PHILOSOPHY AGAINST THE MACHINE, #3–Paranoia, Brain-Science, and BS.
By Robert Hanna
PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS IN THIS SERIES
I’ve been thinking lots recently about pernicious bullshit that’s being published and disseminated by high-status science-legitimated authorities, whether in philosophy or in the sciences themselves.
See, e.g., the essay that elaborates the second post in this series, “L. Ron Dennett and The New Scientology.”[i]
Relatedly, last week I was reading in the Yale Alumni Magazine, aka the YAM, about a recent study on the brain-science of paranoia, which seemed like crap to me, in a little article called “Paranoia and the Brain: Is Someone Out to Get You?”[ii]
But by way of setting the context, I should say a few things about my overall approach to the philosophy of mental health in general and psychiatry in particular.
In Embodied Minds in Action,[iii] Michelle Maiese and I argued:
(i) that creatures like us have irreducibly conscious and cognitive minds, and that the basic layer of our consciousness is emotional (desire, feeling, passion) and sensible, not intellectual, which is built on top of the emotional/sensible layer, and
(ii) that minds like ours are necessarily and completely embodied in our living animal bodies.
And in The Mind-Body Politic,[iv] aka MBP, Michelle and I argued:
(i) that the lives of rational essentially embodied emotional/sensible minds like ours are literally shaped by the social institutions we belong to, for better or worse, and
(ii) that given the recent and contemporary world-situation (e.g., during roll-out and fall-out of the COVID-19 pandemic) it’s often or even generally for the worse, i.e., many or even most contemporary social institutions are in various ways experienced as destructive and deforming by the people who belong to those institutions.
Correspondingly, in chapter 5 of MBP, we also argued that mental health, whether good/unproblematic or bad/problematic, is at least as much an existential and/or social-institutional issue as it is a biophysical issue, although of course we don’t deny that there’s a biophysical component: but we do sharply criticize and reject the “medical model” of mental health treatment.
More generally, given the recent and contemporary world-situation, it’s arguably contemporary civilization and its many deeply messed-up social institutions that are first and foremost literally insane, not primarily people with mental health problems, although of course it’s those people who end up suffering.
Now I’ll apply some of these thoughts to the YAM article itself, by inserting my own critical comments inside square brackets.
Paranoia and the brain: Is someone out to get you?
By Rhea Hirschman
From the great fire of ancient Rome, to the Black Death of the Middle Ages, to the COVID-19 pandemic in our own day, humans have often responded to devastating shifts in the world around them by looking for someone to blame.
While anyone may wonder occasionally if there’s someone “out to get me,” some people are more prone to conspiracy fears and paranoia than others. Associate Professor of Psychiatry Philip Corlett, with a team from Yale and other universities, set out to understand why. They wanted to test the idea that paranoia stems not simply from errors in how we assess social situations, but also from how the brain itself forms and updates beliefs about the world.
[RH: Is that what causes paranoia? Errors in how we assess social situations PLUS errors made by the brain in forming and updating beliefs about the world? There seem to be two big confusions here.
First, the brain doesn’t, on its own, do anything. People do things, and brains are only proper parts of the “human, all-too-human” minded living organisms people are.
Second, is paranoia caused by mistaken beliefs? Mental Health America says this:
Paranoia involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy. Paranoia occurs in many mental disorders, but is most often present in psychotic disorders. Paranoia can become delusions, when irrational thoughts and beliefs become so fixed that nothing (including contrary evidence) can convince a person that what they think or feel is not true. When a person has paranoia or delusions, but no other symptoms (like hearing or seeing things that aren’t there), they might have what is called a delusional disorder. Because only thoughts are impacted, a person with delusional disorder can usually work and function in everyday life, however, their lives may be limited and isolated.
Delusional disorder is characterized by irrational or intense belief(s) or suspicion(s) which a person believes to be true. These beliefs may seem outlandish and impossible (bizarre) or fit within the realm of what is possible (non-bizarre). Symptoms must last for 1 month or longer in order for someone to be diagnosed with delusional disorder.[v]
It seems clear from this description that it’s not the fact that some beliefs about the world are mistaken that’s causing the problem, instead it’s how the person takes up those beliefs into her essentially embodied emotional, practical, and social life.
For example, suppose that I form the belief that someone is following me: I’m either correct or incorrect about that. But it’s only an excessive, life-disrupting or even life-destroying response to the belief that someone is following me that’s characteristic of paranoia. Otherwise, whether my belief is true or false, I might simply laugh off the belief and go on my merry way, shaking my head at my own silliness. (Of course, that might not be such a terribly clever thing to do if my belief is indeed true: but imprudence is not paranoia.) So the paranoid person’s problem is emotional, practical, and social, not belief-based.]
The study was published in eLife.
