Sunday, June 3, 2012

Magical People Amongst Us

A big reason for my atheism is that I've been around psychotic people enough to view the revelations of holy books as symptoms of mental illnesses.  As I continue to read Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain, all this comes back to me.  He goes into the neurology of mystical experiences, and how the brain is supposed to sort out fact from fiction.  Of course the big problem is that the brain itself is not qualified to discern when the brain itself is the source of false information.  This is why my step-dad clung to his delusions until his death and why my brother doesn't believe he has schizophrenia and my mom can't tell the difference between footprints in the snow that indicate the meter reader's been to the house from footprints in the snow that indicate she's being watched by the FBI.

But beyond the individual's psychotic symptoms is the wish within society for someone with magical powers to give the rest of us all the answers.  After all, in a large group there will be someone who is better than everyone else at tracking game, and someone who is better at starting fires, and someone who always comes up with the solution to a logical problem, so why wouldn't there be someone who has access to another dimension the rest of us can't perceive?

Shermer has a long discussion of sensed presences, which coincidentally tend to happen under periods of great stress.  Not just cramming for your algebra exam stress, but life-threatening stress like hypoxia on a mountaintop,   Many religions incorporate rituals that create just enough stress to bring about other-worldly experiences, and then there's peyote...  So for some reason not only do we experience these things, we seek it out and normalize the experiences.

When you grow up in a household where these experiences are normal, I guarantee you won't seek them out!  The last thing I want to do is ingest peyote in order to experience a visit from my ancestors.  And with a paranoid mother who went through my stuff looking for evidence of who-knows-what, I have a heightened sense of privacy and in no way would I welcome the "spirit" entering my body during a voudon ceremony, pentacostal hoe-down, or any other religious ceremony.  I also know that people who believe they can hear actual voices in their heads don't really hear other people, because if they did my mom would have heard loud and clear, "STAY THE FUCK OUT OF MY ROOM!"

But despite these experiences and attitudes, I really did try to be "open" to spirituality for many years.  It seemed to be the thing to do, a way to meet people, have community, dispel fears, and in general be a wholesome person.  I really wanted to believe that Moses saw a burning bush and that Jesus appeared to his disciples, but I couldn't.  It seemed so ridiculous, well no, it seemed CRAZY.  Why didn't everyone else see it that way?

And why did I try so hard?

One part of the answer may be that  I grew up in the 1960s, and I watched a lot of TV.  My favorite genre was comedy, though I did watch some of the spooky anthlogy shows like One Step Beyond and The Outer Limits.  Here are some of the comedies my family watched, including my now-psychotic brother:

  • Mr. Ed, about a talking horse that only his owner can hear
  • Betwitched, about a witch that only her husband knows about (aside from her witchy family)
  • My Favorite Martian, about a martian whose origin is known only to his housemate
  • I Dream of Jeannie, about a magic woman who seems normal to all but her boyfriend (and later, his friend)
  • The Addams Family, about a spooky family in the neighborhood
  • My Mother the Car, about a woman reincarnated as her son's car (No, I'm not making that up!)
Of course children have always been told fairy tales and children's entertainment has always included talking animals and imaginary friends.  Superman / Clark Kent was a magical person amongst us, too, but he didn't let anyone in on his secret.  The Wonderful World of Disney actually ran many realistic movies (My favorite was Charlie the Lonesome Cougar).  These shows about the crazy being real seemed to kind of promote a respect for psychosis.

Worse yet,  these paranormal comedies were on prime time TV for adults (presumably) so this trope wasn't invented for the consumption of baby boomer children.  There had been some famous movies with the theme of a person who has a paranormal experience (think, "Harvey" and "It's a Wonderful Life"), but not comedies like this.  We certainly seemed to be set up for serious gullibility beyond what our parents would have recognized.  Is it a concidence that we became the "Age of Aquarius" and wound up being "open" to "new" experiences?  Would people have found LSD so appealing if they hadn't been primed by popular culture to think that hallucinations could be real?  (or at least entertaining)

The subliminal message isn't just that we should be open to these experiences ourselves, but that we should respect others who "society" would call "crazy."  This is a major theme of Scientology, concidentally.  The anti-medication movement is also trying to make the case that normal people are being unnecessarily medicated -- that what I would consider "suffering" that should be relieved is considered by them to be normal and to be endured by these people.  Is it a coincidence that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was an iconic film of the time?

At the same time, incredible realities were on our consciousness, like space travel and nuclear bombs (yeah it was twenty years earlier but we were very aware of it!)  and war.  We saw nature shows and variety acts and dramas about law and medicine too.  That was the "normal" within which the "paranormal" could hide.  Scary times inspire ridiculous fantasies.

