I have a crazy beautiful story about psychosis. It was also absolutely terrifying. For those who have not read my threads on psychosis, I did my PhD on the neuroscience of emotion. I asked the question where is emotion in the brain? Hemispheric asymmetry: the divided brain.
Well it turns out it’s not just in the brain. It is also in our body. It also turns out this is a living cosmos. Bessel van der Kolk pioneered psychiatry with The Body Keeps the Score. However, my third year of my PhD was in 2011, so these ideas were not fully mainstream.
2011 was also the year of Occupy Wall Street protests. The Maya calendar. Some said would be a spiritual revolution; others, the end of the world. It was also when experts from all different fields increasingly appeared on TED Talks calling for social and political change.
Finally, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist had just released a book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, shortlisted for the 2010 Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize; long listed for the Royal Society 2010 Prize for Science Books.
McGilchrist’s work was also on hemispheric asymmetry. He argued that there once was a balance between the two hemispheres of the brain. The fractured and decontextualised world we see today is a consequence of the left hemisphere out running the right.
Among other things, the left hemisphere is the bureaucrat trapped in a hall of mirrors who cannot see outside of himself. He cannot see the whole picture, which is too big. So the brain formulates a map, which works for the most part. However, this map has become so far removed from reality, illustrated in our explosion of mental illness and climate crisis.
McGilchrist described the right hemisphere as relational and connected to all that is. However, its all knowing voice is silent.
Dr Jill Bolte Taylor delivered a TED Talk ‘A Stroke of Insight’ that mirrored this. She had a stroke in her left hemisphere. As her left hemisphere shut down so did her constant brain chatter, ‘to do’ lists and years of baggage. Imagine that.
Dr Taylor’s right hemisphere was still online which she described affectionately as ‘la la land’. She also realised that this is traditionally known as nirvana: freedom. According to Dr Taylor our left hemisphere is the ‘I am’; our sense of separateness.
I am Louise. I am female. I am 37. I am Australian. I am an academic. I am a psychologist. I am a human rights activist. The right hemisphere is not interested in ‘I am’: So here, I am ‘that which is not’, inseparably connected to everything, beyond words. So you can imagine me at 25 asking a simple question ‘Where is emotion in the brain?’ and by 27 stumbling upon all of this. My PhD had taken me from my left hemisphere to my right. I became nothing, connected to the entire universe, beyond words.
So I’m in the university lab one day. I’m watching TED talks, Occupy Wall Street protests and people talking about the end of the world, thinking to myself, I just found this secret treasure, the solution to life’s greatest dilemma: a divided brain in the Western world. Next minute, this woman walks into the lab wearing nothing but swimmers with bleeding cuts and scratches on her legs. Her eyes are wide awake. She had just come out of a night spent in the rainforest. She said to me ‘I’ve been connected to the universe.’ I was speechless.
This women was in a mixed state of blissfulness, distress and terror. As I began to comfort her, my PhD supervisors returned from somewhere. They asked if she was okay. The woman started sharing her story. Next minute a clown on a scooter comes into the lab. The clown interrupts us and starts making an animal with a balloon. The first thing that came to my mind was the left hemisphere bureaucrat! Distraction from this moment of truth at hand. In reality it was just Orientation Week. A friendly clown the university had hired. Before I knew it an ambulance arrived and she was taken away. I asked my supervisor what will happen to her. I was advised that they took her to the mental health hospital. This destroyed me. My favourite psychology classic is from the 1970s On Being Sane In Insane Places.
The researchers got some randoms, such as doctors, teachers, psychologists, with no history of mental illness, to admit themselves into a psychiatric institution and pretend they had schizophrenia. The experiment found that they were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The researchers told the hospital that they admitted pseudo patients who were not really mentally unwell and then asked them to guess which ones were ‘normal’. The experts then classified those who they thought were ‘normal’. However, the researchers tricked them. The institution they selected had no pseudo patients at all. This classic piece demonstrates experts can diagnose the ‘sane as insane’ and the ‘insane as sane’; hence the name On Being Sane In Insane Places. This is my all time favourite experiment in psychology.
It was also the only thing that came to my mind as I learned the women who had been connected to the universe was taken away. This was the beginning of my psychosis. I remember crying for the woman. My supervisors asked if I was OK.
I tried to explain the left and right hemisphere. It made no sense logically. They wanted me to see the university Psychologist. They were genuinely caring. I did not want to see the university psychologist. Although I went anyway. All I could see was my PhD everywhere. I thought to myself was this psychologist trapped in her left hemisphere as well? Does she know about ‘la la land’ (nirvana)? I told her my PhD was on the neuroscience of emotion. Hemispheric asymmetry. I told her about the left and right hemisphere. I told her absolutely nothing in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders can describe the experience I had. The experience the woman had. An experience beyond words. Beyond a diagnosis. Beyond a book. Beyond science. She looked at me oddly. That was that.
