WHAT IS TIME? 

by David Cycleback PhD

(Reviewed by Chris Nunn MD, Southampton University and Journal of Consciousness Studies)

INTRODUCTION

Time is one of humankind’s unanswerable mysteries. Aristotle called time “the most unknown of unknown things.” What time is and even if it objectively exists are unanswerable questions. Time is intangible.

There have been and will be countless theories about time. Many, including in science, are simply useful definitions or conventions, and each is looking at time in a particular way and for a particular purpose. Written as the introductory reading for a short course and discussion group I have conducted, this bite-size read looks at a variety of significant perspectives from physics, philosophy and psychology. A key is to demonstrate that there are many different incomplete and subjective ways of looking at what ultimately is beyond our mental grasp. Debate and additional perspectives and theories are welcome.

Humans have common, everyday ideas about time. These include that time is real and objective, time continually ticks away at an even rate and is the same for everyone everywhere, time flows linearly from the past to the present to the future, and that only the experienced present ‘now’ is real with the past and future being unreal. Most of these ideas are accepted as facts as obvious as the sky is blue and water is wet.

However, close examination brings many of these ideas into question. Cultural perceptions of time differ, physics has shown that time and space can act counter to our intuition, and biology and philosophy reveal many paradoxes about time.

There are a few ideas about time that are largely agreed up by most philosophers and scientists. Scientists and philosophers agree and define that time requires change. Time may simply be an innate abstract way for humans to understand and mark change. If there is no change there is no time. If it is only now, there is no time. It is when now becomes the past and there is a new now that there is the change that defines time.

There is general agreement amongst philosophers and scientists that time is continuous, meaning we do not experience it darting about or starting and stopping randomly. In our universe, time also appears to have an intrinsic direction from past to present to future, called the arrow of time.

Even with those agreed-upon standards, you will find some who disagree. Though his views are old-fashioned, Isaac Newton believed time didn’t require change. Some quantum physicists ponder if time is indeed continual. The arrow of time is not theoretically absolute.

1 MAJOR HISTORICAL & CULTURAL CONCEPTIONS OF TIME

The three major cultural and historical conceptions of time are linear time, circular time and timelessness. These conventions appear in theology, philosophy, science, psychology and art. 

1.1 Linear time

Linear time follows an inexorable line from the past to the future. Most people today imagine and mark time as linear, and our watches and clocks mark time by this convention. Linear time is the standard convention used in science. Abrahamic religions chose a linear conception of time because it allows for the creation of the universe and a final judgment.

1.2 Cyclical time

Many early cultures had a cyclical conception of time, sometimes called the wheel of time. These cultures include Incan, Mayan, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. They perceived time as consisting of repeating ages and time periods. This helps explain the idea of reincarnation. Circular or repeating conceptions of time are still used today by some cultures, including in India. (Das 2018) (Coward 2011)

The observance of repeating seasons is an example of circular time. Early agricultural and other societies were centered around the seasons, the regular apparent rising and falling of the sun, and the regular changing of star formations. 

1.3 Timelessness 

A timeless view of time was common to many early peoples and mystical cultures such as some American Indians tribes, Australian aboriginals and Jewish Kabbalists. In this view of time, the past and present are intimately connected. History and spirits of the dead exist in the present. (Falk 2016) (Nichols 2014) (Blount 2017)

This is a mystical way of thinking, with the brain processing sensory information in a particular way. The modern brain has evolved to create cognitive constructs to define time, space and labels, including a linear perception of time. These constructs are essential to function but are artificial. With early peoples and mystical cultures, these cognitive constructs either are undeveloped or suppressed, and the sensory information is processed in different ways. A commonly described experience of mystical experiences is that everything is one and time stops or slows. (Choi 2016) (Barrett and Griffith 2019) (Yanakieve et al 2018)

1.4 Today We Look at Time in Different Ways

While a linear conception of time is standard today, we also look at time in the other two ways. Modern calendars mark time both linearly (day 1, day 2, day 3, and year 2019, 2020, 2021) and cyclically (seasons, annual holidays). Our following of the “rising and falling of the sun” and regular changes in star constellations and moon phases is cyclical. 

A Hindu in India who religiously conceives of the historical and future ages as cyclical may also mark time in his daily life linearly with a watch or clock. 

As mystical experiences and related neurological events are not uncommon, a human who observes linear and/or cyclical time may at times additionally perceive time as timeless. Many people on a level have an idea of the past, such as past loved ones or events, psychologically existing in the present. 

1.5 Two Other Ways of Looking at Time: Presentism and Eternalism

Presentism is the view that only the present (what is in front of you now) is real, and the past is unreal and the unknown future is unreal. This is the common way most people perceive time. 

Eternalism is the view that the past, present and future are all equally real, and that our perception of only the experienced “now” being real is merely a matter of our brain’s consciousness and our arbitrary place in time. 

To us, our present is perceived as real. However, to someone in 1755 or 1995, their present was perceived as just as real. It is just a matter of our arbitrary place in time that we consider our “current’ as the real. In the big picture eternalism view, there is no reason to say that one present over another has privileged status. You can compare it to space or geography where, when standing in Chicago, you know that Los Angeles and Paris are as real as Chicago. You don’t say Los Angeles and Paris aren’t real because you aren’t there. With eternalism, all points of time along a timeline can be considered similarly. 

Presentism and eternalism are not in conflict. They are different perspectives of the same timeline. Presentism is the up close and personal experience of time, while eternalism is a look at time from afar. It’s akin to driving along a road versus looking at the road on a map.

This section begs the question of what other possible conceptions and combinations of conceptions of time there can be. Theoretical non-humans may have very different conceptions of time. If time itself is merely a human construct, perhaps such non-humans would have no concept of time. 

2 PHYSICS THEORIES OF TIME

Physics has offered competing mathematical theories about physical nature. Some are concerned specifically with time, while others use time as an ancillary element to the models. This section looks at the following standard physics theories: Absolute time, relativity, quantum physics, and entropy. 

2.1 Absolute time

According to its most famous proponent Isaac Newton, absolute time, or Newtonian time, exists independently of any perceiver, space and even the universe. It progresses at the same consistent pace for everyone and everything throughout the universe. This aligns most people’s everyday notion and experience of time. 

2.2 Relativity

Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity upheaved the age-old perception of time as absolute, showing that time is dynamic. The following are key aspects of his theories.

1. Space and time are intermingled and inseparable, and Einstein called it spacetime

2. All movement is relative. Even though we often feel as if and even claim we are standing still, everything is moving and at varying rates.

For example, say someone in a train throws forward a ball inside the train. To him, it seems that the ball is moving at, say, 10 kilometers per hour. Yet, to the observer standing on the ground beside the train, the ball appears to be moving at the speed of the train plus the speed of the ball. However, while the observer on the ground may perceive that he is standing, he also is moving. The earth he is standing on is rotating and circling the sun, the sun is moving and the galaxy is moving.

3. The faster an object moves, the slower its time. If a person leaves the earth on a spaceship going close to the speed of light and comes back in a day, she will be a day older but the people on earth will be many years older. This change in personal time is only significant when nearing the speed of light. The differences humans experience, even on an airplane, are negligible. 

4. Like a ball on a sheet, a massive object warps or curves the geometry of the surrounding spacetime. This warping is what we experience as gravity, and the more massive an object the more it warps spacetime. Time is slower the further it is in the well of the spacetime curve. Experiments using clocks on airplanes proved this gravitational time dilates to be accurate. (Jamaludin 2021) (Kennell 2015)

2.3 Quantum Physics

The word quantum (plural: quanta) refers to the smallest amount of something that you can have. Quantum physics is the branch of physics relating to the very small: The atomic and subatomic levels. Things at the quantum level work differently than at the macro level we experience in our daily lives. Newton’s classical laws do not apply at the atomic and subatomic level, and quantum physics defies common sense and normal human intuition. 

In Newtonian physics and in Einstein’s relativity, an object exists in a specific place at a specific time. However, in quantum physics, a subatomic particle exists in a cloud of probable places and states. When you take a measurement from a particular perspective the particle will be in one spot, when you take in another it will be another spot. If you take enough measurements it will be in all the possibilities of the probability cloud. 

In quantum physics and counter to human intuition and logic, particles act both as particles and waves. They act like a wave before they are measured, then like particles when observed. 

Another oddity is that subatomic particles change position and speed instantaneously. A subatomic particle goes from point a to point b, or speed c to speed d, instantaneously with no in between states or positions. This is the equivalent of a car going from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour, or from the house driveway to the store, instantaneously.

This may all sound bizarre. However, quantum physics has been one of the most reliable physics theories for predicting phenomena.

2.3.1 Time in quantum physics

Quantum physics theories and models treat time as continuous and linear. This does not constitute a prediction that time in reality is continuous. Rather it is the convention used for the model.

Some physicists ponder that time may be able to be quantized. However, this is speculation and has not been shown to be true.

2.4 Entropy and the Arrow of Time 

Most of physic’s deep laws and equations do not require a time direction. On paper, the equations can go both directions. This is a reason why some say that backward time travel is theoretically possible. However, if we look at the world we live in, time appears to flow in one direction: from the past to the present to future. This flow is called the arrow of time

So where does this arrow of time come from? The answer is entropy or the second law of thermodynamics.

The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy, a measure of disorder in the universe, increases in any closed system. The things in the universe move from order (or low entropy) to disorder (high entropy). If you pour milk into coffee, the milk spreads throughout the coffee. If you light a fire, the smoke spreads throughout the air. It never goes the other way. The smell of coffee or smoke spreads throughout the room and home, never the reverse. A vase falls to the cement and breaks into many pieces, and never the reverse. People, other animals and plants getting old, decaying and dying are examples of entropy. No one grows old to young.

The Big Bang and subsequent expansion of the universe is an example of entropy. The universe started as an infinitesimally small dot 13.8 billion years ago, and has been expanding since. The universe and things in it are expanding towards eventual perfect equilibrium where everything, including atoms, will be equally spread out. With this equilibrium, there will be no movement and, thus, there will be no time. Until then, change from order to disorder is the basis for our time and for the arrow of time. 

2.4.1 Resolving the Seeming Contradiction of the Symmetry Of Physical Laws Versus that Time Goes in Only One Direction

As noted, the physics equations are symmetrical and have no direction of time, yet time in our universe moves in only one direction. This seems to be a conflict. The great mathematician Kurt Godel had troubles with the symmetry of physics’s laws, because this didn’t match up with the common sense that you can’t go back in time. He concluded that science’s definition of time was “unreal.” 

