Schizophrenia, Religion, Autism and the Indian culture (alternate title: Life, The Universe and Everything)

In continuation of my focus on the Schizophrenia-Autism dichotomy, I’ll like to highlight two articles that seem to support my view.

The first is a blog post by, John Horgan, speculating whether religiosity is the inverse of autism.

The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposes that religious experiences—and particularly those involving visions or intuitions of a personal God–may stem from our innate tendency toward anthropomorphism, “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events.” Guthrie called his book on this theory Faces in the Clouds, but he could have called it Jesus in the Tortilla.

Recent findings in developmental psychology dovetail with Guthrie’s theory. By the age of three or four all healthy children manifest an apparently innate ability to infer the state of mind of other people.

Psychologists postulate that autism stems from a malfunction of the theory-of-mind module. Autistics have difficulty inferring others’ thoughts, and even see no fundamental distinction between people and inanimate objects, such as chairs or tables. That is why autism is sometimes called “mind-blindness.”

But many of us have the opposite problem—an overactive theory-of-mind capacity, which leads to what the psychologist Justin Barrett calls “hyperactive agent detection.” When we see squares and triangles moving around a screen, we cannot help but see the squares “chasing” the triangles, or vice versa, even when we are told that the movements are random.

This is compatible with this blog’s Schizophrenia-is-the-inverse-of-Autism theory for the following reasons:

1. Too much belief in agency in Schizophrenics (the hyperactive Agent detector conceptualized above) vs too less belief in agency in Autistics – characterized by me earlier as a Fantasy/Imagination Vs Reality orientation – has a direct relevance to whether one attributes anthropomorphic agency to non-living things and events (and thus Nature or God) or even fails to attribute intention to humans and animals and assumes them to be mere automata. I believe while a schizophrenic mindset can be characterized by a suspension-of-disbelief and too much causality and intention attribution (thus leading to the mindset compatible with religious/ spiritual leanings), the autistic mindset would lead to too much skepticism, too much even-causal-happenings-are-only-coincidental mindset and a reductionist, atheistic mindset that attributes no intention to humans, least of all animals, and believes that they are just advanced machines. I guess both are extremes of delusion, in one case one characterizes that as the GOD delusion; but the other extremist who sees no role of agency or intentionality (even in humans) is hauled as a great scientist!!

2. Another prominent dimension on which the Schizophrenics and autistic differ is the Literal-Metaphor dimension. I would like to frame that in terms of a Reference-Meaning use of a linguistic word and the consequent distinction in linguistics between a symbol as a referent of something and a symbol as signifying a meaning. For an excellent commentary on this difference, please do read this classical paper.

Meaning, let us remember, is not to be identified with naming. Frege’s example of ‘Evening Star’ and ‘Morning Star’ and Russell’s of ‘Scott’ and ‘the author of Waverly’, illustrate that terms can name the same thing but differ in meaning. The distinction between meaning and naming is no less important at the level of abstract terms. The terms ‘9’ and ‘the number of the planets’ name one and the same abstract entity but presumably must be regarded as unlike in meaning; for astronomical observation was needed, and not mere reflection on meanings, to determine the sameness of the entity in question.

It is my contention that while the Schizophrenics are meaning obsessed; the Autistics are more reference obsessed, and thus have problems with metaphorical and figurative speech. From linguistics one can stretch the Meaning-Reference distinction and conceive of too much meaning orientation in schizophrenics ( and a meaningful life requires a GOD that gives a meaning to our lives) versus a nihilistic orientation in autistics that views the life/ evolution as purposeless. As many evolutionists famously claim – there is no meaning inherent in evolution, life or humans – rather that the question of meaning is invalid. Life just is.

3. Many schizophrenic delusions can be explained by an extreme manifestation of religiosity/ spirituality. As Szasz famously said, ” If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you you have schizophrenia”. Both a belief in GOD and his ability to listen to our prayers (the religious belief) and the converse belief that God can talk to us , many times in symbolic ways, but sometimes in the form of actual auditory hallucinations are a manifestation of the same cognitive mechanism that attributes too much agency, causality and meaning. Many schizophrenics, indeed do suffer from delusion of Grandeur, whereby they think of themselves as GOD-like; or the delusion of persecution and paranoia whereby they are persecuted by Satan like evil figures. thus both hallucinations as well as the common delusions are explainable by the religiosity orientation. this time the GOD delusion is different – one believes that one is a god-head. In non-religious cultures, these being-GOD delusions may take the non-religious forms of being a famous historical person (who had great agency and effect on Human history and is presumably now active via the agency of the deluded schizophrenic), and the persecution delusions may not refer to Satan- but to their non-secular counterparts- the CIA and the government!! Of course the pathological forms of an Autistic mindset, that may have nihilistic orientations, and out of boredom and feelings of meaninglessness, may resort to meaningless acts of violence like the Columbine Massacres is one direction which needs further study.

I would now like to now draw focus on the Cultural differences post where I had speculated on the different incidences rates of Schizophrenia and Autism in the East Asian and American cultures based on the differential emphasis on holistic and contextual versus analytical and local processing and cognition and also presented some supporting evidence. The well documented religious/spiritual inclination of Oriental cultures versus the Scientific/materialistic orientation of the American and western cultures may be another factor that would affect and explain the relative incidences of Schizophrenia and Autism in these cultures.

