Monday, 5 December 2016

Positive and Negative Implications of the Causal Illusion

This post is by Fernando Blanco (pictured below) who recently wrote a paper entitled, Positive and Negative Implications of the Causal Illusion. The paper is to appear in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on unrealistic optimism, guest edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic.

Imagine you are one of the participants in the classic experiment conducted by famous researchers Lauren Alloy and Lynn Abramson in 1979. You sit in front of a device with one button and one lightbulb. Your task is to determine whether you can control the light onset. What would you do? If you are like most people, you would try pressing the button to see if the light comes on. Then, you would realize that pressing the button is very often followed by the light onset. After a series of trials, you would likely feel sure that you are effectively controlling the light with your button-pressings.

In fact, the researchers set up the experiment so that the light came on randomly, regardless of whether the button was pressed. Still, the many (yet fortuitous) coincidences between your actions and the light onset created a powerful belief that the light was under your control. This is an instance of a cognitive bias called “the causal illusion”, which consists of believing that one event is capable of causing another, when they are actually unrelated. Crucially, this is not a psychological disorder; it is just the way our cognitive system works.

In a recent paper, I have reviewed some of the consequences of developing causal illusions. This cognitive bias can clearly entail negative consequences. For instance, it has been proposed to underlie many irrational beliefs such as pseudomedicine usage. If people keep using ineffective treatments, but their health eventually improves (for reasons different from the treatment), the illusion would create a strong, but mistaken, belief that the treatment works, which can be dangerous. Other experiments link the causal illusion to additional negative outcomes, such as paranormal (superstitious) belief and pathological gambling.

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.