One day on the ISPS listserv, psychologist Paris Williams shared a chapter from a book in which an herbalist and alternative healer named Stephen Harrod Buhner described his approach to working with the extreme states of mind commonly labeled as “schizophrenia” by psychiatrists. The chapter was entitled “On the Healing of Schizophrenia” and the book is Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm.
Buhner described concepts which I knew from my study of psychoanalytic approaches to these problems, such as profound fragmentation of the mind into part-selves to counter overwhelming anxiety, and the great care and lengthy time frames necessary to help severely traumatized people regain trust in the outside world. Buhner described how the dedicated healer could painstakingly be permitted access to the fragmented inner world of a terrified person and help them reintegrate their mind. Of “schizophrenia,” Buhner said, “The cultural paradigm or view of the condition is itself dysfunctional, to the extent that the paradigm is crazy.” (Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, pg. 503)
Finding myself intrigued by this man who’d never trained in psychiatry or psychology but who nevertheless worked effectively with people in severe distress using self-developed theories, I tracked Buhner down. I asked him to speak to me about these issues, and here is what resulted:
Matt: Hi Stephen, welcome and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I found out about you when psychologist Paris Williams referred me to your books on alternative healing. I would like to ask several questions about your approach to serious distress, and Paris has a few further questions.
First, can you tell a little bit about your background and training? Where did you train, what sort of philosophy about the world do you have; what sort of therapist were you, and what sort of work do you do now?
Stephen: I never did fit into the boxes of life very well; I was always neuro-atypical. I actually prefer that term to any of the other labels that are commonly used by members of the psychotherapeutic community. The range of “aberrations” they describe and label are, in nearly every instance, common throughout populations, though there do tend to be alterations in their density in various cultures.
So, being neuro-atypical and severely gifted (a blessing and a curse) as well, I found that I actually fit much better outside the reductive therapeutic world. I have written about parts of my decision to follow a different kind of educational training in various of my books, but in essence, when I realized that the traditional college process did not work well for me, I made a list of all the people whose work had touched me and arranged, in a University Without Walls program, to go and study directly with as many of them as would allow me to. Why settle for warmed leftovers when I could have the meals freshly prepared by the original cooks?
So, I spent time with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Buckminster Fuller and many others. I explored, rather deeply, various forms of body work and movement therapies, several different kinds of psychotherapy, and a number of different kinds of physical healing interventions. I never did get an advanced degree. Everybody in the field knows that psychiatrists are the worst therapists of all. They learn how to medicate, not heal. Psychologists are the next worse; they tend to focus on testing.
It isn’t until you get to MSW social workers that you finally start getting some decent work. I found that for me, however, the theoretical models that I would have to train in to gain those degrees and ultimate licensure were themselves a huge source of the problems I see in the therapeutic field. They aren’t accurate to either people or life.
I also spent several years in group therapy with a couple who used a blend of Transactional Analysis and Regressive Therapy treatment techniques. Their focus was about half on people who were neuro-atypical. Most of those were what would be diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder in a more reductive context. I then trained with them for several years afterward and also explored neuro-linguistic programming and other leading edge approaches of the day, including regular depth work with heart field entrainment.
As well, I worked in depth with wild ecosystems. I don’t consider any one state of being or mind as normal or abnormal. Things simply work or they don’t. People are highly complex beings and have emerged out of an incredibly complex ecological background of billions of years duration. The descriptives of the reality field that all of us are indoctrinated in as we go through our schooling are incredibly dated; they don’t have much relation to the real world or the complexity of human beings.
Most psychotherapeutic theories, for example, are generated in isolation from both the wider human community and the ecological world. They tend to represent Western cultures almost exclusively, which in and of themselves are psychologically unbalanced. They aren’t representative of the majority of human beings. Further, they tend to view the human as an isolated phenomenon, something that can be removed from both its community context and the ecological field that generated it.
