In search for scientific proof of reincarnation: Dr Ian Stevenson (1918-2007)

Dr_StevensonFrom the time in our childhood when we first learn about death, that most unsettling truth of life, the question and curiosity of the afterlife arises; what has happened to the person who has died? Does anything of that person survive in one form or another?

A lot of people believe the truth to be undiscoverable, and feel that speculation about any afterlife is futile.

Two extremes of the human mind in belief about life after death are unquestioning (or a more negative word could be “blind”) belief in the teachings of a religion on one hand and the absolute equally dogmatic denial of the possibility of an afterlife on the other.

Less extreme positions are people who either believe in a particular theory of life after death because it makes most sense to them or people who feel that there is probably no afterlife, but that it is not possible to ever know either way.

Looking for hard evidence

There are extremely few people who have ever set out to examine whether any scientific evidence could be gathered that could justify a believe in reincarnation or any other form of life after death.

The most extensive research that I believe that has ever been conducted into potentially identifiable evidence for reincarnation was conducted by one Dr Ian Stevenson (1918 – 2007).

It is surprising that very few people have heard of Dr Stevenson or his research, given that he attempted such a large scope and detailed study which has an important bearing on one of the great unknown mysteries of human existence namely is there anything in us that makes us who we are, excepting matter, which survives death.

Background

Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) was a psychiatrist by training, at the age of 38, which is remarkably young in the world of acadmia, he became Chair of the Department of Psychiatry for the University of Virginia School of Medicine, a position which he remained in for the next 10 years. He went on the hold a post as the Carlson Professor of Psychiatry from 1967 to 2001, and a Research Professor of Psychiatry from 2002 until his death.

He had an interest in the paranormal, which according to a fellow acadmic, arose from his wish to be able to help understand disease and the human mind more completely. He was wanted to understand why person would develop a given disease and another would develop a different disease, given the same set of circumstances. He also sought better explanations for the development of phobias and special abilities. In his view, environment and genetics alone were not capable of accounting for many illnesses, phobias, personality traits and special abilities.

Stevenson heard of cases where children demonstrated past life memories, and and took an interest in analysing such cases. An essay of his “The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations” (1960), reviewed forty-four published cases of people, mostly children, who claimed to remember past lives. The essay resulted in him receiving a grant from a person who shared an interest in paranormal research to travel to India to interview a child who claimed was having past-life memories. While in India, Stevenson conducted further resarch, finding a number of other cases over the next few weeks. This research led to him producing his first book on the subject, “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation” (1966).

Chester Carlson, one of the pioneers of photocopying who obtained the first patent on the technology, was supportive of the research and offered financial help. When Chester Carlson died of a heart attack he left $1 million to further the research, which allowed Dr Stevenson to step down as chair of the psychiatry department and set up a separate division within the department.

Over the course of the next 40 years Stevenson personally investigated over 3000 cases of children remembering past lives. The following is one of thousands of examples:

In Sri Lanka, a toddler one day overheard her mother mentioning the name of an obscure town (“Kataragama”) that the girl had never been to. The girl informed the mother that she drowned there when her “dumb” (mentally challenged) brother pushed her in the river, that she had a bald father named “Herath” who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa, that she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof (a skylight), dogs in the backyard that were tied up and fed meat, that the house was next door to a big Hindu temple, outside of which people smashed coconuts on the ground. Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother. The man lived in a house where the neighbors threw meat to dogs tied up in their backyard, and it was adjacent to the main temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground. The little girl did get a few items wrong, however. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald (but her grandfather and uncle were) and his name wasn’t “Herath”—that was the name, rather, of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise, 27 of the 30 idiosyncratic, verifiable statements she made panned out. The two families never met, nor did they have any friends, coworkers, or other acquaintances in common, so if you take it all at face value, the details couldn’t have been acquired in any obvious way.

His major work, published in 1997, was a 2,268-page, two-volume work called Reincarnation and Biology. He investigated and documented individuals who had unusual birthmarks and birth defects, which could not be explained by genetics, which the subjects had explained due to remembered past life events pertaining to those unusual characteristics. The types of physical features included finger deformities, underdeveloped ears, or being born without a lower leg. There were scar-like, hypopigmented birthmarks and port-wine stains, and some awfully strange-looking moles in areas where you almost never find moles, like on the soles of the feet. Reincarnation and Biology contained numerous case reports of children who remembered previous lives and who also had physical anomalies that matched those previous lives, details that could in some cases be confirmed by the dead person’s autopsy record and photos.

A Turkish boy whose face was congenitally underdeveloped on the right side said he remembered the life of a man who died from a shotgun blast at point-blank range. A Burmese girl born without her lower right leg had talked about the life of a girl run over by a train. On the back of the head of a little boy in Thailand was a small, round puckered birthmark, and at the front was a larger, irregular birthmark, resembling the entry and exit wounds of a bullet; Stevenson had already confirmed the details of the boy’s statements about the life of a man who’d been shot in the head from behind with a rifle, so that seemed to fit. And a child in India who said he remembered the life of boy who’d lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine mishap was born with boneless stubs for fingers on his right hand only. This type of “unilateral brachydactyly” is so rare, Stevenson pointed out, that he couldn’t find a single medical publication of another case.

More than a few erstwhicle sceptics have accepted over the years that Stevenson’s research was rigorous and compelling. In the words of one such scientific reviewer, who grudglingly accepted the importance of Stevenson’s research:

many [of the cases recorded] are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means. Much of this is due to Stevenson’s own exhaustive efforts o disconfirm the paranormal account. “We can strive toward objectivity by exposing as fully as possible all observations that tend to weaken our preferred interpretation of the data,” he wrote. “If adversaries fire at us, let them use ammunition that we have given them.” And if truth be told, he excelled at debunking the debunkers.

I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a moldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is. So why aren’t scientists taking Stevenson’s data more seriously? The data don’t “fit” our working model of materialistic brain science, surely. But does our refusal to even look at his findings, let alone to debate them, come down to our fear of being wrong? “The wish not to believe,” Stevenson once said, “can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.”

Post-dialogue

Dr Ian Stevenson was careful to not use the word “soul”, or reference any eastern metaphysical concepts in his work. He was careful to state that his work “permits” rather than “compells” a belief in reincarnation. His resarch postulated a “minalistic” belief in reincarnation, which can be explained as follows:

There is something essential to some human personalities … which we cannot plausibly construe solely in terms of either brain states, or properties of brain states … and, further, after biological death this non-reducible essential trait sometimes persists for some time, in some way, in some place, and for some reason or other, existing independently of the person’s former brain and body. Moreover, after some time, some of these irreducible essential traits of human personality, for some reason or other, and by some mechanism or other, come to reside in other human bodies either some time during the gestation period, at birth, or shortly after birth.

