Tuesday 31 March 2015

On the Psychology of Precognitive Dream Experience

Caroline Watt
This post is by Caroline Watt, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh.

Almost 30 years ago, I became a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit. Based in the Psychology department of Edinburgh University, the KPU studies paranormal beliefs and experiences. Our work includes testing for psychic ability under controlled conditions, and investigating the psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences.

For the last few years, I have been studying precognitive dreaming. The belief that one's dreams predict future events is one of the more commonly reported paranormal experiences and we have investigated psychological factors that have been proposed to lead to seemingly precognitive experiences.

We have looked at the role of memory bias in these experiences: specifically, the selective recall of matches and mismatches between dreams and subsequent events. Our participants remembered more than twice as many dreams that matched events compared to dreams that did not match events. This memory bias would tend to inflate the frequency of seemingly precognitive experiences. We have also explored the idea that people who report precognitive dreams may have a propensity to identify correspondences between dreams and events. 

To test this, we randomly paired dream diary entries with world news events, and asked participants to identify correspondences between the pairs. Those with prior precognitive dream experience reported more correspondences, supporting the hypothesis. This finding may link with Peter Brugger and Christine Mohr's work on neurological mechanisms underlying paranormal beliefs and experiences, which has wider associations with schizotypy and creativity. These studies are reported in the International Journal of Dream Research. Some of our other work has investigated whether sensitivity to subtle environmental cues might lead to seemingly precognitive experiences, as described in Consciousness and Cognition.

Our research has demonstrated that several psychological factors may operate to inflate the frequency of seemingly precognitive experiences in people's lives. This does not logically entail that genuine psychic abilities don't exist, however an awareness of 'what's not psychic but looks like it' may help the public to think critically about their paranormal experiences. For instance, keeping a dream diary will reduce the effects of selective recall and make more salient the many dreams that do not 'come true'. And as Brugger and others have pointed out, the study of anomalous experiences may also help psychologists to understand normal cognitive and neurological functions.

This year, the Koestler Parapsychology Unit celebrates its 30th anniversary. Visit our website and follow us on Twitter to find out more about our work.

Monday 30 March 2015

Amy on Anxiety

As part of our posts written by people with lived experience of mental health issues, Amy writes about anxiety. Amy has a blog, and you can follow her on Twitter.

For the past three years I have experienced severe and anxiety and depression, resulting in numerous counselling sessions and medication. It’s a long journey of recovery, but I feel I am finally getting to the other side.

I feel it important to battle the stigma surrounding mental health and thus why I have created my own mental health blog, Relief from Anxiety, and why I am writing about it in this blog post.

Anxiety symptoms can be varied from person to person, including loss of appetite, shortness of breath, palpitations, dizziness, and irrational thoughts. Generally, these kind of actions and thoughts occur during a panic attack, when the flight or fight system kicks in, which originates from our caveman days. It helps to either run or fight the situation. Each panic attack is different from others, and there are ways to help you through it, from leaving the situation to breathing techniques. I find that panic attacks often leave me tired and sometimes confused, but whilst under the panic attack, you often find yourself with acute senses and you are more aware of your surroundings.

The general anxiety thoughts can still be present however, without a panic attack. This is the “what if” that you hear in the back of your head. For example, if you suffer with health anxiety, it might be the “what if I eat that food, will it make me ill?” Or if you experience social anxiety, “if I look someone in the eye, what will they think of me?” And so forth. Anxiety comes in different forms, and there are also methods to help you improve, from CBT, which I found most beneficial, to medication, which believe it or not, changed my life. I feel that with being an anxiety sufferer we tend to analyse situations quite well, but at the same time this can be crippling.

There is so much stigma surrounding mental health and with medication too. I tried everything possible before medication, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about my future prospects if I took it. But, the simple answer is this; there is nothing to be ashamed of. Mental health issues tend to be an imbalance of chemicals, to which medication needs to sort, just like high blood pressure. It has been a miracle and it has saved my life.

