Overactive imagination. Disorder?
March 21, 2007 11:58 AM   Subscribe

Overactive imagination. Disorder?

35 years old, male, anxiety disorders out the wazoo (panic, OCD, social). For years, I've noticed another aspect of my psyche that doesn't quite fit what I imagine the "normal" footprint to be, but the psychiatrists to whom I've mention it have always dismissed my concern over it as just another way of generating anxiety. I'm prepared to accept their explanation, but I'm also not sure I've really been able to accurately articulate what I'm experiencing. What I'm looking for is accounts from other mefites who have had similar experiences (described below) and possibly sought a diagnosis and/or help for them.

For most I've my life, I've experienced incredibly vivid mental imagery. I've never believed in alternate universes, had imaginary friends, etc. I've never constructed intricate fantasy worlds and/or scenarios that I feel in danger of confusing with reality. It's all images, but I don't seem to have much control over them.

The imagery ranges from abstract to cartoonish to vividly realistic, and is generally fantastic or surreal in character. The images almost never form stories or narratives, tend to vanish or morph into something else as quickly as they arise, and there may or may not be any connection between successive images. They often reflect my moods -- if I'm in a good mood, I'll sometimes see pleasant images, if I'm feeling especially anxious, I might see horrific and disturbing images. They can be particularly strong when I'm falling asleep -- sometimes, drifting off to sleep, I watch them morph from one thing into another, and am unsure when this process stops and dreaming begins. Sometimes I catch a flash of an image whose detail is far too complex for me to take in completely before it changes into something else.

I tend to actively engage this faculty when writing poetry (which I'm pursuing in graduate school right now), so I don't want it to go away completely. But at times, it's invasive, and the images are strong and vivid enough to be significantly distracting. And the fact that I don't seem to be entirely in control of them also bothers me. I guess I shouldn't expect to be in complete control, since they're probably welling-up from my subconscious -- but I would at least like to be able to tune them out better than I can.

Anyhow, I know I'm writing to audience of IANAMHP's or IANAP's, so please understand that I'm not wanting the hive-mind to diagnose me. Rather, I'm curious as to whether anyone out there has experienced something similar, what was/is useful for you in coping with it, and whether you've pursued it with mental health professionals (and, if so, whether or not you found it helpful to do so).

Phew, that was a lot. Thanks for reading!
posted by treepour to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I sometimes have very vivid images like you're describing. Once, I had something like that, but I was hearing something in my head.no, not voices I think it's strange, but it doesn't bother me excessively. Maybe your doctors were right?
posted by Mr. Gunn at 12:24 PM on March 21, 2007

Best answer: Good god. Do we have to pathologize everything? Have fun with it. Go buy a Prang watercolor set and an indian pad.
posted by pieoverdone at 12:34 PM on March 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

Seconding what pieoverdone said. I get a lot of the same sort of thing - weird blocks of color that persist in my 'mind's eye' for hours, dreamlike juxtapositions of widely varied things I've thought about in the recent past, you name it. I'm pretty sure we're evolved to do that, to keep our minds sharp.
posted by notsnot at 1:18 PM on March 21, 2007

Best answer: When I am really upset I tend to get this. I remember having to look away from a friend because everytime I looked at her I saw in my head her chest being laid open like on a autosopy table except very bloody and beating and , well gross. I just took it as a projection of my very artistic mind projecting itself on things.
posted by stormygrey at 1:31 PM on March 21, 2007

Wow. No, never, and I'm jealous.
posted by stagewhisper at 2:03 PM on March 21, 2007

I have lots of uncontrollable daydreams, but I don't get any positive effects like you.

In my case, 90% of my daydreams are like the movie Sliding Doors, where I see several outcomes and progressions based off of a single event. So.. if I think of going out somewhere, I imagine how it's all going to go, but also other good and bad (most often bad though) outcomes like getting killed on my way there, how that will happen, etc.

I have kinda learned how to ignore it, but I wish I could get some positive things out of it as you clearly are. Unless it's impeding your life in a major way, I'd say to enjoy the good aspects of it and just accept the bad sides as the cost. We're not in control of almost anything in this world, let alone our brains.
posted by wackybrit at 2:11 PM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: stormgrey, thanks for sharing that. It's that kind of stuff in particular that can make this me feel I need to at least be capable of "turning down the volume" on this sort of thing. Yeah, it's cool having lots of imagery at my disposal, but it can be invasive, disturbing, and add a significant strain to normal interactions, my ability to concentrate, etc.