In fact, it is actually crazy to think that it is possible to stand here and look at the world over there. Any psychological theory that comes out of that is starting from the wrong place; it’s never going to work. So, the therapeutic technique we used was rooted as much as we could do at the time in the real world. My wife and I worked as a couple, the sessions were conducted in a group setting, there was a lot of touch, and a huge focus on exploring the meaning of transactions. We tended to work with people who were functional enough to stay out of hospitals. If they were on pharmaceuticals, they had to go off them during therapy.
I am 64 now and pretty much retired from all that work. More than anything, at present I am a full time writer.
Matt: That’s all pretty interesting – and interesting to hear from someone who trained and practiced healing in such an “atypical” way. I generally agree with what you say about reductionistic positivist training methods (e.g. in psychiatry and some areas of psychology) leading to less ability to engage therapeutically with distressed people. In my own struggle with extreme states, I got the most help from professionals who were either social workers or psychoanalytically trained.
Anyway, how much experience do you have working with people experiencing psychosis, i.e. those who might be labeled with “schizophrenia” in more reductive contexts? What setting were you working with these people in and how frequently did you typically see them?
Stephen: Again, I spent a number of years in therapy myself surrounded by neuro-atypical people, going through my own therapy so I could understand myself better, learn to function more effectively. Then several years of training, and then I had my own private therapy practice for a decade or so. I very rarely worked with people who found themselves in the midst of full blown psychotic episodes as a way of life. The most damaged tended to be barely functional, a few on long term psychotic medications from which they were carefully weaned. We generally worked in an aesthetically welcoming and warm group setting, on pillows, with a lot of touching. Normally we met weekly. Most people worked with us from 1-3 years.
Matt: Okay, with the seriously “neuro-atypical” people – to use your word – that you saw, how would you describe the quality of the work you engaged in together with them? Did you see people often to return to work or school, often develop better relationships with family or friends?
Stephen: The worst of them became normal neurotics and went on to the same kinds of lives that most people in this country have. The focus on understanding the meanings in which they were embedded, that came to them in the form of transactions from friends, family, and co-workers, allowed them to learn to craft responses and interactions that worked for them.
In general, the neuro-atypical people we worked with perceived a great deal more of the reality field around them than most people and were highly susceptible to the subtle meanings they encountered. For instance, if someone talking to them had a hidden agenda buried deep inside their words, they would tend to experience that agenda as the primary communication. It was more important than the surface communication because it was coming out of more primary survival drives, ones that would become dominant over time.
Neuro-atypical people tend to think that the person who is making the communication is aware of the hidden communication. That is quite often not the case and of course they deny it. This leads to tremendous confusion and, ultimately, a label for the neuro-atypical. Affirming their perceptions and training them in the use of their enhanced perception while at the same time exploring the nature of human transactions tended to clear up the worst of the trouble. At that point, their relationships began to work much better.
Matt: Okay. I agree about the great sensitivity and perceptiveness in people who have undergone difficult experiences. Now tell us about your approach to understanding extreme states briefly. I’ve read your writing about heart fields, the fragmentation of the psyche in people experiencing psychosis, the great difficulty trusting, etc. Can you briefly explain these concepts for readers so they can get a basic understanding of what I think is your extremely human, insightful way of conceptualizing extreme states?
Stephen: People are people; there isn’t anything that is abnormal. As the great German poet Goethe once put it, “If you want to understand the abnormal, assume it is normal.” Once you do that, things begin to fall into place rather quickly.
To begin with, all humans are multiple personalities. What we call multiple personality disorder is only an extreme example of a common condition. All people have arguments with themselves. All people experience, from time to time, another part of themselves taking over and saying a lot of stuff that later on they certainly wish they had not.
