Monday, May 26, 2014

The Evil Demon - Depression and Perception

I shall suppose that some malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me...I shall stubbornly persist in this train of thought; and even if I can’t learn any truth, I shall at least do what I can do, which is to be on my guard against accepting any falsehoods, so that the deceiver – however powerful and cunning he may be – will be unable to affect me in the slightest...

-Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

The Evil Demon is a concept in Cartesian philosophy. In his philosophy, Descartes argues that he cannot know if there is actually an external world, or if an evil demon more powerful than him is deceiving him to believe there is an external world when in reality there is not, or that the external world is vastly different than what he perceives it to be.

Initially it sounds absurd, but think of how our eyes work. We don't actually see things in the world, but rather the nerves in our eyes receive the light bouncing off those things, convert them into electrical signals, and then deliver those signals to our brain which produces an image in our mind. It's possible that our eyes are malfunctioning, and that we're not seeing what we think we're seeing. The same is true for other senses. We might not actually be hearing the things we think we're hearing, or feeling what we think we're feeling. For all we know, we're all actually just brains in vats having all these sensations delivered to our brains, which lead us to believe we're perceiving an external world that isn’t actually there.

I don't find it particularly useful to believe that the external world is a vast illusion created by an evil demon or that we're brains in vats. Not the least of which because we don't have any other reality to think we're actually living in, and also because believing that the reality I perceive doesn't actually exist kind of makes this whole blog-writing enterprise just feel silly. However, the idea of how our perceptions dictate how we understand the world is very useful when thinking about mental illness.

Perception is everything. That's not just a pithy saying. Perception is literally everything. Or at least everything we perceive (which depending on your philosophy might be everything anyway). We don't see the world without light entering through our eyes and getting interpreted by our brains. We don't feel things without our nerves transmitting electrical signals based on what we touch, which are then interpreted by our brains. And we don't draw conclusions about the world without drawing them with our brains.

Mental illness is, among other things, a disease of perception. A disease wherein the way we see the world is different from how it actually is (or at least a close approximation to how it actually is). With mental illness, we observe the world, and draw conclusions from those observations, in ways which can differ radically from the observations and conclusions of more "healthy-minded" people.

Since early adolescence, I have struggled with anxiety, particularly as it concerns valued relationships. I have a tendency to overthink and overanalyze every small detail of interactions, down to the exact order of words in sentences. Often with that analysis I come to believe that I have done something to bother or annoy other people. For example, if, say, Dave the hypothetical person doesn't respond to a text message I send in as timely a manner as I would like or expect, I become convinced that there was something in the last message I sent, or in my recent behavior, that led to Dave not wanting to speak to me. It did not matter if I could not think of any particular example of this supposed bad behavior, or if I didn't see anything particularly offensive in my previous text. Nor did I consider that maybe the reason Dave wasn't responding to me was because he was distracted by something else, wasn't at his phone, or simply didn't think the text was one he needed to respond to. I was convinced I had done something wrong, and that he was reacting to that.

Thought leads to action. I believe that I have done something wrong, and this leads to me profusely apologizing, or continuously engaging in "checking" behaviors, to make sure I hadn't done anything wrong. Time and again, Dave responds to these apologies and checkings with confusion--he did not think I had done anything wrong, and was surprised that I was apologizing. If anything, it was the constant apologizing and checking that was more problematic than any perceived mistakes I had made. I don’t need to go further into detail on that, I’ve described it well enough before.

The reality of what was going on was radically different than how I perceived it to be. In reality, I hadn't done anything wrong to Dave. But I perceived that I had. With the evil demon, Descartes thought it possible that he might not be living in the world he thought he was, and his perceptions were lying to him. It is the same with mental illness. We don't live in the world. We live in a torture chamber contained entirely within our own heads, where we see the world through filthy lenses and distorted mirrors. The worst possibilities, unlikely though they may be, become distressingly real. And because of how real they become to us, we feel we have to act on those possibilities, often with unpleasant results.

The question which should be asked of any person with depression or other mental illness is "why do I think that the way I view the world is right?" As I discussed last week, mental illness is in part related to habit, and how we perceive the world is one of those habits. Instead of perceiving the world in the dismal terms that come so easily in our mental illness, we can instead attempt to perceive them in a more positive, or at least neutral, light.

So with that in mind, I send a message to my hypothetical buddy Dave, and he doesn't respond in as timely a manner as I would like. My first response to this is to think "he's not responding to me because he hates me, or because I've offended him." However, I could also think "maybe he's not responding because he hasn't seen my message or he forgot about it."

Both my first response and my second response are valid ways of looking at things, because both are theoretically possible. The kicker is that we don't know which one is true. The truth of the matter is ambiguous, at least until we can talk to Dave and find out, and even then there's no guarantee that we'll get the right answer. The difference between the options is that one of the ways makes me feel like crap, and the other makes me feel more understanding of Dave and of myself. So why not go for the more positive possibility?

Alternatively, some may argue that the positive outlook is risky. If we try to view things in a more positive light, we run the risk of deluding ourselves. Which is true, but it works both ways. Viewing things in any light, we run the risk of getting things wrong, simply because reality so rarely conforms to our expectations. And I would argue that viewing things in a negative light is the greater risk, because not only are we more miserable, but we are more likely to act on that misery, which tends to lead to similarly miserable outcomes. I've talked before about the importance of hope, and it applies again here. If I believe Dave hasn’t responded because I’ve offended him, I become distressed and want to apologize, which may bother Dave. If on the other hand, I choose to believe that Dave must have forgotten about the message, I allow myself to feel content, and do not apologize for anything, because I’ve done nothing to apologize for!

The point isn't to believe one option or the other. The point is to remember that you don't know the answer, but are assuming the one that makes you miserable. Either could be possible, only one possibility actually is. I don't know which, or if it's even one of the two possibilities I'm consideringc (for example, it could very well be that Dave is actually a hypothetical person and therefore is not capable of responding to my text message at all). I view the negative possibility as reality, and thereby act on it, to potentially damaging results. Of course, no matter how we react, the outcome might not always change. What changes is how we feel, and how we behave in response to those feelings.

Perception is key. In fact, it's not just key, but also lock, door, floor, wall, and the rubber stopper on the floor that keeps the door from banging into the wall and ruining the paint job. Our interior world is the thing which we can most control, even if it doesn't always feel like that. We can't always change the world. But there is a world that we can change. Our world.

If there is any advice to take from this post, it's this: if you have mental illness, be it depression, anxiety, or any other condition that you suspect might impact your view of the world, doubt. Doubt what you believe about the world, about yourself, and about others. Doubt what you think you know. Doubt your intuitions, your first reactions, and your common sense. Doubt your reasoning and your justifications. Doubt what you think about the future, and doubt what you think about the past. Doubt that life is as bad as you think it is. Doubt every way of looking that has harmed you or made you unhappy. Because there is a pretty good possibility that the way you're looking at the world is wrong.

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