Neuropsychology and Psychosis in ‘A Scanner Darkly’

AScannerDarklyPoster.jpgPartly motivated by his increasing brushes with psychosis, by the early 1970s, Philip K. Dick was struggling with increasing doubts over the nature of reality and personal identity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, characters with unstable worlds and existential doubts are a familiar focus of his work. Dick was interested in more than just description however, and often used his novels to explore personal theories of existence.

During his research, he discovered the work of Roger Sperry, who had rocked the foundations of neuroscience by discovering that when separated, the hemispheres of the brain seemed, at least to some degree, independently conscious. Worried about his own perception of reality, Dick considered that this could explain his increasing feelings of alienation and self-detachment. These reflections resulted in A Scanner Darkly, a partly autobiographical near-future novel that remains an incisive commentary on society, psychosis and the brain.

Ostensibly, the novel is about an undercover cop, attempting to track the mysterious source of the dangerously addictive ‘Substance D’. During the day, Dick’s protagonist lives as Bob Arctor, a user and drop-out who spends his time chasing the next fix and discussing drug-addled schemes with his similarly addicted housemates. When not undercover, Arctor becomes agent S.A. Fred, reporting his findings and reviewing recordings from surveillance scanners placed to gather evidence on friends and associates.

Unusually for works of science-fiction, much of the book’s setting was lifted directly from the author’s own life. In a letter to a friend, he admitted descending “into the gutter of near-illegal life: narcotics and guns and knives and oh so many crimes… not so much that I did them but that I surrounded myself with those who did” (Sutin, 1991, p202). Dick was a sharp observer though, and his characters depict the rough language and petty politics of his dubious peers with considerable insight. Not surprisingly, the individuals and episodes on which the book centres are vividly portrayed.

This detailed observation can be seen right from the opening of the book, where Charles Freck and Jerry Fabin believe themselves to be infested with ‘aphids’ which they are attempting to capture in a glass jar for medical analysis. To the envy of most academic textbooks, these pages contain a detailed account of delusional parasitosis, a form of psychosis often brought on by stimulant drug abuse. In this condition (also known as Ekbom’s syndrome) sufferers believe themselves to be infested with parasites and are often detected by the so-called ‘matchbox sign’, where sufferers present doctors with supposedly captured ‘parasites’ in a matchbox or similar container (Enoch and Ball, 1999).

Apart from these carefully observed vignettes of drug use and its consequences however, A Scanner Darkly is notable as a study on the separation and fracturing of self-consciousness. Dick explores this by setting up a society so awash with drugs, that the mysterious cartels have infiltrated all levels of government. As a protective measure, agents must keep their identity secret from both sides. When with their colleagues, they must wear ‘scramble suits’ that project a constantly changing external appearance generated from a database of stored images. As a further measure, agents must report on their own undercover selves, so, by omission, their reports do not inadvertently give away their identity.

By the nature of his job, the novel’s protagonist is in the unenviable position of never feeling entirely grounded in a single identity, a feeling exacerbated by the fact he is frequently required to view himself in the third person when watching surveillance tapes. By this literary device, Dick manages to capture the feeling of existential detachment that appears in many of the descriptive accounts of psychosis, reflecting the original sense of Eugene Bleuler’s ‘schizophrenia’ (meaning literally, ‘split mind’). Recent studies on the phenomenology of psychosis show similar striking parallels. Stanghellini’s (2004) recent book captures both the psychotic state and the protagonist’s dilemma with equal clarity, when he describes the breakdown of self-consciousness as including:

“disorders of the demarcation between me and not-me (‘It is not me who is seeing that object over there – I am that object’), anomalous experiences of unity in the present moment (‘I feel like I am two persons at the same time’) and of one’s continuing identity across time (‘Time and especially my own actions are fragmented’), and finally the loss of myness of one’s own experiences (‘It is not me who is doing this actions or having this perception’)” (Stanghellini, 2004, p150).

With this in mind, perhaps science-fiction can be thought of as a natural home for a literary treatment of psychosis, as high technology is often invoked in complex delusional systems as a way of explaining strange and otherwise inexplicable experiences. In fact, Stanghellini seems to pay the genre an unintended complement by co-opting the language of science-fiction when naming one of his chapters ‘Cyborgs and Scanners’.

