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12 Apr 2010, 9:28 am

This article is a very VERY interesting take on how "mental disorders" are often the result of disillusioned people who see reality a little too clearly. The original can be found at this interesting website: ... ive-vortex

Most people think of the “mentally disordered” as a delusional lot, holding bizarre and irrational ideas about themselves and the world around them. Isn’t a mental disorder, after all, an impairment or a distortion in thought or perception? This is what we tend to think, and for most of modern psychology’s history, the experts have agreed; realistic perceptions have been considered essential to good mental health. More recently, however, research has arisen that challenges this common-sense notion.

In 1988, psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown published an article making the somewhat disturbing claim that positive self-deception is a normal and beneficial part of most people’s everyday outlook. They suggested that average people hold cognitive biases in three key areas: a) viewing themselves in unrealistically positive terms; b) believing they have more control over their environment than they actually do; and c) holding views about the future that are more positive than the evidence can justify. The typical person, it seems, depends on these happy delusions for the self-esteem needed to function through a normal day. It’s when the fantasies start to unravel that problems arise.

Consider eating disorders, for instance. It’s generally been believed that an unrealistically negative body image is an important factor in the self-abuse that characterizes anorexia and bulimia. A 2006 study at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, however, came to a very different conclusion. Here, groups of normal and eating disordered women were asked to rate the attractiveness of their own bodies. They were then photographed from the neck down, and panels of volunteers were brought in to view the photos and rate the women’s appearances objectively. The normal women, as it turned out, evaluated themselves much more positively than the panels did, while the self-ratings of the eating disordered women were in close agreement with the objective ratings. The eating disordered subjects, in other words, had a more realistic body image than the normal women. However, it is important to note that the study was based upon the broad concept of “attractiveness” rather than body weight specifically—while the eating disordered women may have rated themselves poorly because they felt “fat,” their weight was a controlled variable and not the basis of the volunteers’ assessments.

Studies into clinical depression have yielded similar findings, leading to the development of an intriguing, but still controversial, concept known as depressive realism. This theory puts forward the notion that depressed individuals actually have more realistic perceptions of their own image, importance, and abilities than the average person. While it’s still generally accepted that depressed people can be negatively biased in their interpretation of events and information, depressive realism suggests that they are often merely responding rationally to realities that the average person cheerfully denies.

Lear's Fool speaks wisdom disguised as madnessThose with paranoid disorders can sometimes possess a certain unusual insight as well. It has often been asserted that within every delusional system, there exists a core of truth—and in their pursuit of imagined conspiracies against them, these individuals often show an exceptionally keen eye for the real thing. People who interact with them may be taken aback as they find themselves accused of harboring some negative opinion of the person which, secretly, they actually do hold. Complicating the issue, of course, is the fact that if the supposed aversion didn’t exist before, it likely does after such an unpleasant encounter.

As one might imagine, these issues present some problems when it comes to treatment. How does one convince a depressed person that “everything is all right” when her life really does suck? How does one convince an obsessive-compulsive patient to stop religiously washing his hands when the truth of what gets left behind after “normal” washing should be enough to make any sane person cringe? These problems put therapists in the curious position of teaching patients to develop irrational patterns of thinking—patterns that help them view the world as a rosier place than it really is. Counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s justified because what defines a mental disorder is not unreasonable or illogical thought, but abnormal behaviour that causes significant distress and impairs normal functioning in society. Treatment is about restoring a person to that level of normal functioning and satisfaction, even if it means building cognitions that aren’t precisely “rational” or “realistic.”

It’s a disconcerting concept. It’s certainly easier to think of the mentally disordered as lunatics running about with bizarre, inexplicable beliefs than to imagine them coping with a piece of reality that a “normal” person can’t handle. The notion that we routinely hide from the truth about ourselves and our world is not an appealing one, though it may help to explain the human tendency to ostracize the abnormal. Perhaps the reason we are so eager to reject any departure from this fiction we call “normality” is because we have grown dependent on our comfortable delusions; without them, there is nothing to insulate us from the harsh cold of reality.

"Hitting bottom isn't a weekend retreat, it isn't a goddamned seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go!"


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12 Apr 2010, 10:14 am

This makes a lot of sense to me.


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12 Apr 2010, 10:25 am

I have heard this before, especially in regards to depression. If you really want to parse things out, nobody has an accurate perception of reality, whether they have a condition described in the DSM or not. It's simply not possible. We're limited by the parameters of our senses. What tiny bit of real world data that can come into our senses must be filtered pretty stringently to keep us focused on the data relevent to our lives at that particular second. It seems (according to the cumulative posts here) that autism alters the filters and/or re-prioritizes which filtered information is considered attention-worthy.

When I cross the street with my daughter, I pay attention to the passing cars and ignore everything else. I have given passing cars 100% priority until we are on the other side of the street. She gives equal attention to the color of the buildings on the other side of the street or an interesting occurance down at the end of the street. She doesn't ignore the cars but she doesn't prioritize them over other data either. As long as this continues, she can't safely cross the street by herself. My perspective is considered more rational because it gives top priority to data that keeps us from getting hit by a car and screens everything else out. However, both of us are percieving reality as accurately as our sense allow. The difference is in how it is prioritized.

