Why Sapolsky’s Take on Schizotypal Personality Disorder and Religion is Problematic

Dear CF,

BoingBoing posted one of Robert Sapolsky’s (Stanford neurobiologist and author of Monkeyluv, The Trouble with Testosterone and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) lectures on schizophrenia and schizotypal personality disorder today. It’s an hour long, but makes for pretty interesting listening if you have the time to give it. In this installment he starts off speculating about the possible selective evolutionary advantages of schizophrenia, which—unlike cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia, which protect heterozygotes (carriers, usually with one good copy of the gene) from cholera and malaria, respectively—hasn’t been thought to confer any kind of selective advantage.

He suggests an advantage exists, and that it lies in schizotypal personality disorder—sufferers who display milder schizophrenic symptoms and are labeled “half-crazy.” A group of scientists studying adoptive and biological schizophrenics in Denmark discovered, after interviewing all the parties concerned over a period of (I think ten years) that many relatives of schizophrenics display this attenuated version of the disease, which he characterizes as “movie-projector syndrome.” These people tend toward the antisocial; they prefer isolated occupations and are guilty of “metamagical thinking,” a near-schizophrenic kind of mental process that protects the sufferer from ostracism by successfully channeling odd or schizophrenic qualities into their proper contexts.

I haven’t tracked down his lecture on schizophrenia itself yet and I’d like to, because that definition of schizotypal personality disorder is rhetorically a bit too pat and makes it easy for him to (for example) retroactively ascribe it to shamans, witch doctors, medicine-men and religious founders generally. Anyone who thought he heard a burning bush talk or believed he was talking to a man who’d risen from the dead (or indeed claimed to have risen from the dead himself) would, today, be diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder.

This is clever, of course,  but it’s the argumentation I’m objecting to. I realize this is just a lecture, but it’s disappointingly poor logic from a defender of rationalism. To suggest that a newly developed (and rather hazy) diagnosis, rooted in a spectrum of sane vs. insane behaviors and defined only by a list of symptoms that have a priori been categorized as “schizotypal” or “insane,” can be applied to someone thousands of years ago who has precisely those milder “insane” symptoms is a textbook example of petitio principii, begging the question. I have developed this definition, it says, and look! someone a thousand years ago fits it!

(The difficulty lies, I think, in locating the definitional limits of schizotypal metamagical thinking. Is there any irrational or metamagical belief that wouldn’t be automatically classified as schizoid/schizotypal? Is it a matter of cumulative weight? Sapolsky mentions that 50% of Americans believe in UFOs, but wouldn’t (I assume) classify half the population as half-crazy. Is it then a matter of authorship—it’s one thing to hold an irrational belief that’s been culturally transmitted, another to create an entirely new one of your own? I think he’s getting at the latter, and suggesting that your evolutionary “fitness” depends on your ability to persuade other, more rational creatures of the truth of your idiosyncratic vision.)

Having established (which he hasn’t, at least not in this lecture) that important religious figures in different societies were schizotypal, he uses this to prove that in fact people who suffer from schizotypal personality disorder actually wield a hefty amount of power and had no trouble reproducing and passing on their genes. No data is cited to support this, and he dismisses the fact that many religious figures (both in shamanistic cultures and mainstream religions) were proscribed from marrying and asserts that indeed schizotypal personalities (unlike their schizophrenic counterparts) were and are reproductively quite successful.

I’m skeptical about both retrospective claims for a couple of reasons. One, I’d be interested to see hard statistics on the reproductive success of major religious founders. It seems to me that anecdotally, at least, they fall into two extremes: celibacy or some version of cult-leader polygamy. Two, the line he draws between schizotypal and schizophrenic is the second case where he uses the conclusion to prove the premise. His argument goes thusly:

  1. Schizophrenic people are not reproductively successful and can’t behave appropriately according to context.
  2. Schizophrenics are therefore ostracized from society.
  3. People with schizotypal personality disorder are milder cases that can channel their putative schizophrenic experience properly (for example, they’ll have an epiphany in church, not on a street corner).
  4. Schizotypals are not ostracized from society.
  5. Therefore, because religious founders who claimed to converse with bushes, etc., were not totally ostracized from society, they must be schizotypal personalities.

This is logical and historical nonsense. Read more of this post

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Dearest Carla Fran,

That was Doris Lessing! I read The Fifth Child standing up in a aisle of Tower Books in downtown Sacramento a bunch of years ago. Two interior decorating details are still with me: one was a long, long wooden dining table the couple had bought, the other is a strong impression of scary stairs. I left chilled and convinced of the unwisdom of having a big family.

I must tell you I watched Welcome to the Dollhouse for the first time ever, and spent most of the movie gaping in disbelief at Dawn Wiener. She was me. I was she. Shall I list the ways?

  • The t-shirt tucked into the elastic-waist pants. This was how I dressed.
  • The hairtie with the two plastic balls twisted up together on top.
  • The tiny perfect dancing sister. The way the tiny sister makes everything about Dawn twice as blobby and big.
  • The jerky sibling move that results in the sister’s endangerment (in my case, her getting locked into a Holiday Inn hotel room when she was 3. She bolted the door on accident, and the hotel had lost the master key. The fire department couldn’t get in, and I stood there, watching my father pull the fire alarm, my mother tearfully talk my sister away from the fatal toilet drowning mechanism, thinking to myself that I had lied, that I hadn’t had to go outside the room, that I hadn’t heard them coming at all and just wanted to feel important for a second and get away.)
  • The piano-playing.
  • The total submission to abusive people, except that I was more of a tattle-tale.
  • The weird spurts of agency in which she makes Steve Jello and macaroni and plots his seduction.
  • The clubhouse. Mine was a fig tree that gave me rashes on my legs. Whatever.
  • That shot of her lying in bed, expressionless, all night, after she’s met Steve.
  • The voice!!! That was my voice!!!
  • The terrible moment of appearing at the party in her “Love” heart-shaped earrings, her grown-up hairdo, lime-green pants and electric blue midriff-baring top. Mine was white roller-skates with with hot pink wheels, long silver dangly heart earrings, a turquoise spandex top with silver lightning bolts and bike shorts to match.

