Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Debunking Dualist Notions of Near-Death Experiences

This post is by Hayley Dewe, pictured above. She is a PhD student from the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Her research is based in The Selective Attention and Awareness laboratory, directed by Jason Braithwaite. Her research focuses on the neurocognitive correlates of anomalous (hallucinatory) experience, specifically pertaining to the ‘self’, embodiment, and consciousness.

In this post I will briefly discuss the extraordinary phenomena of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), and highlights key arguments raised in my recent paper, co-authored paper with Jason Braithwaite, which explores how findings from neuroscience can help debunk dualist notions of NDEs (Braithwaite & Dewe 2014; published in The (UK) Skeptic magazine).

NDEs are striking experiences that typically occur when one is close to death or exposed to life-threatening situations of intense physical and/or emotional danger (first coined by Moody 1975, Life after Life. New York: Bantam Books). This unusual experience includes a variety of aberrant components such as: sensations of peace and vivid imagery, bright flashes of light, the sensation of travelling through a dark tunnel towards a bright light, a disconnection from the physical body (a shift in perspective: the Out-of-Body Experience), and the sensation of entering a light / visions of an ‘afterlife’ etc. (Greyson 1980).

From a parapsychological (or survivalist / supernatural) perspective, NDEs are understood as mystical and spiritual experiences that expose the individual to another world (or afterlife). This is taken as evidence for the survival of bodily death (i.e. dualism); that the mind/consciousness is not dependent on the brain (Parnia and Fenwick 2002; van Lommel et al. 2001).

In stark contrast is the scientific/neuroscience perspective. Here, it is argued that NDEs are hallucinatory phenomena, generated by a disinhibited and highly confused, dying brain (known as the ‘dying brain account’; Blackmore 1996; Braithwaite 2008; Jansen 1990).

There are two important arguments pertaining to the scientific account that I would like to raise here. There are a host of logical fallacies and methodological discrepancies within the parapsychological literature (discussed at length in Braithwaite & Dewe 2014; Braithwaite 2008). One argument we propose is that, to our knowledge, there appears to be no objective study validating the presence of an entirely inactive human brain with the simultaneous occurrence of an NDE! This is of principal concern to survivalists; how is it assumed that the NDE is a glimpse of an afterlife, or evidence for dualist notions of life (or mind) surviving brain death, if no such evidence actually exists? Further, even if there were evidence of a completely inactive brain, and subsequent recollection of an NDE; evidencing their simultaneous occurrence would be extremely problematic. How could one pinpoint the precise time frame that the NDE components occurred? The NDE itself may well have occurred before levels of brain activity became ‘inactive’ (or ‘flattened’), or even experienced and recalled afterwards, during recovery.

Secondly, no component of the NDE is actually unique to the ‘near-death’ experience. The visual perceptions that are observed such as flashes of light, or alternate shifts in perspective (i.e. the OBE) can and do occur in a variety of contexts; not only when one is close to death. For instance, OBEs reportedly occur in 12% of the general population (Blackmore 1984). Therefore, one needn’t necessarily be ‘near to death’ to experience NDE phenomena, and consequently we suggest that dualist / survivalist arguments of NDEs are arguably flawed.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Dementia and Imagination: Interview with Victoria Tischler

Dementia and Imagination’ is a project aimed at investigating how art can improve the life of people with dementia and their carers. To know more about the project, I interviewed Dr Victoria Tischler (in the picture below) who is one of the lead investigators.

Victoria's research interests span social psychology theory, adolescent and maternal mental health, medical education, and creativity and mental illness. She facilitates creative activities in mental health settings and is a public engagement ambassador for the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE).

LB: What interests you about the Dementia and Imagination project? 

VT: It is an opportunity to thoroughly interrogate the potential for both the therapeutic use of art with people who have dementia, and to explore public engagement with the condition through creative products and processes. We have a large multidisciplinary project team so there are lots of opportunities to develop novel ideas and to learn from each other. 

LB: Is there evidence suggesting that art has health benefits, and in particular benefits for people with dementia?

