In the early years of the 20th century, a few pioneering Spiritualist psychiatrists attempted to cure acute mental illness via mediumship. Probably the most famous of these is Carl Wickland, whose 1924 book Thirty Years Among the Dead recounts his experiences in treating–and curing–a variety of psychoses in institutionalized patients. In these sessions, the obsessing or possessing spirit that was purportedly responsible for the patient's psychosis would communicate through Dr. Wickland's wife Anna while she was entranced. (A PDF of Wickland's book can be downloaded here.) Wickland would address the spirit as an equal, convincing the entity to accept the fact that he or she was dead and to move on to a higher plane.
Another Spiritualist psychiatrist of some note was Titus Bull, who employed somewhat similar techniques.
As the Spiritualist movement waned in the United States and Europe, such approaches to psychiatry, very rare to begin with, became all but extinct. Recently, however, I came across an article in the summer 2012 issue of The American Scholar which discusses a new trend in the treatment of schizophrenia, a disease characterized by hearing voices. The new approach, though it seems to owe nothing to Spiritualism, at least provides food for thought in considering the nature of these mysterious voices in people's heads. Perhaps it even suggests that these voices have more of an independent existence than conventional wisdom would have us believe.
Hans used to be overwhelmed by the voices. He heard them for hours, yelling at him, cursing him, telling him he should be dragged off into the forest and tortured and left to die. The most difficult thing to grasp about the voices people with psychotic illness hear are how loud and insistent they are, and how hard it is to function in a world where no one else can hear them. It's not like wearing an iPod. It's like being surrounded by a gang of bullies. You feel horrible, crazy, because the voices are real to no one else, yet also strangely special, and they wrap you like a cocoon. Hans found it impossible to concentrate on everyday things. He sat in his room and hid. But then the voices went away for good.
How did the voices go away? Luhrmann reports that "recently a new grassroots movement has emerged. It argues that if patients learn to address their voices directly and appropriately, as if each voice had intention and agency, the voices will become less hostile and eventually go away. From the perspective of modern psychiatry, this assertion is radical, even dangerous. But it is being taken seriously by an increasing number of patients and psychiatrists."
This new grassroots movement is called Hearing Voices. Practitioners encourage patients to interact with the voices, treating them with respect and civility, as if they were real, independent entities. This approach, of course, stands in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom on the subject, which holds that the patient should not be encouraged in his belief that the voices are real. As Luhrmann observes, "In biomedical psychiatry, mental health professionals ask whether the patient hears voices, not what the voices say. The goal is to get rid of the voices, like getting rid of a fever, and the mind-numbing, sleep-inducing antipsychotics are prescribed toward that end."
But antipsychotics don't always work, and even when they do, their side effects–as Luhrmann indicates–can be almost as devastating as the disease itself. At the end of his rope, Hans tried the Hearing Voices approach:
Hans joined a group of people like him who met once a week. They talked about their voices, and they were encouraged to talk back to them. They were even encouraged to negotiate with their voices. One of Hans's voices thought he would be better off if he devoted his life to Buddhist prayer. Hans is not a Buddhist–like many Dutch, he grew up as a secular Protestant–and he did not want to follow the voice's command. The group persuaded him to cut a deal with his voices. He told his voices that he would read a book on Buddhism every day for one hour–but no more. He would say one Buddhist prayer every day–but no more. And if he did this, he told them, they had to leave him alone.
They did, more or less. He began to feel better. His psychiatrists began to lower his Clozaril from its high of 500 mg per day down eventually to a dose of 50 mg. He lost weight. He became more alert. He moved out of the hospital. The voices didn't disappear entirely, but they got nicer. When he was moving into an apartment by himself–and petrified by the prospect–he heard a voice say, “Buck up, we know you can do it.” By the time I met him in 2009, he hadn't heard a voice in more than a year.
