What makes a conspiracy theorist and what makes a poet? Could it be the same psychological phenomenon manifesting differently in different minds, in different environments? I suspect that dissociation at a subclinical level, which has been implicated in suggestibility or openness to hypnosis, as well as in credulous belief of paranormal phenomena, also contributes to the creative processes of poetry and other art. Most of us, poet, conspiracy theorist or neither, have likely occasionally experienced mild feelings of unreality during which the world seems dreamlike or hazy: a manifestation of dissociation at subclinical levels.
Mathew J. Sharps, a cognitive psychologist at California State University, Fresno, is interested in the hows and whys of outlandish and supernatural beliefs and the tendency of some people to hold on to them even in the face of clear contrary evidence. I was precipitated in my current flight of fancy by an article in which he lays out a basic four-part jigsaw of psychological factors necessary to this “true believer” syndrome. True believers wend confusingly but predictably throughout written history. The documentation and study of their natural history is vast and I have no designs on trying to delve too deeply into the purview of doctors of psychology. In their areas of expertise I am a dilettante at best. I am interested primarily in only one ingredient of this particular recipe: subclinical dissociative tendencies. Nonetheless, I think it’s worthwhile to take a moment to define all four before I sift more precisely through the grist of my wondering.
After subclinical dissociation, the second ingredient in successful conspiracy theorizing is gestalt processing. Sharps proposes a continuum in human information processing, which he calls Gestalt/Feature-Intensive Processing Theory. Gestalt processing does not concern itself with detailed consideration of subjects and is easily and uncritically satisfied by only nominally explored ideas. At the other end of the continuum, feature-intensive processing, which is at least part of the bane of true believer syndrome, could probably be just as easily referred to as critical thinking and consists of parsing the specific details of a concept.
The third ingredient is cognitive dissonance, the name of which dates back to the 1950’s. It arose from a study of members of a cult, whose beliefs counterintuitively strengthened after a prophesied apocalyptic UFO landing failed to occur. In other words, cognitive dissonance is a sharp resistance to rejection of a highly invested-in idea. The final ingredient, the availability heuristic, was first defined in the early 1970’s and describes how the relative rate of dissemination of concepts, for instance in media, influences the degree of importance a person places on a concept.
My hunch is that overlap between conspiracy theorists and poets occurs at subclinical dissociation, which Sharps defines as a “diminished critical assessment of reality.” Subclinical dissociative tendency can be measured on the same scale as clinical dissociation, though unlike its more disabling counterpart it does not indicate mental illness. The Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) was developed as a screening tool for uncovering possible dissociative identity disorder. It consists of 28 statements, to each of which respondents assign a score between 0 and 100, indicating the percentage of time they engage in a dissociative behavior.
With regard to my own subclinical dissociation, I especially relate to the 28th and final item on the DES: “Some people sometimes feel as if they are looking at the world through a fog, so that people and objects appear far away or unclear.” This low-level dissociation is necessary to my writing poetry. It feels like unfocusing my eyes in just the right way to see the images hidden in autostereograms, which has always been easy for me. Since childhood I’ve sometimes blurred my vision that way when looking other things also: the pattern of knit fabric; tiny holes poked in leather or plastic; a print of paisley or tessellated leaves. I unfocus very slightly and get an impression of seeing around and through an object, the perception of depth where it doesn’t necessarily exist.
Unfocus your entire mind in a similar manner and interesting patterns of thought and perception pop out at you. This same sensation can extend further beyond the body so that it seems that if you unfocus your eyes just right, you’ll see another world behind and beyond the optical illusions inherent in sight. Describe these with words and sometimes you have poetry.
On the other hand, I am an inveterate skeptic. Perhaps this is a result of my processing trending more toward feature-intensive than gestalt, or maybe it was learned. It’s comforting to me to assume that the application of skepticism is by and large a learned process; that means the more people who are taught critical thinking, the fewer conspiracy theorists abound. However, Sharps points out that he conducts his studies on college students who, despite regularly engaging in critical thinking and scientific evaluation of data, sometimes also engage in full-stop credulity. We don’t know the exact cocktail of brainwaves involved in brewing a conspiracy theorist, so it seems worth wondering if shifting the use of subclinical dissociative tendencies to creative pursuits could help to redirect an individual away from a tendency to credulity and supernaturalism.
I wonder whether my use of subclinical dissociation to create dreamlike poetry has shielded me from otherwise becoming a conspiracy theorist? Has poetry somehow saved me from becoming a ghost hunter or UFO fanatic? Is it why, despite my dissociative tendencies, I have never assumed I had a special insight into reality that those without dissociative tendencies are missing? Could teaching poetry-writing to other subclinical dissociaters similarly inoculate some of them against credulity, especially if paired with training in skeptical thinking? It is my instinct to say yes, especially when noting that regularly writing poetry seems to facilitate my own capacity for pattern recognition and critical information processing in a manner similar to the regular practice of mathematics.
Featured Image: Conspiracy Theories Galore | (c) Exile on Ontario Street
Reprinted with permission
Suggested Further Reading:
Kihlstrom, J. F. (2005). Dissociative Disorders. http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/DisDis_ARCP2005.htm
Novella, S. (2007). NeuroLogica Blog » The Fantasy Prone Personality. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-fantasy-prone-personality/
 Sharps, M.J., S.W. Liao, and M.R. Herrera. 2014. Remembrance of apocalypse past: The psychology of true believers when nothing happens. Skeptical Inquirer 38(6). http://www.csicop.org/si/show/remembrance_of_apocalypse_past/