By Dr David Laing Dawson
In the early seventies a friend and colleague commented upon a popular piece of literature of the day being almost a manual for psychosis. I don’t remember if he was speaking about Timothy Leary or Carlos Casteneda or any number of other subversive ideas of the day. And his comment may have been both premature and prescient.
Our brains are organizing machines. They seek explanations, schemata, to provide satisfying linkages between our feelings and our observations, our expectations and our situations. Not about trivial matters. About these we can accept the influence of chance, leaky memory, luck, coincidence, and magic. But about the degree to which we have power, control, worth, status with others, and the vectors of threat, support, intimacy and sexuality between us.
The tools we use to do this include all our perceptual apparatuses and social information processing abilities. And when these are impaired our brains and our rising anxiety continue to demand answers, explanations.
A young man developing a psychotic illness in the 1960’s might conclude that he is being controlled with Radio Waves, or that he should don robe and guitar and preach love as a messenger of God. Delusional means of being controlled or controlling evolved through the years from the invisible hand of God or Devil, to possession, hypnotism, Xrays, radar, magnetic fields, radio waves, television, particle fields, and on to implanted microchips.
When we don’t have the tools to formulate a reasonable and acceptable schemata (usually by life engagement, communication with others, real others, understanding both textual information and contextual information, being sufficiently flexible to adjust from being an egocentric child and entitled adolescent to a simple mortal adult of the species) – when we don’t have these tools the brain still demands a schemata, a cause and effect, a satisfying sense of self in a sometimes hostile environment.
We then search. It used to be through books, song lyrics, common knowledge of the day, and imagination. Now this includes the internet. And one can find on our internet ready-made delusions and truly fake news: whole schemata already worked out for the person seeking – schemata and explanations for why he (or she) is failing, feeling despair, unloved, unsuccessful, without power, struggling, confused – schemata and cause and effect that blame others for all of our troubles.
And these ready-made schemata come with communities. Virtual reality communities in effect.
When we communicate face to face in real time and real place the ideas we share are always governed by the impact we see we are having on the other. We feel responsible for what we say, how we say it, and how it might affect the other. (with a few sociopathic and narcissistic exceptions)
Not so on many internet sites and forums. Text is spewed without the instant feedback from the face of the receiver and thus without any sense of social responsibility.
Over the years I have spoken with hundreds of young men (and women) developing psychosis, working through fractured ideas of persecution and grandiosity, seeking an ultimate answer. I hope the pills and support I give them will allow them to be satisfied with a good cup of coffee and a community of family and friends.
But now I know they may be up all night engrossed in the community of lies, blame and false hope that the internet can provide. “Incel”, ISIS, “Alt-right”, “white supremacy”…..”Flat Earth”, “conspiracy theories”…
Some of these are harmless but others may provide a ready-made delusion and a call to action for the man (or woman) whose social ability to formulate a healthy sense of reality is impaired, and who is desperately seeking relief.