Tag Archives: psychology

Who we choose

We choose who to be, from one moment to the next. Our actions, words, silences and inactions define us. They express who we are. No matter what we imagine ourselves to be, or dream we could be, the truth of each of us lies, moment to moment, in every choice we make.

There’s a huge, ongoing debate in psychology about the degrees to which nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (how we are brought up) affect us. From what I’ve seen, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal out there about the degree to which we are able to consciously choose who we are. The more I consider it, the more certain I feel that we actually have a lot of choice in this regard. Yes, our genetic inheritance will predispose us in certain ways. There’s some consensus that intelligence is inheritable, but it also looks like that only plays a part if the environment you grow up in isn’t very rich. We learn a lot in growing up – about relationships, families, society, we learn what is expected of us. The odds are that we learn some unhelpful stuff in the mix, drawn from the fears and foibles of our immediate relatives. As Lady Midnight says in The Mistress and the Mouse, no one gets out of childhood entirely unscathed. I think it’s just part of being human.

We aren’t clockwork machines, we do not run along preset tracks. We are able to think and learn. Nature and nurture set us off with some tools and raw material, but it’s down to us as individuals to decide how we use them. We do not have to repeat the patterns and mistakes of our childhoods, our parents, our ancestral line. We are not doomed to play out some narrative coded into our DNA.

Over the years I’ve run into far too many people who act without thought, ascribe this to their ‘nature’ and consider it unassailable. This too, is a choice. You can view it as a choice to be spontaneous, in the moment and acting out your nature. You can also view it as being reactive, following habits and not really thinking about what you are doing. To me, the innate nature of a person that shines through when they act like this, is one of carelessness, both for those around them, and for their own well being. People who speak and act carelessly seldom do themselves any favours, and then follow through with a refusal to acknowledge there was anything untoward. What this gives you is a total absence of power. 

Everything matters. Every so often some bright spark will tell me I take life too seriously. I think I take life about seriously enough – it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only one I’ve got, and I don’t intend to squander it. So for me, there is a second or two of thought before every word, every action, every decision to stay still. Sometimes more thought than others, granted, but I seldom find I’ve done something without knowing why. I don’t come home with impulse buys that make no sense to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever hurt someone by saying something I didn’t mean. (If you know me, and I have injured you with words at some point, this does not necessarily mean I meant to cause pain, only that the words were meant.)

It’s easy to go through life on autopilot, doing what you always do, acting from habit and ‘nature’ rather than from a basis of constantly choosing who and how you wish to be. To be Pagan, is to take responsibility for your life. To be a Druid is to seek to act honourably in every word and deed, not just the big, obvious stuff. We can choose, peace, honour, integrity and compassion moment to moment, or we can snap at someone because why should we walk round on eggshells all the time? If you shout at me, that entitles me to shout back because I’m angry, right? Or I can choose to control my anger and speak reasonably. It’s a choice. We are not just products of nature and nurture, we are also the consequence of our own, individual ability to choose.

Intuition

Western culture prizes logic, reason and being able to explain how you worked something out. It’s hammered into us through school maths and science from an early age. On the plus side, reason is, by its very nature, easy to explain to others so they can make their own decisions. Reason does not require trust.

However, it’s recognised in psychology that that process of becoming an expert in pretty much anything, involves moving into a state where you can’t rationally explain what you’re doing, or how. Experts who try and explain can find their performance quality drops for a while as a consequence. Becoming an expert means working with your intuition, not reason.

It’s easy to see how this applies to something skills based, like music, juggling, art – there comes a point where you can’t consciously handle everything you know, and don’t in fact need to – in just the same way that most of us can catch a ball without thinking about it, even if some part of our mind has to do very complex equations to get our hand into the right place!

Being open to our intuition enables us to work more fully with our own capacity, but there are reasons for caution. How do you tell the difference between intuition and imagination? Or paranoia? Sometimes what feels like ‘gut instinct’ is born of fear and bad experiences, not rooted in reality at all. It’s important to be mindful of this, and make sure that we compare intuitive knowledge with knowledge available by rational means. If they do not match at all, then proceed with caution, and honour.

I’ve met people who imagined they were uncannily aware and intuitive. There was a memorable young man at a moot, years ago, who felt he was ‘unusually gifted’ and talked about himself and his ‘powers’ at great length. I could tell the others around the table shared my irritation with him – body language was also a clue, and he had no idea. So much for his intuition. I was able to check my perceptions afterwards, so I know my impression was correct. Whenever possible, find ways to cross reference your intuitive knowledge with other forms of insight. It helps fine tune your perceptions, and can save you from embarrassing mistakes. 

