Thursday, 18 April 2019

Psychiatric Neuroethics

The author of the post is Walter Glannon, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Calgary in Canada. He has held other academic appointments at McGill University and the University of British Columbia. 

Walter grew up and received all of his education in the US. Following a fellowship in clinical medical ethics at the University of Chicago, for 5 years (2000-2005) he was clinical ethicist at 3 hospitals in Montreal and Vancouver. This is largely how he developed his interest in research and clinical aspects of psychiatry.

Advances in psychiatric research and clinical psychiatry in the last 30 years have given rise to a host of new questions that lie at the intersection of psychiatry, neuroscience, philosophy and law. Such questions include:

  • Are psychiatric disorders diseases of the brain, caused by dysfunctional neural circuits and neurotransmitters?
  • What role do genes, neuro-endocrine, neuro-immune interactions and the environment play in the development of these disorders?
  • How do different explanations of the etiology and pathophysiology of mental illness influence diagnosis, prognosis and decisions about treatment?
  • Would it be rational for a person with a chronic treatment-resistant disorder to request euthanasia or assisted suicide to end their suffering?
  • Could psychiatric disorders be predicted and prevented?

Psychiatric Neuroethics explores these questions in a comprehensive and systematic way, discussing the medical and philosophical implications of neuroscience and the Research Domain Criteria (RDoc) in the fields of psychiatry and mental health. It examines the extent to which circuit-based criteria can offer a satisfactory explanation of psychiatric disorders and how they compare with the symptom-based criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV).

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Confabulation as Unreliable Imagining

This is the second in a series of posts featuring new research on confabulation. Today's contribution is by Kirk Michaelian (Centre for Philosophy of Memory) who summarises his paper, "Confabulation as Unreliable Imagining", for the special issue of Topoi on confabulation guest edited by Sophie Stammers and Lisa Bortolotti.

The context for my contribution to the special issue is a debate over the nature of confabulation that has been unfolding for several years now within the philosophy of memory community.

In my 2016 book, Mental Time Travel: Episodic Memory and Our Knowledge of the Personal Past, I developed and defended a simulation theory of memory. In opposition to the causal theory, the simulation theory denies that remembering an event presupposes the existence of an "appropriate" causal connection between the subject's present representation of the event and his past experience of it, maintaining, instead, that the difference between genuine and merely apparent remembering is a matter of reliability: genuine remembering is carried out by a properly functioning -- and hence reliable -- episodic construction system.

The simulation theory naturally suggests an account of confabulation according to which confabulation is distinguished from remembering by its unreliability: in remembering, the process that produces the apparent memory is reliable; in confabulation, it is not. While the book briefly sketches this account of confabulation, however, it doesn't develop it in any detail, and I hadn't thought carefully about confabulation until I was prompted to do so by a pair of stimulating articles by Sarah Robins on confabulation and misremembering.

Opposing the simulationist account sketched in the book, Robins develops a causalist account according to which confabulation is distinguished from successful remembering by its falsity and by the absence of appropriate causal connection, whereas misremembering -- seen, for example, in the DRM effect, in which subjects who study a list of thematically-related words tend to "remember" non-presented but thematically-consistent lure words -- is distinguished from successful remembering by its falsity and by the presence of appropriate causal connection.

Unconvinced by Robins' argument, I wrote an article devoted to critiquing the causalist account, in part on the ground that it failed to acknowledge the possibility of veridical confabulation, and to refining the simulationist account. According to the refined version of the simulationist account developed in this article, falsidical confabulation is characterized by falsity and unreliability, veridical confabulation is characterized by truth and unreliability, and misremembering is characterized by falsity and reliability; successful remembering, in line with the simulation theory, is characterized by truth and reliability.

This refined simulationist account was then attacked in an article by Bernecker, who argued that it could accommodate neither the possibility of unjustified memory nor that of justified confabulation.

My contribution to the special issue argues that, unlike the epistemic accounts with which Bernecker groups it, the simulationist account can indeed accommodate unjustified memory and that, since justified confabulation is not a genuine possibility, it need not accommodate justified confabulation.

It also further refines the simulationist account by taking into account the role of failures of metacognitive monitoring in unsuccessful remembering. Earlier versions of the simulationist account emphasized that reliability and accuracy can come apart at the level of apparent remembering; this happens in misremembering (in which a reliable process produces an inaccurate representation) and in veridical confabulation (in which an unreliable process produces an accurate representation). The current version of the simulationist account points out that this can happen at the metacognitive level as well. A form of luck thus plays a role at two distinct levels in the production of memory errors.

The result is a more complex but (I believe) more precise taxonomy of memory errors. In order to tame the complexity of the taxonomy, the article distinguishes among four groups of subjects -- those with no malfunction, those with malfunction at the level of remembering only, those with malfunction at the level of metacognition only, and those with malfunction at both levels -- and sorts the errors characteristic of each group according to whether they involve no luck, luck at one or the other level, or luck at both levels.