The team had participants play a card game. Some players had been diagnosed with psychiatric symptoms; others had not. (The players did not compete against each other.) What none of them knew was that, partway through, the researchers changed the best option for success. Those in the control group were slow to assume that the best choice had changed. But those with paranoia expected still more volatility, and they played more erratically. Then the uncertainty increased: halfway through, the researchers again manipulated the chances of winning. After that, even the control group played more chaotically.
[RH: This is where things begin to get weird. WtF does playing a card game, conducted according to decision-theoretic principles of success or failure, in a more or less systematic or unsystematic way, have to do with the life-disrupting or even life-destroying affliction of paranoia?
Consider now — and, for convenience and irony, staying just with YAM articles — this real-world waking nightmare of a former Yale Law School student, Ketema Ross:
Early one morning in 2007, Ross heard President George W. Bush [Yale] ’68 telling him that his next-door neighbors were traitors who needed to be gotten rid of. Ross broke into the elderly couple’s apartment and beat them with a broom handle. (They both survived the attack.) Charged with assault, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Now Ross says he has recovered his sanity, and a court order says he is no longer “a substantial danger.” And, after seven years of confinement in a psychiatric hospital, he has regained his freedom, mostly: by court order, he was conditionally discharged on January 11 .[vi]
What in R.D. Laing’s name does that sort of existential tragedy have to do with narrowly focused and highly artificial experimental tasks like playing a card game?]
In another experiment, rats trained to complete a task were rewarded with sugar. Some received methamphetamine; it causes paranoia in humans. When the researchers changed the site of the reward, the drugged rats behaved like paranoid humans: they expected the reward site to change often.
[RH: Now we’ve moved from the merely weird to the Monty-Pythonesque, or at least to the Fernwood2Nightesque —
I mean, it’s true that rats share some biophysical similarities with us, and also true that they share simpler versions of basic psychological capacities with us. But injecting rats with methamphetamine is like forcing them to wear 1970s-style leisure suits: both would make them extremely jumpy.
And more importantly, WtF does that have to do with the sort of waking nightmarish life-process that Ketema Ross was suffering through? (Not to mention the waking nightmare also suffered by his victims.)
Presumably, injecting me with meth or forcing me to wear a 1970s-style leisure suit (like the one I wore to high school graduation: aarrgghh) would also cause me to exhibit some behavioral activity superficially similar to the behavioral activity of some or even many people suffering from paranoia: but are those activities the same as paranoia?
The issue is: what is-it-like-to-be and what is-it-like-to-live, for someone suffering from paranoia, and how can they be helped?]
By creating experiments that did not require interacting with others, the researchers were looking beyond social situations to examine fundamental learning mechanisms.
[RH: But with all due respect, what makes you think, Professor Corlett, that paranoia can ever be understood outside our social relationships — e.g., between Ketema Ross and his unfortunate neighbors, between Ketema Ross and his family and friends, and between Ketema Ross and the coercive authoritarian legal system in the USA and its mass incarceration of Black people, especially including the coercive authoritarian sub-system of psychiatric imprisonment — and destructive, deforming social institutions more generally?]
Says Corlett, “The way we studied paranoia is new.”
[RH: Aha! Again with all due respect, Professor Corlett, I can’t help thinking that your brain-fixated, decision-theoretic, weird, Fernwood2Nightesque, quasi-behaviorist, anti-social, and anti-political approach to paranoia is mainly driven by the burning need to publish peer-reviewed “original research,” and thereby be a winner in the rat-race of the professional academy, including tenure and promotion to full professor at Yale, and not by any real concern for grappling with the real-world personal, social, and political hell of paranoia in particular and mental illness in general.
Of course I could be completely wrong about this; but then again my thought might be correct.
And if that thought is correct, then I’m very sorry, Professor, but I’m much afraid that your study isn’t so much BS for Brain-Science, as it’s BS for Bull-Shit.]
[i] R. Hanna, “L. Ron Dennett and The New Scientology” (September 2020 version), available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/44142354/L_Ron_Dennett_and_The_New_Scientology_September_2020_version_>.
[ii] R. Hirschman, “Paranoia and the Brain: Is Someone Out to Get You?,” Yale Alumini Magazine (September/October 2020), p. 28, also available online at URL = <https://yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/5198-paranoia-and-the-brain>.
[iii] R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), also available online in preview at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/21620839/Embodied_Minds_in_Action>.
[iv] M. Maiese and R. Hanna, The Mind-Body Politic (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), also available online in preview HERE.
[v] Available online at URL = <https://www.mhanational.org/conditions/paranoia-and-delusional-disorders>.
[vi] C. Bass, “By Reason of Insanity,” Yale Alumni Magazine (May/June 2015): 48–53, at p. 49, available online at URL = <http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/4076/by-reason-of-insanity>.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 486
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