More Student Success in the PsyLife Lab

Bio picHere in the PsyLife lab we busy working away on lots of exciting hypotheses regarding how the social environment is linked to a greater risk of experiencing psychosis at a later time point.

Now, one of our first-year PhD students, Jen Dykxhoorn has achieved further recognition for her PhD which will focus on the role of social factors underlying the raised rates of psychotic disorders amongst migrants and their descendants. Jen has been awarded a prestigious UCL Overseas Research Scholarship in support of her PhD.

We’re delighted Jen’s research potential has been recognised at this early stage in her career, and we are excited about the progression she will make in her studies over the next three years. Jen’s PhD research is also supported by the Mental Health Research UK (MHRUK)’s John Grace QC Scholarship. Once again, congratulations to Jen, and stay tuned here for exciting findings from her and the rest of the group.

Cartoons Kill! Death in children’s animated films

In somewhat of a departure to the research my group in UCL Psychiatry normally works on, I’ve just published a research paper in the BMJ’s 2014 Christmas edition on the occurrence of death featuring in children’s animated films (yes, cartoons!) compared with dramatic films for adults, jointly led with my colleague Dr Ian Colman over at the APEAL lab at the University of Ottawa.

Contains a scene young viewers may find disturbing

CARTOONS KILL: casualties in animated recreational theater in an objective observational new study of kids’ introduction to loss of life

What did we find? Well, the on-screen death of a main character, close friend or relative occurred 2.5 times more frequently in children’s animated films than dramatic films for adults. That’s quite something. Taking murder alone, this figure rose to 2.8 times excess in kids animated films, and parents were 5 times more likely to be the victim in children’s animated films compared with dramatic films for adults (perhaps this last one is less surprising, given parent’s are more likely to feature in films aimed at young children in the first place).

Hocus pocus?

By this point you might be asking yourself what could explain such shockingly high levels of death (including murder) in films aimed at young people. I hope you are! Surely this is some artefact of data manipulation, a selective bias of choosing the kids films and comparison films to load the dice to favour of this finding.

We don’t think so. Here’s a summary of how we approached the research: we took the all-time top grossing 45 animated films, indexed for inflation, and compared the amount, type and victims of on-screen death with the two top grossing dramatic films for adults in the same year of release as each of the animated films. Where we included more than one animated film from the same year of release, we included the next two grossing dramatic films for adults (i.e. 3rd & 4th) from that year.

A priori we established a few ground rules. First, we excluded sequels, since characters may have been more or less likely to have been killed off in the first film compared with the sequel (if you’re making Finding Nemo 2, you’re not going to be able to kill off Coral again). Second, we excluded animated films where the main characters were not human or animal. We couldn’t fully operationalise the concept of death in toys or machines, so we thought it would be safer to exclude those films. Third, from our comparison group of dramatic films for adults we excluded any films which received a genre tag (IMDB) of “action” or “adventure”. Why? Well many of these films are also marketed at children, think of Spiderman or Indiana Jones – and so might have biased the findings. We wanted our comparison group to be films primarily (and as far as possible) only intended for adult audiences. If you’re thinking this might have artificially excluded lots of violent movies, you can browse our full movie list here: it includes a lot of grisly movies: Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Road to Perdition, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Black Hawk Down, Titanic.

We then watched a lot of movies. Even with a thirteen-strong team of movie raters, fantastically coordinated by Drs Mila Kingsbury and Murray Weeks – that’s an average of 10 movies each. We watched until the first occurrence of an on-screen death of a main character, or a close friend or relative of a main character and noted down the time it occurred, how it happened and who died. By “on-screen” we meant clear evidence that a character who had been present in the film had died at a certain point, even if the director spared us the most gory stills. So the shooting of Bambi’s mother, implied by her sudden absence from the film following a panicked dash away from oncoming hunters and the sound of gunshots, counts. But the orphaned princess whose parents were absent from the very start of the film would not.

We then used an epidemiological technique called survival analysis to investigate statistically whether on-screen deaths occurred more frequently in animated films for kids versus dramatic films for adults. We took into account total runtime and year of release – two potential important confounders (alternative explanations) in the study.

What lies beneath

While our findings surprised us – over twice as as many deaths of on-screen main characters or their close friends or relatives in the animated film sample – there may be a number of reasons for this. We speculated that important plot devices (like killing of the parents quickly to allow the adventure to unfold) could – when handled sensitively – also provide an opportunity for children to be exposed to difficult or complex concepts like death in a safe, warm and loving family environment. Parents might want to be on hand to answer any questions their children have while watching the films. There are also great websites out there for the concerned parent, which get underneath the certification rating of a film, to highlight any particularly gruesome, gory or otherwise potentially inappropriate content for very young audiences. Try as a starting point.

We love animated films and we hope they continue to provide hours and hours of pleasure to young and old audiences alike. We hope our paper highlights some of the more surprising issues that lie beneath the seemingly innocent adventures that Bambi, Nemo, Simba and a host of princesses, dwarves and  all 101 dalmations will embark on this Christmas. That’s all folks!


Nature, Royal Society podcasts on urban psychosis

©Cree GmbH. Licensed under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial, Attribution licence

©Cree GmbH. Licensed under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial, Attribution licence

Thanks to all of you who came along this week to hear my Cafe Scientifique talk at the Royal Society on “What causes psychosis?” The evening was a sell-out, and I’m sorry not everyone who wanted to come could get in. You can listen to my talk from the evening, plus the first half of questions from the audience. Feel free to drop me any comments or questions via this blog post. It was great to discuss my area of research – into how our environments may affect psychosis risk – with a wide range of people who came to the Royal Society event, who really set the evening alight. Thanks for all your contributions. Questions ranged from issues surrounding diagnosis of schizophrenia through to how the social environment led to disordered thoughts in the brain and whether or not delusions or hallucinations looked different in a brain scanner compared with normal thoughts.


An interview with me about my work has also featured on a Nature podcast, out today, which you can also listen to by clicking here.

James to speak at @royalsociety Cafe Scientifique

The Royal Society



This Monday, James will be discussing his research on the role the social environment plays in psychosis aetiology at the Royal Society’s latest Cafe Scientifique.

Event details

Psychosis is a broad and complex set of mental disorders, characterised by a loss of contact with reality. Ranging from short term hallucinations to severely disruptive disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the symptoms are wide-ranging and diverse. But how does our external environment affect the risk of experiencing a psychotic episode? And how can we study this within a population?

Dr James Kirkbride’s research seeks to answer these often complex and enigmatic questions. Join him for a discussion of the techniques that are helping to shape our understanding of psychosis and mental illness.

James appears on UCL Brain Sciences video

James has taken part in a new initiative for undergraduate students at UCL Brain Sciences to learn more about what research goes on in the Faculty. He was interviewed by Dr Jake Fairnie as part of the “Meet the Research” project. Full details of the project and recordings by other staff members are available on the Faculty website. You can watch James’ interview here (sorry about the moustache).