Conference Summary: Emotions and Feelings in Psychiatric Illness

Recently I attended a conference in Durham that was the culmination of a 3 year project funded by the AHRC entitled Emotions and Feelings in Psychiatric Illness. The 3 day event was a welcome opportunity for a diverse group of philosophers, psychologists and psychiatrists to engage in the kinds of conversations that enable one to grasp, if not necessarily buy into, widely differing perspectives and ideas about the nature of emotions and feelings in mental illness, and their function in classification and diagnosis. As one would expect from a conference explicitly focused on interdisciplinary engagement, the levels of explanation employed in different papers ranged widely, from the neurophysiological to the interpersonal, encompassing everything from neuroimaging studies to psychoanalytic theory.

A central theme of the conference was the role of phenomenology in the understanding, experience and classification of psychiatric illness: for many participants, paying attention to the emotionally-charged subjective experiences of psychopathology was central to their attempts to develop theories and explanations of psychiatric phenomena. What I found particularly gratifying about many of the papers presented was the fact that despite the inherent difficulties of traversing the sub-personal to the personal, the roles of emotions and emotional experiences were not being used as addenda to a scientific approach to understanding mental illness. Rather, they were integral to both the conceptual research and scientific studies being undertaken.

Phil Gerrans’ paper on studies of the experience of depression for evaluating models of emotional appraisal is a case in point. A more conceptually-based paper by Iain Law and Lisa Bortolotti questioned the rationale behind the classification of mood disorders by distinguishing between moods and emotions, and delved into Matthew Ratcliffe’s influential phenomenological account of mood as a pre-intentional necessary condition for experiencing emotions (and, more strongly, for possessing intentionality at all). There was also a strong emphasis on the use and analysis of first-person narrative in understanding psychopathology, with Shaun Gallagher making a strong case for the idea that the disruption or alteration of certain features of narrative structure might provide a kind of linguistic fingerprint of psychopathology, particularly with respect to dissociative disorders and schizophrenia. The enactive/embodied movement in philosophy of mind and psychology was well represented by Dan Hutto. He argued against critics for the primacy of affective cognition in radical enactivist views of our intrinsic world-relatedness and interactions, thus placing emotions centre stage rather than considering them secondary or additional to cognition and experience. Finally, Rachel Cooper struck a fine balancing note to proceedings at the end of the conference by questioning what role (if any) subjective experience ought to play in psychiatric classification.

In integrating phenomenology and subjective experience with a more traditional biomedical discourse, the conference represented a microcosm of the broader challenges faced across the Medical Humanities. It is often the case that reaching across disicplinary boundaries generates confusion and cross-talk, particularly where the predominant scientistic perspective is entrenched. However, the lively and rigorous discussions that ensued over the course of the three days gave grounds for confidence that such dialogue is not only possible but also, when framed well to capitalize on different disciplinary strengths, extremely fruitful and thought-provoking.


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