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

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


  1. It’s interesting that current beliefs hold that it is a mistake at all. I don’t believe they are taking into consideration the symbolic mind …. only the reading, speaking mind. ?

  2. Marnie – perhaps The Great Marnie – and Daniel – definitely The Great Daniel – thanks so very much for posting. Very astute observations Marnie and excellent comparison to politics/religion – i relate to that and, unfortunately, I am no expert on the difference between knowledge and beliefs either. Perhaps Daniel is…..
    In response to your excellent ponderings Daniel, i think we are in fact, often at least, targeting a separate belief, although i don’t know if it is in a different dimension – i may not understand that properly though. In your view would using metaphors, out of the dimension but clearly relevant to it, count as out of the dimension too? We often use metaphors and stories as a way to challenge the current belief and, i guess, to undermine it. Anyway, thanks again for posting and thanks for the best wishes re Serbia – it was encouraging to see that the real Socceroos turned up against Ghana – not to take anything away from what looked like a very organised and, as Martin Tyler said, sumptuous (!) German team against us – perhaps the real German team didn’t turn up against Serbia!

  3. Hi Lorimer,
    thanks for linking to my post.
    To your interesting question: From a theoretical perspective and from my reading into this matter, I believe that you should actually not attempt to strengthen your patients beliefs regarding their pain, but instead try to strengthen a separate value or belief.
    The basic idea remains that you want try to strengthen the person’s beliefs, so that they feel less threatened by challenging information. However, if you make a person feel more secure by strengthening the very belief you are ultimately seeking to undermine, you might not end up with a net gain. It would seem more advisable to me that you target a separate belief-dimension as preparation for introducing new challenging information.
    As a very important caveat, I’d also state that none of this is even relevant if we’re not really talking about something the person is attached to. If the Descartes-like explanation is just something a person thinks is true, but doesn’t place a lot of personal stock into, there might be very different mechanisms at play…

    [Note: I am not that invested in the above interpretation, so feel free to offer alternatives 🙂 ]

    Also: I hope Australia beats Serbia on Wednesday! Help Germany advance!

  4. Lorimer do you not think this raises the question of knowledge vs beliefs. I learnt in PT school that A delta and C fibers were resonsible for pain messages to the brain. Then you come along and say no that is not acurate, these send a message of nociception and the brain… This is certainly easy for me to learn and remember but our patients were not taught that pain comes from c fibers… They simply know when they bend forward it hurts in the back so obviously the pain is in the back. This belief may have been reinforced when they saw the doc who said “you have pain because your disc is protruding blah blah blah. I am certainly not smart enough to know the difference in psychology of knowledge and beliefs but at times when I “explain pain” I feel as though I am debating politics or religion with my patients. I do suspect complete accuracy of information is the best way to arm one’s self for this battle. Perhaps Darwin could relate to this frustration. By the way I love reading this blog and realizing much of what I “know” is actually total crap.