VT: Yes, there is burgeoning evidence in this area. Results suggests that creative activities including looking at, making and discussing art have cognitive benefits such as improving attention, stimulating memory, and enhancing communication and engagement. Also, such activities and associated artistic outputs can challenge negative perceptions about the condition. To date, studies have been relatively small and are often criticised for having poorly defined metholdogies and outcomes. Dementia and Imagination is a large and well-designed study so should be able to contribute significantly to the evidence base. Given the lack of effective treatments for dementia there is increasing interest in this type of work and in how to improve well-being in those who have the condition. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Emotions as Psychological Reactions

This post is by Edoardo Zamuner (pictured above), a senior research fellow in the School of Psychology of the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He previously held research and teaching positions at University College London, La Trobe University (Melbourne) and the University of Hong Kong. While he is a philosopher by training, he is a psychologist by trade and persuasion. His current research in psychology focuses on visual perception of faces and facial properties such as gender, expression and personality. His work in philosophy of mind concerns the emotions. Here he summarises his recent paper ‘Emotions as Psychological Reactions’, published in Mind and Language. 

What kinds of mental states are emotions? My paper argues for the view that emotions are reactions to our experience and thoughts, broadly construed. But what exactly is a reaction? And why should we think of emotions as reactions? Talk of reactions is a reflection of everyday causal explanations, just as talk of cause and effect. It would, however, be a mistake to equate reactions and effects. As I show in my paper, we think of reactions as effects with polarity. For example, we view changes such as worsening and improvement as polarly opposed reactions to a treatment. If emotions are reactions, then they have polarity. But what exactly is the polarity of emotions? The paper’s main thesis claims that we can characterise emotional polarity in terms of the distinction between approach and avoidance.

Specifically, emotions come with the tendency to engage with (approach), or withdraw from (avoidance), the objects and situations in reaction to which emotions occur. This tendency can express itself behaviourally, like when anxiety results in procrastination (avoidance), or psychologically, like when joy results in anticipation (approach).

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Choosing Not to Choose

Today Cass Sunstein (in the picture above) talks about his book Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice. Cass R. Sunstein is currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. He is now working on group decision-making and various projects on the idea of liberty.

Choice is often an extraordinary benefit, but it can also be an immense burden. Time and attention are precious commodities, and we cannot focus on everything, even when our interests and our values are at stake. If we had to make choices about everything that affects us, we would be overwhelmed. We exercise our freedom, and we improve our welfare, by choosing not to choose. That choice opens up time and space for us, enabling us to focus on our real concerns. Establishing these claims, and identifying their limitations, are the purposes of this book.

When you use a GPS, you are effectively asking it to choose a route for you; it provides a default route, which you can ignore if you like. Or people may make a delegation implicitly; everyone may know that they don’t want to make certain choices. We often think, or even say (sometimes with enthusiasm, sometimes with irritation), “You decide.” In some situations, that particular choice makes us a lot better off.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Expecting Moral Philosophers to be Reliable

This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post he summarises his paper ‘Expecting Moral Philosophers to be Reliable’. You can read the paper in draft form here.

Consider the following case:

A bomb is about to go off. It’s a big one. If this bomb goes off, every single living thing will die instantaneously and painlessly, and the universe will be rendered incapable of ever supporting life again. There is but one way to stop the bomb: pushing a big red button. Pushing the button would stop the bomb from going off. Pushing the button would also cure all disease, eradicate poverty, remove the Tories from government, provide everyone with a free kitten, stop climate change, and bring Duke Ellington back.

Is it morally permissible to push the button?

If you thought of an answer, you just had what philosophers sometimes call an intuition. In a recent paper, ‘Expecting Moral Philosophers to be Reliable’, I try to say something in favour of the idea that philosophers have better intuitions than ordinary people when it comes to cases like these. (The argument is a bit more subtle than that and you should read the paper for the full story. But that is the gist.)

The idea that experts in a field have more reliable intuitions than those with no experience in the field is not generally very controversial. Mathematicians have better intuitions than me about proof strategies. Chess grandmasters have better intuitions than me about which moves are good moves.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Models of Madness

In today's post John Read (in the picture above) presents the recent book he co-authored with Jacqui Dillon, titled Models of Madness: Psychological, Social and Biological Approaches to Psychosis.