It’s also important to be careful when dealing with people who claim to be intuitive. There are, occasionally, people on the pagan scene who will attempt to assert themselves as being more knowing, more powerful and therefore more important than everyone else. Frequently they aren’t, and often those assertions come from fantasy, insecurity, or both. It’s worth being wary of people who are vocal about magically ‘knowing’ things no one else has access to. In my experience, people who are genuinely sensitive often won’t volunteer much unless they have reason to trust you, not wanting anyone to think they are creepy, crazy or manipulative. Folk on an ego trip or trying to manipulate you are much more likely to claim they have special powers, and that they ‘know’. It’s very hard to defend yourself from the accusations of someone who magically ‘knows’ you have a problem with them, ‘knows’ you are creating bad vibes, ‘knows’ you want to cause them harm. (I speak from experience.) All you can do is walk away. I’ve often found those ‘knowing’ folk create self fulfilling prophecies – nothing puts a person’s back up like being told they’re being aggressive, psychically, when they aren’t. Be careful what you pretend to intuite, reality sometimes has a sense of humour!

Intuition, used thoughtfully and honourably, is a blessing. We can feel our way into more than we can consciously handle. But, in using intuition, especially when dealing with people, it’s important to remember what we have is impression, not fact, that gut feelings can be wrong, and that ‘I know more than you do’ is a very unpleasant weapon in the hands of people who have no honour.

Nightmares

There are lots of theories about what dreaming is, including ideas of white noise, in house entertainment during rest, part of the learning process, filing of memories, that it is random and meaningless, that it is a portal to the unconscious, and that it is divine. We don’t really know. However, dreams can have a lot of influence on mood and waking life, nightmares especially so. I think the desire to make sense of things is an intrinsic part of the human state. When something is horrible, knowing why gives us back a feeling of control, a way of coping.

I’ve been prone to nightmares since childhood. I don’t get them all the time, but every now and then something monstrously dark rears up to frighten me. Nightmares that leave me huddled in the darkness, sweating, heart racing, too afraid to go back to sleep. I’ve had a few of those lately. The desire to make sense of them is very strong. What do they mean? Where do they come from? Why are they happening?

My belief is that dreams are your brain doing stuff – that might be sorting and unpacking, going over things recently learned, or fishing up murk from the unconscious depths. Different dreams appear to be different things. Sometimes my nightmares are so dark and disturbing that it really makes me wonder about me. I’ll spare you the details.

What possible use do nightmares serve? Waking in terror and not being able to settle afterwards doesn’t seem immediately helpful. But, if there is fear being held within, and not expressed, then it’s one way for mind and soul to let go. I wonder if nightmares are a way of venting distress and anxiety when other, more helpful channels don’t appear to be viable. It’s very Freudian – the idea that repressed feelings come out by other means, but none the less, I think it may be relevant here. Where possible, it’s better to deal with emotions and experiences as they happen, but it’s not always viable. As with grief – sometimes keeping things together for everyone else delays the grief process, and it comes out in other ways.

Are nightmares just a warning that we need to take some issue more seriously? Or do they help? Is the fear evoked by bad dreams cathartic? Does it help our brains to work through difficulties? My feeling is that they can help, in an odd sort of way, but they aren’t the easiest things to work with. Sometimes it’s very hard to make sense of emotions, and the processes of grief and pain are complicated, confusing things. Nightmares are a way of articulating that to ourselves.

What it boils down to is a fairly pragmatic decision on my part. If I relate to my nightmares as yet another problem for me to contend with, it adds to the burden. If I assume that they are in some way part of a healing process, allowing my mind to vent, then I do not have to be troubled by them occuring. If I imagine they are helping, not harming, then I reduce their scope for harming me in waking moments. I’m not probing them looking for deeper psychological meaning, or imagining that they are dire portents – I could – but what would that achieve? It would only make me more unhappy. So I shall imagine they are useful, and in so doing, hopefully render them so.

Perceptions of Reality

First published by White Dragon magazine.

One of the things a great many pagans seems to have in common is that we occasionally admit to seeing, hearing and otherwise knowing things we shouldn’t. I’ve heard plenty of tales of mystical experiences that, if presented in the right context, would probably win the speaker a diagnosis of mental illness if not a nicely padded room. This kind of experience, by its very nature, cannot be rationally explained. However, there are aspects of research into human perception that perhaps casts these pagan experiences in a different light.

