Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul

Today's post is by Eva Jablonka (right) and Simona Ginzburg (left). 

Ginsburg is a neurobiologist who retired from the Open University of Israel, where she headed the MA Program in Biological Thought. Her recent work focuses on the evolution of early nervous systems and the evolutionary transitions to consciousness in the animal world.

In this post they introduce their new book, The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2019).

The gap between third-person, scientific, publically shared investigations, such as the neuroscience of echolocation, and first-person subjective experiencing such as echolocation-based subjective perception, has been described as an explanatory gap. Although one may know about echolocation, one does not know what it is like to perceive the world through echolocation. It is commonly argued that the explanation of the subjective feel of echolocation through the third person science of echolocation is a “hard problem”, intractable by science as we know it.

We challenge this assumption. We believe that in theory, one can, through third-person scientific investigations, attain a deep understanding of the biological dynamics of perception through echolocation (for example), which can allow one to implement it in one’s brain by using sophisticated cognitive technologies, and experience what it is like. But how can one get to this deep, bridging, understanding? In our book, The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul, we try to uncover the biological nature of experiencing by using an evolutionary approach. We suggest that the nature of consciousness, like the nature of life, can be revealed by studying its evolutionary origins.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Goodbye PERFECT (Michael and Valeria)

A month from the end of project PERFECT, Michael Larkin (Co-Investigator) and Valeria Motta (Doctoral Research Fellow) reflect on what the project meant for them.

One helpful way to think about being involved in a project as expansive as PERFECT is to reflect on where it is sending you next. In this post, we discuss some of the things they have learned from our interdisciplinary work together.

Michael Larkin

Michael: One of the most interesting aspects of PERFECT for me has arisen from the opportunity to work with you on your PhD. It’s going to be a really innovative combination of philosophical argument and phenomenological-psychological investigation. I’m aware that – coming into it – you were already very well-read on the phenomenological philosophy. I’m curious to know what has struck you most about getting to grips with qualitative methods in psychology?

Valeria Motta

Valeria: Thank you Michael. It was very interesting for me working with you too. I was surprised to find a variety of approaches within qualitative methods. And it was interesting to think about the epistemological implications of these different approaches. I am specifically referring to the difference between discursive and experiential qualitative methods. The discursive method focuses on the linguistic resources and conversational features that participants use to give accounts of their experience. The experiential method (such as IPA) aims to understand the connection between embodied experience, talk about the experience and a participant’s making sense and emotional reaction to that experience. 

From a philosophical perspective this is interesting. It talks about the relationship between language and experience. As I read it, an important difference between these methods is the role of language. For the experiential method, language is more than what we employ to describe an experience. It is a constitutive part of it. In other words, the experiential method is making ontological claims about the very nature of our experience: that it is embodied, that it involves emotions and the use of language. This is not so clearly the case for a discursive method. And here I wonder whether, in the discursive method, the linguistic resources are regarded solely as ways of expressing an experience or as constitutive parts of the experience.

M: Right – these are the two most well-established epistemological positions in qualitative psychology, so it helps to orient yourself if you can get a feel for them. I’m not sure the distinctions play out quite the same in other disciplinary domains. I think a discourse analyst would want to pick up on your last point too. They might be interested in ‘experience,’ but I think they’d say that they were interested in how ‘experience’ is constructed – through talk and action – and how it might act as a socially-meaningful form of knowledge. So there is a relationship to ‘experience-as-topic’ there, but it’s quite distinct from the phenomenological one. And they might add that a particular kind of authority or expertise is invoked when people talk about ‘their experience’ of something – which is where Lisa’s work on narrative seems to be headed as well. I think both the experiential and discursive approaches are interested in sense-making though – it’s just that they focus on different contexts and dimensions of this.

V: I guess what I was thinking is that when a methodology proposes to study talk and action (all external manifestations), one could say that the implications of this are that the psyche can be perceived directly via its external expressions (language, culture, history). This is liberating as well as problematic. We rid ourselves from having to presuppose the existence of mental representations. But, at the same time, we could argue that what this method investigates is what is historically built. In other words, narratives may tell us more about a group than about individual experiences. Perhaps this serves as a good ‘way into’ individual experiences.

But you mentioned that both approaches are interested in sense-making. What qualitative methods refer to when they talk about sense making was another crucial thing for me understand and I thought it is used quite distinctively in methods such as IPA. We read that IPA researchers analyze what participants say in order to learn about how they make sense of their experience. I remember asking you to clarify sense making for me in this context.

M: Yes, that phrase is doing quite a lot of work. It’s also used interchangeably with meaning-making, and we’ll have to defer for another time a discussion about whether sense and meaning are the same thing! A lot of what’s implied by the phrase is related to its historical role in clearing a space for a different kind of psychology. Jerome Bruner’s work – particularly Acts of Meaning - was very important for qualitative psychology. It set out the possibility of a variant of psychology which was less interested in the causes of behaviour, or the intrinsic qualities shared by ‘types’ of people, and more interested in the meaning of behaviour, or how we make sense of our relationships to self and others.

Effectively, this kind of work is asking, ‘How do people make sense of the world?’ A lot of the initial progress was made on the discursive front, and so there the focus was on linguistic, social and cultural aspects of meaning. It employed the idea that meaning is a resource (in the form of say a discourse, or narrative) that is ‘out there’ in the world, available to us, but also working upon us. That in turn opens out a relationship between meaning and power (how do power relationships affect the meanings that we can claim for ourselves in different contexts?), and another between meaning and embodiment (how do we make sense of how we feel?), and another between meaning and experience (how do we make sense of what has happened to us?).

Each of these loosely reflects a different subset of epistemological and methodological interests, but a couple of concerns are cross-cutting – one is context and the other is the idea that meaning or sense-making is an active, effortful human endeavour. In IPA, we’re asking, ‘How does this person in this context, make sense of this experience?’ – and then across cases, we’re doing analysis to identify patterns of meaning in those accounts. That’s what a theme is: a pattern of meaning, a way of capturing people’s relationship to something of significance in their world. The focus of those patterns can vary, though, in terms of the degree of abstraction that analysts might aim for.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Goodbye PERFECT (Sophie)

Here is the second post in our series reflecting on the end of project PERFECT, this week from postdoc Sophie Stammers.