However, there isn’t a contradiction. The physics equations are in general for all situations, but we live in a particular universe in a particular state. If we were living in another universe of perfect equilibrium there would be no time. There could be a universe or our future universe that is contracting, or moving from high entropy to low entropy. This would mean that time would be moving in the opposite direction. Physicist Julian Barbour suggests that on the other side of the Big Bang there could be the universe that expands and time flows in the opposite direction. (Caroll 2013) (Barbour 2021) 

2.5 Scientific Theories are Functional Tools Not Direct Representations of Reality  

Science’s mathematical models and theories are functional tools used to make predictions about physical phenomena. They are not direct or whole representations of reality. Statistician George E.P. Box famously said, “All models are false, but some are useful.” (Box in Barroso 2015) (Brennan 2018)

Instrumentalism is a scientific principle that focuses on the utility of scientific models and theories. It views theories and models as black boxes, with only their input and output being relevant. The theories and models themselves are not reality. (De Neufville 2015)

For example, quantum physics’s mathematical models that describe subatomic particles as waves and particles don’t mean the particles are waves and particles. They are mathematical models. Quantum physics theories have holes and mysteries. They are not fully understood and there are competing interpretations of what is going on. While making reliable predictions, quantum physics may simply be too abstract for human brains. (Information Processor 2018)

Further, some physics theories that are known to be incomplete are still used because they are, at least in areas and levels, good at predicting. Though the theories are known to be incomplete and sometimes incorrect, today’s physicists still use some of Newton’s laws in certain situations because they are good at predicting phenomena in those situations. The same with some of Einstein’s theories. (Deep Breadth 2018)

The definitions of time used in physics– Newtonian, relativity, quantum mechanics theories– are not representations of what time really is. I believe that if you asked Einstein or quantum physicist Richard Feynman what really is time they would say they did not know.

Conventions play important roles in science. The physicist, mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré said time is not an objective thing to be discovered. He said it is something humans invented for their convenience. In the end, our definitions of time are just that: conventions and definitions. (Oxford Reference 2013) (Muzi 2015)

3 PSYCHOLOGY AND TIME

Human psychology is inseparable from all human perceptions and definitions of time, including in science. Humans can only look at things from the human perspective, and this makes our thinking about anything inherently myopic and subjective. Even our philosophizing about time in this essay is done through the human lens. 

Personal psychological time is the way time is perceived by the individual brain. This perception is unique to the individual, and the perception of time can change for various reasons. Psychologically, time seems to slow or speed up based on many things: if one is asleep or awake, bored or excited, young or old. Drugs, medical conditions, mental disorders and events alter our perception of time. 

There also is psychological time particular to the human species. In order to function and survive as a species, the human brain has evolved to mentally process in a particular way the limited sensory information it receives. The visual and auditory perceptions in our mind are not direct representations of the physical world, but mental translations of sensory information. Visual and auditory illusions demonstrate the existence of margins or errors and misperceptions in our perceptions. Such illusions demonstrate that physical reality and our perception of physical reality are different. 

Our intelligence and ability to function require a concept of time and space. Catching a ball and reaching for a doorknob require a concept of space and time. Identifying an approaching animal as a dog requires knowledge from the past. Our consciousness, or self-awareness of ourselves and our environment, requires a concept of the past and future. Though humans may be unique in consciously conceptualizing time, our and other animal brains have automatic unconscious concepts of time and change. Though seemingly real, the flow of time we perceive may merely be an evolutionary neurological way the brain uses to make sense of sensory information.

While Isaac Newton believed that time was an objective thing independent of humans and even space, Newton’s contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz, believed that time does not refer to any actual existing dimension. He felt that time is a convenient intellectual concept that enables us to sequence and compare events. Similarly, philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that our conceptions of space and time are not substances in and of themselves but artificial cognitive constructs needed to make sense of or sensory information. (Arntzenius 2017) (Kant 1781)

Psychologist and philosopher Williams James said that our automatic, unconscious experience of the present always has an element of earlier and later, and that any perception that includes earlier and later is not a purely instantaneous perception of time. Our perceptions of everything involves a concept of change, which inherently involves an awareness of the past and future. Humans are innately storytellers and perceive everything as part of an ongoing narrative in time and space. (Anderson 2011)

Though not fully understood, the brain uses internal neurological and cognitive methods to process sensory information to make perceptions of time, space and identities. The brain has internal clocks and uses a process called integration to make time appear fluid. As with our visual perception, our perception of time is based on expectations and preconceptions. People under hypnosis can judge time more accurately than when they are awake, demonstrating the artifice and processing in our conscious perception of time. (Dawson and Sleek 2018) (Nilsen R 2017)

Further, it takes a short delay for our brains to process the sensory information to make a perception of “now.” Our perception of the present is of the past. (Eagleman 2019) 

As with visual and auditory illusions, there are cases of misperception of time, including misidentifying the order of events. For example, Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman has demonstrated that under certain circumstances a person can misperceive a later event happening before an earlier event. (Eagleman, 2019) (Dawson and Sleek 2018) (Davis 2019)

3.1 Is Time an Illusion?

Humans perceive that time is past, present and future. However, close examination demonstrates problems in this perception. Philosophers Aristotle and J.M.E. McTaggart said that that time as conceived and defined by humans is unreal and an illusion. McTaggart believed that all human conceptions of the universe are artificial and illusions. (Jain 2019) (McTaggart 1927)

Aristotle said that time is made up of the no longer (the past) and the not yet (the future). He said these are unreal in the present. Yet the present, the thing that separates the unreal past and the unreal future, is infinitesimally small to the point of being nothing. If the past is unreal, the future is unreal and the present does not exist, this would point to time, or at least our conception of time, being unreal and an illusion. 

4 TIME TRAVEL

We all travel through time. However, most people consider time travel as traveling significantly abnormally: at a different rate, skipping through time or in an unusual direction. 

Some perceive of different biological ways of traveling. Keeping fit and healthy and modern medicine prolong life spans, giving people the ability to live further into the future. Some imagine such things as cryogenics as a way to bring people back to life in the future. Movements such as transhumanism and posthumanism involve many theories of medically and scientifically extending and changing human life. (McKie 2018)

Whether because of drug use, mental disorder, physical situation or neurological experience, people psychologically experience time radically differently. Learning about the past and having new insight into one’s future involve a sort of mental time travel or expanded conscious awareness.

4.1 Physics Views on Time Travel

Physics offers possible and real examples of time travel, though none realistically apply to human beings. The Fermi Paradox suggests that if time travel happens, we would have encountered people or things from the future. (Shalheveth and Madar 2017)

Time dilation in the theories of relativity shows how time changes when things speed up and are near massive objects. Einstein said that something that moves faster than the speed of light goes backwards in time. Black holes are areas of extreme gravity that suck time and space. Wormholes are speculative structures in space that link disparate points in spacetime and that would theoretically allow time travel, including backward time travel. (Stein 2021) (Moscowitz 2012) (Osbourne 2017)

Changes in the direction and/or rate of entropy would change time. This may happen in the future in our universe.

Quantum physics offers theoretical examples of time travel being possible, and some speculate that time itself may be quantized. (Fernandez 2019)

Some particles move at the speed of light and black holes exist, meaning time is different and changing for some things in the universe. However, none of this time traveling seems plausible or even possible anywhere in the near future for humans. A human wouldn’t survive a black hole or wormhole, and the possibility of a human traveling at the speed of light, much less faster, is improbable. 

4.2 Philosophical Paradoxes

There are many philosophical problems with time travel, some pointing to backward time travel being impossible. (Shalheveth and Madar 2017)

Entropy goes in only one direction in our universe. Backward causation, or a future or present event causing a past event, seems logically impossible. (Yami 2007) (Uyeno 2019)

There is a famous Grandfather time travel Grandfather where you are supposed to go back in time to assassinate your grandfather. Logically, you can’t do this. If you killed your grandfather you would never be born to go back and kill your grandfather. Philosophers say this reasoning applies to all causal events. (Uyeno 2019)

 

5 FINAL NOTES

There are countless ways to consider and think about and define time, including not covered in this essay: Biological time (NIGMS 2018); Different modern cultural perceptions (Pant 2013); Conceptions of time and time travel in literature and film; Non-human animal perceptions of time (Trinity College Dublin 2013); The history of timepieces: sundials to pendulum clocks to quartz watches to atomic clocks, the history of calendars (Andrewes 2006); Common philosophical questions such as “Is time infinite or finite?”, which is an ultimately unanswerable question, in part as infinity itself is an abstract human concept that cannot be empirically tested and may not exist in the physical world. (Ceurstemont 2017) (ESA 2001).

Even if seemingly oppositional, the different ways of considering time often aren’t in conflict, but different particular perspectives. When considering the different physics, psychological, cultural and theological conceptions, it may not always involve so much different perspectives of time but different definitions.  

We can only think about time and think about our own thinking from the human perspective. Often, when you look close enough at time, you aren’t looking at time but looking at your mind. The paradoxes and illusions of time are really paradoxes and illusions of our mental conceptions and definitions of time. And maybe that’s all time ever is: a human abstract conception and a definition. This essay has given you many details and theories about time, yet likely has gotten you no closer to answering the question of ‘What is Time?’ Such is the nature of time.

 

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Children, Non-Human Animals and Spirituality

by Dr. Maskil David Cycleback

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”– Picasso

“There is absolutely no reason to believe (the ability to have spiritual experiences) is any different for a dog, cat, or primate’s brain.”– neurology professor Kevin Miller MD

Mysticism and spirituality involve the brain naturally if unusually functioning in particular ways. With their brains functioning differently than that of adult humans, and young children and non-human animals literally perceiving the world differently, children and non-human animals appear to be able to, if perhaps not more able to, think in spiritual ways. 

Psychology professors Lisa Miller of Columbia University and Diana Divech of Yale have written that children are born hardwired for mystical thinking, and this type of thinking is important for their mental development.Australian child psychologist Rebecca Nye writes that “a growing body of research demonstrates that children’s spirituality is not something esoteric, nor something exclusive to precocious children. Also, it is not limited to particular religious exercises, nor something we need to turn to the early lives of saints to find out about.” (Divech 2015) (Nye 2009)

Princeton University psychologist Julian Jaynes and Tufts University philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett wrote that children’s brains lack the mature cognitive structuring of adults that normally suppresses mystical thinking in our daily lives. Jaynes says that it is not coincidence that traditionally many religious “seers” were children. This also indicates that the spiritual or mystical way of thinking is something they often grow out of. (Dennett 2005) (Jaynes 1976) 

Notice that in stories how often it is the child who has the transcendental experiences that the adults don’t. Peter Pan to The Exorcist to Wizard of Oz to Little Red Riding Hood. In The Shining, five year old Danny has epileptic-like seizures where “It’s like when I go to sleep, he shows me things.” In Peter Pan, Peter’s childhood experiences are forgotten as an adult. In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has her fantastic adventure while knocked out, literally being in a different state of consciousness. 

