“Madness”: What/Who is it and is it REAL?

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So you’re asking – why is this on a writing blog? It’s inspiration – many ideas in psychology or philosophy have helped me start a story, come up with something out of the ether, so to speak.

Madness has been a big topic this fortnight, too, with even influential individuals such as Stephen Fry tweeting in order to try and reduce the “stigma” of madness with the tagline #proudtobemad. However, there is a serious side to this debate, too – madness isn’t really defined.

Some could say, it isn’t real.

Rosenhan (1973) creates an experiment to test the definitions of madness within american psychiatric hospitals for the clinically mad. He asked 8 completely healthy, mentally “normal” participants to enter different hospitals and say they heard the word “hollow” “thud” or “empty”.

On the basis of this, all the pseudo-patients were admitted with a variety of disorders. So, even the same symptoms can result in different diagnoses.

All participants were told to act completely normal after admittance and it was expected that they would all be released shortly on realisation of their sanity.

However, this didn’t happen. Instead, all pseudo-patients were watched through the stigma of their condition. Normal behaviours such as writing in a diary or queuing for food were noted down as obsessive writing disorder and other such “abnormal behaviours”.

Most patients weren’t released until months after they were admitted and, even then, they had to admit that they were mad before they were released – a mad person cannot be in denial, of course. On release, the participants were not given the all clear for madness either. Instead, they were labelled as “in remission”.

This, of course, shows how sticky the stigma of madness really is.

A later experiment by Rosenhan was also carried out where a hospital approached him suggesting they would be able to tell which patient was mad and which wasn’t. He agreed to send more pseudo-patients but he played a trick: he didn’t send anyone to the hospital.

The hospital over the weeks identified 41 of 193 patients they talked to as being potential pseudo-patients.

So with madness, there can be many false positives and false negatives and it is incredibly difficult to tell who is what and who isn’t. This is largely because much of the disorder manifests within a patient’s mind and the symptoms are likely to differ between patients with the same disorder.

I should point out that the documents used for diagnosis of madness and disorders have changed many times since this date but the point still stands: madness is a slippery subject.

In some cultures, it is mad to be homosexual. In Britain, many years ago, women were seen to “need” the doctor to induce orgasm in order to reduce “hysteria” (what these days is merely accepted as an emotional outlook on life).

So madness changes over time. It changes based on culture, age (children talk to imaginary friends – adults shouldn’t) and gender, even sexuality.

Madness is in fact defined as culturally abnormal behaviour.

Some people may like to boil a kettle 10 times before they pour their cuppa. Is this OCD or is it merely eccentric? At what point can we as a society feel justified in calling an individual mad? At what point is it acceptable to intrude on their lives and uproot them from their daily activities?

Is it not possible that although the “sane” are the “norm”, we are in fact not how humanity was supposed to be? Perhaps it is better from a survival instinct perspective to boil the kettle 10 times or count the cracks in the pavement.

Perhaps, the “insane” are enlightened and we are dysfunctional for not seeing their vision.

After all, many of the great men and women of the world were first called mad because they thought outside the box, ahead of their time. Or because they challenged deep rooted cultural ideas which, later, were not thought to be mad at all. (Think of the earth’s “flatness” here or the idea that the earth in fact circled the sun and not the other way around).

It’s useful then, if ever writing a story about the mad or the eccentric, or even thinking on how madness’ stigma effects society, to wonder whether madness is real or simply different.

Any questions, comments, debates etcetera, please feel free to write below.

Disclaimer(!): Of course, if an individual is ever worried about a behaviour they can’t control or an issue they are having trouble with, they must talk to a medical adviser and not use the information here as substitute. Some individuals can be a danger to themselves or others if not treated.

This is my twitter for those interested: https://twitter.com/Holly_emma_Ice

The first picture was taken from here: http://brainbreaking.wordpress.com/tag/rosenhan/
This blog is a more in depth summary of the Rosenhan experiment. Feel free to visit it if you wish.

The second was found on a top ten of sex facts. If you wish, read about them below.
http://www.oddee.com/item_98314.aspx

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    • Alex
    • October 21st, 2012

    Wish we got to spend more time on the boundaries of sanity back in KLB psychology, i find it to be much more interesting a topic than most of the case studies we had to tediously memorize.

    • Yeah it would have been more fun.
      Having said that, I guess a lot of psychology is digging the interesting out of the science. Rosenhan was a study we did look at for psychology. Only, we concentrated on memorisation rather than the implications of what it meant. Shame really. 😦

        • Alex
        • October 22nd, 2012

        Aye, i do remember the case study, along with that ‘thrilling’ gambling one too. Was really hoping for serial killers but i guess slot machines are just as exiting.. -_-

      • Yeah :(. Second I got to uni I searched the library for serial killer books…hope no one saw that search in the catalogue computers. I looked a little odd 😀

    • Alex
    • October 23rd, 2012

    How weird would it be if you found one about you? and you had no knowledge of it. That’s the start of good sci-fi right there.

    • A study of myself I had no knowledge of? That would indeed be quite weird. Sounds like it’d make a great story though, you’re right.

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