Psychic Phenomena in My Family #4
Arguing with a dead cat.
Paranoid schizophrenics have difficulty distinguishing what is relevant in the world around them. They often feel that external events are directed at them. For example, if someone sees three black cars in a row, that has some significance to them. This perceptual hyper-awareness is called the “significance experience.” Similarly, they sometimes experience a congruence between what they are thinking and what are other people are doing or saying. It is as if someone were reading their minds. The sense of it is so strong, it outweighs any scientific understanding that such things are not possible.
I had a patient who thought I could read her mind. She did not think I had special powers. She thought everyone could read her mind. Sometimes she stared silently at me in my office. She did not feel obligated to talk to me since she knew I could read her mind. Since we did not speak sometimes for long minutes, I found myself trying to guess what she was thinking, judging by her facial expression. This was very hard. My mind wandered to thoughts about when human beings first learned to speak. It must have been a very long time ago. Speech had probably undermined the ability we must have had at some point to read facial expressions. The change happened, I am pretty sure, prior to our learning to walk erect. Probably long before that. After all, even monkeys in the trees have verbal signals to warn of predators on the ground and different grunts and whistles to warn of airborne predators, such as eagles. Reading faces must have fallen out of fashion around the time people started throwing rocks at each other from a distance. These are the sterile ruminations that come to me during prolonged silences in my office.
When my patient frowned, I ventured a guess. “I think you may be upset by that encounter you had with your father last week.”
She gave me a jaundiced look. She knew I knew better.
I guessed again. “Perhaps you’re upset about something that happened today?”
She sneered at me again.
“Maybe you’re upset that I’m doing such a bad job of reading your mind.”
“See, “ she said, triumphantly. “I knew you could read my mind.”
Important principle: When someone comes to a correct conclusion one out of three times, suspect chance.
Once she called me at home in the evening. I said, “Hello…Hello…” After 30 seconds of silence she asked me if I knew who it was. “No,” I told her. She laughed skeptically and told me her name, although she knew I already knew it. After a number of such calls, I was able to guess who it was after the first ten or fifteen seconds of silence.
“I knew you knew all along,” she said.
Important principle: When someone knows something, he may not have learned it through the agency of psychic powers.
I had another patient who thought I had psychic powers because I could often predict her future. She was impressed that I was able to know ahead of time that she was going to lose her job.
three weeks before, she had told me that she was moved from her office to a cubicle. A week later, she was scolded at a meeting. Then she was asked to train a new recruit in the details of her job. I expressed a concern, then, that it was possible the company was planning on firing her. Because of her own particular problems, which included an inability to see or acknowledge rejection,, she disagreed and was surprised in the end when it turned out I was right. She thought I might have psychic powers. She tended to have an exaggerated opinion about me, anyway. (She thought I had been drafted into the army at the rank of general.) Consequently, she tended to dismiss, or not remember, all the times I had expressed opinions that turned out to be wrong.
Important Principle: People notice and remember predictions that come true and forget the rest.
I once had a difficult encounter with a different patient who gave little evidence of psychosis, (but some) who believed, as many do, in psychic phenomena—in particular, the ability to foresee the future. She was in the habit of making investment decisions based on certain numbers that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, but in the style section. She thought these numbers had been inserted by her dead cat to give her information about the future movements of certain commodities. I was sometimes concerned by what seemed to me reckless decisions. I told her so.
“The cat says otherwise,” she said.
“Listen,” I said. “That cat never gave you financial advice while she was alive. What makes you think she’s suddenly an expert?”
“Well, why should I listen to you? You haven’t been right either.”
She got me there.
I remember this woman because of a particular incident that happened some time later. She was just told that she needed $40,000 worth of dental repairs. She had some money, but not enough. (The cat had been doing pretty well, but not that well.)
“I’m going to ask some rich people for the money,” she told me.
“What rich people?”
“I got a list from the library.”
“From the library? These are rich people you don’t know?”
“I’m going to write them and tell them I need $40,000 dollars for my teeth.”
“They’re not going to give it to you.”
“How do you know? I want you to write a good letter, so I can send it to them and get the money. You’re a good writer.”
“Not that good.”
Unless there is a particular reason for not accommodating a patient, I am inclined to go along. So, I wrote the letter. I can’t remember it now, but essentially what it said was “Give me $40,000 dollars,” but more delicately, of course. She only received one response. A week later a check for $1000 arrived in the mail. I was astonished.
“That’s terrific, I told her.
“What good is a thousand dollars,” she said, making a face. “I need forty thousand dollars.”
Important Principle: You can never be too sure.