Further, in many ways children psychologically and optically perceive the world differently than adults. The following are two particularly fascinating examples:

  • Adults’ brains combine senses to make one holistic perception of the physical world. However, young children’s brains keep separate each sense, including eye-to-eye. The result is that adults can identify some physical qualities in a scene that young kids cannot, and kids can identify physical qualities that adults cannot.  (University College London 2010)
  • For kids under a certain age, what they know is more important than what they see. When asked to draw a coffee cup in front of them with the handle hidden from view on the other side, an adult will draw a cup as seen without a handle. The young child, who can’t see but knows there is a handle on the cup, will draw the cup with a handle on the side.  (Oxbridge Academy 2019)

The question to ponder is which drawing is more accurate. Consider that Picasso, who trained himself over years to draw like a child, was a pioneer in cubism. His cubist paintings the three dimensional sides of a figure in two dimensions.

Non-Human Animals

While humans can never know what non-human animals’ perceive, and non-human animals’ perception involves sensory information outside of human’s sight and hearing, a number of medical scientists believe non-human animals have the capability of having spiritual and mystical experiences.

As with young children, non-human animals do not have the advanced cognitive structuring that adult’s human use, and process information using the emotional parts of their brains. Some thus believe non-human animals thus have more direct, realistic experience of their physical world

Research points to spiritual experiences coming from deep primitive areas of the human brain. These areas are shared by other animals with similar brain structures. University of Kentucky neurology professor Kevin Nelson and University of Colorado evolutionary biology professor Marc Bekoff both believe animals have spiritual experiences comparable to what humans have.  (Nelson 2012) (Beckoff 2009)

Writes Miller: “It is still reasonable to conclude that since the most primitive areas of our brain happen to be spiritual, then we can expect that animals are also capable of spiritual experiences . . . In humans, we know that if we disrupt the (brain) region where vision, sense of motion, orientation in the Earth’s gravitational field, and knowing the position of our body all come together, then out-of-body experiences can be caused literally by the flip of a switch. There is absolutely no reason to believe it is any different for a dog, cat, or primate’s brain.”  (Nelson 2012)

References:

Bekoff M. (2009), “Do Animals Have Spiritual Experiences? Yes, They Do.”, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/200911/do-animals-have-spiritual-experiences-yes-they-do

Dennett D (2005), “2005 : WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?”, stage.edge.org/response-detail/11902

Divecha D (2015), “How Does Spirituality Grow in Children?”, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_does_spirituality_grow_in_children 

Jaynes J (1976), The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” Houghton Mifflin

Neson, K (2012), The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience Reprint Edition (Plume)

Nye R (2009), Children Spirituality (Church House Publishing)

Oxbridge Academy (2019), “How Children See the World Differently to Adults”. https://www.oxbridgeacademy.edu.za/blog/how-children-see-the-world-differently-to-adults/

University College London. “Children and adults see the world differently, research finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913153630.htm>

Mental Conditions, Religious Visions, Society and Pathology

by Dr. Maskil David Cycleback

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Following the article ‘The relationship Between Schizophrenia and Religious Visions’, the following looks more at some other mental conditions, their relationship to society, how conditions are pathologized, and the question of if and how to pathologically categorize religious visions versus mental condition hallucinations and delusions. 

As with schizophrenia, many disorders are natural. What are now pathologized as disorders were often normal and useful thinking in old days and other societies.  They can be useful in other areas, and perhaps in the future will.

Psychologist and director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development Thomas Armstrong said that computer scientists may come to prefer AI that thinks like an autistic person rather than a normal human. (Armstrong 2018) (Angel 2019)

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Syndrome

People with ADHD are known for being highly impatient, daydreamers who can’t focus on the task at hand, perform tasks loudly, are unable to sit still, and sometimes talk non-stop. It can be hard for someone with ADHD to pay attention in boring lectures, stay focused on any one subject for long, or sit still.  (CDC 2019) 

They seem unable to fit in modern ‘civilized’ society, with its strict structures. 

While ADHA doesn’t fit in much of today’s rigid structures, it was a natural and important way of thinking in the old days. Old nomadic people moving around, hunting, on the constant lookout for opportunities and dangers had to think and act this way.  It was an advantage and necessary.  

It is not the way of thinking that is wrong or unnatural.  It just doesn’t fit in with today’s society.

A research professor in psychology at Boston College, Peter Gray argues that ADHD is a failure to adapt to the conditions of modern schooling: “From an evolutionary perspective, school is an abnormal environment Nothing like it ever existed in the long course of evolution during which we acquired our human nature. School is a place where children are expected to spend most of their time sitting quietly in chairs, listening to a teacher talk about things that don’t particularly interest them, reading what they are told to read, writing what they are told to write, and feeding memorized information back on tests.” (Gray 2010)

Depression 

Depression causes obvious problems at its extremes, including psychosis, hospitalizations and suicide. Doctors try to fix it through drugs and therapy.

However, depression is a natural, evolved way of brain function that has its advantages and essential uses. Humans would have troubles functioning and perhaps not have survived as a species if they never felt depressed

In the old days, losing energy during the dark winter time to preserve energy was important to survival.  Some non-human animals, of course, hibernate during winter.

Depressed people mull over, often intensely, situations and problems.  These ruminations are an important part of examination and thinking, and humans would be lesser for it.  Humans who are depressed focus on and are highly analytical about problems and issues.  Happiness is great, but happy care-free people often avoid problems, and don’t do what they should do.  

As with physical pain, depression is a natural reaction to something bad happening.  It would be dangerous and often lethal if people never felt depression or pain.  They are signals that something is wrong and should be addressed. Worry about the person who never gets depressed, even when his wife dies and people around the world suffer

In an academic study trying to identify distortions of thinking in depressed people in order to discover treatments, the psychiatrists determined that the depressed subjects had a more accurate view of reality and themselves than the non-depressed subjects. The depressed were also better at estimating time than the non-depressed. (University of Hertfordshire 2013) (Burton 2012)

“In contrast, most non-depressed people have an unduly rose-tinted perspective on their attributes, circumstances, and possibilities.”– Psychiatrist Dr. Neel Burton, Oxford University (Burton 2012)

Read about examples of other orders in the article: Neurodiveristy: The Theory, Movement, Issues and Controversies

Too Much of a Good Thing

Many disorders involve natural ways of thinking but too much of it.  Everyone has their ups and downs, but bipolar people get too big of swings. Everyone gets depressed and it’s useful, but some people get too much of it. Anxiety is natural and helpful, but some people have too much of it or it doesn’t fit the situation.  

Humans Are Social Animals Evolved to Function in Groups 

Humans have evolved as a species to think in a particular way in order to function and survive as a species in their particular physical and social environment.  Humans survive and thrive as a species and their thinking is based in socialization and groups. 

Humans’ greatest achievements are products, in one way or another, as groups: building cities and bridges, expansion of knowledge, art and literature, science, technology, government,  landing on the moon. 

How to organize groups and societies, questions of the rights individual versus the greater good are constant questions and debates without objective or one size fits all answers.  Groups can be good and bad, useful and harmful, intelligent and ignorant.  Groups have been integral to humans’ greatest achievements and worst deeds (war, oppression, environmental degradation).  Racism and bigotry are examples of how social and group thinking can be bad. 

These questions and debates are constant in religion as well.  Churches have both spiritual and originizational concerns that often conflict.  Religions are often about individual enlightenment, but often also conflictingly about social order both of its congregants and society at large.

“Both individualism and community have value. And there is no perfect way of figuring out the best way to find the best compromise between these two values.”– economist Timothy J. Bartik 

People who think abnormally often and almost by definition have issues fitting in with society. This can range from ‘being weird’ and being an outsider, to people who have serious functional issues, unable to hold a job or stay in school to being unable to communicate and even function in their day to day lives. Many People in prisons and who are homeless or jobless are mentally ill. Drug addiction and alcoholism are pathologized as mental disorders and many otherwise mentally ill self medicate with drugs and alcohol.

The mentally ill often perceive physical reality, organize things differently, emotionally feelings differently.  They often don’t have the same cognitive, social or emotional intuition and associations as normal people.  Austic and bipolar people often have trouble socializing and understanding other people.  Those who think differently may not like or dislike the same things as other people  Autistic may prefer to be alone rather than being social. The mentally ill often learn and communicate differently.  Autistic use different facial explanations, the dyslexic can’t read as well, ADHD are more spontaneous, schizophrenics and the dyslexic have troubles with language.

Famous mentally ill and neurodiverse people often have functional issues.  Physics Nobel Paul Dirac was autistic required his wife to take care of other things, as he could not focus on h w work.  He was one of the great scientific and mathematical intellects of his era– widely acknowledged as an academic genius– but needed assistance to live his life. He was well known for his social deficits.

Many unique thinkers and artists– Van Gogh to Jean Genet — were outsiders to society.  Van Gogh was unable to fit in with society and art communities.  The great French novelist and playwright Jean Genet had longtime troubles with the society, including being imprisoned and living a “deviant” life as defined by society.

Revolutionary religious thinkers from Jesus to George Fox to Michael Servetus thought differently and came into conflict with their culture and society.  All three were labeled as crazy by some, Jesus and Servetus were killed, and Fox regularly was jailed.  Other religious thinkers such as Buddha and Leo Tolstai felt they had to give up their wealth and to leave normal society to pursue their theology.

This points out that societies and cultures norms are about functioning, about functioning of the society and culture, and not about many other things such as knowledge and new information.  The powers that be are often scared of and suppress new knowledge and information that might cause troubles with the social norms.  

Scientists with new ideas, inventors and original artists almost by definition are people who think outside the social norms and traditions.  Great scientists, thinkers and artists have long gotten into conflict with society.  From Galileo to Socrates to Caravaggio. Some visionary and influential artists, such as Marquis de Sade, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Paul Gauguin, have aspects that lay outside of today’s accepted social norms and rules.

PATHOLOGY

The central debate within and surrounding neurodiversity is what if any ways of thinking should be pathologized.  Even beyond the topic of neurodiversity, what and how to pathologize thinking has been a debate in psychology and psychiatry.

