Monday 30 November 2015

An Illness of Thought

Today's post is by Jonny Ward who tweets as the Anxious Fireman and has also blogged for the Stigma Fighters. 

Hello to all reading this. My name is Jonny Ward. I’m 31, male, straight, white and a firefighter with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service. I can grout the shower, chop logs, I have an anxiety disorder, I have travelled a lot of the world and I enjoy mountain biking.

If you had to ask me about any one of my interests or traits from that list, which would it be? And why?

If this had been someone else and it was three years ago, I would have picked the anxiety disorder part. Because back then I was just as naive to mental ill health as most men. I would consider it unusual, a strange thing to say or admit too.

But over the last two years my mind-set has changed tremendously. I suffered with anxiety and panic attacks. It happened after a long period of stress. I was doing too much work, too many projects, trying to please too many people. All of which meant I burnt out, blacked out in a restaurant and woke up anxious. I started having panic attacks and in classic panic attack form became afraid of having more panic attacks around people and looking stupid.

It’s taken me a while to really understand what made me ill. It wasn’t the situation, the work load, the “stresses”. These were all purely material and circumstantial. It was my own thoughts. My cognition if you will.

Every thought I had was becoming negative, was I good enough, was I pleasing others, was I achieving enough! Was I! Am I! What if! What if! WHAT IF!!!

A negative thought affects your health, as any thought in the mind does. If it’s positive you feel slightly better, negative, slightly worse. Just like drinking alcohol, a little doesn’t kill your liver, but drown your liver in alcohol every day and eventually it will become very sick.

This is what I was doing. I was becoming a negative thoughtaholic. My self-belief, confidence all became undermined and I made myself ill. I managed to turn things around but it was difficult. I had CBT and counselling and medication.

I have recently buried a second friend (who was also fireman) who completed suicide. He had been very poorly in his head for a while and, in my opinion (I have no medical knowledge) had been thinking very negatively about who he was, his relationships, his standing in life, how he was seen for a very long time. His thoughts were very poorly. What really killed him though I think is his fear of getting help and “coming out”.

His ego, or pride would not allow it, his thought process would not allow him to accept he was human and not a ‘man’.

When I told my watch at the station, friends and family I was suffering and vulnerable, I got closer to them than I ever thought possible. I wish my friend had taken that step.

My love to you all

Thursday 26 November 2015

‘Pathologizing Mind and Body’ Workshop in Leuven

What is the relation between mental disorders and physical disorders? Is it possible to find a biological basis for mental disorders? What purpose would a reduction of mental disorders to physical disorders serve? These are some of the questions addressed at the workshop ‘Pathologizing Mind and Body’ organized by Jonathan Sholl and Marcus Eronen. Philosophers, psychologists and psychiatrists approached this topic from different angles and highlighted problems and recent developments.

In the first talk, Ignaas Devish stressed the distinction between suffering and pain, claiming that suffering is not a phenomenon that is amenable to diagnostic operationalisation and medicalization. He argued that because of this, victims of traumatic events should be offered an ethical debriefing in addition to psychological debriefing, which allows them focus on their suffering and the existential problems they face from a non-medical perspective.

Arantza Exteberria talked about ‘Interactive Bioloops and Pathology’. She pointed out  that biolooping is a common phenomenon, with social levels thoroughly influencing biological levels of functioning. Because of this, there is no clear mental/physical distinction when it comes to pathologies. Furthermore, the complex and dynamic nature of individual-organism relations suggests that personalized medicine will be a fruitful way to proceed. 

Denny Borsboom introduced the audience to the network approach to mental disorders. Rather than searching for a unified cause that underlies a variety of pathological symptoms in a certain disorder, this model focuses on the network of pathological symptoms as a mutually reinforcing structure. On this model, high connectivity between the different network nodes or symptoms is the hallmark of a disordered mind. Denny concluded that according to this understanding of mental disorder, a disorder as an entity is more analogous to a flock of birds than to a unitary thing.

In his presentation ‘Fat or Obese – What Difference Does it Make?’ Andreas de Block considered objections to the medicalization of fatness by proponents of fat studies. He criticized the link fat studies scholars often make between pathologizing and moralizing and discussed studies which show some potential benefits of pathologizing obesity. Andreas also explored the possible effects of labelling obesity as a mental disorder analogous to addiction.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

The Erotetic Theory of Delusional Thinking

This post is by Matthew Parrott and Philipp Koralus. Here they summarise their recent paper ‘The Erotetic Theory of Delusional Thinking’, published in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry. 

