A few points that jumped out at me from Laing’s book:
1) We (by which he mostly means European/North American people) live in a society that doesn’t truly admit to the existence of a complex “inner world” of dreams/imagination/fantasies/etc. that have any meaning (he wrote this book in the 1960s but there’s relevance to that position today).
(I put “inner world” in quotations, because the boundaries between what goes on in our heads and what’s out in the world is blurry – even our basic perceptions of the external world are filtered through our brains, and our thoughts and mental processes alter the way we perceive the world, what we attend to, what we remember, etc. Laing makes a similar point about there not being a sharp divide between internal and external.)
2) We view people who have been diagnosed with mental illness as lesser and as Others; mental health professionals do their best to subdue and drug them instead of explore and understand their perspective.
3) We can’t help people thrive if we don’t see them as human individuals enmeshed in relationships with others and interacting with society, its institutions and culture.
The terrifying mind
Our mental landscape can be a scary place. Beautiful too, sublime, but also unpredictable, intense, and terrifying.
Laing quotes people who went through – and ultimately emerged from – psychotic episodes where they felt they were traveling back in time, touching other dimensions and planes of existence, encountering core truths about life that were transcendent and overwhelming. Along with confronting visions and wonders, people can easily lose themselves in this mental realm, which seems limitless and is shot through with darkness and terrors as well.
Even mental activity that’s more mundane is awe-inspiring – for instance, everyday acts of creativity: filling a blank page with words or images. From where did they come? What’s inspiration and creativity really? Furthermore (and this is something Laing doesn’t really go into) so many of our basic mental processes occur beneath our awareness, guiding our decisions and actions. Laing speaks in general about people in modern society being alienated from who they are, but how do we come to know who we are and why we choose to act as we do when so much of our brain’s activity is by necessity unfolding beneath our notice? (I say “by necessity” because there’s only a little we can attend to and notice at any given time – meanwhile our brains are gathering, sorting, processing tons of information about the world and matching up current happenings with memories of prior events.) I’m not advocating for a position where we dismiss ourselves as unknowable and leave it at that; but what does it mean to “know yourself”?
Somehow, our brain’s activities give rise to “the mind” – consciousness, imagination, intuition, reveries, rationality, rationalizations, recollections, etc. It’s wondrous and mysterious, and mysteries can be terrifying.
Stamping out the mind
Laing rejected explanations of mental activity and ‘mental illness’ (a term he doesn’t want to use) that are concerned only with external behaviors or that see people as isolated units. These days individuals get reduced to products of cell activity or to animals in the thrall of evolutionary drives. Everything else is treated as so much noise or explained away glibly. I’m reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View now and there’s a passage that reminds me of this tendency to iron out the complexities of the mind and pretend its chaos is meaningless (a jangle of nerves):
Lucy faced the situation bravely, though, like most of us, she only faced the situation that encompassed her. She never gazed inwards. If at times strange images rose from the depths, she put them down to nerves… Once she had suffered from ‘things that came out of nothing and meant she didn’t know what’. Now Cecil had explained psychology to her one wet afternoon, and all the troubles of youth in an unknown world could be dismissed.
Psychology (and psychiatry) can be used, and have often been used, as a way to obscure self-knowledge and diminish people. Those classified as mentally ill are especially vulnerable to being treated in inhuman ways: drugged to the gills, incarcerated, subjected to abuse in the guise of treatment, and told they’re incapable of any valid perceptions of reality and meaningful experience. This approach to mental health is yet another way of dismissing the frightening complexity of the mind, rather than trying to understand and work with each individual as a person, which would take effort and a willingness to confront our vulnerability and our painful, puzzling, and beautiful experiences of life – or at the very least accept that they exist and aren’t meaningless.
If Laing sometimes writes as if he’s romanticizing psychotic episodes and their potential for exploring the mind, he’s balancing out other approaches that wipe away the mind’s messiness entirely, kill self-awareness, and diminish intimacy between people. One point he returns to over and again – and it’s worth making – is that when people do experience the world in ways classified as “mentally ill” (depending on the individual, he/she may not be actually ill, just labeled that way), they aren’t experiencing their mental illness in a vacuum. Their interpersonal relationships and the society they live in have an impact on the course of their illness, its manifestation, the potential for recovery and adapting to daily life, and whether or not they’re accepted as a person instead of an embarrassment and an upsetting reminder of how the mind dances beyond the reach of neat little labels and human control.
An article I came across recently by Tanya Marie Luhrmann – Beyond the Brain – is well-worth reading and centers on the effects of social environment on people with schizophrenia, including the influence of other people’s attitudes and behavior. The bottom line is that the brain doesn’t operate in isolation; the same goes for the body as a whole, down to the activity in the most remote cells. We’re constantly responding to and interacting with our environments. While drugs can play a role in treatment of psychiatric illness, particularly of severe cases, drugs aren’t everything and don’t solve all problems. Same goes for looking at brain scans and pointing to patterns of brain activation. What do they tell me about what it’s like to be you? To think and dream and experience the world the way you do?
We are deeply social creatures. Our bodies constrain us, but our social interactions make us who we are.
We can’t fully know each other, but why pretend there’s nothing to know at all aside from relatively superficial qualities? What Laing seems to put forward in his book is a vision of psychotherapy where you aren’t trying to aggressively make people “normal” (whatever normal happens to be in a given society) but to be a guide to them, and to actually hear what they say about their experience of the world instead of dismissing it all as a mass of symptoms.
More unanswered questions
Laing’s book doesn’t really go into how these changes in treatment will be achieved practically (but he does suggest at one point that people who have gone through similar psychotic breaks or psychological experiences can help serve as guides and counselors).
As for his general view of a society in which people are alienated from themselves and from each other, it wasn’t clear what alternative he proposes: what’s an example of a society, in his view, that would promote better mental health and acceptance of different individual experiences? All societies are founded on compromises between individuals and agreements to abide by certain principles. What about personal relationships – what’s an example of a healthy parent-child relationship, for example? He doesn’t get into that; he says only that parents ‘murder’ various potentialities in their children and mold them to societal specifications. If he’s right, what’s to be done?
He points to instances in the past or in other cultures where individuals could explore alternate mental states (through drugs, fasting, etc.), but weren’t these people few in number? Sometimes their activities were sanctioned, sometimes they were revered, but many times they were considered dangerous or aberrant as well.
One person Laing writes about in this book who went through a psychotic episode and emerged from it intact said that the world became illuminated in new ways, even as he continued his day-to-day life with its dissembling and false faces. To what extent can a more transcendent experience of the world co-exist with the smaller, pettier interactions of daily life?
Laing asks at one point: If our society is so dysfunctional, why would we want to adapt to its ideas of normal mental functioning?