Monday, 23 March 2009

Divine Madness?

This is the live blog of the second talk in CFI U.K.'s "God in the lab" meeting at Conway Hall, London. 21st March, 2009.

Dr Mike Jackson is a consultant clinical psychologist specialising in psychosocial treatments for the psychoses. He works in the NHS in North Wales, and he is an honorary lecturer in the School of Psychology at Bangor university.

Although for most of us they are rare events, religious and spiritual experiences are widely reported in the normal population, and they are usually described as being benign, sometimes life changing events for the individual concerned. Such experiences often involve anomalous phenomena - hearing voices, the sense of an external, guiding presence, strong conviction in a new insight or revelation - which also characterise psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. This lecture will explore some of the paradoxes which arise in the uncertain territory between psychosis and spirituality, drawing on examples from clinical practice, and a series of research studies. Our current study of benign and pathological auditory hallucinations, allows us for the first time to compare FMRI images of the brain’s activity as these phenomena occur.


This will talk cover:

  1. Spiritual experiences are widely reported, and generally benign
  2. They are sometimes ‘psychotic’ in form and content,
  3. Yet psychosis is symptomatic of serious disorder
  4. People with psychotic disorders also involve spiritual experiences
  5. There are common underlying processes, and a continuum of ‘vulnerability’
  6. What makes the difference ? between a benign experience and psychiatric disorder?
  7. Implications for understanding religious belief and psychotic disorders.

Spiritual experience is not a summary of religious experience in general. This covers only one aspect of human spirituality – Unusual, transient, ‘anomalous’ experiences – suggesting direct awareness of a different reality.

The Hardy Question:

Have you ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or a power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self ?

5000 people wrote in with different accounts of this. Gallup surveys indicate about 30% of the general population would give a positive answer to the Hardy Question, the same as in this CFI audience.

Continuum of anomalousness:Gentle vs Intense, Orthodox vs Idiosyncratic, No sensory elements vs Clear ‘hallucinations’, Connectedness vs Loss of self, Transient vs Extended, Not paranormal vs Strong ‘paranormal’. These are the kinds of features common to such experiences.

Many found these experiences as benign, positive and helpful. Saying things like:

  • I can cope more with death now, and know that there is something after it.
  • It has made me more patient and caring.
  • I do not feel alone, as if she is with me, caring for me.
  • I feel I have found a friend, a prop if you like. Inside my head, I can put the world to rights. I talk to my friend (whom I believe to be God) and talking things out often makes insurmountable problems seem like molehills.

Whilst these are common across the population (30-60%) for most these, these are still rare happening once or twice in a lifetime.

However can a similar set of experiences have quite a different and malignant affect namely with schizophrenics? Are these the same type of experiences? For his Phd, he compared both groups to investigate why one finds these experiences beneficial and the other finds it detrimental. He studied 5 diagnosed psychotics  versus 5 with intense but benign spiritual experiences and created a qualitative comparison of the phenomenology of experiences, history and interpretation.

Many of those with benign experience could have been considered crazy but they had not thought of it that way! As opposed to the schizophrenics who have often been challenged on this. And, still, those with benign experiences were able to function fine in society.

Hs conclusions were

  • High level of ‘symptoms’ in benign group
  • Traditional psychiatric and religious distinctions do not separate these groups
  • Both groups had benign and negative experiences

After discussing some interesting details of different patients he continues with some quotes from William James:

‘In delusional insanity, paranoia as they sometimes call it, we may have a kind of diabolical mysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down. The same sense of ineffable importance in the smallest events, the same texts and words coming with new meanings, the same voices and visions and leadings and missions, the same controlling by extraneous powers;

only this time the emotion is pessimistic : instead of consolations we have desolations; the meanings are dreadful; and the powers are enemies to life .....’
William James, (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience

So what is the relationship between spiritual and psychotic experiences? Various hypotheses are examined:

  • The parallels are superficial - he denies this they are more than superficial
  • Identity – no distinction - this is going to far the other way
  • Continuum - this makes more sense and his preferred answer
  • Common mechanism (William James) - this makes more sense too
  • Cultural/ historical relativity - a psychosis here in another time and place might be regarded as a spiritual and benign one
So pursuing his preferred answer, Jackson seeks to provide a cognitive model of psychosis in order to determine whether these experiences lead to a benign benefits or psychiatric disorders.

Jackson then presents the results of "The relationship between trauma and beliefs about hearing voices: a study of psychiatric and non-psychiatric voice hearers" [Andrew, Gray and Snowden 2008]:

Spiritualists and mediums (n=22) vs Psychiatric voice Hearers (N=21) with measures: Voice characteristics, Trauma history and Mood disorder (Anxiety, depression).

In a comparison of voice characteristics the psychiatric voice hearers heard:
  • voices more frequent,
  • longer durations,
  • more negative content,
  • less control
  • more distress
  • Believed the voices to be more malevolent and omnipotent
  • more resistant coping.
Jackson performed a different study replicating the above and using fMRI. With fMRI scans of benign and pathological voice hearers, comparing brain activity before hallucination versus during hallucination and for ‘auditory imagery’ as well as a voice localiser study

Jackson's conclusions were that psychiatric patients have more unresolved trauma (especially due to childhood abuse being a sadly common feature) with a less secure sense of self in relation to others. They have a nastier  ‘unconscious’ contents and a tendency to interpret ongoing experience more negatively.

There is much data in this talk with fMRI slides and interesting implications.

What does any of this tell us about God? Nothing, but it does tell us some things about human spiritual experience. It is not substantively different to certain psychotic experiences, the outcomes differ due to the personal historical backgrounds of the subjects, a higher incidence of childhood abuse being a factor to leads to such experience leading to a psychotic outcome.

Postscript: Republished with typos, a conclusion and link update.

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