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Schizophrenia and Consciousness

Described in a sincere account as “a toxic tormenting sense of hopelessness, humiliation, and despair”, schizophrenia has haunted Eleanor Longden for her entire life. A one point, attempting to drill a hole her head to stop the voices, now PhD candidate Eleanor revealed to the world on August 8 2013 the stark truth behind schizophrenia and slow recovery.

“The voices were destined to become my persecutors and my only perceived companions. They told me if I proved myself worthy of their help then they could change my life back to how it had been… it was a kind of labour of Hercules”

While for many it is indeed “a psychic civil war” characterized by a breakdown in thought process and emotional responses, and known to include auditory hallucinations (often referred to as “the voices”), paranoid delusions, and disorganized thinking or speech (those with schizophrenia are often described as sounding like they are speaking kind of “world salad”), schizophrenia is also a brief window into the make-up of human consciousness. Typically occurring in young adulthood, accompanied by social or occupational dysfuntion, the disorder’s organic cause remains somewhat of a mystery.

It is clear schizophrenia has genetic, neurobiological, and psychological roots, combining together to cause a cognitive breakdown (that is, a breakdown in thought processes) often coupled with pathology in consciousness. In 2003 a paper proposed that the disorder was a disturbance of the self, characterized by diminished self-affection (a weakened sense of existing as a vital source of awareness) and hypereflexivity (exaggerated self-consciousness). More recently, research identified disturbances in coherent neural binding of brain activities produce the disintegration of consciousness we seen in schizophrenia.

The cause and mechanisms behind the disorder, however, remain the subject of great debate. There are certain symptoms related to non-clinical (that is, pre-schizophrenia) states, but it is unclear how specific these are to pre-schizophrenia populations, or where these symptoms stem from. A recent study by Saldias, Drake, and Marshall (2010) investigated the basic symptoms occurring in at risk of psychosis groups, and best predictors of symptoms using the Schizophrenia Proneness Instrument-Adult (SPIA) which is measure of basic but subtle symptoms of the disorder distinctly separate from those of psychosis.

In the study, neuropsychological tasks in at risk group failed to predict SPIA (that is to say, they failed to predict the basic symptoms of schizophrenia proneness); as did substance misuse and schizotype . Executive deficits and stress, however, were found to predict subjective cognitive failures, which are also a big indicator of basic symptoms in prodromal schizophrenia (prodromal meaning an early symptom that might indicate a later disorder).

What this means, then, is that executive deficits (executive functioning being involved in attention, self-regulation, and understanding the appropriateness of various tasks or speech in a social situation) and stress (both of which can cause cognitive failure — defined as simple errors in thought or cognition in tasks or situations that should be easy, are closely related to the basic symptoms of schizophrenia.


Louis A. Sass and Josef Parna. Schizophrenia, Consciousness, and the Self. Schizophr Bull 2003 29: 427-444.
Petr Bob, Consciousness, schizophrenia and complexity, Cognitive Systems Research, Volume 13, Issue 1, March 2012, Pages 87-94, ISSN 1389-0417
Saldias. A., Drake. R., Marshall. M., 2010. Poster 9. Basic Symptoms of Prodromal Schizophrenia in a non-clinical sample.

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