Psychosis

The similarities between the ideas of psychotic patients and famous philosophers are striking.1 Psychosis, like dreaming, is a particular mode of experience that is more open to phenomena that do exist in reality. Someone who is prone to psychosis is indeed more vulnerable to paranoid delusion, but therefore also more capable of true insight.

However, the romantic view that psychosis is a medicalization of true spiritual insight, is dangerous. Take for example the famous case of Schreber.2 While some of the experiences he describes can be interpreted symbolically, others can only be described as deluded. For example, when he claims that God is playing a prank on him personally by cutting the strings in his piano; when he yells vulgar insults at the Sun; or when he observes the “miraculous” genesis of small insects sent by God to annoy him—in all these cases, it is probably safe to say that Schreber does not have some deep insight into reality that the rest of us are unaware of, or if he does, he has not expressed it very accurately.

The common view that psychosis is caused by issues in the brain, is also not exactly correct. While psychotic patients probably do have some differences in their neurological makeup, these differences are not inherently problematic. The best authors, historical prophets, many scientists, and numerous other important humans, have achieved what they have achieved due in part to sharing the psychotic’s neurological traits. Psychotic people are highly sensitive to paradoxes3—but psychosis does not necessarily make one better equipped to tolerate these paradoxes, and therefore psychotic people who are not specially educated can get lost in the anxiety.

Psychosis as materialism 

The notion that psychotic people are unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, is inaccurate. On the contrary, the common factor of psychotic people is precisely that they are overly committed to normal societal beliefs about the structure of reality, and therefore they try to interpret their unusual experiences as having ordinary, material causes. For example, the person who believes that there are cameras in their home, has correctly identified that they are, in a manner of speaking, “being watched”, but they then go on to take this idea too literally and attribute the surveillance to other humans, since that is all they have been taught about. In the worst case, they may identify a specific person as the perpetrator and attempt to defend themselves against them.

In an attempt to stay together in one piece, the psychotic will latch on to the solid pillar of consensual reality. But this is precisely the fatal act: by trying to interpret supernatural experiences as mere natural phenomena, they limit their ability to integrate their experiences, and thereby come to display all the traits that are commonly regarded as psychotic. In other words, those who are psychotic interpret experiences with symbolic meaning literally. Psychosis is fundamentally a linguistic disorder—that’s also why other animals never seem to be psychotic, even though they can have other mental disorders: they don’t think in words.4

Psychosis can also be seen as the concrete “acting out”5 of deeply felt feelings that are impossible to articulate. Take someone who acts like they’re paranoid because they think they are being watched by the CIA. This person has a strong sense that there is something hostile that is outside of them and which is impinging on their soul. The actual feeling is too abstract to be described.6 This feeling cannot be contained within an ordinary human understanding of the world. It is “too big for the brain", so to speak: beyond the capacity of our socially conditioned understanding of metaphysical reality, and unable to be described in words. Someone who is limited by their ability to see the world freely (because they have a fundamentally materialist worldview) but who nevertheless experiences this feeling, will need to make it more concrete. This happens unconsciously. The particular manifestation of the concrete delusion is determined in part by the person’s understanding of the world, which comes from their cultural context. Then, once they have the concrete problem, they can try dealing with the problem in various logical ways. Unless the psychotic person has an exceptional ability to explain themselves, others will view their actions as irrational, but in fact they are if anything hyperrational. Psychosis is hyperrational concretization. Such a method will never lead to the underlying psychic issue being resolved, however. The first step towards a true resolution is rather to abandon the materialist, logical framework for understanding the world and instead trying to see it freely. This is a difficult project. Lispector may have partially succeed; see especially The Passion According to G. H..

The solution to treating psychotic people is to educate them and encourage them to dive deeper into their experiences, but in a cautious way and with a willingness to have their expectations proven wrong.7 Of course, this is easier said than done. Something like this has been attempted by those who describe themselves as antipsychiatrists, but this framework has for the most part not actually benefitted mentally ill people.

  1. See Wouter Kusters (2022), A Philosophy of Madness
  2. Daniel Schreber (1903), Memoirs of my mental illness
  3. Kusters (2022)
  4. Why Don’t Animals Get Schizophrenia? (Scientific American)
  5. I use this term in the same sense as Robert Grossmark, cf. The Unobtrusive Relational Analyst
  6. But see The Divided Self
  7. See also The Emerald podcast: For the intuitives (Part 1).