The Others Within: What the Judgmental Entities in Westerners’ Experiences of Psychosis Inform Us About Cultural Programming and the Collective Unconscious
Brendan Bombaci, MA
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This brief theory article was informed by the intrepid academic or purely insightful works of Carl Jung, Richard Evans Schultes, Aldous Huxley, Carl Sagan, Wade Davis, Tanya Luhrman, Devon Hinton and Byron Good, Ian Hacking, Michael Winkelman, Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, John Baker, Marlene Dobkin deRios, Ethan Watters, Gathan Obeyesekere, Mark Nichter, Laurence Kirmayer, and countless psychiatrists and neuroscientists.
My article in no way suggests that a sufferer of psychotic hallucinations should attempt treatment with a mind-altering substance other than an antipsychotic or mood stabilizer. Doing so could greatly exacerbate psychotic symptoms and put the sufferer in life danger, without the right set and setting and without a proper psychiatric guide and emergency handler (with psychiatric drugs and medical staff on hand).
Humankind has developed for itself a unique role in the world. It has also developed a unique personal problem in the process. We are at the very top of the food chain, and perhaps because we are the most unpredictable of all creatures in that we’ve given incredible utility to abstract thinking: we can objectively recall the past and speculate or plan upon the future, find symbolic ways to speak with one another that don’t even involve our bodies, create things that are totally unrelated to either subsistence strategies or comfort, rationalize the irrational and calculate holistically rather than narrowly, imbue supernatural or anthropomorphic properties or descriptions to most everything we encounter, and create arbitrary codes of behavior collectively – in a fashion consistent with other species in the animal kingdom generally – but also individually, in a way that allows for behavioral revolution in every corner of society and in such frequent steps that nurture has outpaced nature. Artificial selection has taken top priority, its prowess exponentially amplified with each passing year. Though these things are well known, what remains mysterious are the subconscious complications of the human mind, surmised to be largely affected by our cultural institutions.
We are barely beginning to understand that dreams, for example, serve in beautiful abstraction to help us remember and habituate ourselves to those things we learn every day, to help us regulate our compound emotions – those biological utilities that are necessary for us to ludibly and abstractly socialize, to be exactly that which is so different from even the “highest” of other mammals – and to therefore be, at this point in our evolution, with no extant ancient versions of the genus Homo, estimated to be much simpler in their societal complications… even able, in likelihood, to survive the modern world. However, when certain purposeful but necessarily restrained entities from the vast subconscious find their way into our waking consciousness, our functionality and our capabilities to interact are threatened. The point of this article is to elucidate (1) certain ways this can happen and impact people to varying degrees up to an extreme of psychotic hallucination; (2) the fact that hallucinations are projections of subconscious prehistoric perceptions and recent societal ideologies and notions that are mostly universal from person to person in any given culture; (3) the way in which the latter ethnocentric notions underpin non-psychotic mental disorders as well; and (4) how the dearth of public knowledge as well as popular falsehoods regarding hallucinations tends to exacerbate its presentation in sufferers, and what this all means for the potentiality of not only a widespread reduction in stigma of mental disorders cued by education, but of equally widespread enhanced empathic conditioning to individuals’ theory of mind.
Oppressive Phenotypes, and Consequences of Western Culture
The infiltration of the subconscious into the waking mind is a global phenomenon multiplying around the world as quickly as technology itself expands its physical horizons, and when it is taken into real concern, it is usually because it is presenting as more troublesome an occurrence than mere daydreaming. Many people believe that psychosis is a problem constrained to those afflicted by schizophrenia or certain cases of manic depression. In fact, sleep deprivation can directly lead to psychotic episodes, if not put into check when delusion infects thinking and perception. It is indeed precipitated in many cases by strong genotypic selection, but psychosocial stress can also be its origin for anyone as well as a proven source of detrimental exacerbation for those fated to it who otherwise would retain functionality. The brain is plastic. It changes. Genes direct its development initially, but the environments it both grows in and travels about are key to its health over time, hence why acute trauma at any age can be so damaging (though if it happens in youth it can cycle and cycle for years on end thereafter, compounding damage and depth).
