Why not make fun of ghosts, visions and mortal experiences

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The beneficial and preventive dynamics of “eerie” phenomena. What role do they play in our lives.

“If the fruits of the life of the state of transformation are good, we must idealize and respect them, even though they are a piece of biological psychology. If not, we must be brief with them, no matter what supernatural being may be. has been inspired “.

From The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) by William James

There is a long tradition of scientists and other intellectuals in the West who indifferently have fun with the spiritual experiences of people. In 1766, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant statedthat people who claim to see spirits, such as his contemporary, the Swedish scientist Emanuel Svendenborg, are crazy. Kant, a believer in the immortality of the soul, did not rely on empirical or medical knowledge to make his case, and did nothing more than joke to pass his mockery: “If a hypochondriac has gas in the gut it depends “The direction they take. If they go down they become doors, if they go up they become elements or sacred inspiration.” Another “enlightened” enemy of visions was the chemist and pious Christian, Joseph Priestley. His own critique of prophecy in 1791 offered no scientific arguments, but presented the biblical “proof” that the only legal life after death was the bodily resurrection of the dead on the Day of Judgment.

However, there is a good reason to question the excessive pathologicalization of spiritual visions and spectral visions. Nearly a century after Kant and Priestley mocked such experiences, William James, the “father” of American scientific psychology, participated in a study with the first international census of illusions in “healthy” people. The census was conducted in 1889-97 on behalf of the International Conference on Experimental Psychology, and used a sample of 17,000 men and women. This research has shownthat hallucinations – including spectral visions – were extremely widespread, thus seriously undermining modern medical views of their inherent pathology. But the work was unorthodox in another sense, because it looked at claims of “true” impressions – that is, cases in which people reported seeing an appearance of a loved one suffering from an accident or other crisis that they had actually suffered, but he who had the illusion could not know it by “normal” means. The proximity of such positive findings to “ghost stories” was reason enough for most intellectuals not to touch the inventory report, and the pathological interpretation of illusions and visions continued.to prevail until the end of the 20th century.

Things slowly began to change around 1971, when the British Medical Journal published a study on “widow illusions” by Welsh doctor W Dewi Rees. Of the 293 men and women in the Rees sample, 46.7% reported meeting with their deceased spouses. Most importantly, 69% found these meetings useful, while only 6% found them annoying. Many of these experiences, ranging from a sense of presence to tactile, auditory and visual impressions that could not be distinguished from interactions with living people, continued over the years. Rees’ research has inspired a number of new studies that have confirmed ithis initial findings – these “illusions” did not seem inherently pathological or therapeutically undesirable. On the contrary, regardless of their ultimate causes, they often seemed to give mourners the strength they needed to keep going.

Rees’s study coincided with writings by the pioneer of the modern care center movement, the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who emphasized the prevalence of relief from other cosmic visions reported by dying patients – an observation supported by observation. Indeed, a 2010 study in the Archive of Gerontology and Geriatrics addressed the need for specific training for medical staff on these experiences, and in recent years the academic literature on end-of-life care has repeatedly looked at constructive functions.of visions on the deathbed helping the dying to come to terms with impending death.

Kübler-Ross was also among the first psychiatrists to write about “near-death experiences” (NDEs) reported by survivors of heart attacks and other close contacts with death. Some elements have permeated popular culture – impressions that they leave a person’s body, passing through a tunnel or dam, meet deceased loved ones, a light that represents unconditional acceptance, knowledge of the interconnection of all living beings and so on. As soon as you ignore the latest clickbait that claims that scientists studying NDEs have either “proved” life after death or revealed the afterlife by relegating it to brain chemistry, you begin to realize that there is a significant amount of thorough research published. in mainstream medical journals,whose prevailing view is not in line with any of the popular polarizations, but which shows the psychological importance of experiences.

For example, although two NDEs are not identical, they usually have in common that they cause ongoing and often dramatic personality changes. Regardless of the survivors’ pre-existing spiritual tendencies, they usually form the belief that death is not the end. Understandably, this finding alone makes many people rather nervous, as one may fear threats to the secular nature of science or even abuse of NDE research in the service of preaching the gospel of the consequences of hell. However, the specific literature provides little justification for such concerns. Other proven side effects of NDEs include dramatic increases in empathy, altruism, and environmental responsibility, as well as markedly reduced competitiveness and consumerism.

Almost all elements of NDEs can also occur in psychedelic “eerie” experiences caused by substances such as psilocybin and DMT. Trials at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Imperial College London have revealed that these experiences can show similar personality changes to NDEs, mainly loss of fear of death and a new purpose in life. Psychedelic therapies are now becoming serious candidates for the treatment of serious conditions such as addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression-resistant therapies.

This brings us back to James, whose arguments in The Varieties of Religious Experience about the pragmatic clinical and social value of such transformational episodes have been largely ignored by the general scientific and medical trend. If there are in fact specific benefits to changing personality after “eerie” experiences, this may justify a question that is not usually raised: it could be harmful to blindly follow the standard narrative of Western modernity, according to which ” materialism “is not just the default metaphysics of science, but an obligatory philosophy of life required by centuries of supposed linear progress based on supposedly unbiased research?

Certainly, the dangers of weakness are quite evident in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical fraudsters and unscrupulous politicians. And, given that, spiritual worldviews are not good for everyone. Belief in the absolute goodness of the world will strike many so desperately irrational. However, a century after James’ pragmatic philosophy and the psychology of transformational experiences, it may be time to restore a balanced perspective, acknowledge the damage caused by stigma, misdiagnosis and misuse or overuse of drugs in people who report ” experiences. One can as a person be skeptical of the absolute validity of spooky beliefs and leave theological issues strictly aside,but also to explore the beneficial and preventive dynamics of these phenomena.

In making this almost clinical proposition, I know that I could go beyond my limits as a historian of Western science by studying through which transcendental positions have become inherently “unscientific” over time. However, issues of credibility versus evidence are not the only area of ​​scientific and historical research. In fact, orthodoxy often crystallizes collective prejudice starting from a subjective level, which, as James himself pointed out, is “a weakness of our nature from which we must free ourselves, if we can.” Whether we are committed to scientific orthodoxy or to an open-minded perspective on visions and other unusual subjective experiences, both will require constant review of the specific sources that nurture our most fundamental beliefs – including which are supported perhaps with a little willingness.

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