My name is John Read. After 20 years working as a Clinical Psychologist and manager of mental health services in the UK and the USA, mostly with people experiencing psychosis, I joined the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in 1994. There I published over 100 papers in research journals, primarily on the relationship between adverse life events (e.g., child abuse/neglect, poverty etc.) and psychosis. I also research the negative effects of bio-genetic causal explanations on prejudice, and the role of the pharmaceutical industry in mental health.

In February I moved to Melbourne and I now work at Swinburne University of Technology. I am on the on the Executive Committee of the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis and am the Editor of the ISPS’s scientific journal Psychosis.

My other books are:

READ, J., SANDERS P. (2010). A Straight Talking Introduction to the Causes of Mental Health Problems. PCCS Books.

GEEKIE, J., RANDAL, P., LAMPSHIRE, D., READ, J, (eds.). (2012). Experiencing Psychosis: Personal and Professional Perspectives. Routledge.

GEEKIE, J., READ, J. (2010). Making Sense of Madness: Contesting the Meaning of Schizophrenia. Routledge.

In 2004 I edited, with Richard Bentall and the now deceased and sorely missed Loren Mosher, a book called Models of Madness. To our surprise it sold over 11,000 copies and was translated into Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish. This second, updated, edition of Models of Madness (2013) was edited with my wonderful friend and colleague Jacqui Dillon (in the picture below).

Our book brings together thirty-seven contributors from ten countries and a wide range of scientific disciplines. It provides an evidence-based, optimistic antidote to the pessimism of biological psychiatry. It is intended for all involved in mental health, including service users, family members, service managers, policy makers, nurses, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, counsellors, psychoanalysts, social workers, occupational therapists and art therapists.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Good Grief!

In this post PhD student Magdalena Antrobus (pictured above) summarises her recent research for Project PERFECT concerning the phenomenon known in the empirical literature as ‘depressive realism’.

Depressive realism is the thesis that people with depression make more realistic inferences than ‘healthy’ individuals (Alloy and Abramson 1988). The term refers to the phenomenon discovered in 1979 in a series of experiments designed around assessing the judgement of contingency tasks (Alloy and Abramson 1979). The assessments of control made by participants with symptoms of depression were more accurate than those made by ‘healthy’ individuals. The difference between the two groups was statistically significant, making the results conclusive. People with depressive symptoms judged their control over uncontrollable events correctly, whilst the judgements made by individuals without depressive symptoms have been shown to exhibit a positive cognitive bias.

Could people who experience depressive symptoms really be closer to the truth in their beliefs than ‘healthy’ individuals? This question seems to be of vital importance for clinical research. To find the right answer could mean a better understanding of the nature of depression-associated cognitive processes and of elements of depressive aetiology, and, most importantly, could lead to new, more effective therapies. A thorough analysis of empirical research dedicated to investigate the phenomenon of depressive realism shows that depressive mood (but not more severe symptoms of depression) might be related to more accurate judgments. This poses the question of whether there might be a certain level of ‘feeling low’ which would still be beneficial for the subject who aspires to acquire accurate beliefs. If that level is exceeded, ‘feeling low’ produces negative bias, leading to a distorted perception of reality.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Falsity Workshop

This post is by Anneli Jefferson, Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, working on the Costs and Benefits of Optimism project.

On June 27th, Nils Kürbis and Dan Adams hosted a workshop on falsity entitled 'Falsity – Not just Truth’s Poor Relation' at Birkbeck (see picture of venue above). The lively workshop approached falsity in a number of thought-provoking ways.

Those of us who don’t work in metaphysics take the concept of falsity for granted. But once you start thinking about what falsity is, numerous puzzles arise. If you assert that something is false, in other words, it is not the case, what makes that claim true?