As with all classification and definition systems, pathology has a particular purpose, scope, methodology, It involves subjectivity and should not be looked at as answering or addressing all questions about human brain functioning.

The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual defines a mental disorder as: “…a syndrome characterized by​ a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognitive, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental process underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities.” (van Heugten 2015)

According to Stevan Gans MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard,  “Mental variations today are called disorders when they cause personal distress and impairment in multiple areas of life, such as working, social, relations, etc.” (Cherry 2020)  

This is a valid way to define and categorize ways of thinking. However, it has a particular scope and leaves out much. It leaves many important questions unanswered.  

Pathology is based on social norms and how one fits in with society and its norms, along with subjective and personal judgments about distress and pain.

“Psychosis has been defined as ‘any one of several altered states of consciousness, transient or persistent, that prevent integration of sensory or extrasensory information into reality models accepted by the broad consensus of society, and that lead to maladaptive behavior and social sanctions . . . .This is based on the assumption that we understand the nature of ‘reality’, and that there is a narrow band of ‘normal’ perception, outside of which there is little useful potential.”– Nikki Crowley, PhD Assistant Professor of BiologyBiobehavioral Health (Crowly 2010)

“Whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely on when and where you were born.   In other times and other places, there have been different disability/ability diagnosis depending upon cultural values. . . .  We should not regard diagnostic labels as absolute and set in stone, but think, instead, of their existence relative to a particular social setting.”– Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., American Institute for Learning and Human Development (Armstrong 2015)

Areas beyond these pathological parameters include the skills, special insights, special perspectives and knowledge, spirituality and artistic insights people with disorders may have.  Those with disorders have been religious shaman, great artists, people with unique skills and insights into the world. Even those who pathologize them as disorders acknowledge see this.   Artists from Beethoven to Van Gogh to Nabakov created their original, celebrated works in part because of not despite of their mental disorders.

There have long been disagreements and changes as to what should be pathologized. What has been pathologized in the past isn’t always pathologized today, and what is pathologized today may not be in the future.

Years ago, homosexuality and being left-handed were pathologized and psychologists, educators and psychiatrists tried to cure them. Disorder such as manic depression, dyslexia and ADHD are pathologized, while mystical experiences and synathesia are not.  It’s all a matter of value-judgment and subjective criterion.

 

HOW TO PATHOLOGICALLY DEFINE RELIGIOUS VISIONS VERSUS MENTAL DISORDER HALLUCINATIONS

ecstasy-of-st-francis-1300 (1)

Religious experiences and the hallucinations of mental disorders can be remarkably alike. A long and continuing medical, theological and philosophical debate has been about to and if to distinguish between religious vision and ideas and mental hallucinations.   

How they are pathologized is based on how common they are, how they fit in with prevailing beliefs, how they relate to the person functioning and fitting with society, and even prevailing sentiments about them, and how the individual feels about them.

 If a religious vision fits in with normal society views and culture and perception of reality (say a vision of Jesus in a Christian country), allows the person to fit in or work fine in society, and the person doesn’t find them bad, then it is not pathologized.  In fact, religious trances and spiritual visions are promoted by many cultures, even today.

If the same type of vision does not fit in with society’s views and culture and perception of reality, prevents or is part of a way of thinking that prevents them from fitting with and functioning in society, and depresses the person, then it is pathologies.

Pathology is subjective, relative and cultural, and there are no objective answers to many of these questions.

Many theologians and philosophers say it does not matter what condition Joan of Arc had or did ot have, as all that really matters is her way of thinking. They believe there are different path to the same place.

 

References: 

Angel T (2019), “Everything You Need to Know About ADHD, “healthline.com/health/adhd

Armstrong T (2018), ‘Neurodiversity,’ institute4learning.com/resources/articles/neurodiversity/

Armstrong T (2017), ‘Neurodiversity,’ institute4learning.com/resources/articles/neurodiversity/

Burton N (2012) “Depressive Realism”, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201206/depressive-realism

CDC (2019) “Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)” 

Cherry K (2020), “Psychological Disorders Diagnosis and Types”, verywellmind.com/what-is-a-psychological-disorder-2795767

Crowley N (2010), “‘Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence? – Consideration of the Transpersonal Perspective within Psychiatry'”, rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/members/sigs/spirituality-spsig/spirituality-special-interest-group-publications-nicki-crowley-psychosis-or-spiritual-emergence.pdf?sfvrsn=5685d4c1_2

Gray P (2010), ‘ADHD & School: Assessing Normalcy in an Abnormal Environment’, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201007/adhd-school-assessing-normalcy-in-abnormal-environment?collection=123414

University of Hertfordshire (2013), “Depressed people have a more accurate perception of time”, sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130822090326.htm

van Heugten T (2015) “The classification of psychiatric disorders according to DSM-5 deserves an internationally standardized psychological test battery on symptom level”, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4523712/

Eastern Versus Western Psychology

by Dr. Maskil David Cycleback

Screenshot 2020-07-03 at 8.06.11 PM

B.F. Skinner and Swami Akhilananda

The East (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) and West (Western academia, science, medicine) offer two different and illuminating approaches to the study of the mind, and are emblematic of philosophical and epistemological study of the brain. They approach the brain differently, looking at things at different levels and have their own benefits and limitations. In the end and as the left and right hemispheres of the brain do, the two approaches should complement each other, and each has influenced the other.

Psychology both Eastern and Western are important ways of understanding things and expanding the mind. The first half of this article looks at the intuitive, mystical Eastern psychology. The second half looks at the empirical, academic Western Psychology. They are different and both competing and complimenting studies of the human brain.  Both have their limits. Even when put together they still give a disjointed, limited view of the brain.

 

EASTERN PSYCHOLOGY

Eastern psychology is tied into the Eastern (Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist) philosophy and theology, is more subjective and inward-looking that the academic West’s scientific approach.  It works to serve not just the mentally disordered but everyone.  It attempts through many methods– meditation, yoga, tai chi, personal self-reflection– to bring the individual to higher emotional consciousless and enlightenment.

 

Eastern Psychology, Philosophy and Religion as One Not Separates

In the West, psychology is separate from other sciences, religions and often even philosophy. Traditionally it is considered bad, and even unethical and unscientific, to mix them together. Some in the West consider theology and science to be like oil and water. 

 In the East, however, philosophy, psychology, theology and the way of life are all mixed together, and considered parts of one whole. 

“If we look deeply into such ways of life of Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy”– Philosopher Alan Watts, Psychotherapy East & West

If you know Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu philosophy and techniques for enlightenment and leading a proper religious life, you essentially know their psychology. Buddhism is about clearing and expanding the mind through meditation, mindfulness and proper living, which is both a philosophical and psychological methodology. Same with the yoga and meditation of Hinduism, and the Tai Chi of Taoism. It is about mystical awareness.

Really, Eastern psychology is a mystical reflection and exploration. Buddhists regularly talk about the shallowness of symbolic language, categorization, labels. 

 

Eastern Psychology Focuses on Everyone, Not Just the Mentally Ill or Troubled 

While traditionally Western clinical psychology and psychiatry were designed for the treatment of the mentally ill or people having troubles, Eastern psychology was designed for everyone, including the normal and healthy. Eastern psychologists say that a problem with such Western psychology is that it applies its conclusions for treating the mentally ill to everyone, which they feel is an incorrect approach.  

Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist philosophies are designed to bring normal people into higher states of enlightenment and knowledge of the universe, being of better conduct and living better lives, and being harmonious with the universe. Eastern psychological techniques– mindfulness, meditation, self reflection, yoga, self reflection– are for everyone, not just the mentally troubled. 

In recent years, Western psychology has caught on to this, as evidence by the integration of Eastern psychological practices of mindfulness, meditation and yoga into clinical psychology and daily life, along with the field of positive psychology. 

“Positive psychology is the study of happiness. Psychology has traditionally focused on dysfunction—people with mental illness or other issues—and how to treat it. Positive psychology, in contrast, is a field that examines how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled.”–  Positive psychology, Psychology Today

 

Eastern Psychology Is About Looking Inward At The Self 

Hinduism and Buddhism were well ahead of their time, at least compared to Western psychology and science, in that they focused on the inner self, studying one’s own mind. That was the center of study and spiritual practice, and one’s inner self laboratory of psychological experimentation. Hinduism and Buddhism consider one’s self a reflection or microcosm of the universe. Also, from a practical standpoint, it is all we one can really study and know. 

This reflection and study of the self is intuitive and subjective. This goes against the tenets of the West’s scientific method. However, the East sees the limits of the Western psychology that only studies only that which can be objectively and externally measured. There is much in psychology, in the self and the universe that is personal, unmeasurable and unquantifiable: emotional feeling, aesthetic experience, mystic experience, much of the religious experience. Much of the universe is beyond science and even human logic and symbolic language. Mysticism attempts to become closer with the transcendental universe in personal, a-rational ways. 

While early Western psychology shied away from introspection and personal subjectivity, this Eastern study of the inner works of the mind was centuries ahead of Western psychology’s cognitive psychology that used scientific methods to study the inner workings of the mind. In fact, the West’s behaviorism and structuralism intentionally avoided the ‘untestable’ inner workings of the mind, and were criticized even by Western psychologists for this blind spot. That something cannot be scientifically studied, or that you choose to ignore it, doesn’t make it non-existant or unimportant. It makes the study unwhole.

It is true that this exploration is subjective to the person, and this is a limit and a problem. However, the human experience, all human experience, is subjective and the studying of this subjectivity is important to understanding humans. And while it is limiting and corrupting, it is also a path that the Eastern psychologists take to expand their mind. All explorations and modes of study– all attempts to expand the mind– have limits and problems.

 

Eastern Psychotherapy

Along with studying and reflection on the inner workings of the mind, early Eastern psychology had many clinical psychology and cognitive therapy methods that are used today in the West.

In the video ‘The Roots of Buddhist Psychology,’ Buddhist psychologist and meditation expert Jack Kornfield talks about the Buddhist method that intertwines practices such as mindfulness, meditation and introspection with moral and ethical living of loving kindness, charity and environmentalism. He says one should work to rid oneself of delusions, and realize that all one needs is in the self. One key method is to mindfully watch how one reacts to situations– what triggers anger, sadness– and observe what one really feels. The goals is to be aware and fix things as needed. A key is to be open and not avoid painful thoughts or bad things about the world. Awareness and enlightenment are keys both as a philosophy and cognitive/clinical therapy. Kornfield says one should rid oneself of the ego (a delusion), or at least see it for what it is. And he says true enlightenment is when the mind and the universe are inseparable. As you see, Buddhist psychology and philosophy are one. 

