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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Am I Normal? Spirituality and Psychiatry

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Until the BBC iPlayer was released, there would have been no point in blogging about programmes which the reader would have no chance of watching again. But the iPlayer is available, and so too is the exemplary documentary I watched last night: Am I Normal? presented by psychologist Dr. Tanya Byron.

In the hour-long film - a sensible, grown-up film without patronising background music or silly graphics - she explored the fine line between religious devotion and psychiatric disorder. Why is it that Pentecostals who speak in tongues are considered blessed, but schizophrenics who hear voices are institutionalised? Why is it that we pass by the street evangelist, thinking him to be slightly weird, but consider the grey-haired Carmelite nun, silently passing time in a convent, to be harmless?

Byron - an atheist herself - was open-minded about the value of religious belief for some people (statistically, patients with a spiritual background are more likely to recover from psychiatric syndromes than are atheists). But she was quite prepared to damn the cult of faith healing, which lacks any substantial evidence base and which may raise false hope for patients with severe medical conditions best treated by mainstream physical interventions. She was respectful in pressing the values and beliefs of atheists (Matthew Parris) and believers (Jeremy Vine) alike. She witnessed an evangelical song meeting, noting the same symptoms of crowd arousal - raised arms, physical proximity - as occur at football matches and rock concerts. She was intrigued by a trained psychiatrist who treated patients by exorcising the dead child spirits by whom they were possessed, seemingly (though no hard data is available) with results akin to those achieved by therapies such as CBT. Byron examined the neuroscience of talking in tongues (neurotheology). This has shown how the neurological system that regulates semantic language does shut down when people are being "possessed" as mediums for the "spirit," proving that they are not deliberate fakes, though it does not (cannot) prove either way the mechanism by which the synaptic action happens in the first place, whether supernaturally Holy or a self-induced behaviour.

This serious and sensitive look at what could have been a greatly divisive issue ought to be well-received by religious believers, atheists and scientists. It did not make grand claims to prove or disprove the existence of God, or to castigate religion as anti-science (though this was implicitly there in the background, in the consistent lack of an evidence base for alternative therapies and faith healing). Rather, it stuck to its remit to expose the conventions by which "normal" is determined, and it concluded with some force that what we classify as psychologically normal - and the normal therapies deployed to treat psychiatric disorders - are generally socially-constructed ideologies.

Because of this, many of the conventions and methods between treatments may be comparable at root. I noted that the psychiatrist-exorcist asked many questions of his patient whilst rhetorically planting ideas; a similar sort of approach is used by mainstream therapy or even by the Eliza chatbot (the latter, a simple artificial intelligence programme, is peculiarly effective at helping interlocutors to express their anxieties). It seems that treating patients with psychological problems may be done effectively through talking with God, inner demons, keyboards, doctors or priests. The challenge science and religion must meet now is to confront the evidence: even if normal and mad are arbitrary categories, there must be one form of treatment that is most effective, for most people, most of the time. One suspects the scientists may be very prepared to explore this. The priests, less so. But with the likes of Tanya Byron moderating, there may be hopes for a start.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:27 am


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