Tuesday, 10 October 2017

PERFECT Year 4: Sophie

I joined project PERFECT in October 2016 as a postdoctoral researcher. In this post, I summarise what I’ve been up to in my first year on the project what I have planned for the year ahead.


Research

Over the past year, I’ve continued looking into the nature of the distinction between implicit and explicit attitudes. The main output of this aspect of my research this year is a paper on content-responsiveness as a means of distinguishing implicit attitudes from explicit attitudes – I’m skeptical that this characteristic alone will do the required work! I also have a paper in preparation addressing whether awareness might do the required work.

I was fortunate to have been invited to share some aspects of this project on a BBC Analysis special about implicit bias, as well as in a BBC News article. Recent controversy surrounding one of the popular methods for testing aspects of implicit cognition demonstrates why the metaphysical project – clarity on the precise nature of these attitudes – is so important. Lived experience, testimony, and myriad results gleaned via alternative methods show us that bias in society is alive and well. Attention to the metaphysics will help us pick apart what is implicit, what is explicit, and ultimately what we should do about it to improve the situation.

My new research focus this year has been an investigation into the phenomenon of confabulation, and its potential psychological, social and epistemic benefits. Whilst exploration of the former two benefits are out there, the latter is largely underexplored beyond PERFECT. I’ve found that looking at the social context of confabulation has been crucial to beginning to understand some of its potential epistemic benefits. I have a paper in preparation on how existing empirical work on collective cognition illuminates why confabulation may deliver epistemic benefits (succinctly, we rely on other people for much of our knowledge, and so some level of confabulation helps us preserve those fruitful epistemic partnerships).

This year, I’m turning my attention to whether confabulation originates from a more general faculty for organizing information into a narrative, and being a good story-teller. I think there could be interesting insights from empirical literature on narrative skill in general that could be illuminating for our philosophical analysis of confabulation.

On this note, I’m excited to be organizing PERFECT 2018, our confabulation workshop, taking place on 23rd May 2018 in Oxford. We have a great programme of current research on the philosophical aspects of confabulation, find out more and register here.  

Other work I’ve done this year includes a paper on whether we can – and should – use technological enhancement to get rid of our cognitive biases, and a joint paper on doxastic irrationality with colleagues Andrea Polonioli and Lisa Bortolotti. I look forward to how my projects will develop over the year to come!


Impact and engagement

Commencing in late October, I will be leading a series of Philosophy of Mind workshops for people with unusual experiences and beliefs, mental health service users and service providers, in collaboration with Mind in Camden.

Much of the traditional philosophical canon, and the psychiatric practices inspired by it, proceeds in a way that assumes that people with unusual experiences and beliefs are irrational, and cannot be understood or participate in reasoned debate. As a result, those who may have dipped into philosophy of their own accord can be made to feel unwelcome. Our research at PERFECT directly challenges this assumption: whilst unusual cognitions are often distressing and can be associated with a psychiatric diagnosis, the project aims to demonstrate that cognitions with similar features are also found in the non-clinical population, and so these should not be a barrier to participation in philosophy. Furthermore, philosophical theorising is most effective when done from a variety of perspectives, and so unusual experiences and beliefs provide a valuable grounding for philosophical participation.

I hope that the workshop series will equip participants with shared epistemic resources to understand their unusual experiences as not radically discontinuous with perceived “normal” cognition; as well as facilitating participants' understanding of how such experiences might play a positive role in supporting a unified and coherent sense of agency. Early next year, we’ll host a final workshop to which we’ll invite a number of researchers, policy makers and mental health advocates, with the aim that experiences from the workshop series might inform mental health practice and policy.

The workshop series is supported by project PERFECT, Mind in Camden, and a University of Birmingham College of Arts and Law Impact Acceleration Fund. I talk a little about the project (as well as some previous experience I had applying my research outside academia) in this video lecture.

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