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Accurate perception is a sign of “schizophrenia?”

Usually, we think of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia as a person who sees the world less accurately than we do.  But there are illusions that so-called “normal” people are more vulnerable to than are people diagnosed with schizophrenia……

You can check out one of those (a rotating mask) for yourself here.  (They say “normal” people will see the illusion of a face looking at them even when they know it is really the inverse side of the mask and they are trying to see it that way.  But when I first looked at it, I didn’t see the illusion – I saw just the inverse mask when that side faced me!  But then I looked away after a few rotations, and when I glanced back I saw the illusionary face, and since then it has become more difficult for me to see anything but the illusionary face.  Everyone else I showed this too by the way saw the illusionary face right away, except for one of my brothers – something genetic there?)

This effect is allegedly produced because “normal” people engage in “top down” processing, which follows rules of expectations such as “noses are always pointed towards me, never inversed” and so they come up with the wrong result in the case of the hollow mask.  The researchers propose that the brains of the people diagnosed with schizophrenia are incapable of this top down processing, but another possible explanation is that they are more likely to be in a possibly temporary mode or mental state where top down processing is switched off, which allows them to look at aspects of the world which defy our assumptions.  “Bottom up” processing for example can be helpful in creativity, putting the world together in new ways.

Another possible explanation might follow from the observed result that people who are drunk, or high on pot, were also less likely to see the illusion.  The researchers didn’t mention it, but it seems likely that all their test subjects diagnosed with schizophrenia were on neuroleptics.  These drugs might function just like alcohol or pot, resulting in a drugged state were the illusion is less likely to be seen.

11 comments… add one
  • Your last two sentences are unclear to me. They seem to negate the hypthosis of the study; the researchers failed to get the results they were expecting: that people with a diagnosis of SZ see the inverse mask.

  • Interesting….my son has said to me several times that the difference between he and I is a bottom up versus top down view of the world. We had not used this reference however he has described what you have referred to on different occassions.

    He’s just moved through a psychotic state. I appear to be the only one who can entice him out of it. In two weeks he has gone from being highly psychotic to rested and coherent without drugs.

  • The researchers definitely did find that the people diagnosed with schizophrenia saw the inverse mase (the actual reality, not the illusion.) The last two sentences were meant to just offer another possibility as to why they saw things differently than “normal” people. I was just saying that since “normal” people who are drunk or high on pot also are likely to see the inverse mask, and since the people diagnosed with schizophrenia were probably drugged on neuroleptics, it could be the drugs and not something more basic about the people diagnosed with schizophrenia that caused them to be different from “normal.”

    I tend to agree with Alan’s son though that it probably is just a different way of looking at things! So many people have said that their “psychosis” started after they began questioning “too many things.” One way of thinking about that is that they were rejecting top down processing – a type of processing that helps keep us “normal” but also creates various kinds of errors. By the way Alan, I’m glad to hear your son is rested and coherent!

  • So many people have said that their “psychosis” started after they began questioning “too many things.”

    I do agree. When psychotic I perceived symbolisms in foods and feared what it meant if I ate certain foods, when (in reality) food is just what you eat when you are hungry.
    I “read” too much meaning into the situation of eating.
    What I question is: were the psychiatric medications I was on inhibiting my ability to come to the correct conclusion ” its only food” or was it the hospital imprisonment without a trial ( what is real when you are in a hospital gown-but not sick ?) affecting my judgment as well?

  • Hi Mark, it’s an interesting question about whether the medications you were taking actually made it harder to critique your own thinking. My guess would be that the medications mainly keep people from thinking independently. This can be helpful when they are stopping someone from following a delusional line of thinking, but unhelpful when it keeps people from following a line of thinking that might get them out of the delusion (such as if a medication kept you from exploring evidence suggesting that you were reading too much meaning into the situation of eating.)