Less seriously considered to be truly traumatic is chronic stress – something that industrial society has advanced with reckless abandon in the name of progress and mechanical efficiency. Studies of peoples’ general wellbeing in 2nd and 3rd world countries go to show just how much it can be correlated to industry, even if non-industrial countryfolk tend to suffer more organic disease. Probably, the lack of real consideration is due to the facts that no singular event in a generally high stress life can be traced to mental breakdowns, and there are indeed many who do not suffer them at all or who in fact thrive with such lifestyles. None the less, it is known that social anxiety disorder and depression as well as physical health ailments such as hypertension – problems that many believe can be resolved with such simple practices as meditation – are all linked to stress.
Psychotic hallucinations may be complex, and nuanced from person to person, but they are generally auditory and diagnosed around common themes. In the West, such themes are not usually positive ones. Auditory hallucinations can include imagined noises or a seeming amplification of ambient sounds, but are very often judgmental and/or denigrating voices seeming to come from deities, angels and demons, or “officials” and “agents.” They are likely nuanced in this way in large part because of a long institutionalized Western history of, respectively, god/dess idolatry (both bodily and cognitively) or otherwise unattainable idealism; increasingly complex law systems built upon a socially and geographically pervasive history of persecutory Christian ideals, indicated by the fact that disembodied voices are often perceived as pure good or evil, or nonsensical and therefore perhaps “lost in limbo;” and surveillance society that has gone from simple Church-state social group infiltration to an inhuman, almost supernatural, high-tech permeation of every private nook in our lives. Such practices and institutions so sharply ingrain their notions and tenets into the psyche that sufferers of psychotic auditory hallucinations need not worship deities, abide Christianity, or pay much concern to the steady dissolve of personal privacy, to experience such episodes as a sort of belittling stage, frightful Holy Inquisition, or high-tech shakedown. These are rather contrasted to those experiences that may be taken as peaceful or instructional internal dialogue – something that non-Western sufferers in more communal (less nuclear and individualistic) and less cosmologically dualistic societies may make of them instead. Indeed, psychotic hallucinations of citizens in such societies have been recorded as being communications, e.g., from elemental or animal spirit guides for life purpose, from ancestors or living but distant family members for upholding of tradition or increased social awareness, or from Avatars who playfully intervene in life, all of which are relative to ideals of highest value or social agency in their societies.
Immortal Entities and Altered States
Westerners who suffer psychotic hallucinations of judgment may also be re-cognizing ideological holdovers from a more enduring period of animistic belief, once common amongst likely all people who fell to Holy Roman hegemony, where the universe and all objects in the environment, spirited as they were, held sway over the outcomes of a person’s day to day actions. This is an idea that has become steadily outphased in the West, to be replaced by more secular notions of “luck” or “fate.” But, given that such belief – the originator of shamanism, then ancestor worship, and then logic-driven ethnosciences – is thought to have ushered humanity into its various modern societies after a static trend of (at the very least) a few tens of thousands of years, such ideas and perceptions are still well embedded in the subconscious of all people. That modern animistic societies do not typically experience fear or recoil, in relation to what they perceive in circumstantial hallucinations to be environmental spirits, is telling in regards to Westerners’ fear of their own perceptions of the disembodied aspect of psychotic hallucinations (non-visual and therefore stealthy and of omnipotent or ill intent), and therefore the invasive nature of them. They stem from the forced revelation of something that they have long since abandoned – the perception that conscious and interactive entities exist around us.
