Fear, Paranoia and Psychosis
What I just described is a spectrum.
Fear is a generalized signal of alertness. It can be modelled as “noise in the system”, which I’ll be explaining shortly.
As an animal, your automatic response to the fear signal is to immediately locate a source. Awareness is supposed to rush to the senses:
Ears prick up, eyes open wide, body becomes erect and ready. After a period of time, if no source is found, the signal subsides and the body relaxes again:
Mammals however also have pattern-matching. This means some of the fear signal is diverted into brain areas associated with memory to see if the current situation’s sensory input (from the immediate environment) “matches” a past encounter stored in memory, to better tailor the response based on past experience. This is the basis of all learning.
The end result is that one’s awareness contains sensory input from the environment plus any matched patterns from memory which are “inserted” into awareness, in varying degrees of vividness depending upon 1) accuracy of match (0%–99%) and 2) emotional intensity of the stored pattern (an intense experience which is only a 40% match for example will nevertheless be inserted vividly into awareness). In my book I call these inserted pattern-matches “overlays”.
Here are the problems you face with this, as a human:
- You have a vast number of patterns because you live so long AND because we live complex lives where lots of patterns are absorbed. You will also have invalid patterns such as things you saw on the news which do not apply to your current situation in realistic terms but which you have nevertheless absorbed and integrated. So, seeing a Muslim at an airport automatically matches that you are about to be blown up.
- You have language, which is the ability to place patterns in set orders to arrive at an end pattern. This is known as logic, despite it frequently arriving at an irrational conclusion.
- You are trained out of sensory awareness and into your head (cognitive awareness) from a very early age, first via language and then heavily reinforced by the academic system (“problem-solving” and absorption of vast arrays of patterns non-applicable to everyday life).
The result of these factors is that, instead of defaulting to the sensory awareness check and allowing the fear signal to resolve upon finding no rational source, one tends instead to consult one’s concepts and place them in logical chains, often ending in irrational results. The fear signal is activating cognition more than it is sensory awareness. This is paranoia.
When the process is made fully cognitive, i.e. sensory awareness is almost entirely ignored in favour of concepts, this is psychosis. Remember: the patterns you invoke needn’t ever have happened to you: it might have been something you saw on the news or an outcome you determined as a result of faulty logic.
The lower areas of the brain cannot tell the difference between sensory input and internally-generated patterns.
This leads us to positive feedback loops.
Positive Feedback Loops
Because the lower brain areas cannot distinguish between external and internal patterns, internal patterns feed back into the fear signal, amplifying it, and feeding back into cognition (then patterns then fear again) in a loop. In engineering this kind of loop is known as positive feedback, where the signal grows with each iteration. In terms of your experience, it means that an initial seed of fear, by invoking past terrifying experiences via pattern-matching, can quickly grow into terror.
Positive feedback seems to govern much of human experience in all areas, and I intend to write a full article on it at some point for the Principles section. In the context of this article, the point is, fear begets more fear.
Anxiety does not appear in this chain because it is a slightly different process. With anxiety, a fear signal is felt, but the sensory check is inhibited and the fear signal is brought downwards into the body for rumination as opposed to spreading out to the senses.
Social anxiety is perhaps the best example of this.
Let’s say you’re in a crowd of people (= alertness signal). The sensory check would have your awareness spread fully into your senses (refer back to the erect meerkat, eyes and ears fully open to absorb sensory data to identify any potential sources of fear). Upon finding none, the alertness signal would at some point give way to relaxation.
However, to you it feels socially unacceptable to walk around in this high state of alert (like a wide-eyed maniac), so you instead inhibit that sensory check by lowering your head (“keep your head down”). The fear signal moves into the abdomen where it ruminates as an ongoing tension, inhibiting breathing and natural movement and keeping the body on high alert with no resolution until withdrawal.
I have noticed that anxiety correlates directly with bad posture, as the body contracts into a defensive form. Fear on the other hand gives good upright posture and full breathing as awareness spreads outwards to the senses — an “alert” pose. You can test this now by intentionally making your eyes wide — your body will instinctively lift upwards.
The Take-Home Lesson
The take-home lesson from this article is that fear is best experienced at the sensory check stage. Whenever you feel a fear signal, for whatever reason (often you won’t really know the reason), allow awareness to spread entirely into the senses. Become wide-eyed, erect, and listen out. Within a few moments, or minutes depending on the strength of the fear signal, your lower brains will be satisfied there is no “source” and will send a relax signal.
You will also find that your posture automatically improves while wide-eyed.
The alternative is rumination (anxiety) or pattern-chaining (paranoia).
I checked myself in the mirror and the wide-eyed look is not actually particularly noticeable. There is no point letting social self-image inhibit your ability to process fear organically and therefore have it resolve quickly.
Baseline Fear Level
The strength of your baseline fear signal (which is really just an alertness signal) is a result of your genetics, epigenetics, current neurochemistry (whether organic or altered via substances) and all your life experiences so far (the patterns and their perceived outcomes (also patterns!) you have acquired up till this point, and to which you refer back reflexively when processing external stimuli).
If most of your patterns have resulted in a negative outcome thus far, you will be more inclined towards fear (alertness). If they have mostly resulted in a positive outcome, you will be more inclined towards relaxation.
