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Painted Brain | Errors In Communication: A Mental Health Conundrum
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • November 26, 2014

Errors in Communication: A Mental Health Conundrum

I’m not entirely sure why, but in one conversation I had in the past week, I started to think a lot about insects and the ways they communicate with each other. There are a whole mess of chemical processes going on, but some insects also communicate by movement, say, bees signaling the directions to a good flower via tightly choreographed dance moves. A simpler, though not specifically insect, version of this is the fiddler crab. You can see this at the local pet store, the male fiddler crabs have one large claw (hence the name) and will slowly wave their giant claw in the air to attract a mate. Animals have a certain advantage over humans since their communication is pretty straightforward. Temple Grandin writes quite eloquently about similarities she sees between her autistic view of the world, and the world view of animals, especially regarding communication. Basically, animals are entirely literal in their communication without hidden agendas. Her biggest concern with the neurotypical world is about the very human ability to feel one thing and show something entirely different.

Think about all of the possible responses to the knowledge that people do not always mean what they say, or feel what they show. One response would be simply not to notice, and take things at face value. Now consider the opposite reaction, to take in and react to the totality of information coming in: the face value, the unsaid thing, and the awareness of the conflict between them. If one is able to integrate and comprehend this in an objective way, it allows access to a menagerie of human interactions and experiences. This process can occur so seamlessly as to remain below our threshold of conscious awareness, or it could be an action that we are consciously considering, analyzing, and reacting to. It can also, and quite easily, become overwhelmingly confusing. Academic literature and personal experience tells me that people with psychotic disorders are acutely aware of these conflicts and often at a loss as to how to integrate them or make sense of them. The following idea is something I intend to return to in more detail in the future, but I sense or feel, based on two decades of personal experience, that autism and schizophrenia are much more similar than often recognized, and that the primary difference between them concerns the timing of onset, but I digress.

For this piece, I was interested in discussing implicit versus explicit communication as it relates to offering help and support to one another, our fellow humans. Consider a person struggling to cross a street with several heavy bags. You have the impulse to help the person out and decide to approach him. Here’s two ways of saying the same thing: a. “Hey, looks like that stuff is heavy, do you need any help with it?” b. “Hi, I would like to help you and wonder if I can carry one of your bags across this street.” Now consider doing this in LA, and let’s quickly forget about considering the location, this is a thought exercise. Limiting ourselves to the theoretical problem at hand, the first option implicitly asks the carrying man to take a step-down position (acknowledging his need for help) in order to accept your help. The second option does not do this and makes no implication that he needs your help, only that you would like to offer it.

This simple example might allow us to think about more complicated situations in the help-offering roles that many of us enjoy experiencing. How do you help someone open up about difficult truths or emotions without shaming them for needing to talk about it? The invitation to share can be a loaded invitation and this leads me back to the desire for being explicit as possible in our communication. Literally, this might look like, “You don’t need to tell me anything about (difficult topic) but I am interested in hearing about it if and when you are ready to tell me more. I don’t see you talking about it as a weakness and also don’t see you deciding not to talk about it as a weakness either.”

Dave Leon is the director and founder of The Painted Brain.

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