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Mourning becomes a lecturer

Claire White Interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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Claire White burned her armchair a long time ago and started to philosophise about mourning, life after death and other cool stuff in an ex phi sort of groove. ‘So I meet you by the cemetery gates’ are lines that Morrissey could have written about this funky cog scientist of religion. Claire has just been appointed assistant professor in the first ever cognitive science of religion position at Northridge, California. 

3:AM: I’m interested in how this all got started. Were you always interested in the mind and identity and religious beliefs and philosophical questions like that when younger, or has this been something that you gradually got interested in, perhaps through other people, or a specific incident?

Claire White: I was always interested in ‘people’ from a young age – what motivates people, why they do the things they do, that sort of thing. I was definitely interested in psychology, generally from about the age of 15. I remember an incident when, at high school, when I handed in an assignment on what career I wanted to pursue the teacher told me I could never be a psychologist because I couldn’t even spell the word but the specific area of mind and identity came about really as a product of my unhealthy obsession with death. I remember lying in bed trying to understand what, and who I am, and to comprehend what it would be like to never exist. It’s a thought that still sends shivers down my spine. I’m petrified of death. My hobby is visiting grave yards and just reading headstones, you won’t tell anyone that, will you? So that really lead to my interest in personal identity and beliefs in the afterlife.

3:AM: You’re currently working at the UCC [sic]. This is a very interesting place which takes seriously the idea of cross disciplinary research. You have a psychology background but work with anthropologists and philosophers. Is that right? Could you say something about how you got into this kind of work and what advantages cross disciplinary work brings, and what its like at the UCC?

CW: The ICC (Institute of Cognition and Culture). Yes it actively promotes interdisciplinarity. I work with great people. Paulo Sousa (anthropology), Tom Lawson (cognitive science of religion) and Graham Macdonald (philosophy) are there – so there’s a great combination of great minds from different disciplines. It is almost difficult for me to pigeon hole scholars as philosophers or anthropologists or religion scholars – sometimes I forget which discipline they would affiliate themselves with! For instance, Paulo Sousa, who is a cognitive anthropologist, has a mode of thinking that seems to be typically philosophical. He has such conceptual clarity and precision. Equally, Tom Lawson has been involved in so many disciplines and has acquired so much expertise from them all that I almost feel guilty restricting him to the cognitive science of religion.

The purpose of interdisciplinarity, as I see it, is to draw from whichever approach most suits the research question you are trying to ask, and ultimately, answer (Pascal Boyer wrote an excellent piece on this) – and it is refreshing when we can teach students to draw from a variety of approaches in the social cognitive sciences to solve problems. In the future I see a new type of scholar emerge who is equally versed in multiple disciplines – neuroscience, anthropology, social psychology etc. How cool would that be?

My background is in psychology. I became interested in both the psychology and anthropology of religion mainly through the work of Harvey Whitehouse who was then teaching at Queen’s University when I was an undergraduate. I remember coming to him with an essay I had written for a project on how psychology could help test his theory (‘Modes of Religiosity’) and he welcomed me with open arms. I worked as a research assistant on his project and volunteered for a year at the then newly established Institute of Cognition and Culture in 2004. I am still there (alas, I have moved around a little in between) – but it is such a privilege to watch an Institute flourish. We have MA and PhD students. We are relatively small and thus the Institute has a really intimate and friendly feel. We teach a combination of courses. For instance, evolutionary psychology, the cognitive science of religion and social cognition. We also run joint modules with philosophy. We have had, and continue to have, some excellent students. It is a great place to be.

3:AM: You’re part of the experimental philosophy work I believe. How did you get involved? Was it an invitation, or some cool experiments that you did that led you into that field?

CW: I think that the questions I was asking were typical of the field. I wanted to know how we decide that one person is the same person at another time, but in concepts of the afterlife – and particularly, in reincarnation. All around the world we have these ideas – ideas that the individual – whatever constitutes the individual – somehow persists after the death of their physical body. I was interested in what this ‘somehow’ – or rather ‘something’ was. I soon found contradictions between what people said they believed (i.e., that identity leaves the physical body at death) and how people reasoned (i.e., evidence that a person has been reincarnated can be located in physical similarities between the deceased and ‘suspect’. That, for me, was intriguing. I found it both with people who did not believe in reincarnation and the Jains in India. It led me to the conclusion that perhaps we have been placing too much emphasis on body versus mind, it’s a bit more interrelated than we think, even in religion. The research will be published in the newly established cognitive science of religion journal. So, I guess I was merging the cognitive sciences with experimental philosophy – though the two are very similar. Shaun Nichols heard of my work and really liked it – so, we ran some additional studies that really tested what philosophers have traditionally pondered over. We are publishing the results of the add-on studies soon.

