Research Centre for Brain and Behaviour case studies

Interested in our work? Take an in-depth look at some of the research we're engaged in.

Gouldian finches signal their personality through their head colour

Recent research indicates that animals across a large range of taxa differ consistently and predictably in their reaction to environmental challenges (termed personality). However, relatively little is known about how personality traits relate to other traits (e.g. morphological, physiological).

The Gouldian finch is a colour polymorphic songbird in both sexes originating from the dry savannah in Australia where red-headed, black-headed and yellow-headed birds co-occur in the same flock. Several studies have shown that colour polymorphism often has a signalling function, e.g. red often signals aggression and reduces agonistic interactions. It has also been shown that different colour morphs differ in their mating strategy, predator avoidance and reaction to unfamiliar situations. These are behaviours that are also often part of personality traits in colour monomorphic species. However, very few studies so far have investigated a possible link between colour polymorphism and personality.

We investigated whether Gouldian finches show personality and whether this is related to their colour polymorphism. Captive bred Gouldian finches were individually tested in four independent personality domains; neophilia (attracted to novelty – a novel object was placed at a neutral location in the cage), neophobia (avoidance of novelty – latency to feed beside a novel object), risk-taking (return to feeder after a simulated predator attack) and aggression (tested in dyads of same and different head-colour pairs). Neophilia, risk-taking and aggression were consistent over time (2 months) and neophilia and risk-taking were positively correlated with each other supporting the existence of personality in this species. Moreover, black-headed birds were less aggressive but took greater risk when confronted with a simulated predator and explored a novel object earlier than red-headed birds. Therefore, head colour in Gouldian finches signals personality.

The project investigates further in how far personality changes in a social context (i.e. testing two or more birds together) or how personality and head colour affect group organisation and leadership.

Funding: This study was funded through an LJMU HEFCE postgraduate research studentship.

Collaboration: Dr Andrew King, Department of Biosciences, Swansea University

Related publications:

Mettke-Hofmann, C. 2012. The effect of head colour and age on personality traits in a social setting. Ethology 118: 906-916.

Williams, L.J., A.J. King and C. Mettke-Hofmann. 2012. Colourful characters: Head-colour reflects personality in a social bird, the Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae). Anim. Behav. 84 (1): 159-165.

Contact information: For more information please contact Dr Claudia Mettke-Hofmann.

Healthy Ageing: Neuroprotective effects of mindfulness practice

The demographics of most Western countries are changing towards a larger proportion of older people and the health of this ageing population is of major concern. In relation to this the decline of memory functions and cognitive control mechanisms as for instance the ability to sustain attention over time, to ignore or suppress potentially interfering information or to switch flexibly between tasks constitute major challenges. As there is clear evidence for functionally relevant neural plasticity in older people and mindfulness practices seem to serve neuroprotective functions, this project investigates whether a simple mindfulness practice that is integrated into the daily routine of individuals can contribute to an improvement of cognitive functions and well-being in older participants. If such an approach can capitalise on the neural plasticity the ageing brain still possesses, wide-ranging research and the targeted implementation of mindfulness practices would be warranted. This project employs a randomised active-control group design and constitutes the first rigorous, well controlled study in this field with the potential of yielding important insights into dynamic changes of cognitive ageing.

Funding: This research is funded by the BIAL Foundation and an IHR PhD Bursary.

Collaboration: Prof Dr Thomas Gruber, Institute for Psychology, University of Osnabrück, Germany

Contact information: For more information please contact Dr Peter Malinowski.

The effect pleasant and unpleasant touch on perceived duration

Commonly heard statements such as “time flies when you’re having fun,” coupled with reports of time slowing down during periods of mortal peril, indicate that our perception of time is influenced by the activities we perform and the emotions we experience. Such effects have been reported extensively within the auditory and visual domains but never using tactile stimulus. Two experiments were therefore conduced to assess how afferent and painful touch influence participants ability to perceive time. In the first experiment participants completed a timing task whilst being stroked by a robotic tactile stimulator. Two types of stroking were given: pleasant and unpleasant. Participants reported longer perceived durations in the timing task when receiving unpleasant stroking than when receiving pleasant stroking. The second experiment examined whether the nature of an anticipated stimulus (neutral or painful) effects the perceived duration of anticipation. Participants were primed to associate a red square with the occurrence of a pain stimulus to their right forearm. Participants then completed a timing task in which they were asked to estimate the length of time various shapes, including the red square, were presented on the computer screen. During the timing task participants did not receive any painful stimulation. Participants consistently judged the shape associated with pain as lasting for longer than the shape not associated with pain.

Taken together the two experiments demonstrate that unpleasant tactile stimulation is perceived as lasting for longer than neutral or pleasant stimulation. This is perhaps because unpleasant stimulation increases arousal leading to an increase in internal clock speed.

Funding: This research was funded by The Experimental Psychology Society.