Psychosis and Spirituality

Many people have been impressed by the similarity between psychosis and spirituality. Some strange psychotic beliefs are explicitly religious, but there is also a more general similarity in the quality of thinking found in psychotic people and at least some religious people. They seem to have things in common that differentiate them both from ordinary rational consciousness.

In the course of history there have been many people who have been both religious and psychotic, and the two have been inextricably intertwined. Of the late mediaeval mystics Margery Kempe was widely regarded as mad in her own time, for her chaotic life, copious weeping, the quality of her visions of Christ and her constant hallucinations.

In the twentieth Century Mabel Barltrop, shortly after she was released from compulsory detention in St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, became convinced that she was the Daughter of God, and founded a thriving religious community in Bedford of people who accepted that claim. Every day she received revelations from the Holy Spirit, in the form of automatic writing, which she read out to her followers (Shaw, >>>).

This leads to a new approach to psychosis, one which emphasis the continuity between psychotic and non-psychotic states. The work of Gordon Claridge on schizotypy has been the most sustained attempt develop a dimensional view of psychosis. It also leads to the idea it is appropriate and helpful to take psychotic ideas seriously, to treat them as spiritual experiences gone wrong, and to enter into conversation about them.

The work of Isabel Clarke has been influential here, a clinical psychologist who is also interested in mystical Christianity. She uses the word ‘transliminal’, first proposed by Thalbourne, for this alternative mode of consciousness, of which psychosis and spirituality can both be manifestations.

It might be feared that taking psychotic ideas seriously and entering into conversation about that would represent an unhelpful collusion with mad ideas. However, it seems to be helpful to rebuild links between the transliminal and the ordinary rational modes, so that people can navigate between the two, and have more control over which they are in.

It is often thought that psychotic delusions cannot be challenged, but I showed in one of my first scientific papers (Watts et al, 1973) that that is not the case. You just need to approach things gently, avoiding psychological reactance, and opening up alternative interpretations rather than challenging psychotic ideas head on.

Isabel Clarke highlights the different logic of the transliminal from our ordinary rational consciousness; the latter operates an ‘either-or’ logic whereas the transliminal operates a ‘both-and’ logic. One mode splits; the other joins up.

Sometimes people suggest that spiritual and psychotic people are exploring different worlds or different realities. However, i prefer to talk about two different ‘modes’ of consciousness (one psychotic/spiritual, and one ordinary and rational). I don’t want to lapse into a new kind of dualism that postulates two different worlds, and to say that in one mode of consciousness we access one world, and in the other mode we access a different world.

So I think there is one world, but that we experience different aspects of it in different modes of consciousness, and there is a good deal that is accessible in the transliminal mode that is filtered out in the rational mode. We can potentially explore different aspects of it in different modes of consciousness. I see no reason to say that the world we know in our rational mode is real, but that the world we know in our transliminal mode is not.

However, transliminal mode is accident prone. It is venturing into domains where it is hard to be sure-footed, and easy to get things wrong. I think that is a reasonable assumption about what is happening in psychosis. In the rational mode we are playing safer, exploring more limited territory, but being less error prone.

The idea of filters is helpful in understanding this different mode of consciousness. We don’t consciously experience everything that goes on in our information processing. It is widely accepted that there are two different modes of processing, one fast and with high capacity, but non-conscious, and another that is slower, conscious and with much more limited capacity.

Obviously there is some filtering about what gets into the conscious system, and human functioning depends on cognitive filtering, or cognitive inhibition as it is sometimes called. There is widespread agreement that this filtering process is one of the things that goes wrong in psychosis. As Chris Frith put it, psychotic people have difficulty limiting the contents of consciousness (Frith 1979). It seems reasonable to suggest that there is similarly reduced filtering in people with spiritual or visionary experiences.

There are both individual and cultural variations in how much people use the transliminal mode. Some people are more open to transliminal experience than others, and there is probably a genetic basis for that.

There are also variations between cultures. For example, Africa seems more transliminal than the West. There are things people can do such as trans dancing that make them more transliminal. I suspect that when people are in transliminal mode are more open to certain kinds of experience; and that spiritual healing works better when people are in that mode.

Though I have suggested that there is similarly reduced filtering in psychotic and religious experiences, they may arise for quite different reasons. Many of those like Isabel Clarke who are impressed by the similarities between religious and psychotic states want to back away from the illness model of psychosis, but I am doubtful about that move. There seem good scientific grounds for thinking of psychosis as a kind of illness.

I think that the ‘symptoms’ of schizophrenia tend to cluster together in a syndrome, though some can be found in other contexts while others (the so-called front-rank symptoms) are not generally found elsewhere. I admit that there are different kinds of schizophrenia, the most important distinction being that between paranoid and non-paranoid forms, but that doesn’t invalidate it as a medical category any more than diabetes is invalidated by having two types.

I am also impressed by the biological aspects of schizophrenia; it has biological markers, and responds to major tranquilizers. I am also impressed by the incapacities associated with schizophrenia, the so-called ‘negative’ symptoms, which do not seem to be found in other forms of transliminality. Taken together these considerations lead me to think it is reasonable to treat schizophrenia as a psychiatric disorder.

You might imagine that people who have one kind of transliminal experience would have others too. I referred at the start of this section to people who were both psychotic and religious, and in whom the two were closely intertwined. But the two don’t always go together. It may actually work the other way round.