Whilst we’ve all focused on something slightly different, PERFECT researchers were united in using philosophical and psychological tools to dismantle the assumptions that give rise to mental health stigma, and to change the narrative on what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cognition.

A big focus of my work on the project has been the issue of confabulation. We confabulate when we give an account of an event or an action that is not grounded in evidence, but which is given sincerely. Originally, researchers were interested in confabulation as it arose in cases of mental distress or cognitive disfunction, but it turns out that confabulation arises commonly and frequently in all of us, from explanations of mundane consumer choices, to accounting for our moral and political beliefs.

Maybe you’ll have been engaged in an explanation of an event, or an experience you’ve had, or something you did, and looked back to realise that you might have said something as part of the account that wasn’t strictly true. Perhaps, wrapped up in entertaining your audience, you added some details to embellish the story, and only later realised that something you said didn’t really happen. We don’t always recognise when we’ve done this (in fact, frequently we don’t!), and whilst there’s a sense in which it’s obviously bad to tell each other things which are false, we don’t think that assessment is the whole story.

As part of the project’s focus on confabulation, Lisa and I guest-edited a special issue of Topoi dedicated to new philosophical perspectives on confabulation (you can read blog posts on the papers in the issue here). Whilst recognising confabulation’s drawbacks, I think it has some important benefits because it allows us to imbue our explanations with the themes that resonate with our picture of ourselves (and that we want our friends have of us) which leads to important social and psychological advantages.

I’ve also continued my work on implicit bias, in which we can judge and act disfavourably toward members of marginalised groups even though we consider ourselves to be egalitarians. I have written about the metaphysics of the underlying cognitions, the issues surrounding their erasure through future technological means, and their epistemic benefits (better understanding of social injustice). I got to talk about some of this research on a BBC Radio 4 Analysis special and in a related BBC news article.

What has felt like some of the most important work I’ve done whilst here is my Philosophy of Mind workshop series, which incorporates research by all PERFECT team members, and was developed in partnership with Mind in Camden. The workshop series introduces participants to the philosophical tools which enable us to challenge mental health stigma. It gives participants an opportunity to reconstruct models of mental health that better support and include both insights from lived experience, and research findings showing how all brains use various tricks and shortcuts (some of which play a key role in supporting agency), regardless of whether we routinely experience mental distress.

I’m really proud of this work, and I talk in more depth about it in this summary on the blog, this interview on the Daily Nous, and on its relevance to meeting the challenge from epistemic injustice in this post with Lisa for Mental Elf.

I’ve felt honoured to have been able to learn from the participant perspective; firstly through co-production of a research paper written with a participant and expert-by-experience (under review); and through this wonderful podcast created by Bonny Astor from Mind in Camden (herself a workshop participant turned facilitator, who ran an adapted series of philosophy workshops for Pentonville Prison!) which features three other participants who discuss the merits of doing philosophy together.

I’ve run the workshop series in various formats with people with lived experience of mental distress and who have unusual experiences and beliefs; mental health professionals; and mental health advocates and campaigners; and have used materials developed there to run one off workshops and CPD training days with at medical institutions and NHS trusts. I’m still running iterations of the workshop series and training days, so get in touch if you’d like to know more.

On behalf of the rest of the PERFECT team it is my very great pleasure to thank everyone who’s been involved in the project in some way: our advisory board, our network members, our collaborators within academia and beyond, and you, of course, our dear readers! And whilst we’re turning the office lights off for now, the Imperfect Cognitions blog lives on - we just made too many interesting connections to stop sharing summaries of new research, books and conferences, so see you back here on Tuesdays!

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Phenomenology of Health and Relationships

Today's post is by Michael Larkin and William Day (both at the University of Aston). They are reporting on the Phenomenology of Health and Relationships conference, which was sponsored by project PERFECT and held at the University of Aston on 22-23 May 2019.

We're both participants in the Phenomenology of Health and Relationships group at Aston University. In planning our inaugural conference, the group initially considered a narrower focus on Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). There is a regular (more-or-less annual) IPA Conference, and we had agreed to host it. Eventually we settled on a broader theme (Creativity and Affect). IPA is one approach which many of us use in our work, but it is not the only one, and methods are not the sole focus of our meetings. When we meet as a group, we do discuss creative innovations in methodology, but we also read phenomenology, and explore studies which offer experiential insights on health and relationships. We hoped that a broader theme would open up dialogue around these cross-cutting issues and provide a space for thinking about the development of IPA, but also its relationship to philosophy and to other approaches. 

In our Call for Papers, we encouraged presenters to think about these cross-cutting issues, and also to feel free to suggest creative ways of engaging the attendees with their work. We were delighted to see, when the responses to our Call For Papers began to arrive, that there was a considerable appetite for an event like this. 

We ran our event at Fazeley Studios in Digbeth. The venue was lovely - spacious and light - and we had the good fortune to be running over two warm and bright spring days.

Zoë Boden’s invited workshop opened the event, with a morning focused on analysing image-making data in phenomological research. Zoë kicked things off by asking delegates to introduce themselves through drawings representing how they were feeling. Here's the image that Will made, as he brightened the corners of the unfolding morning of May 22nd -

During the workshop, Zoë drew upon her work exploring young peoples’ experience of psychosis, and her analytic framework (Boden, 2013; Boden & Eatough, 2014) for multi-modal analysis. Her workshop made a compelling argument for considering images as distinct residuals of subjectivity in their own right, not just as a way to elicit narrative data. After the session, the coffee break was buzzing with people enthusing about how they were going to incorporate these ideas into their next research project.

