Patricia Lockwood is a decision neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham. Patricia studies how people make decisions and interact with others. She is using a variety of methods of looking at the brain to better understand how these behaviours develop. Annie Brookman-Byrne talks with Patricia about the challenges of this research, and the impact it might have on children.

Annie Brookman-Byrne: What are you trying to understand about social behaviour, and how are you studying it?

Patricia Lockwood: I’m investigating how we interact with other people, how we understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, and why we sometimes help or harm others. I also look at what is happening in the brain when people carry out these social behaviours – because, of course, when you make a decision, it’s got to be driven by a brain process. My research is trying to find out whether specific parts of the brain are involved.

I am looking across the lifespan, from childhood to old age. For some of this work, I’ve used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow and lets us produce those pretty pictures where it looks like parts of the brain are lighting up. This works well when the brains are all of a similar size, so with my team, I use this tool when studying young adults, whose brains and blood flow are similar.

Using fMRI is challenging when brains vary more in size – such as those of young children and older adults. With those groups we look at their behaviour to infer what might be happening in their brains. We ask them to make decisions while they’re thinking about or interacting with another person, and that gives us some insight into the brain processes underlying their decisions.

“I want to use the science to improve people’s lives.”

ABB: What impact do you hope your research will have?

PL: Ultimately, I want to use the science to improve people’s lives. But before we can do that in my area of research, we need to build a solid understanding about the basic science behind how decisions are made. I’m uncovering the behaviours and brain mechanisms behind making good choices, and this contributes to the evidence base that will eventually help adults to support children in making good decisions so they can thrive.

But I think my work has had an impact in a different way. I was fortunate to collaborate with people from many different backgrounds, including some who had experienced a lot of challenges as well as others who had led really comfortable lives. The idea was to learn together about social behaviours and brain plasticity – which means that the brain is always changing. We put together an art exhibition and a series of short films to share our conversations with these collaborators more widely.

Young people from an economically deprived part of Oxford – who would never go into Oxford city centre because it was a space they didn’t feel comfortable in – worked alongside students from the University, former gang members, myself as a researcher working at the University, and an artist, a filmmaker and youth workers. We were all from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, and these interactions helped us to build new friendships and learn from one another. We reflected on how, because we occupied different spaces in everyday life, we would never have had the chance to come together normally. We used this unique opportunity to co-produce the short films sharing what we had discussed and learned.

“We wanted to help people to understand their brains so that they could understand why they make certain decisions.”

In one of the films, you can see how a decision about how to interact with another group might lead to a positive outcome rather than violence. We wanted to help people to understand their brains so that they could understand why they make certain decisions. Simply learning about brain plasticity, which is not generally taught in schools, empowered everyone to feel like an agent of their own behaviour and decisions.

The film shows how we came together to learn about the biases we may have about people in other groups, and how those biases can affect our behaviours. One of the former gang members said, “Imagine how many lives would be saved if we all had that way of thinking.” This was a different way of helping children than the more typical approach of publishing an academic paper and using its findings to inform an intervention. It shows that there are different ways we can use research to help children and young people. It also shows how different perspectives from art and science can be brought together to have an impact in a way that might be more accessible and informative than one perspective alone. It was such an inspiring project to be part of.

More on social behaviours
How do children help each other?

ABB: What drew you to this field in the first place?

PL: At secondary school, I’d read fascinating popular science books by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio about consciousness in the brain, and by neurologist Oliver Sacks about the impacts of brain injuries on behaviour. I was intrigued to learn that people could behave very differently if a part of their brain was damaged.

I went on to study psychology and philosophy at university, where I became interested in social behaviour and the biology behind behaviour. I learned how levels of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain can change how people behave when they interact with others – and I thought that was inspiring. Understanding that there could be a specific biological reason for why people behave differently during social interactions was fascinating. It seems obvious now. I remain intrigued by individual differences between people in why they make decisions and interact with others in unique ways.

ABB: Has working on social behaviour changed your own behaviours?

PL: It probably has, in lots of ways. In my research, I find that rewards are important for learning and motivation. That’s also helped me with my own learning – I make sure there is some kind of reward if I’m tackling something difficult, and I try to focus as much as possible on what has gone well. This can be challenging in academia, where negative feedback is common.

“The more we uncover, the better equipped we will be to have a positive impact on children’s lives.”

ABB: What ideas are you pursuing next?

PL: I’m excited about a new project combining a number of different brain imaging techniques. There’s a new technique called optically pumped magnetometers, or OPM, which is a wearable system, for any head size, that measures when and where things happen in the brain. We’ll be able to use this device across the lifespan, from early childhood to old age, to see what’s happening while people make decisions. This will help us overcome some of the challenges of using fMRI that I mentioned before. Technological advancements like these in cognitive neuroscience are really promising for helping us better understand the development of decision making. The more we uncover, the better equipped we will be to have a positive impact on children’s lives.


Patricia Lockwood is Professor of Decision Neuroscience, a Sir Henry Dale Fellow and a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She was previously a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, University of Oxford, and a Medical Research Council Fellow at the University of Birmingham, the University of Oxford, and the University of Zurich. She holds a PhD in Psychology from University College London and a BSc in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Bristol. Her work has received multiple awards, including the S4SN Early Career Award and the APS Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions, and she is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and a member of the Women of the Future Network.

The Helpful Brain blog
Film co-produced with artists, filmmakers, young people and former gang members and funded by Wellcome Trust
@thepsychologist on X
Social Decision Neuroscience Lab

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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