What is schizophrenia really like ?

“I feel that writing to you there I am writing to the source of a ray of light from within a pit of semi-darkness. It is a strange place where you live, where administration is heaped upon administration, and all tremble with fear or abhorrence (in spite of pious phrases) at symptoms of actual non-local thinking. Up the river, slightly better, but still very strange in a certain area with which we are both familiar. And yet, to see this strangeness, the viewer must be strange.”

“I observed the local Romans show a considerable interest in getting into telephone booths and talking on the telephone and one of their favorite words was pronto. So it’s like ping-pong, pinging back again the bell pinged to me.”

Could you paraphrase this? Neither can I, and when, as a neurologist I had occasion to see schizophrenics, the only way to capture their speech was to transcribe it verbatim. It can’t be paraphrased, because it makes no sense, even though it’s reasonably gramatical.

What is a neurologist doing seeing schizophrenics? That’s for shrinks isn’t it? Sometimes in the early stages, the symptoms suggest something neurological. Epilepsy for example. One lady with funny spells was sent to me with her husband. Family history is important in just about all neurological disorders, particularly epilepsy. I asked if anyone in her family had epilepsy. She thought her nephew might have it. Her husband looked puzzled and asked her why. She said she thought so because they had the same birthday.

It’s time for a little history. The board which certifies neurologists, is called the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. This is not an accident as the two fields are joined at the hip. Freud himself started out as a neurologist, wrote papers on cerebral palsy, and studied with a great neurologist of the time, Charcot at la Salpetriere in Paris. 6 months of my 3 year residency were spent in Psychiatry, just as psychiatrists spend time learning neurology (and are tested on it when they take their Boards).

Once a month, a psychiatrist friend and I would go to lunch, discussing cases that were neither psychiatric nor neurologic but a mixture of both. We never lacked for new material.

Mental illness is scary as hell. Society deals with it the same way that kids deal with their fears, by romanticizing it, making it somehow more human and less horrible in the process. My kids were always talking about good monsters and bad monsters when they were little. Look at Sesame street. There are some fairly horrible looking characters on it which turn out actually to be pretty nice. Adults have books like “One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest” etc. etc.

The first quote above is from a letter John Nash wrote to Norbert Weiner in 1959. All this, and much much more, can be found in “A Beatiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar. It is absolutely the best description of schizophrenia I’ve ever come across. No, I haven’t seen the movie, but there’s no way it can be more accurate than the book.

Unfortunately, the book is about a mathematician, which immediately turns off 95% of the populace. But that is exactly its strength. Nash became ill much later than most schizophrenics — around 30 when he had already done great work. So people saved what he wrote, and could describe what went on decades later. Even better, the mathematicians had no theoretical axe to grind (Freudian or otherwise). So there’s no ego, id, superego or penis envy in the book, just page after page of description from well over 100 people interviewed for the book, who just talked about what they saw. The description of Nash at his sickest covers 120 pages or so in the middle of the book. It’s extremely depressing reading, but you’ll never find a better description of what schizophrenia is actually like — e.g. (p. 242) She recalled that “he kept shifting from station to station. We thought he was just being pesky. But he thought that they were broadcasting messages to him. The things he did were mad, but we didn’t really know it.”

Because of his previous mathematical achievments, people saved what he wrote — the second quote above being from a letter written in 1971 and kept by the recipient for decades, the first quote from a letter written in 12 years before that.

There are a few heartening aspects of the book. His wife Alicia is a true saint, and stood by him and tried to help as best she could. The mathematicians also come off very well, in their attempts to shelter him and to get him treatment (they even took up a collection for this at one point).

I was also very pleased to see rather sympathetic portraits of the docs who took care of him. No 20/20 hindsight is to be found. They are described as doing the best for him that they could given the limited knowledge (and therapies) of the time. This is the way medicine has been and always will be practiced — we never really know enough about the diseases we’re treating, and the therapies are almost never optimal. We just try to do our best with what we know and what we have.

I actually ran into Nash shortly after the book came out. The Princeton University Store had a fabulous collection of math books back then — several hundred at least, most of them over $50, so it was a great place to browse, which I did whenever I was in the area. Afterwards, I stopped in a coffee shop in Nassau Square and there he was, carrying a large disheveled bunch of papers with what appeared to be scribbling on them. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him. He had the eyes of a hunted animal.

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Comments

  • Curious Wavefunction  On October 13, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    A Beautiful Mind; superb book. I read it cover to cover again right after I finished reading it. The movie is very good but you would be aghast with its portrayal of the disease since it shows Nash seeing things rather than hearing them. And it’s also romanticized.

    The following from Nash’s Nobel autobiography is extremely interesting and slightly disturbing:

    “So at the present time I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists. However this is not entirely a matter of joy as if someone returned from physical disability to good physical health. One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person’s concept of his relation to the cosmos. For example, a non-Zoroastrian could think of Zarathustra as simply a madman who led millions of naive followers to adopt a cult of ritual fire worship. But without his “madness” Zarathustra would necessarily have been only another of the millions or billions of human individuals who have lived and then been forgotten.”

  • carlbrannen  On October 17, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    The fact that you can’t paraphrase Nash’s paragraphs is also an indication that they have very high information content. Normal human speech is highly repetitive.

    I read the book and saw the movie and the movie. My biggest complaint about the movie was that it sugar coated Nash’s effect on others. It’s another case of Hollywood making a hero out of a complex individual.

    When I was a grad student in mathematics, I took a class on algebraic topology and one day’s lecture (or was it two) was about the embedding theorem Nash found. It was an awesome proof. If I recall, this was one of the proofs he did just to prove that he was smarter than the rest of us.

  • luysii  On October 17, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Carlbrannen: thanks for commenting

    “an indication that they have very high information content”. Well, as a famous person once said, that depends on what you mean by information. Shannon and those following such as Chaitin would agree with you, high information means that the only algorithm for reproducing the statement is repetition of the statement itself.

    Conventional usage of the term by the rest of humanity is nearly opposite. Consider the gambler looking for less than perfect roulette wheel, information to this person means that red turns up slightly more or less than black. A truly random result is information of a sort, but useless to the gambler. Or consider transforming this passage into some language that you don’t understand, such as Swahili. Has the information content suddenly increased? Information also depends on the receiver.

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