Most people have an aptitude for teamwork and instinctively know when constructive discussion and even new ideas are both welcome and socially advantageous. But some are not so fortunate. They live in a state of paranoid fear and dismiss conventional wisdom on most issues, often leading to obsessional interest in erudite subjects, sympathising with tyrants, downplaying atrocities and inventing absurd conspiracy theories. In synthesis they turn reality on its head, never believing anything emanating from respected mainstream sources.
Some delusional obsessions may be quite innocent, e.g. a woman from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is convinced that all modern ailments are caused by a ubiquitous sugar substitute. On her weekly grocery shop she methodically reads the labels of every single product she buys and occasionally complains if a new sweetener has been added to a product she likes. Her delusion may cause her some anxiety, she may be denied the benefits of sugarfree sweeteners, but by and large her life is still viable.
Since September 2001 until a recent course of psychiatric treatment, Boston software developer, Ed Munchen, had been convinced Aliens from the planet Domu remote-controlled airliners into the World Trade Center to fool the United States into an unwinnable war against terrorism and prime the planet for an Alien takeover. He dedicated his life's savings and 100% of his time to his impressive web site complete with edited footage of the attacks and interviews with green twelve-fingered extraterrestrials.
However, some delusions are not that innocent. Ed's second cousin, Nick Simpson, now living in Portland Oregon, still believes the Holocaust was invented by Jews as a propaganda tool in their quest for global domination. His views cause considerable offence to millions whose relatives perished in the Shoah. Like his East Coast counterpart he dedicates much of his time to Internet activism, often lampooning and insulting those who believe in the best-documented genocide of the last century.
In many European countries Nick's views and actions might put him behind bars. Over here he is protected by the first amendment, but that doesn't make him any less a threat to our fragile democracy. University of Wisconsin Neuroscientist, Hillary Redburn, has analysed over 200 patients with a variety of obsessional delusions. "Until recently", she said, "we might have branded these people political hotheads, extremists or fanatics, but now we know they have a genetic predisposition to heterodoxy, a pathological tendency to challenge orthodox views and systematically re-analyse evidence to prove the opposite. They probably account for around 1% of the population, though their distribution may occur in clusters. Symptoms tend to appear at an early age. At first their delusions may seem quite innocent or even healthy. Nick, the Portland-based Holocaust denier, spoilt the family Christmas at the age of 4 because he kept telling his grandfather that Santa Claus was just a myth perpetrated by grown-ups to keep children quiet. He may have been right in that case but his proclivity to challenge everything led him into deeper trouble at school. He would interrupt physics lessons to explain why he thought the big bang was just a wild creationist theory and claim in English lit lessons that Shakespeare did not pen his own works, but would always perform magnificently in the school debating society as a devil's advocate."
Psychologists have long wondered why some of us are more conformist and others more rebellious, some more credulous and others less so, but should it be a problem I asked Prof. Redburn. "Yes, because most sufferers of Obsessive Delusional Heterodoxy Disorder or ODHD, lead very unhappy lives, are very prone to depression and may unleash their wacky ideas on others without any consideration for the offence they cause, e.g. a client from Illinois is convinced Walmart plan to put every American out of a job. When her 17 year old daughter returned from a shopping spree with two Walmart bags full of summer clothes she'd need for her vacation the next day, she emptied the contents into the garbage can. As a result her daughter did not go on vacation and only recovered after professional counselling and a course of SSRIs.
ODHD sufferers believe they are on a mission to save humanity or reveal hidden truths. They like to quote George Orwell or cite the case of Galileo Galilei, but they have no idea how much offence they cause others or the consequences of the extremist views they hold."
So what should we do, I inquired. "These people need our help and support. Data from fMRI scans indicates a chemical imbalance in their frontal cortex, which overstimulates neuroreceptors responsible for critical thinking. In normal human beings such receptors are counterbalanced by others responsible for harmony and acquiescence. We believe it is important to diagnose these individuals as early as possible. The government's mental health screening initiative offers us an excellent opportunity to help ODHD sufferers before it's too late and they turn into little Hitlers, Stalins or Saddam Husseins. Though the Illinois housewife who religiously boycotts Walmart may be on the mild end of the ODHD spectrum, her neurological profile shows surprising similarities with that of the guy who thinks Auschwitz was just a leisure complex. But with the right medication, behavioural support and tolerance training these people can become model citizens."
"Don't psychiatric drugs have side effects"?" I quipped.
"Some do, but our understanding of brain chemistry means we can now target specific psychological disorders with minimal side effects. In most cases I would recommend Submissal TM. It induces a feeling of elation, acquiescence and tolerance in most users, though it may temporarily disrupt sleeping patterns and is not recommended during the last two months of pregnancy."
"And what about the support network?"
"That's absolutely essential. We're currently training counsellors and learning support workers to deal with ODHD sufferers, just help them overcome their delusions, ensure they take their medication and basically keep out of harm's way"
"Any success stories you'd like to mention?"
"Sure, Ed Munchen, revised his theory and concluded that Iraqi Resistance Fighters utilised a time machine to engineer the 9/11 attacks. He has since joined the US Army and participated in the liberation of Falluja. His web site is now dedicated to Iraqi democracy. I can honestly say he has been freed of all obsessive delusions. He even said he'd like to join in the coming liberation of Iran."