Science And Religion Dispatch: Round 1, Plus Amy Bishop

I recently posted about SciFi writer Peter Watts, who I’ve begun to appreciate a great deal. He shares my obsession with science and what it means to be ‘human,’ or even ‘conscious.’ Unlike me, however, he’s actually a scientist. In a recent post on his blog, entitled “The Neurology of Transcendence,” he summarizes what appears to be a very important neurology study (conducted on willing patients dying of brain cancer).

In that study, the surgical removal of specific neurons in a specific part of the brain (go read the article, please) resulted in a sense of increased ‘spirituality,’ and a relative lack of awareness of self in space, leading to a sense of what I might call ‘cosmic feeling.’ The images below are ganked directly from Watts’ page, entirely without permission.

It’s an elegant little study, and another carpet-tack in the casket-lining of the supernatural — yet still we tread so very lightly to avoid giving offence, to reassure the world that we sit atop some pinnacle. “We’re dealing with a complex phenomenon that’s close to the essence of being human,”neurojock Salvatore Aglioti tells Scientific American, as though we’re the only species on the planet whose brain has a subroutine for keeping track of body parts. “They need to be very careful how they word things as they proceed,” warns one of the comments on the same page, “there are people who will take great offense otherwise. It’s going to be important to make clear the FEELING may be biologically based, and make NO comment on the stimuli leading to the feeling.” Even Urgesi et al refer to spirituality, in their introduction, as “a view of the human condition in transcendent contexts and in relation to unseen realities/supernatural agents” (italics mine).

It’s cool, but it’s also a little bit sad. Still, there’s only one other neurological human-interest story this weekend: one of the pioneers working on those neural computers that will one day grow up and — ever-resentful of that hurtful nickname “head cheese” — turn against their creators to spread βehemoth across the globe, went all mavericky and gunned down three colleagues in what was initially reported to be a dispute over tenure but evidently wasn’t.

Man, I miss academia.

Of course, at the end there, Watts is talking about Amy Bishop, the apparently standardly homicidal lunatic who unleashed hell all over Huntington and beyond when she opened fire, murdering three of her colleagues.  University Diaries has had the best blog coverage I’ve been reading, and she quotes the president of the American Psychoanalytical Association as the following (I’m quoting the entire thing because I agree that it is really that important:):

Stress, disappointment, PTSD, frustration, burnout, loss, shame and humiliation DO NOT LEAD A HUMAN BEING TO PICK UP A GUN AND START KILLING HIS OR HER FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS. Not having examined them, I can not know what is wrong, psychiatrically, with these killers, but I know that something is. And it’s not these human difficulties I just listed that are constantly referenced in the media stories.

It is important to distinguish between triggers–what might light the fuse–and the explosives that lead to the catastrophe.

Getting it wrong in the media does us all a disservice. If true but irrelevant facts are continually referenced, we start to think these things (eg stress) are relevant and truly causal, as opposed to possible triggers. And the media rarely or never mention the factors that are more important to consider: Delusions. Paranoia. Major Mental Illness. Schizophrenia. Psychosis. The vast majority of human beings who suffer from these symptoms or disorders are not violent or dangerous and can do very well with appropriate treatment. But these might be the things that lead a few human beings [to] pick up a gun and shoot their colleagues. That, plus easy availability of firearms.

Why have we substituted “stress” for psychosis as a causal concept? Why have we confused triggers for causes? What is the consequence for our society? One consequence I fear is that there will be a continually diminished tendency to consider and diagnose and treat psychosis and major mental illness, and therefore there will continue to be undiagnosed and untreated disordered minds picking up guns and going to a meeting to kill.

Society needs to know and be reminded that people can– in rare but significant instances– lose touch with external reality, and substitute a dangerous irrational inner world where, for example, they feel persecuted and terrorized.

With the new arrival of the DSM5 (the ‘bible’ of psychiatry, which could use both some serious exegesis and editing, imho, since it’s stuffed full of etiology-lacking syndromes and disorders), perhaps we’ll find a new diagnosis for folks like Bishop which will comfortably explain and excuse her violence; something like “Tenure Denial Disorder.”


One thought on “Science And Religion Dispatch: Round 1, Plus Amy Bishop

  1. just re-read that last paragraph, and felt the sarcasm wasn’t coming out strong enough in light of the fact that people are *still* referring to this as somehow caused by her tenure denial. Let me make my own position crystal clear: a tenure denial may indeed be the final straw in a person’s experience, leading them to impulsive and violent action, but this is not thereby to be considered the act of a sane person. Furthermore, the Amy Bishop case doesn’t really look like it was really caused substantially (we can argue about the meaning of the word ’cause’ if you really want to split hairs) by any such denial; rather, she’s the kind of person who sees every problem as another nail to be….murdered with a firearm. (I teach religious studies, I’m professionally obligated to mix my metaphors….)

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