Matthew Parrott

In this paper, we appeal to the recently developed erotetic theory of reasoning in order to explain three patterns of anomalous reasoning associated with delusion: mistaking a loved-one for an impostor (as in the Capgras delusion), the well-documented tendency to ‘jump to conclusions’, and surprising improvements in a certain reasoning task involving conditionals (Mellet et. al. 2006).

According to the erotetic theory, the aim of human reasoning is to answer questions as directly as possible (for further discussion and for a formal account of the theory, see Koralus and Mascarenhas 2013). More precisely, according to the erotetic theory, reasoning proceeds by treating an initial premise or set of premises as a question and then treating subsequent information as a maximally strong answer to that question. Here is an informal illustration:

Suppose you are given a premise: there is either beer in the fridge, or there is wine and cheese in the fridge.

Informally, the erotetic theory holds that this premise will be cognitively processed by reasoners as the following question, or issue, that needs to be addressed: Am I in a beer-in-the-fridge situation or in a wine-and-cheese-in-the-fridge situation?

Now suppose the next piece of information you get is that there is cheese in the fridge. If you process that information as a maximally strong answer, resolving the issue you were trying to address, then you will conclude that you are in a wine-and-cheese-in-the-fridge situation

Of course, it would be a fallacy to draw this conclusion based on the information available. Interestingly, it is a form of reasoning that most people are naturally disposed toward (Walsh and Johnson-Laird 2004). The erotetic theory captures this pattern of tempting fallacies, along with various others documented in the experimental literature, and predicts new ones. Crucially, according to the erotetic theory, what allows human reasoners to avoid fallacies is to raise enough further questions as the reasoning process progresses. What characteristically leads us astray when we succumb to fallacies is a lack of inquisitiveness (for details see Koralus and Mascarenhas 2013).

We were curious whether, with the help of the erotetic theory, we could make sense of seemingly outlandish thought patterns associated with delusions as extreme cases of tendencies that are present in all of us. The idea was to explore a model of delusional thinking as being like ordinary thinking except lacking inquisitiveness of a crucial sort.

According to the erotetic theory, delusional thinking is conceptualised in terms of the way individuals ask questions or in terms of how they go about answering those questions. In the paper, we propose that relevant patients entertain roughly the same default questions that most people strongly associate with various external stimuli, but that they either envisage fewer alternative possible answers to these questions or raise fewer follow-up questions as they proceed to try to answer them. This chiefly has a negative effect on the quality of conclusions drawn, but we argue that it can also yield some surprising performance advantages.

In the paper, we describe how lack of inquisitiveness can make sense of various thought patterns associated with delusion. We hope this brief introduction sparks interest in renewing efforts to understand reasoning, both ordinary and delusional, more systematically than we do at present.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice

In this post Maksymilian Del Mar (in the picture above) presents the recent book Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice (Springer 2015), co-edited with William Twining.

Treating Menorca as if it is a suburb of London, or a ship as if it was a person, or pretending that persons who form contracts are made by rational agents with knowledge of the commitments they are making, or that states who take over other states find a land empty of life (as in the doctrine of terra nullius) – or, positing the existence of consent, malice, notice, fraud, intention, or causation when evidence clearly points to the opposite conclusion (or to no conclusion at all)…

All these are example of legal fictions. They fly in the face of reality. And, in the literature on theories of law and legal reasoning, they are not very popular. In this new collection – Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice (Springer, 2015, co-edited by William Twining and Maks Del Mar) – 18 chapters explore another view: that not only are fictions pervasive in legal practice (and in very different legal traditions), they are also considerably more valuable cognitively than we have hitherto appreciated.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

PERFECT Year Two: Michael Larkin

Today's post is by Michael Larkin, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Birmingham and co-investigator in project PERFECT. Michael talks about his research interests for this second year of the project, and focuses on shared experience and parity of esteem.

My colleague Lisa Bortolotti has written recently about Project PERFECT, and the importance of understanding those aspects of human cognition which are common to both those who seek support from mental health services and those who do not. Lisa’s conceptual work illuminates some of the ways in which, at times, we all may hold beliefs which are difficult for others to share, or act upon reasoning which is difficult for others to understand.

Yesterday, I spent a fascinating morning with two clinical psychologists and a group of trainee clinical psychologists, exploring some of the differences and commonalities between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’ in our research and practice. We discussed how the task for the clinical psychologist often involves the gradual building of a bridge – a collaborative process - to span the gap between one person’s view of the world, and another’s. The psychologist is able to draw upon a wide field of knowledge (theory and evidence about the kinds of difficulties which people experience, and the kinds of factors which tend to cause and maintain them, for example), but must work with the service-user to understand which of these elements might be relevant and helpful to understanding their particular circumstances and context. Thus, formal knowledge and informal belief (about experience, and its meaning, for example) are combined. From this shared understanding, a formulation can be developed, which provides the basis for any therapeutic work that the psychologist and service-user might then decide to pursue together.

