

For this we are going to employ the use of some helium balloons for the mother of all contrived analogies. What we want to do is make the marker take off like this at the end of the essay:

How do we do it? What we will need are lots of well-inflated balloons all tied together. The balloons are the points in your essay. The lift they give is the force of your argument. If they don't have anything in them they ain't gonna fly. So, in your essay make sure all your points are supported by empirical reference or logic, and there are lots of them.

Now, if you hand someone a load of balloons that aren't bound together what you have is minor disappointment and a load of wasted balloons that are probably going to confuse a flock of birds. You might as well not have bothered inflating them. In other words, if your points aren't nicely drawn together at the end you aren't going to get the desired effect. The conclusion is the place to tie up all the balloons and announce the lift off.

What follows is the crudest possible way of constructing an essay. It a guideline not a rule. Don't follow it to the letter but use it to see how you can go about constructing your conclusion by drawing on the points you have made earlier.

-Intro, issue, route, destination

Para 1
-Point 1
-Summarise paragraph point 1 and relate back to Q (P1P)
Para 2
-Point 2
-Summarise paragraph point 2 and relate back to Q (P2P)
Para 3
-Point 3.
-Summarise paragraph point 3 and relate back to Q (P3P)
Para 4
-Point 4
-Summarise paragraph point 4 and related back to Q (P4P)

-Summarise the issue outlined at start
-Drumroll...and explicit answer to main question which will be ringing in marker's ears as they finalise your mark.

So for conclusions remember this: tie up your balloons and announce lift off!

Friday, 16 May 2008

Writing references

mark78 @ Flickr

People have clearly developed a hunger for the posts on writing style. To sate that this post has a few references that you might like to explore further. It is probably one for second years to dip into next year, although it may be worth using a dead moment to take a look at them now before exams begin.

Taines, C. (2007). A practical guide to writing for psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Smyth, T. R. (2004). The principles of writing in psychology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

O'Shea, R. P., Moss, S., & McKenzie, W. (2007). Writing for psychology (5th. ed.). Melbourne: Thomson Australia.

Findlay, B. (2006). How to write psychology research reports and essays (4th ed.). Frenchs Forest, Australia: Prentice Hall.

Burton, L. (2007). An interactive approach to writing essays and research reports in psychology (2nd ed.). Milton, Australia: Wiley.

Beins, A., & Beins, B. (2008). Effective writing in psychology: Papers, posters, and presentations. New York: Blackwell.

Ambiguous pronouns

If you use pronouns - like "this”, “that”, “they”, “these”, “those” etc - make sure it is clear what they refer to, otherwise do not use them. It's just another of those things to avoid reader confusion.

More on writing

“Formal writing differs from informal writing in being concise, clear, simple, scholarly, polite, careful, precise, and scrupulously grammatical…” (O’Shea, 2000, p.1).

Nicely put.

To the Psychoanalysts

onefromrome @ Flickr

There has been a call for more psychoanalysis essays on the hub. It'll be useful before the exam on Monday. Upload now!

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

What to do this week?

chunyang @ Flickr

Exams are suddenly no longer just around the corner. Nerves are creeping in; you lot are (anxiolytically?) checking the blog more often per day than you were this time last week. As people feel time pinching up, the questions have taken on a common theme: how to use it most effectively in the coming days.

My answer to these questions is this:

1) Pace yourself - There is a temptation to up the pace now the hours are getting tighter, to pack more in to each one and to work more of them. This is fine but don't lose sight of the reason for all this work - the exams. If you are not fresh (fed and rested) for them all that hard work is pointless.

2) Learn by plans - If you were told to commit to memory all the characters in The Godfather films, how they relate to one another and their individual journeys through the plot, which would be better technique: learning them off a list or watching the films? I think the films, which is why I am a fan of learning references by planning essays; the arguments become the important bits and the refs are easily picked up collaterally. So, instead of just writing out references again and again blend them into arguments. The nice thing about this is that if references are absorbed in context, when it comes to wringing them out all the related references drip out too. In cognitive speak, one reference can act as a cue to activate the others, and before you know it you have a paragraph in the exam.

3) Get social - Get out of the cubicle and chat. This is good because it forces you to test your knowledge without the crutches of your notes, thus sweeping away the self-deception that is so rife with individual study. For some reason, it is also a whole lot easier to learn those references by chatting them over.


Signposting is helpful for getting around a place. And essays can be confusing places. So, just like their physical namesakes, when used sparingly and at the right places they can make all the difference to someone trying to find their way around your essay.

Personally, I find them helpful at the start of new paragraphs. They help provide the zip line for reader to glide down as they read. They're just another way of being an altruistic writer.

A signpost might take the form of something like this: "Having discussed how deprivation negatively affects linguistic and communication skills, why deprivation causes these effects will now be examined."