Tuesday 31 October 2017

Quotidian Confabulations

In this post, Chris Weigel discusses her paper “Quotidian Confabulations: An Ethical Quandary Concerning Flashbulb Memories,” published in Theoretical and Applied Ethics in 2014. Chris is a professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University. She works mainly on experimental philosophy of free will and on cognitive biases.

How did you find out about the planes crashing on September 11, 2001? What do you remember about the first time you met your spouse? Wait, don’t answer those questions! Your memories about those events are flashbulb memories—memories of surprising, monumental, and emotionally-laden events—and my paper invites us to rethink asking people for their memories about these events, such as the Challenger explosion, assassinations of important public figures, and terrorist attacks.

My conclusion isn’t that we should never ask people about their flashbulb memories, but rather that sometimes asking people about their flashbulb memories is problematic. It’s problematic because flashbulb memories often involve confabulations (i.e., believed, obvious falsehoods), and under certain circumstances, we should abstain from provoking a confabulation.

My conclusion is counterintuitive. It’s counterintuitive to say that in certain cases people should not ask others about flashbulb events. To get to that conclusion, I begin by looking at Anton’s syndrome and Capgras syndrome, two syndromes that involve confabulations. People with Anton’s syndrome think they can see even though they are blind. If you ask someone with Anton’s syndrome about what you look like, they will likely answer you even if you have never met the person before.

People with Capgras syndrome believe that their loved ones are impostors. A person with Capgras syndrome might tell you that their father isn’t really their father despite all evidence to the contrary. If you ask that person how the so-called impostor came to have the right wallet, appearance, demeanor, and memories, the person with Capgras syndrome might begin by telling you a story about how the wallet must have been stolen. People with these syndromes confabulate. That is, they assert falsehoods that they confidently believe, even though others can see that the falsehoods are obviously false and baseless. Also, these particular confabulations can be reliably provoked in certain circumstances: ask an Anton’s patient what they see or ask a Capgras patient about the specific loved ones they believe are impostors, and you’ll most likely get a confabulation.

The next step in the argument is to see that absent competing obligations, it is wrong to provoke a confabulation. Competing obligations include such things as medical research, neuroscientific research, caring for the patient, and so on. A doctor who is talking trying to assess a blind person with Anton’s syndrome might ask that person what they see in the course of a medical evaluation. The importance of accurate medical evaluations entails that provoking a confabulation in such circumstances is not problematic. On the other end of the spectrum, suppose someone sold tickets at a fair to gawkers who wanted to see the confabulating blind person who thinks they can see. This ticket seller’s motives are negative and cruel, and it is fairly easy to see that provoking confabulations in such a case is problematic.

In between are cases where someone provokes a confabulation with no competing obligations (either positive as in the case of the doctor or negative as in the case of the ticket seller). For example, someone might provoke a confabulation out of idle curiosity, to fill a silence with sound, or for no reason at all. In these cases, since there are no overriding obligations like research or diagnosis, provoking a person with Anton’s syndrome or Capgras syndrome to confabulate is problematic.

Thursday 26 October 2017

True Enough

Catherine Z. Elgin is Professor of the Philosophy of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Considered Judgment, Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary, With Reference to Reference, and (with Nelson Goodman) Reconceptions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences. In this post, she talks about her book True Enough.

Epistemology valorizes truth.  There may be practical or prudential reasons to accept a contention that is known to be false, but it is widely assumed that there can never be epistemically good reasons to do so.  Nor can there be epistemically good reasons to accept modes of justification that are not truth-conducive.  Although this seems plausible, it has a fatal defect.  It cannot accommodate the cognitive contributions of science.  For science unabashedly uses models, idealizations, and thought experiments that are known not to be true.  Nor do practicing scientists think that such devices will ultimately be eliminated.  They expect current models to be supplanted by better models, but not by the unvarnished truth.  Modeling, idealizing, and thought experimenting are considered valuable tools, not unfortunate concessions to human frailty.