The conference’s first keynote came from Virginia Eatough whose talk developed a phenomenological perspective on affect. Virginia began with the premise that people are “existential world disclosers.” She positioned affect as a distinct layer of experience which orients ourselves towards others; a concern-ful, relational mode of involvement in the world. Virginia focused then on the power of language to make this manifest. Language is “in the world”, a practical engagement that helps us get to understanding. She develop this point through reference to an insightful analysis: ‘“It’s like having an evil twin”: the lifeworld of a person with Parkinson’s disease’ (Eatough & Shaw, 2019). In this case study, ‘Barbara’ - 61 years old and living with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease for four years – reflects on ‘losing her grip.’ The multiple meanings of ‘grip’ employed by Barbara, and expanded through Virginia’s analysis, illuminated the complex relationship between the loss of physical grip and encroaching psychological uncertainty.

Virginia Eatough

In the afternoon that followed, we had parallel sessions with fascinating papers on aspects of spiritual experience (David Wilde), parenting and health (Kristina Newman, Kat Slade, Lydia Aston) and coping with ongoing ill-being (Joanna Farr, Collette Beecher). Refreshed insights into the connections between method (from the morning), concepts (from the keynote) and research practice (in the afternoon papers) were already coming to the surface of our conversations in between the sessions.

In the call for papers, we had strongly encouraged submissions from presenters who wished to do something a little unusual with the format. We were fortunate enough to be able to end the first day with two really exciting and innovative examples of what conferences can do. In one session, William presented his multi-media reflections on the film “I, Daniel Blake”. He was too modest to mention it in his draft notes for this piece, of course, but this is a piece of work which foregrounds the way that the auditory and visual dimension of cultural narratives create experiential meaning for audiences. In the other session, Asztrik Kovacs and Daniel Kiss used music, song, narration and photographs to reflect on the experience of psychiatric hospitalisation in Hungary. The piece drew on family experience, archival images, and reflections on field research, and it was woven together into a single, unbroken flow of performance. This was a highlight of the conference for many of us, who loved the way that it evoked the intensity of connections that can still persist between people even when they are separated by time, place and experience.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Glenside: Mental Health Museum

There’s a lovely little church in Blackberry Hill, Bristol, nestled in the grounds of what was once the old psychiatric hospital. Step inside, and you’ll find a curious assemblage of artefacts, writings, recordings, drawings, and sculptures, telling the stories of the many mental health patients and practitioners of Bristol’s past. Welcome to Glenside Hospital Museum, which I’ll tell you a bit about now, before encouraging you to take a look for yourself if you’re ever over that way. (In terms of the content, I do discuss patient accounts of treatments, some that are quite upsetting.)

At the start of the exhibition, we see the shift from dominant attitudes in 1600s Britain of seeing mental illness and distress as a punishment from the Christian god, or a mark of demonic possession, to the idea that the afflicted are sufferers for whom there might be a cure, and the birth of modern psychiatry as a medical field in the 1800s. You can peruse a detailed timeline developed by the museum’s volunteer researchers, chronicling treatments, philosophical theories of mental health, significant public events, and the attitudes of those in power across the ages.

The museum has quite an array of historical artefacts: anatomical models for teaching, such as the brain of wound cotton; old medicine bottles and records of treatment advice (for instance, for preventing a faint, you would once have been advised to imbibe a ‘tot’ of brandy – this author does not endorse this advice, not least because I am rather uncertain as to how many millimetres are in a ‘tot’… is it at the patient’s discretion?); early ECC scanners and ECT machines, as well as something called a ‘violet ray’, a device used to administer high frequency, low current blasts of electricity to the body, which was used in effort to relieve various symptoms of mental disquiet as well as physical ailments such as asthma…though it’s not clear that it was very successful…

I was particularly moved by the emphasis on the experiences of the individuals involved in the hospital over the years. I listened to a clip from a sound archive in which Mary Cox, a medical secretary in the 1970s, had no choice but to take her sick dog to work one day – the patients so enjoyed petting and spending time with the dog (which he enjoyed as well!) that he became a regular visitor. 

In an excerpt from the museum’s oral archive, Clive tells his story about undergoing a leucotomy (also known as a lobotomy, a barbaric procedure in which parts of the brain are physically destroyed) in the 1960s: “It was a horrible time for me because I couldn’t do anything after that operation. I had to learn how to do things all over again and I was ill for a long time.” Clive discussed how he didn’t blame his parents, who signed off on the procedure, as well as how he wished to meet others who had had the same operation to try to reach a better understanding of his experiences. We don’t know if that wish was ever granted.

I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of drawings by Denis Reed, former artist, lecturer, and patient of Bristol Mental Hospital in the 1950s. His sketches show a series of lively interactions, the savouring of cigarettes – an important currency for patients, as well as the listlessness of other aspects of life on the men’s ward.

Currently, you can also see “We Had Names: patients of The Bristol Lunatic Asylum” an exhibition by contemporary artist Anwyl Cooper-Willis. Among my favourite pieces was the wall of sketches of individuals, based on 1890s admission photographs, and drawn on ECG paper.

Glenside Hospital Museum is free to visit (a £2 donation is suggested), has full disabled access, and is open at 10am – 12:30pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You can find more access info here.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Goodbye PERFECT (Lisa)


This is a post in a series where we are reflecting on the end of project PERFECT, offer an overview of our activities, and look at the future!

So it's me first.


Yesterday the project officially ended, after five intense and wonderful years. We did achieve the goals that we set for ourselves, investigating what we call the epistemic innocence of beliefs that are irrational and often false. Epistemic innocence is the capacity some beliefs have to support epistemic agency despite their obvious epistemic costs. In other words, it is good for us to have those beliefs in some respects, even if the beliefs themselves are not well-supported by, or responsive to, evidence.

Our main focus was on those belief-like states that can be at the same time common in the non-clinical population and symptomatic of mental health issues: delusional beliefs, distorted memory beliefs, and confabulatory explanations.

Indeed, we investigated these three cases in some depth, Ema Sullivan-Bissett and Andrea Polonioli focusing on delusion and belief, Kathy Puddifoot on memory, and Sophie Stammers on confabulation. However, we significantly extended the number of cases to investigate, covering also those beliefs that seem to be due to implicit bias (thanks to Kathy's and Sophie's interest and strong background in the topic) and those that are produced as a result of optimism bias (Anneli Jefferson was instrumental here). We also connected epistemic innocence to the literature on the ethics of belief and epistemic normativity (thanks to Ema) and to traditional issues concerning rationality and good reasoning (thanks to Andrea).

