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Cambridge News interviews Dr Hannah Critchlow


Can MRIs show how you vote? Neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow on the 'brain basis of ideology'

By Cambridge News  |  Posted: April 22, 2015


Dr Hannah Critchlow

A former nursing assistant, Dr Hannah Critchow, 34, works in public engagement for Cambridge University's neuroscience department, and has a PhD in neuropsychiatry.

In 2014 she was named as a top 100 UK scientist by the Science Council for her work in science communication, and will be speaking at this year's Hay Festival.

She has been in Cambridge for 10 years.

What is your particular area of expertise?

I try to open up the wonders of the brain and discuss mind blowing neuroscience findings with the public on the radio, TV, and at festivals.

I'm really looking forwards to the Hay Festival where, in partnership with Cambridge University, I'll be presenting two events: electrocuting the audience and reading their brainwaves in a reality changing show and, live streamed on the BBC, I'll be putting concepts such as love, fear, memory and altruism in neuroscience and historical context, with a wonderful colleague from Cambridge, the historian Dr Bethany Hughes.

How would you explain your current work to a stranger on the bus?

My own behaviour, and others people's behaviour, baffles me!

I love it when we can appreciate our intricate minds, our memories and emotions, and feel empowered by our knowledge. So I talk to scientists and the public about these things.

Where do you do most of your work?

All over the place! Cambridge Fitzbillies do amazing mochas, as do Hot Numbers - I like working in both these places!

I cycle between departments for interviews, and I travel across countries to report on the neuroscience findings in amazing places: I've been to New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, India, over the last year or so, so many amazing places.

All over the world mental health issues affect around one in four people, it's important to discuss the brain everywhere.

What first inspired you to study neuropsychiatry?

The patients at the psychiatric hospital where I worked as a nursing assistant at the age of 18.

They inspired me to want to know more about the brain so that the knowledge can try to help people.

What kind of student were you at school?

A cross between a geek and a rebel: I got chucked out of most of GCSE biology lessons for talking too much, and had to spend a lot of lesson time in the corridor with my hands on my head.

What's the most exciting part of your job?

Speaking to people who love what they do.

What keeps you awake at night?

Thinking about food! Which means I'm hungry so I'll go and eat. Simple!

What's the worst thing about your subject?

Nothing, the brain is an enigma, something people want to understand.

As a result there are so many questions, such curiosity and such openness for discussion and ideas on the subject.

I love the fact that mental health and wellbeing issues are finally making it onto the political agenda.

What false preconceptions do people have about your field?

That all scientists are mad with frizzy hair and buck teeth. That is not (entirely) true

What's the most interesting thing you've learned this week?

The brain basis of ideology.

For example, did you know that you can image a person's brain and see if they may be more likely to vote left or right?

I've been working on a fabulous podcast series with the University, called Election. The series discusses the election in lots of different ways, including how neuroscience findings could inform political campaigns, and is full of interesting new ways of thinking.

What one thing don't your students or colleagues know about you?

My first memory is my sister sticking a pea up my nose. I had to go to hospital to have it taken out.

What's the best thing about working in Cambridge?

The enthusiasm of the people here and the gorgeous architechture and public parks

What do you think will be the next big discovery in your field in the next 10 years?

New technologies are revolutionising the way that we can peer into the brain, to better understand emotion, memory, learning and how we perceive our reality.

I'm looking forwards to seeing these findings help people.

For more about Dr Critchlow and her work see here.

Episodes of the Election podcast, which is produced by the university's politics department, can be downloaded here.

Posted on 24/04/2015

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