Tuesday 27 June 2023

The Science and Art of Dreaming

In today's blog post, Mark Blagrove and Julia Lockheart present The Science and Art of Dreaming (Routledge 2023). Mark Blagrove is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Sleep Laboratory at Swansea University. Julia Lockheart is Associate Professor at Swansea College of Art, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. They undertake public discussions and painting of dreams in the DreamsID.com science art collaboration.
Julia Lockheart

Mark had become interested in investigating the memory sources of dreams through discussing individual dreams at length with the dreamer: this utilised the free association method of Sigmund Freud in which the putative mechanisms of dream formation during the night are followed back in reverse through free associations to the dream when awake. 

This interest had resulted in studies that investigated gains of personal insight to the individual through the open-ended group discussion of dreams and their relationship to the recent waking life of the dreamer. In 2016, for the annual British Science Festival, Mark proposed holding public discussions of dreams, with a brief turn-up session for each dream sharer. He discussed this plan with artist Julia Lockhart who said that she could paint each dream as it was told and discussed, so that the dreamer would then be given an artwork which would act as a cue to future discussions of the dream with family and friends. 

In recognition of Freud’s creation of the free association method each dream was painted onto pages torn, with publisher’s permission, from Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams. However, as the collaboration developed, with events in the UK, worldwide and online, it became clear that a different effect from the dreamer obtaining personal insights was also occurring. This was an increased understanding of the dreamer and the dreamer’s life circumstances in those with whom the dream was discussed, and hence an increased empathy towards the dream sharer. This resulted in experimental studies that showed increased state empathy towards dream sharers from those with whom the dream is discussed, and a significant relationship between trait empathy and frequency of dream sharing. 

Mark Blagrove

The book describes the above development of the science art collaboration, and includes 22 dreams told to the authors and the corresponding painting for each dream. These paintings show how the dream can be returned to a visual form and the summary of each dream discussion shows how dreams can be related to the waking life experiences of the person; dreams were chosen where each had a specific relevance to the theme of a chapter. The book commences with seven chapters on the neuroscience and experimental psychology of dreams and dreaming. This includes the formation and recall of nightmares, the relationship of dream content to emotional waking life episodes, lucid dreams, and the brain basis of dreaming. 

These chapters show that dreams are not a delirium but have quantifiable relationships with waking life experiences, concerns and conceptualisations. These relationships are further evidenced by a review and rereading of Freud’s famous case study of the young woman ‘Dora’. The case study is usually related as a criticism of Freud, in that Dora was subject to sexual harassment by a male friend of her father and Freud made diagnoses that she was indeed unconsciously in love with that man. Dora only saw Freud for 11 weeks and famously ended the psychoanalysis abruptly. But in that time she told two dreams to Freud and her free associations to the dreams, the book argues, show that the dreams were poignant depictions of the harassment and stressful family circumstances that were occurring to her. To give Freud credit, he recorded the dreams and Dora’s free associations and published them, and did believe that Dora was subject to ‘persecution’ by her father’s friend. 

Given this clear meaningfulness of dreams, in that dreams can be related to the waking life circumstances of the dreamer, there have been many theories that hold that this indicates that dreaming has a function. In a chapter on theories of dreaming, the many such proposed functions are compared, for example, that in dreams we simulate physical or social threats to ourselves and practice overcoming those threats, that dreaming is the experience of memory consolidation during sleep, and may even have a role in that consolidation, and that dreams are an endogenous therapy for the reduction of fear memories, or for the processing of emotions in general from waking life. 

Although there are many such hypotheses, the null hypothesis, that dreaming has no lasting effect on the mind or brain during sleep, is favourably explored. This is the epiphenomenal view, which holds that dreams are spandrels, an architectural and evolutionary term used to describe a functionless by-product. And so, for example, the dreams of key workers told to the authors in online sessions with worldwide audiences, which show relationships of the dream content to the stressful waking life experiences of the key workers, can be seen as epiphenomenal albeit meaningful products of the brain during sleep. 

Dream of mother and daughter attacked on a Los Angeles
freeway. Painting by Julia Lockheart, DreamsID.com

In a sidestep, though, to the debate on whether dreaming has or does not have a function during sleep, the authors propose from their work on the eliciting of empathy as a result of dream sharing that dreams might have a post-sleep function of increasing empathy and bonding between people. They propose that in hominid history and in human prehistory dreams may have been more rudimentary than occurs for current human adults. This accords with Domhoff’s neurocognitive theory of dreaming, which holds that dreaming undertakes cognitive development from young children to young adults.