Despite the fact that he adhered to high standards of academic practice in his work it is unfortunate that his work is pretty much shunned by the scientific community. He has painstakingle collected over 3000 cases. To at least postulate other reasons which could be behind the phenomena observed by Dr Ian Stevenson would be an approach which is consistent with scientific spirit, but just to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist is the treatment metted out to Stevenson’s eork, and such an approach is far from scientific.

It should be noted too that this extensive research into reincarnation does not inlcude any moral speculation, and therefore neither validates not invalidated a belief in karma.

It should be noted also, that there is evidence here to permit a belief in reincarnation, but it does not necesarily mean that recincarnation takes place immediately upon death – it could very well be a significant amount of time for some “souls” to reincarnate, or it could be instantaneous. There is nothing to say that some “souls” do not reincarnate and either remain in a transitionary state or maybe some are perfected and therefore do not come back, instead merge with a universal consciousness. All of this is outside of the realm of Stevenson’s research.

Personally, I have at times been skeptical of the possibility of reincarnation, and at other times I have believed in it. However encountering Dr Ian Stevenson’s work has personally left me with the conviction that life after death is a reality. We could call it a “soul”or “personality” or “essence” or something else, but to my mind, the evidence for reincarnation is there.

Image credit: http://isoulscience.com/2015/07/scientific-proof-of-reincarnation-consciousness-is-eternal/

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Comments

  1. I really think attempts to reconcile religious and spiritual beliefs with science (or, more often, Scientism) are wrongheaded. A relative of mine who happened to win a Nobel prize for physics once said “True Science and true Religion neither are nor could be opposed”. He wasn’t suggesting that one confirms the other but rather that they complement each other by virtue of being built on completely different ontologies. They are different ways of knowing that address different questions using different methods. Trying to bring them together just leads to grotesque hybrids that abuse both – such as Scientology or Creation Science.

    I’m not surprised a psychiatrist would buy into that sort of thing though. There’s very little science in psychiatry. It has far more in common with religion. In fact I’d suggest it’s another one of those grotesque hybrids. There’s plenty of things that don’t fit materialist models of ‘brain science’ – not least mental illness. That’s because the models are nonsense.

    Collecting anecdotes about unexplained knowledge tells you nothing about the reincarnation of ‘souls’ if you lack coherent models of both knowledge and souls.

    • John The Fisherman says:

      There’s very little science in psychiatry? How do you know? Do you know about the neurochemistry of the drugs which psychiatrists prescribe to patients? How are these drugs not rooted in science?

      Also, what is the name of the Nobel Prize winning relative of yours?

      • There’s very little science in psychiatry? How do you know? Do you know about the neurochemistry of the drugs which psychiatrists prescribe to patients? How are these drugs not rooted in science?

        Yeah, I know enough about biopsychiatry to be familiar with catecholamine theories of mental illness. Serotonin and norepinephrine theories of depression. The dopamine D2 pathway theory of schizophrenia. That sort of stuff.

        I also know enough about the research to know they’re guff and enough about the history to know the theories were reverse engineered to justify pre-existing treatments. What we now call ‘antipsychotics’ were originally called ‘major tranquilisers’ and their advocates made no bones about the fact they were to manage institutionalised patients, not cure them.

        Maybe you should read up a bit on them.
        You could start here if you’re not technically inclined. I’ll post a few more links in later comments.
        http://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety/chemical-imbalance.shtml

        Also, what is the name of the Nobel Prize winning relative of yours?

        John William Strutt. My great-great uncle.

      • When it comes to science, the test of the pudding is its results.
        Here’s some results of psychiatry.
        http://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1173-2

      • Oops. Left out a great. Should read …
        “John William Strutt. My great-great-great uncle.”

  2. cabrogal – just because science hasnt really begun or is in its inancy to search for certain types of knowledge or certain fields of human knowledge it does not mean that it shouldnt be encouraged or that one day certain things which we do not believe science would ever be able to deal with will have significant light shed on by science. As for this particular case, the work of Dr Ian Stevenson, just because at first glance you don’t like the approach, doesn’t means it wasn’t rigorous, or in any case if his research is unconvincing it doesn’t mean science should not endeavour to enter these firlds rather than ihnore them.

    • Science is a tool, not a belief system. It relies on reductionism, objectivity and inductive assumptions of causality. That’s fine for what it does. In fact it’s very powerful.

      But holding an excellent hammer doesn’t turn the whole universe into a nail.

      When it comes to something irreducibly subjective – such as concepts of self or consciousness – something indivisibly holistic – such as concepts of godhead – or matters in which linear, time-bound causality probably don’t apply – such as the way phenomenological reality seems to emerge from relationships rather than actions or things (as alluded to by the metaphor of Indra’s net) then science is just floundering in the dark. It’s not in it’s ‘infancy’ (or ‘inanity’ – not sure what you were trying to type). It’s not there at all.

      If you use the wrong tool on something you shouldn’t be surprised if you break it.

      Yes, memories can seem to create the illusion of a continuous ‘self’. But is that what ‘souls’ are? People lose much of their memories over just one lifetime – even if they don’t suffer brain damage – and the rest are subject to constant change and revision. Have they lost part of their souls?

      OTOH, memories are not restricted to ‘engrams’ encoded within neurons. Everything that happens leaves its trace and if you can read that trace you have access to the memory. Knowing what Shakespeare wrote doesn’t make me the reincarnation of the Bard. I’m an Australian aborigine. My people can ‘read’ the stories engraved on the Land in a way that’s incomprehensible to most people. I have no problems with the idea that others can access memories in ways that I don’t understand. That doesn’t make them reincarnations of anything.

      Don’t forget, the Buddha preached that there is no reincarnation and no soul (anatta). He preached rebirth, which is an entirely different thing. It’s simply a restatement of the bleeding obvious. Chains of karma/vipaka aren’t bounded within human existences. Your conditions of arising existed before you were born and will continue after you die. It doesn’t mean someone who can recall or repeat aspects of your life is you.

    • Since this is a Hindu blog, perhaps I shouldn’t be citing the Budda, so …

      Sankaracharya did believe in atma. He preached that atman is (Nirguna) Brahman. All emanates from the One. So the notion of individual reincarnation becomes meaningless. We are all ‘reincarnations’ of everyone who is, was or will be. Again, whether someone can ‘remember’ the life of another is of no relevance.

  3. Thanks for your comments & insights Cabrogal.

    I am open to having my viewpoints modified, but I think the approach of demanding an absolute compartmentalisation of science on one hand and the religious/mystic/spiritual/philosphical or spiritual approach to reality or consciousness is not helpful in the long term search for a more complete understanding of reality.

    Saying that science doesn’t have beliefs (which are working hypothesis, and can be challenged if one wishes, though one may face resistance) is not correct. For example recently the idea (belief if you will) that the speed of light was a major constant underlying the universe has recently been challenged. Up until now it was a belief. There are many other examples where most scientists hold to unproven working theories (beliefs) as working hypothesis.