The Taoists believe that one should live in harmony with nature, and its psychology works to fix bad habits and thoughts that prevent this. 

Much Taoist psychology work is beyond words, such as Tai Chi. Taoists believe it is not just words and thoughts that are important, but even the way one moves, even walks across a room. This is mystical.

But, again, as with Buddhism and Hinduism, Taoism isn’t just trying to deal with normal living, but to raise one’s mind and consciousness to a higher, beyond-normal level. This is how it ties into its theology.

 

Eastern Psychology Is Concerned With Society And Earth, Not Just the Individual

While Eastern Psychology works with the individual, including teaching him or her to work on the self while living in a troubled, distracting, materialistic and often corrupt society, it also is concerned with society as a whole and the whole universe. Remember that the Eastern religions see everything as intertwined, not separate. 

While Western psychology often sees mental illness as one who does not fit in with society, the East often sees the society itself as being the ill one. The East often sees that the enlightened will be seen as mentally ill by the West, because the enlightened person’s thoughts and ways do not conform. Eastern psychology is concerned with social greed, corruption, war, ethnic and racial hatred, and often views them as the result of the people’s errant inner thoughts.

Duly note that when we talk about ‘Western psychology’ we talk about traditional white psychology. Many non-geographically Eastern aboriginal religions and beliefs are much in alignment with the East not the white west. The below is a comparison of Buddhism and American Indian beliefs.

 

WESTERN PSYCHOLOGY AND THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD 

Western psychology, a relatively modern area that studies human minds and behavior using the scientific method.  It studies humans using observation and measurable sensory information. 

This method has produced much important information about humans and animals, but the scientific method cannot study or know about some areas, such as theology, what emotions feel like, subjective experience, mystical experience, aesthetics and other integral parts of the human and human experience. 

Western psychologists and others have realized the limitations of this scientific psychology, and have integrated Eastern theology, psychology and practices, in particular into clinical psychology. Studying both Eastern and Western psychology, one comes to the conclusion that both approaches are essential, and should be integrated. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

 

Western Psychology as Science

Unlike the centuries old Eastern psychology, Western Psychology of the academic Europe and North America is a relatively recent area, started in the mid-1800s. Western psychology is the scientific study of human minds and behavior, traditionally approaching from a strictly scientific point of view.

“Psychology is the science that studies why human beings and animals behave as they do. Psychologists are interested in understanding the whole range of human experience, including the reasons for people’s motives, thoughts, feelings and emotions. These problems have puzzled man for centuries. But the scientific study of such problems only began in the mid-1800s . . . Psychologists have learned much about behavior and experience, but they have made only a beginning. There is a great deal they know little about, and a lot to be discovered. Suppose you ask yourself ‘How does my brain function as a mind?’ You would be asking a question that has baffled investigators for hundreds of years. The question is still largely unanswered, but it is being studied by many psychologists’ collaboration with neurophysiologists and other scientists.”– Hadley Cantril, Psychology Professor at Princeton University (Cantril 1978) 

As it is a science, psychology uses the scientific empirical method used in all areas of Western science.

The scientific method is the process where scientists collectively and over time try to create reliably objective representations, theories and/or models of the world and the things in it. It is applied to all areas of science, including chemistry, biology, physics, engineering and medicine. In particular, it creates theories and experimentally tests them through the senses and observations. It attempts to be objective and remove the scientists’ biases, though biases can never be entirely escaped. 

“The scientific method has four steps: 1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena. 2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation. 3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations. 4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments . . . If the experiments bear out the hypothesis it may come to be regarded as a theory or law of nature (more on the concepts of hypothesis, model, theory and law below). If the experiments do not bear out the hypothesis, it must be rejected or modified. What is key in the description of the scientific method just given is the predictive power (the ability to get more out of the theory than you put in; see Barrow, 1991) of the hypothesis or theory, as tested by experiment. It is often said in science that theories can never be proved, only disproved. There is always the possibility that a new observation or a new experiment will conflict with a long-standing theory.”– University of Rochester Physics and Astronomy Professor Frank L. H. Wolf  (Wolf 2016) 

The science of psychology avoids individual introspection, experimentation through subjective personal feelings, intuition. It considers many areas such as palm reading, crystals and mystic intuition to be pseudoscience. It is wary of the way lay people use personal or anecdotal experiences as proof of broader laws. They know that such personal experience is subjective and formed by personal and often irrational biases.

There are many areas, schools and specialties in Western psychology. The following shows a few major ones, demonstrating how the scientific method is used and how each area has its limitations.

Structuralism

In 1879 Wilhelm Wundt introduced the first formal experimental psychology, and his area of study was called structuralism. He worked to study the conscious mind– totally ignoring the unconscious mind–, and intentionally studied it using the scientific methods he saw being used in chemistry and physics.

An obvious limitation of structuralism is that it was limited in its study conscious mind.

 

Behaviorism

Another major psychology school/movement that shows both the objective scientific method and its limits was behavior psychology or behaviorism.  The earlier pictured B.F. Skinner was the leader in this area.

Behavioralism studied the outward behavior of humans and animals. It dismissed the inward personal experiences and non-symbolic thoughts of the subjects, as they could not be objectively measured. Behavioralism studied how humans and non-human animals outwardly reacted (behavior) to events, stimuli and actions, and could even be used to alter human behavior. Pavlov’s dog that drooled at the ringing of a bell in anticipation of food is perhaps the most famous example.

 

Looking Inside Scientifically: Cognitive Psychology

Psychologists and philosophers saw the obvious blindspot of structuralism and behaviorism: They ignored the inner experience of the mind. The inner experience is hard to study externally, but that does not make it any less real or any less important a subject.  

The next major movement was cognitive psychology and cognitive science that worked to study the inner works of the mind: how the mind works, processes information, comes to judgments, the emotions, attention, etc.

This area also uses the scientific method, and often incorporates biologists, biochemists, neuroscientists and psychiatrists. Along with old school testing methods, cognitive science uses MRI, brain scans to study how the brain reacts under different circumstances from sleep to art perception to fear. It may be a study of the inside of the brain, but it is no less scientific than behaviorism.

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and theories have been refuted over the years, and often called pseudoscience in part because they are testable by the scientific method, but he is credited with studying the subconscious mind, and showing how it affects the conscious mind.

Structuralism, behaviorism and cognitive psychology are just three of many areas of psychological study, but show the progression of the areas of study and the use of the scientific method.

 

Moving Beyond The Limits of Science in Western Psychology 

In recent times, people in the West have seen these limits in Western psychology, in particular in the clinical and therapeutic ways where they are dealing with real individuals with personal problems. The West has incorporated many Eastern psychology theories in practices. Meditation, self-introspection, yoga, mindfulness and acupuncture are commonplace these days in the West, including in mainstream psychology.  

Humanistic psychology is a clinical psychology that values the private, subjective experience and even says it is more important to the individual. New age religions incorporate both Western science and Eastern practices.

 

SUMMARY OF EASTERN VERSUS WESTERN PSYCHOLOGY, AND THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SPIRITUAL AND SCIENTIFIC VIEWS 

“To put it at its simplest: science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. And we need them both, the way we need the two hemispheres of the brain.”– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Eastern and Western psychology study and focus on different aspects of the mind. Each has its own scope and methodology.

Eastern psychology is intuitive and mystical in its approach, and studies the self, its emotions, feelings, mystical experience of things. It is of the belief that studying the self is studying the universe— a theory consistent with mystical experiences where things appear to be one, where there is no ‘self versus other.’ It studies things and addresses questions that cannot be addressed by science. However, its limits are that it is subjective and much of its findings cannot be verified empirically.

Western psychology uses the scientific method to study the human brain and mind. It is an exacting tool, which is its strength. However, its limits are that there are things that are beyond empirical study. Science can only study that which can be objectively measured and ‘seen.’ Further, science is a work in progress, with theories proven wrong, adapted and fixed. This is both its strength and its weakness.

Each method is limited, and both complementary and conflicting. Such is the nature of human existence. 

While the brain and body simultaneously use both hemispheres of the brain, some say that religion, or spirituality, is a proverbial right brain activity, while science is a proverbially left brain activity. 

“Religion is an associative, holistic, right-brain activity, while science and philosophy are linear, analytical, left-brain disciplines. In one fell swoop, the entire enterprise of reconciling science and religion (and, ergo, apprehending religion through philosophy) is torn asunder: ‘Greek science and philosophy and the Judaic experience of God are two different languages, that—like the left- and right-brain modes of thinking— only imperfectly translate into one another”. This distinction allows religion to be recognized for what it truly is—a meaning-making enterprise that was never meant to offer scientific facts about the natural world or to be analyzed through the prism of logic.– Rabbi Daniel Goodman (Reference: Harvard Divinity Bulletin)

 

Video: Prominent University of California San Diego neurologist V. S. Ramachandran explains the case of split-brain patients with one hemisphere (the right) without a belief in a god, and the other (left) with a belief in a god. 

Split brain with one half atheist and one half theist

 

Video: An interesting dialogue between Ram Dass and Timothy Leary, both former Harvard psychologists. You will notice that Dass has a particularly Eastern frame of mind, while Leary is decidedly Western. Leary is concerned with labels and term definitions, while Dass sees them as unimportant: 

Timothy Leary and Ram Dass Debate

 

FOCUS: CHARLES TOWNE ON RELIGION AND SCIENCE

University of California-Berkeley physics professor and co-inventor of the laser and maser Charles H. Townes won the Nobel Prize for physics. He was also devoutly religious, a member of the United Church of Christ. He felt that science and religion were trying to answer different questions about the universe, and predicted that in the future the two would merge to give greater understanding of the nature of the universe.

Video: Charles Townes on Science and Religion Charles Townes on Science and Religion 

Link: Townes on how scientific discovery and religion have similar qualities 

Now watch the following video where another Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, discusses the intent of science versus the intention of religious speculation. Feynman was an atheist but confirms that science and religion or spirituality are looking at different aspects.

Video: Richard Feynman: “The Uncertainty Of Knowledge” 

 

 NATURAL THEOLOGY

Natural theology studies and theorizes about the universe, god and the nature and details thereof, using human reason and observation. It excludes the use of mysticism, and divine revelation such as Biblical or Quranic scripture. 

“Natural theology is the science of God, so far as God can be known by the light of our reason alone.”– Bernard Boedder, Catholic Priest and author of Natural Theology (Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame University)

This type of study can be traced to the logical philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, but is particularly associated with the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas thought that theological matters could be studied logically and through earthly observation, with the occasional aid of revelation. 

