Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Phenomenology of Health and Relationships

Today's post is by Michael Larkin and William Day (both at the University of Aston). They are reporting on the Phenomenology of Health and Relationships conference, which was sponsored by project PERFECT and held at the University of Aston on 22-23 May 2019.

We're both participants in the Phenomenology of Health and Relationships group at Aston University. In planning our inaugural conference, the group initially considered a narrower focus on Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). There is a regular (more-or-less annual) IPA Conference, and we had agreed to host it. Eventually we settled on a broader theme (Creativity and Affect). IPA is one approach which many of us use in our work, but it is not the only one, and methods are not the sole focus of our meetings. When we meet as a group, we do discuss creative innovations in methodology, but we also read phenomenology, and explore studies which offer experiential insights on health and relationships. We hoped that a broader theme would open up dialogue around these cross-cutting issues and provide a space for thinking about the development of IPA, but also its relationship to philosophy and to other approaches. 

In our Call for Papers, we encouraged presenters to think about these cross-cutting issues, and also to feel free to suggest creative ways of engaging the attendees with their work. We were delighted to see, when the responses to our Call For Papers began to arrive, that there was a considerable appetite for an event like this. 

We ran our event at Fazeley Studios in Digbeth. The venue was lovely - spacious and light - and we had the good fortune to be running over two warm and bright spring days.

Zoë Boden’s invited workshop opened the event, with a morning focused on analysing image-making data in phenomological research. Zoë kicked things off by asking delegates to introduce themselves through drawings representing how they were feeling. Here's the image that Will made, as he brightened the corners of the unfolding morning of May 22nd -

During the workshop, Zoë drew upon her work exploring young peoples’ experience of psychosis, and her analytic framework (Boden, 2013; Boden & Eatough, 2014) for multi-modal analysis. Her workshop made a compelling argument for considering images as distinct residuals of subjectivity in their own right, not just as a way to elicit narrative data. After the session, the coffee break was buzzing with people enthusing about how they were going to incorporate these ideas into their next research project.

The conference’s first keynote came from Virginia Eatough whose talk developed a phenomenological perspective on affect. Virginia began with the premise that people are “existential world disclosers.” She positioned affect as a distinct layer of experience which orients ourselves towards others; a concern-ful, relational mode of involvement in the world. Virginia focused then on the power of language to make this manifest. Language is “in the world”, a practical engagement that helps us get to understanding. She develop this point through reference to an insightful analysis: ‘“It’s like having an evil twin”: the lifeworld of a person with Parkinson’s disease’ (Eatough & Shaw, 2019). In this case study, ‘Barbara’ - 61 years old and living with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease for four years – reflects on ‘losing her grip.’ The multiple meanings of ‘grip’ employed by Barbara, and expanded through Virginia’s analysis, illuminated the complex relationship between the loss of physical grip and encroaching psychological uncertainty.

Virginia Eatough

In the afternoon that followed, we had parallel sessions with fascinating papers on aspects of spiritual experience (David Wilde), parenting and health (Kristina Newman, Kat Slade, Lydia Aston) and coping with ongoing ill-being (Joanna Farr, Collette Beecher). Refreshed insights into the connections between method (from the morning), concepts (from the keynote) and research practice (in the afternoon papers) were already coming to the surface of our conversations in between the sessions.

In the call for papers, we had strongly encouraged submissions from presenters who wished to do something a little unusual with the format. We were fortunate enough to be able to end the first day with two really exciting and innovative examples of what conferences can do. In one session, William presented his multi-media reflections on the film “I, Daniel Blake”. He was too modest to mention it in his draft notes for this piece, of course, but this is a piece of work which foregrounds the way that the auditory and visual dimension of cultural narratives create experiential meaning for audiences. In the other session, Asztrik Kovacs and Daniel Kiss used music, song, narration and photographs to reflect on the experience of psychiatric hospitalisation in Hungary. The piece drew on family experience, archival images, and reflections on field research, and it was woven together into a single, unbroken flow of performance. This was a highlight of the conference for many of us, who loved the way that it evoked the intensity of connections that can still persist between people even when they are separated by time, place and experience.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Glenside: Mental Health Museum

There’s a lovely little church in Blackberry Hill, Bristol, nestled in the grounds of what was once the old psychiatric hospital. Step inside, and you’ll find a curious assemblage of artefacts, writings, recordings, drawings, and sculptures, telling the stories of the many mental health patients and practitioners of Bristol’s past. Welcome to Glenside Hospital Museum, which I’ll tell you a bit about now, before encouraging you to take a look for yourself if you’re ever over that way. (In terms of the content, I do discuss patient accounts of treatments, some that are quite upsetting.)

At the start of the exhibition, we see the shift from dominant attitudes in 1600s Britain of seeing mental illness and distress as a punishment from the Christian god, or a mark of demonic possession, to the idea that the afflicted are sufferers for whom there might be a cure, and the birth of modern psychiatry as a medical field in the 1800s. You can peruse a detailed timeline developed by the museum’s volunteer researchers, chronicling treatments, philosophical theories of mental health, significant public events, and the attitudes of those in power across the ages.

