Saturday 8 June 2013

Epistemic Urgency: a Positive Dimension to Reasoning Biases in Schizophrenia?

Gregory Yates
I am a Masters student in Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham. My research interests here are centred on the experiences of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia. I am also involved with the CogWatch project at Birmingham, a European funded research initiative aiming to enhance the rehabilitation of patients suffering from neurological disorders. Much of my theoretical and practical work, then, concerns cognitions seen as ‘imperfect’!

An article posted to Imperfect Cognitions in May explored the often-overlooked positive-psychological qualities or ‘secondary gains’ (Graham, 2013) associated with manic-depressive illness. I would like to consider here whether anything similar can be found in psychotic disorders – namely, schizophrenia.
I will evaluate for now just one trait common to schizophrenia patients worth special consideration from an epistemic point of view. I will refer to this trait as epistemic urgency.
Epistemic urgency describes the tendency of schizophrenia patients to exhibit reasoning biases that cause them to “jump to conclusions” in response to ordinary events, and as a result form delusional beliefs. That conversation that ends abruptly when you walk into the room? A scheme to poison you, quickly hushed up. That weatherman that wears a green tie on Thursdays? He’s broadcasting a secret code, for your eyes only.
What makes these beliefs irrational is their urgency, their failure to satisfy conventional evidence thresholds for epistemic rationality prior to endorsement (see Bortolotti, 2010). 

What makes these beliefs delusional, and thus cause for psychiatric intervention, is their underlying bias, and the health risks associated with leaving this bias to run its course (Larson et al., 2010). These risks, however, appear to be context-dependent. Certain experimental paradigms have demonstrated that there are contexts in which schizophrenia patients perform better as a direct result of this epistemic urgency.
A clear example of this in action can be found in a popular study carried out by Baruch, Hemsley, and Gray (1988). This study investigated latent inhibition (LI) in schizophrenia. LI describes the following effect: if a stimulus is repeatedly presented to an organism in absence of reinforcement then presented with reinforcement of some kind, the organism will learn the stimulus/reinforcement association slower than an organism exposed only to the reinforced stimulus. Simply, LI is this: why bother to learn information repeatedly experienced as redundant?
It has been hypothesised that LI is disrupted in schizophrenia (Hemsley,1991). Schizophrenia patients frequently report experiences of perceptual inundation; their ‘stream’ of consciousness disturbed, they find themselves unable to use stored memories to allocate attentional resources and, consequently, experience all stimuli as novel (Lubow et al., 1982). That disrupted LI underlies this is indicated by Baruch et al.’s study, which found that acute schizophrenia patients, in spite of pre-exposure to a stimulus, continue to attend to it, and thus score higher than controls on measures of learning (Baruch, Hemsley & Gray, 1988). 
Baruch et al.’s study provides a missing link between perceptual inundation and epistemic urgency. Schizophrenia patients, unable to draw on past experiences of ‘redundant’ stimuli, attribute undue importance to these stimuli.
Their study also sheds some light on the positive dimension to epistemic urgency. Many tasks demand “fresh” experiences of ordinary information, particularly when events are not straightforwardly predictable (Maher, 1974). A popular example of this is crime scene investigation, which often requires careful attention to superficially ‘irrelevant’ information (Technical Working Group on Crime Scene Investigation, 2000). A more controversial example is the production of art. In any case, epistemic urgency can be viewed as a positive trait to schizophrenia. Whether it can be viewed as a ‘secondary gain’ to the same extent as the positive traits described in manic depressive illness is something to be decided on a case-by-case basis. 

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