Our entire understanding of what the world is, comes to us through our senses. There are a great many things we cannot perceive directly – due to their size, or because they fall outside the spectrums we are aware of. There are also many things we do not perceive consciously – perhaps most importantly, the detailed workings of our own bodies. The senses we depend on give us a very partial view of what is around us. We can’t use magnetic fields to navigate like geese, we can’t hear sounds dogs can pick up, nor smell half of what’s out there, for example.  These limitations alone are significant when considering how restricted we are in perceiving all of the available reality. However, we are more aware than many life forms – plants manage their lives with light perception, and something resembling touch, and very little else so far as we know. Our senses are remarkably complex, allowing us to understand objects relative to each other, to hear spoken words against a backdrop of traffic sound and other such wonders. As Bruce Durie points out, “Our perception goes far beyond the bare sensation.”[i] Perhaps this very capacity for complexity makes us more vulnerable to confusion and error.

The brain spends a lot of time filtering out most of the massive amounts of data it receives and ignoring it. At any given time you are unlikely to be fully conscious of all the information coming from all of your senses, and if you had all of it, you’d probably go mad. We tend to notice sudden changes – of temperature, light levels, movement etc, where small, incremental differences fail to register. We focus on what seems important and this is no doubt an evolutionary tactic designed to keep us alive. If we aren’t going to fight it, feed on it, flee it or reproduce with it, is it worth noticing? In terms of evolution and species survival, probably not. The big changes are the ones most likely to harm us and thus to require our attention. We’re good at focusing – useful for hunting, but sometimes this has interesting consequences. It’s quite amazing what we don’t notice. Daniel Simons, a psychologist at Harvard University, and Daniel Levin of Kent State University, Ohio carried out an experiment in which a person was approached and asked for directions. As they were explaining, two men carrying a door walked between the two, then the querrent asked if the giver of directions had noticed any changes. 50% of those taking part failed to notice they were talking to a different person!  The walk through with the door had allowed the swap.[ii] Part of what’s happening here involves how our short term memory functions, and how little detail we bother to save if we don’t consider it important (we need the stimulus of fight, flight, feed and f… reproduce again). These assessments of significance are not made consciously, so we have no idea what we are forgetting.

In a different study participants were asked to count ball passes whilst watching a film of a ball game. 40% of the participants failed to notice the man in the monkey outfit who wandered through the middle of the game. Once they had been alerted to his presence, they were entirely able to see him in replays of the footage, of course.[iii] This demonstrates that we quite often don’t see what we aren’t looking for. We don’t see people we know in settings where we aren’t expecting them. What else do we miss simply because we aren’t looking, or because we assume it’s not there?

Synesthesia is a condition which poses some interesting questions about the nature of perception. People who have it experience sounds as colours, textures as emotions, or have other strange mix ups with their interpretations of sensory information. In the past this has tended to be ignored as fantasy or led to diagnoses of schizophrenia. However in recent years the condition has been taken seriously and explored at some length. According to Durie there “is growing evidence that crosstalk in the brain between different sensory areas mixes up things more than we might imagine[iv] – and goes on to suggest that our understanding of minor chords as sad, may be a manifestation of the same condition, along with our capacity for metaphor. Does it mean the perception is wrong in any way? Are these crosstalks merely nonsense (like some metaphors), or do they offer an equally, or more valid way of interpreting the world?  Interestingly, there are people who experience the suffering of others as their own: Mirror-touch synaesthesia causes people to sense being touched when they see others touched. Might this be some way towards an explanation for empathy? Does it have anything to do with those more esoteric and otherwise inexplicable experiences a significant number of pagan folk seem to have of picking up other people’s emotions?[v] Does it represent some kind of deeper truth, or point to a brain dysfunction as the reason for some magical experiences?

Why do we perceive as we do? Are Synesthetes awry in some way, or more advanced than the rest of us? Or is it just one of those random, meaningless things? Has it served some purpose in the past, now no longer relevant? Not having the condition, I have no idea what it would be like, but the notion is fascinating.

It is remarkably easy to trick the mind. Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, were able to make subjects feel that a mannequin’s body was their own, streaming visual input through cameras and showing the mannequin being touched whilst the subject was actually touched. Apparently it took a mere two minutes to create the illusion that the mannequin’s body was in fact the subject’s.[vi] I recall at school being told that if you wore glasses to invert your view of the world, you could adapt to it in about 24 hours and function perfectly well. Brain flexibility obviously has its uses, but does it leave us vulnerable to misinterpreting some of our experiences?

 Brain injuries and illness alter our perceptions – fevers, sleep deprivation and drug use can all give us wildly different experiences of what is real. Every time I run a temperature I believe I understand all the secrets of the universe. Is this disease addled madness, or do I genuinely have a few hours of profound insight? Admittedly, what I remember makes no sense to me, but I doubt that proves anything either way. Do we see more during these times, or simply the white noise generated by our struggling brains? Shamanic practices harness this kind of derangement for spiritual purpose, which at the very least offers some way of relating to it that might make it more tolerable.

