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Georgina Donati from the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry research group reflects on her weekend at the Glastonbury Festival talking to the public about science, developmental psychology and mental health.

A sign showing people which way to go to Glastonbury © Chris Marsh

Why were you at Glastonbury? 

PhD Georgina Donati - Postdoctoral Researcher I have been doing public engagement as part of a team of researchers and clinicians from different universities for a number of years.  Our group is called Me__Human led by Professor Gillian Forrester at Sussex. We run cabaret style evening science events, work at festivals, museums and a multitude of other public spaces delivering fun and interesting science engagement. This was our second year at Glastonbury as part of Science Futures and the aim of the group is to engage people in the science of what it is to be a human, including developmental psychology, mental well-being and comparative science.

I have a key interest in young people’s mental health and well-being and so for me, Glastonbury seemed like the ideal place to talk to people.

What were you talking to people about?

We had a few props and bits of equipment that link to different studies but also allowed me to open up broader conversations.  For example we built some big puzzle boxes testing motor action sequencing and tool use for a study looking at language development and evolution. These puzzles are interactive, drew people over and started conversations about how children learn language behaviourally and neurally and what they need to do this learning.  We also had a scarily life like baby doll (!) wearing a baby grow allowing me to tell people about our current study giving new parents a set of baby grows installed with sensors enabling high frequency sampling of their baby’s motor development over the first year of life. Here we are interested in what the spontaneous involuntary movements in the first few months can tell us about subsequent motor and social-communication development knowing that many neurodevelopmental disorders show atypical motor development later on. We also had a thermal camera room for people to check the temperature of their noses! There is some evidence that you can monitor stress and vigilance in humans (and other apes) by measuring the temperature of their nose. The idea is that as stress and arousal increase, blood moves towards the peri-orbital region to increase vigilance and this can be most accurately measured by a reduction in nose temperature. We are currently piloting this in humans and other apes such as gorillas and chimps, but the tech allows us to open up conversations about measuring and understanding well-being, stress and mental health.

Georgina Donati at the Glastonbury Festival 2023© Caitlin Ketchen

HOW DID people react to what you were doing? 

I was quite surprised by how many people we had visit us at such a huge event with so many competing activities.  We even had a number of people visit us who said they had been recommended the tent by someone else at the festival. 

I think what I really took from Glastonbury was watching the new young acts talking about their mental health.  

I had an interesting conversation with some tree surgeons who were almost in tears when I explained how complex cognitive abilities are built on simple motor-sensory ones, rather than just being some mysterious extra compartment to the brain, which they had always believed themselves to be lacking. One couple began their own experiment by taking their nose temperature and then racing each other on the puzzles boxes to see how it increased their stress levels and altered their nose temperature. It was interesting to see how curious people were for an ‘objective’ measure of their arousal. 

What will you take from what you did at Glastonbury into your research?

The science engagement was fun, I am always so enthused by how much people enjoy it and how much appetite there is for science communication. I think what I really took from Glastonbury though was watching the new young acts talking about their mental health. Most either sung or talked about their struggles with anxiety and depression, or how their relationships with their parents, peers and own children impacted them and their well-being. The crowd responded so passionately to these open confessions making it clear that young people want to talk about these things and I think we need to work out how respond to this.

Were you able to enjoy any music or was it all science communication?

Tents close up around 5/6pm so still plenty of time to wonder out and see some wonderful music!

What do think about music festivals and similar events being tools for public engagement?

I think festivals are a really great tool for engagement because you are taking science right into people’s lives. In the same way that PPI is becoming more of a standard feature in research, public engagement both in terms of communicating what we are learning but also in understanding people’s concerns is massively important. Entering people’s environments to have that exchange completely changes the dynamic of the conversation and empowers people to be more involved.

What next for your public engagement activities and how will you incorporate your experience at Glastonbury?

I will be doing some mentoring with in2science later in the month, engaging some young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in experiments looking at their emotion regulation and heart rate variability. I’ll definitely use this as an opportunity to find out more about what young people are looking for in supporting their mental health. I am also keen to link up with and support other people in the department to make an application for next year. If you are interested please email me!

As for Me__Human, you can find my colleague, Prof Forrester at the Royal Society Summer Fair where she’ll be collecting some baseline nose temperature data for us! 


Read more about Dr Georgina Donati and the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry research group.