The Cognitive Perspective

Although biology may somehow underlie the schizotypal personality, the salient manifestations of this biology are cognitive. First, schizotypals often seem unable to organize their thoughts. Histrionics may seem distractible or flighty, but these cognitive characteristics serve a function: They are stylistic, working in conjunction with massive repression to prevent anything from being considered too deeply. The neural architecture is fundamentally sound, but its operation is distorted from the top down, transformed by the needs of the total histrionic personality.

In the schizotypal, however, cognition seems distorted from the bottom up, as if the associative glue that binds smaller ideas into larger ones was somehow defective (Bleuler, 1911; Meehl, 1962). Cognitive psychologists often talk about neural networks and the notion of spreading activation. According to this model, every concept is like a node connected to many others in a huge conceptual network. When a particular concept is activated, some of its activation spreads out to adjacent nodes. When the activation of two or more different concepts intersects on a third, its activation reaches a threshold, and the concept is bumped up into conscious awareness. Free association works in essentially this way. Christmas, for example, naturally makes you think of Santa Claus, and Thanksgiving conjures thoughts of a turkey dinner. In the schizotypal, however, the idea of Christmas might produce an immediate association to reindeer noses because Rudolph's nose is red. The association to Rudolph is understandable, but somehow, the general and specific get confused, and the entire class concept of reindeer noses becomes activated.

Although its discussion here oversimplifies matters, a malfunctioning neural network can nevertheless serve as an important touchstone for understanding schizotypal cognition. Disordered language and communication are considered core to the disorder. In the schizotypal, spreading activation seems to travel down pathways other than those relevant to the immediate purpose of cognition. We saw that in Neal, for example, with his rambling answers that seemed to free-associate off themselves in midstream. At the lower ends of severity, this cognitive irregularity may be present through the unusual or idiosyncratic use of words, as if they held some meaning or nuance known mainly to the schizotypal. When asked to list words beginning with A or F, for example, even normal subjects with higher scores on a Magical Ideation Scale tended to generate rare words (Duchene, Graves, & Brugger, 1998). Even normal subjects with high schizotypy scores show less effective linguistic processing (Kravetz, Faust, & Edelman, 1998). In schizo-typals, these effects are magnified. Cognition may sometimes seem almost autistic, as if following some internal logic not known to anyone else. At a somewhat more severe level, irrelevancies get drawn into the cognitive process, sidetracking the stream of consciousness into alleyways that lead to other alleyways that lead to still other alleyways.

For the same reason, schizotypals tend to be distractible (Hall & Habbits, 1996). Attention may shift topics abruptly as it meanders about in its own associative maze.

When these alleyways eventually lead back to the subject at hand, speech is said to be circumstantial, meaning that schizotypals seem to talk around the subject, temporarily losing their focus but eventually recovering at the end. Frank schizophrenics, in contrast, are derailed by their thought disorder. After associating through several coincidental connections, they never return to the main theme of the conversation. Nevertheless, schizotypals seem incapable of sustained, purposeful cognition, in which thought is deliberately and intensely focused toward achieving some goal or toward understanding a particular point or a sequence of steps in a complex logical argument. They make poor philosophers, for example, because they fail to contemplate coherently. Not surprisingly, both schizotypals and schizophrenics perform poorly in tasks of sustained attention, a finding that argues for continuity of these syndromes and appears to distinguish them from other personality disorders (Roitman, Cornblatt, Bergman, & Obuchowski, 1997).

Alternatively, some schizotypals seem to exhibit a disorder in the productivity of speech. In effect, nothing strikes them one way or the other, and nothing is worthy of remark. Matthew, whose answers are short and bizarre, comes closer to this than Neal. Such individuals usually have a schizoid quality, and their near mutism reflects an incapacity to experience pleasurable emotions and a constricted range of affect. They literally have nothing to say because nothing motivates them. As noted in the case, Matthew seldom makes eye contact with the interviewer. In fact, his life is almost devoid of human connectedness. Without some capacity for emotional experience, there is nothing to organize and motivate cognition. For example, Matthew has no interest in exploring the implications of a particular concept or developing a line of argument. Instead, his thought processes seem inherently diffuse. Although such schizotypals appear turned radically inward, alienated from society, it is more likely that their inner voices are just as silent, taking no more interest in the inherent joy of mentation than in anything in the external world. Cognitively, they are best described as vacant, a description that fits with Matthew's fear that he does not exist.

Other aspects of schizotypal cognition also seem partially schizophrenic but are more difficult to understand as "loose associative glue" or some inferential abnormality. As noted in DSM-IV, schizotypals often have strange beliefs that deviate significantly from subcultural norms yet nevertheless influence behavior. We have already discussed their interpersonal and psychodynamic aspects and now develop a cognitive interpretation.

Stone (1993), for example, reports the case of a schizotypal client who claimed to be able to see right through his head and read the titles from the bookcase behind him. Others may believe that they can view faraway places remotely (clairvoyance) or perhaps project themselves to the astral plane and observe the happenings of our own world from another dimension. Or they may believe that they can read minds or transmit their thoughts over great distances, see the future, or receive communications from animals. To generalize, we might say that schizotypals often claim access to information outside what would normally be available to the five senses, perhaps through magical, mystical, or occult powers. Neal and Matthew would both qualify. Also, schizotypals sometimes experience bodily illusions, perhaps feeling that they are outside their bodies or are somehow detached from the physical self, free-floating in space. Or they might feel that parts of their bodies have become uncoupled at the joints or that one part on the right side is disproportionally larger than the same part on the left. Such symptoms certainly make a sharp boundary with schizophrenia difficult to justify and strongly suggest continuity between the two disorders.

Lacking insight into their own eccentricity, schizotypals often act on the information that they receive from their strange sources. Writing in Beck et al. (1990), Ottaviani suggests that schizotypals present an especially exaggerated example of what is called emotional reasoning, whereby the individual assumes, for example, that a negative emotion automatically entails some negative external cause that can be identified. For example, schizotypals might confront a spouse or lover because their sixth sense tells them that the spouse or lover has been unfaithful, commingling fear and reality. Or they might conclude that noises in the house are evidence of evil spirits and sell the house on this basis. Or they might accept a dinner invitation from an acquaintance who drives a white car, symbolizing purity and goodness, but decline a similar invitation from an acquaintance who drives a black car. We can easily see Neal and Matthew caught up in such odd logics.

Although the beliefs and actions of schizotypals seem odd to outside observers, they may not be strange at all when coupled with their unusual experiences; the way schizotypals reason is different, in part, because their experiences are different. A long tradition in psychology asserts that every individual operates somewhat like a naive scientist who needs to make sense of the world. Likewise, disciplines as fundamental as anthropology and existentialism assert that we are meaning-making creatures. When an unusual event occurs, we cannot resist developing a theory about its causes. Even if incorrect, the explanation gives comfort by assuring us that the world is predictable rather than random. Far from being irrational, then, schizotypals may simply construct the world on the basis of a different empiricism—one based on their own subjective reality, the only reality that anyone can ever experience anyway. In an intriguing experiment, Zimbardo, Andersen, and Kabat (1981) showed that subjects given the suggestion that they would become partially deaf, but not remember the suggestion, develop paranoid explanations of their experience. When asked why they could not hear, they explained that the researchers were whispering about them, for example. Perhaps, then, the inferences of schizotypals are appropriate given the evidence, and it is the evidence itself that is bizarre.

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