Category Archives: News & Events

BPS Psychology of Education Annual Conference 2023

Dr Simon Cassidy presented a paper at the BPS PoE annual conference examining the value of self-report threat appraisal as an indicator of future educational attainment, retention, and progression in students in higher education. Threat appraisal, involving cognitive appraisal and evaluation of situational task demands versus available personal resources in high-value motivated performance situations, is conventionally measured using cardiovascular response output (heart rate for instance) as an objective measure of an individual’s response to stress. However, evidence suggests that subjective self-report measures also offer a valid measure of threat appraisal that correspond with objective measures but offer the advantage of being relatively quick and easy to administer in applied settings. Threat appraisal has previously been applied in areas such as commercial aviation, elite sport, and emergency medicine where it has been shown to predict future performance, possibly operating via a mechanism of increased anxiety and disrupted attention control. With fewer applications in the field of education, the paper offered insight into the value of threat appraisal in an applied educational context, highlighting potential implications for both future research and practice.

The power of nature in enhancing well-being and facilitating cognitive restoration

The Salford Applied Cognition Research Group will be hosting an interactive event at the 2023 Festival of Social Science. The event will take place at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester on Friday 27th October from 12pm – 4pm.

Activities, aimed at both children and adults, will encourage reflection on the properties that make natural environments beneficial to our mental and physical health. The event is open to all and no booking is required. More details can be found by clicking the link below.

Internship Experience with the Applied Cognition Research Group

Alishba Malik, who is about to commence their 3rd year studying BSc (Hons) Psychology with Criminology at University of Salford, spent July completing a paid internship with the Applied Cognition Group under the supervision of Dr Robert Bendall. Alishba has written the following piece describing their experience of the internship.

During the summer of 2023 I had the privilege of doing a research Internship at university of Salford under the direct supervision of Dr Robert Bendall. The internship spanned over a course of 4 weeks with an additional month of professional training beforehand. My role as an intern consisted of range of responsibilities. I assisted in designing a pilot study for the experiment, creating surveys, and conducting literature reviews. I also attended several meetings to discuss my progress and journal club meeting where I had the opportunity to discuss the article chosen and engage with esteem professors and fellow researchers. 

Throughout my internship I gained a profound understanding of the complexities involved in planning and carrying out research investigations. I learned how to critically analyse research articles and apply that knowledge to our own research. I learned the value of accuracy and thoroughness through overcoming the difficulties of data processing and fixing the issues within initial pilot study. This research assistantship acted as a testing ground for my intellectual and personal development. My interest and ability to think critically were strengthened by exposure to research techniques and the guidance of experienced instructors. I feel more secure in my abilities to contribute to scientific conversation as a result of this experience.

One of my personal successes was contributing to testing how the study will be conducting on the app (SEMA) that was going to be used for experiment. I created questionnaires and surveys and later tested them to make sure they worked and looked as we wanted them to be viewed on a mobile screen.

During the internship, I was presented with a lot of opportunities to network with professionals already in the field such as attending SPARC, where I got to meet a lot of individuals with their own research and saw what they researched and found. This gave me a sense on what a future in different fields and subjects would look like.

The knowledge and understanding I obtained while working as a research assistant will surely influence my academic career. I plan to integrate the research approaches and critical thinking abilities into my upcoming coursework and independent research projects such as my dissertation in my final year. In addition, motivated by the effects of this experience, I am now thinking about pursuing postgraduate studies in a Psychology related field.

When I think back on my experience as a research assistant, I am incredibly appreciative of the exposure to the world of academic research and the chance to help enhance our understanding of psychology. This internship served as a springboard for me to further my commitment to academic curiosity and to my appreciation of research. I can’t wait to use the knowledge and understanding I’ve received to my future academic and professional endeavors.

The Salford Nature Environments Database (SNED)

Written by Draco Graham-Kevan, edited by Samantha Gregory

Through the Salford Nature Environments Database (SNED) project we aim to provide a large selection of rated environmental images for research into nature restoration. Studies have shown that natural environments are restorative to both mental and physical health, and research has also shown that viewing images or videos of natural scenes can affect people in similar ways to being present in the scene themselves. Despite knowing that these natural environments are restorative, we do not yet fully understand how these restorative effects occur. Therefore, to help understand this, we need to look more at what is going on inside people’s heads when presented with these differing environments. To do this, we need to make use of images of environments in controlled lab settings.

