Friday, May 18, 2012

What do we mean by insane?

In a word: delusional.

Most of us think we perceive reality directly and accurately. That is not true at all. Our senses take in information from our environment, and that information is filtered through our beliefs and assumptions before we become aware of it. Our reality is generated in our minds. Each of us creates our own individual reality.

Psychologists put it this way: we build models of reality in our minds, called “mental maps,” which we use to navigate the world. We do not see actual reality, whatever that might be. We see only our mental models of reality.

No one knows what reality actually is, but we all think and behave as if we do. We erroneously conclude that our model of reality is reality.

What do we call someone who confuses their model of reality with reality itself? We call them delusional, or insane.

The idea that we live in a mind-generated reality seems strange because it feels like we experience the physical world directly and perceive it accurately. For example, when I want to pick my shoe up off the floor I can accurately locate the physical object—the shoe is here on the floor, not over there on the dining table—and I can precisely move my hand to its location and pick it up. Surely this means I’m experiencing the physical world the way it is!

Optical illusions are amusing and shocking because they let us see that we do not perceive physical reality accurately.

For example, in the illustration below the center bar is the same shade of grey all the way across, yet our perception is that it’s lighter on the right.

Our mind-generated reality is more than just a model of physical reality; it includes abstract, subjective perceptions also. Psychology textbooks are filled with long lists of common errors in our subjective perception of reality. For example, there’s the famous “Lake Wobegon effect”: most people think they’re above average (a statistical impossibility). There’s wishful thinking: “I’ll start losing that weight next week.” Denial: “I’m not an alcoholic—I just like to drink every night.” Or, “I’m not in an unhappy marriage—we never fight!” (Because we never talk to each other…) Rationalization: “It’s okay that I steal paperclips from work because they’ll never miss them.”

These thinking errors can all be summed up in this line from the song “The Boxer,” by Paul Simon: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Our mind-generated virtual reality is a construct built of preconceptions, beliefs, and assumptions that cause us to see our world and ourselves in a rigid and unchanging way. We are boxed in by our beliefs about reality.

Someone (the source is disputed) said, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

At first blush the idea that we’re insane sounds like a horrible thing. But realizing the truth that we are enslaved to unquestioned and erroneous assumptions about reality is actually the best news we could hope for. Realizing our insanity can empower us by freeing us from the delusion that we’re in control. Because we’re insane we can’t be blamed and shamed for all those misdeeds and wrongs that haunt us—we’re innocent by reason of insanity. In addition, when we realize that everyone is insane, we have the key to compassion. We understand why people (including ourselves) do mean or hurtful things: we know not what we do.

Being innocent by reason of insanity is in no way a blank check or license to kill. It doesn’t mean it’s okay to do mean and hurtful things; it means we understand that those actions are motivated by insanity, not willful choice. We can still put people in prison if we can’t figure out any other way to prevent them from hurting others. But we will think differently about who they are: they’re not evil monsters, they are sick.

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