The project developed in other, unexpected, ways with a thread of research on complex emotions that can be to some extent epistemically innocent (such as loneliness and boredom). We also reflected on the role of personal relationships and social context in the formation of those beliefs and the manifestation of those emotions that have been the object of our study. In this aspect of the project, Michael Larkin was a pivotal influence, conceptually and methodologically, and made a substantial contribution to the training of our shining PhD students, Magdalena Antrobus and Valeria Motta.

We hosted three academic workshops, in 2016, 2017, and 2018 and published extensively, within the core team and in collaboration with network members too. We guest-edited two special issues of well-established philosophy journals (an issue of Philosophical Explorations on False but Useful Beliefs and an issue of Topoi on Philosophical Perspectives on Confabulation), and secured open access for all the original contributions gathered in those issues. We also published an open access book, Delusions in Context, and prepared a monograph, aptly called Epistemic Innocence, which is in press.

Outreach and impact activities

Investigating all the interesting issues above, we wanted to be able to disseminate our results as widely as possible, which was consistent with our aim of undermining mental health stigma by promoting an understanding of the human mind according to which mental health and mental illness are continuous.

We used this blog as a platform and we organised six events as part of the Arts and Science Festival, with topics ranging from domestic violence to hallucinations, from the role of imagination in recovery to self-management of mood changes in bipolar experiences. We stepped out of our comfort zone very frequently, organising art exhibitions, hosting film screenings, and getting children to play with emotions lego... It was all great fun!

Sophie will talk about her experience with creating a pop-up philosophy group and engaging mental health service users, service providers, carers, and campaigners in project PERFECT's work. Here I will just take the opportunity to thank Akiko Hart and Bonny Astor at Mind in Camden, Antonis Kousoulis and Jolie Goodman at the Mental Health Foundation, and our friends at SureSearch for invaluable support throughout the project. We know it is not easy to work with academics...

So did we make an impact? Probably too early to say! We did spread the word, on radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, blogs, posters, and in schools, theatres, festivals, museums. The result is a long list of accessible resources you can browse on the PERFECT website.

The Future

Well, PERFECT people will keep in touch and keep collaborating! Our blog will continue with one new post a week and will bring you updates on project developments. And we will all start new projects. Mine is on stories.

Don't forget us!

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Ethics and the Contemporary World

Today's post is by David Edmonds, presenter and producer at the BBC, host of The Big Idea, author of many books, including Would You Kill the Fat Man? and (with John Eidinow) Wittgenstein’s Poker. David is also a senior research associate at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle. In this post he introduces his new book, Ethics and the Contemporary World.

I was rummaging through my attic last week when I came across some notes and essays I’d written as an undergraduate and graduate studying ethics in the 1980s.

What surprised me – apart from the clunky prose and the no-nonsense typeface produced by my clunky dot-matrix printer – was the narrowness of subject range. There was a lot, for example, on abortion. It’s easy to forget that abortion was only legalized in Britain in 1967 and the key Supreme Court ruling in the US, Roe v Wade, was in 1973. Then there was capital punishment – the death penalty had only been abolished in Northern Ireland in 1973.

It’s not that all these issues are now irrelevant: capital punishment plays no serious role in current British political debate, but the issue of abortion remains a hugely divisive one in parts of the world, including the US. However, the philosophical terrain of applied ethics today is far less narrow than it was three decades ago.

Take some of the topics discussed in a book I’ve recently edited, Ethics and the Contemporary World (Routledge). The book includes a section on the environment and one chapter on whether we should use drastic technical fixes – climate engineering – to tackle our current climate crisis. Back in the 1980s global warming was not widely debated and few philosophers had the foresight to address it.

Ethics and the Contemporary World devotes a whole section to social media – Rebecca Roache writes about Facebook and friendship, Carissa Valiz about the internet and privacy and Neil Levy about Fake News. I finished the BPhil at Oxford in 1988 five years before pinging off my first email.

Another section in the book is entitled Science and Technology. The first IVF baby was born in 1978, but if Dolly the Sheep – the first cloned mammal – were alive today, she would still only be 23. The pace of change in the genetic revolution continues to accelerate – generating a constant stream of fresh moral predicaments.

Then there’s robots and AI? The issues raised by autonomous machines and artificial intelligence are brilliantly mapped out in the book by John Tasioulas. One category of problem, for example, is whether autonomous machines will possess rights and responsibilities. Another is what threats they pose to our interests and values. At least here the old and the new conjoin. The much derided trolley problem – a staple of 1980s academic ethical debate – has made a comeback, in part because of dilemmas thrown up by driverless cars and autonomous weapons.

Several changes in the world since the 1980s – AI and climate change for example – pose an existential threat to humanity. Even if humanity is still more or less intact in three decades, I won’t be one of those writing about the contemporary ethical issues of the 2050s. Still, it’s really not that far away, and I do think we – we philosophers - should be spending more time trying to reflect on what they will be.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Philosophy, Bias, and Stigma

In this post, I summarise a paper I recently wrote with Kathy Puddifoot (University of Durham), which appears open access in an excellent new book, entitled 'Why Philosophy?' and edited by Diego Bubbio and Jeff Malpas.

Kathy Puddifoot

Philosophical research impacts on our understanding of the world. We argue that empirically informed philosophy can help us both reduce and control the effects of implicit bias on our behaviour, and challenge the stigma associated with the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders. In both cases, knowledge of philosophy and practice of philosophy make a significant contribution to the development of a fairer society.

Implicit bias

Implicit biases are responses to members of social groups (e.g., races, religions, gender, ability groups), associating members with traits in virtue of their social group membership. Biases may occur unintentionally, seemingly without the believer being aware of their occurrence, and are difficult to control. They can lead to the differential treatment of group members.