So, we know we are multiple personalities, we just don’t know it. And that is because the theories that describe the human personality structure are inaccurate; we are trained to believe there is a single “I” inside us. There isn’t, and that one foolish belief is the root of a great deal of trouble in the world. It is crucially important to realize that human beings are only a specific example of a general condition. We are an expression of an evolutionary process that has been going on for billions of years. Any theory of who and what we are has to have within it that recognition as foundational.
Further, it has to have within it the understanding that all of us are entangled within a complex ecological framework of long standing. There is no such thing as an isolated person, just people that feel they are isolated. If you begin to explore complexity theory and then combine that with the work of Lynn Margulis you immediately find that human beings are not a single “I” but rather a complex symbiogenetic grouping of consciousness modules, as all living things are.
Many problems people have come from conflicts between these different self-aware parts of ourselves. They each have specific functions which can’t be overridden without severe problems. In other words, any part of ourselves that we repress will become hostile to us, including our bodies. So, one of the earliest most important things is to understand that while something may be wrong with you, you are normal and that “wrongness” can be altered through rather simple interventions. That does not mean they are easy to carry out, only that they are simple.
If you acknowledge the reality of all these different parts of you and then begin to craft a responsive and caring relationship with them, some some sort of integration will ultimately occur. Carried on long enough, individuation is inevitable; becoming “weller than well.” (Which by the way, presents its own problems in a culture of highly-charged neurotics.) The next step is actively learning how to transact between these parts of the self, acting as a mediator, or in a better analogy, a mature, nurturing parent.
As Ram Dass once put it, “When you first begin interior work . . . it’s a madhouse in there.” Over time, as the territory is understood better, it is easier to see that all people, and indeed all living things, possess these same interior consciousness modules. It is then only a matter of application, of educating our transactional capacity and giving it experience, then letting it loose in the world. For the same mediation processes that work in the interior world also work in the exterior. At least to some extent. It is not possible to generate a unification of the intelligences in the exterior world but it is certainly possible to do that in the interior world. That unification is what is called individuation.
Matt: Wow, some fascinating ideas! I find the idea that states of extreme distress are normal responses to abnormal stress to be very helpful and validating. The current process of diagnosing and drugging in psychiatry represents the opposite extreme – artificially creating and then reinforcing the “otherness” of a labeled group of people.
Okay, now let’s move on to a controversial topic. Give me your opinion on the idea commonly believed in our country that people experiencing delusions, hallucinations, and apathy have an incurable brain disease called schizophrenia. Is this valid, and if not, why do people believe it? How did you talk to clients and families who had heard of this idea and who might be scared by its pessimism?
Stephen: I have rather strong feelings about this that 50 years of exposure to it have done little to reduce. Bluntly, the “schizophrenia” disease notion is a rather stupid concept that reveals the limits of understanding of the people who commonly use it.
There is no such thing as normal and the human tendency to try and keep up appearances, to hide what they feel is the abnormal within them, is root to a great deal of sorrow and grief. There is no such thing as normal sex, there is no such thing as normal behavior, there is no such thing as normal brain function. There is no such thing as normal. It is commonly understood that psychiatrists are not only the worst therapists but they are also, psychologically, the sickest.
A quick sojourn through Michael Crichton’s book Travels and his revelations about his medical training (and yes, it is still the same) and the reasons why he never practiced medicine reveal that sickness explicitly. The problem is that when someone experiences trouble, it is that system into which they are funneled. In general, all that the system wants, all that the person’s community and family want is for them to not trouble them – they want them to be like everyone else, to fit in. Unfortunately the entire therapeutic process, in nearly every instance, is to make them fit in, whether through the use of drugs or not.
Ultimately, the label is useless, it doesn’t help. The truth is that the neural network is allowing perceptions into consciousness that many people do not consciously perceive. While there are cases of organic damage, which do need to be handled a bit differently, in most instances the label is more of a problem in the long run than the neural functioning. Some people so afflicted simply want to be like everyone else; others really do know that something unique is going on. A common sense training of the use of the neural network that is in place is the best approach. Nothing to be grandiose about; it is just the work in front of that person.
