Thursday, 9 April 2015

Sight, Sound, and Mental Health

On 16th March I chaired a session entitled "Sight, Sound, and Mental Health" for the Arts & Science Festival at the University of Birmingham. Thanks to project PERFECT sponsoring the event, we could have three exciting talks, one by Sam Wilkinson on verbal hallucinations, one by Amy Hardy on imagery, and one by Ema Sullivan-Bissett on alien abduction belief, followed by a Q&A session with the audience.

Sam talked about the difficulties in defining verbal hallucinations, as some have an auditory quality to them, but others appear to be more like thoughts. The wide variety of verbal hallucinations makes it harder to arrive at a unifying theory of what causes them. Drawing from his work with the Hearing the Voice project, Sam illustrated with examples and case studies how hallucinations can play a significant role in either hindering or supporting the wellbeing of voice hearers. 

Amy Hardy
Amy explained the importance of imagery in everyday life and mental health. As with the previous talk, the emphasis was on how different the contributions of imagery can be, from supporting the constructions of memories to planning future actions. 

Imagery can help people improve their performance (as a form of 'mental' rehearsal elite sportspeople use before competing) but can also be distressing when it is influenced by previous experience of abuse or victimisation.

What Amy touched on at the end of her talk, based on her clinical experience, was the role that imagery can have in cognitive behavioural therapy for people who experienced trauma.

Ema focused on alien abduction belief. Why do people seem to genuinely believe that they were kidnapped by aliens? The beginning of an explanation lies in the strange experiences they might have, including awareness during sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations. However, this cannot be a full explanation because not everybody who has those experiences also endorses alien abduction beliefs. 

Ema suggested that certain background beliefs (e.g. 'new age' beliefs) may be playing a role in disposing some people to believe that they have been abducted by aliens when they are subject to awareness during sleep paralysis and hallucinations.

The audience asked several questions to the panel of our three speakers, giving rise to a very interesting and productive discussion.

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