    You say that science is “floundering in the dark” with concepts of consciousness – so probably you are saying it is a wholly inadequate tool if we strip away your rhetoric. I strongly differ with you here. Science may one day be able to grasp a lot more of the truths of consciousness than it does at the current time (at the same time, it may not) but I think that just closing of any scientific enquiry in that direction, denouncing it as unhelpful appears to me an unjustifiable position.

    You bring up valid alternative reasons that there may be other explanations as to why children (or humans) may be able to remember incidents of other human lives as if it happened to them, other than it being a re-incarnation of the same conscious entity.
    Even if the observation that children can remember things from previous life times that happened to them WAS NOT BECAUSE IT HAPPENED TO AN ENTITY which is in any way “the same person” – it doesn’t mean that the observation that these memories are experienced doesn’t deserve to be reported or considered. It does at least show proof that there are aspects to our conscientiousness and subconscious being which science hasn’t yet grasped but which do exist – and this is an important observation to deliver, in my opinion.

    Your point that if someone can recall what Shakespeare wrote doesn’t make them a reincarnation of the Bard is different to that if someone can experience and remember things that happened to Shakespeare as if it happened to them, it MAY mean that. As for the Australian Aboriginals being able to read stories from nature – that interests me and I’d be grateful if you could give me a link to what you would consider a decent source which talks about and describes this and other Australian aboriginal beliefs. I have been interested in beliefs of native cultures, but the sources I have so far come across in an admittedly cursory attempt to learn more only give very superficial explanations.
    You talk about dismissively of Ian Stevensons research as if all you know about it is from my quite limited article. He has documented thousands of cases where not only memories but physical features which have no other biological explanation are attributed by the subject to previous lives. I am not asking you to be convinced by this, but before dismissing it all, you should know that there is more to his research than memories reported.

    You drawing a difference between “re-birth” and “re-incarnation” is just semantics. Someone can mean the same think or something different using either term.
    I do not mind you using the Buddha (or any thinker or teacher) as a source, be they Hindu, Indian, Greek, Chinese or whatever. But saying that what Buddha preached is: “simply a restatement of the bleeding obvious. Chains of karma/vipaka aren’t bounded within human existences. Your conditions of arising existed before you were born and will continue after you die. It doesn’t mean someone who can recall or repeat aspects of your life is you” I think you will find is not so “bleeding obvious” to everyone on a quest for a greater understanding of our existence. Do you really think that the majority of the human race accept these things as “bleeding obvious”?

    The entity which is being re-born may not be the permanent self or a permanent entity, but that doesn’t mean according to Buddha (or Shankara) that it is not temporally real. It is interpreter differently by different schools of “Buddhism” and “Hinduism”. A quick mention – Advaita Vedanta does not hold that the Jiva (reincarnating entity) does not exist, it is just less real or not an everlasting entity than the true Atman.
    Finally – if you look at Ian Stevenson’s aims, it was not to justify a religious or spiritual belief, he was more concerned with the potential of any gathered knowledge to help solve human problems. Here is a brief testimonial by one of his colleagues which may shed more light on his work & motivations:

    https://www.scientificexploration.org/docs/22/jse_22_1_stanford.pdf

    https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/wp-content/uploads/sites/360/2017/01/NDE57.pdf

    Either way, I’ll leave it all here, as this response is long enough. Thanks once again for your comments.

    Kind regards,

    Rajesh
    (BTW – just for clarity – I am the same person as the original replier to you – I just have different log-on saved on different computers)

    • To address your most important misapprehension first. The difference between rebirth and reincarnation in Buddhism is absolutely not “just semantics” – though in the case of Tibetan Buddhism, which has incorporated pre-Buddhist Lamaism into it’s system, it is often played down. The difference is absolutely central to Buddhist theology and was a subject of several debates between the Buddha and his contemporary philosophical rivals, as documented in the suttas. I apologise if I have so badly failed to make the distinction clear that you can dismiss it as ‘semantics’. Perhaps this link will help.
      https://www.thoughtco.com/reincarnation-in-buddhism-449994

      I’m not demanding compartmentalisation of science vs religion, merely that you don’t confuse them or debase them by jamming them together where they don’t fit. I would suggest that an understanding of reality – inasmuch as that is possible – can be enhanced by complementing scientific and spiritual methods of inquiry but not by confusing one with the other. You can see the sort of gibberish that comes from that by reading some Deepak Chopra.

      Saying that science doesn’t have beliefs

      What I actually said is that science is not a belief system – unlike most religions – but yes, I will go further and say science doesn’t have beliefs either – as you seem to agree by pointing out that even tenets as robust as the speed of light are open to challenge.

      A working hypothesis is not a belief and in fact robust scientific inquiry seeks to challenge new theories with null hypotheses – by starting from the assumption the theory is wrong and trying to disprove that. According to the philosopher of science Karl Popper a theory must be falsifiable for it to be scientific. That is to say that, in theory, it must be able to be proven false. According to the other great 20th Century philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, science truly advances not only when established theories are overthrown, but when the very paradigms underlying them collapse. So, for example, a current dominant scientific paradigm is materialism – that the entire universe is constituted from matter and energy (some would add space and time). According to the philosopher of consciousness, David Chalmers, this model is inadequate to enable the scientific examination of consciousness and he instead leans towards panpsychism – something that you as a Hindu are doubtless familiar with.

      The current theories of science are not science. Nor are the assumptions used to propose those theories. The tools used to test them are what science is. Those who think there is a scientific belief system (e.g. the New Atheists) are confusing science with Scientism.

      The reason science can’t adequately address the question of consciousness is because objectivity is central to how science is ‘done’. Consciousness is irreducibly subjective. You can’t weigh it or measure it or locate it in time and space in a manner that would enable researchers to confirm (or refute) each other’s work. There are people who are certain that consciousness somehow emerges from the complexities of neuronal connections, but these people aren’t scientific but followers of Scientism. They believe consciousness is a function of matter because they think everything is a function of matter. It’s an expression of faith. There is zero evidence to support their position (which isn’t to say it’s necessarily wrong – just that it’s not scientific).

      For this reason the study of reincarnation (as most people understand the word) can never be scientific. Yes, you can point out continuity of memory, facial features or favorite football teams between different, apparently unconnected, individuals but as proponents of reincarnation would also insist that it can occur without such commonalities they obviously can’t be considered falsifiable evidence. Their presence allegedly demonstrates the theory but their absence can’t be used to disprove it. It’s like saying the rooster’s call makes the sun rise because sometimes they occur together. But more importantly, reincarnation isn’t just about similarity or near identity – look at identical twins for example. It’s about continuation of consciousness. Now, even if you were completely aware that your own consciousness was the same as that of someone who died before you were born, how would you demonstrate that to others. You can’t put your consciousness on a table for others to examine.There are no consciousness reading machines that can fit over your head. And if you subscribe to the notion that consciousness is independent of matter and energy, there never will be such machines.