There is an interesting philosophical debate as to whether implicit biases are: 

(1) associations that people make in their thinking and that can only be changed via retraining (Jerry associates women with physical weakness and dislikes Jenny on that basis); or

(2) belief-like mental states that can be changed via the presentation of evidence (Jerry believes that women are physically weak, assumes that Jenny is also weak, and dislikes her for that).

This discussion is not merely theoretically interesting but it matters to how we go about combatting implicit bias. If we find that implicit biases are associations, we may invest our resources in retraining people's habits. If we find that implicit biases are beliefs, then we can aim to combat them via argumentation and evidence.

Mental health stigma

Stigma is very persistent in the area of mental health, and there is a pervasive “them and us” attitude dividing people who experience mental health issues from people who do not.

Philosophy can help address stigma by showing that there is no sharp divide (but rather significant continuity) between being mentally well and being mentally unwell. Distress can manifest in a variety of ways, ranging from debilitating diseases affecting good functioning for several years, to temporary forms of anxiety or depression that have no long-term consequences for the person's wellbeing.

Lisa Bortolotti

In our own research, we have investigated those reports that are often regarded as marks of irrationality and as symptoms of a mental disorder, such as implausible delusional beliefs and distorted autobiographical memories. Although such reports can emerge in the context of psychiatric conditions, they are not confined to them, and can affect everybody. 

Research suggests that people routinely ignore evidence when it does not lend support to their often-inflated views of themselves, that they reinterpret memories of failure and overestimate future chances of success, and that they see the past as coloured by their current beliefs and values.

The emphasis on continuity can shape our attitudes towards people who experience mental health struggles and also informs the breadth of treatment options available to them.


Philosophical discussions can contribute to developing practical solutions to the problems raised by implicit bias and the mental health stigma. Philosophy therefore has the potential to fundamentally change interpersonal interactions so that they are no longer underwritten by bias, stigma, and prejudice, which distort judgments and lead to unfair treatment.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Why Philosophy?

This post is by Diego Bubbio (Western Sydney University) presenting a new book, Why Philosophy, co-edited with Jeff Malpas. The book also features a chapter by Kathy Puddifoot and myself on the themes of project PERFECT. We will blog about that next Tuesday!

Nowadays, very few people seem to care about philosophy. Why should we devote resources, and especially financial resources, to research in philosophy? Even more fundamentally – do we really need philosophy? In short – why philosophy?

The present collection of popular essays aims at answering this question – or better, at providing a series of answers. The essays of the book address, each from a different angle, the question of why philosophy matters. As we aim at engaging the intelligent but non-specialist reader, the essays are written in a ‘popular’ (jargon-free) rather than in ‘scholarly’ style. All the contributors have been carefully selected not only because of their excellent academic profiles, but also, and even more importantly, because of their ability to address the topic in a rigorous and yet challenging and entertaining way.

Each essay considers the central question (‘Why Philosophy?’) from different angles: the unavoidability of doing philosophy, the practical consequences of philosophy, philosophy as a therapy for the whole person, the benefits of philosophical analysis for improving public policy, and so on.owadays, very few people seem to care about philosophy. Why should we devote resources, and especially financial resources, to research in philosophy? Even more fundamentally – do we really need philosophy? In short – why philosophy?

The present collection of popular essays aims at answering this question – or better, at providing a series of answers. The essays of the book address, each from a different angle, the question of why philosophy matters. As we aim at engaging the intelligent but non-specialist reader, the essays are written in a ‘popular’ (jargon-free) rather than in ‘scholarly’ style. All the contributors have been carefully selected not only because of their excellent academic profiles, but also, and even more importantly, because of their ability to address the topic in a rigorous and yet challenging and entertaining way.

Each essay considers the central question (‘Why Philosophy?’) from different angles: the unavoidability of doing philosophy, the practical consequences of philosophy, philosophy as a therapy for the whole person, the benefits of philosophical analysis for improving public policy, and so on.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Stereotyping Patients

Today’s post is provided by Katherine PuddifootAssistant Professor of Philosophy, Durham University. Here, she introduces her article, "Stereotyping Patients", that has recently appeared in the Journal of Social Philosophy.

Should healthcare professionals respond to the social group status of their patients, automatically associating patients of particular social groups (e.g. certain races, religions, social classes) more strongly than they automatically associate patients of other social groups with certain concepts, traits and characteristics? In other words, should healthcare professionals be influenced in their clinical judgement and decision making by automatically activated stereotypes or implicit biases?

This can produce unethical outcomes (Matthew 2018). Where healthcare professionals associate members of some social groups with certain traits, for example uncooperativeness, this can lead to group members receiving poorer quality treatment. However, the association of social groups with characteristics can facilitate higher quality decision-making in the medical context.

If, for example, a medical condition is more prevalent in one social group than another, associating members of the social group more strongly than others with features associated with the medical condition can increase the chance of a correct diagnosis being made.

Healthcare professionals therefore appear to face a dilemma between achieving ethical goals of fair treatment and epistemic goals of making correct diagnoses and treatment decisions. (This outcome is fitting with recent arguments in philosophy about the impact of implicit biases in other contexts: that they seem to lead people to face an ethical-epistemic dilemma. See for example Gendler 2011.)

In my paper, however, I argue that it is misleading to portray healthcare professionals as facing a dilemma of this sort. I argue that healthcare professionals can often achieve their ethical and epistemic goals in the same way, eitherby responding to or failing to respond differentially to patients due to their social group status. However, I argue, they nonetheless face a serious difficulty: the difficulty of deciphering which response is best within a particular context.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Philosophical Posthumanism

Today's post is by Francesca Ferrando. She is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy at NYU-Liberal Studies, New York University. A leading voice in the field of Posthuman Studies and founder of the NY Posthuman Research Group, she has been the recipient of the Sainati prize with the Acknowledgment of the President of Italy. She was the first speaker to give a TED talk on the topic of the posthuman. US magazine "Origins" named her among the 100 people making change in the world. 

She is introducing here her new book Philosophical Posthumanism (Bloomsbury). 