    Winston Churchill said “if you’re going through hell, keep going.” I think antipsychotics work to keep people from going deeper into the “hell” of psychosis, but they also restrain people from doing the kind of active movement that might get them out of it, which is why evidence is showing that they contribute to long term disability.

    And I can see where irrational or abusive stuff from the system would make it harder to spot your own errors, as it would create a general climate of things not making sense. So lots of factors can be contributing to problems in such situations, I’m glad you found a way through!

  • (The usual objections from my side here :D) If a certain symbolistic meaning is attributed to certain foods, there’s probably a valid reason for it, to be found in the person’s life story. The connection may be very difficult to follow for someone else. It’s often a very personal, individual one. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth exploring it, as it is my experience that exploring any “symptom” can lead to, well, not necessarily removal, but “de-symptomalization” of it. Meaning that, instead of trying hard to convince myself of the incorrectness of my belief, thus in a way doing violence to myself, I accept the belief, and can then have a closer, analyzing look at it, and come to an understanding of it in context with my life story, my past. This then is very likely to resolve the problem I might have, for instance eating certain foods, because I made them a symbol for something terrifying in my past.

    I had a huge problem with eating at all. Instead of telling myself over and over again that it was nonsense to fear food in general, I asked myself why food was so disgusting to me. Understanding why had me start eating again, and actually enjoying it.

  • Hi Marian,

    I agree with you that it is often helpful to look at what makes sense about a belief, rather than just attack it as not literally true. So the most important part of what’s going on may have nothing to do with the literal truth or falsity of a particular belief, as in your example about having to figure out why it was that food seemed disgusting.

    However I do think there are times that it is important to sort out what is or isn’t true in a more literal sense, and I think this can be done without as you put it “doing violence to yourself.” People form incorrect beliefs all the time, for a wide variety of reasons, and need some way to change them when evidence points to them being wrong. I think we do this most easily when we find a way to see it as understandable that we came to the mistaken belief, while also noticing the reasons to change our belief now.

  • Ron, you wrote: “I think we do this most easily when we find a way to see it as understandable that we came to the mistaken belief, while also noticing the reasons to change our belief now.”

    I think we can only understand how we came to a mistaken belief, if we can put it back in context with the events/experiences that led to it. If we can’t do that the only other way is to understand it as the product of a diseased mind/brain. But that is just as much true understanding as having insight into having a diseased mind/brain is true insight.

    I agree that it is important to look at the reasons to change a mistaken belief now. And the more problems a belief causes the person who holds it, the more important it is to change it, of course. What I see though, is that therapy, and especially CBT, often stops at that, and doesn’t look at — actually sometimes actively prevents people from looking at — how their mistaken beliefs are a logic consequence, on a metaphorical level, seen in the light of their life story.

    Obviously, I had very good reasons to start eating again. And so I did, although it meant that I had to do a little violence to myself. The thing is, I would have had to do violence to myself continuously, if I hadn’t looked at and understood what initially had made me stop eating. I think this is one of the reasons why therapy that only focusses on the here and now often produces changes that do not last in the long run.

  • Hi Marian, Thanks for your clear description of how it helps to understand what led a person to a belief in the first place.

  • just more proof that i’m not crazy and everyone else is. i have never been “fooled” by optical illusions, but have been diagnosed with sz. i always thought everyone else was crazy for being fooled. i read once that autistic and asperger syndrome patients also do not fall for optical illusions or magicians tricks. by what measure are we defining “normal”. it’s normal to be fooled? that is a crazy definition. i think many people diagnosed as schizophrenic are the ones with an true awareness of reality and everyone else has a shared delusional complex. how can a belief be mistaken? a belief can not be proven or disproven. only facts can be proven or disproven. i think the actions arising from beliefs are much more important to social functioning than the actual beliefs. one can believe the mask is inverted but treat it as not or one can believe the mask is not inverted but treat it as if it is. hence the belief matters little, but the treatment matters greatly. one treatment willinable you to wear the mask another will not, but neither belief makes a difference.