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Painted Brain | Schizophrenia And Ideas About Sensory Systems
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • November 21, 2016

Schizophrenia and Ideas About Sensory Systems

After a fascinating day at the Arts and Neuroscience conference at UCLA this week, I walked away with a couple of interesting new thoughts about schizophrenia.  I am not a scientist and like to think of myself as offering observations and ideas pulling together a basic understanding of science principles along with two decades of observation and listening to people talk to me about living the human experience.

The first thought has to do with a specific delusion that one hears frequently from people identified as experiencing psychosis.  I was attending a talk on the impact of stress on health by Julienne Bower, PhD, which looked at the impact of stress on the biological level.  When our stress is heightened, due to illness, fear, elections, the immune cells of our body react to signals from both our sympathetic nervous system and from another system associated with the hypothalamus, and the pituitary and adrenal glands.  In describing the chemical reactions between the immune cell’s membrane and the chemicals in its environment, Dr. Bower used the word ‘listening’ to describe the action of the immune cell.  It is listening for the chemical signals of stress that would then trigger the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines to begin the cycle of fighting the source of the stressor.  This allowed for a fascinating biological marker to allow study of the biological impact of stress interventions like mindfulness and yoga.  Super cool!

But where my mind went was to the many stories I have both heard and read about one of the most common delusions in people with psychosis, the thought that they are being poisoned.  The common perception of the savant, a person with autism who has some special power of thought, like the ability to count thousands of spilled toothpicks instantly, suggests that our brains are somehow capable of such feats of identification but lack access.  What if people that feel they are being poisoned are in fact sensitized, due to the impact of psychosis, to sense things too subtle for the majority of us to notice? For example, I feel I am being poisoned because I am sensitive enough to react to the microscopic elements of pesticide and industrial pollutants in my food.  I am actually sensing the poison at a chemical level, below everyone else’s perceptual abilities.  I would have no language to describe this experience and would do the best I can.  Autism is a problem of the sensory system, one of too much information.  If I accessed a new sensory system and felt consciously aware of it, I would make the best sense of it possible, which would likely sound like a delusion.

The second thought I had at this conference reinforced my favorite mind exercise when meeting someone that I have trouble understanding or figuring out.  What kind of world would work really well for this person?  For example, instead of seeing bipolar disorder as inherently disruptive, maybe it is perfectly adaptive for a person living in the arctic where there are months-long periods of exclusive darkness and sunlight.   The talk reigniting these thoughts for me was by Chris Colwell, PhD, who spoke on the impact of circadian rhythms on functioning.  Only in the last decade, he reported, we have learned that the eyes have an additional sensory system for only blue-green wavelengths that transmits information, again unconsciously, to the systems in our body that control sleep cycles.  Simplistically, we are subject to internal flooding of melatonin when going towards sleep and cortisol when beginning to wake.  For the vast majority of humans, this is a very regular process on a roughly 24-hour schedule.  But there are significant shifts by hours both forward and backward from the ideal schedule meant to match our work/life environment, the 9 to 5.  Ideally we would be hitting our melatonin cushion at about 10 pm so we can sleep well for 8 hours and get to work on time.  Unfortunately many people are shifted forward and backward from this by many hours.  Children are more likely to have a circadian sleep cycle that goes from about 2 am to about 10 am, but are subject to a world of 7 and 8 am classes.  As Dr. Colwell said, many people who believe they have insomnia actually just live a lifestyle deeply at odds with their own circadian rhythm.  This just reinforced for me that sometimes its not us, it actually is everybody else.

Dave Leon LCSW is founder/director of Painted Brain

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