So maybe in this context "rational" doesn't really mean "more accurate". It means "data prioritized so you use what you need to stay alive and get on with your life". The depressed person is correct. Everything is not all right. This perspective is accurate (within the limits of her perception). If you take rational to mean "data prioritized so you use what you need to stay alive and get on with your life", it is accurate but not rational. It is not rational to spend all your time immobilized by memories of your horrible childhood even if it really was horrible. A therapist can't convince her that everything is all right because it isn't. But maybe a therapist can convince her to re-prioritize data to favor data about what she can change in the present over data about what she can't change (the past, other peoples' behaviour).

It's also an extremely accurate perception of reality to notice just exactly what pattern the flames make as the wall burns. Accurate, yes, but rational? If the building is on fire, it is important for survival (rational) to filter out every single piece of accurate data your senses are getting except for the data about how to LEAVE NOW.


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12 Apr 2010, 11:02 am

yep i would agree with this somewhat but it is something i would want to believe so who knows.
i don't see that essay as a good source though. i'd have to look up papers etc. to convince myself.


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12 Apr 2010, 4:25 pm

Hmm, interesting. I wonder if this could have something to do with the banking failure (the sub-prime thing). Lots of people thinking "logically, this can't last, but... well, it will all work out ok in the end."


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12 Apr 2010, 4:54 pm

I think it's worth remembering that we live in a world saturated by advertising. Everywhere we look, we see people smiling and laughing or looking cool or sexy because they've cured their indigestion or got a new mortgage. When placed beside these images, ordinary people with ordinary looks living ordinary lives are going to seem less good than they are. Our expectations of life are raised to unrealistic levels in childhood and so it's inevitable that rational beliefs about our own real lives seem depressing or cause neuroses.

There's a good quote I can't quite remember, which is about religion, but is relevant to this. It's something like: "To say a false belief cause happiness is no more valid an argument than saying a drunk man is happier than a sober one."

Tangled up and Blue


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13 Apr 2010, 2:07 am

a psychiatrist with a unique view of mental illness-
Dr. Thomas Szacz


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17 Apr 2010, 7:19 pm

fascinating article, and Janissy, i find your response illuminating. makes sense to me.

Now a penguin may look very strange in a living room, but a living room looks very strange to a penguin.


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17 Apr 2010, 7:51 pm

This is a good article, and it's also very true. While I'm happy to be alive, I do tend to see the world, as it really is, and that brings me down, a little. Than I come to a realization that I can control my own world, and I cheer up, again.

The darling, unworldly Mick Avory with hands like shovels, who wouldn't dare choose to hurt a soul: I'm the cuddly, adorable Kink. Sweet Peas: ... 20Smileys/ Blog: http://ramblingsofasuccessfula

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17 Apr 2010, 11:55 pm

Self-deception is kind of fascinating to me. I first heard the term in a Radiolab segment a year or so ago, which suggested that people who believe that they're better and more capable than they actually are often find more success than those who are equally capable, but realistic about it. They're more likely to take risks, and less likely to stay down after failure. It's not so much a case of deliberately deluding yourself in a significant way, but rather making your own confidence and drawing strength from it. And it's something that almost everyone does to some extent, even if they're not aware of it.

I'm not sure about the mentally disordered seeing the world more realistically because of their disorder, though. It seems more likely to me that people start seeing things differently because of one of the side-effects - becoming a black sheep, looking in on the rest of the flock from the outside. For me at least, my view of the world started coming into focus during the hard times at school, when I first started to become isolated socially. You see things differently when you're just a bystander with time to watch and think.

It's not really surprising that the majority aren't quite seeing things as they are, as well - we're practically taught not to. America in particular seems obsessed with the idea of "Believing in Yourself", which seems to be the hero's secret weapon in every story. Anyone giving advice on a job interview is going to tell you to exaggerate your strengths and downplay your weaknesses, while anyone trying to cheer up a friend is going to try to tell that person only what they want to hear. At funerals everyone suddenly realises that the deceased was actually an amazing guy who did no wrong, while many news stories on TV can't help but inject a little drama into the facts when reality isn't quite interesting enough.

I used to hate all that, especially the "Believe in Yourself" and "Trust in Your Star" nonsense, which still make me cringe. But looking back, my attempts to be totally honest with myself have done almost as much harm as good. Trying to see things realistically is good for self-improvement and maintaining an open mind, but it's not so great for maintaining confidence or the willpower to get things done. I used to be passionate about drawing and writing, and was often told I was good at it - but being my own worst, brutally honest critic, my motivation eventually just fizzled out. I think with creative work in particular you need to at least be a little bit delusional about the worth of your work, otherwise you can't ignore the millions of competitors out there and the realisation that whatever you're trying to express probably isn't all that unique.