Life lessons from mental illness

There are various traits of some mental illnesses that we can see in normal people to varying degrees.  Trying to relate the normal to the abnormal for this post (even though I am not suggesting that normal people are just mild versions of abnormal people) gives a different angle on certain flaws of thinking.  The following are just seven examples, I’m sure there are many more flaws that could be categorized.

1) Jumping to conclusions:
Several groups found that …
a deluded person needs less information to arrive at a definite decision than persons without a delusion or people with a depressive disorder. The latter needed significantly more information. With regard to delusions, this phenomenon was called “jumping to conclusions”
2)  The pattern recognition tradeoff:
I can’t find the source, but I have read that deluded people often see patterns where normal people do not,  The interesting angle is that sometimes the patterns are real and they see things that others miss.  Perhaps there is a tradeoff involved.  There certainly is a “signal to noise” tradeoff in medical imaging – are you seeing an artifact – or are you seeing the beginning of a tumor?   Or in crime-detection – a Muslim man begins flight training on a flight simulator .and tells instructors that while he wants to learn how to fly a 747 jet, he does not intend to earn a pilot’s license.  Is that a mild oddity that means nothing, or a clue to an impending crime that will change history?

3)  The theory of mind deficit
“Autistic patients also have a “theory of mind deficit”. This makes them behave inappropriately, because they do not understand other people.
A large number of experiments using fMRI, electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) have shown that certain brain regions (in particular the anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and inferior frontal cortex) are active when people experience an emotion (disgust, happiness, pain, etc.) and — this is the interesting part — when they see another person experiencing the same emotion.
So I would speculate that a deficit in theory of mind might affect your understanding of facial expressions, and therefore your understanding of other people’s thoughts about you.
Conversely, if you don’t have the deficit, and if you can read an expression, that means you can feel the emotion behind it.  So for instance, if you go to the movies and watch the villain’s facial expressions, perhaps you have a little bit of potential villain in you.  Perhaps you have to be able to feel cruelty to recognize it.

3b) Misreading social cues:
Because they cannot read social cues, including facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice,…[autistic people] are at a disadvantage. Another person may look at his watch (“You’re boring me” or “I’ve gotta go, I’m late!”), use a sarcastic tone, grimace to show increasing annoyance, quirk their eyebrows in disbelief – all of it lost on the person with an ASD. They cannot “see” the social signals that bombard us every day. Neither can they respond appropriately. How could they? They never received the message that was sent: I’m bored. I’m late. You’re making me mad.
Theory of mind simply refers to the understanding that other people have their own thoughts, perceptions, and intentions separate from one’s own. It is part of seeing others as separate beings with their own agendas. To accommodate others, to predict their future behavior, to manipulate or please them, you must have this inbuilt capacity to guess something about who they are and what they might do or desire. Individuals with autism lack this ability to a staggering degree.
In my experience, there is a laziness some normal people have – they don’t take the time to think of how their actions or speech look to others.  Its not that they can’t understand, its that they don’t try to understand, until truly disastrous results ensue.
Even when we desperately want to understand, we may fail.  Pundits and Intel officials can try to understand the motives of world leaders they have never met personally.  We really want to know how to interpret the intentions of Vladimir Putin, for example.  There is a huge spectrum of different interpretations of his motives, even among people who agree on many other issues.

4) Delusions of Reference:
Persons with ideas of reference may experience:
a) Believing that ‘somehow everyone on a passing city bus is talking about them, yet they may be able to acknowledge this is unlikely’.
b) Believing that the lyrics of a song are specifically about them
c) Seeing objects or events as being set up deliberately to convey a special or particular meaning to themselves
d) Believing that the behavior of others is in reference to an abnormal, offensive body odor, which in reality is non-existent and cannot be detected by others (see: olfactory reference syndrome).

Does this apply to normal people?  I suppose a normal person could pass a group of colleagues, hear one make a sarcastic comment, and worry, until he is reassured that the comment was not about him.
(In regards to (c), it is actually true that in certain real situations objects CAN be used for communication.  For example Mafiosi will sometimes dump a dead animal on someone’s porch.  Its a non-verbal communication, and presumably when the home-owner emerges in the morning, he gets the point.)

