Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Looking the wrong place - Another update on "Strokes of insight and blind spots"

When I say, that Jill Bolte Taylor seems to me to be a very conscious and compassionate person, this is especially based on her statement, that an important, though often underestimated, quality for caregivers to have is being able to meet their clients where these are, as well as to be aware of and take responsibility for the signals (beyond verbal language) they send.

Jill Bolte Taylor's own experience, as she describes it in the interview, is that even though an individual is not capable of communication through commonly understandable verbal language, this doesn't mean the individual neither is capable of perceiving his or her environment's signals. On the contrary, as she states, often individuals who are in a state of mind that inhibits their ability to communicate understandable through verbal language, while the environment interprets this state of mind as also inhibiting these individuals' perception of their surroundings, their sensitivity toward sense impressions, their intuition, actually is highly increased.

As words lose their (commonly agreed upon) meaning, if it is because of a stroke that disables an individual's left brain hemisphere, and thus the language center, too, as experienced by Jill Bolte Taylor, or if it is because of a psychological insecurity in being in the world, that causes symbols no longer automatically to be taken for the real thing, that causes a separation of the symbol (the signifier, the word) from the symbolized (the signified, the thing), all attention is directed toward the real thing, leaving the symbol more or less emptied of its symbolic contents, and being nothing but an arbitrary sound pattern, free to be filled with and applied to purely individual meaning, free to become transformed from being a commonly understood code to being a more or less private, individual code, bordering on becoming a thing in itself.

The ability to use language is a natural one, but language itself is not a natural phenomenon. It is a cultural one. If it were a natural one, different coding would not be possible. Neither "poetic language" nor "psychotic language", with both being a play on words, a code, each on its level, would exist. If emotional crisis were a biological phenomenon, like a stroke, it would not be possible for an individual to regain his/her ability to communicate in a commonly understandable way just through (re-)gaining a certain security in being in this world. Emotional crisis is not a natural, biological, phenomenon. It is a cultural, i.e. psychological, social, psycho-social, one.

An individual's degree of anchoredness in language, his/her degree of anchoredness in which the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls "the Symbolic Order", actually is the only criterion diagnozed in regard to emotional crisis. Although it is diagnozed on various levels, thus providing a seemingly wide range of seemingly different "symptoms". Without exception, all these "symptoms" refer to an individual's perception of the world. Identifying this perception through looking at the individual's reaction to whatever is perceived.

Jill Bolte Taylor doesn't say it explicitly, nevertheless her statements at the interview imply a view of "psychotic language" - i.e. a view of "the psychotic way of perceiving the world" - as being a language completely deprived of meaning. Mentioning her "schizophrenic brother" in the context of an interview, that focusses on her own perception of the world during a period at which she herself was physically deprived of perceiving the world by means of language, language thus being nothing but incomprehensible noise to her, she implies, that his "schizophrenic" perception of the world must be the same (and this implication, of course, is which fuels her research-efforts as well as her engagement in NAMI). It isn't.

Verbal language, as well as the human Ego and the Symbolic Order as a whole, is a cultural phenomenon, and as such not nearly as rooted in our being as the natural, non-verbal signals, we send. In contrast to nature, culture, in the shape of verbal language, thinking and the Ego, is built upon more or less shaky ground. Although our culture trains us to ignore non-verbal signals in favour of verbal ones, the non-verbal ones are the only ones for us left to react to, the moment nature (the right brain hemisphere) for one or the other (i.e. for a physiological or a psychological/social) reason takes over. If this is because the function of the left hemisphere is interrupted physiologically through a head injury, or a stroke, or if it is because the value and reliability of its function's results are questioned by the right hemisphere's function, as it is in emotional crises such as so-called "schizophrenia".

"Schizophrenic's" often do not react "appropriately" to verbal language because they, on an unconscious level, see through its arbitrariness. Which they do react extraordinarily appropriately to is non-verbal language. In a culture that widely isn't aware of the non-verbal signals that are sent by its members, this can't be recognized. Neither it can be recognized by the "schizophrenic" individual him-/herself as long as it remains an unconscious process. While an individual who consciously chooses to go beyond the reactive Ego, because s-/he has become aware, conscious, of the reactive Ego's arbitrary character, would have to be called "enlightened", in a spiritual language-code.

