What is Crazy?

By Wil Forbis
September 1, 2015

The Our Wacky Brain collection:

Caveat: I will say up front that I'm grouping together a lot of disparate behaviors and diagnoses under the (often disparaging) term "crazy." My reason for this is that I think it reflects a general tendency in society to cast odd behavior into a single, simple bucket and not think about it. Ultimately my aim is to undermine that tendency.

If you are part of the elite cadre of folks who frequently read my writing, you're aware that several years ago I became quite interested in neuroscience and the general study of the brain. I began obsessively reading books on brain function, brain malfunction, and the anatomy of our great thinking organ. I also read a lot of books which explored the topics of psychology and "the mind"---the ethereal next-level-up of our brain.

A big component of neuroscience and psychology literature covers ailments of the brain and mind---what happens when things go wrong. In reading about this I became familiar with a lot of states of the brain and mind that we often refer to as "crazy." (Several of the books I read were authored by the great, recently deceased Oliver Sacks.) I read about autism, Aspergers, psychopathy, sociopathy, narcissism, paranoia, schizophrenia and various other syndromes and ailments. As I read about these conditions, a distinct thought percolated in my head. "There seems to be no end to the possible mental malfunctions one can have and yet I don't know anyone who is crazy. Where are all these crazy people?"

The answer to the question came in fits and starts over many months. I started to realize that in fact, I did know a lot of these people. I realized the obsession with granular detail of technology that I've long observed in a friend of mine could place him somewhere in the Aspergers' spectrum. It dawned on me that the friend whom whom seemed to have a tireless ego in need of constant attention (I eventually cut off contact with him) probably had some kind of narcissistic personality disorder. I've had various friends who have expressed paranoid delusions of the "The government is out to get me" kind. And I've known several people with anxiety so pronounced it is, at times, crippling.

And it wasn't just other people. I've long had a sense that I just don't get certain aspects of social interaction. I find a lot of conversation tedious and I'm well aware that most people are not interested in the kinds of topics I am. Some people freely concede that they find me at times cold and emotionally vacant. I'm largely more comfortable having internal conversations with myself (which is really what articles such as this are) than with others. I began to wonder if I might be be somewhere on the low end of the autism spectrum.

So, I went from wondering where the crazy people were to wondering where the normal people were. But that didn't make much sense either---if everyone is nuts, wouldn't that then be normal (and normal abnormal?)

A related question arose: has the world always been this crazy? Not really. When you look at the history of psychology and brain science you see that it was in the 20th century that we saw an immense increase in the various kinds of mental diagnoses. Before that there might have been a lot of people who who weird but we (normal folks) didn't put a lot of thought into what specifically made them weird. We didn't have a box that could be checked off for every type of unusual behavior. This leads me to wonder (as many have) whether we are creating so many conditions and diagnosis that no one can now be normal. When is some odd behavior just a tic of a person's personality and when is it a genuine ailment?

Generally, a person is thought to have a mental disorder when their behavior really seems to cause them distress. For example, if they can't hold down a job or they obsessively gamble to the point that they go broke. But what if we lived in some utopia where nobody had a job or money didn't exist? Then these people's mental issues wouldn't really ail them. So the environment you live in (by this I mean the physical environment and culture and society etc.) has an effect on how badly your mental problems plague you. In a sense, crazy isn't a state unto itself, it's a clash between your mental state and your environment. Some environments are unforgiving (say, the Army or a bureaucracy that tolerates little deviation from normal) while other environments are very forgiving* (say, a hippie commune.)

* Consider that psychopaths are said to thrive in the office of the United States Presidency.

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky offers an interesting theory related to this. He argues that in the past people known as schizotypals (basically people with very mild schizophrenia) thrived within primitive human societies like hunter gatherer tribes. Their concrete beliefs in their fantastical delusions led them to become the shamans, medicine men and religious gurus of such societies. In effect, schizotypals' craziness was respected by their societies and allowed them access to willing mates who then passed on these seemingly "unfit to survive" genes.

Let's examine another side of all this. What is narcism? It's the false belief that you are really totally awesome. What is depression? It's the false belief that life is unending, hideous misery. What is paranoia? The false belief that everyone is out to get you. (Well, usually it's false.) What is psychopathy? It's kind of a delusion that other people don't have feelings and can be trampled upon. What is schizophrenia? Among other behaviors, it's hearing voices that aren't really there. Delusions seem to be a hallmark of craziness---an inability to see the world as it really is. But aren't we all at least somewhat delusional? Much is made of the fact that a large percentage of people think they are above average drivers. Many of us seem to have a bias towards optimism that allows us to ignore grim statistics. (And, of course, many people have the opposite bias.) Gestalt psychology has uncovered all sorts of ways in which what we think we see (or hear) is not really there.

Those biases are subtle of course. But we also have grand world views that are unsubstantiated*. I don't want to stomp on anyone's religious views but most people would concede these beliefs have little empirical evidence; they require faith. In politics, people seem willing to accept unbelievable stories about their opponents (e.g. George Bush planned 9/11, Obama is really a Muslim agent born in Kenya, etc.) Our history books show that we humans are loaded with xenophobic suspicions of different nations and ethnicities and are reluctant to let them go.

* I've been reading a lot about quantum physics lately and am struck by the sense that so many of the theories of that discipline sound insane. The world is made up of tiny strings? Time travel is possible? The universe is a hologram? These ideas sound crazy and yet they are backed up by a lot of experimental evidence. Quantum physicists would say it's those of us who believe in conventional, commonplace, deterministic reality who are crazy.

I recognize, of course, that it's a matter of degree. We all do crazy things from time to time, but crazy people do crazy things a lot of the time. I think that by and large people labeled crazy should take their meds and do what they can to "get better." But those of us on the normal side of the equation should have some humility; we aren't all that different. To think that there's an obvious dividing line between the sane and insane is, well, crazy.

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