This is the kind of thing we shared with the people who were struggling, and their families. Unfortunately, many people believe that the medical system has an accurate model of reality; I have to admit their advertising is really good. We grow up hearing about their infallibility. Regrettably it is inaccurate.
Matt: Thanks for sharing your thoughts so candidly. What I have also been impressed by in speaking to people given “severe mental illness” labels is the degree of fear and pessimism the labeling process tends to engender in them and their parents, while simultaneously blocking insights into what experiential factors may be contributing to their distress.
Now as we know, the common illusion in this culture is that severe distress is a “brain disease” and that drugging has to be a first line treatment – even to the point where psychiatrists say that it is “malpractice” to not prescribe drugs for supposed “diseases” for which they do not even have biomarkers.
So, relative to drugs, did you tend to work with people on drugs, off drugs, or encourage them to get help tapering off, etc.? When I say drugs, I am referring to artificial psychiatric drugs like Seroquel or Risperdone. What about natural remedies or indigenous medicines for people in extreme distress; did you ever use those?
Stephen: Some drugs really can be helpful in moments of crisis or as an adjunct during the process of neural re-training. Some herbal medicines can help, such as blue vervain for inconsolable anxiety for example.
But the problem here is systemic in our culture. There is such a thing as the journey to the self. Unfortunately that is not given much currency these days. What we want is producers and consumers. But for those struggling with neuro-atypical function problems, taking that journey is essential. It is not escapable. All of us are shit on by life, what matters is what we do with it, not that it happened. We have no fundamental right to safety, to a life in which nothing painful ever happens. Yes, some of those events are horrible.
We worked with people who as young children were put in ovens to burn the devils out, were raped (by mothers as well as fathers), were beaten senseless. Others experienced subtler forms of abuse but just as damaging. M. Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie is a pretty good guide to that latter category. James Hillman, the former head of the Jung Institute in Switzerland, made a crucial point in his book, The Soul’s Code. It is not so much the trauma that is the problem but our stories about it.
Further, I would add, that it is not so much the trauma but how it was originally responded to that is the problem. The traumas can’t be undone, but they can become grist for the mill of becoming one’s self. Once blame (which is an essential part of the journey as is rage) is transcended, a different kind of life, one much more empowered, opens up.
To the four-year-old inside us, the statement that mommy had something wrong in her head doesn’t help us understand why we were beaten. But as Hillman explores in The Soul’s Code, understanding it in the context of the journey to the self does make sense. All of us are on a journey, an adventure, and just like the stories, bad things happen, but those bad things are often the keys to the powerful person we are meant to become. This kind of thinking alters the dynamic totally; it is crucial to the healing.
A final comment: We found that ultimately, for the most damaged people, bonding with wild landscapes was essential. There is an honesty there, a richness, that the neuro-atypical frequently must have for healing.
Matt: I love that statement about bad things being the keys to the powerful people we can become. This view is so diametrically opposed to the disease model of “schizophrenia.” And I understand that you did not focus on drugs in working through people’s problems, at least not for very long.
Now a question that may be useful to some readers: What are some other sources – books, videos, websites – you would refer people who have been diagnosed schizophrenic or their families to who want to learn a more hopeful approach to psychosis?
Stephen: The books I have mentioned, the works of Eric Berne, Jacqui Schiff’s The Cathexis Reader, the early neuro-linguistic programming books by Bandler and Grinder, any of Hillman’s popular works. I’ve been told that some of my books have helped, especially The Secret Teaching of Plants and Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. A few seem to think Ensouling Language helpful.
Matt: Okay, cool. Now to go back to something I forgot. What do you think are the most common causal factors leading to severe emotional breakdowns? The NIMH says the cause of “schizophrenia” is unknown. We have already discussed that the arbitrary divisions between normal and abnormal are problematic. But do you agree that we don’t know what causes extreme states occurring at one time or another in a person’s life?
