Schizophrenia is a term that makes people uncomfortable.
And for good reason.
It’s a chillingly common condition (approaching 1% of the population, by some estimates), and it carries the horrific ability to ruin someone’s life — stripping away their understanding of the world, their sense of identity, their ability to feel pleasure. It’s manifestations differ greatly and not all sufferers experience it in the same way, but at its worst it combines symptoms that range from slowed thinking to manic disillusionment to catatonic depression.
It is a semi-heritable condition, meaning that the propensity for schizophrenia is passed in families. (See the NIMH page here.) But if that’s the case – what is “good” about it that keeps it in the gene pool? What is the upside of the constellation of genes that keeps schizophrenia a part of the human condition?
One theory is that occasional schizophrenia is something like “collateral damage” from our ability to use language. So far as we can tell, schizophrenia is a uniquely human condition — and some of its more infamous symptoms include “hearing voices” and the strange sense that one’s thoughts are from outside one’s mind.
It can be as if the brain’s normal compensatory systems — the ones that tell us “this thought is within, not arising from sensory perception” — get confused. The borders of the self become fuzzy or disappear altogether. (One bizarre and little-known fact about schizophrenics is that they often have extreme difficulty drawing even a simple representation of a human. Even stick-figures become disjointed, with major body parts missing or free-floating in strange positions.)
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A Guided Tour to Deep Confusion
Dr. Tyrone Douglas Cannon is a professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Yale University, where he has spent years of research looking into the brain’s biomarkers for vulnerability to (and progression into) psychosis. Much of his work has focused on helping to identify young people at risk for psychosis and schizophrenia, and development of therapeutic strategies to maintain their mental and emotional health before things go from bad to worse.
Although schizophrenia is a long way from being a solved problem, improvements in assessment technology is making early therapies increasingly viable. And efforts to lessen the stigmas around mental illness will themselves help to make sufferers feel less alienated than has been the norm in times past. There is reason for hope, if not reason for optimism.
In Episode #225, Dr. Cannon tells us about the current state of our understanding of schizophrenia, the overlap between psychosis and schizophrenia, and the parallels between psychotic states and some “exotic but not rare” brain states you may already be familiar with.
Having mental health issues?
The National Institute of Mental Health has a detailed website with information for patients, families, and pretty much anyone with questions. If you are in crisis and need immediate support or intervention, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or visit their website.
Episode introduction: Schizophrenia with Dr. Tyrone Cannon.
This Week In Neuroscience: Sex differences in neurological responses to alcohol consumption.
5-Star review shoutouts.
SDS news and updates.
Guest introduction: Dr. Tyrone Cannon.
Stereotypes and the clinical reality of psychotic mindstates.
The parallel between dream states and psychosis.
Psychotomimetic drugs, hallucinogens, and antipsychotics in relation to psychosis.
Dopamine signaling and paranoid states.
Similarities between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Heritability of schizophrenia.
The onset of schizophrenia.
Chronic and episodic psychotic states.
Relationship between psychotic states and psychological stress.
Prevalence of schizophrenia.
Dr. Cannon's research.
Studies on individuals at greater risk for psychosis.
The effectiveness of psychological interventions on these individuals.
Levels and characteristics of diagnostic ascertainment.
Complications during pregnancy in relation to the development of schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia in a historical context.
Dr. Cannon's takeaway message.
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