From Superstition to Psychological Anarchy




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Skinner was able to produce superstitious behavior in pigeons by rewarding them arbitrarily for no particular behavior. These pigeons had, in the past, learned that reinforcement was contingent upon behavior — similar to human beings — who learn, for example, that pay is contingent on work or that friendship is contingent on some loyalty. Do superstitious beliefs result from mental acts that are primitive in their use of reason?

Can superstition truly be considered a behavior, when it mainly involves unobservable mental rather than physical action? Perhaps, but we do understand that superstition in people involves firm mental associations between behavior and belief. Belief is not generated scientifically. It has arbitrary emotional components, for example. An athlete wearing his “lucky socks” at a baseball game emerges with superstitious behavior due to the fact that this “luck” regarding his socks is perceived by the athlete, even when it is based upon chance rewarding of chance behavior.

There are intentional mental acts that could be defined as behavior if the definition of behavior did not generally imply action that is observable by the five senses. Cognitive theorists would agree that mental acts, as constituted by thought, are covert behavior.

Reason does not determine belief. People may believe whatever appeals most to them, with little thought of rational aspects or consequences of belief. Perception — implicated in belief — involves mental skewing of information that is derived from sensory experience. While perception is not fact, it continually impacts belief and is always an interpretation of sensory experience. It is the baseball player’s perception of his situation and the circumstances that entail “luck”, for example, that constitute his basis for belief. Very few people — perhaps none — have consistent belief systems which represent a world view.

Like Skinner’s pigeons, it’s the individual’s perception of sensory information derived from the environment that results in superstitious belief. The Heisenberg principle postulates that an individual’s observation of the world may change how the environment “responds” to him or her. It’s an interesting idea that our perceptions shape our reality and our perceptions can alter what we see.

Psychosis and delusions, in particular, that are reinforced by chance events, amount to something similar to cultivation of superstition as defined by Skinner, but with recognition of a cognitive element. Psychotic ideas or delusions can find arbitrary “responses” from the environment. Superstitious behavior, based upon faulty cognition and beliefs, are common.

Punitive experience, such as delusional thought, is not reinforced and, in fact, may be punished. In terms of the psychotic individual finding evidence for his delusions in his environment, there exists a rational problem in that this perceived “evidence” is not rewarding, and, due to its punitive qualities, it should not persist.

But, although delusional experience may not produce observable rewards, some aspects of delusional experience are rewarding: delusions of grandeur, erotomanic delusions, delusions of reference, and even delusions of persecution. Such delusions can allow one to feel a sense of importance, and this may be rewarding to individuals who may feel sidelined from society.

There exists the reality that the schizophrenic will receive punitive experience based on his own perception of the world. However, vigilance and awareness of danger in one’s environment can be reinforced through belief that such vigilance, constituted at times by paranoia, renders one safer.

It’s worth remembering that there is a visceral and automatic quality of delusions and hallucinations. Behavior, in a strict sense of that which is observed by one’s senses, may differ significantly from the “behavior” represented by automatic thoughts or delusions and the visceral experience of hallucinations.

Much psychotic experience and delusional material are based upon primitive understanding of the world, leaving little basis on which a schizophrenic might understand his false sensory experience. Indeed, to be told that what you seem to sense is not reality is terrifying. Delusions can be punitive, leading to learned helplessness and perhaps even to reduced frontal lobe activity, but the effort to find reinforcement while adhering to delusional perspectives may be compelling, if only in that the psychotic individual may feel that he will be able to “prove’ the legitimacy of his perspective, and thereby earn respect that is not forthcoming as he remains in the shadow of stigmatization as a “psychotic” individual.

Clearly, this implicates labeling and stigma as they are associated with mental illness. If mentally ill psychotic individuals were not denigrated by others in society, perhaps there would be less of a need in these affected individuals to “prove” that they can be understood, that they can legitimately receive empathy and can feel themselves to be human beings. The consequences of alienation are emotionally destructive, and prescribed for the mentally ill at this time is a kind of psychological anarchy on the level of the self. Clinicians may be able to discern in this an initial attitude in treating psychotic individuals compassionately and therapeutically.

There perhaps exists a need in schizophrenics for validation. If schizophrenics were more consistently validated and less damaged by the societal grip of stigma, there might be a lessening in the amount of delusional, albeit superstitious, beliefs held by this group in general.