Image of a lake with mountains and trees in the background. The sun glints in the corner and the mountains and trees are reflected in the lake
An example nature image

While environmental image databases exist, there is generally a lack of standardization of the levels of the properties that have previously been attributed to the restorative effects of nature, addressing this disparity would allow more accurate conclusions to be made about why and how natural environments are restoring. Further, current databases are also generally lacking in demographic detail and sample diversity, yet we also need to know if there are individual differences in these restorative properties. We hope that the Salford Nature Environments Database can address some of these concerns.

To develop this database we first had to dive into the theory around nature restoration and decide which properties could be captured and rated. First, it is believed that we respond to environments with an immediate judgment of whether we like or dislike them. Relatedly, Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART), states that restorative properties of nature are related to instant preferences towards natural imagery, as well as a person’s desire to be in the environment. Further, coherence of the environment is important, as is how much mystery there is in the environment, in terms of gaining new information through further exploration. Further work based on the attention restoration theory led to development of the Perceived Restoration Scale (PRS) of natural environments which digs further into these properties of the attention restoration theory such as fascination and compatibility. In addition, there are evolutionary theories about why we find nature restorative in terms of prospect and refuge theory which says we like environments that give a place of shelter or safety from which to explore. From these theories we therefore chose to target properties of immediate judgement, as well as properties related to perceived restoration and evolutionary theories. To measure immediate judgment, we chose to assess whether we find the environment positive or negative (valence), whether we want to approach or avoid an environment, how aroused we feel by that environment and whether we generally find the environment pleasant. To investigate the other properties we chose to assess the familiarity of the environment, how much mystery was perceived in the environment in terms of how much there was to explore, how interesting the environment was and whether a person would feel at ease in the environment (relating to prospect/ refuge).

Image of a street with cars parked next to a building site where a building has been partially demolished
An example urban image

In addition to this, we had to think about what types of images we wanted to assess and then gather these images. We wanted to have a range of images that captured the variety of natural environments from naturally formed rivers to urban parks, as well as environments across seasons and region, thus including deserts, snowy scenes, and autumnal forests. In addition, we needed a control condition that captured the built environment effectively.

To gather the images, we recruited three research assistants who were each allocated two types of images to search for. The categories searched for were natural images; caves, woodland, mountains, deserts, snowy landscapes, images containing water (rivers, waterfalls, oceans, lakes), fields, managed landscapes (gardens, golf courses, parks), and also control images containing human architecture. Images were searched for using the website Flickr, this is because Flickr allows anybody to search for images matching a certain description and filter for copyright status. For this database it was important that we only used images with a creative commons licence, meaning that they can be replicated and adjusted for use in different ways by other researchers. Images also had to be over a certain size and quality for the same reasons. We initially collected over 800 images, and then these were curated over three phases, to check for any missed watermarks or distracting features (like people or man-made structures within nature images, for example), check for any duplicates, and check that the images could be cropped and resized without losing any of the necessary qualities. These curations left the database with 500 images.

The next phase of this project was to allow these 500 images to be rated on their restorative qualities. To do this, we recruited 800 participants using Prolific’s participant pool. This allowed us to gather people from all regions of the world, ensuring that there was a more diverse and not just a WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) sample, which is often a problem in research. Using experiment building site Gorilla, participants each viewed 100 out of the 500 images and were asked to rate each using a sliding Likert-scale system. Ratings were on the properties outlined above and on average each image was rated on each parameter 160 times, well above the necessary 41 ratings that similar databases have calculated as the minimum per image.

Preliminary results have shown that overall participants found the natural images more pleasant, approachable, and calming than the urban control images. This clear distinction of scores between the different environments provides us with evidence of their potential usefulness. The natural images seem calming enough and urban images stressful enough to be used to measure their effects in future studies. The next step is to publish an article on this database and share the images. You can keep up with the progress of the project through the OSF page.

Internship Experience with the Applied Cognition Research Group

James Dodds, who graduated from University of Salford in 2022 with a BSc (Hons) in Psychology has spent the last 5 and a half months on a paid internship with the Applied Cognition Group, under the supervision of Dr Samantha Gregory. James has written the following piece describing his experience of the internship.

