An affinity for random numbers
March 12, 2012 6:21 AM   Subscribe

What is the significance of numbers/units of time (months/weekdays) in disorders like schizophrenia/bipolar?

Is there a name for the tendency of people diagnosed with schizophrenia to find meaning in seemingly random numbers and units of time (like April or Tuesday or 4 o'clock)?

Has any research been done to explain this connection? Is there anywhere I can find more information about it? Is it even technically a thing, statistically, for either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder? I've heard from a few sufferers of schizophrenia that it's not but they never specified if they meant just for them or as a whole.

For context, I'm referring especially to the documentary of Jani Schoefield (in a comment by scody here) who had lots of 'friends' with names like 400 the cat and Tuesday, and wanted to be a number-checker when she grew up (to draw numbers' blood and make them feel better), and saw numbers ("[I see] two tens... the fake ten and the real ten."), but I also have an aunt diagnosed with schizophrenia who did the same thing. Some numbers were good, some were bad.

And what the hell, in the interest of full disclosure I'm diagnosed bipolar (medicated) and have noticed a trend in my life over the last few years as I've hit my mid-twenties where numbers have become not necessarily more significant, but more common and used and randomly popping into my head. For example, my username was one of the first, and since then I've had a long string of usernames of the same general variety (thirteentwentyfour, six, twelvedeadmen, tenyearsofgoodbehavior, etc. etc.) that feel remarkably easy to understand and 'comfortable'. I'm not necessarily concerned but I do think it's interesting.
posted by six-or-six-thirty to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My son has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He does show some extreme compulsive behavior, but his preoccupation is with words and their pronunciation (by now he has collected a dozen or so dictionaries). With numbers, he counts the red lights versus green when I'm driving, or the number of cars stopped at cross streets. His counselor suggested that his compulsiveness stemmed from a desire for constancy in a forever stressful world.

I love your healthy attitude toward your mental health. Bravo!
posted by francesca too at 7:12 AM on March 12, 2012

Ideas of reference and delusions of reference involve people having a belief or perception that irrelevant, unrelated or innocuous phenomena in the world refer to them directly or have special personal significance: 'the notion that everything one perceives in the world relates to one's own destiny'.

In psychiatry, delusions of reference form part of the diagnostic criteria for psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, delusional disorder, or bipolar disorder during the elevated stages of mania. To a lesser extent, it can be a hallmark of paranoid personality disorder. Such symptoms can also be caused by intoxication, especially with hallucinogens or stimulants like methamphetamine.
The article doesn't specifically mention numbers, but I believe numbers are just a particular case of the more general pathology.
posted by alms at 8:06 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have a study, just a conjecture.

One of the primary symptoms of schizophrenia is the perception and personalization of connections and patterns that do not exist in reality. People tend to make sense of reality and perceive patterns through filters, one of which is numbers. They're the building blocks of pattern recognition and they are also ubiquitous. It's pretty easy to see patterns in numbers that are not there, even if your brain does not have a predisposition towards doing so.
posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night at 8:10 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am not aware of any research that connects numbers and schizophrenia, though schizophrenics experience delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations that include some pretty random stuff (random as far as OUR perception of reality, not theirs). I find the Jodi example interesting because many schizophrenics have trouble with emotions, especially in a social context, so I wonder if her friends are mostly nonhuman and she just happens to associate them with numbers and other unrelated things, like rats.

Number aversion is a fairly common sign of OCD, which can occur along with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. It seems like some of your examples fit this, like your aunt who has "bad" numbers, but unless your number "obsession" is making you feel stressed, I wouldn't worry about it. Most people with OCD are very stressed/unhappy about their obsessions/compulsions. You should, however, speak to your doctor, especially if this number thing is new or particularly distressing to you. It could be nothing, but it also could be a signal that your medication has become less effective or that you may need it adjusted. See your doctor/mental health provider!
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:22 AM on March 12, 2012

As a possible counterpoint, it's possible to be relatively normal psychologically and still have some number obsession; I went through a stage when I was a kid where I strongly disliked the number 3 and thus had to do everything 4 times lest I accidentally just do something 3 times. Yes, this would have qualified as "affecting my life" if it had been more visible to those around me or if it had lasted beyond the age of 8 or so; instead it was just a childhood quirk that I grew out of.

I would expect there are other folk without a psychological condition who also have some history of numerical obsession/fascination. I have no idea how common this is in the general population, or if it's more common in bipolar/schizophrenic populations; I would be interested to see studies talking about it.
posted by nat at 9:03 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

What you're describing kind of reminds me of the idea of ordinal linguistic personification, where people can't help but assign personalities to things like numbers and days of the week. It feels like you're describing different types of synesthesia, but I'm no expert.
posted by jumelle at 9:04 AM on March 12, 2012

yeah, similar to nat, I'm not schizophrenic or bipolar (knock on wood) but have always had a bizarre talent for days of the week related stuff. There are things that happened to me when I was 8 or 10 that even today I can remember which day of the week they occurred on.
posted by mannequito at 9:53 AM on March 12, 2012

Response by poster: The synesthesia angle is one I'd considered mostly for myself, as a mild case of it. Particularly for the idea of certain numbers being more 'comfortable' or correct in a completely non-numerical context. I do have certain small things where Thursday, 4, and green quite clearly go together, but it doesn't happen for very many things.

In my case in particular assigning numbers to things or thinking of numbers isn't a compulsion, but rather a curious sort of thing that just happens. My numbers are not generally unpleasant (although I've always hated 7 and odd numbers in general--except 5!--are just kind of crap) and have no real effect on my day to day life. So I'm not really worried, but it's really interesting to me that it's just sort of happening in a way that seems to be completely organic.

So I'm more curious of cases like Jani's where it seems almost like it could be compulsive. Ideas of reference is something I've experienced during worse times, but now that I think about it I'm a little unclear in Jani's case just how much meaning the numbers have, and if the word 'compulsion' would be even remotely correct to explain why these numbers happen in her life. Maybe she is also dealing with something more like synesthesia?

Sorry for the rambling, I'm just trying to digest some of your answers.

8 is the best digit, for the record. And Thursday is the best day of the week. You'd think they'd go together, but they don't.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 10:06 AM on March 12, 2012

i am also bipolar, with affinities/aversions to some numbers, names and words. but i don't think this is necessarily a facet of bipolar. i do know that when i am seriously unbalanced in either direction, some numbers and names take on a greater emotional importance. for instance, during a deep depression, i can only tolerate the volume on the tv or stereo to be at an even number - level 14 as opposed to 15. i would get greatly distressed if it ever was not set on an even number - but the actual volume didn't matter. when i'm manic, i assign special importance to things - so i cannot have a certain doctor unless their name feels right in my brain, for instance. but there's no consistency from episode to episode. when i am well balanced and healthy, these things rarely matter.

i don't know if that helps, but there it is!
posted by unlucky.lisp at 1:53 PM on March 12, 2012

it's possible to be relatively normal psychologically and still have some number obsession

heh, yea, for me it's been that I got stuck on certain numbers because I use them again and again at work - a lot of my job involves adjusting numeric values to get things looking how I want them, so having a set of numbers that are a sort of default setting saves me a lot of time. For example, if I think I want an image to show up at about 2/3 transparent, instead of dithering around trying to find the exact right value, I enter the number 69 and move on. Having favourite numbers is like a mental shortcut, I wouldn't be surprised if other people also do this unconsciously.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:44 PM on March 12, 2012

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