On the one hand I felt like I had found the answer to the greatest problem we have repeatedly played out for thousands of years. I knew I was not alone because I heard expert after expert say the same thing, in a different way, in their field of practice, in TED Talks.
I saw young people Occupy Wall Street asking for a fairer world. I personally experienced myself in the universe beyond my name, gender, age, ethnicity, privilege, socio economic status, education, titles and so on. How could such insight not be beautiful and worth sharing?
How could nobody else in my immediate world see this except the woman who was taken away? My own Psychosis kicked in. In my quest for truth I too ended up in a psychiatric hospital. I too ended up on medication. I too ended up having Electroconvulsive Therapy.
I too ended up going from teaching psychology at a university at 25 to unemployed by 28 and absolutely terrified of intellectuals. My first episode of psychosis took nearly three years to recover. You are on more of a marathon than a sprint.
It was the most crazy beautiful terrifying experience I’ve had. The most difficult experience of my mother’s life. Ten years has past. Including a second episode, because I am a stubborn seeker of truth. Besse van der Kolk is now mainstream and the leading expert in trauma. In 20 years, I have seen my field dramatically transform from a fixed mindset of pathology (i.e. abnormal psychology), to neuroplasticity (our brains are not fixed, they constantly change and heal), person centred therapy (who or what harmed you and how can I use my power to empower you) to trauma-informed care ( safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment), and now as of 2018 the Power Threat Meaning Framework (while each injustice differs, all stories share the same trauma: the negative operation of power; a call for social and political change).
Dr Gabor Mate has been awarded the order of Canada for his contribution to trauma, addiction and his work with First Nations Canadians. He just released a movie The Wisdom of Trauma which calls for a trauma informed world. In his words: ‘Depression is rising. Youth suicide is rising. All is not well. So the question is can we be human beings in the midst of civilisation? Because what we call civilisation demands the denial of human needs. Every human being has a true, genuine authentic self and the trauma is that disconnection from it and the healing is that reconnection to it.’
Bessel Van der Kolk, explains: ‘Beneath the surface of protective parts of trauma survivors there exists an “undamaged essence”, a “self that is confident, curious, and calm”, a “self that has sheltered from destruction by various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival”.
Importantly: ‘Once those protectors trust it is safe to separate, the “self will spontaneously emerge”, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process.’ Sounds awfully like poetry: ‘Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it,’ as Mawlana Jala-al-Din Rumi said.
Life is crazy beautiful terrifying. I was too young to make sense of all of this. You might be too. I can confidently say now after surviving two episodes of psychosis, we do live in a truly magical world, in the sense that, science, arts and poetry all dance around this nameless truth.
I would also like to point out something very significant. This is the first time in the history of humanity that science, psychology, psychiatry, wisdom traditions and technology converge. This is the first time in history that we can communicate with the entire world. This is the first time as one a global humanity we could drop all outdated beliefs to break the cycle of thousands of years of intergenerational trauma (i.e. Power Threat Meaning Framework). Please do not understate the significance of this once in a lifetime opportunity. However, crazy beautiful terrifying it may be. I will never know what happened to the woman who was taken away. If I could go back in time with my insight and courage all I would say is ‘It’s OK’, ‘Don’t be afraid’, and ‘Me too’.
And guess what? There is now a documentary The Divided Brain inspired by Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s book on the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Described as ‘a mind-altering documentary that features Iain McGilchrist with actor-comedian John Cleese of Monty Python, neuroanatomist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor of TED Talks fame a Stroke of Insight, pioneering neuroscientist Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, neuroscientist Jurg Kesselring, Aboriginal elder and scientist Dr Leroy Little Bear, neuroscientist Onur Gunturkun, and – brains!’
Critics praised his book as being a landmark publication that could alter readers’ perspective of how they viewed life. Others say ‘The findings of brain science are nowhere near fine-grained enough to support the large psychological and cultural conclusions Iain McGilchrist draws.’ Of course not, science never will (left hemisphere).
According to Besse van der Kolk: ‘The prevailing brain-disease model overlooks fundamental truths. Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.’
So what does all of this mean in practical terms? If we had leaders and experts who put this knowledge and wisdom into practice, we can and will change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
Louise Hansen, PhD is an academic, psychologist, and human rights activist from Queensland, Australia. Her passion is to help everyone experience safety, truth, freedom, health, and well-being.