Thursday, April 24, 2008

The voices made me do it.

I’m in two minds about schizophrenia.

Okay, that was a cheap shot, but it’s true all the same. I’ve been in two minds about the subject for a long time. What sparked me off again was this New Scientist article.

Studies are showing links between clustered abnormal events in human society (such as spates of suicides) and variations in the Earth’s magnetic fields. The results so far suggest there might be a link.

There are animals, particularly birds, which use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. There is, so far, nothing to suggest that humans can detect magnetic fields. However, that’s not to say we can’t – it simply means there is no evidence of a conscious detection of magnetic fields by humans. I’ve never come across anyone who could close their eyes, hold out their hands and tell when there’s a magnet close by. But then, do birds use their magnetic sense consciously? Do they think ‘Well, that way is magnetic north so I have to fly at fifteen degrees to that line,’ or is it unconscious? Does it just ‘feel like the right way to go’? I suspect the latter.

Perhaps the link between odd behaviour and magnetism is spurious. Perhaps it is real. Time, and accumulated studies, will tell.

It brought back to me just how little we really know about the human mind. Oh, sceptics will come along and say ‘We know an awful lot, and things like this can’t happen’ but they, strangely enough, have never studied the subject. They are right, in a way. We do know an awful lot. But there’s far more unknown than known. There is no sense in saying ‘can’t happen’ without looking in to the matter. That’s not science.

Science does not say ‘That can never happen’. Science gives an answer along the lines of ‘We tested it hundreds of times, and it didn’t happen once. So it’s unlikely to happen in the future’. The statements sound similar but there’s a world of difference between them.

Anyway, back to the schizophrenia. It’s a badly misused and wildly misdiagnosed illness, to the extent that some psychiatrists have proposed scrapping the term altogether. So many symptoms get lumped in there that ‘schizophrenia’ might be a suite of disorders rather than just the one. But that’s not my problem.

One of the symptoms of schizophrenia, as it stands, is hearing disembodied or internal voices. The cure is, of course, drugs to stop the voices.

Take the drugs, the voices stop. Does that prove the voices weren’t real?

Scientifically, no it does not. It proves the drug stopped the patient hearing those voices. If you want to call me names (crank, nutcase and looney are favourites) and I choose to close my eyes and stick my fingers in my ears, then I’ve ‘cured’ the voice that’s calling me names. I can’t see you. I can’t hear you. Ergo, by exactly the same logic, you no longer exist. Bye now.

Take the other point of view, that of the patient. Voices come from the air or inside their head. They have no idea who or what is speaking. Naturally, they’re terrified and will behave erratically. They might give in and do what the voices urge them to do—harm themselves or others, behave in a violent or inappropriate manner in public or whatever. They might start answering the voices, muttering to themselves and carrying on a conversation.

If that happened to you, you’d assume you’d cracked up and you might seek medical help. They’ll give you drugs and the voices will stop. Again, does that prove the voices weren’t real? Again, no. It proves the drug worked to stop the voices coming through. The result says nothing about the reality or otherwise of the voices. It just means they’ve gone. That might be good enough, if you’re the one hearing them.

I’ve never seen a real case of ‘spirit possession’ and I find it hard to believe that an invading spirit could totally subjugate the body’s current resident. I’m not saying it can’t happen. Just that I don’t, at the moment, think it likely.

However, I’ve said many times that ghosts can’t physically hurt anyone. They have no solid form so they can’t whack you. If we discount possession for the moment, that leaves a malicious spirit one main weapon. Persuasion.

They can, if they can make you hear them, nag and nag and nag until you do what they want just to stop them yakking. It won’t stop them, because just like living bullies, once they’ve scored a point they keep on going.

There are fake mediums and there are real ones. The fakes know they are fakes. The real ones don’t always know they are real. Just because someone sees and/or hears ghosts does not mean they will immediately think ‘Hey, I’m a medium’. Most likely they will think ‘I’m going mad’.

A malicious spirit can exploit this confusion and set to work to drive the hapless victim to terrible and ridiculous acts. Naturally they can only do this to those who can hear them but who don’t know what they are hearing.

So, are the drugs curing an imaginary voice, or are they blocking the reception of a real voice? Currently, there’s no way to tell unless the voice pestering one patient leaves when that patient is ‘cured’ and produces exactly the same effect in someone else. Easy? Nope. Most such patients report much the same sort of voices, telling them much the same sort of thing anyway.

Doesn’t that support the idea that these might be real spirit voices? Well, not exactly, because the impulses (attack, self-harm etc) might come from some basic corner of the primitive part of our minds. It might be the same for everyone, and the patients are imagining the voices to rationalise their actions.

It might be that the voices heard by such patients are real spirit voices. It might be that the voices are imaginary. It might be that some are one kind, some another. It might be an entirely different explanation altogether. There is, at present, no clear method of differentiating. The drugs stop the voices, that’s all we know. We’re not even sure how the drugs work at a neuronal level.

So I’m still in two minds about schizophrenia, but perhaps studies like the one mentioned above will help with that. One day.

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