We are no longer “human”. We live in a time of radical bio-technological developments, where human enhancement, designer babies and sentient AI are the next frontiers. We live in the era of the Anthropocene and of the sixth mass extinction of species caused, directly and indirecly, by human action. In light of the political and environmental imperatives of our age, the term 'posthuman' provides an alternative by addressing humanity not by itself, but in relation to technology and ecology.

The philosophical landscape which has developed as a response to the crisis of the human, includes several movements, such as: Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, New Materialism and Object Oriented Ontology. This rich variety of voices is very exciting and it shows that Posthumanism is the philosophy of our time; and still, it can be daunting and confusing. 

This book, written as questions and answers to facilitate the readers, offers a clear navigational tool to understand the similarities and differences between all these currents. Furthermore, it develops the reflection on Philosophical Posthumanism in detailed ways, from ethics to politics, from epistemology to ontology, emerging in the global call for social change, responsible science and multispecies coexistence. This book explains why the notion of 'the human' in the 21stcentury is in need of urgent redefinition and why we, as a species, have always been posthuman.

More information about Francesca's work can be found here. If you are interested in her book, you can receive a 35% discount ordering online and entering the code POST19 on the first page at checkout.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Is the Capgras Delusion an Endorsement of Experience?

This post is by Federico Bongiorno, a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham working primarily in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Earlier this year, he was a visiting research fellow at Yale University. Here he offers an overview of his paper ‘Is the Capgras delusion an endorsement of experience?' which was recently published in Mind & Language.

The Capgras delusion is a condition in which a person believes that a loved one has been replaced by an identical or near-identical other (this can take a variety of forms, such as an imposter, clone, alien, robot, etc.). A more careful definition would specify two propositions that the person believes (Aimola-Davies & Davies, 2009): the proposition that someone is not a certain known individual (e.g., this man is not my father), and the proposition that someone has replaced a certain known individual (e.g., this is a replacer of my father). I name the content of the former proposition misidentification and the latter replacement.

One popular idea within the background of cognitive neuropsychiatry is that the Capgras delusion is grounded in an irregular experience, whereby a person sees a familiar face but lacks the characteristic affective response (Ellis & Young, 1990; Stone & Young, 1997). The problem, then, is to clarify the specific role played by the experience in originating the delusional content. An influential approach to the problem is the endorsement model which claims that the experience encodes the content of the delusion. As such, all that it suffices to lead from the experience to the delusion is that the subject accepts her experience as veridical (Pacherie, Green, & Bayne, 2005; Pacherie, 2009).

Endorsement theorists take the irregular experience to be a perceptual state, where the content amounts to misidentification or replacement. There are a number of problems with this, which I discuss in the paper. Here, I mention one: it is unclear whether the experience can encode the sort of contents that the model says it does. I call this the experiential encoding problem (following Langdon & Bayne, 2010).

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Phenomenology and Qualitative Health Research

The Phenomenology and Mental Health Network organized a workshop last June 20th at the Collaborating Centre for Values-based Practice in Health and Social Care at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford. The theme was Phenomenology and Qualitative Health Research.

The aim of the workshop was to explore different ways in which philosophical phenomenology is applied in qualitative research and address issues that arise from the increasingly collaborative nature of these fields. The organizers were Anthony Fernandez, Marcin Moskalewicz and Dan Zahavi. I was very glad to be included among the speakers and have the chance to present some of my work. This report includes a detailed summary of everyone’s talks. I thank everyone for sharing their notes to make this report.

The first talk was Applied Phenomenology by Dan Zahavi, professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Subjectivity Research (University of Copenhaghen and University of Oxford) Zahavi addressed some fundamental questions that arise from the influence that phenomenological philosophy has had on empirical science: 
  • How is phenomenology best applied in non-philosophical contexts? 
  • What are the conditions for qualitative research to qualify as phenomenological? 
  • Is it sufficient to simply consider the first-person perspective of the informant? 
  • Should research employ interpretation or remain mainly descriptive? 
  • Should it investigate essential structures or focus on the particularity of individuals? 

Zahavi mainly addressed Max van Manen’s work but he also reviewed some common assumptions and made some recommendations.

The common assumption in van Manen’s work (and in applied phenomenology in general) is that because we have beliefs, biases and other presuppositions that structure our view and impede our access to the things themselves, if we want access to the things themselves, it is necessary to bracket such theoretical presuppositions and prejudices (and perform the epoché). 

But Zahavi argued that this view is mistaken. In early works of phenomenology (such as in Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology in Logical Investigations or in Reinach’s 1914 lecture What is Phenomenology?) we find discussions of the return to the things themselves and detailed descriptions of experience without there being any reference to the reduction or the epoché.

Zahavi recommended that there are several other features of philosophical phenomenology that are more relevant to the qualitative researcher than the epoché and the reduction. Phenomenological tools can be employed in a way that can allow new insights and create better therapeutic interventions and this is does not necessarily need to be achieved by following a rigorous method. One of the possible ways to achieve this could be, for instance, by developing a toolbox.

Lastly, Zahavi suggested that van Manen’s book Phenomenology of Practice offers a presentation of the phenomenological method that is problematic. One of the reasons for this is that when it comes to characterizing phenomenological research, van Manen presents conflicting views. 

For instance, in some occasions van Manen proposes that phenomenology is a philosophy with an interest in the particular, and in others that phenomenology should aim to capture essential aspects of the lived experience. Conflicting statements of the sort together with an insufficient guidance for the clear use of terms such as pre-reflective self-awareness, lifeworld or intentionality, are likely to make it a complex endeavour for researchers who are not professional philosophers to apply the method in their practice.


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Minds, Mental Disorders and Processes

This post is by Elly Vintiadis, a philosopher based at the American College of Greece and interested in metaphysics and philosophy of mind.

In most discussions about the mind and mental disorders the metaphysical framework within which they take place is rarely questioned. It is however, important to check our metaphysical beliefs--including our beliefs about what the world is made up of--because whether they are held consciously or not, they affect the way we understand the world and how we approach it scientifically. 