Such devices are, I contend, epistemically felicitous falsehoods. They are not mere heuristics. They are central components of the understanding that science supplies. If it is to accommodate science then, epistemology must relax its allegiance to truth.  True Enough develops a holistic epistemology that does so. It acknowledges that tenable theories must be tethered to the phenomena they concern, but denies that truth is the sole acceptable tether.  Felicitous falsehoods figure in understanding by exemplifying features they share with their targets.  They highlight those features and display their significance.  A model like the ideal gas, although strictly true of nothing, highlights important features of actual gases, while sidelining confounding features that for the purposes of a given inquiry make no difference.

On this picture, the center of epistemological gravity shifts from knowledge to understanding.  In science and other systematic inquiries, relatively comprehensive bodies of epistemic commitments -- some true, some felicitously false, some not even truth-apt -- stand or fall together.  Rather than accepting the kinetic theory of gases because she already accepts each of its component commitments, an agent accepts those commitments because they are part of a theory that is, on the whole, acceptable.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

PERFECT Year 4: Valeria

Today's post is by project  PERFECT Doctoral Researcher Valeria N. Motta

2018 is my second year as a doctoral researcher on project PERFECT.

During my first year, I’ve been investigating loneliness and solitude. For that I did research on existing literature from different philosophical traditions and on the outcomes of empirical research. The existing literature on loneliness has focused on identifying its characteristics and has utilised different approaches. The idea behind finding common features (such as boredom or passivity) is that if we are able to identify them, a specific treatment can be developed in order to alleviate the problem. But documented in the literature I have also found an array of different ways of experiencing loneliness (such as those that emerge from failure to remember traumatic events, or which are masqueraded as connectedness via social media). These cases require a more fine grained approach.

I have the privilege to get the support and multi-disciplinary guidance of the Principal Investigator Lisa Bortolotti and the Co-Investigator Michael Larkin. An approach that we find promising consists in viewing loneliness as a social construction that has cultural and personal meanings. The approach could potentially answer the question of whether the experience that we categorise as ‘loneliness’ is always or entirely harmful. Since we are interested in the complex web of costs and benefits that many human experiences have, it is important to contemplate that even something that is as disruptive as loneliness can have a temporarily positive role to play.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Interview with Matthew Broome on the new Institute for Mental Health

In today's post Kathy Puddifoot interviews Matthew Broome, Professor of Psychiatry and Youth Mental Health, on the new Institute for Mental Health at the University of Birmingham that he directs. 

KP: Can you tell me about the make-up of the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Birmingham?

MB: The Institute for Mental Health (IMH) is a cross-college Institute at the University of Birmingham. It is housed within the School of Psychology and the College Life and Environmental Sciences, but the Institute will also include colleagues from the College of Social Sciences, of Arts and Law, and Medical and Dental Sciences. We are hoping that staff at the IMH will have affiliations with each of these groups and represent a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. In terms of appointments, we will have colleagues appointed at different grades, from professor to lecturer, as joint appointment with the Colleges linked to the IMH. Appointments will be made between the Institute and Schools across the University. We will also have some clinical academic staff joining us, as well as core IMH appointments.  

KP: What are the main goals of the IMH?

MB: The main focus is to address issues concerning youth mental health with the recognition that to solve these complex problems will need interdisciplinary work. The focus will be to improve the care of young people with mental health problems and to improve services for those people.  We think that Birmingham has something distinctive to offer here. We can draw together expertise across the different disciplines but also build on the very strong areas we have across the university, such as cognitive neuroscience, philosophy and ethics, and social policy.

KP: Why do think it is important to focus on young people in particular?

MB: The first answer to that question comes from the epidemiology of mental health issues. Most disorders tend to begin in young people. The vast majority of adult mental disorders begin before the age of 25. Focusing on youth allows you to focus on how disorders develop, to detect mental health issues, and intervene early.  The second answer is connected. Mental disorders that begin in young people last a long time so the benefits of intervening in youth will be greater to society. If you help young people to navigate a tricky period of their life then you will see the benefit for them and for society for many years to come.  Also, Birmingham is the youngest and most diverse city in Europe, in terms of population demographics, so our research focus reflects that .

KP: What is the connection between the IMH and the Mental Health Policy Commission?

