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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 11.1 (2004) 65-70

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Top-Down and Bottom-Up in Delusion Formation

Jakob Hohwy

delusions, top-down, bottom-up, predictive coding

Some delusions may arise as responses to unusual experiences (Davies et al. 2001; Maher 1974;). The implication is that delusion formation in some cases involves some kind of bottom-up mechanism—roughly, from perception to belief. Delusion formation may also involve some kind of top-down mechanism. This could be in the shape of a patient's flawed background beliefs, or biases, which somehow modulate perception or ensure delusional interpretations of experience. There is little agreement about what kind of mechanism is primary in delusion formation, or, indeed, what the particular mechanisms and their neural substrates might be.

In the evaluation of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in delusion formation, a number of conceptual questions should be addressed (Davies and Coltheart 2000). For example, if there is an experiential component, why is a hypothesis with a delusional explanation of the unusual experience seen as relevant? Why do the subjects come to believe it tenaciously? How come some unusual experiences do not develop into delusions?

A number of empirical findings also need to be taken into account: for example, the damage to the autonomic system in Capgras delusion (Ellis et al. 1997), the decreased ability for fast error correction in schizophrenia (Frith and Done 1989), modulation of activity in parietal cortex in delusions of alien control and other passivity experiences (Blakemore, Oakley, and Frith 2003), and also in schizophrenia, the increased sensitivity to self-produced stimuli, such as tickling oneself (Blakemore et al. 2000) and the sound of one's own voice (Ford et al. 2001).

Theory choice can also be guided by philosophical doctrines about, for example, the nature of belief, the constitutive role of rationality, and intersubjectivity and the nature of judgements about the external world. It is natural, however, to let beliefs about philosophical doctrine be secondary to empirical findings and conceptual issues.

The distinction between bottom-up and top-down mechanisms is particularly sharp in John Campbell's (2001) account of delusions and in Tim Bayne and Elisabeth Pacherie's (2004) discussion of Campbell. In this discussion, top-down approaches are associated with the general philosophical doctrine of rationalism, and bottom-up approaches with the philosophical doctrine of empiricism. Campbell's account is top-down because he posits delusional framework beliefs that arise directly as a result of brain damage or malfunction, and that work in some top-down fashion on the interpretation of experience. Bayne [End Page 65] and Pacherie convincingly defend empiricism against Campbell's rationalist account. Among their many other objections, they briefly puzzle about how a delusional framework belief (e.g., that one's spouse is an impostor) in a top-down fashion could cause the damage to the autonomic system seen in the Capgras and Cotard delusions (2004, 1). I think this is a very important objection because skin conductance data are part of the evidence for the bottom-up hypothesis concerning the Capgras delusion. We could add to this, for example, that it is mysterious how belief in a top-down fashion could cause people with schizophrenia to be worse at fast error correction than normal controls, to be better at tickling themselves than normal controls, and to have an increased response to the sound of their own voice.

On the other hand, although the skin conductance response (SCR) evidence suggests a bottom-up approach to the Capgras delusion, it does not explain the character of the subjective experience that is hypothesized to give rise to the delusional belief: reduced SCR is not part of the experience itself (thanks to Ian Gold for discussion of this). Something more is required to give a full account of the type of experience that gives rise to the delusion. Further, as they stand, most bottom-up accounts are unable to account for why reality testing fails for beliefs based on these experiences.

Neither rationalism nor empiricism on their own seem able to address the conceptual questions while paying...