Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Knock Paranoia. It May Be Terrifying - but It Could Save Your Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Knock Paranoia. It May Be Terrifying - but It Could Save Your Life

Article excerpt

A couple of years ago, trying a freefall parachute jump for the first time and experiencing a new way of hurtling through space, I also discovered that I was a potential paranoiac.

This did not come entirely as a surprise. As a graduate student at Yale I experimented with LSD. Why anyone ever thought this drug would sweep the world and reduce the youth of the West to a state of gibbering addiction I cannot imagine because it was no fun at all, just weird. Among a number of temporary alterations to my perception there were two of a paranoid nature: walking the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, I kept hearing, in the indistinct conversations of strangers, my own name. Realising this was probably the result of eating two little pieces of blotting paper, I kept my nerve, told myself the perception was unreal, and waited for it to fade.

The second mind alteration, though, never entirely did fade. On closing my eyes, the shapes and patches that often swim across our darkened vision seemed to resolve themselves (as clouds can) into faces and figures -- grotesque, frightening images. I can still do this by concentrating hard; and a bad experience some years ago with the anti-malarial drug Lariam sharpened and magnified the effect. One of my brothers, who has never taken mind-altering drugs, says this happens to him anyway, and perhaps it is no more than the gestalt process by which the human mind, confronted by apparently random and meaningless visual data, may impose or 'find' meaningful shapes and patterns. The meaning is not inconsistent with the data but nor is it necessarily implied by it. The point in my brother's and my case is that the meaning we found was threatening. Joan of Arc would probably have seen angels.

I think all paranoia may be a form of gestalt.

Take the free-fall parachute experience. I had not expected to be scared but, alone (apart from the pilot) with the instructor to whom I was to be strapped, and as our little plane spiralled up slowly to 10,000 feet, it seemed to dawn on me that this was a conspiracy to kill me. I watched him like a hawk as he did up all the buckles which attached us, desperately fighting the fear (like all those years ago in New Haven) and telling myself I was not thinking straight and my conspiracy theory was ridiculous. Why would an Arizonan called Zak who knew nothing about me and had never met me before, plan to fake an accident in which his human attaché became detached and tumbled to his death? Ah -- but maybe he did know about me and had been put up to it by someone. Now, who might actually desire my death? Well, there was . . . and away my imagination galloped again.

I managed to rein it in, and managed the jump without incident, but on landing almost vomited with the psychological tension. Since then I have never regarded paranoiacs as quite as sick or as other as once they seemed.

How do we explain paranoia? Obviously chemicals, fear or fatigue are capable of triggering the mental process but the ability to use gestalt in this way must be incipient in all of us.

By what Darwinian process has the human animal become hard-wired to read danger into signals that may not imply danger at all? This, I submit, is a survival mechanism, a precautionary piece of mental circuitry designed to err on the side of overreaction because the consequences of undue suspicion are less life-threatening than to miss a set of sinister clues, which can be fatal. …

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