Stephen: Well, the NIMH doesn’t know, that’s obvious. The predicating factors are complex, more than I can go into here in any meaningful way. But just to touch surfaces… There are extreme moments in some childhoods that are life threatening. You might say that death becomes imminent. At that moment another part of the self takes over and begins to provide a protective function. At the same instant, neural perception capacity is highly enhanced… the more you perceive in the meaning field you are embedded within, the more opportunity you have for protective action. So, you get a combination of a highly suspicious part of the self combined with enhanced perception and both embedded within a child that has very little accurate information about the world, who is living inside a crazy family.
As well, we live in difficult times. The ecosystem in which we live, under the kind of pressure ecosystems are experiencing now, tends to put pressure on every life form there is to alter its neural functioning as a means of dealing with the problem. This is a complex discussion that I go into in the Plant Intelligence book. Nevertheless, genomes alter under ecological pressure, so do neural networks. The enhanced capacities that the neuro-atypical have are actually environmental innovations of long duration. In many older cultures they would be trained as specialists in that perception in order that it could be used for the community.
There are other factors in its expression, but some sort of pressure is always present. Psychotic breakdowns are important in many respects despite their painfulness, their scariness. They break apart old systems of belief at the foundation and force a re-evaluation of life, of one’s relation it, to the journey and the work that one is here to do.
Matt: These are good insights into how terrifying experiences can amplify the “protective functions” of defensive parts of the self along with heightening perceptive capacity. I want to highlight your statement that “the more you perceive in the meaning field you are embedded within, the more opportunity you have for protective action.”
When I experienced extreme states, I took this as my personal mission – to develop an alternative field of meanings to the one forced upon me by psychiatrists and the mental health system. That is why I studied the work of writers like Harold Searles, Vamik Volkan, Bryce Boyer, Otto Kernberg, Barry Duncan, and dozens of others who challenged the notion of biologically-caused “mental illnesses” and “medications” to treat them. I eventually came to the conclusion that “schizophrenia” as an inevitably lifelong illness was a bunch of bullshit and I didn’t need long-term drugs.
I would watch inspiring movies about rogue heroes operating on the fringes of society, eluding the clutches of oppressive authorities, triumphing via their adaptiveness, cunning, and risk-taking. And I became one of those rogues – I left my psychiatrist, tapered off all psych drugs, found an outpatient social worker who didn’t believe in the disease model, and went from there. I went on to run my own business, own my own house, become financially secure, be very fulfilled socially and so on.
I just share this example to show that people can use the strategies you suggest to good effect to escape the psychiatric system. Developing your own field of meanings really can work. As you said, it’s about what works versus what doesn’t.
Now, Paris Williams has been following our discussion and would like to add two questions.
Paris Williams: Hi Stephen. Given your own personal background, can you share some thoughts and experiences with regard to indigenous wisdom traditions and their support for people who go through such extreme states? I’ve found John Weir Perry’s work particularly inspiring and insightful (particularly his blending of indigenous and Jungian approaches), and wonder if you have heard of Perry’s work given your experience around the same time that Perry was working with R.D. Laing and running Diabasis House. And if so, can you give your thoughts on that kind of approach , i.e the Diabasis model?
Stephen: Hi Paris. Though I did read Laing I’m not aware of Perry’s work. As I mentioned, I do think that in many older cultures the view was different. I found the material in Eliade’s book Shamanism helpful, Joan Halifax’s Shamanic Voices, and despite the outrage about it, Castenada’s work. Most helpful was Manuel Cordova Rios’s Wizard of the Upper Amazon since his perceptual experiences in that book most closely matched my own.
My own work has been an attempt to blend some of the roots of older systems in the indigenous world with threads in the Western mindset that, while generally unknown, have never been totally abandoned. Schizophrenia, in most instances, is a type of spontaneous visionary experience that occurs in people who have no myth structure to explain it except a very inadequate Christianity and overly simplistic Western medical model.