Everything we ingest can and does affect how we feel, and through the filter of our emotions, how we experience the world. Caffeine. Sugar. Alcohol. Food additives. Chocolate. Fats. There’s even a claim that an excess of coffee can cause hallucinations.[vii] That’s without taking things specifically for mood altering purposes – St John’s Wort, Prozac, opiates etc. The world is full of things we can eat in order to change how we perceive, while experiences of insufficiency – lack of sleep, food and water can equally bring on altered states of mind. So our whole experience of reality is filtered through our senses, affected by our diets and the state of our brain chemistry, and informed by our expectations. Can we really trust our perceptions to be accurate? Do we need them to be? We may have sound mental health reasons for seeking changes of perception – “Hallucinogens – and to some extent cannabis and MDMA – allow us to escape, temporarily, from a reality ruled by logic, ego and time, and explore other aspects of our consciousness.”[viii]  With the implication in the article that this is probably a good thing. It’s worth bearing in mind that drugs can only influence our perceptions by tapping into our existing brain chemistry – we have the capacity for these shifts in perception, we just need to trigger them. Why assume that the chemistry-informed perceptions we have when tanked up on caffeine are somehow more valid than the perceptions we have when seriously drunk or using other mind expanding substances? Or, for that matter, why disregard the reality we perceive when feverish, or hallucinating from sleep deprivation?

Even assuming that we perceive the world in an accurate way, we also have to contend with our memories, which may be wildly inaccurate as well. False memory syndrome is a well documented problem :  It is likely “the act of remembering makes a memory malleable, and therefore susceptible to misinformation”.[ix] As with misleading a person about what they are perceiving, it is disturbingly ease to generate false memories. “Under repeated questioning people will readily construct false memories of realistic events and believe that they actually happened.”[x] There are a few things I have been told about so often that I remember them as though I had been present. I avoid inadvertently creating false memories by thinking about some things in third person, so I can readily tell the two streams apart – being a writer and daydreamer this is an ongoing issue for me.  When thinking about occult experiences, this issue is especially important. It is common practice amongst pagans to discuss unsusbstantiated personal gnosis on the internet, sharing strange experiences. Might we be at risk of unknowingly and innocently changing each other’s memories as we reach for consensus? Are our memories (if we have them) of the supernatural informed by what we read, and hear others talking about? How can we trust that anything has been remembered and recalled accurately? But equally, how can we be sure that our mundane memories are valid? There is a great deal of cultural pressure not to perceive certain things (pixies, unicorns, angels and aliens to name but a few). How do we know that we aren’t carefully tuning them out based on a deep seated belief that they aren’t there, in just the same way that those 40% of people in the baseball study didn’t notice the monkey?

How we understand our perceptions of the world very much informs how we relate to spiritual experiences. Dropping acid and thinking you are talking to god is a cliché, but does that make it any less real an experience? Is it all in the brain chemistry, or is something ‘real’ going on. How do we define ‘real’ anyway? If we have a consensus about what reality means, where does that leave the group of people who didn’t realise the person they ended the conversation about directions with was not the one who had begun it? There was an objective reality, verifiable by others, but not everyone was able to properly engage with it. In this instance, it’s easy to tell what is ‘real’ but frequently that isn’t the case, and all we have to go on is what we can verify by cross referencing with other people. One of the things this area of study suggests is that if we have a shared, agreed upon reality, we can all very happily go along with it, even if it’s totally erroneous!

Much science is informed by the idea that the world is basically a coherent place full of rules, and if we can discover them, it will all make sense. This is, really speaking, a philosophical position, not a truth. We don’t actually know what reality is, and although there are rules that seem to work, sometimes they don’t. Occasionally, when I am feeling especially brave, I dip into the wilder end of New Scientist – speculative science, mad physics, all of it weirder than anything I could imagine. Parallel universes. The power of randomness and chaos.

 “Assuming an external reality exists, however, physics theories aim to describe how it works. Our most successful theories, such as general relativity and quantum mechanics, describe only parts of this reality: gravity, for instance, or the behaviour of subatomic particles. In contrast, the holy grail of theoretical physics is a theory of everything – a complete description of reality.”[xi]

There is so much that we do not know or understand. We do not even know with certainty that the tools we have developed for understanding reality give us true reflections of the natures of things, much less whether we can trust what we perceive, or believe we have perceived.