After completing my psychology undergraduate degree at the university, I left with a keen interest in research. However, like many others, not having any ideas for what my next steps were. When I saw the GAP internship programme, I thought it would be a good chance to gain some valuable experience in a topic I was interested in, and also weigh up the options for my future. The GAP programme is aimed at recent Salford graduates and helps provide relevant experience for a chosen career. Alongside this, the GAP team provide weekly careers and development workshops and match you with a mentor and careers advisor to help you throughout the internship.

Working with Dr Samantha Gregory has been an amazing experience, with my main role being to recruit participants and collect data for a study looking at gaze cueing effects and working memory. This utilized a VR headset to place participants in a realistic setting where they completed a memory task. Engaging first hand with participants and seeing the study progress has been exciting to be a part of and something I look forward to pursuing further in the future.

I was also welcomed into the applied cognition research group and attended bi-weekly meetings, which ultimately led to being involved in a group project developing a database of nature images to be used in research involving attentional restoration. My contributions included creating a search procedure for images to be used in the database, curating the collected images for the final database, and assisting with various other aspects within the project.

As part of this, I participated in a writing retreat where we attempted to follow a paper in a day plan. We split into groups, depending on where we felt we were most useful, and managed to get the majority of a first draft written in one day.

Another task I undertook was the development of a volunteer database, this involved researchers across the school of health and society and a large part of this included altering operating procedures with hopes to sign volunteers up entirely online. I was also involved in some administrative tasks for the project including filling application forms and preparing social media advertisements.

Alongside the work tasks, I was regularly offered opportunities and experiences that I would not have been able to do otherwise. Including attending a training day for psychophysiological equipment, the North West Visual Cognition conference held in MediaCityUK and numerous talks held at the university. As well as this I was able to complete multiple online courses during the internship to aid my professional development mainly focussed around learning Python.

Overall, the internship was more than I could have hoped for and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Finally, I want to thank Dr Samantha Gregory for the opportunity to work with her, and also thank the Psychology department for making me feel very welcome and providing lots of support over my time here.

North-West Visual Cognition Group BPS Research Seminar Series, Seminar 3: Visual cognition and Spectatorship

The visual cognition group at The University of Salford is part of a wider group of visual cognition researchers in the North West, known as the North-West Visual Cognition Group (NWVC)

From July 2022 until July 2023 the NWVC are hosting 4 research seminars across universities in the North West of England funded by the BPS. This week it’s Salfords turn!

On Friday 24th March we will host the third seminar at our Media City campus. The seminar will focus on how knowledge and expertise influence the way in which we represent the world. Topics include exploration of cognition and eye movements during spectatorship of the environment, improving perception and visuomotor control in elite sport, attention and eye movements in social interactions, and visual search during navigation. More details and full schedule on the NWVC site.

Funding to co-create research into improving the mental health of dads and their children

Dr Robert Bendall has recently received funding for an exciting project through The Ideas Fund. Rob will be working with Oldham-based organisation Men Behaving Dadly to co-create a research project aimed at maximising the positive impact of play. Additional project partners are Oldham Play Action Group and Greenacres Community Centre. Read more here.

Psychology Open Science Working Group

A key ethos of the research activity in the Visual Cognition Research group is the practice of open science. As part of this, a long with Salford’s local UK Reproducibility Network Lead, Dr Sharon Coen, the Co-Chairs of the Visual Cognition Research Group, Dr Samantha Gregory and Dr Robert Bendall, are also co-chairs of the University of Salford Psychology Open Science working group.

We promote open and reproducible research practice by working to create a community where open research practice is the norm. We offer workshops on open science practice as well as keeping this practice at the front of research discussion. We also practice what we preach by using the OSF to pre-register research studies, upload pre-prints of submitted work, and upload open data and resources related to our research.

As part of our activities, we are collaborating with other networks in the North of England, including being part of a joint ReproducibiliTea. ReproducabiliTea is a journal club where we discuss papers and ideas related to the Open Science movement. We are launching this initiative on December 15th with mince pies and festive cheer.

If you want to get involved, please contact us on

For more information on UKRN, please visit

Blink and you’ll miss it: Computer vision syndrome and managing eye health in a new era of online learning and teaching

Dr Simon Cassidy

Computer vision syndrome? You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it or are tempted to pull a wry smile at the term. In fact, it’s a recognised disorder.