Table: A new simulationist classification, second attempt; alternative presentation

The obvious next step is to consider which of the errors acknowledged by the account have been or should be subjected to empirical investigation. And there will -- the conciliatory tone of Robins' contribution to the special issue notwithstanding -- no doubt be further attacks from the causalist camp. So, while the current version of the simulationist account is an improvement over previous versions, more work remains to be done.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

ASPP 2018

The Australasian Society for Philosophy and Psychology formed in 2017, with the aim to “promote interaction in Australasia among philosophers and psychologists, broadly construed to include anyone interested in scientific study of the mind”. The ASPP held their inaugural conference at Macquarie University in December 2018, and I was lucky enough to go along. Here’s a little of what I learned there...

If you’ve ever been perplexed by the prevalence of a viewpoint or political stance that you don’t share, then you might be wondering: how do we step outside of the epistemic echo chambers in which we find ourselves in our increasingly online world? Kate Devitt and her team at Queensland University of Technology are on the case. 

Inspired by the finding that increasing the number and diversity of hypotheses considered can improve decision making, particularly in an organisational and strategic setting, Kate and her team have built an interactive platform which encourages people to increase the number and diversity of ideas they considered before adopting a stance on an issue. The platform BetterBeliefs (which you can - and should – try out right after you’ve finished reading this…) links hypotheses to evidence (e.g. news articles or technical updates), which users can vote up or down producing a ‘Degree of Belief’ metric that indicates the likelihood a hypothesis is true given user belief in it.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Confabulation, Rationalisation, and Morality

Our series of blog posts on new research on confabulation continues.

In this blog post Anneli Jefferson summarises her contribution to the special issue of Topoi on Confabulation guest edited by Sophie Stammers and Lisa Bortolotti. In her paper (available open access), she shows the costs and benefits of everyday confabulation and rationalisation for moral conduct and judgment. Anneli focuses on everyday-confabulations and rationalisations that give explanations and justifications in terms of moral motivations.

I understand everyday confabulations as a response to ignorance of our motives for actions, when we confabulate, we aim to explain to ourselves and to others why we did what we did. Rationalisations, on the other hand, aim to give justifications for our actions, showing that what we did was morally permissible or even morally required.

We can justify actions without explaining them, for example by saying that what we did was morally desirable, without claiming that moral desirability was the motive out of which we did what we did. However, in some cases confabulation and justification coincide, when we give an inaccurate but sincere explanation for our action that also provides a moral justification. The reasons our actual motives are inaccessible to us may be cognitive or motivational.

One example of a confabulation which also counts as a justification is a case where I ascribe the fact that I did not give money to a beggar to the belief that they would just use it to feed a drug habit. For this to be a case of confabulation, it needs to be the case that I believe my own explanation, even if the actual reason for my action was a different one, for example that it was raining and I didn’t want to get any wetter than I already was by stopping.

As has been pointed out by Summers (2017) some such inaccurate explanations of past behaviour can have positive effects, despite being inaccurate. If an agent does something morally desirable and wrongly ascribes their action to a moral motive, they may nevertheless reinforce that moral motive and make it more likely that they will act on it in future. 

Drawing on work by Velleman and social psychology, I show that self-consistency and self-enhancement effects can reinforce moral behaviour, even when the initial self-ascription of moral motives is erroneous. Seeing ourselves as generous may lead us to behave generously in future, even if the initial motivation to give to someone did not, in fact, stem from generosity.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Anxious Mind

Today's post is written by Charlie Kurth, who is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Western Michigan University. His research interests focus on issues in ethics, moral and philosophical psychology and emotion theory. 

A unifying theme of his work is that research in ethical theory, moral psychology and the philosophy of emotion can be productively informed by empirical inquiry in the cognitive and social sciences. In this post, he discusses his book The Anxious Mind: An Investigation into the Varieties and Virtues of Anxiety published by MIT Press. 

My book aims to enrich our understanding of anxiety by exploring two questions—What is anxiety? And is anxiety valuable? While I take these questions to be independently interesting, I also see them as intimately intertwined: understanding what anxiety is helps us understand the ways in which it can be valuable.

Consider the first project—investigating what anxiety is. We talk of ‘anxiety’ as if the label picks out something distinct. But does it? There is reason for doubt. We use ‘anxiety’ in a variety of ways: as a label for both social worries and hardwired responses to potential threats—not to mention existential angst and clinical disorders.

To make sense of this, I develop an empirically informed account of anxiety—what I call the ‘biocognitive model’. By providing a framework that identifies different varieties of anxiety, the biocognitive model helps explain the diversity in our talk of anxiety. It also demonstrates, contra sceptics, that we can reconcile empirical work indicating that anxiety is an automatic, hardwired feature of our psychology with our ordinary experiences of it as a cognitive, socially-driven phenomenon.