Friday 29 May 2015

Loosening the Chains

For our series of posts by experts-by-experience, Krista Marie Mills (pictured above) is exploring the 'positive side' of mental illness. Krista has blogged for the Huffington Post, Anxiety United, and Bring Change 2 Mind about her experiences. She has her own blog too, Loosening the Chains: Life with Anxiety and Depression.

When first diagnosed as being ‘mentally ill’ I genuinely believed that my life was over. I could no longer see myself moving out, gaining a degree, having a career and starting my own family. To me, 'mental' was a term used to describe the deranged psychopathic killers you see in those cheesy American movies, not an average twenty year old female who experiences nightmares after watching Crimewatch.

However, despite the given ‘title’, what I can now say is that mental illness has made me strive for more. Before falling ill I had lost all direction. My assignment grades were not reflecting my true ability, and I was skipping lectures due to hangovers and wanting to spend time with my friends. That has all changed now though as I graduated with honours last July, and am now working towards my Psychology Research Masters Degree. I have never been more focused and determined, as my dream now is to pursue my PhD and become a published author and Cognitive Behavioural Therapist - something I never would have considered before experiencing and living through the disorders.

Without becoming ill I would also have missed out on the opportunity to meet a number of amazing people, and form closer bonds with those already in my life. I transferred courses due to my dwindling grades, and it was then that I made a few genuine life - long friends, and built up a new support system. They say that people come into our lives for a reason, and I am now a firm believer of that. It is because of their support I can now take great pride in the fact that I am a much stronger person - an essential quality when dealing with the effects of mental illness. Before, I was, well, a ‘doormat’. I lacked the ability to voice my opinions and stand my ground, allowing my then friends and strangers to speak over me and sometimes treat me very poorly. This has all changed though as, while I remain a caring and compassionate person, I live by the motto that I am in enough emotional and psychological pain, why should I empower others to add to that?

So, yes, mental illness has turned my world upside down. It has left me isolated, constantly detached, scared of people, and scared of leaving my home. To take some of the control back though, and of course when I can think rationally, I do like to believe that a higher force, my guardian angel maybe, has set me this ‘challenge’ as a means of steering me in the right direction, ensuring that I am destined for bigger and better things as opposed to where I was headed. It helps.

Thursday 28 May 2015

Cognitive Futures in the Humanities 2015

In today's post Rachel Gunn reports from The Cognitive Futures conference which took place on 13-15 April at Worcester College, University of Oxford (in the picture).

Cognitive Futures in the Humanities is a multidisciplinary conference which aims to bring together literary disciplines, linguistics, theater and the arts, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience for our mutual benefit. The three day conference was held at Worcester College, Oxford and is in its third year, the first being held at Bangor and last year's being at Durham. There were a variety of panels on such diverse topics as narrative, imagination, mirroring and reflexiveness, kinesthetics, memory, embodied cognition, perception and hallucination.

In the ‘clinical’ panel I (pictured above) presented a paper on thought insertion ('On thought insertion', forthcoming in a special issue of Review of Philosophy and Psychology on Voices and Thoughts in Psychosis) where I used first person narratives from mental health web forums to show the heterogeneity of the experience, highlight some of the characteristics and demonstrate the huge difficulty people have explaining this bizarre experience (see my previous blog on thought insertion).

Magdalena Antrobus presented a paper on depressive realism (DR) (part of the work involved in project PERFECT) which highlights the research on the ability of people who have mild depression to make more accurate judgements about their own control over particular tasks compared with those who do not have any depressive symptoms (see her previous blog on depressive realism).

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Perfect Language for Imperfect Cognitions: an Example

This post is by Michele Tinnirello (pictured above), a PhD student in Philosophy at University of Messina. His research covers the pragmatics of acts of communication within philosophy of language and its relationship with philosophy of mind, neurolinguistics, and artificial intelligence. 

My philosophical background concerns mainly the most famous debates within the philosophy of mind and language as well as the relationships with other branches of cognitive science. I am now focusing on the most recent accounts of the semantics/pragmatics debate, in order to achieve, or at least try to achieve, a stronger and global view of how our mind is able to shape and understand meaning. 