This has become wholly unfamiliar to the masses. Testament to this is the fact that, for Westerners, a total fear of vulnerability and a sense of unveiling a cosmic lie or joke are inherent qualities of the perceptual and cognitive alterations that occur when they consume, at least for their first time, what are the most disembodying natural hallucinogenic substances on Earth, namely Ayahuasca, Virola, Yopo, Salvia divinorum, Psilocybin mushrooms, and Morning Glory or Hawaiian Baby Woodrose (qualitatively in that order, according to my research). These are well known to induce interactive hallucinations of animals, people, deities, anthropomorphs, and therianthropes, for most all people who imbibe them; and, such entities are described in a myriad of experience accounts to be instructive and/or admonishing (but always venerable) guides of sorts, hence why the plants that bring them to light are considered by many cultures to be “plant teachers.” Recent brain imaging studies have revealed that complex temporary neural network changes come about when consuming such substances (specifically, psilocybin and the LSA derivative, LSD). These changes allow objective cognition and cross-correlation of emotional and empathic processes, ancestral memories, linguistic areas, limbic system activity, and abstract as well as logical thinking modes. Although a great number subjective testimonies has shown that psychotic auditory hallucinations are nothing like these psychointegrator substances’ effects (most of which are visual, euphoric, hypnagogic, and synesthetic), some of the same brain areas are psychointegrated, and similar neurochemicals are affected. It could very well be that experiences of psychotic hallucination may be better understood by further research into psychedelic experiences, and that those who have experiences with disembodying hallucinogenic substances may be the best qualified to truly empathize with and not just objectively diagnose psychosis sufferers. In fact, being able to subjectively understand that the mind can create such seemingly real visions and feelings may give a sense of embodiment to and even equal ground with those entities that are, for sufferers of psychosis, purely auditory. Humans are, after all, mostly dependent on and trusting of our visual capacities compared to all other senses.
It may well be that Western mental disorder sufferers either less intensely (superficially) feel that “luck is not with them,” or, more acutely (and perennially), that some omnipotent forces are against them because of certain life behaviors or stifled attempts at success, or because of some perceived personal flaws thought to disqualify themselves from their station in life, both being common justifications for suicide attempts amongst Westerners with mood disorders. Again, these ideas likely stem from a very long syncretic history of objectification of bodily and/or mentally “perfect” gods and goddesses, Christian hegemony and eternal moral persecution, and now increasingly complex and sometimes controversial judiciary laws and surveillance society norms causing people to step carefully through life and to regard others with suspicion as well. As humans anthropomorphize entities around them – even non-living ones – and as the personalities of such conferred anthropomorphic qualities depend upon acculturated (even archetypal) ideas of place and personhood, it would make sense in Western society that deities, angels and demons, and otherwise invisible judges (perhaps in that order over time) are the projected and vociferously biased hallucinations, and that they may be perceived as free roaming entities, spirits of natural objects in the environment, or invasive technological projections.
Allaying Fear and Activating Empathy
In this case, where such hallucinations are in fact reflexive ideological projections, the argument arises that even psychiatrically normal or, rather, non-suffering individuals, also experience these entities, but that they do so only subconsciously and, due to a lack of fear from sense of intrusion or loss of control thereby, they do so in a not interminable manner. As previously mentioned, the drastically sleep-deprived can easily find themselves sub-psychotically delusional, or even worse off, if they can’t find relief. Suggestively, the standard “moral dilemma” or “existential dread” of certain situations, expected to take place at some points in most non-sufferers’ lives, indicate that some debilitating degree of heavy internal dialogue is indeed taking place for them as well. “Guilt trips” and psychosocial depression, social anxiety, and even anorexia, e.g., would then all be some of the mild component ailments or versions of what can develop into “florid” hallucinated (externalized) torment of increasingly interminable judgmental dialogue. Borderline Personality Disorder could then be interpreted as a conversely subjective (and spurious) embodiment of such internal entities, whereby the self is considered more brilliant, just, glorious, etc., than other people; and duly, manic episodes of Bipolar Disorder could be interpreted as unrestrained free will due to a sort of detachment from the internal dialogue altogether.
