Nonsense and the human experience


Much Madness is Divinest Sense

by Emily Dickinson

Much Madness is divinest Sense —

To a discerning Eye —

Much Sense — the starkest Madness —

’Tis the Majority

In this, as All, prevail —

Assent — and you are sane —

Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —

And handled with a Chain —


To be in the world is to be constantly and mercilessly bombarded with INFORMATION.

Much of it is consumerist in nature, meaning that it is specifically designed to reach us at sub- and semi-conscious levels, to inspire uncontrollable urges to buy or in some other way partake. The visual stimuli pasted on billboards, springing up as deformed and manipulative forests on the outskirts of every major American city; on buses, slantingly reflected in the windows of the buildings they pass; wrapped around the food we eat, woven into the fabric of our post-industrial lives – it’s not an easy wilderness to negotiate.

To do so successfully requires an ability to interpret, to make sense of things.  Given an incomplete dataset, can you infer the rest, and come to a conclusion?

You know what these say, right?
These “making sense of nonsense” skills, most likely developed during our eat-or-be-eaten days, are essential to survival – then and now.  Then: a faint scent of predator on the breeze, a rustling sound from an apparently empty field – put the pieces together and save your own life.

Now: living often as though “under siege” in our mad society – the strange and sometimes terrible machinations of this industrial machine need to make sense to us!

Thankfully, they most often do; as Emily Dickinson so nicely put it, much madness is sense to a discerning eye.  In other words, it all depends on how you look at it, what context you can see, what history you can trace.  Even the most illogical occurrences (like Astra-Zenca, post-$250 billion-off-label-marketing lawsuit, still referring to Seroquel as an “antidepressant”) can become understandable given that all-important information.

A philosophical question

IS there truly such a thing as naturally-occurring nonsense?  [Nonsense being defined as “a communication in what appears to be a human language or other symbolic system that does not in fact carry any identifiable meaning.”]  Sure, human code jammers during WWII would produce nonsense “white noise” in hopes that the enemy would get stuck trying to decode that, but is nature capable of such deception?

And if it were, what would happen when a human being – bent on putting incomplete pictures together into sensical wholes – comes across one of these naturally-occurring  pieces of nonsense?

Well, it would be very problematic.  Even if you rationally recognize it as nonsense, that doesn’t stop the instinctual part of you from struggling unceasingly to make sense of the thing.  In the 1950s, BF Skinner [please, don’t interpret this as an endorsement!] did an interesting experiment.  He made a recording of randomly selected phonemes (sound bytes used in the production of language).  It was played to participants sitting behind a rather thick partition, so that they would not hear it 100% clearly.  What he found was that most participants reported hearing their native language, and some could even repeat specific sentences they heard.  [Compare this to the innumerable theories about the messages you will “hear” when you play certain records backwards.  Very similar, I think.]

The mind will attempt make sense of nonsense.  It’s what we do.  And if it can’t achieve sense or meaning of some kind, we will cycle, again and again…

RD Laing argued rather convincingly that this (he calls it the “double bind”) can be a trigger for so-called “schizophrenic episodes.”  This is especially so with children.  [A fascinating explanation of the double bind theory expounded on by a Laingian can be found here.]

Too much sense

On the other end of the spectrum is the very real (and terrifying!) problem of things making too much sense.  In other words, finding confirmation in public and other seemingly impossible places for ideas that originate in your head:

At some point I started to think the radio was talking to me, and I started reading all these really deep meanings in the billboards downtown and on the highways that no one else was seeing.  I was convinced there were subliminal messages everywhere trying to tell a small amount of people that the world was about to go through drastic changes and we needed to be ready for it.  People would talk to me and I was obsessed with the idea that there was this whole other language underneath what we thought we were saying that everyone was using without even realizing it.

(Sascha Altman DuBrul, from the Icarus Project’s Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness)

One could look at this “manic” behavior as confirmation bias gone awry (or even just “going, going, going…”)

Confirmation bias: the human tendency to collect information that confirms our opinions, theories, or partial reconstructions of incomplete pictures in our world, and to throw out evidence that doesn’t support them.

As human beings, we are all subject to it, and to a certain extent, it is incredibly helpful.  After all, it takes conviction to make sense of this world and its dangers.  If you spend too much time questioning whether or not you really do smell predator, you’re basically dead meat.

"I don't CARE if you thought it smelled like flowers, Phil; just GO!"
So if your point of departure was a theory that “the opposite sex just doesn’t find me attractive,” and you were constantly on the lookout for corroborating evidence – odds are pretty good that you would find it, all around you.  Doesn’t matter that this is highly unlikely – there’s someone out there for everyone – you may come to believe it fervently, self-destructively.  You may come to cling to that belief for all sorts of reasons.

The same goes for someone whose starting point is “the world will end soon and I am one of the few who knows about it.”

Embrace the “mad;” they are part of the continuum of human experience

Stigma and discrimination against the mentally ill are founded on the idea that the “mentally ill” are somehow OTHER, that they are cut off from the rest of humanity by their experiences which are fundamentally not human.

It just isn’t so.  The experiences of the “mentally ill” may be extreme, but they are connected directly to experiences that all humans share.  Making sense of nonsense and confirmation bias are just two examples.

Folks, this is REALLY GOOD NEWS!

Why?  Because even if you’ve never had a psychotic episode, a manic phase, even if you’ve never experienced hallucinations or mind-numbing depression – you can relate!  You don’t need to react in fear, because this is not entirely the unknown.

Instead, you can utilize your compassion and ability to empathize.  You can respond in the way that you would like to be responded to if the roles were reversed.  And, by giving your support, person-to-person, to a friend in need you can help just as much (if not more) than a certified “professional.” *

We humans were made to achieve homeostasis/balance/wellness, not as individuals, but together, across the entire continuum of human experience. Everyone should be included in the loving embrace of this life-affirming process.

[to make comment, visit the original post here]

*If you don’t believe me, read a little bit about the work of Dr. Loren Mosher and Soteria House.

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