Is good mental health ultimately about looking after your soul? - RSA

Is good mental health ultimately about looking after your soul?

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  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there is much else besides (Eugene Gendlin). Perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that 'much else besides'. - Iain McGilchrist

 Monday night's event in the RSA Great Room, "What Happened to the Soul?" by Iain McGilchrist, can be viewed above in all its unedited grit and glory.

This was the third event of six in the spirituality series, following from events one and two. Some more considered analysis on this third event will follow when we can quote from the full transcript currently being prepared, but for now, here goes:

It is always hard to judge the success of public events, especially when you're part of them, but there have been many positive responses ('tremendous', 'extraordinary', 'fascinating') from people whose judgment I respect, and the people watching had plenty to say on Twitter, though I suppose that might just represent moral support or twitchy fingers.

My impression is that the questions and answer session (from c35 mins in) was particularly spirited, and may be worth cutting to directly to get animated and engaged by the ideas, before returning to the more intricate substance of the talk, which of course contained lots of wonderful material to think about too.

Mental Health

I think the biggest issue, and one I hope to come back to, concerns the scope to think about some mental health problems (perhaps mild to moderate forms of depression in particular) as a form of 'soul sickness'. This reframing is informed by Iain's account of the role of suffering in 'growing a soul'(though he was emphatic that nobody should suffer acute mental ill health for a moment longer than necessary) and what might follow for the appropriate use of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

This is a big and complex issue, and a large part of the potential practical value of reconceiving spirituality, as indicated by our three research workshops(the content of which will be shared in our final project report, due in October.). Iain is clearly by no means the only person working in the broad mental health domain to think something resembling 'spirituality' may be important it not essential for mental health.

As a Psychiatrist, Iain would not be so facile as to say such a reframing is always appropriate or that it always helps significantly. However, if thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about 'the soul' in public life.


A fuller account of that argument will follow, but for now, if you find time to watch the video, look out for:

  • "Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul..." (A perennial quotation of uncertain provenance!)
  • The need for 'the soul' as a concept - why the substitutes don't cut it as a way of capturing certain qualities of experience.
  • The joke about the poor man repeatedly praying to win the lottery, whom God finally speaks to by saying: "Meet me half way, buy a ticket."
  • Iain's intensely metaphorical (almost - but not quite!- to a comical extent) answer to the very direct question from our Head of Business Development Esther McCarthy about whether the soul (if we have a soul!) survives bodily death.
  • The value of 'deliberate ambiguity' - is the vagueness of terms like the soul part of their value? Is there something about trying to define them too precisely that misses this point? Does that feel right and appropriate, or still somehow evasive?
  • What can we learn from 'soul splitting' in Harry Potter?
  • Body and soul: "duality does not entail dualism."
  • When we remember a person, are we really remembering their soul? A question from John Field FRSA that wasn't answered; is this a good way to grasp what the soul is?


If thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about 'the soul' in public life.

Lessons Learned

  • Iain has earned a deserved reputation as a thoughtful polymath with a sound grasp of sciences and humanities, but occasionally I feel he over-reacts to the fear of being thought to be a reductionist. His resolute 'no' in response to my question of whether science could ever help us make sense of the nature of the soul struck me as an overstatement.
  • We didn't quite establish the connection between belief in/acceptance of the soul and belief in/acceptance of 'God', and it would have been good to probe that important if obvious question a little further. Clearly Iain's account of the soul is no ghost in the machine, but is there any sense in which a more dispositional perspective on the individual soul is isomorphic with respect to a universal soul?
  • In response to the classical musical clip from the 16th century, one guest later told me that while it was assumed we were all touched, move and inspired, he personally didn't feel it moved his 'soul' particularly, and wondered whether there was a presumption of cultural identification with meaning that was misplaced for those who don't share the cultural tradition (he's a highly intelligent Australian).
  • Iain's education and disposition makes his thought hyper-nuanced, but it can feel like the boundary between nuance and obscurity requires a third-party arbiter at times! Personally, I am never quite sure when it feels appropriate to press for further clarity. Perhaps this desire is what Iain would call 'left hemisphere overreach' - asking for too much precision- but there is something Protean about Iain's thought that I, as one of his biggest fans, sometimes find frustrating.
  • With hindsight, I should have tried harder to focus on the issue of 'What happened to the soul?' rather than what became the focus: 'what is the soul?' The questions are closely connected, but the result was that we heard from Iain the philosopher and I could perhaps have done more to draw out the Scientist; it felt to me, perhaps wrongly, like having the two together would give the fullest picture of the soul.
  • Relatedly, I am very familiar with Iain's bestseller 'The Master and his Emissary', which connects an analysis of neural anatomy and function to a theory of cultural history, but I should perhaps have taken more care to share some of the main ideas with the audience, which we examined closely for an RSA report last year: Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard. These ideas were implicit in much of the discussion, but a little unpacking of them might have helped to sharpen the key issues at stake.

