Given that there is clear evidence that a head injury or smoking skunk can damage the brain’s ability to filter out unwanted information, it is relatively easy to demonstrate that, at least on some occasions this decrement can contribute to the experience of psychosis.
For example, Shields claims (Psychosis as Coping), on the basis of evidence he adduces, that one difference commonly observed in psychotic individuals is a functional reduction in activity in the lateral pre-frontal cortex. As he puts it ‘impairing the lPFC entails a diminished ability to avoid dealing with unwanted thoughts and memories.’
That is not the same, of course, as demonstrating that it is causative. What I was hoping to find at some point are studies that demonstrate whether or not psychosis occurs in the absence of comparable damage to the brain’s ability to filter, and whether or not such damage is a significant contributor if present. I am frustrated at present by my inability to gain access to the necessary material.
It took five weeks before I received my copy of Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – Mindfulness in Behavioral Health edited by Alexander Moreira-Almeida and Franklin Santana Santos. It is mostly somewhat disappointing in terms of this issue. I’ve shared a couple of faintly useful ideas from it so far (see previous post for examples). However, there is an extremely useful section of a chapter by Mario Beauregard which I’ll be quoting from in the next post, as well as additional insights from Peter Fenwick and Penny Sartori.
Primary sources are almost impossible to access as I no longer subscribe to academic sources. I hope to resolve this problem as soon as I have time. In the meantime and in full awareness that compelling evidence may be lacking, what have I got to go on?
The main sources of information are Psychosis and Spirituality and Irreducible Mind, the latter not focusing on psychosis specifically.
In the first source Isabel Clarke (Chapters 9 and 20) and Gordon Claridge (Chapter 7) are the clearest proponents of the psychosis/transliminality link.
She sees three aspects to transliminality (page 103) ‘which embraces both the spiritual and psychotic’ and ‘extends to the interpersonal, so that group phenomena, and the collective unconscious are included. All live beyond the limen, the threshold or boundary of the individual self.’
Our ordinary method of construing reality, which she refers to as ‘the construct system’ is transcended (pages 105-06) so ‘[i]t means moving into the unknown. Challengingly, according to this model, as my understanding of the self is essentially a construction, I lose touch with this when I pass beyond the horizon, along with other constructs, and thereby lose the means of making predictions.’
She quotes Hemsley as noting that psychotic experience can be explained by: ‘the failure to relate current sensory input to stored regularities’ and adds ‘The neurophysiological substrate of high schizotypy, implying easier accessibility of the transliminal, is described in the schizotypy literature thus: “The positive schizotypal nervous system has been described as an ‘open nervous system […] where excitatory mechanisms are high and inhibitory processes low” (McCreery and Claridge, 1996).’
She unpacks further the implications for the self (page 110):
I have already mentioned that the construct of self is among the concepts to be lost in the transition, which can lead to an exhilarating feeling of unity and interconnectedness, as well as the bewilderment of loss of self. . . . . I would argue that the characteristic themes of psychotic material, whether in the form of voices or delusions, concern issues of self worth, acceptability, sexuality and personal significance, which are all relevant to understanding the self.
It is obvious how the themes she highlights here relate to the impact of trauma, especially in the form of sexual abuse.
In her later chapter she explores other aspects of this dynamic, which can be both positive and negative (page 249):
[A] reconceptualisation [of psychosis] recognises opening to the transliminal as a part of the journey of life which can be problematic but has great potential. Such openings can compromise normal functioning; they can bring the individual face-to-face with unresolved issues and be acutely frightening and distressing; however, they can also present the opportunity to break out of a mould that had become constricting and embrace a fuller way of being, through opening the self to the whole.
This, she feels, would be an important counterbalance to our society’s left-brain overemphasis, to use McGilchrist’s language here. She writes (page 251):
I am suggesting that we need that connectedness with the whole, but not to expect to grasp it with our intellect and ability to manipulate the environment, as it is literally beyond this grasp. This un-graspability has led to its marginalisation in a technical era. Perhaps we need that connectedness that takes us beyond the individual, towards other humans, other species, and yet wider, within the whole. We need the mystery, the unknowable, to feel at home in the world, with our fellow human and non-human creatures, and with our natural environment; to connect with whatever source of sacredness envelops all of this. . . . . Perhaps our subjective sense of separateness is more illusory than we would like to think.
