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Fredric Neuman M.D.

Strange Ideas: The Incredible Things Some People Believe

I may not be right, but these guys are wrong.

Survival requires that animals come to an effective understanding of the world around them. Human beings learn what is happening by talking to others. We learn what is happening around the corner and in the next town—and in the world in general-- by communicating with each other. We judge what we hear by taking into consideration how that information is conveyed. The more certain someone sounds, the more believable he is. If someone says that he is certain that the Yankees won the pennant in 1950, and we have a vague recollection that they did not, we are likely to be convinced by his certainty. For that reason I recommend to those who go on job interviews that they present themselves as certain of their abilities. “I know one thing about myself: I am a really good manager.” Such a remark is convincing. People tend to believe what others say if they sound sure of themselves.

It comes as a surprise, therefore, to discover that some people—perhaps most people—turn out to be certain about things and are, nevertheless, wrong. Psychiatrists deal with such discordant opinions all the time. A paranoid person can speak with absolute sincerity about his having communicated yesterday with someone from Mars. Or be just as certain that the FBI and the Mafia are acting in concert to aim ray guns in his direction. But a patient does not have to be psychotic to be utterly convinced of some entirely fallacious idea. For instance, a patient with health anxiety can “feel” her blood sugar going up and down within the normal range. An obsessional person is convinced that she is in danger if she wears the wrong clothes that day. These beliefs have the character of a superstition. In fact, superstitions are another example of how someone can come to believe something that is not true.

We--each of us—tend to think that we have come to see the world from a privileged perspective, that is, we, as opposed to all those others, can see things the way they really are. Except, perhaps, in minor ways. We have all had the experience of remembering clearly having put something away in a drawer and realizing when it is found somewhere else that we really left it in that other place. Other people are worse, of course. We know people who have not only forgotten things they have done, but they remember doing things that they never did. Still, about important matters--about our view of the world—we tend to think that we are right even if everyone else disagrees.

When I was a psychiatric resident, I had a supervisor who confounded me regularly. I would present a patient to him, and he would say something outlandish. I would leave his presence grumbling about how someone that whacky could have made it as a psychiatrist. But some of the whacky things he said turned out to be bizarrely accurate, such as: “Your patient has a longing for things of the sea,” when my patient had expressed no such thing—until the following week when she told me she had always been fascinated by sharks and whales. At other times other things he said turned out to be correct also, or, just as likely, just as nonsensical as they sounded. I never knew what to expect. One day:

“You know,” he said to me through a haze of pipe smoke, “no one dies unless he wants to die.”

“What?” I said, making a face, “what do you mean?”

“Just what I said.”

“Are you talking about the death instinct, or whatever?”

“No one dies unless he wants to.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “Everyone in the whole history of the world wanted to die.”

“That’s right.”

“So, if I’m walking down the street and a flower pot falls off a ledge and hits me in the head, killing me --that’s because that was what I wanted?”

“That’s right.”

I changed the subject. I was there to learn something about doing psychotherapy. But, afterwards, I wondered just what did he mean? No rational person could believe what he said. He must have been making some obscure point, but I was too intolerant to wait to hear what it was. Nonsense was nonsense, it seemed to me. Maybe I could have learned something if I could have held still long enough to listen more carefully. Maybe hidden away in his remark was some tiny kernel of wisdom. But I went my way, and he disappeared into his office, back to the ethereal plane on which he lived where subtle and cosmic truths wafted by.

That business about everyone wanting to die, reminded me of a conversation I had when I was a freshman in college. I roomed near a bunch of guys who came from Colorado. I liked them, in part because, like me, they did not dress like everyone else. Everyone who was a student at Princeton in the year 1951 dressed in chino pants, a button-down white shirt folded up past the elbow, (not rolled) and white buck shoes. These were shoes with a red sole and a white top, which had to be scuffed immediately. Also everyone had a crew cut.

The guys from Colorado all wore colorful flannel shirts. I wore whatever I had worn in high school, corduroy pants and no particular kind of shirt. I also wore my brother’s parka, which he had worn during the Second World War, and which was too big for me since he was two inches taller than I was. I do not remember trying to appear as an eccentric, but, no doubt, so I seemed. I also wore my hair at my usual length. I remember a close friend who looked at me with loathing and said, “My God, you have hair on your neck!” Anyway, I mention all of this just to suggest that, for whatever reason, I was not always inclined to go along.

