In my dreams, airplanes fall out of the sky. Sometimes I watch in horror, stunned to witness such tragedy. Sometimes, though, I remember what it means: That I’m asleep, that it’s not real… I struggle to free myself of the illusion.
Sometimes when I’m awake, I look for airplanes, watch for them to fall out of the sky. They’re like an Inception totem, but in reverse: They only ever tell me for sure if I’m sleeping. So long as they stay in the sky, I might be awake, but how can I know?
I don’t know. Sometimes I am overcome with the sensation that everything around me is unreal, like I’m walking through it in a dream. This is not always an unpleasant sensation, but sometimes… Maybe I have a near miss with something traumatic–an oncoming truck swerves into my lane and barely misses me, or I happen upon the seconds-old aftermath of a gruesome accident. After an event like that, the sensation of unreality becomes intense. It feels as though the universe has split in half and I don’t know which half I’m in: The one where I died, or the one where I didn’t. Am I a ghost, wandering through a landscape to which I no longer belong? I am dead, perhaps, and just don’t realize it yet.
I may walk into a store a few minutes later and talk with someone, wondering all the time, “Does she hear me? Does she know I’m here? Or do I just imagine she is speaking to me?” Perhaps I arrive home and my sons come running out to greet me, and one of them throws his arms around me. Is it only wishful thinking that makes me feel his little arms around me? Perhaps he too is dreaming of me after my death, and that is what this is: His dream.
I am a ghost wandering through a landscape to which I no longer belong.
The sensation eventually passes, but I am lucky. For some people, the nightmare continues. A person suffering from Cotard Delusion believes himself to be dead, or to be missing some vital part of himself. He believes, perhaps, that he is rotting.
Science does not yet have an explanation for this rare and bizarre condition, though certainly there are theories.
In one theory, the condition is related to another disorder in which a person believes her loved ones have been replaced with impostors. This condition appears to be caused by a disconnect in the brain between the portion that recognizes patterns, and the portion that signals a sense of familiarity. By the same token, the theory goes, a person with Cotard Delusion perhaps recognizes patterns in the world, but the part of the brain that signals familiarity has turned itself off, leading to a sense of unreality. The patient then interprets the bizarre sensation as a symptom of being dead.
Cotard often co-presents with schizophrenia, which is characterized by a loss of mental filtering, and a lowering of boundaries between different types of input and mental processing. For instance, a schizophrenic may fail to distinguish between internal stimuli and external stimuli, and thus interpret a thought as though it were someone speaking to them: In other words, as if she were hearing voices.
For centuries it has been noted that schizophrenia frequently co-exists with creativity. This article in Psychology Today explores the connection, saying in short, that just as the schizotypal brain experiences the lowering of boundaries between one type of stimulus and another, so too the creative brain. When in a state of creative “flow,” an artist or writer or mathematician experiences new and exciting combinations of thought and stimulus as a result of this lowering of boundaries between different forms and types of thought. She may even hear voices or express the experience as a sense of some outside force acting upon her.
So the chief difference between schizophrenia and creativity, then, is the ability to slip in and out of the altered state of consciousness in which the boundaries are lowered–a state many creatives refer to as “flow.” Some creatives are able to do this more or less at will (though few claim to be able to slip into deep flow without considerable effort and/or luck). Others become alternately trapped in one state or another, which may perhaps explain the “agony and ecstasy” expressed by many artists as they fly from pleasurable, manic creativity into a depressing state of being “stuck.”
I think that I am among the lucky ones. Occasionally some deep insight–or one of my characters–grabs me by the gut and drags me to my chair and speaks through my fingers. I love these moments, and nearly always give in to them. But I can resist them if I must–if I am under deadline for some other project, for instance. And most of the time, I’m able to distinguish between what is outside myself and what is a product of my own internal state.
Other times, though, I’m not so sure. Sometimes I watch the sky for airplanes.