Project PERFECT (Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts) is a five-year project funded by the European Research Council exploring how we can break down the stigma commonly associated with mental illness by promoting a better understanding of how the mind works.
Birmingham experts working on PERFECT are emphasising that thoughts that can be considered as irrational, such as delusional beliefs and distorted memories, are found in psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and dementia but are also commonplace in the wider community. Project PERFECT investigates how such thoughts have advantages as well as disadvantages. The advantages can begin to explain why such thoughts emerge and why they are so resistant to change. A better understanding of the situations in which we have irrational thoughts might help to challenge stigma and also inform the way people who are mentally distressed are treated and supported.
Are there any marks of madness?
‘We are showing that the so-called ‘marks of madness’ are not different in kind from everyday irrational thought. There is no sharp divide between the mentally distressed and the mentally well,’ says project lead Professor Lisa Bortolotti.
The team aims to create a more humane and realistic perception of mental distress, focusing on a person’s circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses, rather than diagnostic labels alone.
Preserving the past and shaping our future
If the mechanisms responsible for irrational thought also play a role in building a successful identity and shaping our future, then we need to find a way to address the harms caused by irrational thoughts without compromising the benefits that such thoughts might have.
‘Before we discard an irrational thought we should understand its role in our mental economy – we may discover that in some contexts it is beneficial as well as harmful,’ adds Professor Bortolotti.
‘For instance, some memories reported by people with dementia can be inaccurate. When asked what she did yesterday, a woman may answer that she was working in her office even though she has been retired for twenty years. Should we challenge her report? Although the time tag associated with the memory is wrong, the recollection that she worked in an office may help the woman hang on to a defining aspect of her life at a time in which many of her other autobiographical memories are no longer available to her.'
Professor of Philosophy
Senior Research Tutor for Clinical Psychology and Senior Lecturer in Psychology
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