In 1991, British sports presenter and celebrity David Icke appeared on a popular TV chat show dressed from head to foot in turquoise and claimed to be the son of God. It emerged that Icke now felt that presenting sports programs was no longer what his life was about; now he was on a mission to prevent the world from being destroyed by the forces of darkness, and a key part of his mission was the wearing of turquoise at all times.
David Icke: Madman, Genius or Both? The document that Icke refers to can be found here [PDF].
Icke initially drew ridicule from the British public, but as time went on, many people came to appreciate his interesting and unique theories, which he presented to audiences of thousands. While few could swallow Icke’s assertion that the world was ruled by a clan of three-meter-high lizards from another dimension, other aspects of Icke’s message appealed to the sensibilities of a public rapidly growing disenchanted with corrupt politicians and the shenanigans of high finance.
But perhaps the most intriguing question that Icke’s life raises is the one that springs to mind first: what on earth happened to David Icke to make him undergo such an apparently abrupt transformation? Can we find any pattern in Icke’s behaviour that might explain his behaviour? Of course, one possible explanation is some unseen force decided to use Icke to enlighten the world. Another explanation, not incompatible with the first, is that Icke was in the grip of a state of mind known as psychosis.
The word psychosis conjures up images of axe murderers and raving maniacs in many people’s minds. And yet in reality the word describes a unique state of mind that many people have experienced and that around 2.4 million people are currently unfortunately stuck with, in the United States alone.
What Is Psychosis?
Although the precise symptoms and manifestation of psychosis varies from person to person and depends upon the way in which psychosis is induced, nevertheless the psychotic experience has a number of common factors that arguably seem to stem from a discernible common mechanism in the brain.
From an outside perspective, psychosis typically includes hallucinations, delusions, confused thoughts and a lack of full insight into the condition by the sufferer or the pleasure-seeker — because as we’ll see shortly, while psychosis may be one of the most horrifying conditions to be stuck with permanently, nevertheless the state of mind can be pleasurable under certain circumstances and may be induced using a certain class of drugs.
In a person experiencing a psychotic state of mind, it is as if all emotions are ramped up. It is as if someone has found the emotional thermostat in the brain and turned it up to maximum. A psychotic person who, under normal circumstances might feel happy, may feel ecstatic while psychotic. Sadness may turn to severe melancholy, and minor paranoid thoughts that would ordinarily be dismissed may turn to a horrifying sense of certainty that “they” are out to get you.
But that’s not all; the consequences of increasing the emotional receptivity of the brain in this way are far-reaching. Sounds, tastes, smells and physical sensations may all intensify either to the point of becoming highly pleasurable, or to the point of becoming unbearable. Ideas that ordinarily would seem trivial may assume a profound importance, and these ideas may be anything from trivial observations (“poems are songs without music”) to observations about life that ordinarily the subject may not chose to dwell on (“no-one really knows why we are here”) to paranoid thoughts (“that guy just looked at me funny”). Colors may also appear more intense, with certain colors appearing to glow or shine.
In ordinary life we constantly receive a barrage of information from our senses and we constantly theorize about possible patterns in this information. A non-psychotic person may look at wallpaper and see faces in it; the faces however do not really look much like faces and are usually ignored. In psychosis, the same patterns may look really like faces, even to the point that the person may become convinced that they actually are faces. The same thing can happen with sounds. An ordinary person may hear the buzzing of a refrigerator and for a split second think that it sounds like a human voice; in a psychotic state, the same person may insist that the buzzing definitely is a voice, and may even believe the voice is talking to him.
Since all these little ideas that pass through the mind are magnified into things that strike the psychotic person forcefully instead of being quickly discarded, a psychotic person can gradually build up elaborate paranoid fantasies around ordinary situations, each new “realization” striking the sufferer with the force of a revealed truth.
Finally, a person who is suffering from psychosis will typically experience confused thoughts and will have difficulty reasoning logically or mathematically. Since the brain is leaping to conclusions left, right and center, logical thought becomes difficult or impossible and the sufferer may even experience racing thoughts, where one idea leapfrogs over another. The inability to reason logically in a detailed way tends to worsen the sufferer’s delusions, since delusional ideas can no longer be dismissed by the force of logic. Furthermore, the sheer power of the emotions the sufferer experiences may overwhelm any rational train of thought that is still present.