The museum has quite an array of historical artefacts: anatomical models for teaching, such as the brain of wound cotton; old medicine bottles and records of treatment advice (for instance, for preventing a faint, you would once have been advised to imbibe a ‘tot’ of brandy – this author does not endorse this advice, not least because I am rather uncertain as to how many millimetres are in a ‘tot’… is it at the patient’s discretion?); early ECC scanners and ECT machines, as well as something called a ‘violet ray’, a device used to administer high frequency, low current blasts of electricity to the body, which was used in effort to relieve various symptoms of mental disquiet as well as physical ailments such as asthma…though it’s not clear that it was very successful…

I was particularly moved by the emphasis on the experiences of the individuals involved in the hospital over the years. I listened to a clip from a sound archive in which Mary Cox, a medical secretary in the 1970s, had no choice but to take her sick dog to work one day – the patients so enjoyed petting and spending time with the dog (which he enjoyed as well!) that he became a regular visitor. 

In an excerpt from the museum’s oral archive, Clive tells his story about undergoing a leucotomy (also known as a lobotomy, a barbaric procedure in which parts of the brain are physically destroyed) in the 1960s: “It was a horrible time for me because I couldn’t do anything after that operation. I had to learn how to do things all over again and I was ill for a long time.” Clive discussed how he didn’t blame his parents, who signed off on the procedure, as well as how he wished to meet others who had had the same operation to try to reach a better understanding of his experiences. We don’t know if that wish was ever granted.

I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of drawings by Denis Reed, former artist, lecturer, and patient of Bristol Mental Hospital in the 1950s. His sketches show a series of lively interactions, the savouring of cigarettes – an important currency for patients, as well as the listlessness of other aspects of life on the men’s ward.

Currently, you can also see “We Had Names: patients of The Bristol Lunatic Asylum” an exhibition by contemporary artist Anwyl Cooper-Willis. Among my favourite pieces was the wall of sketches of individuals, based on 1890s admission photographs, and drawn on ECG paper.

Glenside Hospital Museum is free to visit (a £2 donation is suggested), has full disabled access, and is open at 10am – 12:30pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You can find more access info here.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Goodbye PERFECT (Lisa)


This is a post in a series where we are reflecting on the end of project PERFECT, offer an overview of our activities, and look at the future!

So it's me first.


Yesterday the project officially ended, after five intense and wonderful years. We did achieve the goals that we set for ourselves, investigating what we call the epistemic innocence of beliefs that are irrational and often false. Epistemic innocence is the capacity some beliefs have to support epistemic agency despite their obvious epistemic costs. In other words, it is good for us to have those beliefs in some respects, even if the beliefs themselves are not well-supported by, or responsive to, evidence.

Our main focus was on those belief-like states that can be at the same time common in the non-clinical population and symptomatic of mental health issues: delusional beliefs, distorted memory beliefs, and confabulatory explanations.

Indeed, we investigated these three cases in some depth, Ema Sullivan-Bissett and Andrea Polonioli focusing on delusion and belief, Kathy Puddifoot on memory, and Sophie Stammers on confabulation. However, we significantly extended the number of cases to investigate, covering also those beliefs that seem to be due to implicit bias (thanks to Kathy's and Sophie's interest and strong background in the topic) and those that are produced as a result of optimism bias (Anneli Jefferson was instrumental here). We also connected epistemic innocence to the literature on the ethics of belief and epistemic normativity (thanks to Ema) and to traditional issues concerning rationality and good reasoning (thanks to Andrea).

The project developed in other, unexpected, ways with a thread of research on complex emotions that can be to some extent epistemically innocent (such as loneliness and boredom). We also reflected on the role of personal relationships and social context in the formation of those beliefs and the manifestation of those emotions that have been the object of our study. In this aspect of the project, Michael Larkin was a pivotal influence, conceptually and methodologically, and made a substantial contribution to the training of our shining PhD students, Magdalena Antrobus and Valeria Motta.

We hosted three academic workshops, in 2016, 2017, and 2018 and published extensively, within the core team and in collaboration with network members too. We guest-edited two special issues of well-established philosophy journals (an issue of Philosophical Explorations on False but Useful Beliefs and an issue of Topoi on Philosophical Perspectives on Confabulation), and secured open access for all the original contributions gathered in those issues. We also published an open access book, Delusions in Context, and prepared a monograph, aptly called Epistemic Innocence, which is in press.

Outreach and impact activities

Investigating all the interesting issues above, we wanted to be able to disseminate our results as widely as possible, which was consistent with our aim of undermining mental health stigma by promoting an understanding of the human mind according to which mental health and mental illness are continuous.

We used this blog as a platform and we organised six events as part of the Arts and Science Festival, with topics ranging from domestic violence to hallucinations, from the role of imagination in recovery to self-management of mood changes in bipolar experiences. We stepped out of our comfort zone very frequently, organising art exhibitions, hosting film screenings, and getting children to play with emotions lego... It was all great fun!

Sophie will talk about her experience with creating a pop-up philosophy group and engaging mental health service users, service providers, carers, and campaigners in project PERFECT's work. Here I will just take the opportunity to thank Akiko Hart and Bonny Astor at Mind in Camden, Antonis Kousoulis and Jolie Goodman at the Mental Health Foundation, and our friends at SureSearch for invaluable support throughout the project. We know it is not easy to work with academics...

So did we make an impact? Probably too early to say! We did spread the word, on radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, blogs, posters, and in schools, theatres, festivals, museums. The result is a long list of accessible resources you can browse on the PERFECT website.

The Future

Well, PERFECT people will keep in touch and keep collaborating! Our blog will continue with one new post a week and will bring you updates on project developments. And we will all start new projects. Mine is on stories.

Don't forget us!