5)   Seeing what isn’t there – Missing what is.
Crazy people can see things that aren’t there.  Normal people can have the opposite problem – they may not see what is in front of their noses.  The following story comes from a book by Amy Herman called Visual Intelligence.  She teaches people how to notice things that others miss.  Among her clients are the FBI.  The interesting thing is that she started out as an art historian – and that is what gave her the perceptual practice.  But anyway, here is the story.  It is a very sad and disturbing one, but instructive.
“this [not seeing things] proved to be true for four-year-old Daniel Pelka…the little blond boy was starved and beaten to death by his parents–despite authorities having been called to his home twenty-six times.
School officials had noticed when Daniel showed up with a broken arm, two black eyes, and bruises around his neck.
And teachers noticed he was wasting away.
They documented that he was stealing food from other children’s lunch boxes and eating scraps.. from garbage cans…
His stepfather claimed that the boy had broken his arm when he jumped off a couch.  It was even determined that Daniel had an “obsession with food.”  His mother claimed that Daniel had a medical condition that made him underweight and small.  His pediatrician agreed!
The police would often visit the house because of violent domestic disputes.
Strangely, the police never thought of asking Daniel himself what was going on.
So here, we have professionals – a pediatrician, teachers, policemen, none of whom saw what was going on or did the most basic sensible and obvious thing they could do – talk to the kid!
And they were all sane.
Makes you think.

6)  Hemi spatial inattention
Hemi spatial inattention is an attention disorder that prevents the patient from attending to stimuli on one side. Patients with hemi spatial inattention may draw items they see like this:
Patients frequently deny that they have a problem.  Its not just that they don’t perceive something, its that they don’t know they don’t perceive something.
This reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s remark (he was secretary of defense during the war that toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq):
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
Interestingly, the Iraq Intelligence Commission reported that
Perhaps most troubling, we found an intelligence Community in which analysts had a difficult time…identifying…what they do not know.
7) A social convention disorder:
About a third of its Tourette’s syndrome sufferers yield to outbursts of obscene language.  “The symptoms have the quality of a mad desire to violate social conventions.”   Think of this the next time you feel like driving your car through a bourgeois neighborhood, with your stereo on full blast.  Social conventions may be worth heeding

So can we draw any useful ideas from all this?  It would be productive to teach normal people how to overcome flaws in thinking.  For instance it might be possible to teach rules such as “think of what can go wrong with your actions” or “think how you would feel if someone else acted this way toward you.”  It might be possible to teach people when they are jumping to conclusions, and making assumptions. In fact, Amy Herman does talk about showing people how to identify their assumptions, even when they are told to make a simple description of a artist’s painting that is presented to them.   Teaching people to be able to recognize and admit what they don’t know would also be helpful.
As a child, both my brother and I could not make friends.  And when the kids around us reached the bullying age, some saw us as prime targets to bully.  It started early, I remember a little Jewish girl with some companions on the school bus charge me with an umbrella, and cut me under the eye.   This was my first bad experience with women, and it certainly was not the last!
Both of us had problems understanding and communicating with others.  Perhaps children with these problems can be taught some skills in perceiving and interacting.  If not, I would suggest they be home-schooled until old enough so that their reasoning abilities can compensate for their blind spots.
I know someone who makes social misjudgments often because of some thought flaw that I see, but I can’t quite define.  It expresses itself in all sorts of situations.  And yet I myself have caused a bigger and more embarrassing disaster than he ever has, partly because of thinking errors that most people would not make. When people have certain flaws in thinking, their life becomes equivalent to running a gauntlet where they keep getting hit.
An interesting question is – is our theory of mind complete? Could we lack certain emotions or feelings that someone else, perhaps someone abnormal has, and therefore not understand him?
I was not autistic, but I would look down instead of at people in tense situations. I thought I had gotten over this by college, but a job interviewer explained to me one time I failed an interview – “they said you always looked down!” There was a feeling, that if I stared at people I would look abnormal.  I just didn’t know what to do with my eyes, and in some cases there was a feeling similar to shyness, but more extreme that led me to act in this odd manner. The interviewers did not know what caused the behavior, but they decided that it was a danger sign.
In another situation, I had  feelings, slightly similar to that Tourette’s in that they involved a desire to act weirdly.  While it seemed to me that my behavior was silly but harmless, others saw it as something more sinister.  I haven’t had that feeling since, but the events it led to put my life on a different track.
Our “theory of mind” might not deal compassionately with abnormal people if we don’t understand that they can have abnormal feelings. Conversely, in history victims of attacks often do not understand what normal people feel and believe, even in cases when their continued existence depends on it.