Alan Watt: Professional Paranoiac.
We can see that although the symptoms of psychosis initially appear to be disparate and to have no common thread, in fact there is a common thread, since all the symptoms appear to stem from this ramping up of the brain’s sensitivity to ideas and emotions. Perhaps for this reason, one popular explanation of why psychosis occurs is that the brain produces too much dopamine, a chemical transmitter than enables brain cells to talk to each other. Too much dopamine, so the theory goes, and brain cells will chatter to each other continuously when they ought to be more circumspect. Unfortunately there’s not much evidence in favor of this theory scientifically; the main piece of evidence in its favor is that anti-psychotic drugs such as Haloperidol and Quetiapine appear to work by damping down the brain’s neurotransmitters, especially dopamine.
In the light of these symptoms, David Icke’s behavior takes on new significance. Here is a man who was for a while obsessed with the color purple and who saw strong connections between all kinds of symbols and events that others dismissed as coincidence. Icke readily leapt upon ideas and theories that others dismissed. Fascinatingly, Icke had started out his career as a professional footballer, retiring due to arthritis. Could the same thing that caused Icke’s arthritis also have brought about the unusual change in his state of mind? Could some change in his metabolism, some stray chemical in his bloodstream perhaps, have caused both sets of phenomena, both the arthritic problems and his apparent delusions — if delusions they be?
What Causes Psychosis?
There are basically two main ways that a person can end up in a psychotic state of mind, either temporarily or permanently: mental illness and “psychedelic” drugs.
Various mental illnesses are associated with psychosis. If psychosis is present without any other significant symptoms, typically schizophrenia is diagnosed. Unfortunately, attaching the label “schizophrenia” to a condition doesn’t really tell us anything new about the nature of the disorder. Schizophrenia is essentially the name given to the condition of being psychotic for unknown reasons. An astonishing one in a hundred people develop schizophrenia at some point in their lives throughout the world. Of these, approximately one third recover fully, one third recover enough to carry on a fairly normal life, and one third tragically remain deranged enough to require care throughout their lives. While antipsychotic drugs help massively over the first few months after a person becomes psychotic, it is somewhat unclear whether they help over the long term, with some observers asserting that the drugs retard the development of coping strategies in the sufferer.
Interestingly schizophrenia appears to take a more severe course in developed countries than third-world countries, and it tends to affect people more strongly in towns than in the countryside. When one considers the difficulties inherent in coping with modern life or complex lifestyles when unable to think clearly, this may not be altogether surprising.
Certain drugs also induce a state of mind that may fairly be called a temporary psychosis if taken in sufficient quantities. These drugs are known collectively as psychedelics, and include mescaline, LSD, psilocybin and cannabis. While none of these drugs are known to cause organic brain damage as such (contrary to popular belief), some people appear to be driven mad by them. The scientific question of whether cannabis can cause permanent psychosis is a complex one, since people who are beginning to experience schizophrenic symptoms frequently take to smoking large quantities of cannabis in order to gain relief, stymieing attempts to find statistical connections between cannabis use and subsequent psychosis; furthermore, certain components of cannabis appear to exert anti-psychotic effects.
When psychedelic drugs are used recreationally (note that such usage is illegal in most countries), the picture is complicated by the outlandish and even terrifying nature of the experience that these drugs can bring about. Are people driven mad by the chemical effects of LSD, or are unstable minds simply pushed over the brink by their difficult experiences while under the influence, in much the same way that a certain proportion of people become psychotic during their first year at college? Scientifically, the question currently appears unanswerable, especially since even scientists are widely banned from studying these drugs.
More worryingly, various stimulant drugs can certainly cause long-lasting psychoses to develop if taken regularly in large doses. These drugs include amphetamines, cocaine and the much-misunderstood drug Ritalin, a drug which many believe to be a tranquilizer but which in fact stimulates the mind, enabling a superior degree of concentration until the user becomes habituated to its use (and is then stuck merely with the drug’s potentially life-threatening side-effects).
