Imperial College London

Department of Computing pays tribute to David Cittern


Dr David Cittern passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in May this year. We pay tribute to David’s outstanding work and research in the department.

David did an MSc in the department in 2010-2011 and in January 2011 selected an MSc project on “Dynamics of child/parent interaction in Attachment Theory” as his first choice, despite the fact that he had no previous knowledge of Attachment Theory, a scientific basis for developmental psychology. Soon, however, he stood up to the challenge and acquired a good knowledge of the field and as a consequence an effective intuition for child/parent interaction.

Based on this intuition and his high technical ability, he constructed models, using Game Theory, for disorganized child-parent attachment which arises from the most pathological type of child caring:  this included a model for the interaction of a caregiver with 'hostile' parenting profile, and a model for a parent who displays an affective communication error. David also used Reinforcement Learning in the iterative parent-child interaction attachment to model how an appropriate psychological intervention can change the attachment type of a parent-child dyad from an avoidantly insecure type, corresponding to a ‘rejecting’ parenting profile, to an optimal secure type of attachment.  His eloquently written MSc report was evaluated as a distinguished project and was uploaded on the department’s website.

By now David had demonstrated several exceptional qualities, in particular his great self-less devotion to work and his strong resolve to undertake difficult challenges in research.  It was a real blessing to have David so interested in this subject and he indicated that he would like to return to do a PhD in the area after going to industry to earn some money in order to pay back his debts.

David will also be remembered for his commendable gratitude, humility and generosity. He provided ample support to undergraduate, MSc and PhD students and to his colleagues. Prof Abbas Edalat Professor in Computing

In October 2013, having been awarded an EPSRC studentship, David started his PhD at Imperial.  He first embarked on a thorough literature review of all relevant scientific data on Attachment Theory and all computational models so far designed for it.  Having mastered all the evidence for the basic tenets of Attachment Theory, he then started in earnest to experiment with new computational models more refined than those considered in his MSc work. At this stage, David had developed a deep appreciation of the huge impact of children’s attachment types on their future adult lives and hence on the society as a whole.

David became particularly interested in Self-Attachment therapy, which had been designed as a set of protocols to internally simulate the optimal parent-child interactions in individuals with early insecure childhood attachments.  He was keenly attracted to this new therapy given its potential in tackling the root causes of psychological disorders. The first and second phases of the therapy respectively capture how the individual connects empathically and compassionately to the psychologically damaged child within using imagery and how subsequently the individual creates an internal bond with this child. In order to develop computational neural models for these two critical phases of the therapy, David immersed himself for many months in learning the required neuroscience and was inspired, on the one hand, by Michael Numan’s work on the neurobiology of caring behavior in mammals and humans and, on the other hand, by a neural model of bonding by the American neuropsychologist Dan Levine.  Using a large acquired technical knowledge in neuroscience, David finally succeeded in developing two computational brain models corresponding to the first two phases of Self-Attachment therapy and based on several scientific hypotheses. Given the promising results of the therapy in our completed pilot project, David’s hypotheses will be tested by brain imaging experiments in a randomized clinical trial which we are planning to compare the efficacy of Self-Attachment therapy with a well-established psychological intervention such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

In the final year of his PhD work, David used Karl Friston’s self-organising or Free Energy Principle to develop a computational model to explain how toddlers learn, and respond to, the parenting style of their primary caregivers by optimizing their utilities or minimizing their stress level in their child-parent interactions. This was yet another huge challenge that David successfully took up and impressed the extended scientific community with some astonishing results.

David’s remarkable scientific achievement in such a short period of his academic career has been confirmed by the publication of several high ranking conference papers and two top journal papers.  It was also reflected in his viva in January 2017 when his PhD thesis was accepted without a single correction or change, a real rarity in the academic world.

Yet, David will also be remembered for his commendable gratitude, humility and generosity. He provided ample support to undergraduate, MSc and PhD students and to his colleagues.

Thank you very much David for choosing to work with us and for playing such a vital and fruitful role in our research group first as a highly productive student and then as an expert and truly generous colleague.  We will all greatly miss you but we will make sure in the years to come that your legacy lives on to create a better life and a better world for future generations.


Joseph Worsfold

Joseph Worsfold
Department of Computing

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