‘If you suffer from dry, itchy, sore or tired eyes, blurred vision or headaches, you could be experiencing the symptoms of computer vision syndrome, or ‘digital eye strain’. ‘

It may be caused by a tendency to reduce the number of times we blink, blink frequency, when we are looking at a computer or other digital device’s screen.

Blinking is something we do automatically, imperceptibly. It’s a natural, instinctive reflex. You’re not likely to pay much attention to whether you’re blinking or not or when to blink or how often you’re blinking. That’s unless you’re having a staring competition or you’re a movie actor trying to make the most of your close-up. After all, why would you? 

‘Blinking is critical to maintaining the health and functioning of your eyes.‘

Photo by Perchek Industrie on Unsplash

When we blink, tear film consisting of layers of water, oil, and mucus produced by the tear (lacrimal) glands, which are located inside the eye lids, passes over the eye, removing small dust particles and moistening the eye. This protects the eye by removing debris and lubricating the cornea, the protective layer covering the eye. Blinking also delivers protein (via the secretory mucin MUC5AC), nutrients, anti-bacterial agents, enzymes, and oxygen to the eye, which doesn’t have its own blood supply, reduces the risk of eye infections and provides an opportunity to ‘rest the brain’ and refocus attention. 

We blink on average around 15 to 18 times a minute. 

‘Reports suggests that blink frequency decrease by 66% when we are looking at a screen.

This is partly explained by the fact that we blink less when we are concentrating and processing information, known as cognitive demand.  We blink less when we’re watching a film and tend to blink at the end of a sentence when we are reading. Poorer quality blinks, known as incomplete blinks, are also more evident during screen viewing, resulting in less effective lubrication because the tear film is not spread evenly over the entire eye. 

Blink frequency studies comparing printed page (books etc.) with computer screens are often small and inconclusive. So there is some disagreement as to whether there is a real difference in how often we blink under these two conditions. But symptoms of computer vision syndrome were much worse after sustained computer use compared to working from printed pages. Incomplete blinking (poor quality blinking) then, rather than blink frequency, may be the key to explaining why we suffer the effects of long periods working at a screen. 

‘A major growth in the adoption of educational learning technology pre-pandemic has ‘surged’ since the advent of COVID 19.

Pre-pandemic surveys suggested that we spend seven hours a day using screens. 

‘COVID 19 brought a new emphasis to digital technology and a widely reported increase in screen usage, particularly in 16–24-year-olds.’ 

For students and teachers having to learn and teach exclusively online, relying on computer screens of varying quality and working in makeshift ‘offices’, the risk to eye health and exposure to computer vision syndrome has increased. And while we are moving to a more balanced blended approach as we emerge from the full impact of the pandemic, there is likely to continue to be increased emphasis on online learning. Studies conducted pre-pandemic report a high prevalence of computer vision syndrome, including severe eye strain, in university students. One large scale study conducted with medical students found that 95% reported symptoms of computer vision syndrome, with major risk factors identified as long periods of study at the computer screen, distance from the screen and brightness and contrast of the screen. Post-pandemic studies, with students’ increased reliance on computer screens, are likely to report similar or worse outcomes. 

‘One suggestion to help mitigate the effects of long periods working at a screen is the 20-20-20 rule.’

When you’re working at a computer, every 20 minutes look up for 20 seconds and focus on an object 20 feet away. Other suggestions include being more aware and making a conscious effort to blink and blink completely, reducing screen glare by adjusting lighting, screen position or using a screen filter, using eye drops, adjusting screen contrast and brightness to avoid straining your eyes, limiting screen time in the evening when lighting can be poorer and you are more likely to be tired. There’s even a downloadable app that uses a camera to detect and monitor your blinks while you are working, reminds you to blink and offers blink training exercises. 

‘We should all have a self-care plan to maintain our wellbeing, make sure you don’t ‘overlook’ your eyes.’ 

Looking after your eyes will help protect your vision. It’s increasingly important that we do this routinely as part of how we adapt to more of our daily lives spent looking at screens to help us function in and out of work. The ‘BIG (Blinking IGreat) is Beautiful’ life hack for healthy eyes is worth remembering. 

