While grumpily riding the bus to a dentist appointment to fix a tooth that has been broken for weeks now, I found myself thinking through the “what if scenario” of having to argue with someone who demands my spot in the priority seating section. What struck me was that I was not intentionally imagining the jerk I found myself arguing with, although everything they said had all the verisimilitude of such a person. They were distinctly not me, for my own voice, also somewhat automatic, was preoccupied with having to make answer to their unreasonable badgering.
At once the scenario dissipated as I began to consciously wonder, “How does this scenario relate to a schizophrenic’s hearing voices?” It occurred to me that, even if the voice was the unbidden representation of a person that did not exist, I at least had the awareness that it was internally generated, and not truly a phenomenon outside myself. Perhaps we can call it an interactive, ideative construction of my unconscious based on my current emotional state.
Later in the day I spent some time fine tuning this concept with my wife. The scenario we most contrast with that of hearing voices is the idea of ourselves talking with other people. There is a clear separation between our own social identity, and the identity of other people.
When we start thinking to ourselves alone, however, that boundary weakens in that we are both speaker and audience, self and other. This sort of conversational reflexive is very important to thought because it allows us to detect implications or contradictions in previously presented information free of outside manipulation.
On the other hand, the lack of an outside perspective diminished one’s capacity to calibrate their reality against the information provided by other, trusted sources. People who are too often alone, often become weird. Perhaps this is why we also sometimes intentionally imagine ourselves talking to people we know well, such as best friends, spouses, and parents – we know them well enough that even if we don’t think as they do, we feel we can anticipate what they would say, which might be sufficient to provide a reality check.
We might also intentionally imagine ourselves talking with non-specific people, such as invented bullies, authority figures, people in need of help, desired romantic partners, or people we want to like us. Usually we do this to anticipate or rehearse a kind of general conversation script that would allow us to respond effectively to a scenario which some goal of ours is contingent upon – a job interview, or a date, say. The fact that we are effectively engaging with model people, perhaps even stereo-types, however, leads us to a place where we are increasingly dealing with what we think we know about people instead of who they are.
What we think about specific people is only the meaning we attach to the consistencies and variations we observe in all the social and intimate situations where we are aware of their interactions. There is a lot about how we think, feel, and behave that no one else gets to experience even if we try to explain it, because we have more thoughts than we can or would want to say out loud. The same is true of what we see in our intimate companions.
But then again, there’s a lot about our own selves we don’t know – our entire subconscious is filled with half-formed, contradictory, tentative thoughts and feelings that effect our cognition, but we only slowly come to realize them, if we ever do. The net effect of many unconscious half ideas, if they have similar momentum in a direction, can have a powerful effect on our worldview, even if we have no way to name, or conceptualize them – such as when we hate something but can’t explain why even when we try to.
We also have, besides the self we identity, a great deal of selves that we do much less so. We see this most often when people cover their mistakes by saying something like, “what wasn’t me,” or “that wasn’t the person I want to be.” We also know we act differently in different situations – at a wild party versus a somber, thoughtful occasion, though we might not think of these as our general personality.
Getting closer to the subconscious mind, we sometimes find ourselves unintentionally imagining or daydreaming that we are conversing with people we know, or invented model people. This automatism allows us to explore ideas less filtered by conscious logic, but the freer association of ideas can lead to deeper insights by allowing us to make random connections. If we never considered things simply because they don’t seem to be related, we would discover very little. But then, this random noise can also reinforce biases by stumbling upon and reinforcing weak or tenuous connections between them – such as when we come to loath someone based on daydreaming about arguing with them.
Below even subconscious I believe there is a state where what we are imagining automatically, becomes strong enough to play along with, or act out as if it were real. This is probably what a method actor does. I would also argue that symptoms like mania exhibit tendencies in this direction, as we find people over-enthusiastic about pipe-dream projects they labor away at as if their completion or success was realistic. This is the usual threshold to psychosis. Here the boundaries between reality and mental construct become permeable enough that fact-checking can be impaired in ways that are serious.
Finally, we arrive at actual psychosis, characterized by outright delusions and hallucinations. Here, significant features of one’s perception of the world diverge significantly from those other people agree are obvious and important. Of course, culture plays an obvious role here. Perhaps we may make a further distinction between an episode of psychosis, and a worldview which has been permanently colored by it.
We may speculate, furthermore, that various kinds of psychiatric disorders live at each level of this spectrum. Near to conversation, for instance, we have personality disorders. At the level of internal conversation, we have mood disorders. Then, at last, we have thought, and finally psychotic disorders.
Perhaps it can be observed that our spectrum corresponds best to a convention-creativity axis . I would argue that people are placed on this axis not at a point between the poles, but as a spectrometer representing the amount of activity at every point on the axis.
I think it is the role of movements like Surrealism to defend creativity where it is so often assaulted and dominated by convention. While we depend on interactions between every level of the spectrum to create knowledge, we too often privilege the areas approaching pure convention because of their association with received science, math, and logic.
The recognition of the value of creativity as a permanent aspect of people’s personality is crucial to the emancipation of those who might otherwise be consigned a repressed place in society as the mentally ill. There is no mental illness, only neuro-diversity, and the privileging of certain people’s contribution to our collective epistemology over others. We must also reinforce that while each person’s internal spectrogram is unique, we are all necessarily capable of activity at any of its levels. This knowledge must be used, not to insist that people use it to compensate from some deviancy from a privileged norm, but so that people of all varieties can realize their full potential how they decide.
A recap of the spectrum as it applies to hearing voices
Conversation Partner’s Voice – Internal Monologue – Internal Dialogue – Automatism – Hearing Voices
A more general breakdown
Consensus reality – Personal Identity – Models of Reality – Fantasy –Psychosis