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Definition of Delusion

A delusion is traditionally defined as a false belief based on an incorrect interpretation of an external reality, which is adhered to by a person despite evidence to the contrary. But what does this mean? Well, let us consider what a ‘belief’ is. Beliefs We come to believe something through a process.

First, we perceive events as already discussed in perception. An example is that we see the sun in the sky every day and see it go down every night. We then draw an ‘inference’ from this sequence of events. We infer that the sun goes up every morning and goes down every night. We then firm this inference into a belief. ‘I believe that the sun will rise every morning and set every night.’ This belief is further strengthened by a number of facts, or new information:

It always happens. The sun always rises and sets.

We find factual information that confirms our belief. In school we are taught that the sun rises and sets, and the science behind it.

We are able to flesh out the belief into a wider, more complex, belief system. We find out about the exception of eclipse, where the sun is covered by the moon. We find parts of the world where the sun is not in the sky for a long period and, again, understand the factual science behind this. Our belief becomes, ‘The sun always rises and sets in the sky outside my home, although the occasional eclipse covers it up and I know that people living elsewhere do not experience the sun in the same way.’ In this way many of our beliefs become complex and are open to change with new information. If we consider this process in a slightly different way and consider the historically held belief that the world is flat, we can see that people had this belief because they perceived the horizon or a limit to vision; that ships disappeared from sight, that the ships that went too far never came back and, besides, everyone else believed the world to be flat.

In addition, some cultures had a model of the world which necessitated it being f lat. The cultures that believed the world was carried on the back of a giant turtle, or the Norse belief that the world was contained as a flat disc inside the skull of a dead giant had whole factual systems which told the people not only that the world was flat, but why it was flat, in the same way as our scientific system tells us it is not. That this belief would be considered wrong today is just an indication that beliefs can be wrong, but held as true by entire communities. It is interesting to consider what beliefs we now hold as factual but will be proven to be incorrect. There are obviously far more complex beliefs which, given the ability of human beings to absorb information, have complex sources. If we are to consider the extent of religious belief in the world and balance this with the fact that most of the individuals who founded the various religious institutions lived thousands of years ago, we can see that the power of belief systems are amazing.

Often these belief systems are passed from generation to generation as part of orientating children to the world, but then these children adopt the belief as their own and, in turn pass them on to their children. It is, in fact, very difficult to shift a commonly held belief in a population. For this reason, before a belief can be held as false and therefore delusional it has to be seen as divergent from the standard beliefs of the culture from which the individual comes. In some circumstances beliefs common to some groups, such as a belief in witchcraft, spirits or possession, can be misinterpreted as delusions. This is because in some cultures these beliefs are still held with conviction among a significant number in the same way that a significant number of people in western culture believe in faith healing, crystallography, tarot cards, or any number of esoteric healing systems.

Our definition of delusion needs to expand, then, to a false belief held with conviction that would be recognized as false within the cultural context of the individual. Care should also be taken in considering delusional thinking to be irrational. Often the delusion has a basis in a perceived reality, but the initial real thought has been exacerbated to the extent it becomes bizarre. An example from the author’s experience is a man who saw his friend stabbed to death who later believed that people were trying to kill him. While this might seem to be a perfectly reasonable, although horrible assumption, the incident had happened several years before, he was not directly threatened when it happened, and he had moved several hundred miles away and yet believed that the people had moved with him and set up an observation flat next door to him to monitor his movements. In addition, he felt that the way the milk bottles were left outside various flats in his block were subtle signals among the group who were persecuting him. In a situation like this it is very important to acknowledge the previous real experience prior to discussing delusional thinking. In this situation the perception is based on a real and terrible incident, which would have left an indelible memory on any individual.

In this person’s situation, however, the development of a complex delusional system of beliefs was not a natural reaction to the trauma experienced. Hence, while this man suffered from delusions, they were triggered by a true-life trauma.

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