MB: The connection is that some members of the Institute are leading on the commission. In particular Professor Paul Burstow ,  Dr Karen Newbigging and Professor Jerry Tew. The commission predates the Institute and is doing work around social policy on mental health provision in the West Midlands, in particular examining the gap in care for young people between those who need help for mental health problems, and those that receive it. The commission is a project that the Institute will be connected with and some of its members will be a key part of.

KP: The IMH aims to contribute to the development of interventions based on academic research to improve practice in mental health care. To succeed in this task, you will work with non-academic partners. Can you tell us something about the partners that you intend to work with?

MB: At the moment the key partners are NHS service providers. There are two mental health trusts in Birmingham that we are working with. One is the Forward Thinking Birmingham Trust, which delivers youth mental health care between 0 and 25 years of age, and also the Early Intervention Psychosis services. The other mental health trust is the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust. They are our two main non-academic partners. There is also an organization called Birmingham Health Partners, which is a strategic partnership between the University of Birmingham and some of the acute hospitals. These are strong partners for us. I am hoping to expand our partnerships further to include work with charities, the voluntary sector, and involvement with education and social services. That is a step for me to develop over the next couple of months.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

PERFECT Year 4: Kathy

Today's post is by Project PERFECT Research Fellow Katherine Puddifoot.  

I am entering my third year as a Research Fellow on Project PERFECT.

During my time on the project so far I have had the opportunity to develop my views on memory and stereotyping. 

In the past year I have been developing my account of stereotyping, the multifactorial account. This account identifies multiple features of any act of stereotyping that can determine whether or not it will lead to the misperception of the people who are stereotyped. Two papers developing this view have been published (open access) in Philosophical Explorations and Philosophical Topics.

I have been working with the Principle Investigator on Project PERFECT, Lisa Bortolotti, to develop our view of memory errors. We argue that there is an important feature of distorted memories that has previously not been recognised: they are produced by cognitive mechanisms that bring epistemic benefits. It has previously been widely recognised within cognitive psychology and neuroscience that the cognitive mechanisms are adaptive, but we emphasise how they increase the chance of people obtaining epistemic goods like knowledge, true beliefs and understanding.

In the past year, I have also organised the PERFECT 2017 Memory workshop at the University of Cambridge, featuring talks from Dorothea Debus, Jordi Fernandez, Kourken Michaelian, John Sutton and myself.

I have also formed an exciting new collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation. In June we held a workshop with colleagues from the charity and people with lived experience of mental health issues. The workshop featured presentations on my work on stereotyping; Lisa's work highlighting the continuity between beliefs in the clinical and non-clinical population; and the work of the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland and with people with learning disabilities. I am extremely excited about this collaboration. We will be working closely together in the future to design practical applications of our research and pursue future research projects together.

In my final phase on the project I aim to produce a series of papers that apply the insights that I have gained about memory to specific concrete cases. I will draw out the implications for how education and the criminal trial should be conducted.

In addition to this, I plan to expand my work on stereotyping, highlighting further philosophical implications of my position that there are multiple features that can determine whether people make errors due to stereotyping.

Combining my interests in stereotyping and memory, my final research goal is to publish work examining how stereotyping can influence how we remember. There are important implications of the observation that memory can be biased by stereotyping, for both theories about the nature of memory and theories about the nature of justification (including for memory). These implications will be explored in the research I conduct in this final period of my Research Fellowship.

Thursday 12 October 2017

Interview with Louise Moody and Tom Stoneham

In this post, I interview Louise Moody, Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of York, and Tom Stoneham, Professor of Philosophy & Dean of the Graduate Research School, also at the University of York. Tom and Louise are presently researching dreaming: specifically, they are investigating an alternative model of dreaming (one that holds dreams are confabulations on waking rather than experiences of some type that are remembered and reported as dreams) and whether this model might be beneficial for those experiencing parasomnias.

SS: Why is the topic of dreaming of interest to philosophers and what contributions have philosophers made so far?