Societies of Brains – A Study in the Neuroscience of Love and Hate – Walter Freeman (1995)
Visual Intelligence – Amy Herman (2016)
The Mask of Sanity – H M Cleckly (1955)
Garety P.A, Freeman D. Cognitive approaches to delusions: A critical review of theories and evidence. British Journal of Clinical Psychology. 1999;38:113–154. [PubMed] (on jumping to conclusions)
A Quote by Hoche:: “There is no delusional idea held by the mentally ill which cannot be exceeded in its absurdity by the conviction of fanatics, either individually or en masse”

6 thoughts on “Life lessons from mental illness

  1. An excellent survey of interesting evidence. First I have to admit that I trained as a psychologist, and spent 20 years doing research before an eye problem drove me out of the field. Secondly, I have also spent many years studying a traditional Eastern system (Sufism) which has filled in a lot of the gaps that exist in Western approaches but most importantly given me training in self observation, something which Western cultures have totally neglected.
    I also had a rather dysfunctional upbringing which led me to lack social skills and escape into books rather than association with people.
    The observations that I would add to your list and/or expand some of your statements are these:
    1. There is a lot of evidence from biology and evolutionary theory that the development of the cortex in mammals correlates highly with the size of social units of the species. I.e. the cognitive skills needed to recognise the characteristics and behaviour of other members of the group. Obviously this gave mankind the capacity needed to develop thinking about, not just other people, but other aspects of the physical world. It is no accident that a lot of academics tend to be inadequate socially (certainly true in my case); they are using the brain’s capacity for social observation and judgment in the wrong way (in abstract theory building).
    2. Jumping to conclusions is the most common mistake in thinking. The tendency is to reach a theory about something then to search for evidence supporting it, and ignoring evidence that doesn’t. Of course, what you should be looking for is evidence that falsifies the theory!
    3. Pattern recognition: good point. Incidentally, do get a copy of Ahmed’s book on 9/11 and see the evidence he reviews showing that not only did the FBI have all of the terrorists under observation prior to the attack, and have intelligence that specifically linked the use of planes as missiles and an intended attack on the World Trade Center, and noticed that one of them only wanted training to fly a plane, not to take off or land, but many FBI agents sent warnings to the Government in this regard, and were fobbed off or ignored.
    4. Missing what is there. This is a central issue. To a large extent we see only what our upbringing and culture and biology have programmed us to see. There have been several almost identical cases of child abuse being missed by supposedly trained personnel in this country, including a recent one where the father (with the aid of the mother) murdered their child and then made a pathetically unrealistic call to the emergency services claiming it was an accident. Again, many so-called experts had been called to the family on many occasions and warned by neighbours and relatives what was going to happen.This is where self observation comes in. Unless you can learn to see your own behaviour, your deceptiveness, subjectivity, etc., you will find it hard to spot it in others. Once you can see it in yourself, it becomes immediately obvious when it appears in others. But because all of us prefer to see ourselves as honest and good we fail to learn this key lesson. The experts and social workers, of course, see themselves as too clever or experienced for this to apply to them.
    5. Yes, the current Western view of the mind is still relatively primitive, and there is still a lot to learn!

    1. If what Ahmed says is true about the U.S. gov not listening to the FBI, then we have an even more incompetent government that I thought. You say we should look for evidence that falsifies any theory we have. That’s similar to what a mathematician I know told me, after we had an exchange of views and articles on the Iraq war. He said that the various decision makers should have had an assistant look at all the reasons to not go to war, rather than just gather evidence to support a pre-existing bias that we had to go to war.
      It is interesting that Sufis are interested in self-observation and subjectivity. The thought inspired me to list some of my own flaws to myself, – a depressing experience.

      1. The evidence that Ahmed has gathered is quite disturbing, even for someone as cynical about politicians as I am! You might be able to get his book on abeBooks.
        The Sufis provide a lot of teaching materials that aid in the self observation process and help to make one’s thinking more objective. If you check out the Idries Shah Foundation you will find most of the books by Shah, the most recent Sufi teacher (only one is publicly known in each generation) available to read, absolutely free, online. It can be depressing to list ones flaws but it helps to remember that everybody is in the same situation. Sufis are sometimes presented as an Islamic movement but say that they predate Mohammed.

      2. I just realised that the email I got from your site includes a lot more than in your post above — not sure why. Couple of extra points: 1. There is nothing about romance or feeling in Sufism, I think your dad must have it a bit confused with something else. On the contrary, Sufis constantly condemn emotionality in religion. 2. I was working mostly in the psychology of deafness, with special reference to communication skills.

  2. The reason there was a discrepancy is that I edited down the comment later. I tend to start off verbose, and then trim things down.
    I looked on the net, and found your co-wrote “Language Cognition and Deafness”. That sounds like an interesting topic.
    I’ll let my father know he made a mistake.

    1. Yes, that was my only book — nearly 30 years old now, surprised it is still available. Mike Rodda, my co-author (and boss) died a couple of years ago.
      Your father is not alone, many of the older generation of orientalists had no idea what it was about. Because it is not a sect, has no belief system, and constantly adapts its teaching according to the current culture it won’t fit comfortably into any theoretical system.

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