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.

Sarah Beck gave a talk on counterfactual thinking in children. She noted that typically children find counterfactual thinking difficult, which might seem counterintuitive since they are rather good at pretense. Sarah suggested that thinking about how the world might be different may be related to language ability and inhibitory skills—in order to think about the not real, you are required to be able to stop thinking about what is in front of you. Counterfactual thinking abilities was a relevant topic for the conference since difficulties with this kind of thinking has been found in groups with schizophrenia (who show atypical responses on reasoning tasks), subjects with orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction and autism spectrum disorders (who show a lack of emotional response to some counterfactual outcomes), and subjects with depression (though findings here are mixed). 

Finally, Karen Douglas gave a talk on the social costs of conspiracy theories, and her conclusion was a very interesting one from the point of view of project PERFECT. She pointed out that half of all Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. She noted several costs to such beliefs (including racist and prejudiced attitudes and disengagement with healthy behaviours). However, she also suggested that conspiracy theories might be beneficial insofar as they allow the believers of them to ‘blame a few apples to save the barrel’. This subtyping allows subjects to blame social problems on a small number, and diverts attention from inherent problems in society. This may allow people to preserve the idea that society is generally fair and functional.

Overall, the conference was a great success—congratulations to Jason Braithwaite and Hayley Dewe for launching what promises to be an excellent research theme!

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