While I resonate emotionally to this rhetoric, it is evidence I’m looking for here, and I am finding none.
Before we move on to Chadwick’s perspective it is worth quoting Natalie Tobert (page 46) She quotes the psychiatrist Barett as suggesting that ‘patients with schizophrenia are in a state of ‘suspended liminality.” Barett suggests that psychiatric institutions may ‘freeze liminality into a permanent state.’ This maps onto my discussion in an earlier sequence of how important it is to have an accepting environment if a positive journey towards integration and healing is to be facilitated.
Chadwick shares Clarke’s sense of there being a mixture of positive and negative (page 67):
This openness to without and within can have advantages for inside, sensitivity and creativity and also for access to spiritual experiences but on an everyday level such ‘skinlessness’ undoubtedly is a burden – and a fear-inducing burden at that.
We have already seen in an earlier post that he believes, as Thalbourne does, that the subliminal content that crosses through to consciousness is both spiritual and personal in nature (page 82). The presence of spiritual content is not inevitable though:
. . . . . . . other questions lurk here. Not all, perhaps relatively few, people who suffer clinical psychosis also report experiences of a positive, spiritual kind.
I sense that here we again are meeting two sources of experience, thankfully not conflated: the ‘without,’ by which I presume he means the extrasensory transcendent dimension, and the ‘within,’ our brain generated subliminal signals. He seems to relate creativity to inner stimuli.
He feels that the quality of early experience might be a factor here (page 84):
Where nourishing as opposed to abusive early experience obtained, the same biological susceptibility to transliminality, the break with ordinary reality could be much less threatening, even psychologically rewarding.
What I am uneasy about here is the use of transliminality to refer to both inner and outer sources of experience. I am going to stick to my guns here and state that filtering operates within the brain and a spectrum/bandwidth model applies to whatever comes from outside the brain.
The closest I have been able to get to the original work by Thalbourne and Delin on this issue is the reference they themselves make in 1999 to their 1994 paper (Transliminality: its Relation to Dream Life, Religiosity and Mystical Experience in The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion 9:1). They write (page 45):
. . . evidence was presented that there exists a common thread underlying creative personality, mystical experience, psychopathology (both schizotypal and manic-depressive), and belief in the paranormal. This common factor was named transliminality and was tentatively defined as ‘a largely involuntary susceptibility to, and awareness of, large volumes of inwardly generated psychological phenomena of an ideational and affective kind’ (page 25).
I’m sorry this is a bit of a hall of mirrors – a reference within a reference – but it’s the best I can do right now. It is extremely useful though in confirming that they are speaking exclusively of ‘inwardly generated’ material, suggesting that for them this would be a filtering not a spectrum/bandwidth issue. For me, it still begs the question then of what exactly is the status of mystical experience. If it is inwardly generated, is it therefore imaginary rather than objectively valid and externally existent?
Their later comments in this paper suggest that they are very much inclined to believe there is no external reality, even though their conclusions are none the less intriguing and make no distinction, except for intensity, between religious and psychotic upsurges from the subliminal (pages 58-59):
. . . atheists are lowest in degree of transliminality, followed by agnostics. Christian theists have a level that is close to that for the sample as a whole, but non-Christian theists has the highest levels of transliminality of all. We suggest that belief in God may derive partly from external sources [i.e. socio-cultural] and partly from within the person. Atheists and agnostics tend to reject external authority and find little evidence within themselves to persuade them of the existence of a deity. Christian theists appear not to have much inner experience suggestive of a God but may rely more on tradition and authority. Non-Christian theists, however, may be basing their belief predominantly on inner experience, their high degree of transliminality providing them with the food for their conclusion that a deity exists.
. . . . Clearly, the outpourings produced by high transliminality are often enough taken to be not almost but actually miraculous, or to derive from the Godhead itself. Perhaps in some cases they do!