This, of course, involves not just philosophical questions and speculation, as it requires contributions from a lot of different fields like, e.g., psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics. Actually, I believe that a multidisciplinary approach is absolutely preferable when it comes to understanding how our mind works and project PERFECT seems a very a good example of this kind of research.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Believing against the Evidence

This post is by Miriam McCormick, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Richmond. Miriam presents her new book, Believing Against the Evidence: Agency and the Ethics of Belief (Routledge, 2015), pictured above.

When I first had a student tell me that she doesn’t believe in evolution I was at a loss of how to respond. To me, that sounded like someone telling me that she didn’t believe in gravity. It seemed both irrational and wrong. Experiences like this are common; we think that one’s actual belief can deviate from how one ought to believe. The dominant view among contemporary philosophers is that any belief formed against the evidence is impermissible. On such a view, which I call “evidentialism,” it is easy to diagnosis what is wrong with my student’s belief. I use the term “pragmatism” to refer to the view that some non-evidentially based beliefs are permissible. A central aim of this book is to defend pragmatism. One challenge to the pragmatist view I defend is to show how we can distinguish pernicious non-evidentially based beliefs from those that are permissible.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Semantic Dementia and the Organization of Conceptual Knowledge

Joseph McCaffrey
In honour of Dementia Awareness Week 2015 (17th-23rd May), we have a post by Joseph McCaffrey, a graduate student in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Here Joseph summarises his recent article 'Reconceiving Conceptual Vehicles: Lessons from Semantic Dementia', published in Philosophical Psychology.

We take our concepts for granted. When you explore the world, you automatically categorize the objects around you, tapping into a bewildering array of information. You see (or hear) a sheep and instantaneously know it is is a mammal, an animal, a provider-of-wool, a white fluffy thing that bleats, and much more. As a philosopher of cognitive science, I am interested in how the mind stores, accesses, and manipulates this conceptual knowledge.

In semantic dementia, a rare variant of frontotemporal dementia, patients lose concept knowledge in a progressive and debilitating fashion. Early on, caused by damage to a brain region called the anterior temporal lobes, patients experience striking semantic deficits (i.e. problems with word and object meaning) while other cognitive abilities, including speech production and autobiographical memory, remain fairly intact. At first, a patient with semantic dementia may be unable to recognize a picture of a duck, saying 'it is some kind of bird'. Later, the same patient may only know that the picture depicts some sort of animal.

My paper explores what semantic dementia means for debates about the 'vehicles' of conceptual knowledge. An old philosophical debate concerns whether concepts are reactivated sensory experiences. The British empiricists of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as John Locke and David Hume, thought of concepts as simulations of past perceptual experiences. Thinking about a hammer might involve simulating what a hammer looks like, how to swing one, etc. On the other hand, some philosophers believe that concepts are distinct from percepts. Descartes famously argued that you can know what a chiliagon (a geometric figure with 1,000 sides) is even though it is impossible to picture one. That knowledge must be something different than a perceptual simulation.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Refining our Understanding of Choice Blindness

Robert Davies
This post is by Robert Davies, a PhD student at the University of York. Robert is interested in self-knowledge and memory, and particularly how the study of memory can shed light on philosophical problems in self-knowledge. 

Here is one variety of introspective failure: I make a choice but, when providing reasons, I offer reasons that could not be my reasons for that choice. Choice Blindness research by Lars Hall, Petter Johansson, and their colleagues (2005–) suggests it is surprisingly prevalent (see e.g. Johansson et al. 2008), showing a low rate of manipulation detection and a high degree of willingness, in non-clinical participants, to offer confabulatory explanations for manipulated choices across a range of modalities and environments (see e.g. Hall et al. 2006; Hall et al. 2010).

We see ourselves as introspectively competent, rational decision-makers—capable of knowing our reasons, weighing them as reasons, and self-regulating when required—but since widespread confabulation seems at odds with this, some reconciliation with the data is required.

