Mad, Innit?

Have you ever had a few minutes when you just had to sniff or wipe your nose repeatedly because it kept feeling like it was going to start dripping any moment? Were you one of those children who, having touched something once with one hand, felt compelled to touch it with the other hand? Did you spend your pubescent years trying to fit your actions into patterns based on a particular number?

Did you go through a long phase when you compulsively whispered what you or someone else had just said? Or when you only felt comfortable when you'd brushed all your upper teeth before your lower ones?

If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes" or "Not exactly, but something like it" then I have two items of news for you. First, you have or had Tourette's Syndrome. Second, I'm pretty sure most people have it to some extent when they're growing up.

Tourette's? Isn't that the one where you make animal noises and uncontrollably shout rude words in supermarkets? Well, not exactly. That's the popular image of Tourette's, but it's an extremely rare form. Mostly it's a repetitive action of swallowing, shrugging, saying particular words, humming, moving in a particular way etc.

The Tourette's sufferer don't do these things unwittingly or uncontrollably. Rather, they experience a very strong compulsion, which they can with discomfort resist for a while, before the "pressure" builds up too much and they submit.

In other words, someone with Tourette's doesn't have a neurological condition, or any kind of "genetic" "disease", or any condition that could be meaningfully called "insanity". No, what they've got is superstition. A strong, self-created internal imperative to perform some action - the action's value being ceremonial rather than practical. It's a ritual to ward of "the bad" - where the bad could be illness, pain, the disapproval of others, or anything regarded with fear.

You think that does sound a bit like madness? Then consider that Tourette's symptoms almost always occur between the ages of around seven and fifteen. And consider how children in that age range easily accept such superstitions as "Don't walk on the cracks or the bears will get you" and "You must drink from the special cup".

Tourette's Syndrome is simply the invention of one's own childhood superstitions - and then getting trapped by them, at least until they naturally fade away. Occasionally (or is it frequently?) they don't fade away. The actor Derek Jacobi has discussed in interview how, before doing some things, he has to nod three times and say the word "Amen" to himself - and to do it three times. He plausibly connects it to his catholic upbringing, with the special word "Amen" and the special number three.

Conventional psychology posits (on no evidence) a neurological cause for all this, and prescribes drugs. This is the same conventional psychology that diagnoses "lack of writing practice" as "Dyslexia", "being socially awkward" as "Asperger's Syndrome" and "School being boring" as "ADHD" - and prescribes drugs for the disease called "being human".

It's an open question, and I've no idea how to answer it, but: How many of the socially disapproved acts which get adults put in asylums or zombfied on medication are merely private superstitions which they never grew out of?

In cases where the ritual involves shouting numerals or spinning in circles, the "tic" is disruptive and obvious to all. But what about the presumable majority who have non-disruptive tics? Just odd little habbits that bystanders don't notice or classify as eccentricities? There doesn't seem a qualitative difference.

I only write this because, after revisiting a classic video cutup and following it up with the Wikipedia article, I realised that, yes folks...(cue drum roll)...I was a textbook Tourette's child.

My superstitions changed over time, but there were two basic ones:
1) Presage any important action with a voiceless glottal plosive - think of the "kick drum" sound made by human beatboxes - and close the action with another one.
2) Segment repeated actions, like those involved in eating or walking, into sets of four, and if possible square multiples of four. This was to "enclose" them in a protective box.

Those were my rituals, and I had then between around seven and twelve, but what were the fears they guarded against? I think a nebulous fear of unnumbered, uncompartmentalised chaos.

Of course, I've also been informally diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, Dyslexia, and (my favourite) Social Anxiety Disorder. Seeing as these are all synonyms for "normal but has trouble with some tasks", and seeing as I can now speedread and sing in public, I reckon that makes me extremely normal.


  1. Fascinating, Kap.

    I would definitely been diagnosed as ADHD if it had been around when I was at school. As it was I was sent of to a plethora of psychologists who said I was a 'late developer.' ;)

    It seems that Humanity has to neatly label everything ... which is either somewhat ironic, or a necessary evil to warrant spurious medication and doctors fees.

  2. That was the most misinformed thing I have EVER read about tourette's in my whole life o_O
    I'm not talking about your opinion that it is not neurological, you can think what you like about that, it doesn't effect me. However, what you have done is describe OCD and referred to it as Tourette's, that's just really stupid.
    You don't seem to even have any idea what a tic actually is.

  3. First of all, the word is "affect", not "effect".

    Second, Tourette's, OCD and ADHD are not watertight compartments - what one therapist diagnoses as one, another will diagnose as another.

    Third, the term tic is very broad. It might refer to:
    * Sniffing
    * Muscle spasams
    * Barking
    * Straightening of clothes
    * Hand washing
    * Crossing oneself
    * Humming
    * Saying certain words

    ...and many other possibilities. So it ranges from momentary twitches to extended complex actions, single rapidly repeated movements to long rituals.

    There is no evidence of a single cause, and little evidence of neurological causes. Indeed, it's absurd to suggest that an imbalance of a neurotransmitter is responsible for someone habitually rotating teacups before drinking from them or counting their footsteps. These things exist at cognitive and behavioral levels.

    You're trying to reason as though phenomena with different names can't have overlapping natures, and different things with one name must have a common defining feature.