Goodbye PERFECT (Sophie)

Here is the second post in our series reflecting on the end of project PERFECT, this week from postdoc Sophie Stammers.

Whilst we’ve all focused on something slightly different, PERFECT researchers were united in using philosophical and psychological tools to dismantle the assumptions that give rise to mental health stigma, and to change the narrative on what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cognition.

A big focus of my work on the project has been the issue of confabulation. We confabulate when we give an account of an event or an action that is not grounded in evidence, but which is given sincerely. Originally, researchers were interested in confabulation as it arose in cases of mental distress or cognitive disfunction, but it turns out that confabulation arises commonly and frequently in all of us, from explanations of mundane consumer choices, to accounting for our moral and political beliefs.

Maybe you’ll have been engaged in an explanation of an event, or an experience you’ve had, or something you did, and looked back to realise that you might have said something as part of the account that wasn’t strictly true. Perhaps, wrapped up in entertaining your audience, you added some details to embellish the story, and only later realised that something you said didn’t really happen. We don’t always recognise when we’ve done this (in fact, frequently we don’t!), and whilst there’s a sense in which it’s obviously bad to tell each other things which are false, we don’t think that assessment is the whole story.

As part of the project’s focus on confabulation, Lisa and I guest-edited a special issue of Topoi dedicated to new philosophical perspectives on confabulation (you can read blog posts on the papers in the issue here). Whilst recognising confabulation’s drawbacks, I think it has some important benefits because it allows us to imbue our explanations with the themes that resonate with our picture of ourselves (and that we want our friends have of us) which leads to important social and psychological advantages.

I’ve also continued my work on implicit bias, in which we can judge and act disfavourably toward members of marginalised groups even though we consider ourselves to be egalitarians. I have written about the metaphysics of the underlying cognitions, the issues surrounding their erasure through future technological means, and their epistemic benefits (better understanding of social injustice). I got to talk about some of this research on a BBC Radio 4 Analysis special and in a related BBC news article.

What has felt like some of the most important work I’ve done whilst here is my Philosophy of Mind workshop series, which incorporates research by all PERFECT team members, and was developed in partnership with Mind in Camden. The workshop series introduces participants to the philosophical tools which enable us to challenge mental health stigma. It gives participants an opportunity to reconstruct models of mental health that better support and include both insights from lived experience, and research findings showing how all brains use various tricks and shortcuts (some of which play a key role in supporting agency), regardless of whether we routinely experience mental distress.

I’m really proud of this work, and I talk in more depth about it in this summary on the blog, this interview on the Daily Nous, and on its relevance to meeting the challenge from epistemic injustice in this post with Lisa for Mental Elf.

I’ve felt honoured to have been able to learn from the participant perspective; firstly through co-production of a research paper written with a participant and expert-by-experience (under review); and through this wonderful podcast created by Bonny Astor from Mind in Camden (herself a workshop participant turned facilitator, who ran an adapted series of philosophy workshops for Pentonville Prison!) which features three other participants who discuss the merits of doing philosophy together.

I’ve run the workshop series in various formats with people with lived experience of mental distress and who have unusual experiences and beliefs; mental health professionals; and mental health advocates and campaigners; and have used materials developed there to run one off workshops and CPD training days with at medical institutions and NHS trusts. I’m still running iterations of the workshop series and training days, so get in touch if you’d like to know more.

On behalf of the rest of the PERFECT team it is my very great pleasure to thank everyone who’s been involved in the project in some way: our advisory board, our network members, our collaborators within academia and beyond, and you, of course, our dear readers! And whilst we’re turning the office lights off for now, the Imperfect Cognitions blog lives on - we just made too many interesting connections to stop sharing summaries of new research, books and conferences, so see you back here on Tuesdays!