Schizophrenia, Hyper-Mentalism, and the Happy Puppet

Couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What to make of the Firecracker’s attraction to schizophrenia as a word and lifestyle, and why did it become the writer-singer-songwriter’s passport into a different kind of world? Schizophrenia, after all, goes beyond the mere desire for altered states of mind. Yeah, Coleridge loved opium, but this exceeds drugs, hallucinations, trumps the scope and governance of the will. Is this why it’s appealing? Is it a release from an oppressive hyper-consciousness? Is it a kind of Fate?

As evidence that what I’m saying actually happens, and that the word crops up in oddly reverential ways, some examples:

  • Talking about Lynch’s union of the banal and the grotesque, DFW says, admiringly, that “there’s a certain schizophrenia about it.”
  • From “In the Company of Creeps”, an article in Publisher’s Weekly:

    Wallace characterizes the public reception of both Infinite Jest and a followup essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Little, Brown, 1997) as a ‘schizophrenia of attention.’

  • The Firecracker I married described his turmoil over whether or not his desires were compatible with being married to me as being sliced in half while in the shower. He called this his schizophrenia, and declared finally that his interest in madness isn’t intellectual, but religious. In my lower moments I think he yearns for it.

My sister is schizophrenic. She’s plagued daily by origami devils and monster faces in her food. She spends hours tracking down hackers breaking into her computer, scratches strips of skin off to get at the bugs beneath, turns sly and calculating whenever a collection agency calls to collect on one of the forty cell phone accounts she’s opened and closed and left unpaid. She resents that no one will believe that the doctor removed her temporal lobe during one the many unnecessary surgeries she’s convinced them to perform. She’s tried to kill herself three times.

I mention this to justify—or at least disclose—what might be an unreasonably rigid sense of what schizophrenia means. For me, it’s always meant a clinical condition.

So I thought I should check and see what it actually means. The word was coined in 1910 (or 1896, depending on whether you ask the OED or The Guardian). The OED defines it thusly:

A mental disorder occurring in various forms, all characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions, usu. with a withdrawal from social activity and the occurrence of delusions and hallucinations.
Used in the U.S. with a broader meaning than in Britain (cf. quots. 1979, 1980).

The earlier term was “dementia praecox,” the premature unraveling of the mind. Schizophrenia means “split mind,” a term coined by Eugen Beuler to describe the splitting of mental functions. (It’s kind of ironic that these days “split-brain” patients are epileptic survivors whose corpus callosa—the bundle of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres—have been surgically cut.)

In fact, the word seems to be losing status in the scientific community. The romance is unfelt in this quarter, and some people are trying to get rid of it as a category altogether: From Kate Hilpern’s article “Muddy Thinking” in The Guardian

“As a single word, schizophrenia can ruin a life as surely as any bullet,” says Hammersley. “I know of one woman whose psychiatrist told her it would have been better for her to have cancer. Our desire to dump schizophrenia in the diagnostic dustbin is therefore not just about the poor science that surrounds it, but the immense damage that this label brings about. Lives are being ruined on the basis of a highly suspect diagnostic system.”

Other scientists defend the label. Vague and bland as it is, to dispose of it would eliminate research funding. They’ve pressed on, and two in particular have come to a pretty awesome conclusion about a possible genetic basis for autism and schizophrenia.

Turns out the quest for a baby’s mental health is the ultimate Boy vs. Girl genetic free-for-all, the egg-and-sperm version of the bedroom scene in A Pocketful of Miracles. Nature recently published an opinion piece by Christopher Badcock (heh) and Bernard Crespi called “Battle of the Sexes”.

Here is what they found.

You inherit a copy of each gene from your mom and dad. Certain genes (63 so far) will actively interferewith each other—you’ll express one or the other, but not both. Which you express depends on whether the outcome will favor mom or dad. For instance, a large baby will be bigger and have a longer life expectancy, costing dad nothing and favoring his genes, while a smaller baby will favor the mother’s survival. A gene aiding fetal growth will be either suppressed or expressed depending on whether the dad or the mom’s gene wins. If dad wins, the baby will be huge. If mom wins, it’ll be tiny.

