Delusions are a common symptom of schizophrenia and were once thought to reflect the poor reasoning abilities of a broken brain. More recently, a growing number of physicians and scientists have opted for a different explanation. According to this model, patients first experience the surprising and mysterious perceptual disturbances that result from their illness. These could be full-blown hallucinations or they could be subtler abnormalities, like the inability to ignore a persistent noise. Patients then adopt delusions in a natural (if misguided) attempt to explain their odd experiences.
An intriguing study from the early 1960s illustrates how rapidly delusions can develop in healthy subjects when expectations and perceptions inexplicably conflict.
The study, run on 20 college students at the University of Copenhagen, involved a version of the trick now known as the rubber hand illusion. Each subject was instructed to trace a straight line while his or her hand was inside a box with a secret mirror. For several trials, the subject watched his or her own hand trace the line correctly. Then the experimenters surreptitiously changed the mirror position so that the subject was now watching someone else’s hand trace the straight line – until the sham hand unexpectedly veered off to the right. All of the subjects experienced the visible (sham) hand as their own and felt that an involuntary movement had sent it off course. After several trials with this misbehaving hand, the subjects offered explanations for the deviation. Some chalked it up to their own fatigue or inattention while others came up with wilder, tech-based explanations:
[F]ive subjects described that they felt something strange and queer outside themselves, which pressed their hand to the right or resisted their free mobility. They suggested that ‘magnets,’ ‘unidentified forces,’ ‘invisible traces under the paper,’ or the like, could be the cause.
In other words, delusions may be a normal reaction to the unexpected and inexplicable. Under strange enough circumstances, anyone might develop them – but some of us are more likely to than others.