      Do you really think that the majority of the human race accept these things as “bleeding obvious”?

      Perhaps not if you use Sanskrit words like karma and vipaka but if you strip them to their most fundamental English meanings, i.e. “cause” and “effect”, yes I think they do (for English speakers at least). The chain of events that led to my existence began before my parents even met and that chain will continue after I die. Seems bleeding obvious to me. The Buddha refers to it as paticcasamuppada (dependent arising).

      I’d be grateful if you could give me a link to what you would consider a decent source which talks about and describes this and other Australian aboriginal beliefs.

      As Akismet is prone to throwing comments into the spam folder if they contain more than one hyperlink, I will use separate ones to provide some references.

  4. The misleadingly simplified Wikipedia introduction to Songlines is here.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songline

    It refers to Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines which offers a more comprehensive treatment but incorporates some of Chatwin’s own misunderstandings.

  5. A more ‘scientific’ treatment of the topic that is more relevant to the point about memory I made comes from the ABC mind science program All in the Mind, but of course it fails to capture the spiritual dimension.
    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/songlines-indigenous-memory-code/7581788

  6. Oh, and if you want some insight into the difficulty (or impossibility) of incorporating consciousness – therefore reincarnation – into science, this may help.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness

    It might be worth pointing out that Daniel Dennett is a prominent New Atheist and is often accused of promoting Scientism.

  7. Regarding “re-birth” versus “re-incarnation”

    In the English language, these are in my opinion two words which could be used by different people to mean the same thing. I don’t think it is correct to say “re-birth” means one thing and “re-incarnation” means another. It is correct to say that there are vastly differing interpretations of what one may mean by these, but insisting that “re-birth means one thing and re-incarnation means something totally different” is not right – words are capable of being used differently and meaning different things. You can say that the Buddhist conception of re-birth is….., but I or many others may use the word to mean something different – nobody owns the word, and you SEEMED to suggest that the word could only have your understanding of the Buddha’s idea to it.

    Even within people who consider themselves Buddhists or Hindus, there is a vast difference between the understanding from the commoner to the scholar or monk.

    On another note, in my own reading of “Buddhism”, which may or may not be be more basic than yours, the “construct” of causation which makes up the re-incarnating entity is extremely similar to the concept of Jiva in some schools of “Hinduism”; it is held that the Jiva only considers itself as permanent due to radical metaphysical ignorance of its true relationship to the absolute. In my understanding, the Buddha taught that the “construct” of cause and effect which makes up the reincarnating entity is an illusion, but until that illusion is seen for what it is, the process goes on. And we will have to differ here, I don’t think most English speakers accept as self-evident that cause and effect persist from one life to another (take Christians for example).

    I haven’t got a source, but I remember a scholar (who is neither Hindu nor Buddhist) who I have great regard for quoting that the Buddha himself has mentioned his own previous lives – but I am only mentioning this in passing as I am not sure.

    I don’t claim to know the Buddha’s teachings better than you do, but I think it is worth noting that the scriptures of Buddhism were not written down until several centuries after he lived – in my opinion he did not have the same emphasis on the importance of concepts as his followers have given. Look at the dialogue between the Buddha and dialogue the Blessed One had with a monk named Venerable Mâlunkyaputta (a summary which can be found here: http://voiceofdharma.org/books/ohrr/ch03.htm
    And today, people try to project onto the Buddha a whole many concerns that I do not feel were shared by the Buddha. But this isn’t just the case with the Buddha, similar phenomena exist with Confucianism, Hindu thinkers, Greek thinkers and many more.

    You describe a lot of isms

    In the process you have introduced me to thinkers that I had not heard of, and I thank you for this. However, I feel the over use of “isms” has its own issues. In a world in which “isms” are used to compartmentalise and describe people’s beliefs, we work with these systems and terms, but in the real world many (perhaps most) peoples true beliefs and approaches (the way the beliefs are reflected in behaviour) to life are not so easily compartmentalised.

    You say that science doesn’t have beliefs, because even facts previously taken for granted can be questioned, and disproven..

    To me all my “beliefs” are just working hypotheses, and while I am not claiming a “scientific approach to Spirituality”, there are many Hindus – and I’m sure many other humans – who feel this way. A materialist ancient Indian philosopher named Carvaka says:

    The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste… while moksha is death which is cessation of life-breath… the wise therefore ought not to take pains on account of moksha. A fool wears himself out by penances and fasts. Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings.

    I consider to myself in my search – could he be right? Why do I believe otherwise – what basis do I have? I am just making this example, crude as it may seem, to show that many people in their quest for understanding are willing to discard ANYTHING. I know that my approach is not the same as all Hindus (after all the term Hindu, Hindus or Hinduism are fleeting and mean different things to different people), but I am not alone in my approach, here for example is a Hindu monk saying the same thing – that NOTHING cannot be discarded in Hinduism. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpSvL1D8wIE

    I’m not claiming only Hindus think like this – I often have these kind of conversations with colleagues at work where we discuss things like our meditation practice, and even worship of deities, but several of us are without any set beliefs.

    Ok – I agree that there are a lot of people who produce a mish-mash of spirituality and science (you make the example of Deepak Chopra) – and my own observation is that sometimes it is cringe worthy, because the persons who are trying to gain scientific validation for their spiritual beliefs are using scientific theories which may be disproven, and then they will try again and seize on the next scientific theory in vogue and try and claim their spirituality is in agreement with it.

    But I think that research like that of Ian Stevenson’s (and I might be presenting it in a way which is wholly inadequate and unprofessional for all I know) is actually needed. To me – as much as scientific methods of enquiry are capable of observing facts that point to more

    You articulate nicely as to why science will remain inadequate and incapable of proving or disproving reincarnation / rebirth and a great many other things. But that doesn’t mean that science is incapable of at some point being able to collect observations that could help shed light on the spiritual, and observations that could help people decide what they believe, or how to interpret the observations.

    Anyways, I thank you for the opportunity to learn a few new things from you in the process of this exchange and thanks for those links which I certainly will check out. I checked out your blog – some nice stuff there too 🙂

    Rajesh

    • Let’s get back to my original introduction of the term ‘rebirth’ shall we?

      Don’t forget, the Buddha preached that there is no reincarnation and no soul (anatta). He preached rebirth, which is an entirely different thing.

      I was clearly not using it as an English language term of ambiguous meaning but as a specifically Buddhist technical term with a clearly defined meaning which I then tried to explain. And that technical meaning is entirely distinct from ‘reincarnation’, as is explained in the article I linked to and which the Buddha went to pains to emphasise in his suttas. If you choose to ignore the context and thereby muddy the meaning that is your business and has nothing to do with the point I was making.

      the Buddha taught that the “construct” of cause and effect which makes up the reincarnating entity is an illusion, but until that illusion is seen for what it is, the process goes on

      There is no “reincarnating entity” in Buddhism, illusory or otherwise. The Advaitist concept of maya has no Buddhist equivalent. Samsara is considered very real and does not incorporate reincarnation.