The logical and scientific study of that which is beyond logic and science seems problematic, though Aquinas said human reason is a gift from God and what separates humans from the rest of the animals. And many theologians will say that theology involves a combination of reason, faith and mysticism.

Further reading: ‘Natural Theology’ entry at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

 

Questions

  • What do you think of the different approaches of Eastern and Western psychology?
  • Do you think one is better than the other? Do you think they can be used together?
  • Do you believe that science and religion are complementary or competing?

 

References

Cantril H (1978), “Psychology”, World Book Encyclopedia

Psychology Today (2018), ‘Positive Psychology;, psychologytoday.com/us/basics/positive-psychology

Wolf, L (2016) ‘Scientific Method,’  shttp://teacher.nsrl.rochester.edu/phy_labs/AppendixE/AppendixE.html)

 

The Relationship Between Schizophrenia and Religious Visions

by Dr. Maskil David Cycleback

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Turkic shaman in Siberia

“Associations between mysticism and madness have been made since earliest recorded history, and the striking resemblance between self-reports of both mystical and psychotic experience suggests that similar psychological processes may be involved in their occurrence. “– Nickki Crowley PhD, Assistant Professor of Biology and Biobehavioral Health, Penn State University (Crowley 2018)

The similarity between religious visions and hallucinations and delusions of people with mental illness has long been known. Numerous mental conditions can produce mystical or spiritual experiences, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and epilepsy. This focus here is on schizophrenia.   

Schizophrenia is a complex, severe disorder that is far from fully understood.  Symptoms include emotional blunting, social and socializing problems, difficulty “reading” people,  cognitive problems and deterioration, disorganized speech and behavior, language problems,  problems with working memory and self awareness, a disconnect with standard perceptions of reality, and visual and auditory hallucinations 

Schizophrenics often hallucinate commanding voices, voices that instruct them what to do. The voices are as sensorily real to them as when someone talks to you, and commanding voices are much like religious voices. (webmd 2020)

The Passion of Joan of Arc_preview

Still from Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927). Since childhood, Joan of Arc heard commanding voices that she interpreted as messages from God. There have made guesses about her having mental disorders, including schizophrenia, epilepsy, bipolar disorder and bovine tuberculosis from drinking unpasteurized milk

Schizophrenia involves certain cognitive areas of the brain that are damaged, underdeveloped or deteriorated.  These are the cognitive areas that organize information and make our perceptions of time, geography, categories, identifications, and symbolic language. The perceptions are artificial but needed for normal function.  With the cognitive areas suppressed or damaged, schizophrenics process information in a more emotional, right brain way similar to what happens during mystical experiences.

In his seminal 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin), Princeton University psychologist Julian Jaynes theorized that most mental illnesses are just early ways of thinking. He said schizophrenia is the way early people thought.

bicameral


Jaynes said that schizophrenia is a vestige of early, pre-conscious human thinking. He said that the commanding voices schizophrenics hear were the early gods, and that early people sensorily experienced “gods” and muses in sight and sound.

The cognitive and emotional parts work together to function, and the parts of the brain receive information or messages from other parts of the brain.   Modern brains use the cognitive structuring that order, label and process the right hemisphere messages to make sense of the “messages” they receive from other parts of the brain.  Modern humans use and require these processes to have consciousness, or the ability to look at and try and understand their emotional responses and sensory information.  

With modern brains, the proverbial right hemisphere emotional brain is much less dominant than it used to be, as the proverbial left hemisphere cognitive parts of the brain has gained more influence.

As early humans lacked advanced language, metaconscousness, autobiographical memory, and the capacity of executive ego functions, such as deliberate mind-wandering, introspection, mental control and the ability to think about one’s own thoughts, they thus received messages without the cognitive, conscious analysis. Humans thus received the messages from parts of their brain as direct vocal commands, and took them as direct commends as gods.

Early people literally perceived and “heard” Gods and muses.  Their brain was “talking” to itself, but they did not have the conscious ability to know it was their own thoughts.  Consciousness is often defined as thinking about one’s thoughts and being aware that they are one’s own thoughts.

Jaynes writes that the Iliad and parts of the Old Testament were written by non-conscious people, and that you can see that later parts of the Bible and the Odyssey were written by people who were gaining consciousness. He said there were so many gods in the old days, because the gods were made by the people’s brains. 

illiad

Illiad

This schizophrenic way of thinking was useful and in fact essential for social functioning and survival in early days. He said early societies were higherchial like bee colonies. This unconscious “follow commands” method of thinking and perception served well.  

However, these societies and cultures were upheaved, including by natural disasters and migration, and human thinking had to evolve.

To adapt, human brains developed the cognitive structure and advanced language needed for consciousness, to adapt and consider. The proverbial intellectual left hemisphere became more dominant. As the cognitive structures and self reflection develped, and as advanced and written language becomes more advanced, these religious visions and voices diminished or disappeared from most peoples’ and daily life.  

The peoples noticed that their gods, once part of their daily sensory lives, were disappearing or disappeared.

My god has forsaken me and disappeared, 
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance 
The benevolent angel who walked beside me has departed, 
My protecting spirit has taken to flight and is seeking someone else. 
— Anonymous Mesopetanian poet (700 BC)

Jaynes wrote that, as consciousness developed and the gods disappeared, humans felt that their gods had left them.  They developed religious practices and leaders in an attempt to “bring back the gods.” Religious practices such as meditation, Gregorian chants, Whirling Dervish and Sun Dances, meditation and prayer alter how the mind functions by suppressing parts of the brain. They bring us back to early thinking.

Shamanic and similar mystics were people whose brains worked in the old way, and societies used them as conduits to the gods.  Before their brains developed, children were known to be more prevalent to having religious visions.

elgreco

El Greco

Notice how the religious often say that bad thoughts or questioning dogma are sinful and go against God. That is the type of conscious thinking and reflecting that prevents musical experiences and “makes the gods go away.”  

Schizophrenic Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash said he got his hallucinations and delusions  to go away by thinking about them logically and consciously dismissing them as hallucinations.  

This all shows that human thinking, old and and now, are about function in particular environments.  It also shows that mental illnesses are ways of thinking useful and even essential in other, often past situations.  The future and new situations may require different ways of thinking, perhaps old or mentally ill ways..

It also shows that human consciousness is produced by and perhaps requires artificial and arbitrary cognitive ways of thinking.  Our consciousness is, and may necessarily always be, artificial, arbitrary and subjective, and, in that sense, false.

A medical school study for the Indian Journal of Psychiatry found that 99% of the schizophrenic patients in the study believed in God. (Triveni, Grover and Chakrabartincbi 2017)

Schizophrenic delusions and hallucinations commonly have religious content. However, the delusions and interpretations of hallucinations were influenced by upbringing and culture. In Egypt, the prevalence of religious delusions fluctuated to changes in how much Islam was emphasized in the country The studies reveal culture can have a powerful influence on the types of delusions and hallucinations people experience. (Aldous 2017)

Schizophrenics with no religious upbringing more commonly interpreted the voices as coming from family members or aliens, or have delusions that they are being persecuted by the government rather than the Devil.

References:

Aldous V (2017), “Religious delusions common among schizophrenics,” mailtribune.com/news/happening-now/religious-delusions-common-among-schizophrenics

Crowley N (2018) ”Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence? – Consideration of the Transpersonal Perspective within Psychiatry’ rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/members/sigs/spirituality-spsig/spirituality-special-interest-group-publications-nicki-crowley-psychosis-or-spiritual-emergence.pdf?sfvrsn=5685d4c1_2

Triveni D, Grover S, and Chakrabartincbi S (2017, “Religiosity among patients with schizophrenia: An exploratory study”.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5806320/

webmd (2020), “Schizophrenia and Your Brain”, schizophrenia/schizophrenia-and-your-brain#1

Art Perception: Connecting to the Unreal

A complex and fascinating question is why do humans have such strong emotional reactions and human connections to art? Why do viewers become scared, even haunted for days, by a movie monster they know doesn’t exist? Why do humans become enthralled by distorted figures and scenes that aren’t realistic? Why do viewers have emotional attachments to comic book characters?

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The answer lies in that, while humans know art is human made artifice, they view and decipher art using the same often nonconscious methods that they use to view and decipher reality. Looking at how we perceive reality shows us how we perceive art, and looking at how we perceive art helps show us how we perceive reality.

Famed Univesity College London neurobiology professor Semir Zeki said that, whether they realized it or not, great artists were neuroscientists. They experimented with and employed techniques– such as colors, angles and shapes– that manipulate and influence the audiences’ minds.

Zeki and neurologist VS Ramachandran have shown how our aesthetic and emotional reactions to and interpretations of basic qualities such as shape, color, designs, angles and more complex qualities are natural and innate, whether they appear in nature, a painting or movie.

104145467_10216686358086907_8819071637268789538_n

Art gives us intuitive, emotional, psychological, sublime and yes subjective insight into things, into ourselves and our world and perhaps reality. It expresses ideas that cannot be expressed through other ways.

Yet not only is art irrational and illogical, it is often based in lies.

The plot of a story is often illogical, physically and historically impossible and factually incorrect. A novel is literally made up. A science fiction movie is a figment of the imagination and never happened and never will happen. Abstract and many other styles of paintings do not picture physical reality.

What does this say about human thinking, about human knowledge, that not only does some of it lie beyond logic, reason, rationality and objective facts, that it is often found in the illogic, lies and irrationality?

Picasso said that “Art is a lie that takes us closer to the truth.”

Religion is much like art. It has stories, scriptures, dogma. I would say that they should not be taken literally. Even though I believed he likely lived, Jesus is a metaphor.

Religious scriptures, stories and symbols are not to be taken literally, but as with the fiction of a movie or novel give people insight, ideas, teach lessons and give intuitive knowledge. As with art, they communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings that cannot be produced directly or literally. Scriptures are metaphors and allegories.

It is a mistake of both the religious and the anti-religious when they take religious scriptures and symbols as literal.

 

The Religious Views of Six Famous Physicists

Scientists who use the same logic and scientific methods come to different conclusions, or opinions, about God and religion.  Religion and God are beyond the scope of science and reasons, and it takes different types of thinking to address, though not answers, those areas. This also shows that the world view of even scientists, logicians and mathematicians include emotional, subjective and a-rational thinking.  

The following looks at the religious views of the scientists Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and Charles Townes.

