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Dangerous Extremes: Introversion, Dreams and the Madness of Mass Murder

Can too much introversion (or extraversion) be hazardous to mental health?

Some recent stories regarding alleged mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner's (see my previous post) state of mind leading up to last Saturday's massacre in an Arizona Safeway store suggest he was "obsessed" with dreams, and with so-called "lucid dreaming" in particular. According to one of Loughner's friends, he kept a detailed dream journal, and apparently came to prefer his inner dream world over his outer "real" life. He purportedly had become increasingly confused between inner and outer reality in the months and weeks prior to the Tucson shootings. While I have no way of knowing whether these reports are in fact accurate, this is precisely the sort of information a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist tries to ascertain as part of his or her forensic evaluation of such a defendant. Such information can shed valuable light on the defendant's probable state of mind at the moment the alleged crime was committed. And it is precisely this state of mind which the insanity defense stands upon: Was the defendent able to differentiate between right and wrong and to appreciate the nature and quality of his or her actions when committing the alleged crime?

If Jared Loughner--now incarcerated and charged with these awful acts-- and his lawyers decide to invoke a plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity in this horrific case, his supposed obsession with lucid dreaming may play a central part in his defense. I discussed dreams and the elusive nature of reality in some detail last year over a series of posts culminating with a cursory analysis of last summer's thoughtful, ingenious and entertaining film Inception, where confusion between what is a dream and what is objectively "real" reigns supreme. In that seemingly strangely relevant article (see it here) and elsewhere, I point out that one way of conceptualizing what we today call "psychosis" is that it consists precisely of such massive confusion between inner and outer reality, so much so that the inner reality of dreams, the unconscious, can overwhelm and distort one's conscious sense of outer reality. Another related way to think about psychosis has to do with extremes of chronic introversion and extraversion: Too much of either polarity can sometimes manifest, over time, as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar mania. Excessive chronic introversion, for example, as seen in someone's complete preoccupation with fantasies, dreams and/or his or her own inner world, can reflect a powerful wish to escape, exclude, reject or annihilate external reality.

In depth psychology we tend to consider introversion, the unconscious and dreams to be compensatory, meaningful, helpful, positive, potentially healing phenomena. Loughner reportedly was intensely concerned with discerning or decoding the meaning of his dreams on his own, presumably without the objectivity and expertise of a skilled psychotherapist. Dreams as cryptic messages from the unconscious can contribute richly to self-understanding and what Jung termed the individuation process when related to properly. Perhaps Mr. Loughner's dreams were indeed trying to tell him something terribly important about himself, something he intuitively sensed he desperately needed to look at but lacked the objectivity, knowlege, tools and psychological sophistication to usefully, meaningfully and constructively or therapeutically interpret them. Did he ever seek psychotherapy? And, even if he did, how likely is it that he would have found assistance in understanding what his unconscious was trying to tell him via his dreams rather than merely being medicated and perhaps psychiatrically hospitalized? (Hospitalization and medication in such cases can prevent similar tragedies and prove quite valuable, at least in the short-term. And there are certain situations in which the unconscious or the daimonic and its expression through dreams, symptoms or destructive behaviors needs to be at least temporarily suppressed rather than encouraged in order to promote stabilization.) But most mental health professionals today tend to be so cognitive-behaviorally and biologically oriented in their treatment approach that only a small and rapidly diminishing minority deal directly with their patient's dreams.

Despite the positive, vitalizing and creative aspects of the unconscious, it is crucial to remember that the unconscious can also be destructive, and that descending into it's dark depths for too long alone, without adequate structure, grounding and guidance, can be extremely dangerous. It is deceptively easy to lose one's way. To drown in or be blown away by overwhelming, repressed unconscious forces. Practicing clinicians daily witness (whether they know it or not) the incredibly destructive power of the unconscious in myriad mental disorders and their debilitating psychopathological symptoms. Could this be part of what happened to the evidently troubled psyche of Jared Lee Loughner? And, if so, would this dangerous state of mind obviate or diminish his responsibility for having committed this undeniably evil deed? That will be for the examining forensic psychologists or psychiatrists to determine and, ultimately, for a jury to decide.