How being in crowds (may have) caused psychosis

It’s Canada Day, and boy are you hungry. You have a hankering for sticky meats and while the drool begins to pool in your mouth, you remember. The Mandarin Chinese Buffet is having a free Canada Day buffet!

You hop on the subway and go to your nearest Mandarin. When you arrive at your stop, you wonder, “what’s that noise?” You exit the station and then it hits you. The noise was the massive crowd of hundreds of people who had the exact same idea as you. Just a few hours earlier.


For me, those crowds were outside of my home, and man what a spectacle. Hundreds – maybe a thousand? – of people lined up to stuff their faces. This crowd is one thing at ten in the morning after a nice breakfast. It’s an entirely different beast at two in the afternoon with a rumbling stomach. Tensions start to build (indicated by the police presence that has slowly built up over time), and it’s easy to imagine how something could go wrong.

But it doesn’t. Against what seems tremendous odds, these events, as most do, go by without a major hitch or injury.  It leads one to wonder, what exactly allows us to do accomplish this as humans?

If you’ve grown up in a rural community like myself, you’re probably familiar with ant hills. If, like me, you essentially lived in a forest, there might be a few different ant hills around. Inevitably, as kids do, you take an ant from two different colonies and leave them together.

Spoiler: they fight to the death.

macro photo of five orange ants
Photo by Poranimm Athithawatthee on

This obviously doesn’t happen with humans. In fact, you can take two humans who couldn’t be from more different walks of life, and often times, a relationship will form. Why have we evolved this way? Well, it helps us! Humans are social animals at their very core, and our human society is the only society (think meercats, honey bees, other social animals), that have built a civilization. Civilization has allowed us as a species to thrive and master the planet like none before us. What does it take to build a civilization?

Trust, for one. Humans have needed to evolve trust of one another so that we can take full advantage of the world’s resources. We need to trust that by doing our jobs (which often times have absolutely nothing to do with the basic necessities of life), we get paid, and we need to trust that by getting paid, we are able to buy food and resources to sustain ourselves. It would be difficult to wake up every morning and be an insurance broker if that didn’t translate into food, shelter, and security for your family.

Trust, however, can only go so far. There are inevitably people among us who would violate that trust, and who would harm us, were our defenses so low. This problem has been increasingly important as humans live in denser and denser cities. It has required us to develop suspicion, to complement our trust of each other. In big cities, a mild level of paranoia keeps us safe. It makes us lock our doors at night, avoid the dark alley, and be aware of people acting strangely or dangerously around us. To simplify things, you could say all of us have inherited a little suspicion from our parents.

Sometimes, people can inherit too much suspicion. We may call this paranoia, or psychosis. This might make you believe people want to harm you, or that you are being monitored. You might begin to take meaning from completely innocuous things, due to hyperviligance. Think of psychosis as our natural suspicion in overdrive, suspicious traits that have become too concentrated. This perhaps lends to the fact that living in an urban environment significantly increases your risk of developing psychosis.

This theory is one of many behind the question, why does psychosis exist? We may never know for sure. What I do know, is that the human mind is fascinating, and we can often under appreciate the profound significance behind something as apparently simple as being in a crowd.

Like more on psychosis? Try this out!

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

3 thoughts on “How being in crowds (may have) caused psychosis

  1. I personally have experienced psychosis in the depths of my severe depression. It required me to be hospitalized several times and boy was it scary. The hospitalization with severe mental health patients is traumatizing. The whole process of trying 30 different meds in the course of 13 days. I wanted to give up. I felt like a zombie and everything was a blur. I thought the police were after me and I actually heard sirens. Sometimes they were real other times they weren’t. Scariest time of my life but also the biggest blessing. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I’m thankful for the experience because I can now relate to others with the same experiences! Thank you for blogging!


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