Monday, 28 July 2008


I took a few days holiday last week and went for some solitary walks and cycle rides in the country. Used to walking with other people, I found, perhaps predictably, it difficult to find a suitable pace: instead either walking as fast as I could or, realising this, dawdling to an extent that put a post-walk pint at risk.

More interestingly, however, a lack of social calibration also has an effect on my emotional state. The isolated splendour of the eastern flanks (pictured) of Yoke and Ill Bell, overlooking the Kentmere Reservoir, produced alternating happiness and melancholy which would normally be smoothed out by conversational banter.

This reminded me of an experience I once had which gives me some sort of insight into Maher’s account of delusion. The idea is that in everyday life we can have what Maher calls ‘primary feelings of significance’. Based on Jaspers’ distinction between primary and secondary delusions, Maher calls these primary because they are directly experiential. Maher suggests that we normally refer to these by a variety of phrases such as ‘feeling of awareness’ ‘mood’, ‘atmosphere’, ‘feeling of significance’ and ‘feeling of conviction’. But the particular quality he is targeting is of an experience that something significant or important has occurred, whatever it is. Because such feelings are primary, their very existence is a basic datum for further cognitive processing, further inferences to be drawn.

This forms the basis for a theory of delusions. Having a feeling of significance in a case that does not merit it, the subject then hypothesises some underlying change – the content of the delusion – to explain the feeling.

He gives an example from Kurt Schneider (1887-1967), a German psychiatrist who investigated schizophrenia, of a patient who reported that:

A dog lay in wait for me as he sat on the steps of a Catholic convent. He got up on his hind legs and looked at me seriously. He saluted with his front paw as I approached him. Another man was a little way in front of me. I caught up to him hurriedly, and asked if the dog had saluted him too. An astonished ‘No’ told me that I had to deal with a revelation addressed to me. [Schneider 1959: 105]

Some years ago, I was driving from Leamington to Cambridge to teach a course on Wittgenstein. I was suffering from a kind of writer’s block at the time and was probably under some stress. I suddenly ‘realised’ that something was wrong with the car and pulled over. But when I stopped there was nothing apparently amiss: neither on the dials nor by a look at the engine (I went through the motions of opening the bonnet  hood but quite what I would have done I am not sure). Only then did I realise that what had actually happened was that I’d suffered a wave of anxiety and simply assumed that the reason for this was a perception of something wrong with the car.

Of course, social calibration makes this sort of error much less likely. People who manage to spend large periods alone – like Jack Kerouac’s jobs as a US forestry fire warden – without suffering from the effects of no social calibration are very impressive.