There was once a time in my life, where I didn’t think I would ever find happiness again. From not being able to go to school or leave the house, I have now moved out and I am studying Law at university. I never thought I’d see the day, but I have and because of what I’ve experienced, I never ever take a day for granted. You can do it and together we can keep battling the stigma.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Imperfect Cognitions in Institutional Contexts: Implicit Race Bias and the Anatomy of Institutional Racism

Jules Holroyd
On Friday 5 and Saturday 6 February 2015, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and The Monitoring Group held the 'Police corruption, spying and racism' conference at Conway Hall, London. One of the speakers was the Imperfect Cognitions Network member, Jules Holroyd. Here she presents her report, which has also been published on the University of Nottingham Blog "Bias and Blame". 

I recently had the opportunity to speak at an event organised by The Monitoring Group and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, on Police Corruption, Spying, Racism and Accountability. At this conference, a range of participants from activist groups, academia, legal teams and victims of injustice spoke - often powerfully and movingly - on their experience of understanding the workings of injustice, and of endeavours to seek accountability in the face of police and Home Office obstruction, obfuscation and discrimination (videos from the conference can be found here).

I had been asked to participate in a panel on 'the anatomy of institutional racism' and speak to the possible role of implicit race bias in that context. As we know, various studies have produced the robust findings that implicit race biases are found in many individuals (in white and minority ethnicity communities). These implicit biases are fast acting, difficult to control and not readily detectable in our awareness: in other words, we may be acting in ways that are inflected with negative race bias, even if we don't think we are. Particularly worrying are the findings that black males are more strongly associated with words connoting danger than white males, and in particular with terms associated with weapons. Perception too seems to be shaped by negative implicit associations: individuals are more likely to identify an ambiguous object as a dangerous weapon when in the hands of a black male than a white male (Payne 2001, Eberhardt et al 2004). Disturbingly, in simulations individuals more readily shot black males who were armed than white males who were armed.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Implicit Bias, Confabulation, and Epistemic Innocence

This is the last in our series of posts on the papers published in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on the Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions. Here I summarise my paper ‘Implicit Bias, Confabulation, and Epistemic Innocence’.

I explore the nature of confabulatory explanations of action guided by implicit bias by focusing on two imaginary cases: 

The case of Roger: ‘Roger is on a hiring panel deciding from a stack of CVs which candidates to invite to interview. Roger thinks of himself as an egalitarian, and not as somebody who is sexist. The CVs are not anonymous with respect to gender. Roger chooses not to invite any female applicants to interview. Katie is one of the female candidates who Roger chooses not to invite to interview. Katie’s CV is of equal or better quality than at least some of her male competitors who did get invited to interview, and had Katie’s CV been headed with a male name, Katie would have been invited to interview’ (p. 3).

The case of Sylvia: ‘Sylvia is walking down the road on her way to work. Sylvia thinks of herself as an egalitarian, and not as somebody who is racist. She sees a black man walking towards her. Sylvia crosses the road. The man is not acting in a threatening manner. Had the man not been black, Sylvia would not have crossed the road’ (p. 3).

Thursday 19 March 2015

Observer Memory: Interview with John Sutton

I interviewed John Sutton, Professor of Cognitive Science at the ARC Centre for Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University, Sydney. John is interested in memory, skill, and distributed cognition, and in his work he seeks to integrate philosophical, psychological, and historical ideas and methods. This is the second in a series of three posts, you can read the first here.

ES-B: What is observer memory? 

JS: When I think about some experience I had, maybe a mundane event like having lunch yesterday with a lot of people, I can sometimes see myself in the remembered scene. So instead of being behind my own eyes when I remember that lunch yesterday, seeing my knife and fork coming up to my face as I eat, instead I can be looking at myself in the memory from an external perspective, and that is why we use the phrase ‘observer perspective’. It is as if I am above the group: I see them all and I see myself there in some way as part of that group. We contrast the notion of an observer perspective with a field perspective in which you are seeing the events in memory from your own original field of vision. The field perspective is probably for most people more common and some people seem to have only a field perspective.

ES-B: Might it be that field memories are felt to be more reliable representations of, or relations to, the past, on the grounds that the remembered scene is remembered as it was experienced, or at least, closer to that ideal? 