The take-home message here is that hallucinations are not “just hallucinations.” They are manifestations of the mind, which is for the most part a product of culture, and secondarily one of personal experience. Some personal experiences, such as the ritual use of psychointegrating plant teachers, or psychedelics (a word whose singular form literally means ‘mind-manifesting’), can allow an efficient reorganization of accultured thoughts and habits, lending leverage over both cultural programming and whatever personal stumbling blocks might otherwise hinder individual growth. Hallucinations are externalized or tangibly transformed aspects of social programming that exists in each of us, usually kept in check by the limiting valve of the conscious mind (and associative regulatory neurochemistry) to prevent disturbance of the skills and creativity that keep us alive and give ever-novel meaning to life.
So, perhaps there is a good reason why cultures that venerate hallucinations, rather than demonize them, are those which exhibit far fewer negative outcomes from and perceptions regarding genetically driven psychoses in certain people, even with projections that are auditorily imposed, rather than volunteered and visual or hypnagogic. For such people, the idea of Medicine is one which includes psychointegrator-manifested existential teachers that by themselves impose no belittlement, eternal judgment, or abusive intrusion. Indeed, psychedelics are well known to induce a sort of temporary ego dissolution, opening one up to bliss. In terms of psychosocial stress rarely leading to non-genetic psychosis in members of non-Western societies: many have specific idioms of distress that allow them to release their troubles into a safe space where they can be acceptably relieved of their life duties or roles for whatever time it takes them to recuperate, reflect, or utilize liminal-state conferred social agency to affect change around them. We see in this mechanism legitimized social leveling and engineering at its most peaceful and effective. A critical issue in Western culture, that might best be explained in this light, is that the less commonly experienced ideation (for a sociable person) of episodic psychosis, that is doing violence upon others, could easily be caused by a sufferer’s own cyclically dialogic fear that psychotic hallucinations are indicative of pre-existing sociopathy or cause one to become sociopathic. This is a Western falsehood stemming from not only a void of public education in psychology and the variety of mental illnesses in particular, but also the promulgation of such notions via popular novel and cinema genres such as horror and cognitive thriller; and, it is a phenomenon likely playing a large part in the intractable problem of social stigma surrounding Mood Disorders and psychotic episodes that are unrelated to sociopathy. Progressive social leveling and engineering, let alone interpersonal acceptance, is only staggered or reversed by ignorance, fear, and alienation of unusual or hidden psychological processes.
Certain processes of the subconscious mind can externalize themselves under genetically wrought circumstances, or due to sleep deprivation and psychosocial stress. Psychosis is perhaps the most critical manifestation of such processes. The notions revealed by hallucinations of Western psychosis sufferers directly reflect Western cultural ideologies, which not only suggests that all non-sufferers would project in the same way, but may also reveal the reason for various behaviors in those who suffer from other, non-psychotic mental disorders (including Borderline Personality Disorder, which some critics may perceive as simply being “pompousness”). Given this spectrum of collective presentation, fundamental aspects of how Westerners experience a variety of mental disorders – negatively, as it were – would suggest that Western culture has some collectively historical psychological trauma. The ideations of most psychotic hallucination cases, noted in diagnostic manuals, suggest that this has likely been imposed, at least in part, by deity idolatry (a sort of unattainable idealism), the threat of eternal persecution under Christian religion, an increasingly complex legal system outfitted with pervasive societal surveillance measures intrusively reminiscent of the Holy Inquisition, and false popular notions that sociopathy is causal to or caused by psychosis. Cultures without this cluster of historical and modern strife, and those with great veneration for altered states of consciousness as well as institutions such as idioms of distress which ameliorate psychosocial stress, do not exhibit as high a degree of negative outcomes with mental disorders that Western culture does. I surmise that a fair amount of Western stigma towards mental illness can be dissolved by a widespread realization of this holistic thesis. After all, imaginative elaboration and perspective taking are important aspects of empathy, and these social skills can only develop through willingness to connect, which, after education transforms the general fear of the mentally ill to charitable concern instead, can become reality and help usher a new period of interpersonal awareness and even crucial self-diagnosis and self-help.