Some preferences are subject to shifting attention or mood, so caprice does not always elicit criticism. I can feel pulled now to tarte aux fraises and now to cheesecake, and I can attest to the virtues of both. Since liking and preferring are related attitudes, we might borrow factors in favour of one when answering questions about the other, especially if a preference is marginal, a choice is forced, or we are unexpectedly asked to articulate deciding factors in our selection. But moral choices are not like dessert choices—I do not think lying is fine because I fancy a change—and Choice Blindness has been detected in those too (see Hall et al. 2012).

Thursday 14 May 2015

Self-knowledge for Humans

In today's post Quassim Cassam presents his recent book entitled Self-knowledge for humans (Oxford University Press, 2014). Quassim is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, UK

Quassim Cassam

What is it about self-knowledge that makes it philosophically interesting? One familiar answer to this question is that the epistemological privileges and peculiarities of self-knowledge are what justify all the attention paid by philosophers to this topic. There is a presumption that our beliefs about our own thoughts aren’t mistaken, and knowledge of our own thoughts is neither inferential nor observational. A different answer sees the elusiveness and human importance of self-knowledge as the key. On this account, our aim as philosophers should be to understand why self-knowledge matters and explain why it is so hard to get.

These motivations for being interested in self-knowledge point in different directions. The standard examples of epistemologically distinctive self-knowledge are examples of what I call trivial self-knowledge. They include such things as knowing that you believe you are wearing socks or that London is your favourite city. Trivial self-knowledge is neither elusive nor, at least on the face of it, especially important. The contrast is with what I call substantial self-knowledge, that is, knowledge of such things as your character, emotions, aptitudes, values and why you have the attitudes you have. Substantial self-knowledge appears to matter in ways that trivial self-knowledge does not but it lacks the epistemological privileges and peculiarities of trivial self-knowledge. The difference between substantial and trivial self-knowledge is one of degree rather than kind but it seems obvious that the former is relatively hard to come by whereas the latter is relatively easy. Self-ignorance at the substantial end of the spectrum is always on the cards.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

The Crisis of Psychiatry and the Promised Neurocognitive Revolution

This post is by Massimiliano Aragona, philosopher at the University of Rome

Massimiliano Aragona
The DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association 2013) has been published in the midst of unusual controversy. Criticisms had always been advanced, but in the past the DSM system was the dominant paradigm (the 'Bible of Psychiatry'), so they were considered ‘marginal’ complaints by: psychoanalysts, antipsychiatrists, experts of various fields worried about an excessive medicalization of human sufferance, and psychopathologists concerned with the progressive abandonment of deep qualitative phenomenological analysis in favour of superficial quantitative diagnostic criteria. Such criticisms are important per se, but were largely neglected at the time.

Today it is different, because it is the credibility of the DSM itself that is in question. And, along with the DSM, it is a general way to conceive psychiatry which is in crisis: 'the neo-Kraepelinian paradigm established by Robins and Guze and institutionalised in the DSM has resulted in so many problems and inconsistencies that a crisis of confidence has become widespread' (Zachar and Jablensky 2014: 9).

Some years ago I worked on the hypothesis that the DSM nosology could be conceived as a Kuhnian paradigm (Aragona 2006; in English see partial accounts in Aragona, 2009a, 2009b). I was aware that psychiatry and psychology were not, as a whole, Kuhnian paradigms, but my assumption was that such an epistemological model could apply to the subsystem of psychiatric nosology. The consequence was that several ‘concrete’ problems in psychiatric research (internal heterogeneity of mental disorders and lack of prognostic and therapeutic specificity, excessive comorbidity rates, and so on) could be modeled not as merely empirical problems but as Kuhnian anomalies. In this model, ‘anomalies’ are apparently empirical outputs largely dependent upon the way the system is internally structured. In short, the general idea was that such anomalies were suggesting that the system was entering a state of crisis, also showing the main intra-paradigmatic reasons for the crisis and allowing a comparison of possible revolutionary solutions.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Neurocognition of Aberrant Experience and Belief

On 16th and 17th of April, the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham held a two day conference on the Neurocognition of Aberrant Experience and Belief to celebrate the launch of the Aberrant Experience and Belief research theme. The conference was organized by Jason Braithwaite and Hayley Dewe, and featured nineteen talks across two days by researchers from different disciplines interested in aberrant experience and belief. In this post I will report on just a handful of these talks (see delegates' reactions by heading over to Twitter with #AEBConference).

