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Jennifer Kanary’s Paper Proposal

Labyrinth Psychotica, Simulating Psychotic Phenomena

In medical literature, psychosis is often described as a severe mental illness during which thoughts and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality. In a state of psychosis one might hear voices that others do not hear, see things that others do not see and have beliefs that others do not share, often causing someone to act in unfathomable ways. In order to understand and empathize with psychotic phenomena we need help. Like a flight simulator helps aspiring pilots in their journey of learning how to fly, we might develop technological tools that act as a prosthesis to our imagination, to better understand and communicate what it is like to be in psychosis and aid in the activation of processes of empathy. In the past, doctors took LSD to better understand their patients. As such actions are now considered taboo, one might consider possibilities of simulating psychotic experiences with the aid of technical innovations as a form of digital LSD. In recent years, several multi-media psychosis simulators have been developed as teaching and awareness environments for mental health workers, police and students to increase their knowledge and understanding of the subjective experience of psychosis. They aim at helping professionals to become more empathic towards their patients as well as towards their patients’ friends and families to what their loved ones are going through. During the conference I will introduce three of these simulation projects: Paved with Fear (2001), Mindstorm (2007) and Virtual Hallucinations (2005). With each simulation I will focus on how they simulate a particular experience that is frequently described, and is considered a classic psychotic phenomenon, namely the experience of media directly communicating with a person. I will explain why these simulation projects are important, but also why it is important to be critical and create a discourse surrounding their design. I will illustrate this by taking a closer look at how they simulate this particular phenomenon by analysing them against descriptions of psychotic experience in literature and discussing the implications of different design approaches. I do this in order to see where they might be improved and how installation art might contribute to discourse on psychoses simulation design by giving examples in which I refer to my own work Intruder 2.0 (2008) and The Wearable (2012).


  1. I am intrigued by this.

    I am reminded of a film of depression made by a depressive, and another of synaesthesia by a synaesthetic, which had the intention of increasing understanding by allowing the viewers to share the experience.

    However, though I understand the argument, I’m not sure if there is any evidence to support this view. I’m not even sure such evidence is possible.

    I am not at all sure of how you will translate this into acting, learning and understanding: I will be very interested to see how you do this!

  2. I can see the link between acting, learning and understanding.
    Acting as part of the
    To truly know or come close to the experience of the psychotic, one would have to be put the test subject unknowingly into the psychotic situation so they don’t enter with the knowledge of it being a simulation. i am sure there are ethical problems with this.
    I am interested to see your installation art process as a form of acting which then brings forth new understandings in how the psychotic may feel in their day-to-day encounters.

  3. Phillip, yes, there are strong ethical issues with this project, the question I usually get relates to a fear of psychosis STImulation instead of SImulation…the relation between acting leaning and understanding is related to the ‘do-it-yourself’ design of my work, in which one’s imagination has to be consciously activated and used to understand the experience of another person, in order to do so, a visitor must decide how much they surrender to the experiences I designed, in which method acting and improvisation is crucial.

    To come close to the psychotic experience, one does not need to enter unknowingly, it is the opposite actually, one needs to understand that psychotic experiences are nothing more than extensions of everybody’s everyday experiences. One needs to learn to play with one’s own inner madness…

    I will also demonstrate the relation of Acting Learning and Understanding, by bringing one of THE WEARABLE’s with me for people to try, for this I will diverge a bit from the initial abstract and have people participate in an interactive thought experiment. Perhaps I might change the topic and speak about ‘THE LAND OF UNREALITY’…

    Ranulph, the evidence that supports the view, comes in the thesis, but is also might not be of much importance, let me explain…

    Paul Watzlawick unfolds in ‘The Invented Reality’ the difference between first order and second order realities. When the two do not match, he describes, depression and or psychosis may occur, this is perhaps related to The Double Bind theory of Bateson, when the human mind has experiences that contradict. For instance the love for a father, when the father abuses the child, this conflict of experiences in relation to what is accepted and expected by society, cause, one could say, a meltdown that does ‘not compute’, two contradicting programmes running at the same time (a large number of people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia are found to have been abused during childhood).

    Psychosis is seen as an emergency system of the human mind, a conscious entering of ‘creativity gone wild’ in order to destroy and re-create a self to deal with trauma, which can range from simply ‘growing out of puberty, to life events such as death, a move, the birth of a child. One enters the world of raw creativity to be able to create a narrative that can bridge the gap between the realities, a narrative that can circumvent the double bind. A state in which one’s creative ability is so strong, that ones network of association is able to create a reality that is experienced as real.

    As a society we have very little patience or ability to deal with or understand this. We lack empathy, in part, because we are terrified of feeling empathic with such an extreme mental state, we fear what we do not know, we fear loss of control and we fear the unknown. All core aspects of psychosis. Yet empathy is crucial to recovery. One could say, we are psychotic when it comes to understanding psychosis…we ‘shut down’.

    In my presentation I will explain barriers that need to be broken, to be able to empathize (and thus understand), I will explain how acting and learning with simulations, facilitates this understanding, by helping us bridge the gap of 1st and 2nd order realities by using not only ‘linguistic’ narratives, but the narrative of experience, in which ‘evidence’ is irrelevant, as long as one feels that one understands better, (even if they do not) one will be able to provide a better quality of health care simply because they do not run away. The next step is to work on the accuracy of the understanding in a way that still allows for the flexibility of ‘self-designing’ the understanding. To bridge the gap between the 1st and 2nd order realities of how we deal with psychosis. Evidence becomes irrelevant, because inner subjective experiences can not be put into that straight jacket. A sense of understanding shifts and needs constant work, one moment, you think you understand, you feel good, the next moment you don’t understand, you feel something else, some feel challenged, but some feel despair and fall. It is about using acting and learning for self-empowerment.

    Perhaps a bit cryptic, but I hope that the experience speaks for itself. I am curious to better understand what acting, learning and understanding mean as cybernetic definitions, I assume, much like the word ‘control’ have alternative meanings…



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