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How non-industrial cultures view mental illness

Culture determines how mental illness or aberrant mental behavior is viewed and dealt with.

Mongolian Shamans performing a fire ritual.
  • Behaviors considered mental illnesses by western psychology are seen differently — even positively — in so-called "primitive" societies.
  • Hearing voices and hallucinating, for example, can be the start of a spiritual awakening.
  • Westerners like Alan Watts and Terrence McKenna expressed concerned about ours definitions of mental illness.

Culture is the arbiter of our conscious reality. To say that it influences how we think and act would be an understatement. For the non-inquisitive or complacent mind, it can set us into the inane doldrums of prefabricated patterns we take to be both our day-to-day reality and how we even view our own psyches and world around us.

It comes as no surprise that it also has a significant effect on what we consider to be a normal psychological disposition.

In many traditional societies, mental distress is seen as a transitional period from one state to the next in order to confront a change in that person's life.

It's very unlikely that strange or novel behavior is seen as indicative of an underlying mental disorder. There are many cultures that don't even have words for what we call experiences like depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Certain psychological phenomena such as possession or mania, which for the most part, Westerners feel the need to stamp out and put back in line with the rest of society and cure, are instead seen in a much different light in more tribal communities.

The linguistic hang-ups we have when defining these other states of consciousness needs to be explored. We can look towards preliterate shamanic cultures and other psychological schools of thought to help us out with this endeavor.

Is there another way to view mental illness?

Vincent Van Gogh.

It's a given that shamans, ecstatic creatives, fringe thinkers and those great artists who have journeyed to the heart-soul of universal divinity and lived to tell the tale of the great mystery aren't going to jive with some reductionist scientist's view of mental illness.

Even so, there is a small strain of scientists in the overall psychiatric field that acknowledges that the prospect of diagnosing and treating mental illnesses isn't that cut and dried.

The British Psychological Association released a report a few years back titled 'Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia'. It contained a statement that said:

Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.

In other words, just calling a different state of consciousness a mental illness can bring about unintended consequences towards either treating or interacting with the individual with the supposed disorder.

This report went on to say that:

  • "There is no clear dividing line between 'psychosis' and other thoughts, feelings and beliefs: psychosis can be understood and treated in the same way as other psychological problems such as anxiety or shyness."
  • "Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without."
  • "In some cultures, experiences such as hearing voices are highly valued."

Examining psychotic breaks and other mental disorders in a different perspective 

Throughout a person's life, they're bound at least once to experience an overwhelming event. This might trigger a change in psychological temperament either for a short period of time or permanently.

The following actions we, as a collective culture, take determines the outcome of this individual's future.

Picture a transcendent or frightening experience either brought on through a psychoactive chemical substance or traumatizing event—whatever it is, it has brought a novel change in that person's mental constitution.

Many diagnosed individuals speak about visions and very unique ways of viewing the world. It's a mix of both the incredibly blissful and the horrific. Aldous Huxley talked about this in his seminal psychedelic work detailing his experiences with mescaline. In The Doors of Perception, he said:

"I have spoken so far only of the blissful visionary experience? But visionary experience is not always blissful. It's sometime terrible. There is hell as well as heaven."

When people are able to integrate these experiences into their psyche and create some grand work of art or creation, they're often lionized and considered heroes, geniuses and pioneers.

Even though, upon further western psychological inquiry, they could very well be considered mad or be placed on the psychological DSM-5 mental disorders spectrum.

If, on the other hand, they fall into destitution, listless meandering, and either bring harm to themselves or others around them, they're institutionalized and prescribed with whatever chemical suppressant is en vogue at the time.

It is quite clear that cultures determine what is right and what is wrong, and subsequently what is normal and abnormal behavior. Are mental illnesses invented or found?

A student of psychology just needs to consult what many psychiatrists decree sarcastically as the holy bible, the DSM-5, which lists all mental illnesses known to exist.

There is debate in the community as to the validity of this diagnostic methodology.

For example, here are a couple of mental illnesses that were once considered real and that we no longer call as such. Say… where'd they all go?

  • Neurasthenia ("American nervousness")
  • Gender Identity Disorder
  • Lunacy (Full-moon induced psychosis)
  • Homosexuality
  • The Vapors (Misaligned humors)

Philosopher Alan Watts once compared psychological experts as having the same authority as the medieval priest-craft caste. Both are elevated in society and are the ones with the sole truth, which they dispense from their high towers in the form of what we now call science-based evidence.

Yet, as we're going to see, this is a particularly naive view that is not always used as a way to treat the individual, but for the purpose of ensuring industrial society stays, to a point, culturally homogeneous.

Role of the psychotherapist in treating mental disorders 

Before we can move on to how primitive cultures entertain and integrate the individual back into society after a mental break, it's helpful to view how industrial societies work this process.

Again we look toward some of Alan Watts' wisdom in which he saw how psychologists focused not on integrating the individual, but instead making them fit into the society. This is exactly the opposite way in which more pastoral and native cultures go about it.

Alan Watts states:

"Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his 'unconscious drives' into social respectability. But such 'official psychotherapy' lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing.

On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object."

Watts goes on to say that:

"[Good] doctors try to get rid of their patients — clergymen try to get them hooked on the medicine so that they will become addicts to the church… You don't make medicine a diet."

This is where the break between how more holistic and spiritual cultures view mental illness as compared to scientists who instead diagnose and disperse medicine to patients when a disorder has been found.

"The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people," writes Alan Watts.

How primitive cultures deal with aberrant behavior

Panther Spirit and Shaman, by Omer Haciomeroglu.

Many of the terms we use to diagnose mental behaviors we don't understand have also changed throughout the years, as evidenced by the constant reshuffling of the DSM-5 and other psychiatric processes.

The late and great ethnobotanist and writer Terence McKenna had a rich and first-hand experience with many shamanic tribes. Throughout his years of psychedelic study and incursions into far-flung realities with Amazonian tribes, he found a rich tradition of integrating the so-called mentally disturbed into elevated positions that were fundamental to the well-being of primitive societies. He states:

"We have no tradition of shamanism. We have no tradition of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness. We fear it because the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of madness."

Other societies are not so frightened by the prospect of madness or even certified psychosis.

"A shaman is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands and thousands of years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon," writes McKenna.

"In a traditional society, if you exhibited "schizophrenic" tendencies, you are immediately drawn out of the pack and put under the care and tutelage of master shamans. You are told: "You are special. Your abilities are very central to the health of our society. You will cure. You will prophesy. You will guide our society in its most fundamental decisions."

McKenna compares this to how we deal with schizophrenia.

"Contrast this with what a person exhibiting schizophrenic activity in our society is told. They're told: "You don't fit in. You are becoming a problem. You don't pull your own weight. You are not of equal worth to the rest of us. You are sick. You have to go to the hospital. You have to be locked up." – You are on a par with prisoners and lost dogs in our society. So that treatment of schizophrenia makes it incurable."

These different systems for dealing with an undeniable part of the human condition can help us pave the way for a future that doesn't demonize or ignore a fundamental personality aspect for many people.

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  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

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So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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