But I do agree that pieoverdone makes a good point. If I have trouble turning down the volume sometimes, that's not necessarily a reason to assume something's desperately wrong with me -- but it may indeed be a great reason to "guy buy a Prang watercolor set and an indian pad."
posted by treepour at 2:16 PM on March 21, 2007

Best answer: All I can say is; ditto. I get it.
For me, it's like a perpetually running filmstrip with consistently disjointed frame ordering. It's always just below the surface. My emotional state acts almost like a lens that focuses in on particular sequences. Sometimes I get completely surprised by something particularly beautiful or horrifying. Sometimes memories are incorporated, and depending on the intensity, will sometimes cause me some temporal confusion, occasionally getting me "stuck in time".
I've always called it the technicolor whirlwind..it seems the most apt term.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 2:29 PM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is where I go whern I am stresed out. Enjoy it.
posted by oflinkey at 2:42 PM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: Cat Pie Hurts, that's a such an accurate and lovely description of what I'm talking about. Thanks for that.
posted by treepour at 2:47 PM on March 21, 2007

There is a reason my mother calls me "Fertile Imagination".

Run with it and have fun.
posted by divabat at 3:01 PM on March 21, 2007

I have this running all the time as well, but mine is sounds and scraps of music instead of images. I think it's just what some brains do.
posted by flabdablet at 5:09 PM on March 21, 2007

I think looking over a list of symptoms of RAD wouldn't hurt. I have a little sister with RAD, and she has always been very fanciful (can sit and make-believe with a toothpick for hours) but also problematically prone to believing in or acting on the fantasies.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 5:41 PM on March 21, 2007

AV: Reactive Attachment Disorder?
posted by mlis at 8:48 PM on March 21, 2007

Yes MLIS. Whoa, how'd I bork my link? Here it is.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:19 PM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: Hmm. The RAD stuff has thrown me for a loop. There are aspects of it that hit home -- I have a hard time trusting some things, including my own experience of the world, and "very concerned about tiny hurts but brushes off big hurts" fits. But not much else. I didn't see anything in the list of symptoms about having an "overactive imagination" (but maybe I missed it). AV, is it your own experience with your little sister that made you think of the suggestion? Or was it something I (or someone else) mentioned? Thanks.
posted by treepour at 10:36 PM on March 21, 2007

Best answer: Read chapter 5 of V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain. The symptoms you describe sound strikingly similar to those experienced by patients with Charles Bonnet syndrome. IANAD, but Ramachandran gives a list of things that can cause the syndrome--do you have glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration, or diabetic retinopathy (direct quote from p. 87)?

James Thurber, after whom the chapter is named, wrote the following to his opthamologist. How well does it jive with your experiences?

"Years ago you told me about a nun of the middle centuries who confused her retinal disturbances with holy visitation, although she saw only about one tenth of the holy symbols I see. Mine have included a blue Hoover, golden sparks, melting purple blobs, a skein of spit, a dancing brown spot, snowflakes, saffron and light blue waves, and two eight balls, to say nothing of the corona, which used to halo street lamps and is now brilliantly discernible when a shaft of light breaks against a crystal bowl or a bright metal edge. This corona, usually triple, is like a chrysanthemum composed of thousands of radiating petals, each ten times as slender and each containing in order the colors of the prism. Man has devised no spectacle of light in any way similar to this sublime arrangement of colors or holy visitation." (pp. 86-87)
posted by holympus at 1:06 AM on March 22, 2007

Response by poster: holympus, that's incredibly fascinating. Thank you. I'd never heard of the syndrome until now.

What doesn't fit is that I haven't experienced a loss or degeneration of vision and that I've always had retinal disturbances that are almost identical -- though less intense -- than what Thurber describes. Floating/melting purple blobs, spots of light, lines suggesting geometrical patterns. In fact, when I was very, very young, I used to think they were monsters or ghosts floating around in the dark. Realizing they were still there when I closed my eyes helped me understand that they weren't outside of me. When I'm very, very relaxed, the blobs sometimes form vague outlines of recognizable shapes, and I can sometimes cause them to take on certain shapes at will. And the corona too -- it's there whenever I look at bright light from a certain angle, and it pretty much looks exactly like Thurber describes (though probably less vivid). But I'd always thought the corona was due to the refraction of light through the fluid on the outside of the eyeball and, thus, a universal phenomenon . . . do others really not see this when looking at bright light?

I've described these disturbances to others, and have only encountered a few people who have any idea what I'm talking about. But I've always assumed that's because I wasn't describing them well.