The authors propose that evolution may have selected for dream characteristics that elicit greater interest and empathic response from those with whom the dream is discussed. Dream content may thus have become subject to evolutionary selection on a timescale similar to the development of storytelling and group music making. They propose that dream sharing may thus have contributed to group bonding and human self-domestication, in which across human prehistory and history there has been decreased within-group aggression, inhibited emotional reactivity, and enhanced mentalising and empathy.

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Refusing the COVID-19 vaccine: What’s wrong with that?

Today's post is by Anne Meylan (University of Zurich) and Sebastian Schmidt (University of Zurich) on their recent paper, "Refusing the COVID-19 vaccine: What’s wrong with that?" (Philosophical Psychology, 2023). Anne is the director of the Zurich Epistemology Group on Rationality (ZEGRa) and Sebastian is a postdoc at ZEGRa.

Anne Meylan

This article analyses the cognitive attitudes of people who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. We argue that vaccine refusers are responsible for their belief that they should not get vaccinated and that they are rational (although mistaken) in holding this belief. We support this conclusion by building on recent philosophical theories of responsibility for belief and of the rationality of attitudes. Our conclusion has further implications for public health policy: there is a reason not to use non-argumentative means, such as mandatory vaccination or certain kinds of nudging, to make rational vaccine refusers comply with vaccination recommendations. Although this reason has significant weight, it is pro tanto and can be outweighed by the harm that is caused if a significant part of the population remains unvaccinated.

We rely on some empirical research that states the main motivations of people who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine: not being concerned about the virus because of one’s age, worries about the effectiveness of the vaccine, and distrust in epistemic authorities. This allows us to build a case of a ‘standard vaccine refuser’ who is representative of a large class of people who think that they should not be vaccinated. We describe a case of a relatively privileged individual. If we can show that this person is responsible and rational in her belief, then this allows us to conclude further that less privileged and more marginalized individuals are rational as well.

Sebastian Schmidt 

We argue first that the standard vaccine refuser is responsible for her belief, and thus in principle open to criticism or blame: her belief isn’t just delusional, but rather responsive to evidence or epistemic reasons to a sufficient degree. Part of our argument is that standard vaccine refusers are inquiring people who allow themselves to be swayed by new incoming evidence. They also behave differently towards the MMR vaccine (many of them are willing to take it).

We then consider the rationality of the standard vaccine refuser from the perspective of philosophical theories of rationality. We first point out that the attitudes of vaccine refusers aren’t obviously incoherent: they don’t contain an obvious contradiction and they aren’t conflicting with other beliefs about evidence. We then consider various objections and acknowledge that, although some of their implicit beliefs are likely contradictory or incoherent, these implicit beliefs don’t render vaccine refusers irrational in a sense of ‘irrational’ that implies legitimate criticism or blame. 

Finally, we argue that vaccine refusers respond correctly to their evidence or epistemic reasons. This is because their distrust is often rational, especially when it comes to the experiences of marginalized groups with medical, scientific, and political authorities, and because our epistemic environment is polluted, for instance by fake experts and problems within our current scientific practices themselves.

Finally, we point out that, given an epistemic condition on responsibility, vaccine refusers seem to be often blameless: their action of refusal rests on rational belief. This has implications for public health policy: enforcing rational people to comply with what one takes to be morally right can endanger their autonomy.

Tuesday 13 June 2023

What Psychopathology Teaches

This post is by Darryl Mathieson, doctoral researcher in Philosophy at the Australian National University. In this post, Darryl writes about thought insertion and self-experience in schizophrenia, which is the object of a paper recently published in Review of Philosophy and Psychology.

Darryl Mathieson

The Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that when he introspected, he found various mental states like thoughts and perceptions, but no extra subject of experiences that we might call ‘the self’. Hume’s denial has commanded widespread philosophical agreement and has led to the thesis that the self is at best elusive, and at worst does not appear in experience at all. 

However, a different path to self-experience that we might take is to look at what happens when consciousness breaks. Just as the deafening silence left in the wake of an air conditioner shutting off makes its constant hum more salient, so too certain experiences pervade everyday consciousness and appear elusive until we are presented with their loss or disruption. One such disorder that has been used to good effect in this regard is a symptom of schizophrenia called thought insertion—a condition in which people claim to experience the thoughts of others. 

