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cultural relativity culture-bound syndromes psychopathology

What is Bizarre Behavior?


A few years ago I worked as a psychologist in a large state-run mental hospital. Each day on the job I would regularly interact with people who would be considered strange and who acted in bizarre ways. I thought nothing of this and perhaps due to my psychological training or familiarity over time, the appearance and conduct on my hospital patients was something I took for granted. It wasn’t until a friend or family member came to visit that I got a realization of how strange my charges were and how shocking their behavior could be. I remember seeing the look on the faces of my friends when they first came in to the unit and were suddenly surrounded by people who looked and acted in radically different ways than what was considered normal to someone outside of the hospital.

One day my wife came to visit and was accosted by one of my patients as soon as she arrived. This patient Ron suffered from Ring 22 chromosomal disorder. He had the IQ of and infant even though he was in his twenties. He was about 5’2” slightly built and good looking. He would alternate mood very quickly, laughing one moment and then crying the next. My wife being someone new excited his curiosity so he sought her attention. This would have been fine except his way of eliciting it included drooling, muttering incomprehensible phrases, and trying to pinch her breasts. As soon as Ron tried to get my wife’s attention a number of other patients decided to join in on the fun. When I came in the room, my wife was surrounded by ten or so patients pawing at her and trying to pinch her. She very politely tried to stave them off but was almost driven into a panic when I finally whisked her off the ward. Once outside I could see that she was very agitated. After she calmed down she looked at me and asked incredulously “ how can you work with these people every day?” The truth was I didn’t know.

The appearance of my patients (many of whom were quite strange compared to Ron) and their strange behaviors had become familiar and commonplace to me. In order to help them, I needed to see beyond the strangeness of their presence and the typical human reaction to extreme differences in behavior. This is, or course, what my training as a psychologist allowed me to do. My training also helped me to ask what the meaning (if any) lay behind the behaviors I was seeing day in and day out in the hospital. In a way, this is exactly the goal of this blog – to better understand and find meaning for behaviors that exist on the extreme edge of the human repertoire. Simultaneously we can learn to become desensitized us to the strangeness of those who perform the behaviors. Instead of reacting to the strangeness of those who are so unlike ourselves by distancing ourselves from them, we can instead engage them as fellow human beings.

In a more ‘macro’ point of view the problem my wife had in visiting the hospital ward was one of cultural relativity. Briefly, cultural relativity is where something normal in one culture or group appear strange, abnormal or bizarre from the viewpoint of some outside the group or in a different group. From inside our culture at the hospital our patients’ behaviors did not appear bizarre. They might be maladaptive, adaptive, ‘reinforced’, communicative, etc., but they were not bizarre per se. However, for someone new to the world of the mental hospital there were strange things going on.

So in a way the purpose of this blog is to examine the ‘relativity’ of human behaviors. More specifically, I hope to:

  1. Explain and distinguish the most common bizarre behaviors and syndromes from around the world.
  2. Demonstrate an understanding of the psychology of abnormal behavior in relation to cultural phenomena.
  3. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of theory and research in the psychological and physiological bases of extreme behaviors.
  4. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of individual and cultural differences in what is considered ‘normal’ behavior.
  5. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of perspectives on the origin and treatment of bizarre and extreme behaviors.

Let me know how I am doing and if you have behaviors of your own to share please drop me a line. I look forward to your comments!

By Bizarre Behavior & Culture Bound Syndromes

Dr. Kevin Volkan is a psychologist, writer, and educator with over twenty years of clinical, corporate, and academic experience. He is Professor of Psychology at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) and is on the graduate medical Faculty in the Community Memorial Health System. Dr. Volkan was one of the founding faculty at CSUCI which is the 23rd campus in California State University system where he teaches a course on atypical psychopathologies titled Bizarre Behaviors and Culture-Bound Syndromes. This course explores the outer range of extreme human behavior including paraphilias and was the inspiration for this blog. Consonant with his interest in deviant psychopathologies he also teaches clinical psychology and a course on the psychology of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Dr. Volkan has been a Silberman Seminar Fellow at The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in 2010 and 2014. Before coming to CSUCI, Dr. Volkan was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School where he researched ways to measure medical student and physician performance, and the psychological origins of medical error. While at Harvard, Dr. Volkan also taught for the prestigious Harvard-Macy Institute, a joint program run by the Harvard Business, Education, and Medical schools. In this program he taught medical students and physicians from Harvard as well as from all over the world. Dr. Volkan’s background in psychology is varied and he maintains an active interest in several psychological approaches to understanding human nature – including socio-biological, psychoanalytic, psychometric, and cognitive-behavioral. He has had a long-standing interest in the psychology of compulsive drug use (which has similarities to the psychology of paraphilias), and has published a book on the subject. Dr. Volkan worked as a clinical psychologist for many years. This experience included serving as staff psychologist and Vice Chair of psychology at Agnews State Hospital in San Jose. During his tenure at Agnews, Dr. Volkan worked with patients who demonstrated many severe behavioral problems, including profoundly autistic, psychotic, self-injurious, and developmentally disabled individuals. Dr. Volkan was awarded the Sustained Superior Accomplishment Award from the State of California for his clinical work. In addition to his hospital work, Dr. Volkan also maintained a private practice in psychology in the San Francisco Bay Area. He served as a psychologist for the California Victim Witness program, seeing patients who were victims of crime and/or abuse. Dr. Volkan’s clients included a diverse population of people representing a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and psychological distress. Dr. Volkan received a BA in Biology from the University of California, an MA in Psychology from Sonoma State University, an EdD in Educational Psychology from Northern Illinois University, a PhD in Clinical Psychology from The Center for Psychological Studies, and a MPH in Public Health from Harvard University. In his spare time he practices martial arts and plays guitar in a rock band.

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