      The Buddhist metaphor most often used to explain rebirth is that of using a lit candle to light another one. The flame from one candle causes the flame on the other but they are not the same flame. To imagine they are is a product of avidya, ignorance, not illusion. They never were the same flame and so they don’t “go on” being the same flame until enlightenment. That those suffering from avidya might see it differently doesn’t change the facts.

      It might also be worth noting that Buddhist enlightenment is not an attainment but a realisation. When you are enlightened you don’t become a different kind of being, you just come to understand what you are and what you’re not. And one thing you’re not, according to Buddhism, is reincarnated.

      I don’t think most English speakers accept as self-evident that cause and effect persist from one life to another.

      Oh, come on. I think most speakers of any language accept that one of the causes of their existence is that their parents had sex before they were born. And that things they do in this life (e.g. donate to cancer research) will continue to have effects on others after they die. That ‘from one life to another’ has anything to do with reincarnation is the questionable part and that’s exactly the point I’m making.

      In the specifically Buddhist sense (as opposed to the stripped down English meaning I used earlier) karma is not only cause, but cause arising from sentient volition. The Buddha said that such karma will then go on to have effects upon those who exercise sentient volition (even if they are not currently doing so). Often, but not always, those effects will play out in the life of the person who caused them. If that person dies before that happens they will play out in the life of someone else who exercises volition. Not the same person reincarnated to somehow receive ‘payback’. But the unspent karma will be part of the cause of someone else coming into existence and exercising volition. Karma in Buddhism is not some kind of cosmic justice system. There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ karma. It’s just a quality of reality, like gravity. You don’t catch a cricket ball because of good gravity and you don’t fall down the stairs because of bad gravity, but there is still cause and effect.

      A metaphor for Buddhist karma is to see everything in the universe as weights connected by springs. If you push against a spring (volition), it will push back, though perhaps after an inertial delay as the weights shift. If you’re no longer there when the spring pushes back it will push against something else.

      I remember a scholar (who is neither Hindu nor Buddhist) who I have great regard for quoting that the Buddha himself has mentioned his own previous lives

      In Buddhism there are ‘Jataka tales’ which include stories of the Buddha’s ‘previous lives’ but they are just folklore and were never told by the Buddha. Scholars consider them ‘just so’ stories, like Christian parables, but I have little doubt some Buddhists take them literally.

      The Buddha also sometimes spoke of ‘other lives’ connected to both himself and others as if he ‘remembered’ them, but as I said, memories do not demonstrate reincarnation. If you want a scholarly insight into the notion of memory according to a prominent Buddhist monk you might check out my blogpost about it.
      https://neurodrooling.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/meeting-the-mahathera

      in the real world many (perhaps most) peoples true beliefs and approaches (the way the beliefs are reflected in behaviour) to life are not so easily compartmentalised

      That is true. But few people are systemic thinkers. Most accept their beliefs from a variety of sources and make little attempt to reconcile them with each other. That’s why there’s so much cognitive dissonance in the world.

      I have no doubt that many of my own beliefs are of the same nature. But that doesn’t change the fact that mashing incompatible beliefs and belief systems together might be entertaining but is unlikely to provide valid insights into reality. Look at Creation Science, which attempts to bring a literalist interpretation of Christian scriptures and scientific rationalism together and must seriously misrepresent the latter in order to make it fit. Or look at the ridiculous claims Deepak Chopra makes about quantum mechanics to try to make it compatible with Ayurveda (he may also be misrepresenting Ayurveda, but I wouldn’t know).

      I know that my approach is not the same as all Hindus (after all the term Hindu, Hindus or Hinduism are fleeting and mean different things to different people)

      To me that is its most beautiful quality. The VHP notwithstanding, Hinduism is so eclectic and inclusive that it’s completely unremarkable for a Hindu to say “I am of all religions”. My understanding is that ‘Hindu’ isn’t an Indian word anyway. It was used by the ancient Persians to mean “those beyond the Hindus (Indus) river”. It was foreigners who initially lumped the belief systems – both Vedic and non-Vedic – of the subcontinent together under a single name, but the Indians didn’t mind and adopted the convention.

      Personally I’m more exclusive. I consider myself neither Hindu nor Buddhist, though my personal Goddess is Mahakali (Not my choice. Hers. I guess I must have “dared misery love, hugged the form of Death and Danced in Destruction’s dance” as Vivekananda put it.), the metaphysical system that most closely aligns with my interpretation of my life experience is that of Kashmir Shaivism and my spiritual practice and psycho-spiritual insights owe much to Theravada and Zen. I also consider myself agnostic.

      the persons who are trying to gain scientific validation for their spiritual beliefs are using scientific theories which may be disproven, and then they will try again and seize on the next scientific theory in vogue and try and claim their spirituality is in agreement with it.

      That’s sad and seems very true to me. But what’s worse is when people distort science, religion or both to try to make them ‘prove’ each other.

      In the case of Stevenson it looks like poor thinking skills to me. He starts with a bad model of knowledge and mind, based on biopsychiatric materialism (which has a very poor track record of explaining anything) and finds anecdotes that are incompatible with it. Then rather than simply concluding that his anecdotes don’t fit his theoretical framework he leaps not only to the conclusion that they’re therefore ‘paranormal’, but that they prove a specific ‘paranormal’ belief. It’s like “I don’t understand the evidence and I don’t understand reincarnation. Therefore the evidence supports reincarnation.” I suspect that as an objective scientific materialist he tended to overlook the purely subjective, immaterial aspects of ‘self’.

      But that doesn’t mean that science is incapable of at some point being able to collect observations that could help shed light on the spiritual, and observations that could help people decide what they believe, or how to interpret the observations.

      That’s possible. But I think there’s a greater possibility that hidden ontological contradictions between different ways of knowing will lead people up the garden path.

      In my own case it was my training in both computer science and biopsychiatry that entrenched in me a materialist view of what memory is. After all, I could hold a ‘memory chip’ in my hand – what could be more material than that? It took decades and the patient coaching of a very elderly monk for me to see that ‘memory’ in computer terms is metaphorical and that the metaphor of the brain as a computer had hopelessly contaminated biopsychiatry. It was only then I could begin to get an intellectual grasp on the Buddhist concept of anatta.

      I could tell many more stories of how my scientific rationalism crippled my spiritual development and it would be hubristic of me to imagine I’ve overcome all of it. I remain a huge fan of science, but I keep it in its box. As I do with various, not always compatible, spiritual and political outlooks. I don’t need them to reconcile or reinforce each other. I know that any holistic understanding of ultimate reality is way beyond my capabilities – if such a thing even exists. So I use what I have where it works and don’t where it doesn’t. That’s not unprecedented you know. Quantum mechanics is completely incompatible with general relativity, yet both have led to leaps in understanding and astounding technical innovations. For over half a century all attempts at reconciling them have gone nowhere, though they have consumed the careers of some very smart people.