Why would an individual, in spite of all cultural training, choose to question the meaning of words, of verbal language, and instead choose to rely on and react to non-verbal signals only? Among others, R.D.Laing and Gregory Bateson have provided an answer to this decades ago: An individual whose reactions to verbal language continuously by his/her surroundings are characterized and, subsequently, rejected as insufficient and/or incorrect, sooner or later, and consequently, will resort increasingly to attempting to read the non-verbal signs that are displayed, while rejecting the verbal ones, in order to "get it right".

This, of course, involves that the individual concerned develops a "sixth sense" for non-verbal signals, that s/he becomes extremely sensitive to these, just as Jill Bolte Taylor experienced herself to be, while her perception of verbal signals was inhibited due to physical brain dysfunction.

The parallels with emotional crisis seem obvious, at first glance and on a superficial, formal level, and may easily be mistaken as a proof for "mental illness" to actually be due to a physical brain dysfunction. As they are by Jill Bolte Taylor and mainstream psychiatry.

However, as mentioned above, restoring an individual's trust in verbal communication just by helping this individual to become aware of the processes that lead to him/her becoming insecure, or distrusting, would not be possible if the distrust was due to a physical dysfunction. Neither would it be possible for anyone to ever find a meaning in "psychotic language", which then truly would represent pure gibberish. While it only is seen as pure gibberish by people, who are not capable of overcoming their own cultural conditioning, in the shape of their own Ego. The parallels between emotional crisis, or what is called "psychosis", and a spiritual emergency are far more striking than those to a physical brain dysfunction as soon as the observer him-/herself is capable of going beyond the limitations of egoic thinking.

We today live in an era, where our culture has moved further away from (human) nature than ever before. Which almost exclusively characterizes our existing culture, is a just as exclusive acknowledgement of the human Ego as the one and only valid standard, everyone and everything is judged by. While the human Ego manifests itself through verbal language and thinking. If Descartes simply was wrong, or if he maybe became misinterpreted, I'll leave to the reader to decide...

I completely agree in Jill Bolte Taylor's statement, that it is essential for caregivers to meet their clients wherever these are at the moment. In contrast to her, I nevertheless don't see the clients of the mental health system met where they are as long as this system remains dominated by the egoic concept of brain diseases (i.e. moral judgements of an individual's behavior, lacking any scientific proof to be real, biological diseases). Actually, I see more harm than good done by forcing the mental health system's clientele to adopt the mental health system's perception of it as being physically brain dysfunctional and thus dependent on physical (medical) help, rather than accepting and respecting the clientele's own perception of itself, no matter how compassionately this coercion is performed. Indeed, the more compassionately it is performed, the more harm is done, as the discrepancy between form and content, the discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal signals, deepens with every increase in compassion with which the coercion is brought forward. Once again, the clientele is exposed to the very same experience of ambiguity that originally caused it to reject verbal communication as inauthentic, and thus unreliable, untrustworthy: the vicious circle becomes consolidated, rather than broken, with a chronification of the crisis as an almost inevitable result.

True, non-egoic acceptance and respect for individuals in emotional crisis requires not only formal compassion and consciousness. It requires even more content-related compassion and consciousness. Unfortunately, I don't see the latter in neither Jill Bolte Taylor's nor NAMI's or the mental health system's thinking at all. While it remains impossible to meet anyone wherever they are with compassion and consciousness limited to a purely formal, and thus inauthentic, level.

No matter how many brains Jill Bolte Taylor manages to sing together for further, neuroanatomic research, neither she nor any of her colleagues will ever find anything that unmistakably could distinguish the brain structure of an individual labelled "schizophrenic" from that of any other individual. It's like a friend once said: "Sometimes I'd like to tap them on their shoulder: 'Hey, have you ever considered that you might be looking in the wrong place?' "

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