I Give Plants, Numbers, and Letters Human Characteristics

Reader’s Question

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type one after a mental breakdown at age 16. Right now I am taking 300 mg of Seroquel and 900 mg of lithium carbonate and 10 mg of Prozac. The medications are working well. I am now a third year Senior Chemistry major. But there is one question that has been always in my mind, and I haven’t found a good answer to it yet. As far as I remember, when I was a kid (maybe around 6 or 7), I saw my brother who is three years older than me playing with toy cars and imagining that they are real cars. I did the same thing, but then I could imagine that something like a TV remote control was a bus or a car. I couldn’t imagine wheels, but I could imagine that this is a special type of car that hasn’t been made yet. And I always liked to play with dolls. Dolls had personality. I also liked to play with toy animals.

My parents were not so rich. They would buy toys, but they couldn’t afford to buy any kind of toys I wanted. I liked to play with toys that had human character: I would try to create human character in other things such as branches of trees and other objects. The next thing that I remember is that when I was in second grade, alphabets had character for me. Right now that I am writing A has it’s own character as a respectful sometimes, somewhat kind middle aged man. B is a man that is proud and looked a little bit moody. C is even more moody and a little bit angry, but doesn’t seem so handsome. D however looks kind. I also had characters for numbers. For instance, 2 is like a handsome young man. Well, these are based on how the number 2 or character D is written on the page.

They are not permanent and their kindness or character might change with my mood. Most of the times when I look at a circle I see a kind face, but when I look at a square I don’t see a kind face. In order to imagine facial characters I should look at the picture and the lines, and what everyone can see helps me to imagine. When I see a tape (for recorder) I see two eyes with long eye lashes. I don’t imagine a mouth or nose for the tape, but the eyes are enough for character. What would make some people worry or interested when I was a kid was me playing with objects like dolls and imagining what other kids couldn’t imagine. I would make stories with these characters. If a child plays with a doll, it doesn’t seem abnormal, but if a child plays with a flower or a tree leaf or a pen or a comb or a pencil or a branch of tree the way he would play with a doll that sounds abnormal.

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Some people were worried; my uncle once said that I have an ability to make my small world big. As I grew older, I became more interested in playing and when I was upset and lonely, this was a great way to feel better. Sometimes I would do it in front of people other than my family and this would make my sister angry at me and she would call me addicted. After the psychotic breakdown, my counselor in Iran told me that I shouldn’t do that any more. If this is a characteristic of bipolar type one, what is it called? I think it is not a hallucination because I know that a flower is just a flower. If it is not a character of bipolar type one what is the psychological explanation for it?

Psychologist’s Reply

As a child, you would have been described as having an “overactive imagination”. Intellectually bright children, as you must have been, are often interested in the future and in their play, tend to think and play in an unconventional manner. If we think about it, that’s how many of our inventions are created. That remote control with no wheels — a “hovercraft”. Authors of creative science fiction and other works of art have that same level of creativity that often extends to objects and animals, giving them human characteristics. Many of our children’s movies involve animals, plants, and automobiles that not only talk, but have distinct personalities.

From a psychology standpoint, we of course have a name for this creative behavior. Attributing human characteristics to animals, objects, letters, etc. is called “anthropomorphism”. This behavior is very common in children…and adults. There is also a range in this behavior that includes relationships with pets/animals (very common) to the other end of the scale where the individual is totally self-absorbed in a fantasy world they have created, a world populated by objects or things with human characteristics. Anthropomorphism serves an important purpose. It’s often used as a strategy for loneliness, especially in children and adults who feel isolated from others, detached, or without close relationships. Finding it difficult to form relationships with people, the child or adult creates his/her own social relationships with the objects around them. As a strategy to deal with being lonely, anthropomorphism is very common. The actor Tom Hanks, in the movie Cast Away, creates a companion he calls “Wilson” from a volleyball. It helped him survive the lack of human contact.

How is anthropomorphism associated with your psychiatric history and status? The view of an “overactive imagination” is important in this situation. While it’s not uncommon to attribute human characteristics to common objects and things in our environment (people talk to their computer, auto, plants, etc.) — you’re mentally working overtime to anthropomorphize everything in your environment — letters, numbers, cassettes, etc. That’s the Bipolar part. A classic characteristic of Bipolar Disorder is rapid mind speed and being what we call “overideational” — too many thoughts and ideas. Your medications are attempting to control that overideational behavior, as unchecked, it can overwhelm you and place you in a world of anthropomorphic fantasies where you become socially nonfunctional.

While the behavior is not a hallucination, it is something you may have difficulty controlling. You are attributing too much to too many things in your environment — that’s being overideational. You can use your anthropomorphic fantasies as an indicator of your Bipolar status. If the behavior increases, consult your psychiatrist immediately as it suggests your neurochemistry is changing — producing more fantasies.

Your counselor in Iran was also providing good advice. A preoccupation with anthropomorphic fantasy draws you into fantasy and away from reality. When there is a risk for mania or other Bipolar symptoms, excessive fantasy can be dangerous to our mental health. Focus on reality, real people and their characteristics, and your university studies. Also, stay on your medications.

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