Thursday, 22 August 2019

Ignorance and Irrationality in Politics

To what extent should citizens be informed about the issues on which they vote for democracy to function? When ideology, biases and motivational processes drive political belief formation, should voters be considered irrational? These questions and more were the focus of the Ignorance and Irrationality in Politics Workshop organised by Michael Hannon, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, and held on 10th – 11th June at the University of Nottingham. In what follows, I summarise a few of the workshop talks.

Zeynep Pamuk, Supernumerary Fellow in Politics at St. John’s, Oxford, discussed how decisions about which science projects to fund can both ameliorate and exacerbate ignorance. Zeynep explained how choices at the level of how to distribute funding and conduct research determine what we know and don’t know, through:

(i) the selection of research questions: what’s seen as worthy of pursuit is somewhat determined by a researcher’s context, background, biases, etc.

(ii) disciplinary norms. Consider the study of GMOs for instance, where the majority of early researchers were genetic engineers, and the study of impacts was confined to the cellular level – only later did environmental scientists study the broader effects and discover that some GMOs could be detrimental to seeds in other areas.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Human Memory and Technology in Education

This is the first in a mini series of posts exploring issues regarding technological enhancement in learning and education, featuring two papers that have appeared in the “Cheating Education” special issue of Educational Theory. This post is provided by Kathy Puddifoot, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Durham and Cian O’Donnell, Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Bristol. They introduce their paper "Human Memory and the Limits of Technology in Education".

Have you ever had the intuition that there are risks associated with students or teachers supplanting traditional methods of learning with the use of technologies that store and provide easy access to information, such as cloud storage, note-taking applications, open access sources like Wikipedia, or social media resources?

It can be difficult to articulate exactly what is problematic about the use of such technologies. They provide a way of storing accurate representations of information that can be easily searched, edited, copied and shared. The technologies can compensate for the limits of human memory, which is limited in terms of accuracy, storage capacity, and the ability to search and access information. 

However, the task of our paper is to articulate one specific risk associated with the use of the target technologies. We argue that the use of the technologies risks impeding one of the most important goals of education: the transference of learning.

Transference of learning occurs when information that is learnt in a certain educational context is used in another context, either inside or outside of education. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Mental Health Interventions in Schools

On 5th June, the Royal Society for Medicine hosted a workshop to explore the some of the issues - particularly the practicalities surrounding mental health interventions in schools. The event brought together medical and educational professionals and provided a forum to discuss ongoing projects supporting young people’s mental health, difficulties and potential courses of action for improvement. In the following, I summarise some of the talks.

Lord Richard Layard, Director of the Wellbeing Programme at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, discussed the idea of schools having wellbeing as an explicit goal. The next step is to have as many schools as possible measuring progress towards this goal.

Richard proposed that one way to do this is through a wellbeing code debated on by children, teachers, parents, (every 2 years) regarding how people relate to each other in classrooms, assemblies, the playground, and so on. Such a code would cover not simply anti-bulling policies, but would take a broad and deep perspective on emotions and social relations across all young people’s experiences.

He discussed how the Healthy Minds project, a four year programme for secondary schools, is working towards some of these goals – its primary outcome for participating schools being a ten percentile point improvement in life satisfaction compared to the control.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Are clinical delusions adaptive?

Eugenia Lancellotta is a PhD student in Philosophy of Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Under the supervision of Lisa Bortolotti, she works on the adaptiveness of delusions, especially outside schizophrenia spectrum disorder. In this post, she discusses her paper “Are clinical delusions adaptive?” co-authored with Lisa Bortolotti, that recently appeared in WIREs.

In popular culture, and even in part of the scientific culture, delusions are still considered as the mark of madness. It would then seem to be counterintuitive to ask whether such bizarre, irrational and often harmful beliefs can be biologically or psychologically adaptive. 

A trait or mechanism is considered to be biologically adaptive when it favours the reproductive success and survival of the organism it belongs to (Wakefield 1992). By analogy with biological adaptiveness, a trait is deemed to be psychologically adaptive when it delivers psychological benefits which support the wellbeing and good psychological functioning of a subject. How then can delusions and adaptiveness - be it biological or psychological – fit together, if they seem to be one the opposite of the other? 

In our overview article (here), we try to reconcile the terms of this apparent contradiction, showing how delusions can be both adaptive and harmful at the same time. Our thesis is that, although data show that delusions are most likely psychologically and biologically maladaptive in the long run, they might be psychologically adaptive in the short term, by delivering psychological benefits which help people cope at times of difficulty. 

