Pillars of Madness: Part II, Distracting Automatisms

Part II

There are four extraordinarily useful ideas amid the massive tangle of publications on madness, these contributed by four men of genius in the practice of studying and changing seemingly irrational human actions—

[1] The Temperament Base of Madness (Ernst Kretschmer)
[2] Distracting Automatisms (Pierre Janet)
[3] Role Casting Control (Jay Haley)
[4] Disarming Confessions (Alfred Adler)

[2] Distracting Automatisms

The second idea comes from a long line of trance investigators, beginning with Maxwell, a Scottish medic of the late 17th century, and ending with Milton Erickson, an American medic of the mid 20th century. Their collective contribution to solving the mystery of madness is that in order to carry out an absurdly deviant act we have to go into a trance state and stay in it, no matter how long it takes, until the act is completed. If the act is interrupted in mid-course, we must start over at the beginning. Whatever form our madness takes, it cannot be executed save through the medium of the trance. Puisègeur called these trances “somnambulisms” because they resembled sleepwalking, and later Pierre Janet called them “automatisms” because entranced action resembles an automaton carrying out a programmed sequence, such as a ritual. Indeed, what Janet called automatisms, anthropologist James Frazer called rituals.

Our distracting rituals take the form of absurd distortion of family conventions. Our distortions are unintentionally and involuntarily calibrated to be just absurd enough to distract our companions from measuring our worthiness. Note that unintentional and involuntary action is taken while in a trance state.

Twisting the customs, conventions, and traditions is so distracting to our companions that they inadvertently forget to consider our worthiness. The greater the distortion the greater the distracting effect; Unfortunately the greater the distracting effect the more likely there will be a negative response in some form of censure. The degree of absurdity of our distortion of norms induces our companions to get after us to change our ways.

While the unwitting purpose for absurd rituals is distraction, the effect of being distracted so forcefully by such absurd twists is involuntary annoyance. Thus in distracting our companions we inadvertently annoy them, annoyance being a side effect. They in turn inadvertently lash out at us in some manner and in some degree despite our sense of innocence. Thus we are mistreated for our absurd rituals even though we can’t help it.

By getting our companions to accuse us of malice we can honestly say that such accusations are unwarranted, this because we know that we can’t help doing what we are doing even though what we do is absurd. We cannot control our absurd ritual because we go into a trance state to execute it. For this reason, in our view, we are being unjustly ill-treated.

Such unjust ill-treatment is very stressful to us and eventually makes us assume that it is the cause rather than the effect of our absurd ritual. In other words, it makes sense to us that we act badly because we’re treated badly. That’s the big switch. Now, it is not that we twist conventions to force ill-treatment; rather we twist conventions because of ill-treatment. We are, so to speak, “driven to drink” by our carping and harping companions. Were it not for incessant accusation by our companions we would have no reason to engage in hysterics, or in obsessions, or in depressions, or in impulsions. This gives us an excuse for our absurd rituals.

Therefore there remains no mystery in madness. Of course we must act in character even when our absurd ritual is disconcerting to our companions. Of course those of us who harbor a deep sense of unworthiness that survived our childhood don’t want to be reminded of it or for others to find us out, must protect ourselves from being found out. Of course no one would randomly act in an absurdly distorted way, so we must be “out of our mind”—in a trance—when we act so. And of course we must keep tight control of the roles we play in our social context lest our secret comes to light.

Better, then, that we be seen as mad than that we be seen as unworthy. Better that our obvious irresponsibility in failing to meet the challenges of life be because of madness, than because of unworthiness. Thus we escape from responsibility.

Suppose we were to refer to the many kinds of absurd rituals that we call madness as “social arrangements” instead of “mental disorders.” Then we could cease the fruitless search for damaged flesh or unbalanced fluids to blame for so-called mental disorders, and take up the more fruitful search for the differing social arrangements that the differing kinds of madness entail.

Let me put it another way. If we insist that there are mental as well as physical disorders, why look for the perpetrator of disorder in the brain? The problem is not whether the disorder is physical, since human action, whether well-ordered or dis-ordered, is something the body does. Every move we make requires a brain, both our senses and muscles being under its constant control. The problem is, rather, whether or not apparent disorder is actual disorder. Poets and scientists have jointly proposed that underlying apparent mental dis-ordering is concealed social re-ordering; that overt mental illness conceals a kind of covert social wellness.

In other words, seemingly meaningless mental de-range-ment is logically meaningful social ar-range-ment. By the way, the word ‘arrangement’ is something to consider with care. What it means is that things are put together in an orderly manner, so what looks like total disorder is underneath it all a satisfying order, satisfying, that is, to the arranger, if not to the observer, of what appears to be derangement of the so-called “mind”.

There was another line of enquiry that paralleled that of Schopenhauer, Adler, and Haley. The latter three made it possible for us to understand madness more than ever before, while the other line of inquiry made it possible for us to do something about madness in a remarkable manner. The first glimmer of how to manage madness, oddly enough, was told us at the same time Schopenhauer told us of the function of madness. Bertrand, in a massive tome, said madness occurs when someone is in a trance, so those who know how to bring about and manage trance states can at least study madness, if not correct it. And, again oddly enough, a contemporary of Adler, that is, Janet, demonstrated that counselors can induce their clients to engage in their repertoire of absurd rituals upon the counselor’s suggestion. Again, as in the case of the forty year interval between Adler and Haley, there was such an interval between Janet and his heir, Milton Erickson. For Erickson and Haley worked closely together for ten years and came up with the fantastic idea that counselors can relieve clients of their “symptoms” by “prescribing” them, an idea implicit in Janet’s and Adler’s methods, now explicit in Erickson’s. Note that the symptoms that Erickson prescribed were not symptoms of “mental illness” but distracting rituals in support of defensive roles.

So the line of reasoning that began with Schopenhauer and Bertrand, and was taken up and extended by Adler and Janet, and later by Haley and Erickson, ended in both a powerful way to manage absurd rituals and an understanding of such rituals as tactical messages designed to get others to see one as irrational rather than unworthy. It is less demoralizing to be seen by others (and by oneself) as irrational than seen by others (and by oneself) as unworthy—better to play a senseless role than a valueless role.


About Keirsey

Dr. David Mark Keirsey is a scientist that is interested in how and why the world works. The first half of his professional career was as a Computer Scientist, specializing in Artificial Intelligence. Notably, he was part of a team who created the software for the first operation of an autonomous cross-country robotic vehicle. In the current latter part of his career, he has broaden his interest to include all of science, mathematics, computation, and the history and future of the world. His plan is to write at least three books, two of which are tentatively called Mathematics Itself and Existence Itself. The third is a book on Leadership. Currently he is part of a web-based company, Keirsey.com to develop interactive team and human personality tools based on his father's best-selling work on human temperament. He is a Architect Rational in temperament.
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4 Responses to Pillars of Madness: Part II, Distracting Automatisms

  1. Pam says:

    Better to be ‘seen’ irrational’ than ‘unworthy’. Yes. Brilliant work.

  2. Pingback: Pillars of Madness: Part III, Role Casting Control | Professor Keirsey's Blog

  3. Pingback: The Pillars of Madness: Part I, Temperament Base of Madness | Professor Keirsey's Blog

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