Dr. Joseph Valks – Language and Psychosis

The ability to use and interpret language is, as far as we are aware, a characteristic unique to the human species. It is an ability to express thoughts and feelings by spoken sounds or written symbols and for others to recognize and understand the meanings of these sounds and symbols. The term ‘language’ may also refer to the rules associated with the spoken word or written language, such as parts of speech and sentence construction.

The ability to use and interpret language is associated with a particular area of the brain. In most individuals the left side of the brain is dominant for language. It has been suggested that in people with schizophrenia the language area of the non-dominant right side of the brain is still active and this can lead to psychotic symptoms.

Usually someone has an inner thought voice which may or may not be the same as their speaking voice. They will also usually have a self image picture and a set of life pictures in the mind that is the memory of life experiences; ‘kind of like a video that they can move forwards or backwards through and access a frame at any time’. This will obviously grow longer with time and shape character. Together these help form a person’s conscious identity. If the inner voice changes, or any of the inner pictures change, so will the sense of identity.

Samuel Lowder (FrePrs), "Habituated"
Samuel Lowder (FrePrs), “Habituated”

When reading a fantasy novel some people will read the words ‘inside their mind’ with their own inner voice (they may absorb the words into their head without any conscious knowledge of any voice type at all). Others will role-play the voices of the different characters in the book inside their mind, kind of like soap opera characters. Others may even pick up the inner character of the creator of the story almost reading to them. Would it be a great assumption to make that the least likely to suffer from schizophrenia-type symptoms would be those without the creativity and imagination necessary to put them at risk, i.e. the first type of readers?

Thoughts, pictures and words are inextricably linked. Words lead to thoughts, thoughts lead to words. A person who is reading a book vividly imagines the scene as described by the words, while others will see no pictures at all. Some famous authors even claim that their characters became alive inside their minds and almost wrote the stories themselves.

Research using brain scanning equipment shows the changes that occur in the speech area of the brain in people with schizophrenia when they hear voices. The brain reacts as if the voices are real (i.e. the brain mistakes thoughts for real voices). This causes confusion in the patient who may develop irrational beliefs such as their thoughts are being controlled, people are talking through the television, or there is a microchip implanted inside them.

In a recent study evaluated patients with psychotic symptoms to a control group, brain activity during verbal fluency tests was compared. Decreased lateralization and greater activity in the right superior lateral lobe was found in the patients. However, when a group of non-psychotic subjects who suffered from isolated auditory hallucinations was tested they showed no significant difference in brain activity to the control group. Thus, there is no established link between auditory verbal hallucinations and language lateralization.

It would be interesting to try a different approach scanning the brains of different types of reading and visualization personalities to see if the brain sometimes puts out the signal for hearing a real voice.

I would hate to say it could be so simply put– sometimes a vivid imagination can lead to a problem distinguishing fantasy from reality in creative people. It is a very subtle beginning, almost like (for a tiny instant) the brain enters a parallel reality, and fantasy and reality at a single time point becomes confused and interchanged in the mind (‘inside the video of live memory’). The false memory may then grow like a seed inside the mind and eat away at the video-type memory like a virus until it becomes totally impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. In the end fantasy takes over and there is no real sense of the correct reality or identity left. As I said before words, thoughts and pictures are closely interknit. Creation of auditory hallucinations may be described as the same kind of subtle inter-parallel universe split. For an instant the thought voice, whatever its origin may be, is created and heard as real.

It is a well known psychological rule that when presented with a random pattern and asked what they might see a person will try and form it into a familiar shape such as a face. In the same way random sounds can be converted into words with a little stretch of the imagination. This is also commonly used in NLP when words may be used that sound like another phrase.

Another point of interest would be to look at the brain, linked to state of mind when people create characters’ voices in their mind. Small children often have irrational fears such as the closet monster. When lying in bed alone in the dark a voice from the closet may clearly be heard. It is a simple trick of the mind, they aren’t actually mentally ill. Even adults, caught alone in the woods at night, may experience the Wind in the Willows, ‘wild wood’ syndrome. Every shadowed tree is a face, every rustling leaf becomes a follower. Could this brainwave pattern create a susceptibility that (along with a natural ability to create role plays in the mind) can create and maintain a tormenting voice? Also, are “nice” voices created when positive emotional areas of the brain are activated at the same time as words are read about pleasant characters, and “nasty” voices created when negative areas of the brain are activated at the same time as reading about horrible characters?

When reading, creating a fantasy voice in the mind does not normally register as a real voice, but can it reach a level where this fantasy voice registers in the brain as real? Frightened people in the woods can turn natural sounds into voices because they are in a susceptible form of mind– are these voices registered in the brain as real voices? Presumably yes even though it is just a sound in the same way mentally ill people will change a dog barking, or a train in the distance into a voice. Could a link be established between these two different types of voice creation?

Beware of the uncertainty principle! – This may be better known in particle physics, but trying to study someone’s natural inner voice is very difficult simply because of the fact that the monitoring itself can change it.

Dr. Joe Valks

Joe recently helped develop the British Woodlands food webs educational simulation for Newbyte and is donating his share of The Last Tiger (available on Amazon kindle) children’s fantasy novel profits to the Animals on the Edge conservation project.

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