God in the Lab Review Part 2: Divine Madness

Confused GodThe second talk at the God in the Lab event was by the clinical pyschologist Dr. Mike Jackson (Mike seems to be a good choice too since hearing that you are going to discuss your mental problems with Michael Jackson might make some people uneasy).  

His talk was on an interesting topic but after Dr. Cohen’s it came off a bit flat as it was basically an hour of non-stop facts and accounts, as such my attention was a bit frazzled so any omissions or errors are probably down to that. Moving on,  the central theme of his talk was examining the relationship between pyschotic and religious experiences, particularly those that involve ‘hearing voices’.

Beginning his talk Dr. Jackson recognised that spiritual experiences are very widespread and that for the vast majority of people they are benign. He then highlighted that such experiences, although usually benign, are sometimes pyschotic ‘in form and content’ and that pyschosis is recognised in the mental health professions to be symptomatic of a serious disorder. Further evidence for a connection between serious disorders and spiritual experience could, he argued, also be found from the fact that pyschotic disorders frequently involve the individuals having spiritual experiences.

Dr. Jackson’s explanation for this, and the recurring theme throughout his talk, was that there is a common underlying process behind pyschotic and spiritual experiences and that such experiences occur on a ‘continuum of vulnerability’. That is, the background and personality of the individuals having these unusual experiences, strongly affects how they react and interpret such experiences. His presentation was also aimed at addressing the question of ‘what makes the difference?’ between a benign experience and a pyschiatric disorder and what implications the answer has for our understanding of religious belief and pyschotic disorders.

Like Dr. Cohen in the previous talk, Dr. Jackson was keen to emphasis right from the start the limitations of his analysis. Thus, he commented that  he was well aware that the ‘spiritual experiences’ he was discussing were only experienced by a certain proportion of religious practitioners and that they did not, by any means, constitute a summary of religious experience in general.

Despite this disclaimer, Dr. Jackson then went on to make the case that spiritual experiences were found, in surveys, to be a very widespread phenomena. One particular group of surveys that interested him were those based around the so called ‘Hardy Question’ which reads:

Have you ever had a spiritual or religious experience or felt a presence of power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your every day life?

This question was devised by a Professor of Marine Biology at Oxford called Alister Hardy who had a lifelong interest in spirituality and created a centre and a trust, still active today, to explore and catalogue the various responses they received to the above question.
Dr. Jackson noted that a remarkable amount of detailed accounts had been collected from asking this question and that Gallup polls showed that  around 30% of people responded with a positive reply to the Hardy question. He also reported that the research had also shown that most who had spiritual experiences had them very rarely (once or twice in their lifetime) and most found them to be positive  and comforting experiences.
There were, however,  others who had the experiences much more frequently and usually with a greater intensity and it was members of these groups Dr. Jackson became interested in. Leading him to conduct his PhD research on comparing the similarities and differences between five diagnosed pyschotics and five individuals with intense but benign spirtitual experiences.  He found that both groups shared a number of similarities in their experiences with both typically discussing voices or a voice that directed them and gave them advice. However, he also found significant differences, in particular, those with benign experiences where still able to function in society (which also led to the somewhat suprising discovery that pyschotic individuals were also more aware of the ‘strangeness’ of their experiences due to being challenged more often). The overall conclusion he arrived at however was that there was really only a fuzzy line seperating benign spiritual experiences from pyschotic experiences.
To further illustrate this point Dr. Jackson also provided some examples from his clinical experience:
For instance, he described how a highly respected cardiac doctor had actually sought out the research centre Dr. Jackson was involved with and travelled from America to discuss his spiritual experiences. These experiences involved him being told by a voice in his head that he had been chosen by God and placed on a quest which would involve uniting Judaism and Christianity. He was also told that he should go on national TV and announce his quest but not until the time was right. Dr. Jackson pointed out that this individual was extremely succesful in life, being a respected cardiac doctor and later a director of a charity, but yet displayed extremely low levels of awareness and an unwillingness to consider that he may be wrong, symptoms which are frequently found amongst those with pyschotic disorders.
His second case was a pyschotic patient that Dr. Jackson had been treating for some time who he named ‘Bilbo’. Bilbo was how most people, or at least myself, imagine schizophrenic people to be; he was paranoid- imagining that evil entities from another dimension where trying to enter his consciousness to get access to our world, he believed that he could recognise such entitites- who occasionally hid amongst the general public as shapeshifters and he led an extremely isolated life- with apparently having no friends for his entire life and perhaps unsuprisingly he suffered abuse throughout his childhood. For Bilbo most of the experiences and voices he heard were thus extremely negative and effected his ability to function in society. 
Despite all of this, Bilbo did have something in common with the cardiac doctor, he also heard a helpful voice, a voice which he believed to be a kind of helpful guiding spirit. This voice was extremely important to Bilbo and he regarded it as being an essential source of comfort that also helped him to restrain him from doing ‘bad’ things. However, unlike the cardiac doctor Bilbo was apparently very well aware of how the rest of the world regarded his views and was willing to admit that it did appear that he was suffering from schizophrenia. He still did not believe that this view was correct but the fact that he was able to recognise how unusual his claims was, according to Dr. Jackson, a significant sign of awareness.
After presenting these cases, Dr. Jackson moved on to discussing recent trials further exploring the differences and similarities between different categories of ‘voice hearers’. 
Presenting first the findings of a 2008 study which examined the differences between a group of spiritualists and mediums and a group of psychiatrically diagnosed voice hearers. The study found:
– Both groups showed high levels of childhood trauma but childhood sexual abuse was much more common among the psychiatric patients.
– Ongoing trauma and difficulty with functioning in society was much more common among the psychiatric patients.
– Psychiatric voice hearers also experienced hearing voices much more frequently and for longer durations. They also felt much less control over the experiences, found the messages to contain much more negative content and tended to regard the voices as being more malevolent.
Dr. Jackson then discussed his own recent research which followed a similar method to the 2008 study again comparing benign voice hearers with diagnosed psychiatric patients. His study however also involved the use of fMRI scans to examine what was going on in the brains when the voice hearing episodes occured.
Aside from replicating the findings of the 2008 study Dr. Jackson’s study also found the interesting result that the benign group of voice hearers tended to ‘externalise’ the voices they heard to a much greater extenet than the psychiatric group. At first, this sounds counterintuitive as believing the voices in your head to be emanating from an outside source would seem to display lower levels of awareness. However, Dr. Jackson postulates that such beliefs also reflect more comfort with the voices as it indicates less desire to try and ‘control’ the voices.
As for the fMRI results they found that the voice registering areas of the brain were indeed lighting up in both sets of groups with the psychiatric group showing a greater level of activity. They did however also find out that when told to ‘imagine’ hearing voices almost all of those who tried could cause the area to light up a little.
Finally Dr. Jackson ended with the interesting hypothesis that ‘voice hearing’ may be a natural cognitive response that evolved in the human brian as a means of helping individuals to cope with traumatic experiences. This mechanism however as shown in pyschotic patients is capable of misfiring and causing the individual significant problems.
As for me, the main points I took away from Dr. Jackson’s talk were:
1. There is a fuzzy divide between benign spiritual experiences and pyschotic ones.
2. Personal and especially childhood trauma seemed to be an especially significant factor in the development of voice hearing.
3. People are capable of hearing voices internally which they do not believe to be their own and which produce demonstrable physiological effects.


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