Treating Woo-Woo

Jules Evans over-worries:

I had evangelists either side of me at dinner. The woman on my right was beautiful, charming and, technically speaking, psychotic. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Her eyes grew wide as she told me how God regularly spoke to her, cared for her, entered her. She believed she had witnessed many miracles, that her eyes had been opened to a hidden level of reality.

A western psychiatrist would nod and tick off the classic symptoms of psychosis: hearing voices, feeling guided by spirits, feeling singled out by the universe, believing you have magical abilities to save the world. Our psychiatric wards are full of people locked up for expressing such beliefs.

We define ourselves, as a culture, by our attitude to such experiences. Before the modern age, they were very common and were categorised as heavenly or demonic visitations. Some of the founding figures of civilisation were, technically speaking, psychotic: Socrates, the father of western rationalism, had a daemon who gave him orders.

But since the 17th century such phenomena have been shifted to the margins of our secular, scientific, post-animist culture and defined as pathological symptoms of a physical or emotional disease. Today, if you tell your doctor about such experiences, you are likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia and be prescribed debilitating anti-psychotic drugs.

And yet such experiences are very common. A new paper by Heriot-Maitland, Knight and Peters in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (BJCP) estimates that 10-15 percent of the population encounter “out-of-the-ordinary experiences” (OOEs) such as hearing voices. By automatically pathologising and hospitalising such people, we are sacrificing them to our own secular belief system, not unlike the Church burning witches.

Actually, it’s completely “unlike”. There were no (true) witches, while the pathological conditions are real. That they are far from rare that doesn’t make them any less of a disease.

But that doesn’t mean that the treatment always has to be medical in the conventional sense of the word, and here Mr. Evans makes a good point:

Perhaps we need to find a more pragmatic attitude to revelatory experiences, an attitude closer to that of William James, the pioneering American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. James studied many different religious experiences, asking not “Are they true?” but rather “What do they lead to? Do they help you or cause you distress? Do they inspire you to valuable work or make you curl up into a ball?”

We can evaluate the worth of a revelatory experience without trying to find out if the experience “really” came from God or not.

Fair enough, therapeutically speaking, but keep the pills handy….

H/t: Andrew Sullivan

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