Religion and Psychosis a Common Evolutionary Trajectory

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In this article we propose that schizophrenia and religious cognition engage cognate mental modules in the over-attribution of agency and the overextension of theory of mind. We argue similarities and differences between assumptions of ultrahuman agents with omniscient minds and certain ‘‘pathological’’ forms of thinking in schizophrenia: thought insertion, withdrawal and broadcasting, and delusions of reference. In everyday religious cognition agency detection and theory of mind modules function ‘‘normally,’’ whereas in schizophrenia both modules are impaired. It is suggested that religion and schizophrenia have perhaps had a related evolutionary trajectory.
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Document Transcript  Transcultural Psychiatry online version of this article can be found at: DOI: 10.1177/1363461511402723 2011 48: 318 Transcultural Psychiatry  Simon Dein and Roland Littlewood Religion and psychosis: A common evolutionary trajectory?  Published by: On behalf of:  Division of Social & Transcultural Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, McGill University   World Psychiatric Association  can be found at: Transcultural Psychiatry  Additional services and information for Email Alerts: Subscriptions: Reprints: Permissions: Citations: What is This? - Jul 8, 2011Version of Record >> at Uni Lucian Blaga on November 16, 2012tps.sagepub.comDownloaded from    Article Transcultural Psychiatry 48(3) 318–335  ! The Author(s) 2011Reprints and permissions: 10.1177/1363461511402723 Religion and psychosis: A commonevolutionary trajectory? Simon Dein and Roland Littlewood University College London Abstract In this article we propose that schizophrenia and religious cognition engage cognatemental modules in the over-attribution of agency and the overextension of theory of mind. We argue similarities and differences between assumptions of ultrahuman agentswith omniscient minds and certain ‘‘pathological’’ forms of thinking in schizophrenia:thought insertion, withdrawal and broadcasting, and delusions of reference. In everydayreligious cognition agency detection and theory of mind modules function ‘‘normally,’’whereas in schizophrenia both modules are impaired. It is suggested that religion andschizophrenia have perhaps had a related evolutionary trajectory. Keywords agency, cognition, religious experience, schizophrenia, theory of mind O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when Irise; you perceive my thoughts from afar, you discern my going out and my lyingdown, you are familiar with all my ways. (Psalm 139: 1–3 NIV) That religious experiences and psychosis (more particularly schizophrenia) sharesimilar, or indeed identical, psychological characteristics has often been maintainedsince suggestions in classical Greece (Simon, 1978). In both popular and medicalperceptions, religious enthusiasm and experience have often been equated withmadness. From the eighteenth century onwards, scholars have often argued thatthe founders of new religious dispensations might be conspicuously unusual oreven frankly insane (Littlewood, 1993). Corresponding author: Simon Dein, Department of Mental Health Sciences, University College London, Charles Bell House, 67Riding House Street, London WC1 7EY, UK.Email:   at Uni Lucian Blaga on November 16, 2012tps.sagepub.comDownloaded from   The debate on the mental health of the shaman in particular has long continuedamong social anthropologists, some of whom have even ventured that all religiouscognition is psychotic (e.g., La Barre, 1970). In terms of empirical study, the evi-dence for this hypothesis has of course been problematic, given the difficulty of providing a conventional psychiatric assessment of the religious leader as theydevelop a new (or modified) religious dispensation. An exception is the founderof a new religion in the Caribbean, described by Littlewood (1993). It has generallyproved easier, if less reliable, to offer a retrospective assessment of religiousleadership based upon existing biographical sources (e.g., Littlewood, 1996).Anthropological accounts of religious experience and certain aspects of psychopa-thology in contemporary Euro-Americans have argued that, from the phenomeno-logical perspective, they may be identical (Dein & Littlewood, 2007; Jackson &Fulford, 1997). Any differentiation depends on the social consequences: in WilliamJames’ reframing of Jesus, ‘‘By their fruits you shall know them’’ (James, 1902: 36).To develop an argument on the convergence of religion and psychosis, we needto: (1) use coherent definitions of both, and to restrict ‘‘religion’’ here to some Neo-Tylorean mentation ignoring for the moment the social institutions and doctrineswhich insubstantiate this; (2) argue that they are essentially the same process, orthat one is primary and the other is inherently piggy-backed onto it, or that bothfollow closely on some other third phenomenon in a way that other patterns, socialor psychological, do not; (3) if we are arguing a long-term convergence, then wecan offer appropriate evolutionary explanations, either social or biological selec-tion (or both). 