 

Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)– Atheist

Probably the most famous scientist of his day, Stephen Hawking was a theoretical physicist, mathematician and cosmologist at the University of Cambridge. He is known for his theories on gravity, black holes and time.

Hawking was a hardcore atheist, rejecting the Abrahamic anthropophagic God.

He wrote: “The question is, is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God’, but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you would meet and put questions to.” Hawking was dismissive of philosophy, saying that the questions they deal in can be answered by science.

 

Isaac Newton (1642-1726/7)– Devout but unorthodox Christian

The British Newton is often ranked as the greatest scientist of all time, and a key figure in the scientific revolution and the Western enlightenment.  He developed the principles of modern physics and co-invented calculus.

Newton was devoutly and studiously Christian. However, his views were unorthodox and had to be hidden in Trinitarian society.  He was Unitarian and thought being a Trinitarian was a sin.  He believed in the plain language of the Bible, felt reason should not be used to interpret scripture, and found no mention of the Trinity.

Newton did not separate science from religion or God.  He felt that science and scientific laws were a reflection of God. While modern atheist scientists will see the scientific laws as the be-all and end-all, he saw God’s hand in all of science and happenings.

 

Richard Feynman (1918-88)– Atheist 

Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner known for his work in quantum mechanics. 

Feynman was an atheist, and said that the Abrahamic anthropomorphic Gods were something he could not believe.  He thought Abrahamic scriptures were interesting historically, but nothing more.

However, he said there was no inconsistency between believing in science and believing in god.  He said he disagreed with scientists who believed in God but not that they were wrong. He explained how and why he appreciated and understood how they could and did hold the two beliefs, and said that holding the two beliefs can be logically consistent and sound. 

Feynman used probability to answer all questions, including about the existence of God.  He rewrote the question“Is there (or isn’t there) God?” to ‘How sure can we be there is (or isn’t) a God?”   

“I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of  God (in the traditional Abrahamic view); I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility? Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way.” 

 

Charles Townes (1915-2015)– Devout Christian

Charles Townes was an American physicist, inventor of the laser and maser, and winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize for Physics.  

He was also a devout Christian, a member of the United Church of Christ. He said, “I feel the presence of God. I feel it in my own life as a spirit that is somehow with me all the time”

Townes said that science and religion were addressing different questions.  He said that science examined the physical nature of the physical world, why religion addressed the questions of metaphysical meaning. 

He also said that the religious/spiritual and scientific discoveries were much alike in many ways.  He said that each required a faith, a method of inquiry and observation, and unproven assumptions (axioms). He said his scientific ideas, including that led to the invention of the laser and maser, came to him in spiritual life epiphanies.  

Townes saw the limits and problems in science, writing.  “I don’t think that science is complete at all. We don’t understand everything, and one can see, within science itself, there are many inconsistencies. We just have to accept that we don’t understand.”

 He thought there might be a day when science and religion come together to give a full view.

 

Albert Einstein (1878-1955)– Agnostic, pantheist

The most famous scientist of the modern era, Einstein was a theoretical physicist who developed the special and general theories of relativity. 

Einstein believed the problem of God was the “most difficult in the world.” He said the question that could not be answered by a simple yes or no” and “the problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.”

Einstein did not believe in a personal or anthropomorphic God, considering that type of conceptio naive. He believed in a pantheistic God, writing to a Rabbi: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

Einstein was spiritual, musical and a lover of art.

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. . . He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wander and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.” 

 

Antireductionism and the Death of Physics Nobel Prize Winner Philip Anderson

The Physics Nobel Prize winner at Princeton died a few days ago (Obituary at Scientific American), and he was a scientist of great interest to philosophers (like me).

He was an antireductionist and was for complexity. He saw that reality, and any area within it, was far too complex and nuanced to be reduced to a simple theory or model, and said that “more is different.”

When I argue against people’s theories, the argument is often not so much against the theory itself but how it is being considered and used. All models are myopic and false. However, when used and considered as one of many different lenses to view things, a theory can be useful and offer insight. It is when the person or group uses the theory as the only way to view things– or worse, makes it “law” or dogma– that I strongly object and get vociferously argumentative.

Consistent with this, I’m a firm agnostic who often defends and appreciates people’s religious beliefs because of how the beliefs are being considered. Religious scriptures and symbols are metaphors, and often useful and important metaphors, and if they’re being understood and used as metaphors . . . Or, as I say: It is a mistake of both the religious and the anti-religious when they take religious scriptures and symbols as literal. A learned (with the emphasis on learned) Hindu monk of Jesuit theologian doesn’t take his deity or symbol as literal, and it is only the anti-theist who is arguing that he does.

An atheist scientist friend once dismissed the Hindus for having “thousands of gods.” I said that Hindus believe in just one god, but know that God is too big and complex to be translated into or tried to be understood through one deity.

 

Neurodiversity: The theory, movement, issues and controversies

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.”– Shakespeare 

Neurodiversity is a recent theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illnesses and conditions as natural neurological variations. 

There is a wide variety of views and approaches to the topic, including within the medical field and amongst the mentally ill and their advocates.  As is the case with many social movements and theories, there are areas of controversy and strong disagreement. This article looks at neurodiversity, and key issues and different perspectives around it.

You are welcome and encouraged to think about the topic, perhaps research it more, and form your own opinions. Many questions don’t have objective, simple or single answers. 


WHAT IS NEURODIVERSITY?

Neurodiversity is a recent theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illnesses and conditions, or at least many and some degrees of them, not as mental illness or medical conditions, but as natural neurological variations. The supporters see legitimate human thinking as a broad spectrum of variations. They say that many of what are currently called medical conditions or mental illness are natural and legitimate variations that fall outside the parameters of normalcy.

This movement has traditionally been associated with autism but has been broadened to include many other ‘different ways of thinking’ including dyslexia, ADHD or attention deficit syndrome, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, PTSD, or post-traumatic stress syndrome, and schizophrenia.

People who think differently, such a autistic and bipolar, are called neurodiverse.

The term was coined by Australian social scientist and autism advocate Sally Singer, and was first published in a 1998 The Atlantic article by journalist Harvey Blume.

There is a variety of reasons and thinking behind the theory. The key reason is the genuine belief that many ways of thinking that are now pathologized– meaning categorized and treated as abnormal and unhealthy– are just different legitimate ways of thinking.  

Psychiatry and psychology have traditionally treated, say, autism as a disease or disorder that must be fixed or cured.  However, neurodiversity advocates disagree with this approach. They say the different ways of thinking are perfectly natural not something to be cured.

And, while autism, bipolar disorder and other conditions often involve various mild to severe side effects, functional issues and troubles, the neurodiversity idea that there are different than normal but legitimate ways of thinking is correct.  

THE DIVERSE SPECTRUM OF HUMAN THINKING

Many mental conditions and illnesses involve both functional deficits and unique, positive, practical skills. All forms of thinking, including normal ways accepted by society and tradition, have trade-offs, good and bad qualities, positive and negative aspects, strengths and weaknesses. And what are good and bad qualities, positive and negative aspects, is subjective and in the eye of the beholder, and in part dependant on the situation, context and culture.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a range of neurological disorders that has many functional disabilities that range in intensity. Symptoms include difficulties in communication and understanding language, learning disabilities, lack of empathy and understanding of social cues, social withdrawal, repetitive movements, inappropriate social actions and self-abusive.

However, autistic people can have great skills, including at mathematics, memory, focus  and pattern recognition. The great physicists and mathematicians Paul Dirac and Issac Newton were autistic, and their autistic way of thinking was integral to their academic success.  

newton

Isaac Newton was autistic

When the autustic’s special needs are accommodated, tech businesses have discovered that the autistic have unusual skills, such as processing data and pattern recognition.  Some autistic tech workers have said that their technology co-workers are the impaired ones as they cannot focus and work with data and numbers as well as the autistic.

“Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it’s time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear,” — Dr. Laurent Mottron, psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal (link). 

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects areas of the brain that process language. Symptoms include difficulty in reading, poor spelling, mispronouncing words, difficulty in memorization and doing math. 

However, dyslexia involves unusual skills. These include creativity, big picture and holistic thinking, high reasoning skills and understanding complexity, independent thinking and seeing things others do not.  Dyslexics have better peripheral vision, meaning they literally get wider views of scenes.

Famed for their creative, original, outside the box thinking, dyslexics have included Leonardo da Vinco, Walt Disney, Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Picasso. Leonardo was a horrific speller and Einstein was slow to speak as a child, both common signs of dyslexia.

Albert-Einstein jpg

Albert Einstein was dyslexic, had mystical experiences and a schizophrenic son

My father was dyslexic and an engineering professor.  He had to be careful when writing down numbers, including on the classroom chalkboard. However, he was known by his colleagues for his ability to see the big picture. He said that being dyslexic growing up, he had to learn how to do things in different ways which aided his intellectual development.

“You can’t overcome it (dyslexia); you can work around it and make it work for you, but it never goes away. That’s probably a good thing, because if dyslexia went away, then the other gifts would go away too.”– Beryl Benacarraf MD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston

Schizophrenia is a serious and sometimes debilitating mental disorder where people interpret reality abnormally. Symptoms include hallucinations and delusions, disordered thinking and speech, and behavior and social disabilities that impair daily life.  Many schizophrenics appear to be out of touch with reality.

However, schizophrenia is associated with creativity and original thinking.  Famous schizophrenic artists include Syd Barret, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, Jack Kerouac, Brian Wilson and Veronica Lake.

The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s schizophrenia caused him great social and functioning troubles, including dropping out of society, hallucinations, delusions and being involuntarily hospitalized. However, he said when the bad effects and delusions were under control, his unique way of thinking contributed to his mathematical discoveries.

According to Oxford University psychiatrist Neel Burton, as schizophrenia is genetic it is also related to having mentally healthy relatives who are creative, different thinkers. Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and James Joyce who had schizophrenic children. Burton wrote that research has shown that “healthy siblings of people with schizophrenia are overrepresented in creative professions.” (link)

Mystical experiences

Mystical experiences are temporary neurological events where the functioning of the brain normal cognitive structures of the brain are suppressed and the brain processes sensory information using the emotional parts of the brain.  During mystical experiences, people experience and perceive the world and themselves in radically different ways and often feel they gain profound intuitive knowledge about reality and the physical world. Though temporary and happening with mentally healthy people, the instances are similar to schizophrenia.

Many famous scientists, academics, artists and thinkers have had mystical experiences that influenced their work and world views, including Richard Feynman, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Huston Smith, Walt Whitman and Wassily Kandinski.

