Friday, April 20, 2007


In a recent post on paranoia, I discussed the different paths a person could take, each of which would bring that person or group to a place where paranoia offered them the "best", i.e. most acceptable, explanation for their failures in life.
Let me just cut to the chase and admit that paranoia and delusional thinking are equal-opportunity, multiracial, multicultural and gender-indifferent psychological processes. And, they are so easy and convenient to use, that they are accessible even to the youngest of children or the most physiologically disabled adult mind...

I deal regularly with people who have various levels of physiological abnormality in their brain. Through an unfortunate series of events--their genetics; random biological mutations; or the deliberate use of mind-altering substances that activate the latent psychosis; etc. etc., these unfortunate souls start out with or unknowingly stimulate a defective physiology which causes a dysfunction in their cognitive faculties. Their defective brain works hard to integrate events and make sense of the world, but it is at a serious and overwhelming disadvantage because its neural pathways don't work properly. Hence, auditory or visual hallucination; bizarre delusions; complicated conspiracy theories; disorganized thinking; and an impaired critical thinking capacity in general--all of which lead to pervasive misperceptions of the world and the people around them.

We rightly call such people mentally ill. For the most part (except for the substance-induced psychotics) the only choice they have in the matter (and this, too is often dependent on whether or not the insight they have into their illness has been spared the physiological degneration that effects other parts of their brain) is whether to regularly take the medications that give them some hope of being able to accurately perceive reality.

The people I am concerned about in this post are as close to being mentally ill as it is possible to get. Oh, they have the same catastrophic physiological disruption in their brain that the paranoid schizophrenic has; it's just that they came to it via a different route. They probably weren't born with much of a physiological vulnerability for becoming detached from, they had to have repeatedly travelled down the psycho path to reach their final delusional destination. It is likely that at first they mentally got lost and accidentally took a wrong turn, leaving the main highway. It was always within their cognitive power to return to the main road (unlike those with mental illness who are biologically trapped on the false path) ; but at some point they chose to stay on their present course.

In the recent horrific events at Virginia Tech, we are able to see what can happen when a single physiologically diseased mind arrives at that paranoid destination. The amount of carnage that can be wrought--by just one such diseased brain-- is more than a sane mind can wrap itself around.

It is becoming clearer by the day that the perpetrator of these cold-blooded murders was likely a paranoid schizophrenic whose psychopathology was evident to others around him, but who likely resisted treatment and whose abherrent and abhorrent mental state only worsened over time. Dr. Helen notes:

It would be so easy if the complexities that went into the making of a killer could be boiled down to "where did this guy get a gun?" It takes responsibility away from trying to understand what went into the making of the killer, and why we, as a society did nothing to stop him.

Charles Krauthammer offers an explanation of why:

If we are going to look for a political issue here, the more relevant is not gun control but psychosis control. We decided a half a century ago that our more eccentric and, indeed, crazy fellow citizens would not be easily locked up in asylums. It was a very humane decision, but with the inevitable consequence that some who really need protection and quarantine are allowed to roam the streets freely....

In a previous age, such a troubled soul might have found himself at the state mental hospital rather than a state university. But in a trade-off that a decent and tolerant society makes with open eyes, we allow freedom from straitjackets to those on the psychic edge, knowing that such tolerance runs very rare but very terrible risk.

In other words, the society--our society--made a choice to optimize freedom; and one of the consequences of that choice is that there are Cho Seung Huis out there whose untreated disorders might result in future tragedies.

Fortunately, not very many schizophrenics--paranoid or other types--actually commit violence of this type. In fact, schizophrenic and the mentally ill in general do not commit violence more frequently than the general population. In point of fact, they are the victims of violence far more often than the general population.


The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study compared more than 1,000 people with mental disorders to 500 well people who lived in the same neighborhoods. Participants were enrolled in Kansas City, Mo.; Worcester, Mass.; and Pittsburgh.

In a May 1998 report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers examined data gathered in Pittsburgh and found that violence rates were indistinguishable between mental patients and their well neighbors.

Other studies have estimated that about 3 percent of all the violence that occurs around the country can be attributed to mental illness, said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester who is also an investigator in the MacArthur project.

"Even then, it's not clear that it's the mental disorder that makes them violent, as opposed to environmental circumstances or personality traits of the individual," he added.(emphasis mine)

The abnormal physiology of the schizophrenic leads to cognitive dysfunction, which leads to a gross misperception and distortion of reality. When there is a pre-existing character structure that nourishes and feeds the misperception, using it to explain the individual's failures in life---then you have a potent combination of factors that can lead to the kind of violent events seen at Virginia Tech.