Lurhmann emphasizes that treating the voices as real participants in the process is the cornerstone of the technique:
Staff members conduct “voice dialogues,” often working one on one with a client. The staff member asks to speak with the voice. The client will listen for what the voice says and then reported back, in a strangely ventriloquized process. Some staff members invite the voices to attend the group meeting.…
The group thought that one had to talk with respect even to the harshest voices–the ones that screamed and cursed and wanted you dead. It is not easy, Hans said slowly, to talk nicely to your most aggressive voices. But the group said that if you showed respect, they would calm down. And they did.
The paradoxical assumption here is that if the voice-hearer treats the voices as if they are real, as if they are like the independent, external people in the world they are perceptually experienced as being, the voices will become less real.
This respectful approach seems to bear fruit in many cases:
The people who were comfortable with hearing voices told the same story; their experience had a trajectory. Some voices had started out mean and difficult, and the hearers had first responded with startled fear, but once they had chosen to interact with them, the voices settled down and became more manageable, sometimes even useful. “They show me the things I do wrong,” one voice-hearer said, “and teach me how to do them otherwise. But they leave the choice to me if I really want to change it or rather leave it as it was."
Luhrmann includes the caveat that, "[a]lthough the Hearing Voices movement is one of the most innovative approaches in decades to the problem of hearing distressing voices, clinical research is still in the early stages, with, to my knowledge, no completed randomized, controlled trials." In other words, it's too soon to conclude that the approach will hold up under more rigorous scrutiny. Still, the anecdotal evidence is provocative, at the very least.
In light of this new methodology, we might say there are two possible ways of interpreting the success of Carl Wickland's methods. One possibility is that the mediumistic sessions encouraged the patients to think of the voices as real, independent entities, and this subjective belief then helped to effect a cure, just as it seems to have done in the case of Hans. The other possibility is that, in at least some cases, the voices actually do belong to obsessing or possessing spirits, just as Dr. Wickland believed, and the Hearing Voices movement, by establishing a respectful dialogue with these entities, is helping to moderate their behavior.
I suppose a third, more esoteric possibility is that both things are true–that the voices are purely functional constructs, as mainstream psychiatry would say, but also “spirits,” as Spiritualists would have it. This could be true if we view personality as such as a functional construct, somewhat in the way that Eckhart Tolle does.
In other words, if the ego-persona is itself a functional construct, then to all intents and purposes there is no difference between an artificially constructed voice in one's head and the artificially constructed façade of the self as we experience it in everyday life. What is real, then, would be only the higher self, the witness that watches all these ego-based dramas play out.
But I'd better stop now. Because if I carry this line of thought any further, I just might drive myself crazy ...
Sometimes I play around with an idea for a novel -- or more likely, a novella -- about life after death. The idea is that a female paranormal investigator is on the run from a mysterious conspiracy. She hooks up with a man who, as it happens, has a background in Special Forces or black ops -- sort of a Jack Bauer type. The hero is skeptical of her claims, though not quite as skeptical as he appears, because he once had a paranormal experience of his own, which he's never been able to process. He's also just cynical enough to believe that some persons in authority might not be eager to let out the paradigm-shifting news of personal immortality (though I must admit, the motivation of the bad guys in my story is not entirely clear to me). As he helps her elude and outwit her pursuit, he gradually starts to believe her story and to share his own history with her.
Will I ever write this book? Almost certainly, no. It's not my kind of thing. I don't like conspiracy plots, or stories where characters are on the run. I also don't like thrillers that are crammed with exposition, as this one would have to be; it could only work if at least some of the evidence for life after death was incorporated into the dialogue, and this would tend to slow down the story. As I mentioned above, I'm not quite sure what the conspiracy's motivation would be. And while my suspense novels are far-fetched, they are not as high-concept as this.
So I'm thinking it's a non-starter. Still, the idea can be fun to fool around with. Today I wrote a dialogue exchange between the man and the woman -- no description, just dialogue. I imagine them in a car, speeding away from the scene of some dangerous action where they met. The man is driving, and the woman -- shaken by a close call with her pursuers -- is trying to pull herself together. They've been talking about her research into the afterlife.
In this excerpt, which commences in the middle of their conversation, the man speaks first.
"You're saying there's evidence for this stuff? Actual scientific evidence?"
