If a person realizes that what they're experiencing is not real, and is fully cognizant of the fact that they can't distinguish between the two - the unreality they are experiencing and the reality which exists, and can express it to others, does this negate the fact that they are experiencing this unreality?

Conversely, if a person realizes what they're experiencing something that is unreal, and knows why (they're tired, have psychological problems, are upset, have a brain injury that causes them to experience something that is not there, etc), but CAN tell the difference between the two (either from training or from education), are they insane?

What about a person who sees something that falls outside what most people call "reality" but this reality they're experiencing is the ultimate reality? How would we ultimately know that what they're experiencing is real if we could not somehow "tap into" that reality?

  • the 1st case would make them very confused even if they have no beliefs proper. the 2nd case could i think amount to a sense hallucination, which can occur in the general population
    – user6917
    Aug 27, 2016 at 20:27
  • how is it possible to experience what is not real?
    – user20153
    Aug 27, 2016 at 22:22
  • ps. sanity is culturally defined. "I'm experiencing something insane" means I'm experiencing something my culture classifies as nutty. Perfectly sane people have been institutionalized for crossing cultural boundaries.
    – user20153
    Aug 27, 2016 at 22:33
  • 1
    @mobileink easy! What do you think a schizophrenic person experiences? Aug 27, 2016 at 23:24
  • you tell me. I'm not willing to say that what they experience is not real. To say that would be to illegitimize their lived experience, which would deny their humanity.
    – user20153
    Aug 27, 2016 at 23:32

2 Answers 2


Insanity has come to signify a psychological concept that is defined by social acceptance and scientific discovery. In this case, if ultimate reality equates to an individual's perceptual experience, then the only way to prove an ultimate reality (on any socially or scientifically acceptable level) is through corroboration.

There are still issues with how individual's interpret, and therefore corroborate, observable phenomenon. Consider a single event with 10 witnesses and their 10 interpretations of said event. Imagine a UFO sighting, for instance. There may be stories of angels or aliens, military activity or simple mass hysteria. So... was it real? These people can corroborate the occurrence of event, at least. But, society and science may still call them insane, depending on the circumstance.

From an individual's perspective, regardless of social acceptance, the question becomes about the nature of reality. If perceptual experience is the ultimate reality, then whatever one experiences IS real (even when it cannot be corroborated.) Barring any debates on the nature of existence, this concept can't easily be disregarded. For advanced as our science is, we should all still be aware of it's limitations; the same goes for our bodies and perception!

Humans perceive only a percentage of light and sound. So it could be argued that certain stimuli, such as a state of extreme fatigue, might simply allow one to perceive sensory information that is not observable in an otherwise healthy state.

Our generally minimal knowledge of the brain and human behavior is constantly changing our definitions of insanity... Consider the hysteria fiasco. Likewise, our theories on reality cannot determine what is real through abstract concept alone... So, this question may well be, ultimately, unanswerable for now. :S


What is "insanity"? What is "mental illness"?

In his 1961 work "The Myth of Mental Illness", Thomas Szasz famously argued that what is commonly qualified as "mental illness" is merely a deviation from societal norms. Szasz argued that "mental illness" is a metaphor and not a genuine disease, that it is merely a way of dealing with problematic people in society.

“Psychiatry is conventionally defined as a medical specialty concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mental diseases,” he wrote. “I submit that this definition, which is still widely accepted, places psychiatry in the company of alchemy and astrology and commits it to the category of pseudoscience. The reason for this is that there is no such thing as ‘mental illness.’”

Recent works like Paris Williams’s 2012 publication Rethinking Madness and Wouter Kusters’s 2014 Philosophy of Madness reiterate this notion. They regard "psychosis" not as a form of "mental illness", but as a variation from the norm that comes with both positive and negative symptoms. Others have made similar arguments with respect to Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, etc.

In fact, psychosis, Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and many other variations typically perceived as "defects" all commonly co-occur with high intelligence and creativity. Many (if not most) of the world's greatest scientists, artists and entrepreneurs are known to walk or have walked the thin line between "genius" and "madness".

So what is the role of "insanity" in society? Maybe those perceived are "insane" or "mentally ill" are just more extreme variations within normal human neurodiversity, who are far more sensitive to context / environment than the average human, but who often also can become capable of the extraordinary under the right circumstances.

To quote Bruce Feirstein :

The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.

  • The question becomes if this is true, and there is criminal and/ or socially disruptive behavior involved, should it be labeled somehow? Aug 30, 2016 at 13:04
  • @JesseCohoon : I don't believe there's anything wrong with labeling or categorizing other people per se. However, we should avoid labeling or categorizing certain groups of people as "broken" or "ill" because they appear less capable to us of functioning in society than the average person. As we all know, appearance can be deceiving... Aug 30, 2016 at 15:19
  • Even if looks can be deceiving, is there ever a line when it is not - where things are exactly as they seem? I mean people, for instance, who can't work? I, for instance, have a VERY difficult time with getting job(s), for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that I have difficulty in social circumstances. EVERY little thing counts. Yet, when I am given a chance and left to do what I do best: write and do graphics work, I can do above & beyond what people expect. The problem is getting companies to recognize that talent. (more) Aug 30, 2016 at 19:53
  • Or what about people who are problematic because of something's that happened to them (or failed to happen to them as the case might be), and/ or they're acting out because they have not had the support system they need. It's not as if you can remove those circumstances from their lives in order to make them functional members of society. A person who's "damaged goods" who can't get a break no matter what. Aug 30, 2016 at 19:56
  • @JesseCohoon : I'm a programmer with Asperger's. Who's to say that I'm "disabled" just because I'm socially awkward and suck at planning? My girlfriend is in a wheelchair due to spinal muscular atrophy & teaches at a university. Who's to say that she's "disabled" just because she's in a wheelchair? Sometimes, the difference between success & failure in life is just sheer luck! Most of the women I dated or people I considered my friend at some point in my life seem to fit the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder or Autism in retrospect, with some doing well and others... not so well. Aug 31, 2016 at 9:16

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