Episode 123 – “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

In light of The Twilight Zone‘s attention to philosophical themes related to the imagination, it isn’t surprising that there are several episodes that explore what happens when the imagination, understood as a faculty of the mind, takes on an out-sized role in the life of a character or characters. Several episodes explore the active imagination in the minds of children, while others reveal what happens when the imagination of an adult becomes more active than it usually is. We often characterize adults with severely overactive imaginations as suffering from some form of mental illness. We often characterize adults with more mildly active imaginations as artists.

While artists may rely on their imaginations more than most of us to practice their craft, successfully managing in the world depends on being able to distinguish between the things we just imagine and the things we really see.  In “Where is Everyone?”, “Shadow Play,” “King Nine Will Not Return,” “A World of Difference,” and others, the question of how we distinguish the imagined from the real is raised. In most cases, there is some individual who believes that something exists, and there is everyone else, who thinks that it doesn’t exist, that the individual is imagining something that doesn’t exist. The problem is that the single individual is convinced that she or he is experiencing or sensing the object or objects in question, not merely imagining it. Attempts to convince the individual otherwise will fail. If you see an apple in front of you, no one is going to convince you that the apple isn’t there.

This is a bit of an oversimplification. There are times when we seem to see something, and what we seem to see doesn’t correspond to the way things are. If you don a pair of green tinted sunglasses, your white car might appear green, and for a moment you might be surprised until you realize that the car appears green because you are not viewing it under normal circumstances.

Mental illness of the kind suffered by Bob Wilson in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is not like this. The way Bob perceives the world can’t be changed by removing a pair of glasses, or by any other changes he or others can make to the conditions under which he interacts with his surroundings.

Bob’s malady isn’t simply a fear of flying in an airplane. It is a fear supported by what he (mistakenly) takes to be his direct observations of an individual on the wing of the plane who is attempting to tamper with and disable the craft. A phobia of flying could be the result of mistaken beliefs about the safety record of air travel, or about the safety procedures used by airlines. In principle, it sometimes is possible to quell someone’s fear of flying by correcting beliefs and providing information.

Bob’s problem also isn’t just a conflict between reason and passion, where the passion of fear wins out. Bob’s fear is grounded in his belief that there is a creature on the wing who is trying to bring the plane down, and he reasons that he must alert others to the problem and take action to maintain the airplane in flight. The failure of others to accept his testimony is distressing. At the same time, others are distressed by his claims, which are not corroborated by their experience, and by his behavior, which is inappropriate, from their perspective.

Those around Bob, including his wife and the flight attendant, are ill-equipped to respond to his concerns. That may have something to do with the fact that they can’t really understand what it is that he believes and desires. As Daniel Dennett has suggested, our practice of attributing a belief to someone is wrapped up in our attribution of other beliefs to that person, beliefs that “make sense” together with the belief attributed. For example, if I take you to believe that apples are a healthy food, then I can also attribute to you the belief that some fruits are healthy foods, since the latter proposition is a logical consequence of the former. In short, I attribute to you beliefs that are logical consequences of the beliefs I take you to have. That means that we usually take the reasoning capacity of other folks to be intact.

In the case of Bob, all bets are off. We take him to be suffering from some kind of information processing failure, since he is drawing radically different conclusions from the same circumstances we are in, and that limits our ability to construct a coherent picture of his beliefs. Dennett argues that in such cases we have to stop thinking of Bob as having beliefs at all, that is, he is no longer an “intentional system.” Instead, we have to revert to thinking of Bob as a designed system, where there is some failure in the implementation of the design that is responsible for Bob’s behavior. This is what the flight engineer does, when he interacts with Bob. He gives up trying to reason with Bob, and instead adopts a strategy of manipulation. He pretends that he shares Bob’s belief that the plane is in danger, and he tries to convince Bob that they have to cooperate to keep the other passengers calm.  Unfortunately, Bob quickly realizes that he is being manipulated rather than being believed. The other intervention is medication, but Bob is wise to this form of manipulation as well. Attempts to control Bob’s behavior require strategies other than reasoned discussion, and deception becomes important on both sides.

If Bob is no longer functioning as an intentional system, as a a holder of beliefs and desires that are logically linked together, what is responsible for his condition? What do we know about mental disorders and their treatment?  We’re told that Bob has just recovered from a serious event that led to a six month hospitalization.  We now have theories and treatment strategies based on evidence from the social and cognitive sciences, and most prominently from neuroscience, theories that were at best in their infancy in the early 1960s.  It’s probably fair to say, however, that we’ve made more progress in aerospace than we have in understanding and treating mental disorders of the kind suffered by Bob Wilson.

Further Reading:

Bolton, Derek, 2008, What is a Mental Disorder?, Oxford University Press.

Dennett, Daniel C., “Intentional Systems” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Feb. 25, 1971), 87-106. (also cited in “To Serve Man.”)

Young, Garry, 2011, “Beliefs, Experiences and Misplaced Being: An Interactionist Account of Delusional Misidentification”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 10(2): 195–215.

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