Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Paranoia FYI

A recent news story about a former British MI5 agent who is now clearly delusional bears mentioning. David Shayler got in trouble in the 90's and served time in prison for violating the official secrets act when he accused MI5 of having plans to assassinate Muammar Khaddafi. It was a big scandal with much newspaper outrage, as the accusation was widely believed despite official denials. Such accusations hardly sound implausible. We fully expect that the secret intelligence services of even calm and civilized countries have a few hotheads who think that frequent assassinations are an efficient way to go in the world - wouldn't the profession attract them? Then again, agents who like to go public with accusations arouse suspicion as well - or they should, at least.

Thus, some thought he was a courageous whistleblower, some thought he was a traitor, some thought he was a strange and unreliable guy. The plot thickened when he became a 9-11 conspiracy theorist, claiming that there were no planes, but only holograms of planes at the WTC. For some, this was powerful evidence for the Conspiracy, as Shayler is a guy who clearly knew Big Secrets who was now on their side. For others, his new views cast doubt on the veracity of his old accusations.

It rather matters what assumptions you start with, doesn't it?

Shayler's new view is that he is channeling Mary Magdalene, that the universe is changing shape, and he is sent to teach mankind. I particularly liked his comment "Do I look mentally ill? Do I sound mentally ill? I am absolutely convinced, as convinced as I can be..." Well yeah, Dave, you do sound mentally ill. Being absolutely convinced without being able to produce any evidence other than your subjective impression is pathognomic for schizophrenia, now that you bring it up.

Ah, all becomes clear here, as he moves unequivocally into delusional territory. But does this invalidate all his previous claims? The comments at the second link include opinions that he was absolutely right about his original accusations against British Intelligence, but their hounding and persecuting him has made him go off the deep end.

It doesn't work that way. I won't say it's impossible, but I have never seen it myself, while I have often seen paranoia - particularly late-onset paranoid schizophrenia - follow this gradualism from A) being merely suspicious and somewhat rigid through B) being inflexible and accusing to C) being flat out paranoid and grandiose.

We spoke with the parents of a young man with schizophrenia today. They are noting in retrospect that his symptoms which were originally attributed to obsessiveness now seem to be lite versions of his current delusions. Before, he had eccentric ideas about food and developed idiosyncratic but plausible theories about avoiding certain foods. Now he has voices telling him not to eat most things. He had started a course of electroconvulsive therapy a few years ago and was improving, but refused to continue because he felt the treatments were eroding his ability to understand other dimensions of the events around him. Well, they were. What he called other dimensions of real understanding was most probably the schizophrenic's heightened attribution of meaning to innocent events.

As an analogy, I have likened that heightened sense to movie background music, cuing you when something tense or dark is about to happen. To the paranoid, the emotional equivalents of those musical cues go off at random times, creating an impression that a neighbor's offhand remark or the bar code on your soda have hidden importance.

Years ago, Dick the bus driver started becoming especially strict about churches, and very concerned about certain doctrines. Gradually, most churches made him uncomfortable because they did not accept that his particular doctrinal foci were key, and Dick increasingly stayed home, scouring the Bible for justification for hours on end, eventually insisting on only reading the red-letter words of Jesus and pulling the house shades to prevent people looking in. He came finally to the point where he believed that he was a specially-chosen prophet whose ideas were being rejected by a faithless generation. Fairly typical.

Yet things do not always progress this way. Some remain forever in the somewhat rigid, doctrinally eccentric range, only slightly or not at all outside the range of normal human variation. Are such people schizophrenics who never blossom, or is something different happening to them?

I will speculate on such matters in the near future, when I have the material better organised. But I thought your own speculations might be fun before then.


terri said...

OK...but what if I'm not paranoid and someone really is out to get me?


cold pizza said...

Dragnabbit! Y'all on to me! Next step, coating the inside of my house with old newspapers and wrapping all the appliances in Reynolds Wrap (all other tinfoil is CLEARLY inadequate!) Oh, yeah, I forgot to add the extra !!!!!!'s. -cp

GM Roper said...

A LOOOOOOONG time ago, when I worked at a state mental facility in Texas we had a patient who swore he was Jimmy Carter and was threatening others for not believing him. Shortly after his commitment, we had a voluntary admission of another patient who said he Was Jimmy Carter. The arguments back and forth were almost amusing: "I am Jimmy Carter." Then "No you aren't, I am."

The day after Ronald Reagan was elected, patient number two decided he was Ronal Reagan, and patient number one only said "See, I told you he was a liar."