For this reason, in my recent work I explore what seeing the world--and biological organisms in particular--within a metaphysical framework that puts at its centre the notion of a process can add to our understanding of the mind and its disorders. I contend that seeing the world as fundamentally ‘processual’ in nature rather than in terms of substances and things, provides the best explanation of what we know about the mind and mental disorders. In addition, pragmatically it opens up the way for better treatment and prevention options. 

Traditional metaphysics has seen the world as made up of things that are in turn made up of smaller things--and so on all the way down. In contrast, according to process metaphysics the world is made up of processes that can be understood as occurrences that take place in time and that essentially involve change. That is, the world is made up of a hierarchy of intertwining processes that exist at different time scales--and whatever stability we experience in the world is the result of processes in dynamic interaction. 

Viewing brains and minds within a processual framework--and therefore as dynamic and physically, socially and historically situated- can not only make better sense of the plasticity and complexity of our brains but also allows us to give pivotal importance to the self-organization - through constant feedback and feed forward loops with their environment--of the brain and the mind.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

The Biopsychosocial Model of Health and Disease

Today's post is by Derek Bolton. He is Professor of Philosophy and Psychopathology at King’s College London. His latest book co-authored with Grant Gillett is The Biopsychosocial Model of Health and Disease: Philosophical and Scientific Developments (Springer Palgrave, 2019, Open Access).

Imagine how odd this would be: You or the family were attending clinic (say neurology, orthopedic, pediatric or psychiatric), enquired about causes and cures, and the reply referred to complexity and the Biopsychosocial Model. You go home and look this up, and happen upon criticism by many authoritative commentators to the effect that the Biopsychosocial Model, popular though it is, is scientifically, clinically, and philosophically useless. This is actually where we are and this is the problem we diagnose and address in our book.

We propose a formulation of the problem along the following lines: The 1960s and ‘70s saw the beginnings of systems theory approaches in biology, in principle extendable to psychological and social phenomena. George Engel was among those who saw quickly the relevance to health and disease. Especially that the exclusively biological focus of biomedicine could and should be expanded to include psychosocial factors in a new biopsychosocial medicine/healthcare. Since that time, evidence has accumulated from a wide range of epidemiological and clinical studies suggesting the involvement of psychosocial factors in the aetiology and course of a wide range of physical and mental health conditions. While the Biopsychosocial Model has stood ready to accommodate these findings, its ability to theorise them has not been updated since the programmatic formulations of systems theory. Especially problematic are deep scientific, philosophical assumptions about the impossibility of psychosocial causation in long traditions of dualism, physicalism and reductionism.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Should Technology Erase Biases?

Today we continue our mini series exploring issues regarding technological enhancement in learning and education, featuring papers from the Cheating Education” special issue of Educational Theory. This week, Sophie Stammers discusses her paper “Improving knowledge acquisition and dissemination through technological interventions on cognitive biases”.

When we think about the role that technology could play in enhancing cognition, much of the literature focuses on extending faculties that are already performing well, so that they perform even better. We also know that humans possess a range of cognitive biases which produce systematically distorted cognitions. Could we use technology to erase our cognitive biases? Should we?

In this paper I wanted to think about the specific threats that cognitive biases pose to learning and education, and focused on two commonly recognised types of cognitive bias in particular: 

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Ignorance and Irrationality in Politics

To what extent should citizens be informed about the issues on which they vote for democracy to function? When ideology, biases and motivational processes drive political belief formation, should voters be considered irrational? These questions and more were the focus of the Ignorance and Irrationality in Politics Workshop organised by Michael Hannon, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, and held on 10th – 11th June at the University of Nottingham. In what follows, I summarise a few of the workshop talks.

Zeynep Pamuk, Supernumerary Fellow in Politics at St. John’s, Oxford, discussed how decisions about which science projects to fund can both ameliorate and exacerbate ignorance. Zeynep explained how choices at the level of how to distribute funding and conduct research determine what we know and don’t know, through:

(i) the selection of research questions: what’s seen as worthy of pursuit is somewhat determined by a researcher’s context, background, biases, etc.

(ii) disciplinary norms. Consider the study of GMOs for instance, where the majority of early researchers were genetic engineers, and the study of impacts was confined to the cellular level – only later did environmental scientists study the broader effects and discover that some GMOs could be detrimental to seeds in other areas.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Human Memory and Technology in Education

This is the first in a mini series of posts exploring issues regarding technological enhancement in learning and education, featuring two papers that have appeared in the “Cheating Education” special issue of Educational Theory. This post is provided by Kathy Puddifoot, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Durham and Cian O’Donnell, Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Bristol. They introduce their paper "Human Memory and the Limits of Technology in Education".

Have you ever had the intuition that there are risks associated with students or teachers supplanting traditional methods of learning with the use of technologies that store and provide easy access to information, such as cloud storage, note-taking applications, open access sources like Wikipedia, or social media resources?

It can be difficult to articulate exactly what is problematic about the use of such technologies. They provide a way of storing accurate representations of information that can be easily searched, edited, copied and shared. The technologies can compensate for the limits of human memory, which is limited in terms of accuracy, storage capacity, and the ability to search and access information. 

However, the task of our paper is to articulate one specific risk associated with the use of the target technologies. We argue that the use of the technologies risks impeding one of the most important goals of education: the transference of learning.

Transference of learning occurs when information that is learnt in a certain educational context is used in another context, either inside or outside of education. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Mental Health Interventions in Schools

On 5th June, the Royal Society for Medicine hosted a workshop to explore the some of the issues - particularly the practicalities surrounding mental health interventions in schools. The event brought together medical and educational professionals and provided a forum to discuss ongoing projects supporting young people’s mental health, difficulties and potential courses of action for improvement. In the following, I summarise some of the talks.

Lord Richard Layard, Director of the Wellbeing Programme at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, discussed the idea of schools having wellbeing as an explicit goal. The next step is to have as many schools as possible measuring progress towards this goal.

Richard proposed that one way to do this is through a wellbeing code debated on by children, teachers, parents, (every 2 years) regarding how people relate to each other in classrooms, assemblies, the playground, and so on. Such a code would cover not simply anti-bulling policies, but would take a broad and deep perspective on emotions and social relations across all young people’s experiences.