Lisa’s article about Project PERFECT suggests that once we have mutual understanding, we can see the commonalities in human experience, and we become able to see the difference between ‘someone who uses mental health services’ and ‘someone who does not who use mental services,’ in a new way. We see it then as simply a difference in the intensity or persistence of a particular experience. 

For example, I saw the surreal and rather disturbing film The Lobster this week. The feeling of anxiety which it produced continued to perfuse my experience throughout the next day. Anxiety isn’t an experience which generally causes me too much trouble (I’m probably more prone to low mood), but when – after a good night’s sleep – the feeling had lifted, I did have cause to reflect on what it would have been like to cope with that feeling for longer, or for its effect to have been more pronounced. In circumstances where I had been required to cope with other stresses, and where I did not have recourse to that good night’s sleep, might my reaction have been different?

The intensity or persistence of our distress is often shaped by the context in which we find ourselves. This is generally a more helpful way of thinking about psychological wellbeing than considering the difference between ‘someone who uses mental health services’ and ‘someone who does not,’ to be a difference between two ‘kinds’ of people – something which is generally underscored by the complex findings of genomic research. The importance of PERFECT’s message for anti-stigmatisation therfore is that there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Monday 16 November 2015

Workshop on Unrealistic Optimism

On February 25th and 26th we will be hosting an interdisciplinary workshop on optimism at Senate House, London.

The first day will be dedicated to the question what unrealistic optimism is and how it is caused. Why is it that we see such a wide-spread tendency to be unrealistically optimistic abour our own future? Are the primary factors motivational or cognitive? What processes allow us to think ‘it won’t happen to me’?

We will be hearing about the brain processes underlying optimistic belief formation patterns and from Tali Sharot; and Bojana Kuzmanovic will be speaking about evidence that optimistically biased belief updating recruits brain areas associated with motivational processes. I will be considering the question whether the wide-spread tendency to be unrealistically optimistic about one’s own future can be explained by the fact that these belief patterns were adaptive in the past. Constantine Sedikides will be discussing unrealistically optimistic beliefs as one type of motivationally driven self-enhancing belief.

On the second day, we turn to the question of what the effects of optimistically biased cognition are. Are they beneficial or do they increase the risk of bad things happening to us because they prevent us from taking precautions? James Shepperd will be reviewing findings from existing research on these questions and suggest explanations for inconsistencies in these findings. Miriam McCormick will be exploring the concept of rational hope and put forward conditions for judging hope as appropriate or inappropriate. Fernando Blanco’s talk will focus on potential health risks of unrealistic optimism and causal illusions and ways of reducing these. Finally, Lisa will be talking about engaged agency as a positive outcome of some cases of unrealistic optimism.

Thursday 12 November 2015

CRASSH Moral Psychology Conference

On 9th October CRASSH organised a Moral Psychology Interdisciplinary Conference in Cambridge, featuring keynote talks, panel discussions and discussion groups. This is a brief report on the sessions in which I participated.

The first session was a panel symposium with Josh Greene (Harvard) and Molly Crockett (Oxford) on the future of moral psychology chaired by Richard Holton. Josh started discussing the assumption in popular culture and the media that there is a “moral faculty” where all moral beliefs and decisions can be found, somewhere in the brain. But this is a myth according to him: morality is like a vehicle. “Vehicle” is a category, but what makes something a vehicle is not its internal mechanics. What makes something a vehicle is its function. Same with morality. If morality is a thing, people who study morality are interested in its function. The processes, operating principles and behavioural patterns involved in moral thinking are not distinct to morality.

Molly made the point that no study so far has examined in the same sample social and non-social computation, moral and non-moral decision-making in the scanner, so there is still room to argue that there is something distinctive about morality. For Josh, morality is about cooperation and thus it is predominantly social. There may be a distinction between social and non-social pathways, but not about moral and non-moral over and beyond the social.

But are there discreet emotions? Probably not, emotions as we know them are probably just a blend of different elements (e.g., guilt is a mixture of arousal and fear). Molly argued that the peculiarities of guilt (how we feel about it, in what circumstances it emerges, etc.) partially depend on our way of living, and would manifest differently in a radically different culture. For both Molly and Josh, morality is about warmth and competence, where warmth is more important than competence.

