by Michael J. Baker
A belief in the existence of paranormal phenomena is quite common these days. It’s certainly not difficult to find television shows, movies or books touting some sort of paranormal theme nor is it hard to find alleged witnesses to these strange occurrences. However some paranormal beliefs share a distinct similarity to symptoms of psychosis. For example, mediumistic communication with the dead is starkly similar to hallucinatory symptoms found in patients with acute Schizophrenia. For those experiencing this psychosis, communication with beings not seen by their peers can be a common occurrence. These beings can appear as one personality or many. They may appear intermittently or continuous. They may manifest as a constant whispering or they may converse directly. All of these traits have not only been historically described by patients suffering from Schizophrenia, but also by mediums in their descriptions of their esoteric communications. This begs the question; Are paranormal witnesses simply suffering from some form of psychosis? or is there an element that adequately differentiates the mediumistic experience from the psychotic?
In the public eye, religious or non religious, there seems to be a greater tendency to process fortean claims without an implied psychological label. A larger segment of the population in general has historically been more accepting of astonishing claims when presented in a spiritual context as opposed to secular. But why? What separates the hallucination and delusions of a psychotic experience from the visions and experiences that are described by those claiming to witness paranormal phenomena; and are the two related?
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry suggested that paranormal believers may not only have cognitive biases similar to those observed in psychotic patients but also problems related to thinking clarity (Lawrence & Peters, 2004; Yorulmaz, Inozu, & Gültepe, 2011). Reasoning abnormalities appear to play a causal role in the formation of unusual beliefs. Additionally cognitive bias, which is our tendency to deviate from rational thinking in support of our beliefs, may represent soft signs of a neurological defect known as the schizoid taxon (Meehl, 1962, 1989) and those biases may in-fact be preliminary indicators of a psychotic risk. While these findings may outwardly suggest that a paranormal experience is an early indicator of a potential psychosis it should be noted that some authors are suggesting that the mere presence of paranormal belief should not be considered a reliable indicator. In other words, having a paranormal experience doesn’t “necessarily” imply an underlying psychosis.
Dr. J.T. Wigman from the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at the University of Utrecht, believes that claims of paranormal experiences are typically associated with much lower levels of psychological distress and may be independent of psychosis. (Wigman et al., 2011) He suggests that a possible way to improve the predictive value of unusual beliefs and experiences for psychosis risk may involve the consideration of associated cognitive features, idiosyncratic thinking styles, the role of belief appraisal, and the associated distress (Cella, Cooper, Dymond, & Reed, 2008; Garety & Hemsley, 1994; Preti & Cella, 2010 a).
While a definitive causal link between psychosis and claims of paranormal phenomena may remain elusive it’s important to understand that the sources of anomalous phenomena may still potentially be psychological in nature. Numerous cognitive biases can have adverse effects on how the human mind processes experiences and these “thinking errors” can prevent individuals from accurately understanding reality even when presented with sufficient data and evidence to form an accurate view. Various mood disorders and medications can also affect our interpretation of the outside world and unfortunately, just knowing about these obstacles doesn’t necessarily free us from their effects.
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