JS: I think that is pretty much right. These are not deterministic relationships, these are tendencies and they vary across people, but as you say, memories in which I experience the past event from a field perspective may be more reliable. What we are more sure about is that they tend to be more common with more recent past events, and we do not really know why but that is a pretty robust result: the longer ago the event was—certainly for adults having memories from their childhood, but even for adults having memories from their adulthood when there is enough of a gap—the more likely they are to come up from an observer perspective. So independently, there is some (imperfect) correlation between the age of the event remembered and the reliability, but we are not sure, it is an important theoretical question whether there is any more direct connection between reliability and perspective than that, that is one of the driving questions of our project.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Implicit Bias, Awareness, and Imperfect Cognitions

This is the seventh in our series of posts on the papers published in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on the Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions. Here Jules Holroyd summarises her paper 'Implicit Bias, Awareness and Imperfect Cognitions'. 

Implicitly biased actions are those that manifest the distorting influence of implicit associations. For example, a member of a hiring committee might demonstrate implicit bias in undervaluing the research history of an applicant because of negative implicit associations with her gender or race. Implicit associations are typically characterised as operating automatically, fast, beyond the reach of direct control. Sometimes they are also characterised as unconscious. This last thought - that they are associations of which we are not aware - is a premise used in arguments for the conclusion that individuals cannot be responsible for the extent to which their actions are implicitly biased. How could that margin of discrimination be something you are responsible for, if you were unaware of the association producing it, or that your behaviour was discriminatory at all?

This is a tempting thought (and one articulated, in various guises, in Jennifer Saul 2013 and Natalia Washington & Dan Kelly 2013), but in this paper I argue against it. It is not at all obvious that ignorance exculpates. What matters is not what an individual is or is not aware of - does or does not know - so much as what she should be aware of. So, if we want to evaluate whether an individual is exculpated from responsibility, it does not suffice to show that she lacks awareness of some relevant facts (such as that she is implicitly biased, or that her action is discriminatory). It may be that she lacks awareness of something that she should be aware of. And that state of ignorance might itself be culpable. Accordingly, we need to isolate the relevant normative condition (of what should an individual be aware), and ask then two questions: i) can individuals have this sort of awareness?; ii) when they lack it, is this lack culpable? This latter question asks us to explore why individuals may lack awareness of implicitly biased actions, and evaluate whether this lack is itself innocent or culpable.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Aberrant Beliefs and Reasoning

Aberrant Beliefs and Reasoning
In this post, Niall Galbraith, psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton, introduces a new book he edited, Aberrant Beliefs and Reasoning (Current Issues in Thinking and Reasoning series, Psychology Press, 2014). Niall's research interests include the study of beliefs – such as delusions - and the psychological factors that make one more or less prone to developing such beliefs.

The book is a new edited text with contributions from a collection of leading authors in the field. An aberrant belief is extreme or unusual in nature. In the most serious cases these beliefs cause emotional distress in those who hold them, and typify the core symptoms of psychological disorders. The issue of whether reasoning plays a role in aberrant beliefs has become increasingly important for psychology, psychiatry and philosophy.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Hearing Voices? Don't Assume That Means Schizophrenia

Hearing the Voice logo
Today we publish a post that originally appeared in The Conversation on 11th March 2015, authored by Angela Woods and Ben Alderson-Day (both at the University of Durham and working on Hearing the Voice).

For many people hearing voices is synonymous with schizophrenia and severe mental illness. But is this always the case?

We’ve known for a long time that hearing voices, or auditory hallucination, is reported by people with a wide range of psychiatric diagnoses as well as by those who have none. Indeed, 5-13% of adults will hear voices at some point during their lives – in circumstances that may be related to spiritual experiences, bereavement, trauma, sensory deprivation or impairment, as well as mental and emotional distress.

Despite this, many people, including health-care professionals, still regard hearing voices as a “first-rank” symptom of schizophrenia and assume that these voices are experienced as negative, commanding, loud, frequent and coming from outside the head.