I feel I must include the graphic they used to illustrate this piece:

Anyway, it turns out that certain mental illnesses—autism and schizophrenia, in particular—offer specific advantages to mom or dad. Autism will tax the caretaker’s resources the most. Historically, that’s been mom, so dad’s genes will favor autism. The stronger the paternal bias—the more of his genes that win—the higher the odds of autism.

Autistic behaviors, Badcock and Crespi argue, are

the diametric opposite of both paranoia and the full spectrum of related psychotic and mood disorders, which include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. Numerous other antithetical symptoms fit this broader contrast: autistic single-mindedness versus psychotic ambivalence, autistic candour versus psychotic self-deception, autistic deficits in a sense of self versus psychotic megalomania and delusions of grandeur, and so on.

Paranoia and psychosis, then, are the mother’s contribution. A kid closer to the paranoid end of the spectrum will be “cheaper,” energetically speaking, than an autistic one. But why? I hear you ask. Dear friend, I wouldn’t subject you to all this if there weren’t a valuable payoff. Allow me to tell you about “happy puppet” syndrome:

Geneticists have found a region of human chromosome 15 … that contains a set of imprinted genes. Children with a paternal bias in gene expression in this area develop Angelman or ‘happy puppet’ syndrome, which involves hyperactive, attention-seeking behaviour in infancy and a very high incidence of autism. Children with a maternal bias in this area develop Prader–Willi syndrome, which features extremely placid, undemanding behaviour in infancy, followed after weaning by compulsive food-seeking, which can be seen to reduce the demands on a mother. This is accompanied by rates of psychosis with depression that can approach 100%.

The battle-lines are drawn. Autism vs. schizophrenia, father against mother, happy puppets vs. placid-but-food-seeking infants, AND, maybe my favorite distinction of all:

…we propose that autistic spectrum conditions are characterized by deficits in theory-of-mind skills, or ‘hypo-mentalism’, whereas psychotic spectrum conditions involve the exact opposite: ‘hyper-mentalism’.

Your only hope of normalcy is if you fall somewhere between the autistic and psychotic spectra.

If not, here’s what happens:

According to our theory, there are two major axes of cognition: one determined by sex, and one by the paternal or maternal bias in gene expression. Perhaps mental disorders are more common but less severe where these two axes are compatible: in males with autism and females with depression. When the two axes are least well-matched, as in females with autism and males with psychosis, disorders seem to be much more severe.

The madman, in other words, will always be madder than the madwoman. He’s the victim of near-total maternal bias. What’s innate to the girl is a distortion in the boy. Maybe this is why it afflicts the male Firecracker more—if schizophrenia remains, as it ever was, mainly a female trait, the attraction might boil down to that little-known thing, intellectual vagina-envy. I don’t know. I don’t know.

But if you see a man and a woman, predict how well-matched they are by the compatibility of their axes.


2 Responses to Schizophrenia, Hyper-Mentalism, and the Happy Puppet

  1. Carla Fran says:

    And this highlights again my two fears about birth:
    1.) That it reduces the individual to a mere conduit: that while we want it to be magic, there is a long cold moment when the mother realizes she is, at that point in biology, no different than a cow. And, the chilling part to me here, in its possibility, is that we have so many layers of the opposite of this message as rationalization.

    2.) That the baby would eat the mother if it could, as happens in the bestselling Twilight series, where the babies eat there way out of their mothers…or in Octavia Butler’s amazing, searing, Blood Child.

    So, I guess what I mean is that my fear is that while we talk all the time about how it is about the mother, it isn’t at all. Biology has trumped the mother from the get go, as she herself is possibly trumping baby with the gene battle here.

    To save the future, I think I will skip kids, and just create a brood of ponies with kitten faces…and one horn so they can be like unicorns (though I can’t actually have unicorns involved, because they don’t exist). How you ask? With science, of course!

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