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Flight of Ideas

Pride of lions
Fleet of ships
Host of angels...

Flight of ideas.

It's a lovely phrase.  Isn't that what ideas do -- fly?

I think so.  But evidently, not everybody.


A Visit from the Goon Squad

I was looking to meet new people in my new home town, and went to the library's book club.  The selection for my second meeting was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.  Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and, oh yes, suicide -- these characters were my tribe!  No, I haven't lived their lives.  More to the point, I have asked their questions.

I wasn't sure how Egan's characters would be received in this group of middle-aged and older women.  I didn't know the book club members yet, but they seemed pretty respectable.  Then again, I can seem pretty respectable, too.  I expected a lively discussion.

Nope.  No lively discussion.  No discussion at all.  They were so dismayed, they were speechless.  The librarian resorted to reading reviews.


I thought I'd open things up by framing a potential talking point.  I said, the theme is about the changes one makes across a lifetime.  How did I get from Point A to Point B?  I said that is a live question for me lately. [ I thought they could say something about that, us all being of the age when we look back and reflect on choices made, that sort of thing.]

Nope.  Silence.  The librarian went on to the author's bio.

Granted, the characters in the Goon Squad went from Point A to Point Q or X.  It was too much of a stretch.

One person, a psychiatrist did have something to say.  (How did I end up in a book club with a psychiatrist?  This could be interesting...)

The book reminded me of some of my patients, who have this symptom called flight of ideas.

She didn't mean it in a good way.  Everybody knew she didn't mean it in a good way.  They nodded, instinctively knowing what flight of ideas is and how it explains why they detested the book.

Oh, what the hell.  I said, Maybe that's why I liked it so much.

Flight of Ideas Defined

Psychcentral.com's encyclopedia defines flight of ideas as a characteristic of mania, rapid speech with frequent shifts of topic (the changes are generally based on cogent associations.)

BehaveNet.com goes with rapid movement through a succession of logically associated ideas.

In other words, my essential writing style.

But Mosby's Medical Dictionary has a different take on it, a continuous stream of talk in which the patient switches rapidly from one topic to another and each subject is incoherent and unrelated to the preceding one or is stimulated by some environmental circumstance.

Dictionaries vary by whether they acknowledge that the ideas in flight are indeed connected.  Some just call it disorganized and incoherent.

The thing is, disorganized and incoherent to whom?

To the psychiatrist, of course.

Diagnostic Criteria of Bipolar Reframed

Flight of ideas is a symptom of the manic phase of bipolar.  That is what the DSM says.

What would people with bipolar say?  Flight of ideas is our ability to find more associations, connect more dots than our psychiatrists can.

Actually, this is a chronic bipolar condition, or again, the way we would put it, the source of our art.  They think it is part of mania simply because, when we are manic or hypomanic, we forget to rein it in.  We speak as quickly as we think, instead of as slowly as the people around us think.

I had no trouble following the multiple story lines of A Visit from the Goon Squad, and recommend it to anyone who is willing to go along for the ride.  I love how the author weaves its many strands into a coherent narrative around her one central theme, a theme to which any reflective reader could relate, even if it is presented by characters to whom the reader cannot relate.  The reader just might grow in his/her capacity to find connection to and compassion for people of different life experience.  I think that is one of the great gifts of a great story, that it leaves us bigger, more connected to the universe than we were before we read it.

I am reminded of a story John McManamy tells, of when he was asked to speak at some psychiatric association meeting.  He said to a hall filled with psychiatrists

a pod of psychiatrists?
a posse of psychiatrists?
a crock of psychiatrists?

-- What you need to understand is, we don't want to be like you.  I mean, to me, you all look like you have flat affect.


It depends on who is doing the diagnosing, don't you think?

Enjoy the bouncing balls -- whether or not you can follow them!


Choir of angels in heaven, 19th cent., in the public domain
book cover from Amazon.com
photo of Royal Terns  by Debivort, used under GNU Free Documentation license
illustration of butterflies from In Fairyland by Richard Doyle, in the public domain
portrait of Ludwig von Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1819 or 1820, in the public domain
portrait of  Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford, in the public domain
photo of faculty alumni forum at Princeton by  Andreas Praefcke, used under GNU Free Documentation license

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