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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).

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