Thursday, November 24, 2016

Hallucinations or spiritual experiences? - Part 1

Religious revelations and psychotic hallucinations are sometimes confusingly similar.

“The two can resemble each other. It’s difficult to separate out what contributes to the disease,” says psychiatrist Hilde Hanevik, who works at Jæren District Psychiatric Centre in southern Norway. She has just finished her doctorate, for which she interviewed 29 patients with psychotic disorders.

People with psychotic issues may see visions or hear voices. They experience hallucinations as so real that they are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

It’s not uncommon for these experiences to have spiritual content. They can range from visits by the dead to contact with higher powers. Or the patient may believe that he is Jesus and omnipotent.

The participants in the study have different types of psychoses, including schizophrenia and depression. They must meet a number of criteria to receive these diagnoses, but hallucinations are a symptom of several illnesses.

Crop circles and reincarnation

Holy wars, crop circles, reincarnation, good and evil forces, meetings with ancestors and a personal relationship with a holy figure are just some of the incidents that patients report.

Many people without a mental disorder claim to have similar experiences. Some see the Virgin Mary, others find angel feathers in their couch.

Occurrences like these extend beyond religious ranks. A 1991 survey shows that twelve per cent of the Norwegian population report having contact with dead people. American and British studies suggest that up to half of grieving individuals experience contact with the deceased.

Hanevik refers to an American study that compared the beliefs of charismatic churches and psychosis patients and concluded that the content of their thoughts was about equally  unusual.

One of the things that separate the two groups is how preoccupied psychosis patients become with those thoughts.

“The thoughts take over their world,” Hanevik says.

Whereas believers usually share their experiences with others, the psychotic patient remains isolated,” she says.

“The problem with psychosis is that no one else identifies with the perception of reality you have. The sense experiences lead a psychotic person to create their own very private world,” she adds.

Uncomfortable exploration

But Hanevik believes that psychotic patients must be allowed to have a spiritual life, too.

She wants the health care system to dare to explore the distinction between faith and illness, and admits that “we may have been a little uncomfortable with this”.

She is the daughter of a priest and attends church, and is open to the idea that spiritual experiences can be real.

But since it’s impossible to ascertain whether God exists or whether relatives can continue to make visitations after they’ve died, the psychiatrist is trying another approach.

Hanevik is more interested in what function the experiences have for patients.

Can faith help them through difficult times or does it contribute to them becoming even sicker?

Like healthy believers, several of the patients in the study say that the events are important to them.

“Feeling God’s presence, or the presence of whatever you feel is sacred, can give you meaning, support and confidence in life,” she says.

This is the experience of Betty, a participant in the study. She feels that she finally gets to rest in the arms of God after being plagued by depression and hallucinations and lying in bed sleepless.

Thinks he's Jesus

Not everyone in the study was religious to begin with. But it can be comforting for patients to put their hallucinations into a religious framework. It can also help them understand their mystical, confusing and sometimes frightening experiences. God can be a companion through a difficult illness.

The psychosis itself also appropriates religious elements.

Elmer believes he is closer to God than most people. He believes he is God's son, although he has never had a Bible, and doesn’t know what Jesus did.

"I can’t walk around and think that I’m Jesus without getting signs,” he says and tells about one of them:

"It began to burn something fierce. I took my hand and put it on top [of the fire] and it hurt like heck, you know, but I just kept it there until all the flames died down and then I looked at my hand afterwards – no burn marks! Try to explain that! It’s impossible to explain. "

Experiences like those Elmer describes can be both good and bad for patients, says Hanevik.

Elmer feels they’ve saved him. "If I hadn’t had this belief (of being Jesus), I would have killed myself," he says.

Believing that he has supernatural abilities can give Elmer a sense of control in his life. Maybe he likes the ideas of being a powerful, important person for the very reason that as a human being he feels the opposite, that he has no power or value.

“At the same time, that notion becomes an escape from reality and isolates him even more from other people,” says Hanevik.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Nuse. Ingrid P.. 2016. “Hallucinations or spiritual experiences?”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

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