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.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Young People and Mental Health

Today's post is by Sophie (pictured above), a Journalism student who has health anxiety, social anxiety and OCD. Sophie writes several blogs, and is on Twitter. The post you can read here is an extract from a longer post previously published in The Musings of a Journalism Student on 19th July 2015. We repost it on our blog with her permission, for our series of posts by experts-by-experience.

I recently watched a documentary called Kids in Crisis which featured young children and teenagers who had mental health problems. These children had a formal diagnosis. I’ve also had a family member recently diagnosed with reactive depression, who is merely a young person themselves. That is a strong diagnosis to place on someone so young.

Many clinicians are reluctant to place such a permanent diagnosis on young people but alas many young people do have a formal diagnosis. A label that will stick to them for life. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ll know that I was recently diagnosed with anxiety and OCD, if you haven’t well now you know! I’m always going to have these disorders. They are part of me, but they do not make up my identity as such. They aren’t a positive label to have. Being labelled with a mental health problem isn’t good at all. But we can use it to our advantage. Something not many people see.

Today mental health problems still have a stigma attached to them. Depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia, bulimia… every mental health problem has a stigma. Not every physical health problem does. I feel like today’s generation who have been placed in the “persons who are mentally unwell” box are going to be faced with a lot of stigma.

I know that I’ve been experiencing my current symptoms since the age of 14, but I never thought anything of it. I used to collect bottle tops, worry if I lost something to the point where I’d have a panic attack and so much more. I had low confidence too. I thought this was normal. I thought I had Asperger’s Syndrome at one point after researching, but ignored it, mainly because of the stigma attached to learning difficulties.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

BSPS Annual Conference

The British Society for the Philosophy of Science Annual Conference took place on 2-3 July 2015 at the University of Manchester. Throughout two days philosophers of science presented their recent work in this fascinating field, including well-established researchers as well as some postgraduate students. In this post I summarise five out of a broad spectrum of papers presented during the Open Sessions, related to – broadly understood – philosophy of psychology and psychiatry.

Brice Bantegnie (pictured below) kicked off the Open Sessions with his paper ‘A Shift in Focus: From Mental States to Mental Capacities’. The author reviewed different mental capacities investigated in cognitive psychology and argued that a greater attention ought to be paid to the work of psychologists in order to better understand a great diversity of these capacities. Bantegnie stressed that the good criterion of individuation can lead us to postulate a very high number of sensory modalities.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Therapeutic Self-knowledge

This post is by Fleur Jongepier, a PhD Student at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Her research focuses on self-knowledge and first-person authority. Here Fleur (in the picture above) summarises a paper that she is currently working on with her colleague Derek Strijbos (in the picture below), psychiatry resident (Dimence) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in philosophy.

Self-knowledge regarding one’s mental states comes in many forms. One can know about one’s mental states in a more or less ‘theoretical’ way, e.g. through reading about it in a psychology book or listening to the folk theories and advice of others, and on that basis make a conjecture about one’s own state of mind. For instance, one may become convinced that one has abandonment issues, and this piece of theoretical self-knowledge might motivate one to seek treatment.

An alternative to ‘theoretical’ self-knowledge is deliberative or agential self-knowledge. To use one of Richard Moran’s examples (2001, p. 26), imagine asking someone whether she intends to pay back the money she borrowed. Suppose she answers: 'As far as I can tell, yes'. What makes this response particularly disturbing is that it appears to be issued from an onlooker’s perspective, as if she were talking about someone else. We generally do not accept such answers precisely because they signal a lack of first-person involvement. We demand that others play an active part in coming to know their own mental states; we demand that they make up their mind, i.e. decide whether they shall pay back the money.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Collaborative Memory: Interview with John Sutton

I interviewed John Sutton (pictured above), who is Professor of Cognitive Science at the ARC Centre for Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University, Sydney. John is interested in memory, skill, and distributed cognition, and in his work he seeks to integrate philosophical, psychological, and historical ideas and methods. This is the third in a series of three posts, you can read the first (on distorted memory) here and the second (on observer memory) here.

ES-B: Often old age is associated with memory impairments, but in your research you seem to have found advantages in remembering in old age, especially when the act of remembering is done collectively (e.g., with a spouse). How did you think about collective remembering to start with, and how do you think your research can contribute to changing preconceived ideas about memory?

JS: This is work I have been doing with Amanda Barnier and Celia Harris. We have looked at couples who have been together for forty or fifty years. These are people whose ability to work together really matters to them, and perhaps the way that they encode new information and manage the challenges of accessing information when they need it might also be something that they have had some success with over time. This is something that happens with relationships at all ages, a cognitive division of labour. What we are interested in are cases in which that division of labour works well and is applied specifically to remembering your past together. 

We have found some evidence to temper the prevailing pessimism about memory in old age. In general, results suggest that any decline in older people’s memory is most pronounced when remembering their own past experiences. In contrast their semantic memory tends to be better, bigger: this is why we think of older people as wise. They know a lot of stuff, but they often have trouble remembering perceptual details, remembering the vivid moment-by-moment sequences of a particular event, or at least they are slower in doing so and maybe do not care so much in getting the details right. 

But we have found that when older couples work together both at relatively boring tasks like remembering a word list together, and also remembering events from their honeymoon, or some important holiday they took together, they will tend to do better when they are working together compared to when they are working alone. Maybe that is not too surprising from a common sense point of view, but it is actually quite rare in the scientific work on memory. In general, when people work together on memory tasks they do not do as well as if you had just let them do it on their own and then pooled the results.