This is not surprising when you consider that most of the research into auditory hallucinations is done in a clinical setting with people diagnosed as suffering from psychosis. Most of the scales and measures used in research, and for clinical and diagnostic purposes, start by asking people to report on things like the loudness, frequency and emotional content.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Delusions as Harmful Malfunctioning Beliefs

This is the sixth in our series of posts on the papers published in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on the Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions. Here Kengo Miyazono summarises his paper 'Delusions as Harmful Malfunctioning Beliefs'.

Delusional beliefs are typically pathological. Being pathological is not the same as being false or being irrational. A woman might falsely believe that Istanbul is the capital of Turkey but it might just be a simple mistake. A man might believe without good evidence that he is smarter than his colleagues, but it might just be a healthy self-deceptive belief. On the other hand, when a patient with brain damage caused by a car accident believes that his father was replaced by an imposter, or when another patient with schizophrenia believes that 'The Organization' painted the doors of the houses on a street to send a message to him, these beliefs are not merely false or irrational. They are pathological.

What makes delusional beliefs pathological? One might think, for example, that delusions are pathological because of their extreme irrationality. The problem with this view, however, is that it is not obvious that delusional beliefs are extremely irrational. In a recent debate about the two-factor theory, Max Coltheart, Peter Menzies, and John Sutton (2010) argue that it is rational from the Bayesian point of view at least, to adopt delusional hypotheses given their neuropsychological deficits. 

McKay (2012), on the other hand, argues that adopting delusional hypotheses is due to the irrational bias of discounting the ratio of prior probabilities. Even if McKay is correct, however, it is not clear that adopting delusional hypotheses is irrational since the bias of discounting prior probabilities has been found among normal people as well (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky 1973). Also, it is worth pointing out that some psychological experiments seem to show that people with delusions are, in some respects, more rational than normal people (e.g., Huq et al. 1988).

Thursday 5 March 2015

Epistemic and Practical Normativity: Explanatory Connections

Logo of the Normativity Project
On 16th January the Department of Philosophy at the University of Southampton hosted a one day workshop on Epistemic and Practical Normativity: Explanatory Connections. The workshop was the second in a series of three workshops, which are being held as part of the Normativity: Epistemic and Practical project at Southampton. 

The first speaker was Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen (Aarhus), giving a paper entitled ‘Epistemic Normativity: Absolute or Instrumental?’ Steglich-Petersen argued that some features of epistemic assessment which have been thought to support an absolutist conception of epistemic rationality (and speak against an instrumentalist conception), actually suggest a problem of normative insignificance for the absolutist. He offered a positive proposal of epistemic normativity which made use of aim-restricted instrumental assessment, the idea was that epistemic assessment could be a version of assessment of this kind. This means that the correctness, say, of a belief that p, does not on its own permit or require believing that p. For one to be permitted or required to believe that p, one would need a reason to pursue the aim which governs the activity of believing. Epistemic reasons were argued to be hypothetical ones, and whether they are taken up depends on whether one has other reasons to take up the aim of belief. On Steglich-Petersen's view epistemic assessments alone do not have normative significance.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

The Virtual Bodily Self

This is the fifth in our series of posts on the papers published in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on the Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions. Here Aikaterini Fotopoulou summarises her paper 'The Virtual Bodily Self: Mentalisation of the Body as Revealed in Anosognosia for Hemiplegia'. 

How do humans know what is real? As though the philosophical issues raised by this question were not complex enough, my paper tries to tackle an even more convoluted question; how do humans know what is real about their own body? A simple answer would be that they have an evolutionary prescribed perceptual system that allows their brain to combine and ‘read out’ various signals about the body deriving from (a) within the body (e.g. heart beats), (b) outside the body (e.g. light), and (c) the body’s boundary, the skin (e.g. pressure).

This answer however turns out to be simplistic both philosophically and scientifically. Thankfully for the reader, the paper does not aim to reveal all the sources of trouble in this answer. Instead, I focus on one neuropsychiatric syndrome, unawareness of the body following right hemisphere stroke (anosognosia) and one computational theory of brain functions, the free energy principle to discuss only certain facets of a potential answer to the aforementioned grand question. First, this syndrome and theory are useful for reminding us that we may not be so good at knowing what is real about our own body.