      They may only be tools but I respect my tools. I don’t want to blunt them by using them on things they were never meant to deal with.

  8. I have several points yet to make on what I an finding to be an interesting and stimulating discussion or exchange, but my day job and looking after my young boy have this week precluded me on spending much time on anything whatsoever.

    To make a quick comment on

    “There’s very little science in psychiatry. It has far more in common with religion. In fact I’d suggest it’s another one of those grotesque hybrids. There’s plenty of things that don’t fit materialist models of ‘brain science’ – not least mental illness. That’s because the models are nonsense.”

    which was picked up by “John the Fisherman”

    I am a Pharmacist (I own and manage an independent pharmacy), and I also have family and close friends with psychotic illness. As with most “independent owner operated pharmacies” (a dwindling breed), I know the vast majority of patients on a very personal basis, and in many cases their families too.

    I take a special interest in the lives of my patients who have psychotic illnesses, as a result of my own first hand experiences with how traumatic these illnesses are on both the lives of the afflicted individuals and their lives ones.

    Millions of lives would be unmanageable if it wasn’t for anti-psychotic medications. I know that there are flaws in the pharmaceutical industry, but a lot of work has been done to improve the side effect profile of the drugs, and to make drugs which are effective in people who show a poor clinical response, and a lot of research has been done with regards to creating evidence based protocols, which are evolving in the light of emerging evidence.

    A large amount of data has and is still being collected to better understand the mixture of genetic and environmental factors which manifest these illnesses in susceptible individuals. For example, knowledge of a prodrome that is often present in the year or so prior to a first psychotic episode, and interventions (not drug based) that may stop the illness from manifesting.

    Within a relatively short period of commencing treatment, a large percentage of people who are a risk to themselves and others around them, who have no insight into the fact that they are even ill rapidly normalise behaviour, and if they stick to treatment and engage with the services available to them, most would be able to have their treatment tweaked to give them a reasonable quality of life (in terms of side effects) together with controlling their psychotic thoughts.

    Yes – there is still much that is not understood in terms of psychotic illness, and still much that can be improved in the drug and non-drug treatment – but to say the management of psychotic illness is not based on a scientific approach and bears more resemblance to a religion of all things – I cannot see how this can be intellectually justified. It seems that you are well learned in a great many areas, and take pride in clear lucid thought, but this kind of sweeping statement is majorly flawed.

    Scientific inquiry and its practical application do not have to proceed on a complete understanding to be scientific or to be of value.

    • I have what psychiatrists call a psychotic illness. For over thirty years I’ve displayed symptoms consistent with the DSM definition of Bipolar I (i.e. the form with manic states and psychotic breaks). I also have a BSc in psychology (and physics) which, back in 1980 when I completed it, included a large component of what was then called ‘physiological psychology’ (which included the endocrine system and other factors as well as neurology). At that time biopsychiatry was supplanting talking therapies such as psychoanalysis and both my textbooks and teachers were very enthused about it. It was in the mid 70s, several years before I finished high school, that I attend my first university lecture which, as it happened, was a very upbeat treatment of the dopamine pathway theory of psychosis and how phenothiazines (early neuroleptics) ‘treated’ it.

      For more than a decade after my degree I took what I’d been taught at face value, but I never used neuroleptics to treat my own ‘illness’, despite the fact that it made my life very difficult at times. Why not? Because part of my education included the side-effects of neuroleptics, and tardive dyskinesia (TD) is something I can do without (modern atypical antipsychotics are claimed – on very poor evidence – to have lower rates of TD but have increased rates of severe metabolic disruption leading to weight gain and diabetes). There was another reason too, much more important to me, which I touch upon in this blogpost.
      https://neurodrooling.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/psychosis-and-me/

      But as I continued my private research I came to see how self-serving (primarily to pharmaceutical companies) and just plain wrong almost all biopsychiatric theories are. I also came to see that while neuroleptics have utility in controlling acute psychotic episodes (as do many other drugs that affect neurotransmitters, such as opioids) their long term prophylactic use to block psychotic episodes is both harmful and useless. The longer you take them the more brain damage they do and the greater risk of irreversible side-effects such as TD. What’s more, neurotransmitter functions in the brain are extremely homeostatic. The brain counters neuroleptics by producing ever more dopamine receptors, leading to dopamine supersensitivity. The primary function of the pills no longer works, but if you abruptly discontinue them all of those excess dopamine receptors are no longer bound by the drugs and you’ve got big problems. The resultant extreme psychoses are most often interpreted as a return of psychotic illness and therefore proof that the patient needs to stay on the pills for life, but what they are is withdrawal symptoms. It’s akin to the heightened sensitivity to pain that comes from discontinuing long term painkiller use (or abuse).

      But again, let’s set theory aside and look at results.

      Recovery rates from psychotic illness in the West are no better now than they were in the 1930s, despite all the ‘breakthroughs’ in treatment.

      Therapies that minimise drug use, such as Loren Mosher’s Soteria system and the Open Dialogue methods employed in Finland, result in much better medium and long term recovery rates than those relying on neuroleptics.

      Several WHO studies have shown schizophrenics in developing countries such as India and Nigeria have significantly better long term prognoses than those in more ‘advanced’ countries that afford greater access to psychiatric drugs. India, however, is catching up. As more Indian psychosis patients are drugged remission and recovery rates are falling.

      I have no doubt a large proportion of those who take neuroleptics long term think they help. They’re told so over and over again and as their personal sample size is 1 they have no way of knowing how they would have gone without them. I’m also not about to deny them their personal perspective. There’s a lot more to mental distress than DSM and ICD symptoms and there’s many reasons other than biological that complying with medication might make someone’s life easier. It’s even possible that some psychoses are caused by excess dopamine, though there is not a single reputable research study that supports this. On the other hand there is strong correlation between psychotic illness diagnosis and a history of childhood abuse and neglect, as there is with exposure to environmental toxins such as lead. Neither of these are ‘treatable’ with neuroleptic drugs.

      Neuroleptics are ineffective as a long term treatment for psychotic illness but result in significant side-effects, reduced life-expectancy and significant financial burdens on the patient and/or the health system. Yet they are still widely used. Why? Because there is one thing they do very well. They control patients. They make them passive and pliable and keep them quiet. And that’s really the main function of psychiatry – which becomes particularly obvious in the field of forensic psychiatry. Not curing people. Controlling them.

      I’ve also got responsibilities and will address some of your other points in future comments. In the meantime, if you want references for any of the claims I make above please don’t hesitate to ask.

    • For example, knowledge of a prodrome that is often present in the year or so prior to a first psychotic episode, and interventions (not drug based) that may stop the illness from manifesting.