The discussion then moved to how we learn. There are different systems for learning that are psychologically dissociable.
  • Goal-directed/model-based system: decisions and actions are based on a model of the world (controlled); more reason-based and cold. 
  • Model-free system: decisions and actions themselves take on positive or negative value (controlled); more emotional as it relies on affective weighing. 
  • Pavlovian system: approaching rewards and avoiding punishment (automated). 
Consequentialist thinking tends to be more commonly adopted as part of the goal-directed system, and deontological thinking tends to be favoured by the the model-free system.

In the next session, Jill Craigie (King’s College London) and I talked about responsibility and control, in two different contexts. Jill (pictured below) focused on mental capacity and legal capacity in addiction, and in particular alcohol dependance. I focused on responsibility over actions motivated by delusional beliefs in people affected by schizophrenia, and responsibility for adopting delusional beliefs.

Talking about mental capacity and its assessment, Jill asked whether cognitive tests are sufficient to judge whether someone can be guided by reason. Are such tests contrued in a way that is sufficiently broad to assess all the relevant capacities? Addiction does not fall under the Mental Health Act but it falls under the Mental Capacity Act. Among the capacities included in the notion of mental capacity, there is the capacity to make one’s own treatment decisions. Criteria for mental capacity are the ability to understand, retain and weigh up relevant information, and make a decision on the basis of that information.

Jill reported a case of Ms X who was suffering from alcohol dependance and anorexia. She had a number of involuntary hospital admissions. The court considered her capacity both in relation to alcohol dependance and anorexia. They decided that she lacked capacity when it came to her anorexia (e.g., she lacked the capacity to weigh information about the consequences of treatment, and the compulsion not to eat was too strong for her to ignore), but she had capacity in relation to her alcohol dependance (e.g., she was choosing when and what to drink, and her drinking was responsive to events).

Although alcohol dependence could fall under the Mental Capacity Act, in fact it has been judged not to compromise mental capacity in England and Wales (but interestingly it has in US and Australia). It is not clear what justifies treating anorexia and alcohol dependence differently in some of these cases. Anorexia is seen as a habit one cannot break and implying an inability to weigh consequences of not eating. But alcohol dependence is not seen in the same way.

I discussed some case studies showing that the presence of psychotic symptoms in general and delusions in particular should not rule out by default that a person is responsible for behaviour that is motivated by such symptoms. I also referred to the high-profile case of Breivik.

After the lunch break, I attended the discussion group on psychopathy and moral motivation, led by Marion Godman (University of Helsinki). Marion (pictured below) introduced one of the main issues surrounding psychopathy, the high prevalence of psychopathic traits in people who are incarcerated for serious, violent crimes. She discussed the empirical finding according to which psychopathy is associated with spontaneous as opposed to reactive aggression.

From the data, she moved on to the analysis of different interpretations, and talked about a recent debate about whether the behaviour of people of psychopathy should be regarded as ‘mad’ or ‘bad’. Marion found that both ways of categorising psychopathy are characterised by unattractive consequences. An intense discussion followed, where some interesting parallales were made between psychopathy and autism (the former being associated with a compromised capacity to be motivated by punishment, and the latter with a compromised capacity to be motivated by rewards).

The conference was very stimulating and I had the pleasure to meet many young researchers in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, testifying to the genuinely interdisciplinary nature of the event.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Is your brain wired for science, or for bunk?

This post is by Maarten Boudry (picture above), Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at Ghent University. Here Maarten writes about the inspiration for his recent paper, co-authored with Stefaan Blancke and Massimo Pigliucci, 'What Makes Weird Beliefs Thrive? The Epidemiology of Pseudoscience', published in Philosophical Psychology. 

Science does not just explain the way the universe is; it also explains why people continue to believe the universe is different than it is. in other words, science is now trying to explain its own failure in persuading the population at large of its truth claims. In Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, philosopher Robert McCauley offers ample demonstrations of the truth of his book title. Many scientific theories run roughshod over our deepest intuitions. Lewis Wolpert even remarked that 'I would almost contend that if something fits with common sense it almost certainly isn't science.’ It is not so much that the universe is inimical to our deepest intuitions, it is that it does not care a whit about them (it is nothing personal, strictly business). And it gets worse as we go along. Newton’s principle of inertia was already hard to get your head around (uniform motion continuing indefinitely?), but think about the curvature of space-time in general relativity, or the bizarre phenomena of quantum mechanics, which baffle even the scientists who spend a lifetime thinking about them. Science does not have much going for it in the way of intuitive appeal.

