I had a very curious experience recently. I discovered that I know what it’s like to be insane. No, save the obvious jokes; this is interesting.
This came about because I read a magazine article somewhere which I cannot now identify – recent, online, a relatively prestigious publication with a tradition of think pieces – about patterns in delusional schizophrenia. [UPDATE: the article was How reality caught up with paranoid delusions.] The thesis of the article was simple: though the content of schizophrenic delusions changes wildly in different cultural contexts, there’s an underlying motivation for them that never varies and produces a fundamental sameness.
The simple, constant thing is that delusional schizophrenics lose the capability to identify all the thoughts in their head as belonging to themselves. In an effort to make sense of their experience, they invent elaborate theories which attribute their disconnected thoughts to external agencies. Gods, demons, orbital mind-control lasers – the content of such delusions varies wildly, but the function is always the same – to restore a sense of causal order to the schizophrenic’s universe, to impose a narrative on the eruptions that he or she can no longer recognize as “self”.
It’s a startling shift in perspective to realize that the construction of schizophrenic delusions arises from the same drive that yields scientific theory-building. Both are Heideggerian rearrangements of the cognitive toolkit, strategies driven by the necessity of coping with the experienced world. The schizophrenic’s tragedy is that the most important fact about his or her experiential world (how much of it is self looking at self) is inaccessible.
A few weeks later this theory conjugated with some memories and I suddenly realized that I know what this is like! I’ve experienced it. Occasionally, in deep hypnagogic states, I hear voices.
For those of you in the cheap seats, a hypnagogic state is a kind of consciousness you sometimes pass through between waking and sleep. In general people aren’t very good at remembering what this experience is like – recall, like that of dreams, tends to fade quickly unless you make an effort immediately on full wakefulness to copy the impression out of whatever working storage it’s using into long-term memory. Through long practice I know how to do this – it’s a core part of the “experimental mystic” toolkit.
I looked it up. Turns out auditory hallucinations are not a particularly uncommon report from hypnagogia. Mine are, however, unusually coherent; where most people mostly get babble full of neologisms, I get snarky commentary on things I’ve been thinking about that’s not just whole sentences but whole paragraphs.
What unites my experience with the delusional schizophrenic’s is that while I’m in the hypnagogic state I have trouble retaining the fact that the voices aren’t outside my head. The “self” tag on those voices has been at least partially lost and is difficult to recover.
To be delusionaly insane, I now grok, would be to be like that all the time. I reintegrate my sense of self without effort after waking; the fragmented mind of the schizophrenic can’t do that and is driven to add ever more elaborate epicycles to his or her theory of the world to paper over the lack.
This isn’t the most important thing I’ve learned this year (that’d be some of the ideas in Nassim Taleb’s book Anti-Fragile, so far), but it may be the most interesting.