For its insight into altered states, Philip K. Dick’s writing is especially noteworthy however; he was highly knowledgeable about mental illness, not only from his own experience – he regularly saw a psychiatrist for most of his life – but also through his acquaintance with key texts in psychology and psychiatry (Carr√®re, 2004). Consequently, it would be easy to read A Scanner Darkly as a rehash of radical theories of mental illness, particularly those of R.D. Laing and Aaron Esterson (Laing and Esterson, 1964), who viewed madness as an attempt to reconcile roles that have become irreconcilable in modern life. However, Dick was not content with simply repeating the fashionable anti-establishment views of the time and attempted an explanation based on an understanding of neuropsychology.

In the novel, Fred’s mind and brain are regularly tested by police department psychologists, owing to the stress of both maintaining a dual identity, and taking drugs as part of his undercover life. Dick avoids the off-the-shelf clich√©’s of ink-blots and electric shocks, as the author describes realistic test scenarios and recognisable neuropsychological tests. Worryingly for Fred, the results of divided visual field and embedded figures tests suggest that his cortical hemispheres are becoming functionally separate, as they gradually lose the ability to communicate and fail to integrate information.

Here, the author melds science-fiction with science-fact, with an inspired reading of Sperry’s work on split-brain patients. Dick was fascinated by Sperry’s discovery that patients with surgically disconnected cerebral hemispheres (a treatment for otherwise untreatable epilepsy) seemed to show a dual or partitioned consciousness. Where previously it was thought that the right side of the brain was largely ‘silent’ and relied on the dominant left, new research suggested that each hemisphere “appeared to be using its own percepts, mental images, associations and ideas” (Sperry, 1993). In Dick’s novel, ‘Substance D’ induces a similar split-brain disconnection (directly referencing Sperry in some passages), providing an explanation for the protagonist’s increasingly fractionated and incoherent self-consciousness.

Far from being a fantastical notion of a far-flung plot, the idea that psychosis might result from a disengagement of the hemispheres was subsequently discussed in the scientific literature and is still influential today. Dimond (1979) for example, compared patients diagnosed with schizophrenia and split-brain patients, arguing that in both conditions “there is a fundamental failure of in the transfer of information between the two hemispheres”, suggesting “split-brain symptoms are present in schizophrenia”. Although the resemblances between psychosis and the effects of split-brain operations are no longer regarded so highly, clear evidence for differences in the structure and function of the hemispheres in psychosis remains (Gur and Chin, 1999; Pantelis et al., 2003). Perhaps ironically, ideas that many people might have dismissed as imaginative plot, turned out to be reasonable and well informed scientific speculation.

A Scanner Darkly is now being made into a Hollywood film, and although there are high hopes for the adaptation, one of the most touching aspects of the book is likely to be missing from the big screen version. Dick added an ‘Author’s note’ to the end of the book, dedicating the novel to friends who had been lost to drug abuse, many listed as deceased or disabled by physical or mental illness. Although he comments that there is no easy moral and avoids the obvious platitudes, he poignantly lists himself among the casualties.

Despite his problems – or perhaps, because of them – there are few novelists who better capture the uncanny unreality and disturbed self concept so characteristic of psychosis. Although not all of his novels are great literature, Philip K. Dick’s work is typically overflowing with ideas, reflecting his attempt to integrate a profoundly altered experience of reality with a vast knowledge of the arts and sciences.


Note: This is a pre-print of an article first published in this month’s The Psychologist.

I’ve not seen the film yet, although from what I’ve heard, the Author’s Note from the novel is actually included in the movie’s closing sequence.

Substance D, the drug in Dick’s novel, is described as being quite amphetamine-like, including its negative effects and consequences (for example, delusional parasitosis is quite common in amphetamine psychosis). Dick himself was an enthusiastic speed-user at various points in his life and I suspect the name may also be a pointer.

There are two mirror image versions (stereoisomers) of the amphetamine molecule: L-amphetamine and D-amphetamine. L-amphetamine mainly affects the peripheral nervous system whereas D-amphetamine affects the brain and produces the feelings of energy and euphoria that drug users seek. Although street speed often contains a mixture of L- and D-amphetamine, it’s the D-amphetamine that’s the real deal.

Butler, A.M. (2000) The Pocket Essential Philip K Dick. London: Pocket Essentials.

Carrère, E. (2004) I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. (T. Bent, trans.). New York: Metropolitan Books.

Dimond, S.J. (1979) Disconnection and psychopathology. In J. Gruzelier and P. Flor-Henry (eds) Hemisphere Asymmetries of Function in Psychopathology. Oxford: Elsevier.

Enoch, D. & Ball, H. (2001) Ekbom’s Syndrome (Delusional parasitosis). In Enoch, D. & Ball, H. Uncommon psychiatric syndromes (4th edition). pp209-223. London: Arnold.