Avengers: EGG-game

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is avengers-endgame-1024x576.jpg

So you are sitting in the cinema, munching on a big tub of popcorn and watching the latest blockbuster. We are guessing visual cognition is not much in your thoughts right now. But it is busy working its magic, nonetheless… 

Take the 2019 smash hit superhero movie, Avengers: Endgame, the second highest-grossing movie of all time with worldwide box
office takings of $2.8BILLION. Marvel Studios, who made the movie, revealed last year that they had planted Easter eggs – brief, fleeting features embedded in movies and video games and likely to be spotted by only the most diehard Marvel fan – in amongst the action. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is raiders-easter-egg-795x1024.jpg
Egg hunt: Homages to Star Wars in Raiders (top) and reciprocated with ETs in Star Wars

The idea of Easter eggs in movies and video games is not new. There are
several classic examples, ranging from fleeting appearances by Alfred
Hitchcock in most of his movies to
various subtle nods towards other films. For example, in director Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), when Indiana Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant in an ancient subterranean chamber, one of the hieroglyphs on the stone behind him shows R2D2, and C3PO from Star Wars (1977). Star Wars creator George Lucas repaid the favour to Spielberg by including a load of E.T.’s (from another Spielberg monster hit) in the Star Wars episode The
Phantom Menace (1982), as “Galactic
Senate delegates”. 

However, it seems most cinemagoers fail to spot these little ‘in-jokes’. So why is that? Well, the answer lies in visual cognitive psychology, proving how much cog is a part of almost everything in our daily lives, even our favourite movies… 

  • Remember that we only have a limited amount of cognitive resources available and when these are all being used up focusing on the main relevant features of a film there are not enough left over for spotting “less relevant” Easter eggs that are unlikely to help us follow the plotline. This links to the concept of “Inattentional Blindness” – we may not spot something right in front of us if it does not fit with what we are searching for. So the constraints of our processing system will prevent us from attending to and seeing things if they lack direct relevance.  
  • Easter eggs are usually only spotted by fans. Depending on your viewpoint of how to
    define a “fan” this could incorporate someone who knows a lot about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in this case), has watched the films a number of times, and reads about the films before and after they are released. Having this level of ‘expertise’ can help with spotting Easter eggs in two important ways. First, the more experienced we are with something the less attention we need to devote to it to understand it, and the more resources we have to use elsewhere (i.e. in the search for Easter eggs). So, if you have watched Endgame five times already you probably know the plot so don’t need to work so hard to follow it and therefore have a better chance of spotting something you didn’t see previously. Secondly, fans may have the motivation to search for Easter eggs so they devote more attention looking out for them, consciously aware that they may appear (this links to the concept of “top-down” attention). The average watcher is unlikely to know they exist so wouldn’t look for them anyway. This shows that attention can be influenced by expertise and motivation. 
  • The entertainment website DigitalSpy states that “Considering Marvel fans are usually quick to spot this kind of stuff, it’s shocking that it’s taken them so long to clock this one”. Okay, but why when fans arguably have more ‘experience’ and ‘motivation’ to spot Easter eggs? This takes us back to the issue of processing capacity. If you have seen Endgame you will know that it is a long film, at over 180 minutes long. Studies show that we can sustain our attention on a particular task for around 20 minutes before we start to switch off (that’s why long films like this need to include lots of exciting action sequences every so
    often to capture our attention again!). However, in addition to the length of the film, Endgame is quite emotional as it marks the culmination of several stories for several long-standing characters. There was a huge build-up to the release and fans were obviously
    excited and arguably quite anxious. Emotions have an effect on our attention and in
    particular anxiety narrows attention. In terms of watching Endgame, anxiety would cause a fan to focus on the character arcs and the plotline as their attention narrows, preventing them from seeing Easter eggs until a second or third viewing, when they are feeling less emotional. Proof that emotions affect our attention, even when watching a great film! 

Want to spot Easter eggs in films? Using knowledge of cognition we would suggest: 

  1. Make sure you have your full focus on the film (don’t allocate your limited information processes resources to other things – such as the sound of the person next to you
    munching on popcorn!). 
  2. Do the groundwork to improve your top-down processing – you need to increase your
    expertise about the film and the characters so that you understand the plot more
    effectively and can therefore devote attention to little extras. 
  3. Regardless of how invested you are in the future of Iron Man Tony Stark, try to keep a lid on your emotions so that they do not limit your attention.