The Cognitive Neuropsychology of Delusions


Robyn Langdon Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia.


After reviewing factors implicated in the generation of delusional beliefs, we conclude that whilst a perceptual aberration coupled with a particular type of attri-butional bias may be necessary to explain the specific thematic content of a bizarre delusion, neither of these factors, whether in isolation or in combination, is sufficient to explain the presence of delusional beliefs. In contrast to bias models (theories which explain delusion formation in terms of extremes of normal reasoning biases), we advocate a deficit model of delusion formation–that is, delusions arise when the normal cognitive system which people use to generate, evaluate, and then adopt beliefs is damaged. Mere bias we think inadequate to explain bizarre delusions which defy commonsense and persist despite overwhelming rational counter-argument. In particular, we propose that two deficits must be present in the normal cognitive system to explain bizarre delusions: (1) there must be some damage to sensory and/or attentional-orient-ing mechanisms which causes an aberrant perception–this explains the bizarre content of the causal hypothesis generated to explain what is happening; and (2) there must also be a failure of normal belief evaluation–this explains why a hypothesis, implausible in the light of general commonsense, is adopted as belief. This latter deficit occurs, we suggest, when an individual is incapable of suspending the natural favoured status of direct first-person evidence in order to critically evaluate hypotheses, given equal pri-ority whether based on direct or indirect sources of information. In contrast, delusions with ‘ordinary’ content may arise when a single deficit of normal belief evaluation occurs in the context of an extreme (but normal) attentional bias, thus causing failure to critically evaluate hypotheses based on misperceptions and misintrepretations of ambiguous (but ordinary) first-person experience.