      If you ask me the concept of ‘prodromal schizophrenia’ is one of the most pernicious and dangerous psychiatric blunders since the ‘discovery’ of pediatric bipolar in the 90s.

      Probably the most vocal and well known advocate of prodromal diagnosis is the Australian psychiatrist Pat McGorry. McGorry is a darling of the Australian press and once won “Australian of the Year” for his work, but if I repeated some of the things other Australian shrinks – both criticalist and conservative – have said to me about him I’d be opening both of us up to libel charges. There was an excellent 2006 Time magazine article “Drugs Before Diagnosis?” that profiled him and his theories, then sought comment from other psychiatric researchers, but unfortunately it’s now behind a paywall. If you can access it online or at a library I urge you to read it. In the meantime here’s a piece from the Australian in which Allen Frances – one of the most prominent psychiatric researchers in the world – and McGorry’s former co-author, Alison Yung, take him to task over prodromal schizophrenia.
      http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/schism-opens-over-ills-of-the-mind/news-story/7d9b4717404ff875fd2b9747e17817d8

      McGorry himself admits that his prodromal criteria have pretty poor sensitivity and specificity. About half the people who will go on to develop psychosis aren’t detected while of those who are about three out of four are false positives. When you think about the consequences of the false positives – or even the true ones – you begin to see the problems.

      The overwhelming bulk of first episode psychosis occurs between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, so to be useful you’ve gotta apply prodromal screening to kids whose brains are still developing. So what happens to those kids if you get a positive?

      Worst case is the treatment advocated by McGorry (but rejected even by many other prodromal promoters), low dose antipsychotics. You immediately produce profound and potentially very harmful changes in brain chemistry at a very vulnerable period of its development. Antipsychotics are much more powerful than cannabis in producing long term neurochemical changes and I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of warnings about the effect of dope on developing brains. You’ve also got to consider the metabolic effects at a time when any weight put on is likely to be with them for the rest of their lives.

      But even if you don’t drug them, you’ve dropped a label of nascent mental illness on them. Care to think about what the stigma of that will do to a teenager’s developing self image? You can bet that any unusual or creative thinking or behaviour she displays will now be seen through the prism of mental illness and probably labeled as a symptom.

      But what is the main thing we can deduce about someone suffering schizophrenia? It’s that they likely have a history of childhood neglect and abuse. These kids are mostly still living with the dysfunctional families that inflicted those problems on them and by calling them future lunatics you’ve just handed the family another stick with which to beat them.

      There’s a famous blogpost called I am Adam Lanza’s mother in which the mother of a thirteen year old boy with a very dubious bipolar diagnosis publicly equates him to a notorious mass murderer with an equally dubious Aspergers diagnosis. She then goes on to boast about having him forcibly detained in a psychiatric hospital as a disciplinary measure. Not because he was ill. Because he wouldn’t obey her. That sort of attitude towards offspring diagnosed with mental illness is something I’ve seen again and again at mental health conferences and I think is a salient illustration of the way dysfunctional families seek then abuse diagnoses for their non-conformist members. Pediatric diagnoses such as ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder have already been a huge boon to parents like that and we sure don’t need to add something as imprecise and messy as McGorry’s prodromal schizophrenia. I’ll post a link to the blogpost in a following comment and another link to an article by clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in which he discusses his extensive experience with such families.

  9. Bruce Levine on ‘mental illness’ and anti-authoritarian young people.
    http://brucelevine.net/psychiatry%E2%80%99s-oppression-of-young-anarchists%E2%80%94and-the-underground-resistance/

  10. A large amount of data has and is still being collected to better understand the mixture of genetic and environmental factors which manifest these illnesses in susceptible individuals.

    Yes, a very large amount of data. In fact it’s received tens of billions of dollars in funding over recent decades and has employed technologies as diverse as blood tests, autopsy studies, all manner of scanning and neuroimaging, genetic testing and mammoth bioinformatics projects looking for relationships and correlations in huge patient history and epidemiological databases. And what has it to show for it so far?

    Every year since at least the late 70s when I began taking a close interest there have been multiple announcements of discoveries of the holy grail of biopsychiatry – a physiological test that can reliably detect mental illness. And how many have panned out? (Hint: It’s a very round number).

    And why can’t they find biomarkers for mental illness despite huge investment and vested interest by pharmaceutical companies? Well, most researchers would say “More research is necessary”. But an increasing number of leading psychiatrists and researchers are saying “Because we’ve been barking up the wrong trees ever since Emil Kraepelin first defined the major categories of mental illness in the late 19th Century”.

    I would suggest there are no biomarkers for schizophrenia, bipolar or depression because there is no such thing as schizophrenia, bipolar or depression. And some of the most prominent mainstream researchers in the field – such as Thomas Insel, Allan Frances and Robin Murray – have now come to similar conclusions, as have several major psychiatric and psychological associations and many less famous clinical practitioners.

    Mental illnesses aren’t defined by pathology tests, etiologies, prognoses or disease progress as are physical diseases. They’re defined by symptom clusters that are decided upon not by rigorous experimentation but by a committee. The same committee that until 1974 defined homosexuality as a mental illness and that changes its definitions two or three times every decade, often inventing or abolishing mental illnesses in the process. The same committee that is overwhelmingly stacked by people with extensive financial links to big drug companies. (Under DSM-III & IV I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. DSM-5 abolished it. How’s that for a miracle cure?)

    Now can you imagine what would happen if we took the same approach to physical illness?

    Take flu-like symptoms for example.
    You go to a doctor, describe your symptoms, he checks them off a list and then without any further tests or questions about your history tells you that you have a specific disease that requires a specific treatment that, at best, merely suppresses some symptoms without getting at the cause of the problem. At least with flu-like symptoms you can stick a thermometer in someone’s mouth to objectively gauge the severity of a symptom. With mental illness you have to rely on the subjective statements of patients or carers to gain any insight into severity. In other words, not only are there no biomarkers for mental illness, there aren’t even any reliable diagnostic metrics. And people like McGorry want to lower the bar for intervention!

    So is it surprising that there has been remarkably little improvement in psychiatric outcomes for a century? (Excluding the abolition of some of its more barbaric and deadly therapies).
    That despite massive and increasing investments in research and treatment the incidence of disabling mental disorders has been steadily rising?
    That it often takes sufferers many years and many different diagnoses to find a psychiatric label that finally sticks?
    That you can take the same emotional problem to three different diagnosticians and get three different diagnoses?
    That, lacking therapeutic results that would validate it, psychiatry has instead often hitched its wagon to legitimising the power of illegitimate authorities? (e.g. It was the German psychiatrist, Alfred Hoche, who developed the philosophy of ‘Life unworthy of life’ that led to the Aktion T4 extermination of asylum inmates and, eventually, the Holocaust).
    That serious psychiatric labels, as with serious prison sentences, are disproportionately applied to disempowered minorities?
    That I and many, many others who have taken an interest in the field are of the opinion that psychiatry is not a science at all?

