Reality perception:    SANITY AND MADNESS

Namitha Babu, Psychologist.

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –

Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail –

Assent – and you are sane –

Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –

And handled with a Chain –

                                           -Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, in her poem renders what it means to be ‘mad’ or in ‘sense’ from the societal perspectives. This poem discloses that the perception of madness and sanity differs in people and in cultures. As Tim Burton quotes “One person’s craziness is another person’s

reality.” This throws light on the fact that what madness is for one person, may not be madness for the other and what others perceive as  madness may not be somebody else’s. What are the essential features of sanity and madness? “Probably, the notion of calling

emotional illness moral insanity would never have been conceived, if first the attempt had been made to summarize all the shortcomings of values and motives met among normal people. Then, it might have been discovered that every individual has his own insanity”

(Vygotsky, 1993, p. 37;emphasis in original). With this remark he mentioned that every individual have their own distinct behaviours that makes it difficult to draw boundaries between being sane or insane. The word ‘madness’ itself is a very ambiguous term (Pietikainen,2015).  Madness is the old colloquial term for what is now mental illness according to the psychologists. But for the layman, a behaviour that is impulsive and outrageous that breaks the canons can be called as madness. In today’s western society, any behaviour that is unusual or culturally unacceptable is considered madness. A person is labelled as mad or insane most of the time simply because he could not fit in to the societal norms. Whereas sanity can be considered as the state of being mentally sound and in harmony. But, where is the line to be drawn between being sane and insane? Sanity represents do’s of the society and madness represents the don’ts of the society. Sanity in general talks about the healthy way of living whereas madness could be the consequence of unhealthy living. Every individual would learn about the guidelines of life style or norms through the culture they belong to. These norms are generally based on humanitarian grounds, they would basically differ in terms of practices. Certain practices seem to be normal to one culture and not normal to another culture. But many a time, it is the normalcy according to the culture’s or according to people that drives us insane. Why do we need the sociocultural norms that we follow? The cultures or social norms are made in such a way that nobody is harmed. Culture has been playing a major role in having peace and harmony among people, which is connected to the sanity of people. Culture is one of the biggest support system for a human in need, but can also have an adverse effect on the psyche of a person. Culture also has laws, which define the right and wrong behaviour of an individual. These are the laws which help to maintain sanctity in the society. As seen among people, the struggle to follow norms or laws by resolving the internal issues would give rise to conflict in an individual. Unresolved conflicts would make way for insanity.  The question arises that should we consider sanity in terms of practices or madness being the difference in these practices? It would be difficult to differentiate between sanity and madness as the line between is too thin. Sanity and madness substantially depends on the onlooker’s perception. For instance, a person who appear naked on the street, can be considered as a madman because of the indecorous behaviour that is against the norms of the society. On the contrary, the aforementioned behaviour can be considered normal by a person who does it for publicity (e.g. Lady Godiva who was a 13th century noblewoman, rode naked on a horse only covered in her hair for the suspension of the oppressive taxation that was imposed by her husband on his tenants) or for any sort of financial incentives. According to Foucault (Madness and Civilization, 1961), unreason was the cause of madness. He says that madness is not instinctual in a human being but it stems from unreason. It was thus, an outward appearance of an inner problem (Krause, J.A, 2009). Foucault also says that madness can only be conversed, and that it cannot be understood in any other ways other than from its own definitions. People’s idea or perceptions of madness changes as there are changes or advancements in cultures and civilizations.

     If we look at madness from the layman’s perspective, it could date back to the era of demonology and magic. When the behaviour of a person deviated from normal, or when a person was enraged, people believed he/she was possessed with the spirit of either good or bad depending on the person’s behaviour. The treatment that was given for demonic possession was exorcism that included magic and prayers. The idea of madness and mental illness came forth during the period of Hippocrates. It was a turning point to the history of madness as it was during this period that the various forms of madness as well as manytreatment methods were developed. Later in the middle ages, abnormal behaviours were grouped in to events called  mass madness, tarantism, St. Vitus dance,  lycanthropy,  witchcraft, folly and exorcism. These events were later identified as mass hysteria caused due to fear, depression, mysticism and lack of awareness. Towards the latter part of the middle ages, scientific revolution outshined the superstitious beliefs and people based their

