Angels and ministers of grace – aberrant saliency

OK, this is a second attempt at yesterday’s blog entry, because I left things out ‘cos they seemed a bit embarrassing to admit to, no-one likes to seem too mental. But it only really makes sense if I tell the story as a whole.

ADDED CAVEAT: I don’t really mean to sound flippant about bipolar disorder – bipolar is an awful disease for many people. But also, it’s really, really odd, and I can’t help myself from mentally “poking” at odd things and wondering why they happen.
  Obviously, it’d be great if there were better ways of treating it, with fewer side effects, and I hope that happens, but I really don’t think there’s much I, personally, can do to speed up that process. Not right now, anyway.
  I don’t like the romanticization of bipolar that you sometimes see – sure, like any natural phenomenon, there are interesting things about it, that perhaps can illuminate some of the way brains and nervous systems work, and hopefully lead to better treatments; and for some people, bipolar might even be a catalyst for creative work – but for most people, it’s just an awful thing to live with and cope with. I haven’t found it especially easy, and I only have a pretty mild case; I have a reasonably close relative (an uncle) who has far more severe bipolar than I do, and it’s had a terrible impact on his life.


So firstly: imagine that you can see some object in front of you, and it’s blue: I don’t know, let’s say it’s a toy TARDIS in a shop somewhere. (This was the first blue thing that popped into my head 🙂 ) And you can see that it’s blue; and you know that it is blue; and you have no reason to think it’s anything other than blue; yet you have the strong feeling that somehow, it’s red. You don’t necessarily believe in or trust the red-feeling; after all, we have all sorts of perceptions (déjà vu, optical illusions) that we know don’t correspond to reality, and we just ignore them. We can look at examples of the Müller-Lyer illusion – this one (the top set of arrows; image from Wikipedia):

Müller-Lyer illusion

Müller-Lyer illusion

and the lengths of the arrows seem different, even though we can use other senses or tools or reasoning – e.g. a ruler – to show that they’re the same. Nevertheless, looking at the illusion, it feels that they’re of different lengths. If we saw a lot of Müller-Lyer illusions around the place, we’d get used to ignoring them and compensating for them, even if we couldn’t prevent ourselves from “feeling” that the arrows were, still, of different lengths – we’d just ignore that feeling.

Likewise, if you occasionally felt that a blue TARDIS was red, that would be pretty peculiar, but if it happened at all often, you’d just get used to it, and ignore the feeling. Well, in hypomania, it’s my experience that sometimes objects or people – or even ideas, or your entire surroundings – can “feel” like they’re glowing, or shining, or lit up, or “magical” in some way – even though you have no particular reason to think that they are – and perhaps even though there’s no actual visible way that they’re different from anything else (although I’m unsure about this; when I review my memories of this sort of occasion, it’s as if all other things, except for the “shining” thing, are somehow “dimmed”; maybe that’s an actual visual effect, tho unfortunately, it never occurred to me to take proper notes on this at the time).

So imagine that you’re waiting to pick up your coffee in your favourite café, and someone walks in that you haven’t seen before and it feels like they’re somehow shining and lit from within and almost indescribably beautiful – almost burning with beauty like the sun, with it almost coruscating out of them, so bright it’s almost hard to look it – like someone somehow made of burning, burnished bronze and blazing fire.

That would be a bit strange; but it’s impolite to stare, so if this sort of thing had occasionally happened before, and you knew it was probably due to a mental health disorder, you’d just try and ignore it, and wait for your coffee, and go. (Well – you might try and sneak a peak at them out of the corner of your eye, because you don’t “see” that sort of thing every day – but as I said, it’s rude to stare.)

And then you might see them again in the same café a few days later, and unsurprisingly, they seem perfectly normal, because, of course, they are perfectly normal. Pleasant enough in appearance, maybe, but certainly not made of burning, burnished bronze. (So few people are, these days; it’s hard to get the parts.)

So that’s what happened to me, in my local café, sometime late last year, and it’s happened infrequently enough (only a handful of times over the last 10 years, I think) that it was a bit startling and notable, but on the other hand, not something worth paying too much attention to because it goes away eventually. (Actually, I probably should’ve taken the opportunity to think that it might presage an oncoming depressive episode, but I was busy and forgot.)

My hypothesis – and a couple of other people suggested this also, as mentioned in the previous blog post on this – is that suddenly, for no particular reason, some bit of brain decides suddenly to dump a whole heap of salience on an object or person. And other bits of your brain have to account for why an object suddenly seems to be so salient – despite the fact that there’s no visible (except perhaps the possibility of other objects seeming visually “dimmed”) or logical reason why that object should be particularly salient; so they sort of “invent” a feeling that the object is glowing, or magical, or “special” in some way.

Some people might feel that sucks a little bit of the pleasure out of an otherwise interesting experience, but I can’t say that I find it so – no more than a rainbow is less beautiful for knowing how it’s formed. The experience is interesting, and the phenomenon is curious, and what more does one want out of something? It’d be like expecting poetry to not only be meaningful or pleasurable, but to make coffee for you as well, and very little poetry – perhaps none, at current levels of literary technology – has that degree of coffee-making facility.

As Mark Twain (1887) said,

“If you should climb the mighty Matterhorn to look out over the kingdom of the earth, it might be a pleasant incident to find strawberries up there. But Great Scott! You don’t climb the Matterhorn for strawberries!”

There are no doubt more pressing areas of research into bipolar disorder – for instance, ways of detecting it before symptoms start to show – but I thought the effect was curious enough to be worth mentioning.


Twain, Mark. “Dinner Speech” presented at the Ninth Annual Reunion Banquet, Army and Navy Club of Connecticut, Central Hall, Hartford, April 27, 1887.

2 thoughts on “Angels and ministers of grace – aberrant saliency

  1. gravbeast Post author

    What’s annoying about hypomania is that you’re a bit distracted from things – or from paying attention to it – because you’re trying to avoid the effects of the hypomania, & not do anything too silly. I should probably go on mood stabilizers 😦 Ugh. But more on that later.

  2. gravbeast Post author

    But then again, it really doesn’t seem to have happened that often in recent years, & it seems pretty mild, so maybe I can avoid changing medication, & having to deal with a bunch of new medication side effects; which is the last thing I want to do right now, in the middle of a PhD. I’m inclined to just hope for the best over the next 18 months to 2 years.

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