3:AM: You’re background is in psychology and you are interested in folk concepts of identity and bereavement from the perspective of cultural anthropology, experimental psychology and experimental philosophy. So can you tell us about your work on bereavement? Usually when experimental philosophy gets involved, we find that what we expect folk to think is wrong in some respect. So what was it about bereavement you were wanting to explore and have you found surprising things about it?

CW: I am interested in grief from an evolutionary perspective. There’s been some work on this but it is fragmented. You have the neuroscientists and the clinicians looking at the same thing but not really talking to each other, and some speculations about the possible adaptive significance of grief but it’s fragmented and lacking evidence. So, Dan Fessler (UCLA) and I are running a number of really exciting projects to investigate this. We are also looking at the relationship between bereavement and religious beliefs – but I can’t really expand in case someone pinches our idea! But it will be in publication at some point. It’s taken a long time to collect the data so I am excited about finally getting it out there. So far, we’ve collected data on over 60 cultures around the world.

3:AM: You’ve written about pet grief. Are there surprising things about this that you have found in your research? So for example, is cat grief the same as grieving for a human, or more intense? Can you say something about what you found?

CW: There is actually a lot of work out there about the significance of pet loss – cats and dogs – to humans so I won’t go into that. We – Dan Fessler and I – investigated the potential contribution of evolved psychological mechanisms to the experience of grief. Thus pet loss was a proxy for human bereavement. We found a number of very interesting results, namely, that seeing the corpse can impact on the grief response, as well as frequently viewing images of the deceased (when they were alive). An abstract of my upcoming presentation at the IACSR conference in Aahrus:

Throughout history, humans have displayed a grief response following the death of an attachment figure, evincing sadness, rumination about the deceased, and yearning for reunion. At first glance, such responses appear detrimental to biological fitness. Together, these facts ought to make understanding grief from an evolutionary perspective a priority; yet, evolutionary accounts of grief are, thus far, piecemeal. The aim of the current research is to address this lacuna. We investigate the potential contribution of (1) evolved psychological mechanisms, and (2) modern cultural environments to the experience of grief. First, we outline how the reunion theory of the adaptive significance of grief and error management theory together predict that humans have evolved a ‘living input bias’; that is, they are biased towards detecting cues that suggest their lost attachment figure is alive, and present. Second, we outline two evolved cognitive mechanisms that underpin this cognitive bias; namely, facial recognition and agent detection. We consider how the cultural environment has shaped our responses to human loss. First, we outline differences between the environments in which our species evolved and modern environments, arguing that western environments in particular heighten the living input bias. We consider in detail the role of modern technologies, such as photographs, that effectively ‘immortalize the dead,’ and western cultural trends towards closed casket funerals that minimize exposure to the corpse. We present evidence for these claims, reporting the results of a study we recently conducted with bereaved pet owners. Finally, we put forward a theory about how these predisposing cognitive and cultural factors have enabled the successful transmission of particular conceptions of the deceased in the afterlife, and conversely, how conceptions of the deceased in the afterlife can impact the grief response.

3:AM: You wrote a paper on the impact of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan on partners and wives of military personnel. Can you tell us about that paper and what you found?

CW: Sure. I coordinated the study in King’s College, psychiatry. We found that the effect really depends on a number of predisposing and mediating factors; but most robust was how the mother coped. The study was really interesting to me because a lot of research in psychology focuses on the role of the mother, but we wanted to look on how the mental health of the father also affected children and of course, their partners. Also, my husband was a soldier for a number of years and he now works in personal security in Iraq, so I guess it was also interesting from a personal perspective.

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3:AM: I watched your presentation about the cognitive foundations of reincarnation concepts and you were looking at this in order to investigate how people construct a sense of identity. You have looked at these beliefs in relation to the Jains and beliefs in the UK. Is that right? Can you say something about this very cool stuff?

CW: Yeah …. my supervisor at the time was Jesse Bering. So I was particularly interested on his research on the afterlife, but it occurred to me that scholars seem to talk about mental states existing and really, for me, it’s more than that. In the afterlife we think of people – something about that person that makes them unique – seems to continue. That’s where my interest started. Reincarnation offered me a way to tap into these issues really by understanding what people implicitly assumed survived the death of their physical body. But of course, I found that it was much more complex than that. As part of my research I spent some time with the Jains in India. On a personal note, it was the most amazing experience – I spent time with the Jains during their day to day rotuine and in a monastery. They were the most generous, humble, content people I’ve ever met.

