Mental Illness and Religious Experience

straitjacketPrime Minister Malcolm Turnbull indicated recently the Federal government may want to access the mental health files of individuals suspected of terrorist activity. This is a timely initiative. Dr Fiona Synapse, a consultant psychiatrist, explored the connection between mental illness and religious experience in a lecture she gave some years ago at the Tripe Centre for the Very Nervous.

Dr Synapse proposed the establishment of a new national agency, MADICARE. Its mission would be to catalogue and monitor the dreams and nightmares, fears and imaginings of the nation. Early detection of nocturnal deviancy and dormant angst, she argued, would defuse mind bombs and reduce brain snaps, thus easing inter-personal and societal tensions. Her lecture is reprinted below with kind permission of the Synapse Estate.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honour for me to be talking to you tonight. I confess that I feel apprehensive. It may be a good thing for a specialist to try and put her experience in a general context, but whether it is good for her audience, or indeed the world, is another matter.

Medicine is an empirical subject. Some disciplines, however, particularly psychiatry and political science, are more art than science, more speculation than prognostication, more fluff than fact. Nevertheless, journals and the media are obliged to publish rather naïve generalisations by people who know either nothing at all, or who know a good deal about a small field but who have succumbed to the flattering lure of a wider platform.

Behold me, then, a mere day tripper clad only in a pair of empirical plimsolls, about to attempt the north face of a philosophical Eiger. By way of apology, I can only plead that I will try not to conceal my attempt by putting up a smokescreen of jargon, semantic subterfuge or verbal diarrhoea, so at least you will have the satisfaction of seeing me fall off. I hope that, after my talk, you will come to my rescue, even if there is a stench on stage.

My topic tonight is the psychiatric condition known as mental illness (MI) and its possible relationship to religious experience (RE). My thesis will be first that a necessary — but by no means sufficient — cause of MI is the possession of certain genes, assuming such things are proven to exist one day; and secondly, that these remain widely distributed among humankind because they confer certain advantages and disadvantages. One of these is the ability to experience what can be called mystical states (MS), which some argue have been of distinct survival value, and not only for believers with the biggest sword. Finally, I will consider whether or not they confer such value today.

Before I go on, let me explain what I mean by MI. Just as there are many types of trees in a forest, and many species of tree, many types of behaviour are now classified as MI. Indeed, every one of you here tonight will experience an MI episode periodically, especially regular listeners to Question Time in the House and regular viewers of Q&A.

MI is a condition of the mind – with no known physical cause – in which a person experiences abnormal perceptions, such as hearing voices, feeling painful or pleasurable sensations in his or her body, and interprets then in a way that leads to false conclusions. For instance, you may see a No 12 bus and conclude it means you are one of the Apostles. You may hear voices calling you the “camel-faced offspring of a demented Babylonian sewer rat” and conclude that God, Andrew Bolt, your next-door neighbour, or a special machine is messing with your mind.

The beginning of MI may be a period when a person feels everything is different, ominously or delightfully so. People’s gestures or conversations, the hoots of passing cars, the call of birds or indeed any other experience, may have some special meaning. A wolf whistle may appear as a hate crime . At some stage a person may be restless and excited, such as before a big football game or romantic evening. At others, they may talk incoherently, such as when given a parking fine or speeding ticket. Thought processes may be slow and communication poor, such as when waking at 3am to let the dog out or cat in.

So MI is less a multi-personality issue, but rather a much more subtle and profound fragmentation of a person’s psychological equipment. Yet one cannot really summarise MI’s symptomatology, given the diversity of causes. Indeed, the profession is struggling to deal with a huge increase in patient admissions. Frankly, we are facing an MI pandemic. That said, one of its most prominent features is the conviction that something or someone outside is acting upon a person, for good or ill.

Let me emphasise another aspect. MI is not found in any other animal. This suggests it is an aberration peculiar to the complications of the human brain, and constellated by the insane socio-political roller-coaster that is modern life, presidential primaries, or something in the water.

The literature suggests certain genes associated with MI may contribute towards someone being rather unusual, what today we call a highly sensitive person (HSP); or in some circles a deviant. For example, a person who does not consume alcohol, play sport, bet on greyhound racing, but is relaxed about making Pascal’s wager. Some of this deviance may be unhealthy – such as beheading or blowing up innocent people in the name of a God, or just for the hell of it – or, if you prefer, intolerable to the person or to society. Some of it, however, may be healthy, or, if you prefer, tolerable to the person or society. It may even be a necessary and essential ingredient of society.

The tricky part is flushing out the HSP demographic and identifying the deviant population. You may ask: “But where does deviance stop and illness start?” A national HSP Register would be a vital first step – surely long overdue – to answering such a question.

Fortunately, our views of MI and its causes have changed a good deal since the time when it was regarded as a visitation of some foreign organism, the consequence of inflammatory religious dogma, naughty political shenanigans, or a decline in cherished beliefs than once acted as an effective bulwark against all the psycho-babble we have to endure today.

Strange as it may seem, however, MI is so widespread today that it may underpin some biologically valuable form of psychological activity, whether in a monastery, a laboratory, on the battlefield, or indeed in one’s bed. For an obvious one is sleep, or rather dreaming. There is good evidence to show that it is an essential activity of the brain, a sort of emotional excretion. Indeed, examining dreams as a test for emotional health is, I suggest, equivalent to examining urine or faeces as a test for physical health. Both have a long and respectable medical history.

And as one person’s dream – say of a global Caliphate or a Kingdom of Mumbo-Jumbo, Pay-Pal or Bugger-Off – may be a nightmare for the rest of us, a responsible government should establish a new agency, MADICARE, to catalogue and monitor the dreams and nightmares of the nation. Nocturnal deviancy and other detritus could be identified and eradicated by early immersion in a cerebral detoxification chamber, thereby preventing their violent maturation.

I must stress too the very close affinity between MI and mystical states (MS). Indeed, so striking are the similarities they almost certainly share neurophysiological mechanisms that have become “out of balance” in some way. Yet the persistence of MI and MS suggests they may have some value either to an individual or group. The latter certainly has had a stimulant effect on the growth of organised religion.

These similarities, of course, are not new. They have been well-documented by William James and others. In both MI and MS there is, for example, the same feeling that something very significant is happening. There is an awareness of new dimensions which seem to connect up things to a bigger and all-embracing whole, in a way which may be immensely satisfying or alarming to the patient or acolyte. Folk who find themselves on the winning – or losing – side in a football stadium, or mixed up in an odious skirmish in His or Her Name, will know what I mean here. These are moments of revelation, of illumination, either of terror or reassurance. The consequence is the acquisition of beliefs – which are held with highly charged conviction – even when they contradict ordinary everyday experience. Here are two examples. The first is from James’s 1902 work, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

 “If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one than is furnished by the person of George Fox. The Quaker religion which he founded is impossible to overpraise….Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye. His Journal abounds in entries of this sort:-

As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head, and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me that I must go thither. I left them there and proceeded within a mile of the place, where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then I was commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter; but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes and left them with the shepherds, who trembled and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying “Cry, ‘Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!” So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!”

For James, a MS is merely one half of a murky whole, the other being composed of MI, with both co-located in that “great subliminal or trans-marginal region” of the brain. Hopefully, our friends in neuroscience will throw some light on all that one day!

My second example is from Captain Richard Francis Burton. On his 1853 pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina disguised as a Dervish doctor, he described extreme religious belief as a form of psychic possession. Burton was ‘wonder-struck’ by the fervour of his fellow pilgrims. Late one evening he saw a ‘Negro in the state called Malbus – religious frenzy’, resembling a ‘chained and furious elephant, straining out the deepest groans.’ Africans appeared to be especially susceptible. To ‘the ignorant and imaginative, it would at once suggest demonical possession…Often they are seen prostrate on the pavement, or clinging to the [Kiswah] curtain, or rubbing their foreheads upon the stones, weeping bitterly, and pouring forth the wildest ejaculations” (page 398).

Burton witnessed a similar phenomenon in Medina while visiting the burial place of Fatima, Mohammed’s favourite daughter. Men were ‘weeping silently like children’ then “shrieking like hysterical girls and utterly careless to conceal a grief so coarse and grisly, at the same time so true and real, that I knew not how to behold it.””

From what I have said, then, I hope you will see that MI genes, if they exist, are less concerned with loving our neighbour than with loving God. Yet for our future survival surely we will need to love our neighbour? Paradoxically, however, more dreadful things have been done to neighbours in the Name of a God of some sort than in any other cause, except perhaps global warming. Jonathan Swift’s observation in 1711 is even more relevant today: ‘We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.’

So should we regard all those who claim to have a Greater Reality, a vision of a Promised Land or an Innovative Future, as “potentially dangerous”? I will leave you, the audience, with this question. As for my own reluctant conclusion: to love a God is a more numinous, intoxicating and violent experience for an increasing number of people today than to love a neighbour. The sons of Socrates and daughters of Descartes will lament this fact, but He will remain an integral part of human nature, whether called Mammon, Malcolm-X, a Word beginning with A, or something else.

10 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Religious Experience

  • padraic says:

    A very interesting article for modern times. These days if George Fox appeared in Litchfield with the same message people would wonder what he was on and where could they get some of the same stuff. In those far off pre-antibiotic days they would have thought he was “bewitched”, or possessed by the devil, or one of God’s prophets, depending on what he was saying. If people today have a massive bacterial infection and it does not get treated expeditiously, the toxic waste products from the bacteria as they metabolise can give rise to hallucinations which can be quite frightening to the patient and the people around them. They can be cured rapidly by treatment with suitable antibiotics (available only since the 1940s).In those days of no antibiotics, people with such infections would hallucinate and if they eventually got better over time the hallucinations would vanish, but because the hallucinations were so real to them they believed in them. Another cause of hallucinations, not seen much these days, is extreme dehydration in adults. This is more likely to occur centuries ago in people spending long hours riding camels or walking in a desert where water is extremely scarce. A bad combination would be someone in the desert with a severe bacterial infection with not much water and living in a cave out of the desert heat. Three of the religions coming out of desert areas have produced prophets who received messages from God and gone to heaven in fiery chariots or even unassisted– something we don’t see as much in these days of antibiotics and adequate hydration. Nevertheless, these religions have kernels of good advice on how to live our lives in peace and harmony – but you have to cherry pick.

  • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Thank you Michael, an interesting article. It had just enough humour to make it fun to read, but not too much so as to disguise the seriousness within. On a more serious note, to the best of my knowledge the most probable cause for most MI, in western countries anyway, is that of recreational pharmaceuticals [RPs]. Marijuana is probably the main RP causing MI, but ICE and even alcohol [the oldest of our RPs] also play a big role at times.
    RE does play a part in some of the sufferers of MI, that is why some strong advocates of some brands of RE ban alcohol. Having worked in a country that was pretty strong on RE and outwardly banned alcohol I also witnessed a just a bit of hypocrisy though. Some of the more affluent and outwardly devoted followers of their brand of RE did partake in consuming alcohol when in the company of infidels. Perhaps the knowledge that they were hypocritical caused a bit of their MI, or it may have been that they had to pray so often.

    • padraic says:

      Agree with you denandsel. The fall of the Roman Empire will pale into insignificance when the Western World collapses under the impact of collective brain damage induced by illicit drugs becoming normal items of trade, as is happening as we speak. Queensland and New South Wales and Victoria are going down that track with “medical marihuana” (what a joke). That is just to soften us up before a certain English entrepreneur, an aged American financier and assorted retired South American despots achieve their aim and establish a huge market for “recreational” marihuana, from which they will benefit financially. It is already happening in America where many states are allowing it to be sold for “recreational” use, following its initial introduction for “medical use”. Apparently smoking marihuana does not cause throat and lung cancer, only that evil tobacco. Millions are being spent on the prevention of tobacco smoking which has minimal neurological effects compared to marihuana which causes schizophrenia and other mental health problems. What hypocrisy. Growing up in the 40’s and 50’s we never had this level of “mental health” problems. Illicit drug use is clearly the major cause of the rise in mental health problems. That is the reason why they are illicit in the first place. But today, our drug policy has been taken from medical experts and handed over to economists, businessmen, lawyers, judges, professors of sociology plus lobbying by people of a verdant tinge who are probably on the stuff themselves.

      • Jody says:

        I feel not only personally threatened by the scourge of drugs on society but desperately sorry for the (mental health issues and) empty lives which people lead and which is the probable cause of drug use/dependency anyway. Without an inner life our existence on this planet is more or less pointless. Once upon a time human beings in the western world fulfilled that need for an inner life with some form of institutionalized religion. Now they are proselytized about the virtues of ‘celebrating diversity’, ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’ and the good life is generally expressed through the credit card. “Rich” has merely a cultural dimension and/or an economic one. It’s an empty dream.

        • padraic says:

          Sorry Jody, but the majority of people who start taking drugs do it because of peer pressure from their mates, just like alcohol and cigarettes. You are right about the new virtues of secularism. You could add to the list self-loathing and demonising patriotism.

      • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

        Thank you Padraic, but to the best of my knowledge smoking marijuana is more dangerous than smoking tobacco. I have seen reports [medical and others] stating where marijuana is three to seven times more carcinogenic than tobacco.

        • padraic says:

          I agree Denandsel.I was trying to be ironic. The politicians have their heads in the sand over marihuana (or snouts in the expected trough). A few years down the track, taxpayers will be forking out millions on campaigns to encourage people to stop smoking marihuana because it causes lung and throat cancer. Researchers at universities will also benefit from grants to do PhD’s on the danger of marihuana. We already know this information.

  • en passant says:

    Religious belief is a mental illness.

  • en passant says:

    And the proof is …


    Just the sort of South Australian’s we need.

  • mgkile@bigpond.com says:

    Dr Synapse: “Let me emphasise another aspect. MI is not found in any other animal.”

    Veterinarians today probably would have a different on this issue.

    Canine Cognitive Dysfunction has been identified in older dogs. They exhibit a range of conditions similar to dementia in humans, including compulsive nocturnal circling:


    Pets like calm and consistent/routine behaviour/signals and being in a “predictable” environment. If their owners are unpredictable or violent, however, they too can be affected in various ways.

    The luckiest dog I know was found by his rescuer “tied to a lamp-post in Abu Dhabi”. He made a full recovery from his ordeal, after months in quarantine.

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