“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
According to a 2015 World Health Organization mental health survey (analyzing information from over 30,000 people in 18 countries) about 1 in 20 people in the general population has experienced at least one hallucination in their lifetime that wasn’t connected to drugs, alcohol or dreaming (original article at JAMA Psychiatry, July 15, 2015). Next time you’re at the coffee shop, look around. At least one of your fellow caffeine addicts has heard voices or seen things that didn’t exist, or experienced a presumed delusion (a false belief), such as the thought that their mind was being controlled or that they were being followed. If you want to have some fun pick one at random and whisper in their ear, “Can you see me?” Repeat this enough times and eventually you’ll identify the precise individual, and in some instances, get a date. This is less a reflection of the possibility that there are a lot of free-range crazy people, rather more indicative that there is some superficial credence in the psychological theory of schizotypy, which states in layman’s terms, that everyone is a little bit crazy, and the issue in question is where you fall along the continuum.
Schizotypy is particularly germane to the exploration of strange phenomena, as the skeptical default is to assume that anyone who has had what is generously termed an “apparitional experience”, be it an elusive hairy hominid, an unidentified flying object, or a good old fashioned haunting, is either ignorant, mistaken, or insane (temporarily or chronically). I have met very few skeptics who aren’t entirely confident that the vast majority of human beings are babbling, easily manipulable clods. It simultaneously allows one to feel they are doing their humanitarian duty by protecting the unwashed, and moronic masses from the predations of prestidigitators and publicists, while conferring an air of intellectual superiority on those who imagine they are saving us from ourselves. Similarly, when the oaf-of-experience turns out to be a little more savvy then he was initially given credit for, the fallback is that bastard child of ignorance, misidentification. You thought you saw a UFO because you mistook a plane, a planet, a weather balloon, or swamp gas for an extraterrestrial visitor. This becomes problematic when the informant has a certain level of expertise regarding the subject (say, a pilot whose life depends on knowing what’s in the air with him reporting a UFO). Failing this, we begin to hear mutterings about personal psychological peccadillos such as attention seeking behavior. I like to think of this as the “skeptical cascade”. What cannot be ruled out by ignorance (to which only the chosen few skeptics are unsusceptible), must be the result of a perceptual mistake, and when it is unreasonable to assume that the reporter might easily make such an egregious misidentification of perfectly natural phenomena, personal motivations are called into question (and this despite the obvious reluctance of many witnesses to tell their tale). Exhausting these options, the only reasonable recourse, since the paranormal cannot exist, is to declare the witness insane.
Since its out of fashion to say that most of humanity throughout most of history have been a bunch of drooling idiots, that not every unnatural occurrence in written history resulted from perceptual errors, and that the bulk of our fellow humans are rather disinterested in being identified as the wacky neighbor who sees things, yet reports of preternatural occurrences have flowed from all manner of folks, from serfs to scientists, ever since we decided to organize our primate grunts and whistles into coherent sentences, it is damned convenient that psychologists have come up with a way to explain it all away, without condemning much of the species to a padded room. By the theory of schizotypy, “psychosis-proneness” is just another normal dimension of personality, continuously distributed throughout the normal population. Thus, folks who appear like sane, functional, reasonable adults, can just happen to fall higher on the schizotypy dimension, and thus are more prone to anomalous perceptual experiences, without ever tipping over into full blown psychosis.
Not to get all insufferably Darwinian, but one must imagine that given the prevalence of anomalous perceptual experiences, there must be something adaptive to them, otherwise it would have been weeded out by natural selection. False pattern recognition gets you eaten by lions, enslaved by barbarians, our finds you left out in the cold for the next Ice Age. This is all well and good, but the theory of schizotypy presumes that what is reported to exist, cannot exist, thus is invariably an illusion, delusion, or product of an overactive imagination, judged by how far along the continuum of susceptibility to hallucination one falls. This requires the ontological perspective that what we know now is what we will know in the future (or some slightly modified version thereof). If one in twenty people report the experience of phenomena that were not encapsulated by our current theories of how the universe works, absent our strange confidence that ignorance, misidentification, and insanity explain it all, is it not possible that noticing patterns that fall outside the currently accepted paradigm are precisely the adaptive mechanism we’re looking for that would explain why we have not become a bunch of perfectly logical Vulcans, steeped in scientific method and locking away all those folks who imagine there are absurdities in existence as of yet to be explained. Perhaps the reason we keep seeing weird stuff is that those unfortunates who unexpectedly stumble across the unnatural, and deign to notice, are that much more likely to live to reproduce. I thought about using that in my match.com profile. Then I realized I’m already married. She’s funny like that. Chicks. What are you gonna do?
At any rate, the point is I like the theory of schizotypy. Admittedly this is a little bit self-serving, given my own incipient awareness that I need some way to justify my life choices. I just think they may have missed the mark. If we’re willing to propose that people gained some evolutionary advantage by noticing things that weren’t there, wouldn’t it be even more reasonable to admit that perhaps those people that notice the ghost in the house, the strange thing in the sky, and the devil in the details might outlast those folks who have a philosophy that they’re sticking to come hell or high water, despite what their senses are telling them? When faced with anomalies, why is it easier to assume that everyone is a little bit crazy, than to imagine that perhaps a few folks are a little more sensitive to aberrant phenomena? You may not believe in poltergeists, but clearly sometimes they believe in you. As Miguel de Cervantes said, “Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be”.
Then we all must wonder about the people doing the diagnosing. Their lives must be awfully dull.