Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Human Sense of Smell


On Thursday 13 April 2017, a workshop organized at Columbia University by the Centre for Science and Society and the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America sought to explore an important and still partly unresolved question: How does our brain make sense of scents and flavors?


Importantly, a key goal of the exploration was to debunk some myths about the human sense of smell. Most notably, it targeted the view that our olfactory abilities are underdeveloped and lack cognitive significance. An eminent advocate of this proposition was Immanuel Kant, who wrote the following:
"Which organic sense is the most ungrateful and also seems to be the most dispensable? The sense of smell. It does not pay to cultivate it or refine it at all in order to enjoy; for there are more disgusting objects than pleasant ones (especially in crowded places), and even when we come across something fragrant, the pleasure coming from the sense of smell is always fleeting and transient" (2006 [1798], 50-51)
The panel sought to bring together different perspectives to show how this view turns out to be incorrect and to investigate the human sense of smell in its many dimensions and from different angles. After some introductory remarks by David FreedbergPamela Smith, and by Ann-Sophie Barwich (who will present her new research on this blog in the next few weeks), it was philosopher Barry Smith who started by addressing the role of the sense of smell in perception and conscious experience.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Delusions and Responsibility for Action

Together with Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Matteo Mameli and Matthew Broome, I have written a chapter on delusions for a new volume on gradualism in psychiatry: Vagueness in Psychiatry, edited by Geert Keil, Laura Keuck and Rico Hauswald for Oxford University Press.

Matteo Mameli

In the paper we argue that it is difficult to distinguish pathological and non-pathological beliefs on the basis of their epistemic features. Then we consider some of the moral and legal implications of our thesis, focusing in particular on the role of beliefs in the attribution of moral responsibility and legal accountability for criminal actions that are motivated by those beliefs.

Ema Sullivan-Bissett

Delusions fail to meet many epistemic standards. It might look like they are not beliefs which are aimed at truth or governed by a norm of truth, that they are not responsive to evidence in the ways which ordinary beliefs typically are. But non-delusional beliefs also share such features. For instance, most people are vulnerable to positive illusions, considering themselves (and sometimes their romantic partners) to be above average, or better than most other people, when asked about positive traits and abilities. Moreover, people tend to exhibit unrealistic optimism about their future underestimating their likelihood of experiencing negative events, and overestimating their likelihood of experiencing positive events. 


Matthew Broome

Here is another example: in self-deception beliefs include a motivational element which can involve the misreading or ignoring of evidence in coming to a belief. Consider the person who has the false and motivated belief that his wife is faithful. There may be evidence available to the person that his wife is unfaithful (he sees that she arrives home late, that she is uninterested in him, and so on). But he is highly motivated to believe that his wife is faithful

The epistemic feature of delusions that is considered most distinctive—resistance to counterevidence—is actually a very common feature of beliefs. Once they adopt a hypothesis, people are very reluctant to abandon it, even when copious and robust evidence against it becomes available. Given that delusions share many epistemic features with non-delusional beliefs, are we justified in considering the presence of delusions as a sufficient reason to determine whether agents are morally responsible and legally accountable for their actions?

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Children, Grief and Depression

In this post I am interested in the depiction of mental health issues in books aimed at young children. There are two interesting books addressing the issue of what the depression of a loved one means for the children involved. The first is The Colour Thief, by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, illustrated by Karin Littlewood (Wayland 2014). The second is Virginia Wolf, by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault (Kids Can Press 2016).


 


There are some interesting similarities in how depression is described in the two books. In both books, the point of view is that of a child. In The Colour Thief, a boy observes his father as he gradually falls prey to depression. The father soon gets to the point where he does not go out anymore and stays in bed all day. In Virginia Wolf, a book inspired by the relationship between the author Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa, a child called Vanessa witnesses a curious transformation in her beloved sister Virgina. Virginia becomes, quite literally, a wolf.

Another common point is that depression is described as a change in a person's behaviour but also in the world around the person. In The Colour Thief the sky becomes grey and all other colours disappear as the boy's father's depression deepens. Depression stole all the colours from the world.
He said that all the colours had gone. Someone had stolen them away.
Similarly, in Virginia Wolf Virginia's mood changes, from happy to sad at the start of the story, and from sad to happy at the end of it, are presented as changes in light, from bright to dim and from dim to bright.
Up became down
Bright became dim
Glad became gloom
In both books the children witnessing depression want to do something to improve the situation and feel to some extent responsible for the changes their loved ones are experiencing. In The Colour Thief the son often wonders whether it is his fault that his father is sad, and in Virginia Wolf Vanessa tries everything in her power to make her sister feel better. There is an attempt to show what the effects of depression are on children who are sensitive and full of compassion.

Both books end with the people affected by depression "finding themselves again": they enjoy being outside after being locked inside, they desire closeness after avoiding all social contact. Father and son go for a walk, Vanessa and Virginia go out to play.




A book focusing on the lasting effects of grief is The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers (Harper Collins 2010). In the story, a little girl who was full of curiosity and imagination decides to take her heart out of her chest and keep it in a bottle tied around her neck after her dad dies. All the curiosity and the imagination disappear from her life -- she lives in the same house, close to the same sea and the same stars that before filled her with wonder, but she experiences nothing at all.

I am not sure whether the book is supposed to be about depression, but seems to capture another important aspect of it in a way that is intriguing for children, and with illustrations so beautiful that take your breath away.


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Aliens, Fairies, Donkey-Conspiracies: When Does Belief Break the Rules?


This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s main research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post, he talks about some recent work in epistemology.

On the basis of no evidence at all, Jo comes to the private belief that aliens from another planet are helping her navigate the social world. Without that belief, Jo would experience profound social anxiety, develop paranoid tendencies, and come to suffer worse delusions that would severely impact her ability to maintain her physical wellbeing, personal relationships, employment, and so on. With her belief, Jo does pretty well for herself.

Overall it is probably good Jo has this belief about aliens. There are certainly comparative benefits to having this belief. The overall quality of Jo's cognitions is improved by having this belief. She is closer to the truth, has fewer false cognitions, is better at predicting how others will respond, is better enabled to carry out her projects and everyday tasks, more accurately understands the mental states of others, and so on, than she would if she didn't have this belief about aliens.

This will be familiar to readers of this blog as a case of a flawed cognition which might be thought to be epistemically innocent in some important respects.

The question I am interested in is, epistemically speaking, was forming this belief about aliens the epistemically right thing to do? Or does it somehow go against what is epistemically allowed? This is a different way of understanding the idea of epistemic innocence than that used by the PERFECT team [e.g., 1, 2]. But, one way to be innocent is to have not broken the rules, to have done nothing wrong, to have stuck to what was allowed.