The standard explanation of thought insertion is that certain features of consciousness go missing while others remain intact, which typically involves an appeal to what is called the ‘sense of agency’ and ‘sense of subjectivity’. The sense of agency refers to an experience of being the active thinker of our thoughts. The sense of subjectivity refers to a pre-reflective experience of there being something it feels like for us to undergo or live through our changing experiences as their subject, which is also known as “for-me-ness”. The idea is that the sense of agency breaks down in thought insertion, while the sense of subjectivity remains wholly intact. 

One big problem is that this explanation can’t differentiate thought insertion from other pathological (and ordinary) absences of agency. For example, people routinely experience intrusive or unbidden thoughts which they do not actively generate (if you want to test it, tell the next person who admits to suffering from anxious thoughts to “just stop worrying”). Motivated in part by taking the broader clinical and psychopathological context of schizophrenia into account, there is a growing trend toward explaining thought insertion as a disrupted for-me-ness, which gradually becomes so disturbed that patients no longer recognize some of their thoughts as their own. 

So, what can all of this tell us about self-experience, and why does it matter? I think what is disturbed is only disturbing because it is not normally disturbed, which means that thought insertion can help us to gain some insight into our ordinary experience of ourselves, as well as help patients understand and navigate their severely disrupted experiences. 

There is something right and wrong about Hume’s denial. He was right to conclude that the self cannot be found as an introspectable object of consciousness, but failed to recognize pre-reflective forms of self-experience that psychopathological cases make salient. By imagining what it would be like to undergo conditions like thought insertion which disrupt what is perhaps the most intimate aspect of our conscious lives, we can come to appreciate how we normally experience the self. 

Tuesday 6 June 2023

Ecological-enactive account of autism spectrum disorder

Today's post is by Janko Nešić at Institute of Social Sciences, on his recent paper "Ecological-enactive account of autism spectrum disorder" (Synthese, 2023).

Janko Nešić

Autism (ASD) is a psychopathological condition characterized by persistent deficits in social interaction and communication, with restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. It is still mostly understood from a cognitivist perspective (“mindblindness”). Phenomenological and enactive theories which view it as a lack of affective attunement, pre-reflective understanding and engagement and are all recently gaining traction.

I think that an integrative account of autism is much needed at this point. It will bring all the diverse aspects of ASD together and do justice to the lived experience of autism. In my paper “Ecological-enactive account of autism spectrum disorder”, I develop a novel approach that connects two aspects of autism (two core types of deficits) found in the current DSM-5 diagnostic criteria: social and non-social (how they relate to persons and objects).

An integrative perspective I put forward can show how social, cognitive and communication deficits hang together with the differences in phenomenology, embodiment and situatedness of autistic people and provide a multidimensional explanation.

I propose to endorse the affordance-based approach of the skilled intentionality framework (SIF; Rietveld, Denys, & van Westen, 2018). In SIF, embodied cognition is understood as skilled engagement with affordances in the sociomaterial environment of the ecological niche by which an individual tends toward the optimal grip.

The human econiche offers a whole landscape of affordances, and situated individuals respond to a field of relevant affordances. An integral part of the SIF is an ecological-enactive interpretation of the free energy principle and predictive processing (PP). In PP terms, autistics reduce uncertainty by over-relying on routines and a predictable ecological niche they construct.

I argue that autism is to be understood as disordered or different bodily normativity. This refers to “the organism’s evaluative capacity” that guides the organism on how to attune to the environment and accomplish dynamic stability (Toro et al., 2020). Being healthy means being “more than normal”, adopting new norms of bodily normativity to reach dynamic stability in novel situations.

Autistic people do develop new skills, but the development of bodily normativity of autistic and non-autistic (neurotypical) people take disparate trajectories. Autistic people can become pathologically embodied if the sociomaterial environment is inflexible and does not allow the individual to find her own skilled ways.

Based on different types of affordances and how the world and self are modelled in PP, I distinguish between forms of bodily normativity concerning the material, social and self-related (toward one`s own body) skilled actions. Although differences in social normativity are most prominent, they are also present in the material and body(self)-related normativity.

Self-related normativity, with stereotyped behaviour, can lose its rigidity over time, while strict habits and routines persist in material and social normativity. Given that three dimensions of the field of affordances can be discriminated (de Haan, 2020), I argue that autistics have a narrow field, with shallow temporal depth and affective salience of those affordances that do come up in their field.

Taking this approach helps us figure out what neurotypical people can do to attune their environment to scaffold the needs of autistic individuals by redesigning the landscape of affordances. This way, greater epistemic justice could be afforded to autistic people.