This is the difference between someone who loves, say, going to a nightclub or riding a roller coaster, and someone whose fear spikes quickly in those situations (or in advance of them, just by thinking about them!).
The good news is that, the more sensory checks which are “passed” (no fear source determined -> relax) in the more situations, the lower the fear baseline becomes over time.
The take-home lesson, again, is to default to your senses in any “alertness” situation.
In fact, default to your senses as much as possible in all life situations (outside specific cognitive tasks such as problem-solving). This idea is known in Eckhart Tolle’s work as presence.
The Noise Model
This is my pet theory of schizophrenia and other mental conditions which invoke paranoia and/or psychosis, such as bipolar disorder.
I was inspired to write this after my friend described to me recently her breaks with reality as a result of her bipolar:
Sometimes I have complete mania, to the point I don’t think I’m me, or need to scrape skin off to make sure I have bones, or believing the upstairs is going to collapse on me.
“Believing the upstairs is going to collapse on me” is a psychotic delusion. It begins with generalized fear. The search for a source then begins. No source is found in the senses, so internal concepts and patterns are invoked to attribute as the source. In other words, in lieu of an external source found via the senses, one is simply assigned internally — often arbitrarily and having no bearing on the “real” source of the fear signal!
Why the senses are not checked, or why they are not believed if they are checked, is something I need to dedicate more time towards understanding. For now, I will explain the fear signal and how it activates different brain areas (and, obviously in this case, the wrong ones) via my noise model.
Do you see anything in this picture?
What about now?
You can now see a very faint smiley face. All I’ve done is add 5% noise over the whole image. (The noise is uniform and monochromatic. You can play around with this idea yourself in Photoshop.)
Now look back at the first image. You will now be able to see the smiley face quite easily. What’s happened?
The noise in the second image boosted the pattern (even though it also boosted the “nothingness” by the same amount — the brain is geared to find patterns). Then the pattern was stored in your brain, and you could easily “pattern-match” it to the first image (which you will likely have perceived as blank before), and see the smiley face! You “learned” to see the pattern by experiencing it just once in the second image and then expecting to find it when you looked back to the first image!!
The same phenomenon of pattern-matching to noise can easily be seen in action when you look at clouds and they start to resemble objects.
Fear, Noise and the Right Amygdala
In my model, a generalized fear (alertness) signal can be modelled as noise flooding the brain, causing different areas to pattern-match more readily. Just as with clouds, this can also make you see things which aren’t there.
I believe the source of the “noise” of fear is the right amygdala.
This is particularly important when looking at paranoia, psychosis and delusion. We can model schizophrenic delusion as different brain areas pattern-matching noise in different ways. Auditory hallucinations are the most common form of delusion in schizophrenia. This can be modelled as the left brain hemisphere pattern-matching noise from the right amygdala to language. So a general fear signal becomes voices. In visual hallucinations, noise is pattern-matched to people and objects.
Remember, the first response to fear is to attribute a source. The senses are supposed to be the first port of call. The senses appear to be skipped in schizophrenics, however, moving right along to pattern-matching internal concepts and past experiences.
I have observed schizophrenics going about their business and the first and most obvious characteristic I have noticed is their apparent detachment from “reality”, which should really be referred to as detachment from their senses. They tend to walk along in straight lines, head down, staring at a single point, muttering to themselves. Their awareness is internal. I believe they are mainly pattern-matching right-amygdala noise to verbal processing in the left hemisphere. They chain concepts together with fearful outcomes which are then fed back to the right amygdala boosting the noise, and a feedback loop is formed.
Calming the Amygdala
The standard treatment for schizophrenia is antipsychotics. I believe these work by reducing the overall amount of “noise” in the brain, system-wide.
The two most effective types of drug which more directly calm the right amygdala appear to me, from my own experience and research (I am not schizophrenic but have had severe anxiety), to be opioids and GABAergics. These types of drugs are frequently used in self-medication by people with fear/anxiety problems, in the form of opiates (pain pills, heroin etc.) and GABA drugs such as alcohol and benzodiazepines (valium etc.). The problem with these routes however is rapid tolerance. Additionally, alcohol in particular has such a wide range of activating effects that it can cause more problems than it solves (alcohol is a “dirty” drug which binds to a huge array of nerve cell receptor types, with unpredictable effects).
SSRIs have also been shown to directly and quickly reduce activity in the right amygdala, which is likely why they can be effective for treating anxiety in some people.
Ultimately any treatment plan needs to include cognitive-behavioural techniques for bringing the locus of awareness back to the senses (where no danger will be found), in addition to drugs if required. In my opinion, mindfulness meditation is a good catch-all method, as it also induces relaxation (and thus a reduction in systemic “noise”). GABA has been shown to be higher in meditators.
In my bipolar post, I alluded to the possibility that ancestral ketogenic diets (e.g. paleo) may have a calming effect on the amygdala via producing a ketone, BHB, which is GABAergic.
I also believe the relatively thin corpus callosum in humans might be partly responsible for the communications problems which cause emotional signals to be incorrectly pattern-matched by other brain regions.
Ultimately, until these mechanisms are better understood, there will not be a “one size fits all” method for treating disorders such as schizophrenia and anxiety problems. I believe however it will one day be possible, and hope to be involved in its creation.
Until then, it is my hope that I have given food for thought to any researchers out there who may be able to use these ideas to take steps forward in this field.