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Searching for Rene Descartes or just ‘knowing’ he is there



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Thanks to Daniel Hawes at twenty2five.blogspot, we were alerted to a recent paper in Psychological Science that investigated how easily people correct their beliefs[1]. Now, you have to know that the angle you are about to hear is speculative, although not outrageous.  The researchers argued that people make two kinds of mistakes on a phrase memory task – mistakes that are based on false beliefs and are made with high confidence, and plain and simple mistakes. Their data suggest that when the mistake is based on a firmly held belief it is more readily corrected than when the mistake is not.  I like Daniel Hawes’ inference from this study – he writes a psychology blog and this is what he said:

‘For example, most readers of this [blog] will be more confident when answering questions about psychology than when answering questions about chemistry. However, they will remember feedback concerning an error in psychology better than feedback concerning an error in chemistry because the psychology feedback can be associated to their preexisting knowledge’

I am going to take another step and wonder if this also relates to our patients who are searching for Rene but may not be completely confident he exists. Just a quick explanatory note – if you went to the APTA congress, or the NOI Conference, which was VERY COOL INDEED (with the BEST EVER CONFERENCE DINNER mind you), or the Physiotherapy New Zealand Conference, you may be up on this, but otherwise, ‘searching for Rene’ refers to that habit that patients in pain have of trying to fit what you are saying into a Rene Descartes understanding of biology – that we have pain receptors that send pain messages to the brain, which registers the pain etc etc.  This perspective was indeed very very clever. In 1654. We now know it is wrong, OF COURSE. So, the experiment we are talking about might imply that if patients don’t even feel a need to search for Rene because they are SO confident he is the ants pants and that his idea explains their pain, they may actually be MORE likely to correct this erroneous belief when we give them evidence against it, than patients who are not as sure.  I must say that this doesn’t really fit with my experience – maybe we should have a vote.  Regardless, if you are interested in the many ways your brain plays tricks on things like memory, in order to make life a bit more streamlined, check out Daniel’s excellent blog.
[1] Lisa K Fazio, & Elizabeth J Marsh (2010). Correcting False Memories Psychological Science

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