However, this is different than the phenomenon I was asking about, which doesn't cross over into the realm of actually seeing something (except occasionally on the verge of sleep), but rather stays within the realm of things I'm picturing with my mind's eye (like what you picture when you read a story or remember an event). But now I wonder if there could be some kind of relation between the two . . .
posted by treepour at 9:18 AM on March 22, 2007

Is it stronger when your life is particularly stressful and/or you're not getting enough sleep?
posted by srs at 1:29 PM on March 23, 2007

Response by poster: srs, a little late for me to respond now, but yes, it is. Or at least its harder to tune out.
posted by treepour at 11:07 AM on March 26, 2007

treepour: yes, it's my little sister's personality specifically that drew the connection for me between your description and RAD. If you had a "normal" relationship with at least one parent during your early years, you can probably write it off altogether. My sister was adopted as an infant, first of all, and secondly, adopted by a mother with Cystic Fibrosis, who survived that condition a long time, but deteriorated and died when Sis was 4, having been her primary caregiver throughout her decline. Her decline was mental as well as physical, and Sis was left alone quite a lot more than is healthy. My mom married her adoptive father as a widower. This is the profile of a child with mild RAD.

The diagnosis process for RAD is quite complex, and that website is broader strokes than one really needs. My sister's case, (disorganized/ambivalent) manifests itself in her profoundly unrooted worldview. She, on a deep, fundamental level, lacks the bond and regard most people have for their family. We love her, so this is scary. She's constantly about to wander off and join the circus. She lies casually and badly and often. She seems to want to believe these lies herself, sometimes.

Again, look into your background. If you were parented and loved as an infant should be, this just ain't you.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 7:14 PM on March 26, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, Ambrosia Voyeur. I wish you the very best of luck with your sister.

FWIW, I do think my anxiety disorders are related to a pretty profound shakeup that occurred in my family during early adolescence. Although I don't think RAD fits, what resonates is the notion that one might retreat into fantasy/imagination as a response to such an event. Seems kind of "well, yeah, duh, of course" as I type it out, but . . . as I've mentioned before, it's not the imagination that troubles me so much as it is the difficulty in tuning it out. Perhaps, at some point in my life, I unconsciously "turned up the volume" of my mental imagery in order to drown out a bleak/uncertain reality.
posted by treepour at 12:26 AM on March 27, 2007

Best answer: The brain presumably processes information during sleep, so if your environment involves a lot of stress/changes/new information, your brain might need more sleep than usual to process all of it. That's how I figure my own works anyway. I really liked this recent mefi thread on sleep deprivation in relation to this askme thread.

I assume you're only looking for labels so you can better search for information, but if you have a history of anxiety disorders, you probably know most of the labels already. An overactive imagination probably falls somewhere along the schizotypy spectrum. Controlling it takes discipline, but all the previous comments in this thread should tell you how much richer your life is, especially as a poet.

You should probably stay away from hallucinogenic drugs and keep your sleep regimen in check though, because you're at higher risk for more challenging mental illnesses like schizophrenia, the structure of which was a great inspiration to the language poets.
posted by srs at 7:02 PM on March 28, 2007

Response by poster: srs, thanks for the "schizotypy spectrum" phrase -- I'd actually not encountered it before. FWIW, googling "schizotypy" brought up this interesting pdf on Schizotypy and mental health amongst poets,
visual artists, and mathematicians

Gotta say, folks, this has been quite an enlightening and engaging askme thread. Many comments have reminded me to not take the richness of my sometimes too-vivid inner life for granted -- and where else could one find shizotypy, RAD, Charles Bonnet syndrome, and language poetry all interwoven?

You all are the best. Thanks so much.
posted by treepour at 9:20 AM on March 29, 2007

I saved a copy of that article you posted. If you'd like to continue this conversation over e-mail, I can send you some other reading about these ideas. For example, the positive (vs. negative and disorganized) symptoms/syndrome of schizophrenia is NOT correlated with cognitive dysfunction and this is "explicitly incorporated" into the current DSM. One frequently overlooked article addressing this was co-authored by some of the writers of the current DSM! This article is the one that said it was "explicitly incorporated" if I remember correctly. Isn't that ass backwards? Also, from a more liberal arts perspective, check out a few chapters of Frederic Jameson's book "Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." He's a socialist and I don't like that, but he does use "schizophrenia" as an "aesthetic model" for late capitalist culture. Actually, I don't like that either, but it's incredibly interesting if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by srs at 10:57 AM on March 29, 2007

Response by poster: srs, my email's in my profile -- I'd definitely be interested. I'm guessing that you're aware of Deleuze & Guattari's classic philosophical tomes on "capitalism and schizophrenia," Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus? I wasn't able to find a great link for them -- a lot of stuff on the web is pretty outdated. There's no easy way to sum it all up, but I suppose one could say that they attempt to revolutionize/radicalize Lacanian psychoanalysis by way of Marxist critique & schizophrenic models of consciousness.
posted by treepour at 12:01 PM on March 29, 2007

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