Sanity and Insanity

Reading Mark Vonnegut’s new book has me thinking about the thin line between sanity and insanity,  how fuzzy it is and how the application of Gestalt theory helps to find that line, define it, and in doing so establish the means to survive in the “real reality.”

We live in a world with a preordained set of acceptable rules about social behavior that an individual may not be able to meet squarely, but must, or suffer alienation. If a person has a lot of money and has visions, he’s considered eccentric perhaps, but not insane;  if the person is poor off to the nuthouse for him with a stream of prescriptions such that he may never recover!  There is, however, another element of the equation to consider in addition to the security or money, and that is dialogue.

The Senoi believe a dreamer encounters many and various spirits in the lucid  dream world; that “nature is impregnated by spiritual forces, many of them personified in the form of evil spirits.” (Dumhoff)  Western society, however,  has unlearned  and unremembered  the fact that spirits exist, and some are indeed evil; dare I say it’s a state of intellectual amnesia, and contrived at that.  The effort to analyze hallucinations and the disorder, schizophrenia, by magnetic imagery or placing a selected sample of “infected” brain tissue into a Petri dish is faulty research. Indeed. Does a Petri Dish have a lucid dream? Can Evil Spirits invade a Petri dish or show up on an MRI? I don’t think so. If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If  evil confronts brain tissue preserved in a Petri dish,  can the microscope perceive the evil? Can evil even pervade a brain cell that’s  disconnected from a conscious, thinking thing? Can MRI or fMRI  imaging determine where the impulse came from that started the hallucination, and determine whether it’s real or illusion? No, yet research continues.

Carl Jung developed new theories as a result of his visions and the voices. Einstein redesigned the concept of time relativity from his visions.   Black Elk saw his future and worked to unite his people.  The difference between these men of genius and Jared Loughner is they opened dialogue with the visions, and learned from the experience. Science has advanced rapidly and far in many areas, but not to the point that a scientist can find evil on a  fMRI and open dialogue. The Senoi believe that the evil spirits in the dream world are disturbing images that the dreamer can change. Van Gogh painted. Stevenson wrote.  Jung applied critical thinking and developed analytical psychology. But Jared Loughner, however, and despite all the warning signs,went out, bought a gun and went on a shooting spree. Can a  fMRI answer the important question- why? Why shoot people? What is it about damage to the amygdala, for example, that a makes a person violent? Shouldn’t we be more than that?

Opening a dialectic dialogue with the visions and/or voices may well be the difference between sanity and insanity, or at least bridge a path to balanced mental health in the process.  But I wonder how many (nonviolent) geniuses did talk to their visions and were locked away as “crazy” people? I wonder how many crazy people who were locked away would have been famous artists, writers, philosophers, inventors or scientists, etc. if they had a support system. Does being willing to talk to visions, the good and the evil, make you eccentric, or is it an act of lucid genius?  Is it the willingness to face the charge of eccentricity that makes a genius a Genius?   Dialogue is no assurance of mental health, in fact it may well make matters far worse, but it is the first step to stability.  Balance comes with control; control comes with clarity. Lucidity and the ability to discern real from delusion, right from wrong, good from evil, and as the Senoi practice, are necessary to control the outcome. The outcome varies, because every person, as an individual, finds answers within their own individuation.  The list is long:  Joan of Arc fought for France and became a national hero.  Edgar Allen Poe struggled, but wrote. Franz Kafka gave warnings. Van Gogh painted starry skies but it wasn’t enough; he shot himself.  Jung took control, kept a journal, wrote and illustrated the now published Red Book.  Mark Vonnegut wrote, not one book, but two and turned out to be a fine medical doctor. Why did he make it; why is he different from so many who do not make it?

For answers, scientists need to research outside the box and look at the person and the disease from the whole perspective.  As for taking control for one’s life, in the manner of a Senoi changing the disturbing images that plague them, would not that change be found in teaching the patient how to remap the brain, to close the doors through which the undesirable images and voices find their entry?  I tend to be a student of the psychologists who think we are intelligent human beings and do have the ability to direct our brain, and in doing so direct our life.  The first step for the researchers  would require admitting that thoughts exist outside the physical brain, but I’m not sure if they’re ready for that step.


Because hallucinations and visions are experienced with so much emotion they seem more real than life and it becomes difficult to discern what is reality and what is not. The movie skates along that overlap of reality and vision.

Can nightmares drive a person to insanity, to the point he sees visions?

When nightmares become real, what is the difference between nightmares, visions, and reality?

Music by Max Richter: The Nature of Daylight

Link to music and video  clip

from Shutter Island

I read Mark’s first book years ago- I don’t recall details about it except by the story’s  end I was in full throttle rooting for the underdog to make it; and he did. It wasn’t funny. This memoir, however, is filled with light-hearted humor- the kind that comes with age or wisdom- and simple aphorisms- the kind you can live your life by.

I like the memoir, Only More So,  for three reasons. One, he and the topic are interesting which adds up to a story I’d like to hear. Two, I’m a big fan of his Dad’s work and Mark’s stories about his parents, scattered throughout the book, add to the layers that make the book a good read.  I must say that it’s good therapy to  understand an important topic, like insanity and how it effects the  greater family, when the story telling is sprinkled with humor. I came to a deeper understanding of what’s possible and what isn’t for  a family with a history of mental illness. Three, I’m interested in the fine line between insanity  and genius, sanity and insanity:  visions (good)  and visions (bad); voices (good) voices  (bad.) How do we know which is which?

The best advice comes early in the book. When the young Mark  confessed he wanted to kill himself, his mother informed him that was too bad because she was depending on him getting together with the other suicidal ten year olds so they could go about saving the world. Thankfully, the young Vonnegut took his mother’s advice to heart and is making the world better, one person at a time.

Hopefully someone with an eye for relevance is pulling out Vonnegut’s aphorisms, the quotables and the paradoxes and binding them together under  a title of Words to Live By.