LM & TS: The first thing to say is that dreaming takes up a surprisingly large amount of our mental lives with most of us apparently dreaming 4-6 times a night – indeed, awakenings from all sleep-phases (i.e. both r.e.m and non-r.e.m sleep) elicit dream reports between 50-90% of the time (e.g. Dement & Kleitman 1957; Nielson 2000). Yet dreaming receives relatively little attention from philosophers: whilst the possibility that we are now dreaming is often used to prop up sceptical arguments, the nature of dreaming is rarely directly examined - notable exceptions include Malcolm (1959) who thought the notion of any mental activity during sleep self-contradictory, Dennett (1972) who proposed that dreams might be non-consciously composed ‘cassettes’ that are inserted into memory for ‘playback’ on waking, and more recently, Ichikawa (2009) who treats dreams as sensory imaginings.

Almost everyone who has had a dream takes their experience to support the ‘Standard Model’ of dreaming: dreaming is a conscious experience of some type which happens during sleep, is encoded in memory, recalled – often partially – upon waking, and sometimes shared with others. That is just what it feels like. But as the great Islamic Philosopher Al-Ghazali pointed out in 1105, this model is likely to strike someone who has had no personal experience of dreaming as very puzzling. People are reporting having perceptions at times when they are clearly not having perceptions, precisely because they are asleep and not in the presence of those things they report perceiving. The very familiarity of dreaming has stopped philosophers (with very few notable exceptions) from seeing just how theoretically puzzling this idea of ‘offline’ perception really is.
SS: I understand you’re developing an alternative model to that outlined above, one that centrally involves imperfect cognitions? Tell us more!

LM & TS: Despite seeming incredibly obvious, the Standard Model is surprisingly hard to prove or disprove, precisely because it postulates a realm of private experiences that cannot be directly reported upon (note: LaBerge (1981) purportedly found that lucid dreamers can ‘signal’ that they are dreaming by performing a series of pre-arranged eye movements, but we take this finding to be methodologically controversial). Other well-known problems with the Standard Model, as Freud originally noted (1900: Ch.1), include pre-cognitive ‘alarm clock’ dreams (suppose you dream of an explosion and wake up to find this sound merging smoothly with the buzzing of your alarm clock; then you must have somehow predicted that your alarm clock was about to buzz, which is wildly implausible) and time-compression (experiences that would take a long time in waking life are often temporally compressed in dreams, and no-one has yet explained why such experiences are special cases). 

Tuesday 10 October 2017

PERFECT Year 4: Sophie

I joined project PERFECT in October 2016 as a postdoctoral researcher. In this post, I summarise what I’ve been up to in my first year on the project what I have planned for the year ahead.


Over the past year, I’ve continued looking into the nature of the distinction between implicit and explicit attitudes. The main output of this aspect of my research this year is a paper on content-responsiveness as a means of distinguishing implicit attitudes from explicit attitudes – I’m skeptical that this characteristic alone will do the required work! I also have a paper in preparation addressing whether awareness might do the required work.

I was fortunate to have been invited to share some aspects of this project on a BBC Analysis special about implicit bias, as well as in a BBC News article. Recent controversy surrounding one of the popular methods for testing aspects of implicit cognition demonstrates why the metaphysical project – clarity on the precise nature of these attitudes – is so important. Lived experience, testimony, and myriad results gleaned via alternative methods show us that bias in society is alive and well. Attention to the metaphysics will help us pick apart what is implicit, what is explicit, and ultimately what we should do about it to improve the situation.

My new research focus this year has been an investigation into the phenomenon of confabulation, and its potential psychological, social and epistemic benefits. Whilst exploration of the former two benefits are out there, the latter is largely underexplored beyond PERFECT. I’ve found that looking at the social context of confabulation has been crucial to beginning to understand some of its potential epistemic benefits. I have a paper in preparation on how existing empirical work on collective cognition illuminates why confabulation may deliver epistemic benefits (succinctly, we rely on other people for much of our knowledge, and so some level of confabulation helps us preserve those fruitful epistemic partnerships).

This year, I’m turning my attention to whether confabulation originates from a more general faculty for organizing information into a narrative, and being a good story-teller. I think there could be interesting insights from empirical literature on narrative skill in general that could be illuminating for our philosophical analysis of confabulation.