Entering a pagan worldview takes you away from consensus reality, however you do it. Perhaps the least dramatic shift is into something like Naturalistic Druidry, which sees no need for anything beyond nature. However, the scientifically minded folk drawn to this movement are likely to be more aware of the uncertainness of reality than ever people with more mainstream perceptions are.  For most pagans, moving into a spiritual tradition represents a radical shift in understanding, with huge consequences for how we relate to the rest of the world, and how we understand our own perceptions. Consider some of the tenets that frequently go with paganism – that all life is sacred. That spirit/magic/deity pervades all things, is inherent in the world. That everything is connected. With that view embedded in their psyche, a pagan typically sees the world in radically different ways to a non-pagan.  And as previously discussed, what you expect will very likely colour what you get.

I don’t just see a tree, I see the things that live in the tree, and the wind in the branches, I see if there are leaves, or buds, and what kind of tree it is. I see it as an individual living entity, and as such may well greet it. Others may be aware of some greenery. My experience so far is that I see things that other people do not – birds, animals, plants – things that are very literally present, which most people don’t register at all. I am frequently not focused on anything much, and not assuming too much about what is there to be perceived, which may help. And of course, I see other things – corner of the eye things, glowing things, ethereal things that other people do not see. Are they any less real than all the other things most people don’t see? How do I tell? If the science can give situations in which 50% perceive one thing and 50% another, we don’t even have weight of numbers to create a consensus reality. If such high percentages of people are capable of missing obvious things, it does make you wonder what else goes unregistered.

If you understand the way the things you ingest act on your perceptions, you can work with it – it’s not something that just happens beyond your control. A healthy body, well hydrated with the right amount of sodium and potassium in it, a healthy blood sugar level, and not suffering the effects of uppers like caffeine or downers like alcohol, might be best placed to perceive the world. Ignoring the differences that creep in during times of pressure and altered body chemistry seems both unwise and irrational.  When our bodies are out of balance, our perceptions shift, and we interpret the world accordingly. For example, I find when I have cried too much and lack salt in my body, I become irrational. The less salt I have, the worse the irrationality. I have a friend who becomes paranoid if he imbibes too much caffeine. Such experiences have radical effects on how we see the world and respond to it. Amusingly, religion may also be a factor Dutch Calvinists notice embedded visual patterns quicker than their atheist compatriots[xii]  according to psychologist Bernhard Hommel. Being in control of your perceptions would be a powerful thing. I have no idea if I am, or how I could tell. Being sufficiently out of control that you can see what’s there – not what you think is there – is also very powerful as an idea. Again, how do you tell? We need to be simultaneously absolute sceptics regarding our own occult (and ordinary) experiences, and willing to accept the possibility that they may have validity – be that as an expression of our inner states or as a reflection of an objective (if weirder) reality.

Go out into a wilder, quieter place and explore your perceptions – be open to your senses. There is a great deal to notice, to see, hear, smell, feel, taste even. Once you stop looking for anything in particular and stop assuming what you might experience, there is so much more to be and know. The world around us is not something to tune out and ignore – not on the pagan path. We need to be here and now, feeling, sensing and perceiving as fully as we can. By discarding assumptions, we might see the world afresh, and see it more truly. If I assume there is no point in looking up, I will never see the stars, or the moon. If I assume a city centre to be a dead and soulless place, I won’t see the starlings, the sparrows, the urban trees. We are surrounded by nature, by beauty, wonder and magic, and most of us do a very good job of not noticing any of it.

[i] New Scientist 29 January 2005 Senses special: Doors of perception, Bruce Durie
[ii] Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, vol 4, p 644 (1998) Failure to detect changes to people during real-world interaction Daniel J. Simons and Daniel T. Levin, 

[iii] New Scientist 18 November 2000 Blind to Change, Laura Spinney

[iv] New Scientist 29 January 2005 Senses special: Doors of perception, Bruce Durie

[v] New Scientist, 23 June 2007, Sense of touch is crucial for empathy.

[vi] New Scientist16:09 02 December 2008 Swapping your body becomes a virtual reality,  Helen Thomson

[vii] 15 January 2009  http://www.sciam.com

[viii] New Scientist, 13 November 2004, The intoxication instinct,  Helen Phillips and Graham Lawton

[ix] New Scinetist, 16:14 05 December 2008 Brain quirk makes eyewitnesses less reliable, Ewen Callaway

[x] New Scientist 23 July 1994 When memory plays us false,  BOB HOLMES

[xi] New scientist, 14 September 2007 mathematical cosmos: Reality by numbers Max Tegmark

[xii] New Scientist 17:50 14 November 2008 Religion alters visual perception,  Ewen Callaway