Thursday, 1 December 2016

Cognitive Decline: Presentations and Representations

In this post, Valeria Motta reports from the workshop Cognitive Decline: Presentations and Representations.

The event took place at Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, and was jointly organized by students from Biomedical and Natural Sciences and students from Liberal Arts of the University of Birmingham. The event was offered under the initiative called Café Culturel.

This initiative proposes multidisciplinary discussions on topics of current interest from the arts and the sciences which emerge from the cultural offerings in and around the area of Birmingham. Expert panellists are invited to give 10 minute presentations after which there is room for questions and discussion with the audience. The events are open not only for students but also for the general public; and the talks are meant to reach such wide audience.

In October, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented King Lear on Stratford-upon-Avon. On the occasion of this visit, the event Cognitive Decline: Presentations and Representations proposed a discussion on the topic of how neurodegenerative diseases are represented in the arts and in the clinical sciences. 

Neuroscientist Emil Toescu explained that King Lear has been regarded by the critics as a tragedy of a powerful figure whose material and mental world fall apart piece by piece, and that Lear’s journey could be interpreted an acute depiction of the behavioural changes associated with the cognitive decline produced by degenerative mental diseases.

One of the members of the panel was Dr. Femi Oyebode, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham and Consultant Psychiatrist for Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust. Oyebode provided conceptual precision on mental disorders, and talked about what he thinks psychiatrists, Shakespeare and theatre audiences share.

Oyebode explained that dementia is set of symptoms caused by a degenerative brain disease which is progressive and impairs the cognitive domain of the brain. He then distinguished dementia from delirium in that dementia features certain awareness. When asked, Oyebode described the state of awareness as some sort of ‘insight’ which is different from what could be described as a conscious state.

Oyebode's last book Madness at the Theatre investigates the representations of psychiatric disorder(s) in the western theatrical arts from ancient till present times. Oyebode talked about how both psychiatrists and dramatists are concerned with describing and portraying extreme mental states. He explained that Shakespeare’s description of Lear’s awareness of his own cognitive decline is a good example of descriptive psychopathology of the disintegrative disorder in theatre.

Oyebode drew attention to the interesting fact that there was something that made the play be understood and attractive to audiences in the early 600s even when his audience lacked the expertise in disintegrative disorders that have nowadays. Oyebode called this a ‘prior understanding’ which could possibly be explained by Shakespeare using the same system of meaning (perhaps linguistic frame) that his contemporaries were using. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Subjective Perspective in Introspection

This post is by Léa Salje (pictured above), who recently started a lectureship at the University of Leeds, where she was previously a postdoc on the AHRC-funded project Persons as Animals. Léa works in the philosophy of mind on questions about what thought is like, and in particular on questions about self-conscious thought about ourselves. Here she asks, what can the schizophrenic delusion of thought insertion tell us about how we ordinarily find out about ourselves through introspection?


A lot of my work revolves around the notion of immunity to error through misidentification (IEM), and so does this paper. For those with more of a nodding acquaintance with IEM, I have a dim suspicion that it can come across as a slightly fussy notion that threatens to plunge those working on it into ever deepening levels of obscurity, and that refuses to wear its interest on its sleeve. So let me first say something why it’s important.

Roughly speaking, your judgment is IEM when you can’t have got things wrong about what your judgment is about. For example, my visual-demonstrative judgment that pen is leaking might be wrong in all sorts of ways. Maybe it’s not leaking – maybe it’s just a shadow. Or maybe it’s not even a pen, but a novelty marzipan sweet shaped like a pen. But there’s one way it can’t go wrong. It can’t be that I know that something is a pen and leaking, and fail to know that it’s that, the thing I’m looking at. My judgment is IEM.

Why is this important? Clearly, not because of the error we’ve just ruled out. We don’t exactly go around worrying that our demonstrative judgments might be mistaken in this way, and then breathe a collective sigh of relief when the IEM-workers assure us they can’t be. The interesting thing, rather is why that error is ruled out. In our example, it’s because I’m already thinking of the pen in a perceptual-demonstrative (or ‘that’-ish) sort of way. This means that I don’t have to do anything else to form a ‘that’ judgment about it – and in particular, I don’t have to identify the thing that I’m thinking of in the ‘that’-ish way with something I’m thinking of in a different way. (As I would have to if, for example, I instead formed the judgment that Ali’s pen is leaking – in which case I would have to make a kind of cognitive leap between that thing I’m looking at, and the pen I’ve seen in Ali’s pencilcase). So the IEM of the judgment tells us something about the way I’m thinking of the judgment’s object.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Mind Network Meeting

On Friday 21st October, a meeting of the Mind Network was held at the University of Sheffield on the topic of “Action: Knowledge, Emotion, and Commitment”. The meeting was organised by Luca Barlassina and was sponsored by the Hang Seng Centre for Cognitive Studies. In this post I give a brief overview of the three talks given at the meeting.

John Michael, Assistant Professor at the University of Warwick and Affiliated Researcher at the Central European University, gave the first talk, on “The Sense of Commitment”. Whilst the phenomenon of commitment is a cornerstone of human social life, it is not well understood how people identify and assess the level of their own and others’ commitments, nor what motivates them to honor commitments. The aim of his talk was to try and fill in this gap. 

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Elliot Aronson on Hypocrisy

Today's post is by Elliot Aronson (pictured below), Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, and author of The Social Animal and Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), with Carol Tavris.

Social psychologists define hypocrisy as behaving contrary to one’s values or beliefs; in common vernacular, it can be defined as the failure to practice what one preaches.

I think that just about everybody wants to see themselves as a person of integrity. It is a very powerful desire that transcends individual differences due to age, gender, race, socio-economic status, and nationality. This quest to maintain a self-image of integrity is quite touching; at the same time, it often distorts our memory or causes us to stretch to find justifications for actions that might appear hypocritical. Thus, it is far easier to see hypocrisy in others than it is to see it in oneself. If there are individual differences they lie not in the ability to behave hypocritically, but in the ability either to blind oneself to our past behavior or to find ways justify our behavior which unbiased observers might judge to be hypocritical. 

People will attempt to defend against seeing themselves as hypocrites through forgetting, compartmentalization, or some form of self-justification. To take one example from contemporary American politics, whenever journalists have confronted Donald Trump about having said something in the recent past that contradicts his current position, he will frequently respond by denying that he ever said that—even though video tape exists of his having said it on national TV—just a week or two ago. Politicians usually avoid telling outright lies that can easily be exposed via video. Accordingly, I am convinced that Trump was not deliberately lying but that he actually did forget that he said the very thing that he now denies having said.

When motivated forgetting fails, people will try to invent reasons that justify their actions. For example, in Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment on obedience, he showed that two thirds of his subjects gave what they believed to be near lethal electric shocks to an innocent person in obedience to an authority figure. These people generally regarded themselves as decent human beings. When interviewed afterward, often justified their behavior by claiming that they had no choice because they had committed themselves to participating in the researched. Therefore they felt obliged to continue administering shocks—even though they firmly believed they were harming the victim. In addition, many actually convinced themselves that their victim, in some obscure way, deserved what he got.