Gur, R.E. & Chin, S. (1999) Laterality in functional brain imaging studies of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 25, 141-156.

Laing, R.D. & Esterson, A. (1964) Sanity, Madness and the Family. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Pelican Books.

Pantelis, C., Velakoulis, D., McGorry, P.D., Wood, S.J, Suckling, J., Phillips, L.J., Yung, A.R., Bullmore, E.T, Brewer, W., Soulsby, B., Desmond, P. & McGuire, P.K. (2003) Neuroanatomical abnormalities before and after onset of psychosis: a cross-sectional and longitudinal MRI comparison. Lancet, 25, 361 (9354), 281-8.

Sperry, R.W. (1993) Roger W. Sperry Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1981. In T. Frängsmyr and J. Lindsten (eds) Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1981-1990. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co.

Stanghellini, G. (2004) Disembodied Spirits and Deanimated Bodies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sutin, L. (1991) Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. New York: Citadel Press.

3 thoughts on “Neuropsychology and Psychosis in ‘A Scanner Darkly’”

  1. I don’t read much Dick, but most of his plots and characters are all too familiar to me. I recall, having a few conversations with such authors as Damien Broderick regarding the similarities to the way my own mind works, the experiences I actually have in realtime during the past 30 or so years and many of Phillip’s novels cum screen plays.
    Oh, BTW – It’s EUGEN (possibly spelled Jugen alternatively) BLEULER not Eugene Bleuer. And the identification of the term Schizophrenia as derived from the earlier label of Dementia Praecox was a step in the medicalization of Psychiatric Diagnosis at and around the turn of the century. Kraeplin and Bleuler were involved in the transition of terminology and sort of kinda research into what was a primitive, and still is, system of identifying observed signs, symptoms and behaviors while classifying them as syndromes, disorders, and the early work in determining changes in neurological structure were part and parcel of identifying what appeared to be gross anatomical changes in certain individuals who manifestted chronic symptoms or behaviors over time.
    Of course, those anatomical changes observed are also indicative of any number of other neurological disorders and NOT necessarilly consistent with Bleuler’s or Kraeplin’s model of Schizoprenia or Dementia Praecox.
    It’s all bullshit. However, more to the point. Dick’s work is quite similar to the stuff which has gone on in my head all of my life. My interest and superfiscial involvement with the former participants in the CIA’s (SRI/SAIC) Remote Viewing Program since the 70’s, with my working at the same Navy Physics lab which employed Russell Targ prior to his going to work at SRI with Hal Puthoff for the CIA, and then my ending up in a sorta kinda romance with a Japanese American gal who’s family was all military connected, Dad was a former Army Intel type with sorta kinda CIA connections and her sister worked at SRI when I left the employ of the Navy in the area of Weapons Research, specifically Lasers, Satellites, Integrated Battlefield Communications, HUD/Flat Plate Imaging/Instrumentation technology applications for Mach Plus cockpit designs, Air Warfare, and attempts to ratchet down the violence associated with human behavior in general… Well Gee…
    So here we are in my little old virtual reality where everything is virtually real… Kinda like Phil’s world, but with for real carbon based anthropomoetrically correct clones who are a bit more than that fella at Yale’s invisible friends and roomies…
    Folks are under the impression that we can just conjure up consistent reality from fragmented and unpleasant memory and that reality will work as if it were designed by the “Mind of God” or some higher power… It will work as if it were designed by a group of people who get exactly what they put into it out of it…
    We are the “Mind of God”. IT gives us back what we put into it. Dick’s constucts of Spacetime anomalies and attempts to circumvent the future by accessing the “Matrix” of a parallel Zero Spacetime/Hyperspace Information Field, in order to project and attempt to create windows of opportunity to alter our future timelines is the stuff I’ve tinkered with, unsuccessfully, since I was a child.
    Perhaps we can benefit from learning a thing or two about our own nature’s and sources of behavior, but when engaged in such paranoia and cognitive dissonance we are just wrapped up in the images, anxiety, fear, disorganization, and ultimately chaos of our own energies feeding off of themselves. We project our own timeline and can be our own best friend or worst enemies as we project ourselves along the arc of our own geometrodynamic topology. A fellow I used to communcate with some 8 or 9 years ago coined that phrase as part of his theoretical constructs in Scandinavia to counter certain arguments by Penrose and Hameroff, Stapp, Deutsch, Bohm and Hiley, and Evan Harris Walker.
    Actually, the arguments simply balance each other and all are valid collectively while none are individually.
    Dick is pretty damned interesting. I can identify with his brand of fiction, but for me it’s all too real all too often. I would imagine he will most likely state the same from his subjective perspective. However for the purposes of classifying his Sci Fi and Fantasy for the average reader with their own worldview and individual virtual concepts of reality Sci Fi and Fantasy and Fiction are generally most appropriate.