In a culture like India, in which the people believe in 18 crore (180 billion) Gods and Deities, believe in reincarnation and believe that every human being is potentially divine, if a human errs towards an extreme and starts developing funny ideas of being a God herself, then that may not ring the alarm bells immediately. Rather some form of that delusion may even be encouraged (that is why in India names are kept after the Gods and Deities; while its rare to find the name Jesus in West, you can find millions of Rams in India). If the same GOD-delusion develops in an American, then his idea of being Jesus (or an angel) would definitely be detected early, lead to an earlier ‘label’ and an earlier hospitalization.

That said, I would now like to draw attention to an article today in the Times Of India, that pointed me to some more literature that unequivocally shows that not only are the incidence rates of schizophrenia less in India (and other third world (Asian) countries), the prognosis is manifold better in Indian patients as compared to American patients.

The success story of schizophrenics in India was propagated by mental health professionals based on the WHO research DOSMeD in 1979. This was carried out in 10 countries including developing ones such as India, Nigeria and Columbia. The findings showed striking differences in the prognosis of schizophrenia between developed and developing countries. The underlying causes for the diversity were associated more with family and social variables than clinical determinants. Majority of patients in developing countries showed remission over two years; only 50 per cent of them had a single relapse though around 15 per cent never recovered. Patient outcome in developing countries was superior to that in developed economies.

This difference has been hypothesized to be due to the strong family structure (and I do believe that it is an important factor) and the social cushion, support and acceptance that a family provides to the patient and shields him/her from stressful situations that may trigger a relapse.

This theory of a family-protective-advantage has come under attack recently, but I think the attack is flawed because it clubs countries not according to Cultures, but according to developmental status. Indeed, the other factor that may be affecting a better outcome in schizophrenic patients may be the cultural differences like the different cognitive/perceptual styles and a more tolerance for religious/spiritual/ mystical ideas. By shielding a person from stigmatization and isolation, based on eccentricities exhibited along these dimensions, one may be preventing or delaying relapse, and ensuring better outcome by not pushing the person over the edge. In the pats, it was not infrequent, for those who had psychotic experiences to be labeled as shamans and to be treated with respect, rather than stigma and isolation; thus ensuring that they were not exposed to social stresses in the future.

I have taken a somewhat deprecating attitude towards the extreme autistic orientation characterized by no intentionality, causality, spiritual beliefs, but I am a strong believer in the fact that though the extreme manifestation of Autism/Schizophrenia makes one dysfunctional, a pronounced autistic/ schizophrenic orientation does endow one with creative faculties – either to understand and manipulate the world (the Sciences) or to understand and manipulate the subjective experiences (the Arts) . In particular, as the readers of this blog would most likely be scientists, and because I belong the the scientific community and have failed to see how a scientific orientation is incompatible with an artistic/symbolic/spiritual orientation , I have taken a harder line for the extreme Atheist and nihilism zealots.

I believe one can, and must, utilize the different types of cognitive abilities these extreme manifestations and disorders caricature. Do let me know what your think!

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7 thoughts on “Schizophrenia, Religion, Autism and the Indian culture (alternate title: Life, The Universe and Everything)

  1. mcewen

    Ah ‘the theory of mind,’ or ‘mind blindness.’ It is my direct experience, that whilst in it’s pure form [a theory] it is well reasoned, the reality differs greatly.
    Best wishes

  2. Anonymous

    There are plenty of autistics who beleive in God, God being defined as a divine being who is the cause of the existence of the universe. Believing in God is not neccesarily illogical, as you imply. If the Universe is even half as complex as modern science intuits, and it shows signs of great mathamatical complexity, then the belief in a higher being mumust be at least considered.

  3. Anonymous

    This post doesn’t make any fucking sense.

    1) Autistics can have weird, apophenic ideas too. Autistics can believe in God too. Being autistic doesn’t mean that you have absolutely no sense of cause and effect.
    2) Schizophrenics aren’t tapped into some sort of higher plane of coincidence. Cause and effect frequently breaks down in the mind of the schizophrenic as well–one of the symptoms of schizophrenia is the inability to communicate with people or be empathic.

    And are you seriously repeating the hoary, ignorant old myth that nihilism leads to murder? Or are you suggesting that autistic people will shoot up schools because they’re bored? I can’t even begin to tell someone who’s apparently a PSYCHOLOGIST exactly where he is immensely fucking wrong.

    Furthermore, are you seriously suggesting that there is something shameful or incorrect about atheism? Are you upset with autistics for being atheist? Or are you pissed off because scientists aren’t all religious artists as well?

    This essay was a muddled, confusing, completely imbecilic piece of shit.

  4. Sandy G

    Hi anonymous 1, I agree that there are many Autistics that do belive in GOd, I was juts caricaturing so the hyperbole.

    anonymous 2, you better use civil language, or I’ll have to restrict you from commenting here.

  5. Stephen

    “who’s apparently a PSYCHOLOGIST”

    No, sandy is closer to being a client who has listened to a politically correct, mental health care aide:

    “a pronounced autistic/ schizophrenic orientation does endow one with creative faculties”

    It is correct to say the faculties are distorted, not creative which has a positive connotation. Too much like telling people who can’t hear, that because they have sign language, that they are just different, not handicapped. … It depends on how extreme the perception of reality is out of touch with the rest of humanity. For instance there is Richard Borcherds with upper-end Asperger’s Syndrome who won the Fields Medal and then the content of this thread made for an interesting read.

  6. Anesha

    Hi Nice Blog . In this, the body is studied by regions rather than by organs. This is of importance to the surgeon who exposes different planes after the skin incision and who, of course, must be perfectly familiar with structures as he explores the limbs andHuman Anatomy studycavities.

  7. Anonymous

    I’m schizophrenic and you seriously hit the nail on the head about my condition, including my religious delusions

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