Delusions are defined as fixed, irrational beliefs which are particularly resistant to counterevidence (DSM V). They span from the exotic to the common - from believing that one is the left foot of God to thinking that one is the target of an international conspiracy - and they are symptoms of a number of illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression, OCD and dementia. 

Despite their being usually defined in negative terms, by the harm and the difficulties they cause, in recent years research has suggested that delusions can also present some positive features (Bortolotti 2015; Fineberg and Corlett 2016; Mishara and Corlett 2009). 

In our article we highlight these features, weigh them up against the well-known detrimental effects of delusions, and consider if the benefits exceed the disadvantages or vice-versa, I.e. if delusions are adaptive or maladaptive. Our conclusion is that, although delusions seem to be psychologically harmful and biologically maladaptive in the long run, in the short term their adoption can be seen as psychologically adaptive, as it delivers some psychological benefits in the face of difficulties that the subject is experiencing.

Such benefits vary depending on the type and content of the delusions, spanning from the relief from anxiety given by delusions in schizophrenia, to the restoration of intrapsychic coherence of delusions in depression and most likely in OCD, as well as to the negotiation of emotionally overwhelming circumstances found in many cases of motivated delusions. However, what all these apparently distant cases share is that delusions seem to be an (imperfect) solution to an already existing biological or psychological problem rather than the beginning of it. 

To use a popular metaphor in the literature on the topic (McKay and Dennett 2009), delusions would be similar to shear pin mechanisms. Shear pins are emergency mechanisms installed in some machines, whose function is to break in times of emergency. By breaking, the shear pin allows the machine to keep functioning, although in a less than optimal manner. Similarly, by delivering some psychological benefits, delusions would allow a subject to keep functioning (in a less than optimal manner) in times of emotional or biological struggle, preventing the complete breakdown of the emotional, epistemic or biological machinery.

Although further studies are needed to investigate the precise role of delusions, a more complex picture, which takes into account both the costs and benefits of this phenomenon, has started to emerge.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

On the Power of Imagination: Two Events

As announced, project PERFECT organised and co-hosted two public engagement events as part of the Arts and Science Festival at the University of Birmingham. Both celebrated the role of imagination and the importance of relationships in growing and healing.

Here I report on how they went!

Red Hands Film Screening

A scene from Red Hands

Director and screenwriter Francesco Filippi presented his short film in 2D and stop animation, Mani Rosse (Red Hands), to an engaged and diverse audience at the Midlands Arts Centre on 18th June. The film has been honoured with awards at film festivals worldwide and sparked lots of interest. The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring experts in youth mental health and experts with lived experience of domestic violence, one of the themes of the film.

Panel discussion: Lucy

Some of the audience's comments and questions were about how the film was made, what it was inspired by, and what some specific scenes or symbols recurring in the film meant. The development of the two leading characters (Luna and Ernesto) was also object of some discussion: we were lucky to be joined by the director and animator Francesco Filippi and Lucia Gadolini, psychologist and actor, who helped develop the characters and gave her voice to Ernesto. We learnt that Luna and Ernesto's story was inspired by two real-life stories of domestic abuse, and that the key concepts of freedom and friendship were represented not just in the plot and the dialogue but also in the choice of landscape and in Ernesto's dream sequences.

Francesco Filippi

Other comments and questions, mostly directed at the panel of experts, concerned the effects of domestic violence on mental health, and the psychological realism of the film. From our experts from experience, Lucy Wright and Gemma Hickman, we learnt that whilst the decision to leave an abusive relationship needs to be owned by the victim of abuse and nobody can 'save' them unless they are ready to leave, friendship is a very important source of support, especially for young people. 

Michael Larkin and Bonny Astor also remarked on the many layers the film has, some of which can be appreciated only after a number of viewings, and the ambiguities left in it, that is, aspects of the story of Luna and Ernesto which need to be inferred or reconstructed and are not openly revealed. Finally, they both pointed to the role of colour in the film and the power of expressing oneself, dreaming, and imagining.

Panel discussion: Michael

Participants' feedback showed a thorough engagement with the topics of the discussion. The film generated strong reactions, as was to be expected, and the audience found the opportunity to engage with the director and the experts very useful and stimulating. Many were struck by the sheer beauty of the film and some expressed disagreement with some of the director's choices. 

Here are some of the participants' comments:
  • "The film was aesthetically great and the topic and the theme was thoughtful and inspiring."
  • "I enjoyed very much the discussion about the ambiguities in the movie and the female/male roles."
  • "I have definitely deepened my understanding of domestic abuse and more or less explicit forms of violence."
Overall, as project PERFECT's first film screening, it was a success!