Bearing all that in mind, it may seem remarkable, not that so many people refuse to accept the scientific worldview, but that so many have embraced it at all. Of course, science has one thing in its favour: it works. Every time your GPS device tells you where you are, or you heat up your soup by bombarding it with invisible waves, or you blindly entrust your fate in the hands of an able surgeon, you are relying on the achievements of science. Science is culturally successful despite the fact that it clashes with deeply engrained intuitions. By and large, people accept the epistemic authority of science—sometimes begrudgingly—because they admire its technological fruits and because deep down they know it is reasonable to defer to the expertise of more knowledgeable people. Without its technological prowess, which ultimately derives from the facts that it tracks truth, the scientific worldview would wither away. No system of beliefs could succeed in convincing so many people of so many bizarre and counterintuitive things, unless the truth was on its side, at the least most of the time.

We can see that if we compare science with some of its contenders: religion, superstition, ideology, and in particular pseudoscience—belief systems that actively mimic the superficial trappings of science, trying to piggyback on its cultural prestige. By definition, pseudoscience does not have truth on its side (except by a sheer stroke of luck), or else we would just call it ‘science’. Because they defy reality, pseudosciences can boast of no genuine technological success. The army does not hire psychics (or so one hopes), homeopathy only has the placebo effect to count on, and creationists are marginalized in the scientific community, despite their persistent campaign for recognition.

But how do pseudoscience and other weird belief systems sustain themselves? They profit exactly from that which is lacking in science: intuitive appeal. Almost all pseudosciences tap into the cognitive biases, intuitions and heuristics of the human mind, courtesy of evolution by natural selection. Intuitive appeal makes up for lack of truth value. Pseudosciences have even developed ‘strategies’ to cope with the threat of adverse evidence, and to withstand critical scrutiny. In my dissertation Here Be Dragons and in a series of papers (here and here) with Johan Braeckman, I refer to these as ‘immunizing strategies’ and ‘epistemic defense mechanisms’. In our recent paper we have further pursued this analysis and compared the cultural dynamics of science and pseudoscience, developing what Dan Sperber called an ‘epidemiology of representations’. In this new work, we show how science achieves cultural stability, despite the fact that it flies in the face of pretty much every human intuition, and how ‘weird’ beliefs can thrive, under the false pretense of being scientific. Pseudoscience does not have truth on its side, but it does tap into our innate intuitions and biases, and is protected by its own in-built survival kit.

Thursday 5 November 2015

11th Mind Network Meeting

Philosophers of mind and cognition gathered for the 11th meeting of the Mind Network in Warwick on Tuesday 29th September 2015. Talks were given by Anya Farrennikova, Olle Blomberg and Giovanna Colombetti.

Farrennikova began the meeting with a discussion of unexpected perception and absence. She argued that the novelty of unexpected perception means that it is suboptimal. It is, for example, slow, less likely to be accurate than other perception, disrupts ongoing tasks, and involves increased uncertainty.
Farrennikova outlined strategies that can be used to optimize perception of the unexpected: increased sampling and expecting to be surprised. She compared unexpected perception to perception of absence, arguing that both are suboptimal but that the strategies that can be used to optimise perception of the unexpected are unlikely to be successfully utilised to optimise perception of absences. Why is this? Because absences are difficult to predict, and certainly difficult to predict well, in part because our emotions and desires interfere with perception of absence: we do not wish to perceive absence, so we struggle to do so.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Human Reasoning: Two Upcoming Events

This post is by Nevia Dolcini (pictured above), Assistant Professor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Programme at the University of Macau. In this post Nevia talks about her research and announces two upcoming events.

I am interested in how human reasoning works, and I take language and its underlying cognitive and semantic mechanisms to be the ideal starting point for the explanation of mental phenomena. I like to extend the methods of philosophy of language beyond its traditional domain of analysis, so as to include non-linguistic objects such as gestures, and perceptual contents. In my research activity, I often combine philosophy and psychology: scientific literature from developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and comparative psychology is particularly relevant to my research activity, but I also enjoy reading fiction (which sometimes offers great cases for philosophical assessment).

I have been doing extensive work on linguistic and non-linguistic indexicals, as well as on the cognitive capacities that can be inferred from subjects’ uses and mastery of indexicals in communication. I intend my analysis of indexicals to highlight the interdependency of perception and higher-order thinking capacities. Indexicals are terms such as ‘I’, ‘she’, ‘here’, ‘now’, ‘this’, among others, whose referent depends on the context of utterance in a very essential way. The traditional philosophical discussion on indexical reference is typically rooted within truth-conditional semantics.