  • Paul

    To give my thoughts on this

    Psychosis and it’s descent can ironically be underpinned by rational thought. I think you have alluded to this on many occasions. Avoidance behaviour can be entirely rational if social scenarios become so painful that the only reasonable thing to do is to withdraw. Unfortunately their is an infinite amount of regress in this thinking until their is complete disconnection from reality. In terms of psychosis rationality that leads to deconstruction of perceived problems can unfortunately reinforce the descent. I think it is important that a person takes a big picture view in these scenarios. I was browsing a psychosis forum and I found a young person affected by psychosis describing his/her everyday events. He/she was on high doses of depot injections , yet for the previous 3 years he/she trawled magazines cutting out pieces that he/she felt were related to himself/herself. I felt, clearly that this was a choice , that was being made and even for a psychotic person, this defied reason. At some stage you would imagine that it would dawn on this person that no good can come of this , yet their behaviour persists , enduring highly potent antipsychotics , as an enabler it seemed to me , so that they could continue their course. I certainly believed that this was a choice and not symptomatic of the illness. I did not comment as I felt that this person had co-morbid behavioural problems and felt it would be pointless. I think reason should start at the high level and then it can descend to tackle more complex issues.

    Anyway what psychosis has thought me is; the brain, is constantly seeking patterns and makes assumptions based on this. When the brains usually accurate inference process breaks down , it offers insight into superstition as perceived by the non psychotic.

  • Dr. Ann Reitan

    I have discussed in the past the biopsychosocial model of mental illness. In terms of this, I believe that the psychotic individual experiences hallucinations resulting from aberrant biochemistry, if she appears to be experiencing auditory hallucinations publicly, she is then stigmatized because of this behavior, and therefore she constructs implacable boundaries between herself and others, which causes her to become more internally focused and more involved with her hallucinations.

    It is my thought that trying to deal effectively with one’s psychosis can lead to greater psychopathology. Obviously, some ways that individuals attempt to cope with such illness is inadequate and irrational. But—psychotic individuals have non-normative experience that makes it difficult for them to think constructively about psychosis; to deal with their situations somewhat effectively, non-normative experience requires of them non-normative thought—and this too can lead them into deeper psychotic ideation.

    It is a conundrum

    • Paul

      Hi,

      The only way around these non-normative processes is unfortunately medication. Not too much , just the right amount so that a person can build on their coping strategies and employ their cognitive processes to become better adjusted.

      There is nothing much a person can do if they are dealing with visceral hallucinations or other lucid , florid hallucinations. It’s a sad fact.

      The bio chemical perspective other than the pharmacological therapeutic effect can also avail of an informed philosophical approach to dealing with these experiences.

      Many of the psychotic experiences are observed as medical disorders completely independent of psychosis. In epilepsy , persons prior to a seizure experience many overlapping symptoms with psychosis. Restless leg syndrome , Alice and Wonderland syndrome , neurological symptoms and cognitive symptoms of MS and Parkinsons , General and peripheral neuropathology , Audio Processing Disorder and Central Audio Processing Disorder; all these are biological , but crucially the persons experience them can be free of serious mental illness.

      So in malfunctioning neurology ,where many identical symptoms are observed. These people don’t say to themselves lets ‘think’ my way out of this or maybe I need to start meditating or I must somehow tear down my personality , they take medication or if they can they ignore it. It generally does not inform their attitude or personality.

      There maybe some small changes that a person can make to their personality , like realising that we are all made of the same stuff and significantly similar, And crucially in the grand scheme of things we have no relevance outside of the life we build for ourselves.

      But this does not unfortunately promise an end to hallucinations.

  • Pingback: Learned Helplessness as a Correlate of Psychosis | Brain Blogger()

  • gee

    A TRUE LIFE EXPERIENCE:

    WHEN I MET HER, SHE WAS THIRTY-SOMETHING AND HAD A SERIOUS HEALTH CONDITION WHICH REQUIRED HER TO USED A HIP BRACE AND METAL CANE. SHE WAS KIND AND NICE. AFTER A FEW DAYS SHE SAID THAT SHE HAD RECEIVED A MESSAGE FROM GOD THAT WAS ABOUT ME. I WAS TAKEN ABACK AND WHILE I HAD SOME SCEPTICISM, I HAD TO LISTEN TO HER. WOW!I NOTICED HOW I WAS NOT SIMPLY ABLE TO DISREGARD HER STORY. IT FELT VERY PERSONAL. I REMAINED SCEPTICAL BUT SINCE THE FEELINGS I HAD AT THIS POINT WERE SO STRONG and I HAD NEVER EVEN HEARD OF AUDITORY HALUCINATIONS—I LISTENED TO HER TELLING ME THAT SHE HAD INFORMATION FROM GOD WHICH I NEEDED TO HEAR AND TO HEED.

    THE LATEST WORD I HAVE HEARD ON BRAIN HEALTH IS THIS; WE ALL HAVE AN ASSORTMENT OF MICRO LESIONS THROUGHOUT—I HAVE READ ENOUGH TO THINK THAT I NEED TO LEARN MORE ON THIS SUBJECT.

    DA SEIN

Ann Reitan, PsyD

Ann Reitan, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and well published essayist of fiction and creative nonfiction. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Washington, Master of Arts in Psychology from Pepperdine University, and Doctorate of Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University. Her post-doctoral research at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, involved personality theory, idiodynamics and creativity in literature. She recently published Illuminating Schizophrenia: Insights into the Uncommon Mind.
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