In consequence there is a great deal of fear and inappropriate treatment. Looking at the ways older cultures worked with such emergences opens up avenues that have been abandoned in our culture… old superstitions that we have outgrown, we are told. But people didn’t suddenly become smart in 1946. These kinds of experiences have always been common in human communities; they did something different. We should, too.
Paris Williams: Thanks. You have written a lot about Gaia theory, and particularly about the way that much of the behaviour of individual species and organisms (which you say can ultimately be seen as mere manifestations of Gaia herself) can be more fully understood when considering that they are in direct service to the wellbeing of the broader collective organism, Gaia. Do you believe that the unusual behaviours, beliefs and perceptions of those typically diagnosed with schizophrenia also make more sense when embracing this perspective? And if so, can you give some examples and explain your thoughts on this further?
Stephen: Yes, I do. However, I just need to preface this by saying that despite the fact that Gaia, at least in some form, is generally accepted in most scientific circles, there is tremendous fighting going on as to what it means. There are deep Gaia proponents, which I am, shallow Gaia, and Earth Systems Science proponents who don’t like the term Gaia but now agree that the Earth acts like a living organism.
In essence, and in order, these proponents think Gaia is highly intelligent; isn’t intelligent by our definition but has what you might call an instinctive behavior that looks like intelligence; or is not intelligent at all. At their root the various types of Gaia proponents are arguing about human exceptionalism from one perspective or another. I don’t think humans are exceptional in any meaningful way. Shallow Gaia proponents, to overgeneralize, think that humans are a unique expression of Gaia as a higher form of intelligence, ESS proponents think humans are the only seriously intelligent life form on the planet. Period.
Deep Gaia proponents are in the minority and they continually run up against proponents of human exceptionalism. People really do want to believe they are special. I pretty firmly believe they are not, we are only a special instance of a general phenomenon and not so different than any other life form we might encounter, from bacteria to plants to elephants.
That being said, if you delve deeply into non-linearity and the self-organization of biological organisms, what you find pretty quickly is that there is no essential difference between form and behavior. That is, at the moment of self-organization, when a new life form spontaneously emerges out of the ecological background of the planet it immediately possesses two things, form and behavior. Neither can be predicted from an examination of its parts.
To Gaia, form and behavior are identical. Einstein postulated the energy/matter equation of E=mc[squared] but it is also true that in a very real sense, form and behavior are equivalents in a Gaian or ecological sense. A great many organisms, from bacteria to plants to salmon, can alter their physical form quite substantially when environmental pressures signal a need for adaptation to a new state of ecological expression. Life forms will also respond with the emergence of, sometimes, radically different behaviors when alterations in ecological functioning are detected.
It is crucial to understand that human beings are only a complex expression of bacteria in a unique form. They, like all life forms, are only expressed out of the ecological matrix of the planet to perform specific ecological functions. This doesn’t mean we are simply mechanistic expressions, as many reductionist scientists assert. We have a great deal of free will about how we carry those ecological functions out. But, make no mistake, we are ecological expressions embedded in an ecological matrix.
Part of the real failure of human psychological theory is that it is human-centric; it looks at people as if they exist in a vacuum. If extended outward at all, it may take in family or culture, but no major psychological theories see human beings through a primarily ecological lens. Oh, evolutionary psychologists may look at us as having interior aspects that came from our hominid ancestors but they still aren’t looking through a Gaian lens, seeing us as ecological expressions embedded within a matrix from which we can’t be removed.
In essence, if a psychological theory is not applicable to every life organism on the planet, it isn’t accurate or is only accurate in very limited circumstances. Gaia has innovated psychological structures over long time lines just as Gaia has innovated physical form over long time lines. Psychological structure, you might say, serves the expression of behaviors along a very complex range. When looking at species’ behavior as a whole, there are obvious patterns that begin to emerge.