He discussed how the Healthy Minds project, a four year programme for secondary schools, is working towards some of these goals – its primary outcome for participating schools being a ten percentile point improvement in life satisfaction compared to the control.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Are clinical delusions adaptive?

Eugenia Lancellotta is a PhD student in Philosophy of Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Under the supervision of Lisa Bortolotti, she works on the adaptiveness of delusions, especially outside schizophrenia spectrum disorder. In this post, she discusses her paper “Are clinical delusions adaptive?” co-authored with Lisa Bortolotti, that recently appeared in WIREs.

In popular culture, and even in part of the scientific culture, delusions are still considered as the mark of madness. It would then seem to be counterintuitive to ask whether such bizarre, irrational and often harmful beliefs can be biologically or psychologically adaptive. 

A trait or mechanism is considered to be biologically adaptive when it favours the reproductive success and survival of the organism it belongs to (Wakefield 1992). By analogy with biological adaptiveness, a trait is deemed to be psychologically adaptive when it delivers psychological benefits which support the wellbeing and good psychological functioning of a subject. How then can delusions and adaptiveness - be it biological or psychological – fit together, if they seem to be one the opposite of the other? 

In our overview article (here), we try to reconcile the terms of this apparent contradiction, showing how delusions can be both adaptive and harmful at the same time. Our thesis is that, although data show that delusions are most likely psychologically and biologically maladaptive in the long run, they might be psychologically adaptive in the short term, by delivering psychological benefits which help people cope at times of difficulty. 

Delusions are defined as fixed, irrational beliefs which are particularly resistant to counterevidence (DSM V). They span from the exotic to the common - from believing that one is the left foot of God to thinking that one is the target of an international conspiracy - and they are symptoms of a number of illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression, OCD and dementia. 

Despite their being usually defined in negative terms, by the harm and the difficulties they cause, in recent years research has suggested that delusions can also present some positive features (Bortolotti 2015; Fineberg and Corlett 2016; Mishara and Corlett 2009). 

In our article we highlight these features, weigh them up against the well-known detrimental effects of delusions, and consider if the benefits exceed the disadvantages or vice-versa, I.e. if delusions are adaptive or maladaptive. Our conclusion is that, although delusions seem to be psychologically harmful and biologically maladaptive in the long run, in the short term their adoption can be seen as psychologically adaptive, as it delivers some psychological benefits in the face of difficulties that the subject is experiencing.

Such benefits vary depending on the type and content of the delusions, spanning from the relief from anxiety given by delusions in schizophrenia, to the restoration of intrapsychic coherence of delusions in depression and most likely in OCD, as well as to the negotiation of emotionally overwhelming circumstances found in many cases of motivated delusions. However, what all these apparently distant cases share is that delusions seem to be an (imperfect) solution to an already existing biological or psychological problem rather than the beginning of it. 

To use a popular metaphor in the literature on the topic (McKay and Dennett 2009), delusions would be similar to shear pin mechanisms. Shear pins are emergency mechanisms installed in some machines, whose function is to break in times of emergency. By breaking, the shear pin allows the machine to keep functioning, although in a less than optimal manner. Similarly, by delivering some psychological benefits, delusions would allow a subject to keep functioning (in a less than optimal manner) in times of emotional or biological struggle, preventing the complete breakdown of the emotional, epistemic or biological machinery.

Although further studies are needed to investigate the precise role of delusions, a more complex picture, which takes into account both the costs and benefits of this phenomenon, has started to emerge.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

On the Power of Imagination: Two Events

As announced, project PERFECT organised and co-hosted two public engagement events as part of the Arts and Science Festival at the University of Birmingham. Both celebrated the role of imagination and the importance of relationships in growing and healing.

Here I report on how they went!

Red Hands Film Screening

A scene from Red Hands

Director and screenwriter Francesco Filippi presented his short film in 2D and stop animation, Mani Rosse (Red Hands), to an engaged and diverse audience at the Midlands Arts Centre on 18th June. The film has been honoured with awards at film festivals worldwide and sparked lots of interest. The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring experts in youth mental health and experts with lived experience of domestic violence, one of the themes of the film.

Panel discussion: Lucy

Some of the audience's comments and questions were about how the film was made, what it was inspired by, and what some specific scenes or symbols recurring in the film meant. The development of the two leading characters (Luna and Ernesto) was also object of some discussion: we were lucky to be joined by the director and animator Francesco Filippi and Lucia Gadolini, psychologist and actor, who helped develop the characters and gave her voice to Ernesto. We learnt that Luna and Ernesto's story was inspired by two real-life stories of domestic abuse, and that the key concepts of freedom and friendship were represented not just in the plot and the dialogue but also in the choice of landscape and in Ernesto's dream sequences.

Francesco Filippi

Other comments and questions, mostly directed at the panel of experts, concerned the effects of domestic violence on mental health, and the psychological realism of the film. From our experts from experience, Lucy Wright and Gemma Hickman, we learnt that whilst the decision to leave an abusive relationship needs to be owned by the victim of abuse and nobody can 'save' them unless they are ready to leave, friendship is a very important source of support, especially for young people. 

Michael Larkin and Bonny Astor also remarked on the many layers the film has, some of which can be appreciated only after a number of viewings, and the ambiguities left in it, that is, aspects of the story of Luna and Ernesto which need to be inferred or reconstructed and are not openly revealed. Finally, they both pointed to the role of colour in the film and the power of expressing oneself, dreaming, and imagining.

Panel discussion: Michael

Participants' feedback showed a thorough engagement with the topics of the discussion. The film generated strong reactions, as was to be expected, and the audience found the opportunity to engage with the director and the experts very useful and stimulating. Many were struck by the sheer beauty of the film and some expressed disagreement with some of the director's choices. 

Here are some of the participants' comments:
  • "The film was aesthetically great and the topic and the theme was thoughtful and inspiring."
  • "I enjoyed very much the discussion about the ambiguities in the movie and the female/male roles."
  • "I have definitely deepened my understanding of domestic abuse and more or less explicit forms of violence."
Overall, as project PERFECT's first film screening, it was a success!