Have you ever spoken to someone with delusions?
Would you know a delusion if you encountered one?
What about a person experiencing a hallucination?
If you found yourself shaking your head “no” to these questions, that’s okay because you are not alone.
This article will engage you in exploring the experience of those who struggle with delusions.
The study of delusions has occurred for decades and although many fields of study (e.g., philosophy, psychology, counseling, psychiatry, neurology, neuroscience, phenomenology, sociology, and even the medical field) have attempted to better understand delusions, we remain sorely behind in our understanding. However, research has been able to better understand hallucinations and why they happen. Hallucinations is a topic I will be covering next week.
Thankfully we have researchers who are continuing to study and evaluate delusions so that we can better understand them and learn to live with those who have them.
What is a delusion?
A delusion is a firmly held thought or conviction that is incorrigibly held despite evidence to the contrary. Karl Jaspers (1959), a German-Swiss Psychiatrist and Philosopher, described delusions as having 3 major components:
- “They are held with unusual conviction”
- “They are not amenable to logic”
- “The absurdity or erroneous-ness of their content is manifest to other people”
It doesn’t matter how unnatural, bizarre, or strange a delusion may be the individual having the delusion is likely to believe the delusion. Any argument attempting to clarify or even discredit the delusion will result in anger and possibly even aggressive behavior from the individual holding the delusion. For the most part, the individual holding the delusion often feels that others either don’t understand them, believe them, or feels they are “unintelligent” in some fashion. They take it personally.
For people struggling with delusions, there is a “splitting off” from reality that seems to occur. At one point the individual can function very well in society and may even be able to hold a job, maintain home-life, and refrain from sharing delusional beliefs in social settings. But in times where there is an increase in stress or the person becomes more comfortable and trusting of someone, the delusions are likely to peak their ugly head. The delusion never really “dies” but is capable of “disappearing” when necessary.
In other cases (especially in severe cases where there may be other psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or disorganized thought patterns), the person lacks the control necessary to hide delusional thoughts and may begin to appear “psychologically unstable” to others. In other words, they begin to act out.
When this acting out doesn’t happen, delusional thought patterns are likely to remain hidden from society. As a result, people with delusions rarely pursue treatment. Why pursue treatment if nothing is wrong with you? Why pursue treatment if you are firmly attached to the idea that you are right about what you think?
Are all delusions incorrect or psychotic?
For “higher functioning” individuals with delusional thought patterns it is likely that the sensory input is correct but the interpretation of the delusion is false. For example, say you are looking at the sky and notice the sun is bright yellow with an orange ring around it (i.e., sensory input that is correct and logical). You put your shades on and stare at the beauty of the sun. But then in the flash of a moment you begin to believe that the odd shape and color means the world is ending (i.e., false interpretation of the delusion). The experience is correct, but the interpretation of what is happening may be psychotic or greatly misinterpreted.
Another example may include a husband who sees his wife talking to a married male neighbor across the street. The sensory input is correct (i.e., seeing his wife talk to the neighbor) but the interpretation of the delusion may be incorrect (i.e., she is having an affair with him). This is a very common delusion in relationships, by the way. Intense emotions from the person having the delusion can fuel their anger and the delusion even more. Sadly, delusions can make those on “the outside” feel very persecuted, misunderstood, unloved, and confused.
Below I have listed common delusions often experienced in relationships. Some of these delusions include but are not limited to:
- Delusion of persecution: The strong conviction that what they feel or think is truly happening such as being intentionally run off the road or being targeted by TV news anchors for some purpose often only understandable by them alone.
- Delusion of infidelity: The strong conviction that one’s husband or wife, girlfriend or boyfriend is cheating.
- Delusions of love (or erotomania): The strong conviction that he/she has a loving relationship with someone else, primarily someone they have never met or do not know. It is a preoccupation with an object of interest/love. This delusion can occur when a fan begins to like a “celebrity” so much that they believe that celebrity is sending messages to them.
- Delusion of grandeur: This is the strong conviction that the person has supernatural or powerful gifts they do not have (i.e., being able to foretell the future, fly, etc). This delusion can become confused with delusions of religion in which a religious person becomes so psychologically ill that they embellish their spiritual experiences so much that they become unnatural, unreal, or even supernatural.
- Delusional memory: This may occur when an individual recalls events that have never happened. It is very difficult to determine, outside of a clinical environment, if the person is engaging in pathological lying or is delusional. Only an experienced clinician can decipher this. Delusional memory may include a person stating that they grew up in Hollywood when in fact they grew up in a rural and modest neighborhood.
- Delusional perception: This occurs when abnormal significance is placed on a normal or natural situation.
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As always, I wish you well.
Kiran, C., & Chaudhury, S. (2009). Understanding delusions. Industrial Psychiatry journal, 18(1): 3-18.
This article was originally written on 10/17/18 but has been updated for comprehensiveness and the inclusion of a video.
Photo by Skley