Most scientists remain at very low observational levels when they do this; their preconceptions (and the need to get published) interfere with seeing outside their paradigm. But there are tremendous sophistications that occur across a large behavioral range in every species.
Getting back to your question, yes, the neural network functioning of the people commonly termed “schizophrenic” in the western world are unique behaviors that are emerging in response to Gaian/ecological pressures. A couple of other points to make before I can get to examples.
Gaia is tremendously compassionate toward the ecological expressions that are generated, but at the same time Gaia doesn’t have issues with death or suffering the way we currently do. Death is inherent in the system, suffering is inherent in the system. We are meant to biodegrade and that, always, involves suffering of one sort or another. Neither death nor suffering can be removed from the system.
Further, Gaia is marvelously redundant. When pressure is put on the Gaian system from an emerging problem, that pressure wave impacts the entire system and various parts of the system are stimulated to respond out of their own inherent genius. The parts begin to generate solutions. To successfully generate solutions, living organisms can’t remain frozen in past behavior patterns; they have to innovate.
Neural network alterations allow that kind of innovation to occur, for the organism to step outside traditional species and cultural behavior patterns. They can alter their physical form as a response, which many do, or they can alter behavior. Altering neural network functioning is an alteration of both form and behavior, but the real focus here is behavioral alteration.
The shifts in perception that occur among “schizophrenics” are, in nearly every case – though not all – in response to planetary needs and ecological demands. The greater the pressure, the more of them there are. This doesn’t mean that all the behavioral alterations will be successful; the person so afflicted has to find a way to make what is happening to them usable. Older cultures would spend a great deal of time training this group of people as a cultural resource. We don’t. We simply see it as abnormal and either medicate them or lock them up. The successful “schizophrenic” needs to learn how to blend in just as a matter of survival.
If you begin to look at many of the innovations in art, music, literature, technology, you begin to see that nearly all of it comes from people who are outside the norm. Their neural network functions differently and what they perceive from the world around them is quite different than what “normal” people perceive.
I quote these people quite extensively in my books. Some of them were quite well regarded in their time, people like Einstein and Luther Burbank. Burbank now, however, is very poorly thought of; his perspectives on the intelligence of plants is just too far outside the mainstream. Barbara McClintock is quite well regarded now but in her time was considered quite mad because her observations about corn genetics conflicted with too many long cherished assumptions about the world.
To look at this more broadly and to stay away from the famous as examples, there are broad movements of human beings that are difficult to explain, just as it is mathematically difficult to explain the movement of plant seeds and plant species through ecosystems. Paralleling the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria has been a similar rise in people becoming herbalists. Plants are, in the long run, much better interventions for resistant infections because plants are living beings. As the bacteria develop resistance, the plants counter it. Thus the plant antibacterial that I use this year is different than the one last year. Pharmaceuticals are static.
So, as antibiotics begin to fail, you see a parallel rise in people training to use a different form of medicine. It is a behavioral shift that is coming out of an alteration in neural net functioning. I spent years asking people who attended my lectures and workshops why they were spending years of time and thousands of dollars training in a field that is not actually legal to practice in the United States. The answer, in one form or another, was nearly always, “I don’t know, I just felt like I needed to.”
We know less than one percent of what goes on here, and that is about all we will ever know. We count grains of sand at the sea shore and think we know the ocean deeps. Tremendous humility is an essential quality in any scientist, but it in fact extremely rare to encounter. That hubris is going to be our undoing. We will be needing those who possess neural network flexibility in the years to come. Only they can see outside the system in which the Western world is stuck. The innovations we need as a species will come from outside, not within established institutions of old thinking patterns.
Matt: Fascinating insights, Stephen! So much to think about – thank you from both myself and Paris for your time in talking to us. I hope your emphasis on innovating, thinking freely, and following one’s own path will benefit other readers as much as it did us.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.