nthposition online magazine

Fugitive minds

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

There are two tendencies in popular science, particularly popular psychology and neuroscience. One could be called reductionistic. We are assailed by books claiming that "we" are "just" collections of neurons, or idiot machines to reproduce our DNA, or somesuch. Books touted to "explain", finally and definitively, why we are the way we are. The other is the perpetually chippy and confrontational, content not merely to propound a sweeping explanation for everything but to dismiss as absurd, stupid or downright evil all alternatives.

The regrettable proliferation of inverted commas in the last above paragraph perhaps indicate how these books rub off my own taste and temperament rather than objective critical opinion, but it is a pity that popular science writers seem less and less keen simply to explain and illustrate, rather than hector and hold forth.

The fly jacket tries to set this up as Antonio Melechi versus the monstrous regiment of materialist biological psychologist and psychiatrists: he "argues that this materialist vision of the human mind and behaviour promises more than it can deliver." This is true, but on one level misrepresents the book. Melechi is refreshingly undogmatic, and while his inclination is obviously to champion the importance of cultural factors in twilight states, this is no aggressive polemic. The emphasis is on the interplay of cultural and biological factors, and Melechi's stress on the cultural side is not just a reflection of his own background but a corrective to the prevalent tendency to champion the biological side. But he is no blind foe of any application of biochemistry and neuroscience to psychology.

For instance, in the essay on Near Death Experiences, Melechi concludes that "many of the elements that are 'universally' characteristic of the NDE, from geometric forms to the 'life review', do not require metaphysical explanation; they are best explained in terms of a secret heritage called 'the body.'" William James, far more than Freud, is the presiding spirit of these essays. In the introduction Melechi writes of James' scorn for the 19th century materialists who eagerly diagnosed saints and mystics as epileptics and hysterics. This is Melechi's attitude too, one that is properly sceptical of wild claims but never outright dismissive.

He writes, for instance, on the possible relationship between Lewis Carroll's history of migraines and the genesis of Alice in Wonderland. The shrinking and expanding, the "curiouser and curiouser" phenomena that Alice encounters, all echo descriptions of a migraine aura. Yet Melechi is aware of the limits of this approach; writing on the temptation to see Jabberwocky as influenced by the migrainous jumbling of words, he deflates the idea by observing that the poem was intended as a parody of Anglo-Saxon.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on hearing voices. I was unfamiliar with the work of Marcus Romme, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maastricht (what would Europhobes make of that, I wonder), who campaigns for the normalisation of hearing voices, and the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose idea of the "bicameral mind" is purported to underly the guidance by voices of the Old Testament Prophets, the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey and other ancient texts. The later discussion of the work of John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist of whom Melechi writes "of late, [he] has been increasingly impervious to criticism and debate. The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which has been less than even-handed in its criticisms of Mack, should take some responsibility for his exile" should warn one of the dangers of accepting authorities whether they be tenured professor at Harvard or self-appointed police of the borders of science.

The book is not just concerned with psychopathology (or perceived psychopathology) There is much on the twilight states that we all experience - sleep, dreaming - as well as ones which, while not universal, are very common - such as sonambulism and déjà vu. There is much on psychiatric exotica like latah, koro and arctic hysteria, and obsolete psychiatric diagnoses like nostalgia, once a dread disease of migrant workers. It functions best as a collection of essays, very well written and filled with literary and historical references, about various aspects of psychology rather than as some kind of argumentative tract. Even the most rigid biological determinist would surely be able to read these for profit and entertainment.