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Spec Tech: Thought as Stuff

April 14, 2011

I have just noticed that there are different patterns to the diagnostic questions psychiatrists ask when they are trying to figure out whether someone is crazy. Some of these questions are about fearful fantasies, of the sort we call paranoia. They ask whether someone has been spying on you, following you, or in general making things hard. They ask about other kinds of out-of-line fantasies, like being an unusually important person (psychiatrists call this grandiosity).

But then there are a set of questions about whether someone experiences thought as a substance. They ask whether someone experiences thoughts as being put into the mind or taken out of the mind, as if the mind were a honeypot and Eeyore was playing with his balloon. They ask whether someone finds that their thoughts are broadcast aloud as if the mind were a radio and someone else threw on the switch, and they ask whether someone experiences a real radio as if it were a person speaking directly to them and them alone.

Those are weird questions. People without psychiatric distress sometimes don’t realize that the fantasy questions are asking about pathology. When you ask them those questions, they launch into accounts of being followed in a strange city. But most people do not get confused when you ask them whether they have felt thoughts removed from their minds. They stare hard at you and say no.

What is interesting about this is that in fact, many spiritual practices actually teach you to experience your thoughts as substance. That’s what meditation does. You are supposed to detach from your own thought process.  You sit, eyes closed, and focus on a word or sound. When other thoughts obtrude, as they always do, you surround them in little soap bubbles and watch them float away. But meditation does not make someone psychotic. Usually.

So what’s the difference? Probably the sense of personal efficacy, control over rather than control by. When you practice controlling your mind, you learn to exert authority over your own scampering thoughts. The sense that your mind is managed by another, external force is terrifying.

It makes you wonder whether teaching spiritual disciplines to persons with psychosis would be useful.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011 11:27 am

    teaching meditation might eliminate the need for drugs…hmmm…would that go over?

  2. Emma permalink
    April 14, 2011 4:21 pm

    Fascinating. The mind as a substance is a really interesting concept – great post!

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