3:AM: You’ve written about how culture affects responses to trauma. So is your claim that is not just how people present their response to trauma but that their actual cognitive response is different depending on ones culture?

CW: This is an on-going interest of mine actually. I am currently looking at trauma in childhood in different cultures. It is a huge literature – but very little robust cross-cultural work seems to have been conducted. I think that people’s response to negative life events is in part determined by “norms” in the given society. Norms is a bit vague, but let’s just use that word for now. So in some cultures you have children undergo these potentially traumatic initiation ceremonies. They are described as being petrified, but they know everyone does it, and you have to do it to gain acceptance on some level. I’d like to know how these experiences affect them later – do they develop some type of post-traumatic symptoms? If not, what can this tell us about “cultural resilience”? That’s the one thing I really took away with me from my time in psychiatry working with military personnel. People are remarkably resilient. To me that’s fascinating.

3:AM: So how do you make sure that each of the disciplines gets a say on what goes on. Are there not conflicts when a social anthropologist wants to do it in a social anthropologists way and you want to do it in a psychology way and the philosophers want to have a say too?

CW: In my job, no. I have been fortunate enough to work in schools of divinity, philosophy, psychology and anthropology, and even more fortunate to have some training in each of these areas. Typically the people I work with are sympathetic to my approach. I still believe in the need to teach traditional material – I just ‘jazz’ it up a bit with the cognitive science stuff at the end! Usually the students are glossy-eyed by then and you can literally see them excited by something new, something fresh, something where the people who write the books are not only alive but around the corner. To them, and me, that’s exciting. There is always room, of course, for the traditional text books and theories but it’s good to mix the old with the new and all those I have worked with have recognised that.

3:AM: Josh Knobe said that he found his work being treated differently depending on whether he was being a cognitive scientist guy or a philosophy guy. So do you find that the same material gets different reactions depending on who your audience/readers are? Can you say something about this?

CW: I think the same work always gets different reactions depending on who your audience is, doesn’t it? Of course, there are generally accepted ways on what makes a good or ‘fitting’ piece of research depending on what intellectual tradition you belong to.

3:AM: So how would you characterise yourself as being now? Do you have an identity crisis or doesn’t it matter because of where you are working at the moment? But what would you be if you wanted to leave? Would you always be a psychologist or are you now multi-disciplinary through and through?

CW: I think we always have to have some sort of foundation. That for me is psychology. Ultimately we are trying to understand people – as brains, systems, individuals, groups – so I am happy with that characterisation. If I am probed further I would say that I belong to the cognitive science of religion – since that’s the work I am most involved in.

3:AM: One of the things being discussed a lot in philosophy is why women have a hard time in philosophy and why there are so few of them. Do you think your approach via psychology helps you to get into the field? Is this something you have noticed? Does ex phil have a different feel that is perhaps friendlier that more traditional ways of working in philosophy?

CW: Well, first I don’t think being from psychology helps you become accepted into philosophy. I have had experience presenting to philosophy departments and they have been the most daunting! But that criticism and sharpness is what philosophers are famous for. They are rigorous. I don’t have experience of being treated differently than men. Then again, in philosophy you meet people like Cynthia Macdonald who is one of the friendliest people ever – and she’s super sharp! So hopefully we can look towards women like her as excellent role models.

3:AM: Finally, can you recommend five books that you think a smart, but not necessarily psychological or philosophically trained readership, would find enlightening?

CW: Hard one!
1. Consilience by E.O Wilson (for any discipline – amazing)
2. Sophie’s World (must read for any young philosopher in waiting)
3. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Justin Barrett (intro to cognitive science of religion)
4. Explaining Culture – Dan Sperber
5. Experimental Philosophy – Knobe & Nichols (great intro to ex phi)

3:AM: And finally, finally, is there a novel you’ve read recently that you have found helpful or thought-provoking and which may have links with your interests?

CW: Mmmm hard one. Well I have to say that for me the norm is now listening to books since I have them downloaded a lot onto MP3. I’ve just finished listening to Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth – a really excellent overview of evolution. Though David Attenborough’s Life on Air is awe inspiring – you want to become a zoologist by chapter 5. And it’s funny, that always helps.

richardmarshall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 2nd, 2012.