Cho lived in a society and culture that allowed him to be free and choose his fate. You can argue that when there is a disease process that interferes with truly being able to make a rational choice--a process that actively interferes with reality perception thus making the person a danger to himself and others--that society should unambiguously intervene and interrupt the process in an attempt to prevent tragedy.

But the truth is that there are many people out there who do not have a pre-existing physiological disruption of their neural pathways; and who make choices every day that lead them down the psycho path. These people act normally for the most part and do not evince most of the other symptoms of schizophrenia, but they have one thing in common with Cho and other paranoid schizophrenics--they are seeking to explain why they personally are failures in their life; or they are seeking to explain why their beliefs; or their group or their tribe are not universaly recognized as perfect. To explain those unpalatable realities about themselves or their beliefs, they are willing to embrace the most bizarre conspiracy theories about the world. They are willing to wallow in paranoia, delighting in the feeling of unmatchable power and specialness that the paranoia permits them to feel. Within their delusions they become the person they always wanted to be, and the explanation for their failure is identified as another person; another group; another race; another religion; another nation. It is all so comforting to finally understand.

At first, they can turn around and retreat down the path that brought them to this paranoid comfort zone at any time. But they don't want to. It just feels so good, even if they are persecuted for their beliefs (it actually gives further validation to them).... So they don't notice that their brains become configured like the Cho's of the world. And if their personality organization leans toward the cluster B personalities (i.e., histrionic, narcissistic, borderline, or antisocial) ; then they too can do considerable damage.

Now, imagine the latter type of individual--i.e., those who basically have a functional and normal brain physiology--living in a society or culture that (1) encourages and facilitates the development of dysfuntional personality structures; and (2) celebrates psychotic acting out; violence and terror; murder and death--all to give justification and rationalization for its failures as a culture.

Healthy societies and cultures develop structures and institutions that encourage individuals to transform the primitive instinctual energy of even the most destructive emotions into works of art or entertainment that give pleasure to others (sublimation and humor) ; or behavior that is socially beneficial (altruism, anticipation, suppression). In those cultures, people who achieve optimal psychological health are those who have come to satisfactory terms with their neurobiology. They are people who have learned to accept their anger, rage and other potentially deadly emotions and, instead of destructively acting out, repressing, denying or projecting; have creatively expressed those feelings in a way that improves life both for themselves and for others.

In most cultures, the Cho's and others who act on their violent impulses will always be considered an aberration, and not the norm. There will be debate on the most humane way to deal with those whose brain abnormality makes them psychotic and delusional--and dangerous to themselves and others.

But there are some cultures, as SC&A point out, that encourage--indeed, they require-- their members to take that parallel psycho path into the realms of paranoia and projection. These dysfunctional cultures can only maintain themselves through the paranoia and externalization of blame for the misery and oppression of their population. In those cultures, people who act like Cho are celebrated for their heroism and given the title of "martyr" (Cho used that very term in the material he sent to NBC to describe himself). SC&A further note:

In this topsy turvey world, the persecutor must be the persecuted. Somehow, the behavior and destructive narcissistic expressions must be explained and thereby justified. The opposing views are washed away. The persecutor can be the persecuted, exercising sacred retribution, divine or political.

Thus is created the suicide bomber, who is committed to his or her own individual death because it brings him the fame and status that so eluded him in life. Like Cho, they videotape their grievances, their fierce determination; their heroic struggle and their rationalizations for their sick, homicidal behavior. They glory in the realization that they will find in death the recognition and power they never were accorded in their pathetic lives. The dysfunctional culture will agree with him and extoll his act of violence as one of virtue.

At least in a healthy society, actions like Cho's are seen as the sick expressions of a diseased mind and happen relatively infrequently. In the unhealthy societies and culture of the Middle East, such behavior is the expression of a sick society and is celebrated with psychotic and delusional joy.

Whatever you might say about the some of the more perverted and degenerate aspects of American or Western culture--aspects that celebrate death, dysfunction and victimhood--we are not a culture of death yet, and we can still understand and condemn the evil that humans are capable of doing to each other.

But, make no mistake, these sicker parts of our culture will slowly but surely transform the whole into a culture that celebrates violence and terror. This can happen if we abandon our humaness; and if we fail to recognize the parallel psycho path that is taken consciously in order to avoid reality, reason and personal responsibility; and which takes a person or an entire society to the same delusional and paranoid final destination of the mentally ill.

UPDATE: Dry Bones has it exactly right (hat tip: Cynic):

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