Everyday insanity: Psychosis and the mundane

woman_ironing_small.jpgPsychosis is usually considered as the least mundane of mental states. Occasionally however, the mundane and the psychotic collide, producing uncanny and jarring contrasts that highlight the unreality of everyday life.

Delusions and hallucinations, by definition, are atypical to the humdrum of everyday mental life. The most spectacular episodes are clinically described as ‘florid’ (literally ‘covered with flowers’), a phrase meant to capture the attention-grabbing, chaotic and sometimes colourful nature of the thoughts and behaviour of someone experiencing a fundamentally different reality from the rest of the work-a-day world.

In the experience of psychosis, the spectacular becomes commonplace and the whole notion of the mundane is thrown into turmoil. The mundane occasionally appears in psychotic episodes, but instantly becomes notable because of its rarity. In psychosis, the mundane exists in a state of duality where it is no longer wholly banal or conspicuous and yet maintains the qualities of each.

Passivity phenomena, where people experience inserted thoughts and imposed actions from an imagined external source, are often particularly spectacular and can be embedded in complex delusional systems. A nineteenth century account in the memoirs of German judge Daniel Paul Schreber described how his highly excited mind was attracting ‘rays’ from God causing him feminising sensations of ‘voluptuousness’, this he believed, would eventually lead to a state of heavenly bliss which would unite him and the Almighty in holy union.

Psychoanalyst Victor Tausk noted the phenomenon of the ‘influencing machine’ in psychosis[1], where people believe themselves to be under the influence of highly advanced mind control technology, usually operated by secretive conspiratorial gangs attempting to control the object of the supposed persecution.

Into this psychotic world of mind control and divine influence, steps the tweed-suited host of This is Your Life[2]:

A 29 year old housewife said, “I look out of the window and I think the garden looks nice and the grass looks cool, but the thoughts of Eamonn Andrews come into my mind. There are no other thoughts there, only his. He treats my mind like a screen and flashes his thoughts onto it like you flash a picture.”

This brief case study catches a glimpse of media banality intruding into a world usually reserved for supernatural powers and sci-fi technology. The appearance of media personalities in psychosis is not in itself unusual, except appearances are usually restricted to the bold and the beautiful of the media world. Numerous “rock and roll” delusions have been reported involving famous singers and rock musicians[3], with the flamboyant David Bowie seeming a popular guest in people’s rock and roll psychoses (or at least in the ones reported in the literature).

In contrast, inoffensive TV presenters stick out like a sore thumb. In these alternate realities, the amiable Eamonn Andrews is strikingly unfamiliar, flying the flag for the mundane in an otherwise kaleidoscopic world.

But perhaps even here, the kitsch of front-room family television might be too notable to be considered truly mundane. If so, a further case study[4] pushes us firmly into the prosaic:

Margaret and her husband Michael, both aged 34 years, were discovered to be suffering from folie à deux when they were both found to be sharing similar persecutory delusions. They believed that certain persons were entering their house, spreading dust and fluff and “wearing down their shoes”.

The domestic nature of the delusions are thrown into stark relief by the context of the rare and unusual syndrome (folie à deux) in which they occur, highlighting them as the ordinary out-of-place. As outside observers, the logical implosion starts here. The ordinary becomes remarkable, this makes it no longer ordinary, which means it is remarkable in the remarkable world of psychosis, meaning it is ordinary once more (and so on).

Here, the appearance of the mundane in the world of psychosis causes a paradox in the rational world, making it a little more ambiguous and difficult to understand; while the mundane leaks into psychosis, psychosis is leaking back into the world of the mundane.

Part of the curiosity of this situation lies in that psychosis, once thought of as a cut and dry categorical diagnosis, is now increasingly believed to exist as a continuum, with some people simply experiencing more anomalous experience than others. The people who have the most intense unusual experiences tend to become distressed or behave oddly enough to come to the attention of psychiatrists, whereas others may be able to continue with daily living and never be considered of medical interest.

The figures are striking, up to 40% of the general population have been found to have experienced a daytime hallucination[5] and 10% of the general population score above the average of psychotic inpatients on measures of delusional thinking[6]. It seems ripples in consensual reality are being recognised as common and we are forced to question what counts as mundane reality.

