What Is Psychosis?
Psychosis (psyche = mind, osis = illness) is defined as the experience of loss of contact with reality, and is not part of the person’s cultural group belief system or experience. Psychosis typically involves one of two major experiences:
A. Hallucinations can take the form of auditory experiences (such as hearing voices); less commonly, visual experiences; or, more rarely, smelling things that others cannot perceive. The experience of hearing voices has been matched to increased activity in the auditory cortex of the brain through neuroimaging studies. While the experience of hearing voices is very real to the person experiencing it, it may be very confusing for a loved one to witness. The voices can often be critical (i.e. “you are fat and stupid”) or even threatening. Voices also may be neutral (i.e. “the radio is on”) and may involve people that are known or unknown to the person hearing the voices. The cultural context is also important. For example, in some Native American cultures, hearing the voice of a deceased relative is part of a healthy grieving process.
B. Delusions are fixed false beliefs. Delusions could take the shape of paranoia (“I am being chased by the FBI”) or of mistaken identity (a young woman may say to her mother, “You are an imposter—not my mother”). What makes these beliefs delusional is that these beliefs do not change or modify when the person is presented with new ideas or facts. Thus, the beliefs remain fixed even when presented with contradicting information (the young woman continues to believe her mother is an imposter, even when presented with her mother’s birth certificate and pictures of her mother holding her as a baby). Delusions often are associated with other cognitive issues such as problems with concentration, confused thinking and a sense that one’s thoughts are blocked. These experiences can be short lived (e.g. after surgery or after sleep deprivation) or periodic (as when associated with a psychiatric condition or persistent like bipolar disorder or major depression).