I’ve never recognized myself so completely in a movie before. I don’t know what to think—I experienced it almost as an unfamiliar invasion of privacy.

The line “There’s voices in my head / Coming from the phone” reminded me of your observations on schizophrenia, specifically of a friend of mine who hears the air condition constantly telling him that he’s a horrible person, good-for-nothing, ugly, etc. When this happens he very stiffly gets up and takes the dog for a walk.

The happy puppet is pretty terrifying, I guess. You’re right, it suggests that we’re yanked around by our genes, or by a genetically encoded desire to please and get attention, which might be the same thing. So what other phenotypes are there? Are the rest of us disaffected dummies? Moody marionettes?

In my trolling for belly-dancing material I watched a history of burlesque last night and came across an act in which a woman lies down on a couch and is fondled and partly undressed by a life-sized puppet of the devil. This was in response to censorship laws decreed that a dancer couldn’t bump and grind directly facing the audience or touch herself anywhere at all while onstage.

What terrifies me even more than the genetics, dear CF, is the puppetry that happens in reverse. As long as the dancer’s controlling the devil, it’s okay, but Welcome To The Dollhouse is so much about being controlled by the people you hate. It’s about that moment when you hear their voices in your own head. Good old Dawn. Every time she gets called something—“Lesbian,” “Retard,” “Faggot,” she turns around and does it to somebody else. The only person she really treats nicely is Brandon.

I wish I could condescend, pat her on the head, and tell her this too shall pass. Fact is, I don’t think it stops. I feel the Firecracker in my head every time I try to write. How do we not become puppets? And should I get a dog?



Dear Millicent,

I just woke up feeling rattled from having a dream where I was at a party and suffered the same minute embarrassments I do at real parties.  In the dream I talked too much about my work, flirted poorly with an esteemed professor of my youth, and then my mom got mad at me for not making her guests comfortable.  There was not even an incisive meaning of the dream.  It was mundane, obvious, and pretty much already lived, why did my mind go through the motions of making it up?

I once heard a This American Life where a psychiatrist who was schizophrenic had made a training tape for New York City cops so they could understand a bit more about schizophrenics when they approached them. They had to wear headphones and listen to the tape for an entire day, if I remember correctly.  She said that “hearing voices” was not like have strange thoughts float around in your mind. It was like somebody behind you startling you by yelling or whispering things to you.  The cassette was of these possible assaults/conversations and it illustrated to the cops how hard it is to focus one’s attention beyond the external voice that has most of your ear.

I was surprised by this definition.  Schizophrenia has that fuzzy meaning when said casually–usually suggesting something out of nowhere, contradictory, or strangely juxtaposed.  Schizophrenic critics must be an unsynchronized chorus, and a schizophrenic work must be a patchwork (with seams either clumsily or masterfully exposed).  Schizophrenic love must be hot and cold, out of balance, or a case of a PMS.  But, like you mention with your sister, none of this cutesy summing up actually holds sway with the real effect of the condition.

The one thing that irks me when the word is used as an adjective, even with the “being cut in half in the shower” phrase (I think I have to mention, what does the shower have to do with it? The drain, for cleanliness?) is that it relies heavily on a sense of absolute freedom from responsibility.  This is where it makes me think of the training cassette.  We are attracted to the odd contrast, the juxtaposition, that just arrives.  Perhaps this is why we embrace the word and the idea of the word, and don’t really want to know about the real stuff of the schizophrenic experience.

The Happy Puppet terrifies me, as do all genetic prophecies that suggest procreation is a lottery or grab-bag, or worse, the highest stakes and most depressing version ever of the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.”  Is it Doris Lessing that wrote about the family that has hit the genetic jackpot until their last child, which ultimately destroys, well, everything?



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. Read more of this post

Madwomen in the Attic, Madmen in the Garage

Dearest Carla Fran,

I can’t help wondering if the “sensual pleasures” the ladies received as a result of their chocolate and eggs are the subject of the “grateful confidences” that gratify the Professor’s ears. It puts me in mind of the “traditional” cures for female hysteria in the 19th century, and the peculiar forms therapy took to cure the problem of the wandering womb in those days. (And these, I suppose—remember Peggy’s weight-loss Rejuvenator on Mad Men, which gives you that “flush and glow?”)

I’ve got more to say later about therapy then and now. But for now, here’s a question, spurred by the discussions everywhere of DFW’s death and whether or not one can read anything biographical into his corpus of psychotics, addicts, and sociopaths: if schizophrenia means madness, and the hysterics were the madwomen in the attic, are schizophrenics the madmen in the garage? Has “schizophrenia” become, not just a catch-all concept for mental illness, but a more nebulous, even poetic certification of unfitness for society? In Firecracker parlance specifically, is the schizophrenic the official figure of alienation and off-kilter genius, the Fool, the visionary truth-teller, the creature who’s ascended (or descended) a stage towards Hegel’s concrete reality and gets the joke the rest of us didn’t even hear?

And why does this prophetic dimension seem to strike down male Firecrackers in much higher numbers? And—I ask this with fear and trembling, and wish, again, that David Foster Wallace could answer—what’s their yellow wallpaper?