The psychoses experienced under these widely differing circumstances are not all identical; people who have experienced two separate forms of psychosis, for example a schizophrenic episode and an LSD “trip”, say that they feel qualitatively different. And yet in all these different experiences we frequently see the delusional thoughts, paranoid ideas and glowing colors that are characteristic of a psychotic state of mind.
Despite the discovery of antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s and the rise to prominence of the “psychotomimetic” or psychedelic drugs in the West, beginning with the isolation of mescaline from the peyote cactus in 1896, little is still know about the underlying causes of psychosis or why it occurs. No-one knows why some people develop an ongoing, chronic psychosis even in the total absence of suspect drugs or any apparent infection or injury to the brain.
The late, great Terence McKenna: a sort of professional explorer of psychosis.
When LSD was discovered, it was found to bring about a psychotic-like state of mind even in minuscule quantities; many consequently suggested that schizophrenia may be caused minute quantities of some “Factor X” produced unintentionally by the body itself; as yet, no such substance has been discovered. Others suggest that a virus may cause schizophrenia, or developmental problems in early childhood or even in the womb, while yet others argue that the illness is psychological in origin and that faulty thought patterns induce a state of instability in the brain. Some even point the finger at modern society itself, arguing that our modern lifestyle breeds madness.
Whatever the answer, the naturally-occurring form of psychosis known as schizophrenia remains one of the great mysteries of our time, destroying the lives of millions of people worldwide. Perhaps one day, possibly with the advent of medical imaging technology capable of scanning the brain to a finer resolution than is currently possible, the riddle of schizophrenia will be solved.
While a cure is eagerly awaited by those whose lives have been ruined by psychotic symptoms, it’s also possible that psychosis is with us for a reason. Why, some scientists ask, has psychosis not been weeded out of the gene pool by the processes of evolution? The answer could of course be that psychosis is caused by an infection — some germ or virus that has its own evolutionary goals (metaphorically speaking) — or that madness is somehow just an inevitable consequence of being human, a sort of inevitable side effect of having developed such massive brains, which evolution cannot overcome. But it could also be the case that the same genes that predispose us to madness also give us creativity, inventiveness and a healthy degree of paranoia that has served us well throughout our past history as a species. In fact, research shows that the relatives of schizophrenics are more likely to be in high-flying creative professions than those who do not have a little madness in the family. If this theory is correct, schizophrenia is the high price we pay for our continued survival.
Appendix A: What To Do If You Are Temporarily Psychotic Due To Ingesting ‘Psychedelic’ Drugs
If you are currently under the influence of a ‘psychedelic’ drug such as LSD, mescaline or magic mushrooms, or a large dose of cannabis, and you are scared or feel like you are losing your mind, here’s what to do.
- Go with the flow. You will be fine. The drug will wear off eventually. Meanwhile don’t worry.
- Do not be tempted to leave your house.
- If your heart beats fast, don’t be afraid of panicking. You will not “lose control”; a fast heartbeat is normal under the influence of these drugs.
Appendix B: What To Do If You Are Psychotic For No Clear Reason
If you experience symptoms of psychosis and the cause is unclear, here’s what to do.
- See a doctor. Doctors can prescribe anti-psychotic medication which in many cases greatly decreases psychotic symptoms.
- Avoid all mind-altering drugs (other than anti-psychotic medication), especially stimulant drugs (including caffeine and Ritalin).
- Try to get plenty of sleep. Psychosis usually interferes with sleep, but lack of sleep may worsen psychosis. Therefore try to sleep as much as you can and don’t be tempted to cut back on sleep for any reason.
- Try to maintain as calm and stable a lifestyle as possible. Try to be around calm people as much as you can, and avoid stressful situations. Meditation and regular vigorous exercise may help.
- Try to keep your friends. You may misinterpret things they say and believe that they are attacking you when they aren’t. Studies show that the prognosis for people who are suffering from psychosis is much better among people who can hang on to at least one close relationship.