beliefs on reasoning which attributed superstitious and mystic beliefs as madness.     The concept of madness varies according to different cultures and beliefs. People’s perception of madness largely depends on the cultures they belong to. So does sanity. The term sanity is an abstraction. It is basically behaving according to the cultural norms. Madness according to cultures can be explained in terms of the superstitious beliefsfollowed in different cultures across the world. For example, the expression of the black cat crossing your path is considered as a symbol of good luck in Britain and Japan. At the same time in the United States as well as other European countries, it is considered as bad luck and in India, it is considered to harm your work, health and wealth. For a person who bases his belief system on reasoning may find these practices absurd and might plainly label this as madness. In India, there are many superstitions that are linked to astrology, animals, witchcraft, man gods, sexuality and others. The religious ascetics in India who wander in the forests and chain themselves to trees are worshipped because they have mystical significance

in their speech and they appear to be religious. This is justifiable in the Hindu religion and culture of India. But to a person who is from a different cultural and religious background this probably could be madness. And in psychological terms this could be mental illness which can be categorized under delusional disorders. Madness according to cultures can be explained in terms of the superstitious beliefs. In the Indian Hindu astrology, a person who is born under the influence of the planet Mars, is considered to have ‘Mangal Dosha’. A person born under this condition is called a Manglik. It is believed to be unfavourable for marriages because mars is the ‘fiery’ planet and people born under this condition is considered to be aggressive and conflictive. Also, if two mangliks marry, the negative effects are believed to be cancelled out. People do poojas and mantras which are basically prayers to reduce this effect.

   There are also culture-specific disorders that are well known in anthropological literature. Yap in 1962 introduced the phrase “atypical culture-bound, psychogenic psychosis” which later came to be known as culture-bound syndrome. Culture-bound syndrome (CBS) can be attributed to patterns of psychosocial distress that emerges within or is bound by a particular culture or cultural context. The missionaries and ethnographers while converting and studying people, encountered unusual manifestations of psychological distress which the researchers labelled as ethnic psychosis. But there has been no single agreed-upon definition for CBSs and is still being argued-upon by the scholars. One good example of the CBS is the Latah syndrome from Malaysia and Indonesia which has its own set rules. This is a syndrome where people get repeatedly startled until they become extremely flustered. In this confused state, they say things that are obscene or disrespectful and also obey forceful commands given to them.

   Madness can also be explained in terms of gender differences. The phrase ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ plainly shows that there are differences between the genders. Men and women differs in all areas of life and that is what makes both the genders less understandable to each other.  An example that can be drawn out from our day to day lives is the premenstrual syndrome that occurs in women prior to their monthly cycle. A lot of physical as well as behavioural changes are seen in women during that time of the month. Women tend to be depressed or emotional or have anger outbursts. This behaviour most of the time, confuses men as they do not find any specific reason behind the moody behaviour. This is when the men consider the person belonging to the opposite gender as insane. On the other hand a very simple thing like men refusing to ask for directions when lost in their way can also be irritating and seen as an insane activity by women.    

 The question arises that should we give importance to insanity ignoring sanity? Do we stress more on madness than sanity? David G Myers has taken fact from “PsycInfo”, the electronic database of “Psychological Extracts” that for every twenty articles discussing negative emotions like prejudice, anxiety, anger, aggression, depression there is only one which deals with positive emotions like joy, satisfaction, happiness. Martin E P Seligman reports that for every hundred articles about sadness, there can be only one article found on happiness (Pluskota.2014). This shows that the emphasis is given more to the negative part than the positive aspects of life. Insanity can be considered as a mere deviant behaviour from sanity not losing the importance of sanity and its practice. Making sanity a conscious practice would avoid such unwanted deviant behaviours. If the difference between sanity and insanity

were to be clearly distinguished, then the legal term ‘temporary insanity’ would never have arisen. Should we consider ‘temporary insanity’ to be a normal or an insane behaviour?Temporary insanity is a term used by the accused for defence in a trial to state that he/she was briefly insane and lost touch with reality at the time of the crime. Temporary insanity is a legally accepted term and can be cited as a very good example to show that there can be times where every individual can act sane or insane according to the situations in life. For instance,  an Eritrean who claimed he shot a woman to defend himself against her witchcraft (Oliver 1988); and Chinese and Hmong men whose murder of their adulterous wives was excused as a culturally legitimate response (People v. Chen 1989, People v. Moua 1985b) The ones who will be able to win over the stressful situation could win sanity and the ones who can’t get through a stressful situation and can be driven away from reality could be considered insane in today’s society. Madness according to psychology is nothing that exists. Everything that was once madness is classified under mental illness now. But for the layman, it is the way they perceive and look at things that make them distinguish between the sane and the insane.


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