In his talk ‘Things that Make you go Weird’, Roger Newport reported on findings using the MIRAGE machine, which he demonstrated over lunch on the first day. I was lucky enough to have a go and experienced the illusion of an elongated index finger and a missing right hand! Newport suggested that not having these so-called ‘aberrant’ experiences is abnormal, and that future research might look to study those who do not get the illusion (which is a very small minority of experimental participants). (You can follow the MIRAGE lab by checking out their blog.)

Imperfect Cognitions network member Rachel Upthegrove gave a talk entitled ‘The Subjective Experience of Hallucinations: Qualitative Methodology in Psychosis’. Rachel talked about the aims of one of her current projects, the HUSH study, which adopts a ‘blank sheet’ phenomenological approach, and investigates the actual lived experience of auditory verbal hallucinations. 

Angela Woods began the second day of the conference with her talk ‘Interdisciplinary Approaches to Auditory Verbal Hallucinations: Key Findings from Hearing the voice’. Here she reported on findings from the Hearing the Voice project based at the University of Durham.

Project PERFECT was well represented with both Michael Larkin and I giving talks. In my talk, 'Aberrant Experience, Delusion Formation, and Alien Abduction Belief', I suggested that an investigation into alien abduction belief could inform and support my preferred one-factor account of delusion formation. In his talk ‘Understanding the Experience of Loss of Control as a Transdiagnostic Component of Psychological Distress’, Michael pointed to two questions which need addressing.

First, if there is potential transdiagnostic value of loss of control, what does the cross-cutting phenomenology look like? Second, what distinguishes positive from negative experiences when loss of control is beneficial? Michael noted that in the psychological literature being ‘in control’ is often defined in terms of experiencing oneself as making a decision. He suggested that though there is a relationship here, these are not identical.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Choice Blindness and the Point of Aesthetic Reasons

This post is by Dominic McIver Lopes, who teaches at the University of British Columbia and has written books and papers on pictorial representation, photography, the aesthetic and epistemic values of images, computer art, and the nature of art and the ontology of art works. His current project derives an account of aesthetic value from accounts of reasons for aesthetic action.

Know Thyself. Maybe the advice is that we should each acknowledge our most dearly held values and come to terms with our capacity to act upon them. Or maybe the tone is less Socratic, more practical. We plan. Planning requires a coordination of intentions with the outcomes of action. To reliably get good outcomes, we must act on reasons we know we have. My days go best when they begin with a dose of something bitter. I purchase Cooper's Original because it is bitter. Thus do I assure my well-being. Suppose I lacked access to my reasons for acting. Then my life would amount to a fishing expedition. Only by luck would I end up satisfied.

Alas, to know oneself is easier said than done. Petter Johansson, Lars Hall, and their team (2005, 2006, 2010) have developed an elegant protocol that delivers results that bespeak a sobering conclusion. Subjects are tested in two main conditions. Controls choose between two items, are shown what they chose, and then are asked for their reasons for their choice. In the experimental condition, subjects choose between two items, some trickery happens so that they are shown the item they did not choose, and then they are asked their reasons for choosing that item (though they did not in fact choose it).

Folk psychology predicts subjects will detect and protest the ruse. Yet surprisingly few detections are made. Few sense any discrepancy between the item initially chosen and the item shown as the one chosen. Worse, there is no significant difference, along any of several measures, between the reasons subjects give in the two conditions. Controls who choose mango jam over Pernod jam give reasons for their choice. Subjects who choose mango jam also supply reasons when sneakily presented with Pernod jam as their choice. These are not reasons for their choice, but their reasons are the same as the reasons given by controls. In choice blindness, intention detaches from outcome.