University of Pennsylvania medical professor Andrew Newberg said that many of our “Aha!” epiphany moments are mini mystical experiences or changes in the brain’s perception where we see things from a new perspective.

Physics Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes said that many of his scientific ideas, including that led to the invention of the laser and maser, came to him in mystical experience-like epiphanies. 

Bipolar disorder is a serious disorder that at its extremes involves psychosis, delusions and hallucinations.  However, it is also genetically associated with high intelligence and creativity.

A University of Lancaster (UK) study showed that bipolar participants “described a wide range of internal states that they believe are experienced at far greater intensity than those without the condition, including increased perceptual sensitivity, creativity, focus and clarity of thought.” (link)

 Great artists who were dipolar include Van Gogh, Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Cobain and Edvard Munch. 

Edvard Munch said, “I can not get rid of my illnesses, for there is a lot in my art that exists only because of them.”

 

Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar

Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar

Along with being autistic, I am type 1 bipolar and have been since I was a young child.  While it has posed numerous challenges that have had to be addressed and overcome, I like the way I think. I say that it doesn’t involve perceiving this more or less accurate than others, just differently. However, being able to see things differently has been a great advantage to me academically.

When I was young, my engineering-professor father said to me, “You have a strange mind.”  He followed that up by saying that, as a professor, he meant that as a compliment in that I thought about subjects that never even entered most peoples’ minds and saw topics from unique viewpoints. It didn’t surprise him that I became a philosopher.

Artists Vladimir Nabakov, Franz Liszt, Duke Ellington, Charles Baudelaire, Vasily Kandinsky, Arther Rimnad and had synesthesia.  Synesthesia is an unusual and curious condition where one’s sense is simultaneously perceived but another, often multiple, sensest. For example, a person with synesthesia may experience sounds or letters or numbers as a color, smell or flavor.  It is often associated with artists and creatifity

Franz Kafka is called the Patron Saint of Schizoids, a mental disorder genetically related to schizophrenia. The person is interpersonally aloof and cold in the extreme but has imaginative and often elaborate inner lives. Along with his obviously highly creative novels and stories influenced by the disorder, he wrote extensive letters to his longtime fiance but rarely, and only for very short periods, would meet her in person

WHAT SHOULD BE PATHOLOGIZED AND WHAT SHOULDN’T?

What is interesting from the several examples I’ve given is that not all of the examples are pathologized.  While schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism are pathologized as mental disorders, synthesis and mystical experiences are not.  Synthesis and mystical experiences are considered unusual but harmless ways of thinking. 

Thus, the question of what should be pathologized and what should be considered perfectly natural and fine, has long been a topic.

“Whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely on when and where you were born. In other times and other places, there have been different disability/ability diagnosis depending upon cultural values. . . .  We should not regard diagnostic labels as absolute and set in stone, but think, instead, of their existence relative to a particular social setting.”– Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., American Institute for Learning and Human Development (reference)

I am certainly not at all saying that someone people with illness or conditions are all geniuses or advanced thinkers. The neurodiverse can be as dumb or silly as normal people, and mental illness and conditions often involve serious symptoms, deficits and problems.  Paranoid schizophrenics and people in bipolar manic phases can have clearly delusional thinking.

However, people who advocate for neurodiversity say that thinking differently isn’t, or is necessary, a deficit.  It may involve problems and issues and side effects that must be addressed, but the different ways of thinking should be respected and appreciated.  

THE NEURODIVERSITY MOVEMENT WANTS DIFFERENT TREATMENT AND CONSIDERATIONS OF THE MENTALLY ILL 

Including not wanting mental illnesses and conditions pathologies, the neurodiversity movement wants to remove the social and personal stigma of having conditions.

It often is framed as a human rights or social justice issue, where the mentally ill should be considered whole people with normal human rights and considerations.  They often consider it important for a mentally impaired child to grow up with self-confidence and feelings of self-worth, rather than being cataloged as damaged or not whole humans.

No matter who or what they are or what condition they have or don’t have, I often say the best thing you can do for a child is teach them self-confidence 

An important aspect of the neurodiversity movement is about the treatment of the mentally ill, and how to organize schools, business and social organizations to cater to their needs and help them flourish.

Many feel treatment of many conditions should not be about eradicating the condition or disease– which may be impossible anyway–, but a look for more humane, accommodating ways.  Working to alleviate bad symptoms, while preserving and embracing the different way of thinking.  They believe standardized and intelligence testing should take into context the different ways people think and express themselves.

Rather than trying to persecute and fix conditions, if students and employees with conditions are treated as different or unique people with potential great skills it is better for learning and the world, makes for better people and more productive companies, schools and societies.  

As we all know, normal people have different ways of learning and working, and making everyone work and learn the same exact way is problematic for everyone.

I have worked with museums, and know that museums intentionally design exhibits and educational problems to cater to people of different ways of learning, people with different abilities and disabilities, and people with different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.  They know that people learn and experience in different ways, and museums want to be inclusive.

CONTROVERSIES 

Much of what I have said so far may seem reasonable to you and you may wonder where the controversy is.  However, there are various controversies involving at times dichotomous ways of looking at the issue

The key controversy is about the very idea and debate of whether conditions should be treated pathologically as illnesses or mental deficits, or, instead, natural and fine ways of thinking.  People disagree about this, often strongly. You likely have your own opinions about this.

Some believe that autism, for one example, is genuine mental illness and a deficiency and should be treated as such.  These people search for cures, hoping eradicated it as one would want to eradicate cancer. In extreme cases, kids with the condition are depicted as kidnapped and unwhole human beings.

Many neurodiversity advocates say the autistic and are not mentally ill and there is nothing to cure, Many go as far as to say there should be no research into a cure and chastise parents of autistic children who search for a cure.  They believe that curing a mental illness is equivalent to eugenics. Some advocates and autistics in this camp can be zealous and treat people who believe differently derogatory.

Especially when zealous about their beliefs, these two come into conflict. However, for the majority of people interested in this topic, there is much common ground.

Whether they label autism a disease or mental illness or strongly disagree with that labeling, many agree that the autistic should be treated well, be accommodated, given education and work situations that cater to their disabilities and help them thrive.  

Most people also say there is no one size fits all theory or rules. The mentally ill are individuals and cases different from person to person.

There are high functioning autistic people, people who do well in school, hold fulfilling jobs and have satisfying social lives.  However, there are autistic people who have severe issues, including the inability to communicate, function normally and have great social troubles that cause them unhappiness. Most from both camps believe in addressing and fixing many of these issues.  A neurodiversity advocate would have to be a true zealot to say those issues shouldn’t be addressed and medical fixes research.

EVOLUTION, FUNCTION AND THINKING

A key area to understanding the neurodiversity issues, and a source of much philosophical and political conflict, is about the human brain, functioning and society. 

Despite common sentiment, the human brain has evolved not to identify truths and facts, but to function and survive as a species. Humans have evolved as a species to think in a particular and convoluted way in order to function and survive as a species in their particular physical and social environment. 

Part of this functioning and species survival is about social groups and working as groups,  relationships and societies. Humans are social animals, and their brains have evolved to think and act in a social environment.  

People who think abnormally often have issues with fitting into society and functioning.  This can range from ‘being weird’ and being isolated to people who have serious functional issues, unable to hold a job or stay in school to being unable to communicate and even function in their day to day lives.

Famous mentally ill and neurodiverse people often have functional and social issues. 

Physics Nobel Prize winner and autistic Paul Dirac required his wife to take care of the details of his daily life so he could not focus on his work.  He was one of the great scientific and mathematical intellects of his era– widely acknowledged as an academic genius– but needed assistance to live his life. He was well known for his social and communication deficits and eccentricities.

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Physics Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac

Many unique thinkers and artists– Van Gogh to Jean Genet — were outsiders to society.  Van Gogh was unable to fit in with society and art communities and committed suicide. The great French novelist and playwright Jean Genet had longtime troubles with the society, including being imprisoned and living a “deviant” life as defined by society.

This also points out that societies and cultural norms are about functioning as a social group, about functioning and not about many other things such as knowledge and new information.  And, in fact, the powers that be are often scared of and suppress new knowledge and information that might cause troubles with the social norms.  

Scientists with new ideas, inventors and original artists almost by definition are people who think outside the social norms and traditions.  Great scientists, thinkers and artists have long gotten into conflict with society. From Galileo to Socrates to Caravaggio. 

A revolutionary religious painter lauded during his lifetime, Caravaggio was mentally troubled and called “extremely crazy” even by his close friend. He had a long list of arrests, disputes and physical fights, killed a man in a barroom brawl, and spent his last years on the run from the law, continuing to paint his famously visceral paintings all along the way. 

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Caravaggio’s ‘The Arrest of Jesus’ (1602)

In fact, some visionary artists, such as Marquis de Sade, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Paul Gauguin, have aspects that lay outside of today’s accepted social norms and rules.

So functioning, and fitting in with society, is a constant issue, a  real issue and one to be considered. These issues here are a big source of conflict in debates. It can often be political, and how one views the individual versus the society.  The function of society versus the rights of the individual.

SUMMARY

Neurodiversity is a theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illness as natural and fine ways of thinking.  And, in fact, different ways of thinking– all ways of thinking– involve both positives and negatives, deficits and unique skills.  

 How to consider and define mental illnesses and disorders, what language to use to describe conditions, how to treat conditions, how to organize society, workplaces and educations systems. make up an ongoing debate and will be for a long time. Your opinion and input are welcome.

It is also important to note that, as with any demographic, there is a wide variety of opinions, views and philosophies amongst the mentally ill and neurodiverse  There is no single voice. Part of respecting and understanding any demographic is to know and appreciate that there is a wide variety of views, opinions, political persuasions and philosophies.  

A saying about the autistic people is, “If you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person.”

 And, whatever one’s stance on the topic, part of the neurodiversity movement is understanding and welcoming that people have different ways of thinking, and thus different ideas, viewpoints and perspectives– which I think most of us agree is a good thing.

Podcast #6: Neurodiveristy

Sixth in a podcast series on brains, thinking and the nature and limits of knowledge by cognitive scientist and philosopher David Cycleback, this 20-minute episode looks at the theory and movement called neurodiversity. Neurodiversity seeks to reclassify mental illnesses and conditions as natural variations in thinking. There are a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints, and even controversy, including within the medical community and amongst the mentally ill. This podcast examines both neurodiversity and the different and sometimes opposing viewpoints about it.

 

To download for free David Cycleback’s peer-reviewed books in cognitive science and philosophy visit his titles published by bookboon.