Consciousness and Emotion Conference

When hunches mislead: Problem-solving deficits in patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Catherine L. Harris, Ph.D., Boston University Department of Psychology

One explanation for the origin of consciousness in our species is that the ability to reflect on diverse aspects of the environment promoted sophisticated problem-solving. Preconscious "hunches" or intuitions may reflect the earliest sensitivity to a solution before it is sufficiently well- developed for conscious reflection. Questions about the role of hunches in problem-solving motivated an analysis of why OCD patients perform poorly on the Object Alternation Task (OAT). In the OAT, subjects must induce, across multiple trials, the rule governing the location of a penny in a cup. The rule is that the coin switches to the alternate cup on trials when the subject guesses correctly.

OAT is known to be sensitive to dysfunction in orbitofrontal cortex, a region also implicated in OCD. Ideally, this neuroanatomical explanation for the OCD performance deficits would be supplemented by explanation which would link task difficulties to the phenomenology of OCD. The OAT was included in a battery of clinical scales and neuropsychological tasks were administered to OCD patients, controls, and a separate group of individuals with schizotypal personality disorder. SPD individuals were of interest because they are believed to have deficits in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, not orbitofrontal cortex.

Subjects were queried about how they solved the task and their spontaneous comments during the task were recorded. More frequently than controls and individuals with SPD, OCD patients made spontaneous reference to numerological beliefs such as "things come in threes" and "after 10 it'll change." These comments suggest that attention to internally generated hunches dominated over attention to world reinforcement contingencies, and thus interfered with drawing inferences from the feedback about the location of the penny). Because SPD individuals did not have impaired performance on the OAT, magical thinking itself is not a sufficient explanation for OCD patient's poor performance. Experiments are planned to investigate how the emotional salience of hunches may interfere with encoding and reasoning about environmental input. \

This presentation based on a forthcoming paper by Catherine Harris, Wayne Dinn and Ayse Aycicegi.