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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Kaleidoscope January 2018

BJPsych January 2018Have you ever seen a ghost? Get out of here, no you haven’t, but I bet you know someone who thinks they have. This is known as ‘agency detection’ in cognitive science, and is a hot topic in the evaluation of paranormal beliefs (that’s not the same as the evaluation of the paranormal – that’s the X-Files). A prominent theory proposes that if we experience something unusual, we create a belief system around this. Without wishing to offend anyone, anthropologists argue that this universal and ubiquitous human trait underlies the emergence of religions. A fun paper reported in Kaleidoscope tested people by putting them in a virtual-reality forest and getting them to wander through it to see if they could detect ‘beings’ within it (in fact, unknown to participants, there were actually no ‘beings’ at all). There were two versions: the first had a rather clear forest, and the second was a very moody and gloomy low visibility one (the full paper shows photos, and the latter one is rather creepy). So you are already predicting more ‘beings’ were detected in the dark spooky forest, and you are right. But here’s the interesting part: the biggest determinant was how much information participants were given about the likelihood of encountering ‘beings’. Those given the strongest nudge by the researchers ‘found’ them. The authors say our existing theory is the wrong way around: teachings produce expectations, and expectations lead to detection. This offered me a sadly irresistible urge to finish the column with a quote from the aforementioned X-files: Fox Mulder was spot-on – I want to believe.

Finally, let me propose something challenging: you have felt, at times, a failure in your career. I raise it to point out something that we don’t often enough appreciate: that this is universal for us all, but we just don’t talk about it. Kaleidoscope reports on a study that interviewed a group of Canadian doctors, and almost all self-identified what is known as the ‘imposter syndrome’ – feeling, at times, a fraud, and doubting the use of what they did and how they themselves did it. Objectively, some of them had been high achievers in their professions, but that didn’t help: doubt gnaws away at us all. Problematically, but so very human, most did not tell others about their sense of inadequacy, and positive feedback from others did not seem to challenge individuals’ deepest insecurities. Systems in the NHS are set-up to detect those who are clearly badly underperforming: but we all underperform in our own heads, and judge ourselves harshly. As we embark on a New Year, a traditional time of self-evaluation and reflection, a moment to consider that you are not alone when you do have such negative feelings – we all have them – and you are probably doing a better job than you recognise.

January 2018 Kaleidoscope monthly Quiz (True or False)
 

  1. Work on chimpanzees’ ‘theory of mind’ has shown they will emit their snake-warning call more loudly if they infer from behaviour that other chimps appear unaware of the danger.

    Answer: True, and it adds to data on their ability to mentalise.
  2. A study of Canadian physicians showed that most evaluated senior clinicians suffered ‘imposter syndrome’, doubting the validity of their professional successes and personal worth.

    Answer: True
  3. A systematic review in the Lancet has shown four especially vulnerable groups – homeless, those with substance use disorders, sex workers, those imprisoned – had mortality rates almost double that of those in the most deprived areas of the UK.

    Answer: False, it was far worse than that: men in such groups having mortality rates about quadruple that of those in the most deprived areas, women about five times worse.

 

 

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