"There's evidence. Whether or not it's scientific depends on how you define that term. Is field anthropology a science? Most of the evidence of life after death is of that type -- field reports based on interviews and observations. It's not the same thing as laboratory-based science. How do you study the afterlife in a lab? There have been some controlled studies of mediumship, but that's about it."
"Mediumship? So you think some people can talk to the dead? Like making a phone call to the great beyond?"
"I think most of us can pick up on telepathic impressions from both the living and the dead, but our abilities are so limited and undeveloped we hardly ever notice. Some gifted individuals, though, are basically prodigies who can turn those talents on and off almost at will. It's like musical talent. Most people can hum a tune or sing a little or learn to play an instrument with sufficient practice. A few are tone deaf. And a very few are prodigies like Mozart, who can compose symphonies in their head."
"Maybe the psychic prodigies are just exceptionally good at faking it."
"That's what testing is for. You learn the tricks used by mentalists and then devise test conditions that circumvent those tricks. For instance, mentalists employ cold reading -- they watch for the sitter's reactions and play off subtle verbal and physical cues. You can eliminate cold reading from the equation by allowing no contact between the medium and the sitter. You can put them in separate rooms, or at different ends of a telephone call with the sitter's end of the call muted. You can use a proxy sitter--a stand-in who knows nothing about the deceased and so can't give away any information. Or suppose the mentalist uses hot reading -- advance research into the sitter's family background. You can rule that out by keeping the sitter's identity secret, bringing in a new sitter under an assumed name for an unscheduled appointment, or even bringing the medium to a foreign country where she knows nobody."
"People have done all that?"
"All that, and more. It's amazing, really, the lengths that the more thorough investigators will go to. They have to anticipate every skeptical objection."
"But the skeptics haven't been won over, have they?"
"Some have. Some of the leading researchers in this area started out as a full-bore skeptics. But others are unpersuaded. Perhaps they're unpersuadable. Some people just aren't open to certain possibilities. Like the 19th century physicist Helmholtz, who said he would not believe in ESP even if he saw conclusive proof with his own eyes. He would rather disbelieve his own senses, he said. How can you convince somebody like that?"
"Sounds like a rare case."
"Not as rare as you might think. But the bigger problem is that very little of this evidence is widely known. Scientific journals refuse to publish it, even if the studies meet or exceed all the normal criteria. Media reports belittle it. Popular entertainment trivializes it. Even in casual conversation, people are embarrassed to talk about it. Some of the researchers themselves draw back from the logical implications of their own work. It's like there's a taboo about this stuff -- as, in many societies, there is."
"Taboos are pretty rare in the modern world."
"Taking empirical evidence for life after death seriously may be one of the last of them."
"Okay, whatever. This is all very interesting, but it doesn't explain why people are trying to kill you. Any thoughts on that?"
"You'll think I'm crazy."
"Oh, we're way past that point."
"Fair enough. I think something in my work has certain people worry. Scared, even."
"I started thinking that one way to definitively prove postmortem survival would be to build a device that allows contact with -- for want of a better term -- spirits."
"Like a ham radio?"
"So let me guess. You built this thing and started getting radio transmissions from Cleopatra and Napoleon and Princess Di --"
"I didn't build it. There's no working model. There's only a schematic, and even that is incomplete. I don't know if it can be completed, or if it would work. But maybe someone thinks it will."
"I thought you were a psychologist, not an engineer."
"I am. So how'd I come up with the schematic, right? … Oh hell, you already think I'm nuts. I practiced automatic writing."
"You let the spirits work through you and draw the diagram while you were in a trance?"
"I'm surprised you know what automatic writing it is."
"I saw it in a horror movie. A pretty bad one. Which is what your story sounds like. Who'd you channel, anyway?"
"I'm afraid so. Toward the end of his life, according to some accounts, Edison worked on a machine that would facilitate communication with the deceased. Now he's purportedly using me as an instrument to build a refined version of his design."
"I like the use of the word 'purportedly.' It shows the proper spirit of scientific skepticism."