On this note, I’m excited to be organizing PERFECT 2018, our confabulation workshop, taking place on 23rd May 2018 in Oxford. We have a great programme of current research on the philosophical aspects of confabulation, find out more and register here.  

Other work I’ve done this year includes a paper on whether we can – and should – use technological enhancement to get rid of our cognitive biases, and a joint paper on doxastic irrationality with colleagues Andrea Polonioli and Lisa Bortolotti. I look forward to how my projects will develop over the year to come!

Thursday 5 October 2017

Interview with Beatrice de Gelder on Emotion Science

In this post I am pleased to interview Beatrice de Gelder (pictured above), Professor of Social and Affective Neuroscience at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Her main areas of expertise are visual and audio-visual affective processes related to the perception of faces and bodies as well as auditory affective signals. She has extensive experience in designing and executing behavioral, functional and anatomical imaging studies, both in healthy and diseased populations, and has participated in funded research involving populations from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Her current research focuses on face and body recognition and, recently, the neuroscience of art. She is currently serving as Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Emotion Science and Associate Editor for Frontiers in Psychopathology. In 2012, she was awarded an advanced European Research Council (ERC) scientific grant for the study of cultural differences in emotional body expression. In addition to Maastricht University, she holds appointments at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and University College London (UCL). Her book on “Emotions and the Body” has recently been published by Oxford University Press.

AP:  What scientific concept used in Emotion Science do you think ought to be more widely known? Which one do you think is instead ready for retirement?

BDG: Emotion science is a peculiar field. On the one hand, the research methodology has dramatically changed over the last 50 years, many would say even over the last 10 years, because of most impressive technological developments and revolutionary methods they sustain. On the other hand, one does get he impression that decade after decade, again and again the same questions are raised and the same answers are debated in very much the same way. Somehow researchers cannot let go of the classical framework in which questions about emotions are raised. And this is very much a standard mentalist framework in which emotions are defined by the intersection between subjective experience, introspection, action, intention, belief, consciousness, agency, free will.

 What keeps this mixture together is of course language. Language is the most potent of all illusionists, forever reinforcing the notion that what we can talk about exists out there. This is what perpetuates the debate on basic emotions. Emotion science does not manage to put this illusion aside and forever goes on a treasure hunt searching with every new technology that comes around, for the objective markers of emotions in the brain. So, it is not just one concept that is ready for retirement, or one that we need more or less of, it is a whole vista.

People who reject the notion of basic emotions just as those constructing a more complex (multistage, multilevel) link between brain reality of motivational-affective states of the organism and common sense/everyday basic emotion language still continue to define their position by reference to that framework. And as a consequence many philosophers work on solutions that would somehow provide a bridge between the scientific findings (no evidence for basic emotions vs. evidence for basic emotions) and phenomenal reality. That leads us to the schizophrenic picture of on the one hand traditional behaviorism (human and animal) and on the other, a traditional picture of human mental live, with not much else that a big question mark linking the two. And right into the kind of compromise solution offered by higher order theories.

Tuesday 3 October 2017

PERFECT Year 4: Lisa

In this post, I offer my take on what the project has achieved in the last year and tell you about my plans for the next twelve months. On the next four Tuesdays the rest of the team will do the same.

The team

PERFECT has been incredibly active and at the top of its capacity in the past year, with three post-docs and two PhD students all working full time. Andrea Polonioli (picture below), who is leaving the project, continued Ema Sullivan-Bissett's work on belief, and focused on biased cognition and confabulation, examining also some interesting methodological issues that apply to philosophical investigation. He also worked really hard on improving the blog and our social media presence.

Magdalena Antrobus (picture below), who is also leaving the project, completed her PhD dissertation on the psychological and epistemic benefits of depression. As well as preparing several articles for publication on her own research, she co-authored with me a paper on depressive delusions.


We are extremely grateful to Andrea and Magdalena for their work on the project and hope they will continue to be involved in our activities as much as their new busy schedules will allow them to do. A special thanks goes to Magdalena for designing our beautiful project logo: