Just ‘Cause You Feel It, Doesn’t Mean…

I once went with my mum to have our Auras read. We were living in Malaysia and curious about traditional healing practices.  Our individual Chakras revealed some energy blockages. Of course, the sincere beliefs of one person can tap into another’s vulnerability or tendency toward superstition; we walked out with an excessive amount of Tourmaline (including a dazzling necklace that Mum still wears).

I am casually, just a little bit, at times, superstitious. I occasionally still purchase ‘healing’ stones. I often find myself carrying with me or wearing things that friends have given me for ‘good luck’ over the years. If feeling particularly doubtful before an important occasion, I am prone to selecting out clothing  that I have positive past associations with. But I don’t see it as that different from feeling self-assured upon consuming my daily homemade ‘biohack’ turmeric drink.  I have quite a number of personal rituals when I stop to think about it, and I suspect some of you reading this can relate.

Coincidences & Intuitions

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I’m into astrology. But, to take this to the next level, is there not any scope for intrigue when horoscope readings are rather on point? I doubt I’m more sensitive and moody because my start sign is Cancer (perhaps these tendencies are more to do with me being an older child), but I’ve sure met quite a few emotional Crabs over the years. And what about that gratifying feeling of instinctively reading someone else’s mind? When a friend calls you out of the blue about something that you were just thinking you about, is it simply the sign of an attentive friend?

Curious coincidences or correlations in life are often fleeting. Sometimes, though, they throw us into new depths of ‘possible’ meanings. Learning to pay attention to intuitions based on ‘gut feelings’ might not only save us from other people (e.g., listen to this great Sam Harris interview with Glen de Becker on violence in American culture), it can help to reconnect us with people, and ideas about people.

I was prompted to write this blog post because I was briefly ‘thrown’ while making a few silent connections between my PhD topic and what was otherwise not linked to it: the content of two recent episodes of Mia Freedman’s podcast No Filter.  The first interview cut straight to the heart of socially plausible superstitious feelings left behind after correlations are found. The interview was with Debbie Malone, Australia’s famous ‘Spirit Medium – Psychic – Clairvoyant’ (see Debbie’s website).

As an agnostic kind of thinker, I tried to hold back my competing ‘suspicions’ and cynicism, and instead listened to Debbie’s entire story. She claimed to have successfully worked with the police on a number of Missing Persons cases (communicating with the Missing Person to then locate their body). She had decided to embrace her psychic intuitions at the age of 28 following some strong feelings of connection with her miscarried infant.

When she explained this to be her founding experience of ‘knowing’ her psychic gift, I admit that I flinched and had a little ‘hmm’ moment. This was because I study schizophrenia, and age 28 is around the time most females are diagnosed with it, often following traumatic experiences.

‘Insights’

Debbie did not otherwise identify her ‘spiritual insight’ as anything other than a gift that she suspects we all have at some level. And I think I agree with her – along the lines of intuitions. As two of our previous TFS blogs pointed out, taking “the option not to know” rather than embracing “unfamiliar explanations” is often easier than tapping into what might otherwise lie dormant. I’m not saying we’re all potentially psychics, just that there are plenty of curious correlations out there that we could be a little more open to – at least anthropologically.

The second interview was with Lily Bailey, a UK model and author who is looking to educate the general public about what it’s like to live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Lily emphasised that OCD is highly debilitating and not to be trivialised along the lines of “quirky” habits. She bravely described how her obsessions came in the form of a female voice, which she is learning to reason with through therapy.

Here I found myself wondering whether any other listeners would, upon first hearing this, make connections between Lily’s experience of her voice and what might (naively) be considered to be a core feature of schizophrenia. Meanwhile, the clinical world describe people with schizophrenia as frequently ‘lacking insight’ into having a mental illness at all.

In the case of this loose but curious correlation, perhaps more immediately cancelled out by Lily’s ‘insight’ into experiencing OCD, my research has taught me that not everyone diagnosed with schizophrenia hears voices. Most critically, ‘auditory hallucinations’ (drug induced or not) manifest differently for individuals and illness categories, and do not necessarily suggest a mental illness.

“Unedited” Presences?

For those unacquainted, voice-hearing or feeling the ‘imaginary’ presence of someone else is actually not that uncommon or ‘abnormal’. This was highlighted recently by an article in The Conversation: Sensing the Dead is Perfectly Normal and Often Helpful. Focusing on bereavement, the article posited that, ‘perception is edited hallucination’, i.e., that when we haven’t sorted through things yet, they might be experienced as raw, unedited phenomena.

Critically for anthropologists, the extent to which we feel we can freely have these unedited experiences varies cross-culturally. The same Conversation article explains how in Japan, up to ‘90% of widows felt the presence of their dead spouse, yet none worried about their sanity’. Then in America,  singer Celine Dion had enough celebrity capital to admit publicly that she talks to her recently deceased husband, and still feels the presence of her first husband (also deceased, but let’s not read into that coincidence).

In any case, it seems that people find great meaning in the presences they feel – whether this is destructive or helpful, there is scope for negotiating with them, as Lily Bailey suggested she does. I also note that The Hearing Voices Network is a growing international movement seeking to normalise the experience of ‘voice hearers’ (many of whom do not meet criteria for mental illness).

Further, this recent article from Sapiens outlines the role of cultural receptiveness in regards to schizophrenia, and the extent to which conditions are humanised. This shapes how voice hearers are socially and medically treated, and anthropology can thus facilitate deeper understanding of such processes.

But in Western Culture, ‘Social Defeat’ prevails…

By way of other cross-cultural comparisons of people who do meet the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia, anthropologists have found marked differences between manifestations and duration of schizophrenia between Eastern and Western cultures. For a more detailed overview, I highly recommend this Wilson Quarterly article by Tanya Lurhmann, exemplifying how experiences of ‘social defeat’ shape the course and outcome of schizophrenia.

Here are some examples that Lurhmann highlights:

  • In India, schizophrenia is not socially regarded to define someone’s life (despite limited access to drug treatments, raising social expectations reduces the chronicity of illness and ‘voices’ are more likely to be experienced as helpful rather than persecutory)
  • Migrants are more likely to experience schizophrenia than non-migrants (of both their countries of origin and countries of resettlement)
  • Schizophrenia is more likely if you have darker skin, and more so if those living around you have whiter skin
  • Being subject to child abuse (including neglect, which can be in the emotional form), bullying or adversities, of course contributes too

Socially Functional Symptoms

So, to bring this back to the question of curious coincidences, my point is that, just as what are perceived to be the most ‘severe’ symptoms of schizophrenia overlap with a spectrum of ‘normality’, what counts the most is how these experiences are received, personally and socially. My casual acts of superstition might not amount to full-blown obsessiveness, because these tendencies are felt to be shared.

But is anyone else connecting dots? “Opting to know”, or think about connections can open up and close many different worlds, depending on what’s socially acceptable. It’s a fine line, though, as tennis fans might think about while next watching superstar Rafael Nadal undergo his rituals while standing at the base line waiting to serve.

Is one person’s experience of suffering another person’s experience of preternatural strength? Was it fair of me to connect healing experiences grounded in sincere belief with casual superstition? There are no simple answers but the relationships between personal and social spectrums are useful to think about when it comes to experiences of illness versus socially useful ‘abilities’.

                                                                                                                          [Image by Julia Brown]

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