Returning to Chadwick, even with negative early experiences he does not rule out the possibility of input leaking from the transpersonal (page 87):
If we were to try to confront how the same formulation might also account for spiritual or mystical experience, then we might logically be forced to consider that the psychotic person’s skinlessess (or transliminality) could even extend to what in conventional terms would be called the supernatural.
This is where I need to find a reason why what has created a greater leakage across the filtering processes of the brain would also cause a retuning to a wider bandwidth, giving access to externally valid transpersonal experiences. It seems improbable that damage enhances receptivity in this way, although, if the brain tends to block rather than permit information flow, maybe a damaged brain will paradoxically become a better transceiver. If we are simply talking about the process by which the brain’s own subliminal contents are filtered, there is of course, no such problem for a materialist: it’s all imagination anyway and if you damage the filter you’ll obviously get more stuff coming through. I don’t think the writers of this book though would be happy with that position: they mean something more than imagination when they use the word spiritual.
Returning to Chadwick’s point once more, it could of course in that context be dark rather than uplifting material that leaks in through the cracks.
A problem for me at present is that none of this is backed up by clear and compelling proof that what they are defining as spiritual is true and transcendent. At best, it is mostly hypothetical, ambiguous, anecdotal or, frankly, even metaphorical.
Even so, Chadwick’s own personal experience warrants inclusion here. I personally am convinced of its authenticity, but am aware that a sceptic would find reasons to dismiss it as at best anecdotal.
This is a slightly abbreviated account of his experiences with sounds that could be heard accompanying his thoughts (page 71):
There was only one brief crisis in my recovery period that is worthy of note, particularly in the context of this volume. It is important for the reader to realise that the rappings I referred to that began in Charing Cross were actually audible to other people. They were not hallucinations. I have them at times to this day and even our cats can hear them and orient their heads quickly to the source. They particularly come from a wood and metal.
In September 1981, two years after the [psychotic] episode, I was living in a basement flat in Perham Road… with my future wife Jill… The rapping began again over a period of a couple of weeks…. Jill could hear them and would flee the kitchen when they built up. They were now frequently tapping ‘Yes’ to the thought that I should rush out and throw myself under a lorry.
At times like this, one sees and fully realises how useless the attitude of sceptics in the field of the paranormal can be. In that situation, a sceptic would not have had the faintest idea what to do. It seemed to me that as the rappings began to really gallop, science and psychology were of no use to me now. I asked Jill if you could find my Bible and when she brought it to me I sat at the kitchen table… and began to read. It seemed to me that I really needed to call upon a Higher Power to defeat what was definitely looking like a manifestation of The Demonic. . . . . .
As I started to read the New Testament the timing of the rappings started, very slightly at first, to go awry… By the second page, their timing was definitely ‘off,’ by the third they were ‘missing thoughts’ and not tapping at all to some things that crossed my mind. By the fourth and fifth pages, their timing was totally haywire, it was like the sound of machine that was completely malfunctioning… Then very suddenly they stopped completely. The kitchen was quiet.
My sense is that much more systematic research needs to be done in this area. There is little institutional support for this even yet, I suspect. This may suggest that not only are spiritual experiences in the context of psychosis likely to be discounted, but also they will be rare in a culture that devalues any such experiences in general. The priority of the brain as a product of evolution is physical survival, as many writers point out. Spiritual dimensions are tuned out as irrelevant. Opening up such channels against the grain of a culture such as ours is almost impossible for most people.
Given that this is the level we seem to be working at, what hypothesis seems best?
At the end of my sequence on Shelley I made reference to three possible routes that the transcendent might take into consciousness:
- a seed in the soil of an artist’s subconscious (subliminal in the diagram),
- a reflection in the mirror of his consciousness (when reflection has separated it from the clutter of its contents), or
- a light from the lamp of his mind (assuming we accept that mind is independent of the brain, which is simply a transceiver that can pick up even the subtlest waves if it is tuned correctly, which it usually isn’t).
Even though the focus there was on creativity, this can be blended up to a point with the problem raised in my earlier diagram as my notes in brackets indicate.
It is time now to revisit Irreducible Mind in the next post.
 They feel that the frequency of religious content in psychosis is to do with the prevalence of religious ideas in American society.