  2. Perhaps we can benefit from learning a thing or two about our own nature’s and sources of behavior, but when engaged in such paranoia and cognitive dissonance we are just wrapped up in the images, anxiety, fear, disorganization, and ultimately chaos of our own energies feeding off of themselves. We project our own timeline and can be our own best friend or worst enemies as we project ourselves along the arc of our own geometrodynamic topology. A fellow I used to communcate with some 8 or 9 years ago coined that phrase as part of his theoretical constructs in Scandinavia to counter certain arguments by Penrose and Hameroff, Stapp, Deutsch, Bohm and Hiley, and Evan Harris Walker.
    Oh yeah, and you might want to take a look at Wheeler’s Observation Theories as well. When examining our penchant for attempting to explain the “Mind of God” as the “Ghost In The Machine” we have often outdone ourselves time and time again… Oops, it’s that damned Deja Vu All Over Again stuff… That’s why Mr Berra was promoted to Yogi at birth by his progenitors, huh?
    I anticipate a resurgence in interest in stuff which just wastes our time in a fanciful academic, intellectual, emotionally self gratifying fashion, as tinkering with Spacetime Geometry is quite fashionable. Of course, it has been somewhat fashionable since Moses penned, or rather scratched out Genesis, followed by Exodus, Leviticus… etc… Not necessarilly in that order… In order that there be some freaking ORDER…
    Then that Jesus guy got into the whole thing again with his version of the “TRINITY PARADOX” and the whole corporeal, father – son, traumatized dissociated PTSD out of body Holy Ghost shit…
    Certainly, we keep doing the same damned thing to ourselves over and over again… Dya think the execution of that poor schmuck was because he was tampering with Pagan Roman mythology surrounding the divinity of the Emperor of the Roman Reich, who would ascend to the heavens and become one of the Polytheistic Roman Gods upon his death, with a Jewish twist while he played both ends against the middle pretending to be both THE MESSIAH AND THE EQUIVALENT OF THE ROMAN EMPEROR ON EARTH???
    Interesting how the Escenes stashed their scrolls in jars and hid them, kinda like hiding the Torah, when both the Jews and the Romans came looking for their butts for being shit disturbers…
    Dya think that Jesus ministering to the homeless guys living for the most part outside of the walls of Jerusalem, just as his predecessor John The Baptist had allegedly done was an effort to get the homeless, exploited, masses living outside of the gates organized, kinda like the Buddha had done some years earlier when those folks were disenfranchised and considered NON-PERSONS by the ruling Hindu Monarchies?
    Come on, that was it wasn’t it? The Hindus didn’t know how to incorporate that huge mass of humanity into their economic system as they only required just so many administrators, soldiers, artisans and laborers. So the rest were just deemed to be non-people and banished to EREWHON.
    OF course, the concept of non-desire, non-attainment, and seeking release from the wheel of Dharma and Kharma is pretty central to the kind of social control Buddhism offered in a very non-offensive fashion.
    The Tibetans ended up there on top of the mountain just sitting elbow to elbow, banging gongs, blowing horns, spinning prayer wheels, making cute little sand paintings in order to stay warm cause there ain’t nothing much to burn up in the mountains to heat those big old drafy monastaries.
    Non-attainment was pretty important too… After all, if they didn’t have anything other than just their basic needs met, then nobody would want to come up into the mountains and screw with them to take what they didn’t have away from them; right?
    That is until the Chinese wanted to get everybody on the same page in Mao’s Little Red Book and they didn’t want no Buddhists spreading their NOTHING around China and upsetting the Status Mao, er rather QUO…
    And so it goes…
    Mr Dick is a lot like the rest of us, just a bit more popular and apparently better paid as he explores his own curiousity with regard to our penchant for attempting to explain the unexplainable in a contemporary fashion quite fashionably AND PROFITABLY…
    Gee, I wonder how much Lao Tse made in royalties for the his treatise on Taoism, or Thomas Aquinas made on his published works…
    I sure would like to hit a good payday one of these days and retire so I can go take a vacation, get laid more often, and take in some more concerts… Zen, just do it!

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