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Doing unusual things for simple reasons

May 26, 2018

When a person does unusual things, the reason is sometimes simpler than it seems.

Here's the illustration that often comes to my mind.  Several years ago, I was visiting Santa Barbara, the town where I'd gone to graduate school.  I'd booked a room in an economical motel near the beach. When I arrived, the very large man at the front desk checking me in was the owner. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and had that laid-back Santa Barbara personality that you don't come across often in New York City.  When I got to the room, I saw tropical designs on the walls.  Over the next several days, when I'd leave my room and pass through the lobby, I'd always see the owner there wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a friendly smile.

A few evenings later, Rosa and I were in a club listening to live music, and we got to chatting with the guy at the table next to us. We told him we were visiting Santa Barbara, and he asked where we were staying.  I told him about the motel and the nice owner. "Heavy-set guy?  That's Gus. I've known him for years," the man said.  I mentioned the relaxing tropical vibe of the place. I added that every day I'd seen the owner he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

"Yes.  Gus used to always tell me how hard it was to find shirts that fit his size.  Several years ago, he discovered a place that sells Hawaiian shirts, and now it's easy for him to buy shirts that fit."

I imagine Gus also likes the laid-back look of the Hawaiian shirts which fit his personality as well as his torso.  But I sometimes think of Gus and remember that the choices we make often have simple reasons behind them.

More about schizophrenia and everyday life

Jan 27, 2018

The week after Tomiwa told me hears voices, I talked to my class (200-plus students) about schizophrenia. It wasn't the meeting with Tomiwa that prompted me to bring it up. It was scheduled on the syllabus to come up that next week.

After the lecture, a student comes to my office.  This guy's one of my favorites.  I'll call him "Bob". He's a musician, like me; kind of a lost soul, also like me  -- especially at his age.  He tells me he was interested during the lecture when I mentioned that people with schizophrenia sometimes see hidden meaning in things -- like thinking the TV announcer is conveying a message directly to you.

"But aren't meaningful coincidences sometimes meaningful?" he asked.  People often have a sense of meaningful coincidences in everyday life.  For instance, you're thinking of a friend you knew from years ago, and later that day the phone rings and the person's on the phone. It's common to see the events as linked in some meaningful way. 

I told Bob that, of course, I have no special insight about whether they're 'meaningful' in that sense. I told him that when I lived in California, I met a lot of people who were always on the lookout for meaningful coincidences.  Much more so than in NYC. I told him about the time I was walking with some friends in a mountainous area near San Francisco looking for a cafe'. When we turned the corner and saw a cafe', one of them looked up at the sky and said "Thank you, Universe."  Psychologists sometimes call this 'magical thinking'. There's nothing abnormal about it. (There is some evidence for an increased risk of schizophrenia among those who engage in magical thinking. But the vast majority of those who engage in magical thinking never suffer psychosis.) 

Bob tells me that he recently had what felt like a meaningful coincidence.  He'd been majoring in engineering at City College (here we just say "City"). Engineering wasn't for him.  He wasn't doing well in his courses, and didn't enjoy the work.  But he couldn't get himself to change majors. In part, it was that he didn't want to disappoint his parents. One day in the subway on his way home from City College, a homeless man holding a bag stumbled, the bag fell to the ground, and a book on Engineering fell out.  Bob saw it as a sign that sticking with engineering wouldn't end well for him. (The guy appeared to be homeless after all.)  It's what helped Bob finally decide to switch majors.

"What do you think about that?" he asked, meaning whether he'd really experienced a sign that day in the subway.  I told him that it sounded to me like he was already leaning toward dropping engineering before he got on the subway, but couldn't quite pull the trigger on the decision.  It seemed likely to me that the man in the subway had the Engineering book with him for reasons completely his own, and really wasn't there to provide a sign. Having said that, I can understand why it would feel so meaningful, and how it bolstered his resolve to switch majors.   Whether these kinds of coincidences are forced by the universe, of course I don't know - but it wouldn't be my assumption.

We talked about the fact that we often have to make decisions in life -- like staying with a field of study or a job we don't like. A change can feel risky.  Often we don't have enough information to know whether a particular decision will be best, and sometimes we have to make decisions without knowing.  Seeing that book fall from the homeless guy's bag helped Bob to go with his gut and make a change.  It was a helpful event. But it might also be good -- and of more lasting value -- for him to become more comfortable making those difficult decisions, the ones that feel right, even without a sign from above (or below, or inside, or wherever).

An Unusual Meeting

Dec 26, 2017

I was walking down the hallway to my office at City College, I saw a student from west Africa who'd taken a class with me. "Hello Professor" he said, smiling.   When I'm in the Psychology building, I often bump into students who've been in my class because one of my classes "Brain, Mind, and Experience" has over 200 students.  This student had a large shaved head and a kind face.   

"I was in your class and I received an A" he told me.

"That's great," I said.  I asked him his name, and we shook hands. Here I'll call him Tomiwa.

Soon I received an email from Tomiwa.  "Dear Professor, I saw you in the hallway last week. I told you I'd received an 'A' in your class, and you were delighted. I am applying to medical school and was wondering if you would write me a letter of recommendation."

I don't know about "delighted", but I did want to help. I emailed him that perhaps we could meet, and he could tell me more about himself before I write him the letter.  When we met, I learned that he arrived with his father to the United States when he was a teenager.   His mother and brother were already here.  He took courses at a community college in NYC, did well, and transferred to City College. He told me his interest in medicine came from seeing several of his family members deal with serious medical difficulties.  I liked him a lot, and told him to come back the next week for his letter of recommendation.

He showed up the next week, and I gave him the letter in a sealed envelope.  It spoke of a young man from Africa, mature and kind, who overcame difficulties to live and study in New York with great success.  "Thank you," he said.  "And professor, there's something else I wanted to tell you."

Sitting at a small round wood table in my office, he smiled and said "I wanted to tell you that I hear voices".  I looked at him and nodded as nonchalantly as I could, as if he'd told me that he likes his eggs poached rather than fried.  "Are you hearing them now?" I asked him.

"No.  I take a medication."

"And that reduces the voices?"

"Yes," he said.

We talked for about ten minutes about his experience with the voices, we shook hands, and he said goodbye.