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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Hyper-Emotion Theory of Psychological Illness

An article appeared in the New York Times this month titled "Giving Alzheimer’s Patients Their Way, Even Chocolate." It's a feel-good article about giving in to the whims of patients to improve their mood, encouraging music and painting and flower arranging in an emotion-focused atmosphere, proving significantly effective in treating disease. 
The article attests to the importance of considering the impact of emotion in treating psychological disorders, and it got me thinking about the hyper-emotion theory of psychological illness (A Hyper-Emotion Theory of Psychological Illness), a theory by Phil Johnson-Laird, Francesco Mancini, and Amelia Gangemi, postulating that psychological illness is not a result of faulty reasoning (as is the main tenet of cognitive therapy and Aaron Beck), but one of hyper-emotion, or inappropriately intense emotional reactions. In fact, the research finds that those with psychological illness are better at reasoning when the reasoning is related to their illness. Johnson-Laird describes the theory in his book, How We Reason:
[Cognitive therapists] stress that a closer questioning of patients yields thoughts revealing that the source of illnesses is in faulty inferences. But, according to the present theory, the patients' remarks do not elucidate the cause of the hyper-intensity of their emotions, but merely their thoughts about the precipitating object or situation yielding the emotion. Their reasoning is not the cause of their illness, but its consequence. Indeed, those of us with a propensity to mental illness reason better than control participants, though only on matter concerning the illness. (p.100)
The hyper-emotion theory certainly revolutionizes the way we think about cognitive therapy. Instead of treating how we think, should we be treating how we emotionally respond? And how would we go about doing so? Perhaps, as Johnson-Laird mentions in his book, through exposure therapy, which falls under the domain of behavioral therapy. So should cognitive therapy really be a form of behavioral therapy? Then again, cognitive therapy has strong research support (as does behavioral therapy), so how does the hyper-emotion theory address that? 
Just as an artistically synaptic side-note, Phil Johnson-Laird also does research on the psychology of music (see his music-related work here), which includes emotions and music, creativity and jazz improvisation, dissonance, twentieth-century music, computer music, and rhythm (we are currently working on a study of rhythm similarity).