In the 2000s and 2010s there has been a spate of "reality" shows about the "paranormal," though it was never a dead topic.  The X-Files validated the spooky in the 1990s after all, and George Burns as God spoke to John Denver in "Oh God."  Things do seem to be tipping away from respect for psychosis, though.

Recently I've seen commercials for a new show about a doctor who practices out-of-body medicine while in a coma.  (Nope, not making that up either).  There's currently an idiot-savant show about an autistic child with the ANSWERS if only people would interpret his mathematical ramblings correctly.  I haven't seen these shows but they don't seem to validate psychosis.  I sure hope they don't.

In the 1960s anti-psychotic medication was still very new.  My mom's generation was the first not to be forced to spend the rest of her life in a "home."  Although she remained reality-impaired in many ways, she was functional enough to participate in society.   Ditto, my step-dad.  My bro however, believes his hallucinations are real and we're all just bigass downers.

It seems ironic to me that mental illness is still stigmatized and feared, yet we want crazy shit to be real.  We can't have it both ways.  If someone believes his horse is talking but only to him, he probably needs meds.  If you believe your blond-haired blue-eyed live-in lovers is actually a 2,000-year-old Arab genie, you both need meds.  Trust me on this.

But if your car talks to you, it's OnStar and you should probably do what it says.


Infidel753 said...

I'm starting to think that in an enlightened society, the basics of neurology and brain science would be considered a necessary part of the basic education provided in grade school to everyone, like math and reading.

Everyone is vulnerable to unreal perceptions under the right conditions, but if everyone has been taught what such experiences feel like and what causes them, they're at least more likely to recognize then when they happen (this would not be true in the case of actual mental illness, but that's a small minority of the population).

Most people don't worry about lightning or eclipses being signs of the wrath of the gods any more, because most people have at least a vague idea of the natural causes of those things. Knowledge of the natural causes of "sensed presences" and the like needs to be equally widespread.

LadyAtheist said...

I agree, and it has to be better than "This is your brain on drugs!"

L.Long said...

To repeat Tim M. why isn't this wonderful wondrous world enough? Why put in petty little imaginings into place?
I wondered on this and then it came to me...reality is too difficult for them. Everyone seems to claim they are not stupid but the evidence shows otherwise. Reality requires study-thought-experimenting-reasoning-and it can bite back. Their delusions are not real so it is easy to deal with as it does as they wish.
Why is there a voice in my head?
1-I can sense a presence speaking to me.
2-I have to think about it-realize there is something wrong with me-find help-pay for it-work to get better-take awful drugs-work to get better-know I must take drugs forever-work to stay OK......
Which do they prefer???

Plasma Engineer said...

I remember a story about the movie "One flew over the cuckoo's nest." It was on at the same time as that classic "One of our dinosaurs is missing". When the cuckoo's nest poster appeared under the other it gave a funny message! :)

LadyAtheist said...

Reality testing in psychosis just doesn't work because the thing that does the reality testing is the thing that's broken! L.Long I think the real world is indeed awesome (literally) and not letting people return to it would be cruel.

Engineer, I'll trust you on that one.

The Religion Piranha said...

Religious folks are happy to dismiss the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but cannot see the folly of the burning bush. What makes (most established and organized) religion so untouchable? I like your thoughts in this post, Lady. Thank you.

Tommykey said...

When I used to worn in the Court Clerk's office for the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, we had this pro se (meaning he represented himself) plaintiff who was suing various agencies of the US government because he claimed that they were using satellites to "assault" him.

It's really sad to see people trapped in delusions like that because I really don't see how you can convince them otherwise. After all, if you try to argue with them that they are not being persecuted, then obviously that makes you in on the conspiracy.

Tommykey said...

Oops. I meant "work in the Court Clerk's office"!

LadyAtheist said...

My old boss was sued for discrimination in a class action lawsuit that included McDonalds for giving the guy hamburgers that were smaller than other people's hamburgers. I can't remember my boss's supposed crime but needless to say the suit got thrown out. Very sad.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I've had discussions like this with my father-in-law; an accomplished scientist and university professor, but also bible believer. He grew up in Utah and his brothers are all now Mormon. My father-in-law laughingly dismisses the "Book of Mormon" as a silly story, then turns around and gives complete credibility to the bible!!

It all comes down to what one of the ancient Greek philosphers said:" One believe readily what one hopes for earnestly".

LadyAtheist said...

A good quote to remember.

I'm sure Mormons think L. Ron Hubbard was a nutter, too.