When we speak truly, we say how things are. If we speak falsely, things aren’t how we say they are. But doesn’t that mean that what we say is there is not there at all? So what are we talking about? It seems as if we are talking about nothing at all, so how can what we said even make sense? One response to this problem is that there are negative facts. But that’s puzzling too. A negative fact records the absence of a fact. But if there are negative facts, doesn’t that mean that absences exist? And if absences exist, shouldn’t they be presences, rather than absences?

Keith Hossack gave a spirited defence of negative facts: all false statements share a property; that the state of affairs expressed fails to obtain. The facts that make the statements false have the property of negativity in common. Just as fire engines, pillar boxes and roses share the property of redness, false statements share negativity.

Tuomas Tahko on the other hand argued that we should understand falsity in terms of a basic property of incompatibility. What is red is not green, because being red is incompatible with being green. This way we can explain away negativity in terms of only properties that things have and which properties are incompatible with each other.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Mind, Value and Mental Health Conference

The Mind, Value and Mental Health International Conference in Philosophy and Psychiatry took place on 25 July 2015 at the picturesque St. Hilda’s College at the University of Oxford. It attracted philosophers, psychiatrists and psychologists both from the UK and from abroad. Below I summarise four of the papers presented on that immensely fascinating day.

The first talk was given by Rachel Cooper, Lancaster University (pictured below with Matthew Parrott) and was entitled ‘DSM-5: Stasis and Change’. Cooper argued that classifications like the DSM can be thought of as forming part of the infrastructure of science, and have much in common with material infrastructure. The implications are, Cooper suggested, are that as with material technologies it becomes possible for ‘path dependent’ development to cause a sub-optimal classification to get ‘locked in’ and hard to replace. Cooper argued that the DSM has become locked-in and as a consequence any changes to the diagnostic criteria have become very difficult.

The next paper was given by Gerrit Glas, (VU University, Netherlands) and was entitled ‘Psychopathology and Self-Relatedness: Conceptual Issues’. Glas defended the view that psychiatry needs a clinical conception of psychopathology, alongside scientific conceptions. Clinical conception, Glas argued, is both self-related and context-oriented. Glas introduced the notion of self-refentiality and explained how it can help to understand and make sense of the layers of clinical manifestations of mental illness.

In her talk ‘A framework for understanding epistemic authority in counselling contexts’ Catherine Rickus (Marquette University, USA) argued that in a therapeutic situation the recognition of one’s own emotions might not always be correct. For example, one may not give themselves permission to feel nervous in a certain situation, therefore they may not recognise they are nervous. In those situations, a third person’s (therapist’s) view might be more accurate. Rickus pointed at the importance of collaborative work between a patient and a therapist in order to draw possibly most accurate conclusions.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Optimism and the Creation of Everyday Myths

After having studied relatively rare irrational beliefs, those that are also considered symptoms of psychiatric disorders and 'marks of madness', I have recently become interested in the irrationality of everyday beliefs and in particular in those beliefs and predictions that seem to betray excessive optimism.

On 15th January 2015, I was asked to give a talk to the public at Modern Art Oxford, a gallery hosting at the time an exhibition called "Love is Enough", with artwork by William Morris and Andy Warhol. The brief for the talk was to think about the creation of myths, something that interested both artists. I took the opportunity to examine the everyday myths that we all create when we think about our own character traits, talents, skills, and come to believe that we are better than average at everything.

When we imagine what our future will be like, we see it as free of failure, drama and illness, and exemplifying a continuous progress, moving from aspirations to achievements. Such illusory beliefs and unrealistic predictions seem to be good for us, as they have been shown to be beneficial by enhancing mental and physical health, and seem to make us also more resilient and sociable. It would seem that optimism fuels irrational beliefs that make us happier.

But when we familiarise ourselves with the recent empirical literature, we realise that the overall picture is more complicated than initially suggested. We cannot just give up the rationality of our beliefs in exchange for lasting happiness. I wrote a brief review on realism and optimism with Magdalena Antrobus, which is available open access in Current Opinions in Psychiatry, and it shows that we should revisit the hypothesis that optimistic cognitions are psychologically adaptive. Realistic beliefs and expectations can be conducive to wellbeing and good functioning, and wildly optimistic cognitions have considerable psychological costs.