Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mental Illness Versus Spirit Possession

In some of my previous posts, I've pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church has strict guidelines for performing exorcisms. Before a paranormal cause can even be considered, all normal causes such as mental illness must be ruled out. So how do they do they do that, since priests are not necessarily experts on mental health? That question was answered by this recent article from the Washington Post. It turns out the answer is fairly prosaic - they work with psychiatrists.

What's not so prosaic, though, is that the author of the article, psychiatrist Richard Gallagher, has seen a handful of cases that defy explanation and seem to point to some sort of paranormal agency. On that basis, he concludes that possession is a rare phenomenon, but it does exist. He probably would be the person to ask, too. In more than twenty years working with the church, he has probably reviewed more potential cases than almost anyone else.

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.

Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.

For the most part I agree with Gallagher based on my own experiences, though I do think that the church's theology is overly simplistic. Every spirit in the universe is not either a "demon" in league with Satan or an "angel" in league with God. The real world is far less Manichean than that. In my experience there are as many classes of spirits as there are people - though I expect the sort of spirit that would take over a person's body without their consent and not give it up probably could reasonably described as "evil," or at the very least, harmful and dangerous.

Spirit possession does feel weird. I have done it, though I don't make very extensive use of it in my own practices as I don't believe it's some sort of "central grimoire technique" like certain authors and their fans contend. I never have come across anything I couldn't banish if necessary, but most people don't even believe in magick, let alone practice it. I imagine that if a spirit decided to possess a non-practitioner and refused to depart, said individual would have no idea what to do short of calling in a priest or the Teen Exorcist Squad or somebody like that. They certainly wouldn't call a sorcerer.

Paranormal effects are so difficult to investigate precisely because they are so rare and unpredictable. Without a large data set it's difficult to develop a model, and without a lot of observations you can't assemble a large data set. So a lot of paranormal research and investigation is basically guesswork, which limits the degree to which it can be done with conventional scientific methods. If you could, say, wave your hand in house where somebody died and conjure a ghost every time, the science of spirit would be far more advanced than it is today because that would allow for hundreds if not thousands of replicable experiments.

There was a time when I looked into the possibility of becoming a psychologist - not a psychiatrist, mind you, as my father was a medical doctor and I have no wish to live like he did. I finally decided that I just didn't like people that much, so I would probably be terrible at it. But if I had gone that route, I could easily see myself getting into Gallagher's line of work. It would give me access to a huge set of potentially paranormal cases for investigation, including a few real ones.

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