Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why It's Not OK to Pathologize Psi

Those of us who have Psi/spiritual experiences often have to deal with discrimination and bigotry. It's hard enough handling our own self-doubts and concerns about whether or not these experiences are "real". But we also have to deal with people who are quick to label us as being "delusional, deceptive or mistaken" without even the slightest allowance made for any alternative possibilities. There is a false assumption that science, and scientists themselves, overwhelmingly support that premise as if it were the standard scientific response to all such experiences. But truthfully, that isn't the case. 

In a study presented by Yolaine Stout at the 2011 IANDS conference in Durham, NC, it was found that 46% of people who had reported a Spiritually Transformative Experience (STE) and who had shared the experience with a trusted professional such as a medical doctor or mental health practitioner felt "believed, validated or respected" as a result of the disclosure. A slight majority (48-54%) of respondents felt that the professional was "open-minded, interested or understanding". So even though there is definitely room for improvement in regards to how professionals deal with experiencers, the good news is that skeptics are mistaken about the standard educated professional's response to unusual experiences. That same study found that 31.9% of those surveyed answered "yes" to the question, "Have you ever felt as though you were very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?". Chances are there are medical and mental health professionals numbered among those who answered "yes".

A term used in the talk that I had never heard of before was "Iatrogenic Harm" which is harm "resulting from the activity of physicians", including "any adverse condition in a patient resulting from treatment by a physician or surgeon". The reason it was mentioned was to emphasize the point that when medical doctors or other professionals mistreat a patient by pathologizing  their spiritual experiences, they are doing real and substantial harm to that patient. According to the study, of those who had reported an STE and who had shared the experience with a trusted professional, 44% felt "unsupported", 25% felt "ridiculed", 23% felt "pathologized", 18% felt "demoralized" and 10% felt "suicidal" as a result of the disclosure. I have to wonder what those educated professionals would say in their own defense knowing that they may have caused suicidal feelings in a patient as a result of their actions?

At the 2013 ACISTE conference in Arlington DC, a talk was given by David Hufford which addressed the positive aspects of Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences (ESEs) while drawing attention to the need to educate professionals about the harm caused by stigmatizing such experiences. The abstract of the talk is as follows (emphasis mine):
"Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences (ESEs), such as near-death experiences and after-death contacts, are common around the world and have been shown to be normal and salutogenic. Substantial data indicates that several of these experiences are associated with better psychological health. ESEs have healing power, a power partly rooted in the way that the knowledge they confer to the experiencer produces a cognitive re-appraisal of threats and, therefore, stress. Since stress can produce morbidity and death, and cognitive appraisal modulates stress, the spiritual resources arising from Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences can be potent mediators of the stress response and, therefore, health.  To facilitate the use of this resource it is necessary to combat the stigma of psychopathology that has been consistently used by skeptics to “debunk” ESEs, and to assist experiencers in an appreciation of the empirical and rational support that exists for taking ESEs seriously."
Given the potential harm which can result from pathologizing spiritual experiences, you have to wonder, "What kind of person would do such a thing?" If the evidence suggests that these experiences can be positive for those who have them, then why would anyone suggest otherwise? Well, it turns out that there are organized groups of individuals out there dedicated to promoting the idea that Psi/spiritual experiences are pathological. Groups such as CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) and JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation) attract followers by using the age-old, tried and true method of inciting an angry mob. Instead of burning witches, modern day skeptics vilify and ridicule those people brave enough to come forward with Psi/spiritual experiences (such as NDEr Eben Alexander), as well as any scientist who dares to investigate these commonly occurring, normal human experiences.

Most of us never encounter skeptics in our daily lives. They are a very limited, but vocal, minority. Unfortunately, they can substantially change history, or at least the perception of it, by concentrated efforts such as Guerrilla Skepticism. Skeptics have turned something as innocuous as Wikipeadia into a weapon of censorship and a tool for self-promotion. Craig Weiler has been covering this issue on his blog.

The skeptics may believe they are doing a service by helping to rid the world of psychic-fair mediums, but how many people out there have been seriously harmed financially or otherwise by a medium? Probably far less than the 31.9% who have had STEs and who may require support from well-trained, well-informed professionals aware of the potential dangers of pathologizing Psi. We have to hope such professionals are smart enough not to believe everything they read on Wikipedia


Jason Grant said...

Brilliant article. Personally I am a firm believer in having a healthy dose of skepticism but this is to do with science can't explain everything - yet - rather than the "everything else is BS" mindset some appear to have.

I personally have come across one or two of those militant skeptics and they certainly appear to do more harm than good. However, as with everything, I'm still learning and will continue to do so for the rest of my life so I may well be wrong. :D

Looking forward to reading more, thank you.

Sandstone said...

Thanks very much, Jason!

JBsptfn said...

Good comment, Jason, although I don't have as much faith in science as a lot of other people do.

Science is about hypothesis testing, not fact making. Atheists and skeptics like to use it as their enforcement mechanism, but that is blatantly misguided.

To say that science will eventually explain everything could be considered a "science of the gaps" mentality. I don't see that happening.