    My comments have now diverged a long way from the topic of your post and are much longer than the post itself. So I will post one more long comment on what I think needs to change before psychiatry can become a science and leave it at that. Of course if you have further questions, want references or feel I haven’t adequately responded to any of your points, please say so and I’ll try to address it.

    It has also belatedly occurred to me that rather than fill your Hinduism blog with this sort of thing I should have posted it to my own (which is called Neurodrooling for a reason) and simply provided links. With your permission I would like to copy the portions of this comment thread dealing with psychiatry into a blogpost of my own. I would edit some of what I’ve written for clarity and brevity (e.g. directly hyperlinking text instead of providing reference links in separate comments) but would avoid changing anything you or John the Fisherman have directly responded to. Needless to say I wouldn’t change comments by John or you unless you requested it.

  11. Oops, I missed a couple of relevant points you made.

    Within a relatively short period of commencing treatment, a large percentage of people who are a risk to themselves and others around them, who have no insight into the fact that they are even ill rapidly normalise behaviour,

    And within a short period of not commencing treatment a large percentage of people do the same. Mental illnesses tend to be cyclic and people only seek help during their worst manifestations.

    Of course psychotic episodes can be deadly for the sufferer but, contrary to stereotypes, very rarely are they dangers to others, though they do disturb people. That’s why some kind of intervention during acute episodes is sometimes warranted and while I think there are equally effective and safer pharmaceutical interventions than neuroleptics I can see why they might be justified. But when the emergency passes, usually within hours or days, they should be withdrawn. That’s not what happens – except in more rational treatment programs such as Soteria which are largely rejected by the psychiatric mainstream.

    to say the management of psychotic illness is not based on a scientific approach and bears more resemblance to a religion of all things – I cannot see how this can be intellectually justified.

    I’ll address this more fully in my final comment about what needs to change to make psychiatry scientific but the short answer is:

    1. Psychiatry is highly resistant to recognising its errors and modifying its theories accordingly. Fraudulent and sloppily designed trials, such as Study 329, are the norm rather than the exception in psychiatry (in his book Bad Medicine Dr Ben Goldacre relies heavily on psychiatry for examples of what is wrong with clinical trial procedures).
    2. Psychiatry makes many judgements about ‘abnormal’ behaviour based on political and moral presuppositions rather than on the suffering of the patient. That is one way in which it is like a religion. And like medieval religions, psychiatry is now heavily relied upon by authorities to justify their own oppressive behaviours.
    3. Psychiatry holds closely to its ontological foundations despite the fact that they are not only demonstrably flawed, but that everyone knows they are flawed. It is faith based rather than evidence based (Faith in the sense defined by Mark Twain as “Believing in something even when you know it ain’t so”). An example is the way that everyone knows that depression can be caused by physical illness, traumatic life events, because your job sucks, etc but for decades psychiatry insisted (and many psychiatrists still insist) that it’s due to chemical imbalance in the brain.
    4. More superficially, psychiatrists refer to their diagnostic manual, the DSM, as their ‘bible’. Have you ever heard MIMS or any other medical text called a bible?

    Scientific inquiry and its practical application do not have to proceed on a complete understanding to be scientific or to be of value.

    I absolutely agree. In fact I made exactly the same point while arguing with a criticalist psychiatrist barely a week ago.

    But what science does need to do is develop theories that have at least the potential of being proven wrong, carry out rigorous experiments to test them and, if they fail the test, modify or discard them. Psychiatry does none of these things. As Allen Frances, former head of the APA’s DSM committee, says, “The history of psychiatry is the history of fad diagnoses. Fashion plays a large part.”
    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3763502.htm

    • I don’t think patients seek help during the worse manifestations of psychotic illness, because insight is lowest at this point. I think family members or close friends seek help in these situations.

      About psychotic episodes rarely being a danger to others, my own experiences in life with a sibling & a close friend is that they can be pretty dangerous in individuals who are physically strong, when a family member or friend attempts to talk to them rationally out of delusions, which invites agitated responses.I personally have been injured physically on a number of occasions. I was attacked with a sword.

      Having spoken to many patients and family members of patients, I feel that patients who have some background of violence (e.g. involvement in a few street fights or school fights in their teens, which is hardly unusual) when psychotic are very likely to pose a risk to those around them. Children of patients where there are mental health problems are obviously extremely vulnerable. It only takes a few second of overwhelming delusion in a patient to harm a child.

      Anyway, these are observations, and I’m sure counter observations can be made.

      But even if we are to accept that long term anti-psychotic drug use reduces spontaneous remission – if it causes fewer harms to patients – e.g. maybe 2 less psychotic episode flare ups over a life-time, and less severe distress to those around them, then that may be considered by many to be worthwhile on a risk-benefit decision making chart, depending on what their psychotic episodes are like.

      I personally find that when patients are stable, their anti-psychotic medication is reduced to the lowest possible dose, and this prevents relapses. E.g. a family member of mine had a severe episode every 1-2 years since the age of 18 years, and now is in his mid-30s. He takes ariprazole 5mg daily, and hasn’t had a flare up for 5 years, and the last episode was the first ever time he accepted ongoing treatment when he was discharged after being “sectioned”. At times (after accepting long-term treatment) he complained of side-effects and negative effects on quality of life, but each time his concerns were taken seriously, with dose reductions or change in medication.

      Kind regards

      • I don’t want at all to try to diminish the seriousness of your lived experience here Rajesh. Mental illness is serious stuff. Nor do I want to dismiss out of hand the models you use to select, explain and assess therapies you use or results you get.

        But one of two things I’d hope you’d ask yourself is whether the biopsychiatric model of mind is the only or best one for explaining your plight and mitigating it.

        The second is whether you can really be so absolute in locating the violence within a complex relationship between patient, carers and authorities entirely with the most disempowered and stigmatised member of that relationship. Lets keep in mind which one is most likely to suffer violence, including a violent death.

        I dunno know about you Rajesh but I’m pretty sure my mind is more than my brain. It’s the other chemicals in my body and what I put into my body and the genes my ancestors bequeathed me and how I was raised and what I was exposed to and what I did and said and thought and infinite ropes of cause and effect, karma and vipaka that bind me too and free me from everything since the Big Bang. It’s all the different stories and concepts I use to try to explain myself to myself and a whole load of stuff I probably haven’t got a hope in hell of imagining much less understanding. It’s my whole universe and sitting right at its centre is the infinite mystery of consciousness itself.

        Yeah, nail bits of it down as symptoms, explain it with neurons and treat it with chemicals. It’s only me if I think it is. Or if others do? But maybe, just maybe, allow that there might be other ways of fitting your own stories to those of others and that some of them might explain things you can’t get at with bio-psychiatry.

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