"What do you want me to say? I know nothing about electronics, but while entranced, over a series of sessions, I produced a detailed blueprint full of terms and details that are utterly meaningless to me. I don't know where this material originated. If I receive a mental impression that Thomas Edison is behind it, I have to accept that -- provisionally. And why not Edison? Who would be better suited to the task?"
"It's funny because you talk like a lunatic, but you don't look or act like one. You seem almost rational."
"Thanks a bunch."
"But you still haven't explained why the bad guys are after you. Let's say this gizmo that you and Tom have dreamed up actually works. That's a good thing, no? Who's against immortality?"
"I don't know. That's what I can't figure out. If what I'm doing has no value, then I'm no threat to anyone. If it does have value -- I still don't see how I'm a threat. News like this would only make the world a better place, wouldn't it?"
"Probably…. Of course, there are some people who don't want the world to be a better place."
First in an occasional series of observations about premonitions or synchronicities (or chance coincidences). I used to post these on Marcel Cairo's "Little Psychic Moments" page on Facebook, which is no longer around. The practice follows from two old essays I wrote, Unusual Occurrences and More Unusual Occurrences.
This afternoon while almost napping in a dreamy reverie, I free-associated a memory of an episode of Frasier in which the good doctor encounters a strange woman who cuts off her hair and stuffs pillowcases with it. The hair-pillowcase detail is what I focused on.
This evening, while making dinner, I watched an episode of The King of Queens in which the main character says, "Sometimes I think of shaving it all off [= all my chest hair] and just stuffing it in a pillowcase and sleeping on it."
For what it's worth, a disproportionate number of these ancedotes involve TV sitcoms. I think this is because laughter, like fear, is a very primal reaction, but who knows?
Here's a question I've been mulling over lately. At what point, if any, does mind not play a role in physical reality?
Conventional wisdom holds that mind is exclusively a property of a small class of sentient organisms, certainly including human beings and the higher mammals, and possibly including some "lower" life forms, but not plants or microbes, and definitely not nonliving things.
And yet when we look at the world around us from a certain perspective, we can see mind everywhere. I don't mean a recognizably human mind, but mind in some form - a kind of knowing, whether it is how salmon know where to find their spawning ground, or how ants know how to build colonies, or how cells know how to let certain nutrients through their membrane while excluding others, or how subatomic particles know when they are being measured and observed.
The idea that mind is everywhere is not new. It goes by the name of panpsychism; Alfred North Whitehead is its most illustrious 20th century proponent.
I haven't read Whitehead and I'm not endorsing his views. As I said, the world can look infused with mind if seen from a certain perspective. Other perspectives will yield other results. Perhaps it is mere anthropomorphism to see mind in activities as varied as instinctual migrations, cellular chemistry, and the paradoxes of particle physics.
Or maybe not.
To me, what's interesting is that this viewpoint allows for an explanation other than blind chance on the one hand or a master Designer on the other. In that sense, at least, it occupies a middle ground between materialism and Intelligent Design. To look at it another way, it might offer a compromise between physicalism and (metaphysical) idealism. It also avoids the sharp division between mind and matter that is characteristic of dualism.
I'm not sure, however, that panpsychism is very useful in understanding the origin of the universe or its remarkable "fine-tuning." Presumably the ground rules of physical reality had to be in place before mind and matter could start playing around in this largest of sandboxes. We still seem to be in need of a master Designer - a master Mind - for the foundational stuff, unless we opt for a) the multiverse hypothesis of countless universes being born and dying, each with different fundamental constants and other parameters; or b) the most extreme version of the anthropic principle, which claims that our own observations retroactively bring a habitable cosmos into being out of a probability distribution of countless possuble paths. The first option does not address the issue of mind at all, while the second fails to take into account quantum decoherence, which should have caused the universe to choose a definite pathway long before there were any biological observers.
Anyway, regardless of how it all got started, it's at least interesting to speculate that the ongoing activity of the world around us (and inside us) is regulated by mind - not the Mind of a master technician who pulls every switch and throws every lever, but an infinitude of compact minds that are paired with all physical things, even the humblest electron in your computer screen.