The philosopher Charles Fort perhaps had the best grip on the situation. He spent his life cataloguing the seemingly-fantastical phenomena that science had “damned” as unworthy of explanation[7]. By amassing such a catalogue of strange events, Fort demonstrated that the anomalous can be commonplace. Strange phenomena are not considered strange because they necessarily happen infrequently, but because we do not have an easy explanation for them.

According to Fort, the mundane consists of those things that can be explained away without a second thought, they go unmarked and unnoticed because they do not challenge our preconceptions. When the mundane appears in psychosis, the contrast can be jarring, challenging our ideas of the everyday and the unusual.

From this perspective, anything can be lifted from the world of the mundane simply by examining it closely and intently, or damned to the everyday world by overlooking its importance.

[1] Tausk, V. (1933) On the origin of the influencing machine in schizophrenia. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 2, 519-56. Reprinted in ‘Essential Papers on Psychosis’. ISBN 0814710972.

[2] Mellor, C.S. (1970) First rank symptoms of schizophrenia. I. The frequency in schizophrenics on admission to hospital. II. Differences between individual first rank symptoms. British Journal of Psychiatry, 117 (536), 15-23. [Summary]

[3] Glass, J., & Campbell, T.G. (1984) Rock and roll delusions. British Journal of Psychiatry, 145, 95-6. [Summary]

[4] Enoch, D. & Ball, H. (2001, p181) Folie à deux (et Folie à Plusiers). In Enoch, D. & Ball, H. Uncommon psychiatric syndromes (4th ed). London: Arnold. ISBN 0340763884

[5] Ohayon, M. M. (2000). Prevalence of hallucinations and their pathological associations in the general population. Psychiatry Research, 97(2-3), 153-164. [Summary]

[6] Peters, E. R., Joseph, S. A., & Garety, P. A. (1999). Measurement of delusional ideation in the normal population: introducing the PDI (Peters et al. Delusions Inventory). Schizophrenia Bulletin, 25(3), 553-576. [Summary]

[7] Fort, C. (1919/1999) Book of the Damned. London: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1573926833.

This was originally written for the Journal of Mundane Behavior. Unfortunately, the journal seems to have ground to a halt, so this piece is published here for the first time.

2 thoughts on “Everyday insanity: Psychosis and the mundane”

  1. Great post…

    Delusions and hallucinations, by definition, are atypical to the humdrum of everyday mental life. The most spectacular episodes are clinically described as ‘florid’ (literally ‘covered with flowers’), a phrase meant to capture the attention-grabbing, chaotic and sometimes colourful nature of the thoughts and behaviour of someone experiencing a fundamentally different reality from the rest of the work-a-day world.

    It made me think of this lovely personal description about growing up with an schizophrenic uncle, which captures both the florid beauty and the tragedy of a psychotic mind.

  2. Being narcoleptic, mundane hallucinations are almost daily experiences for me. On waking up I routinely continue dreaming and usually these hallucinations overlap fairly well with the actual environment, requiring sometimes quite a level of care to distinguish reality from dream. Especially after a brief micro-nap in the day (narcoleptics go straight into REM sleep, so one can be asleep for seconds yet start dreaming) I can sometimes simply think someone has said something they have not, or find my mind has supplied the end of a sentence I was reading. Although it is, of course, a very specific condition, my experiences with this have always made me disinclined to presume that hallucination or delusion is an outlier, to be named as psychotic or insane, and probably far more common than we think. The “realist” assumption that there is an almost direct and causal link between impulses to the sense organs and mental representations, with anything in the latter not corresponding to the former being therefore non-normal or abberent is, I think, quite wrong. I am fairly in agreement with Dan Dennett’s many-passes model of consciousness and perception, which is far more open to a slightly misconstructed representation being “accepted” if it does not directly and obviously jar with sense data. This certainly seems to be what goes on with my dull, mundane hallucinations, which last night consisted of waking up in the lounge with two cats sat purring on me (hardly an unusual occurrence) only to discover as my brain slowly reset that they were actually sitting in the kitchen looking meaningfully at their empty bowls.

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