The guys from Colorado also stood apart. They were evangelists—what would be called in the future, born-again Christians. One fellow told me that only Christians could get into heaven, but that every good person had the opportunity to become a good Christian. Somehow the word of God would come to him.

“What about all those people who lived in Arica for hundreds of years without hearing anything about Jesus. They were all bad?”

“Yes.”

My friend was a scrupulously honest person, so that was what he believed. I knew he was honest because he had turned in the fellow who blew up our toilet with a cherry bomb—even though he knew that ratting out his friend would detract from his reputation as one of the guys.

One day, in an argument about the existence of God, he called me over to the window and looked out.

“Isn’t it obvious,” he said, “that everything out there is designed by a purposeful and benevolent God?”

“No,” I said, looking out the window. “It seems to me that everything out there is ruled by chance.”

I was surprised some time later to find that Schopenhauer, the philosopher, also made mention of looking out a window at the world. He said that it should be obvious to any rational person that the world out there was so awful, it had to have been constructed by an entirely evil god.

So, who was right?

Incredibly, that same classmate was a socialist, despite being a conservative Christian and despite attending Princeton. I don’t mean that he was a fascistsocialistcommunist, like Obama is said to be by some. My friend believed that private property was pernicious, and that all means of production should be held by the people in common. I think he has probably changed his mind by now—although he seemed pretty sure at the time.

Of course, every fundamentalist, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim, thinks he/she has hold of the truth, and all the others are wrong—and are very likely doomed also. But simply being certain cannot mean that they are right, since they all disagree. Similarly, there are others who believe in supernatural events and psychic phenomena, even though both violate laws of physics. In fact, they disbelieve the laws of physics. “Nothing is certain,” they say, by which they mean they are entitled to believe in things every scientist considers impossible.

Like all these other people, I think my views are sensible and correct, and all the others are wrong. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. But in my more sensible moments, I realize that, being a human being like the others, some of my views are just as likely to be wrong. The mere fact that someone (including me) is entirely certain he is correct does not mean that in fact he is.

In this connection, I mention a Grand Rounds in psychiatry at which I arrived late. I could see that one of the doctors was interviewing a middle-aged woman. She was sitting quietly, but talking about a variety of obscure threats that were menacing her. Her thoughts were fragmented. She demonstrated what is called “loosening of associations,” a distinctive tendency to be distracted abruptly from one idea to another. I thought to myself that no one could purposely affect that particular manner of speech. Only a schizophrenic could talk in that way. Except only a few minutes later, after suitable applause, the lady introduced herself as a social worker who was precisely attempting to demonstrate loosening of associations. She was doing exactly what I thought could not be done. The fact that I was wrong was not why I remember the incident. It was because I was proven wrong almost at once! Usually, we have time to forget all the ways we are wrong. Or we forget what we thought in the first place. I had to admit to myself that I was exactly wrong.

I often express opinions in these blogs. A friend asked me, how do you know that thing to be true? I answered with some surprise that I had been a psychiatrist for over fifty years. But she asked a good question. I am only expressing an opinion. Readers should take what I say as a matter of opinion. Sometimes, with further experience, those opinions change.

I see many men who have failed sexually from time to time. Impotence is a very common symptom and can be caused by physical conditions and by anxiety. I have always said to these men that women are invariably understanding of this failure and are not likely to judge them harshly. I had never run into an exception-- except one time a few years ago when I did finally run into an exception! One woman berated a man for being unable to get an erection after drinking a bottle of wine. So, I had been wrong.

My message for the day: the fact that you are utterly convinced that you know the truth does not mean that you do. .

This is not to say that there is no such thing as objective truth. Of course there is. What I am suggesting is that it is not possible to determine that truth to the extent that it will command the assent of everyone. There is no way of determining historical truth exactly—did Shakespeare really write Shakespeare’s plays or not? And it is almost as hard to determine scientific truth, that is, facts about the way the world exists. For example, scientific studies which led to drug approvals have been found to be incorrect after those studies were repeated. Continental drift was only accepted decades after the fact of it was proved—only after all its opponents had died off.

There is a single exception: mathematics. All mathematicians will agree about mathematical statements, although not, perhaps, without first stumbling around for a while. Mathematical truths hold across the length of the universe. They command assent. I take some satisfaction in knowing that the Mandelbrot Set will look just as beautiful to anyone anywhere who is part of a civilization advanced enough to have a computer. No matter how the sky looks on their planet, and no matter how life has evolved there, the Mandelbrot Set will look the same to them and to everyone else. (c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman/s blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

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