I remember one person who had been deeply psychotic telling me that it led him to stay clear of religion because it was too close to the times when he had lost his footing. And religious people are having very managed, very controlled transliminal experiences, and that may make them less liable to slip into psychosis.

 

I now turn from depression to psychosis. I will often have schizophrenia in mind, but I prefer the broader term, ‘psychosis’. In this section I will be particularly influenced by the work of Isabel Clarke, a clinical psychologist who is also interested in mystical Christianity and who I first met in the ‘Epiphany Philosophers’ a brilliant if sometimes eccentric group working on science and religion, about whom I wrote in the Forty Years SRF anniversary volume.

Isabel is one of a number of people who have been impressed by the similarity between psychosis and spirituality, and she uses the word ‘transliminal’ for this alternative mode of consciousness, of which psychosis and spirituality can both be manifestations. She highlights the different logic of the transliminal from our ordinary rational consciousness; the latter operates an ‘either-or’ logic whereas the transliminal operates a ‘both-and’ logic. One mode splits; the other joins up.

Those who think there is similarity between psychosis and spirituality are often hostile to ‘schizophrenia’ as a medical category, but I am not. I think that the ‘symptoms’ of schizophrenia tend to cluster together in a syndrome, though some can be found in other contexts while others (the so-called front-rank symptoms) are not generally found elsewhere. I admit that there are different kinds of schizophrenia, the most important distinction being that between paranoid and non-paranoid forms, but that doesn’t invalidate it as a medical category any more than diabetes is invalidated by having two types.

I am impressed by the biological aspects of schizophrenia; it has biological markers, and responds to major tranquilizers. I am also impressed by the incapacities associated with schizophrenia, the so-called ‘negative’ symptoms, which do not seem to be found in other forms of transliminality. Taken together these considerations lead me to think it is reasonable to treat schizophrenia as a psychiatric disorder.

However, I remain interested in the similarities between psychotic and spiritual experience, and think that it can be helpful to take psychotic experiences seriously and to enter into conversation about them. I don’t think that is incompatible with also thinking that schizophrenia can be regarded as a psychiatric disorder and that medication may have a role with it.

It might be feared that taking psychotic ideas seriously and entering into conversation about that would represent an unhelpful collusion with mad ideas. However, I think it can help to rebuild links between the transliminal and the ordinary rational modes, so that people can navigate between the two, and have more control over which they are in.

Ian McGilchrist has suggested that in schizophrenia there is a disordered relationship between the two hemispheres, with intrusions from one hemisphere into the other. It seems to me plausible that careful conversation about psychotic ideas could help to normalise that. It is often thought that psychotic delusions cannot be challenged, but I showed in one of my first scientific papers (back in 1973) that that is not the case. You just need to approach things gently, avoiding psychological reactance, and opening up alternative interpretations rather than challenging ideas head on.

In what I have written I have tried to talk about two different ‘modes’, the transliminal and the rational. However, I have found myself tempted to talk about two different ‘worlds’ that people are exploring, rather than two different ‘modes’ of conscicousness. There are, of course, very different assumptions here. Transliminal means ‘crossing the threshold’ or ‘through the doorway’, so there is an assumption built into this language that there is a different world, not just a different mode of consciousness.

I don’t want to embrace those assumptions. I don’t want to lapse back into a new kind of dualism that postulates two different worlds, and to say that in one mode of consciousness we access one world, and in the other mode we access a different world. That seems to me unnecessary and problematic. But I think the idea of filters is helpful. I assume that there are normally filters operating in what we experience, and that we only experience part of what we could potentially experience.

I think it is reasonable to say that the filters in the rational mode of consciousness are more selective than those in the transliminal world. So I think there is one world, but that we experience different aspects of it in different modes of consciousness, and there is a good deal that is accessible in the transliminal mode that is filtered out in the rational mode.

I am basically making critical realist assumptions here. I am assuming that there is a real world to be explored, that we never know all of it, and that we can potentially explore different aspects of it in different modes of consciousness. I see no reason to assume that the world we know in our rational mode is real, but that the world we know in our transliminal mode is not.

However, I do think our transliminal mode is accident prone. It is venturing into domains where it is hard to be sure-footed, and easy to get things wrong. I think that is a reasonable assumption about what is happening in psychosis. In the rational mode we are playing safer, exploring more limited territory, but being less error prone.

I think there are both individual and cultural variations in how much people use the transliminal mode. Some people are more open to it than others. There seems to be a genetic predisposition to transliminality, that makes people more open to both mystical and psychotic experiences. Though this is going beyond what there is hard evidence for, I suspect that, in as far as there is a genetic predisposition to religion, it arises from predisposition to broader categories, and that the two most relevant ones are transliminality and conservatism.

fraser watts spiritualityThere are also variations between cultures. Africa seems more transliminal than the West, for example. There are things people can do such as trans dancing that make them more transliminal. I suspect that when people are in transliminal mode people are more open to certain kinds of experience and that, for example, spiritual healing works better when people are in that mode.

You might imagine that people who have one kind of transliminal experience would have others too; that people who were prone to be psychotic would also be mystical, and vice-versa. In the end of the day that is an empirical matter, but I am not sure it works like that. It may actually work the other way round. I remember one person who had been deeply psychotic telling me that it led him to stay clear of religion because it was too close to the times when he had lost his footing. And religious people are having very managed, very controlled transliminal experiences, and that may make them less liable to slip into psychosis.

– Fraser Watts