1 Several suggestions have proposed to explain why schizophrenia (taken as cross-culturally found) persists and why, with its lower fertility, it has not disappearedthrough natural selection. One possibility argues that schizophrenia has an evolu-tionary advantage either for the individual’s immediate kin or the larger group interms of reproductive success or survival: Erlenmeyer-Kimling and Paradowski(1968) found, surprisingly, that female infants of parents with schizophreniaenjoy increased survival compared to other children. Karlsson (1984) argues thatthe evolutionary advantage of schizophrenia in western societies lies in theenhanced creativity (and hence survival) of relatives. Crow (2000), arguing thatthe evolution of schizophrenia and language are intimately related, suggests a pos-sible lack of cerebral asymmetry observed in schizophrenia along with its charac-teristic alterations in language use: as language per se confers selective advantage,then schizophrenia is dragged along too.Stevens and Price (2000) propose a functionalist model of religion in which anexpanding small scale ancestral community must eventually split to conserve pop-ulation size optimal for its ecological niche: charismatic leaders with schizotypaltraits use ‘‘paranoia,’’ ‘‘delusions,’’ ‘‘religious scenes’’ and neologisms to controland fractionate groups by seeking new social dispensations and settings. ForPolimeni and Reiss (2002), schizophrenia or something allied to it, could enhancethe leader’s ability to initiate and conduct religiously based rituals: such rituals areuniversally observed in all cultures and thus are likely both to be genetically rooted Dein and Littlewood   319  at Uni Lucian Blaga on November 16, 2012tps.sagepub.comDownloaded from   and perhaps critical for survival, presumably in terms of group cohesion and mobi-lization. 2 They argue that until the past few thousand years humans have alwayslived in hunter-gatherer societies with some form of ‘‘shamanic’’ leadership.Psychosis might be advantageous for these individuals in generating novel andpersisting religious rituals from an ‘‘altered state of consciousness.’’ Due to alack of contemporary empirical evidence and their extremely conjectural specula-tion, both these theories, like other social evolutionist scenarios must remain extre-mely problematic.One may ask whether what one terms ‘‘religion’’ is an adequate general categoryfor comparison. For religion is generally regarded as a shared cultural institutionwhereas schizophrenia is fundamentally an individual experience. Religious expe-rience may take numerous forms, including feelings that all things are one, a senseof transcending time and space, a feeling of the holy, sacred, divine; and that suchevents and situations cannot be described in words (Beit-Hallahmi & Argyle, 1997).Here we adopt the view that religion primarily involves recognition of the agency of ultrahuman agents, agreeing with Boyer (1994: 9) that the notion of ultrahumanentities who possess something like human agency seems to be the only evidentuniversal found in religious cosmologies. Actual religious practice of the sort stud-ied by social anthropologists is always organized around such agents and it is uponthese that seem to be erected systematized reflection (doctrine), prescribed behav-iours (rituals and so on) and communal structure (social organization). The accep-tance of such agents may be the most commonly offered definition of religion in thesocial sciences (Sosis & Alcora, 2003). For religious adherents themselves, gods donot just exist, they  matter  to those who believe in them and they render everydayevents significant through their association with a divine cosmology. We propose,along with Boyer (2001), that religious cognition is a specific form of cognitioncharacterized by a focus on ultrahuman agents, it is counterintuitive and it is costlyin terms of time and emotional involvement.That this sort of cognition might be related to schizophrenia is suggested byvarious findings. First, in schizophrenia, there is a substantial occurrence of reli-giously oriented delusions in all societies examined (Brewerton, 1994; Moslowskiet al., 1998; Siddle et al., 2002). Second, religious ideas and assertions of the ‘‘para-normal’’ are especially common among those individuals in the west with schizo-typal traits (Thalbourne & Delin, 1994). Third, there are phenomenologicalparallels between schizophrenic and normative religious hallucinations (Dein &Littlewood, 2007). Finally there is emerging evidence for a continuum betweenreligious normality and psychosis: members of new Euro-American religious move-ments have been found to have similar scores on various ‘‘delusion scales’’ as thosewho have been diagnosed clinically with psychotic illnesses (Peters et al., 1999). Shared modules? Can such a postulated link between ‘‘religion’’ and ‘‘schizophrenia’’ be regarded asintrinsic? There seems some evidence that religious thinking in schizophrenia is a 320  Transcultural Psychiatry 48(3)  at Uni Lucian Blaga on November 16, 2012tps.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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