In any case, I am pleased we have managed to draw attention to the cultural neglect of 'the soul', and I left feeling very glad we had hosted the event. Iain and the audience significantly moved along our thinking and opened up areas for further inquiry, not least on mental health.

On the other hand, and this is a positive point, there is something about these spirituality events that always leave me wanting more, as if the life changing revelation you naively hoped for is forever postponed until next time.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, and tweets @Jonathan_Rowson.

We are currently considering ideas and speakers for our 4th and 5th (of 6) public events in this series, so do get in touch if you have any suggestions on questions or speakers.

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  • I'm inclined to think the cultural neglect of the soul has a parallel in the cultural neglect of... well, among other obvious things, *money*.

    Being non-judgmental is apparently a virtue for many people yet money tends to stubbornly refuse to forget moral failing i.e not living within your means, it's called debt, so let's all hate on money. The conscience has a nasty tendency to be like that also and I suspect that's where the soul is.

    In Payback, Margaret Atwood spoke of the 'Inner Ledger' and illustrated how primal and deeply ingrained it is by referring to studies on Capuchin monkeys and who would feel incensed if for a token they received celery (I think) whilst for the same token their neighbour received a tasty grape, it just isn't fair.

    By far and away most humans are exquisitely calibrated to the lek, sexual selection. Eliot Rodger was mercifully extreme but his basic complaints were/are obviously not unusual. It wasn't so much that he wasn't getting sex as much as that he was surrounded by people who wilfully and flagrantly exhibited, paraded, their 'fitness'. Particularly that, and whilst I find much Of the 'red pill' Tomassi stuff cynical, much of that Rational Male stuff is compelling for a reason.

    Tomassi goes so far as say 'hypergamy' is *the* feminine imperative and many, not I, agree. I do agree though that his notion of hypergamy is prevalent which means many men devoid of honourable intentions, the sort of guys who use to antagonise Eliot Rodger, are precisely the sort of guys more likely to be rewarded with sex. The conscience, anything but the most Disney notion of the soul, gets lost in the sound and fury.

  • Here are a few additional links (one the aforementioned Alan Watts essay):

    Psychedelics and Religious Experience

    And here is a filmed experiment conducted by Humphry Osmond (who first introduced Aldous Huxley to mescaline and coined the term 'psychedelic' - "mind manifesting") wherein he administered mescaline to Christopher Mayhew:

    The Mescaline experiment: Humphry Osmond and Christopher Mayhew

    Mayhew had been the president of a debating society while attending Oxford and at the time of the taping was, believe it or not, a Member of Parliament. Commenting on his experience decades later, he remarked:

    “Perhaps half-a-dozen times during the experiment I would be withdrawn from my surroundings and from myself and have an experience, a state of euphoria, for a period of time that didn’t end for me. That didn’t last for minutes, or hours, but for months.”

  • I have another comment currently in moderation (it contains a link), but wanted to suggest a few topics/speakers for your upcoming events in the series (given the call at the end of the article):

    - The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

    Inspired by the book by David Bentley Hart of the same name. I know Professor Claxton already covered "Glimpses," and I'm sure there will be some overlap here, but this will have more of a focus on a sophisticated definition of "God" (yes, "He" ultimately escapes definition in the same way the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon...but it can and should be pointed at with the best there is to offer). I find Dr. Hart's book very much in the spirit of Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy, noting and elucidating the core similarities throughout the wisdom traditions. Dr. Hart himself would make for a great speaker for this event. As he says at the end of the book's introduction, "Only when one understands what such a claim means does one know what the word 'God' really means, and whether it is reasonable to think that there is a reality to which that word refers and in which we should believe."

    - Psychedelics and Spirituality

    Touched upon in my other comment (with the Aeon Magazine article), psychedelics - when administered under proper and comfortable set and setting - seem to provide safe and reliable access to a more numinous realm/experience. More along the lines of Huxley's Doors of Perception. Again, those "Glimpses" Professor Claxton spoke of. I highly recommend checking out the essay Psychedelics and Religious Experience by Alan Watts for a measured and lucid look in this area (will provide a link in a response to this comment). A great deal of subjects who either recently completed or are currently enrolled in psychedelic therapy studies have reported such transcendent experiences. The question might arise - given how profound these experiences have been, and how drastically helpful they have proven to be, don't we have an obligation to allow for access, and safe and guided use, to these substances? (Huxley's fictional novel Island had an interesting instance where its citizens underwent guided psychedelic sessions - with medicine simultaneously dubbed "reality-revealers" and "truth-and-beauty pills" - when they came of age.) The researchers conducting those studies may make for good speakers for this event. Those possible speakers include (perhaps booking one or some combination thereof): Dr. Roland Griffiths (Johns-Hopkins), Dr. Charles Grob (UCLA), Professor David Nutt, Dr. Rick Strassman (University of New Mexico), and Dr. Rick Doblin (founder and executive director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies).

    - Technology and Spirituality

    Thinking here about the speed of technology, the speed it changes, the speed it makes us operate at, and the effect it has on the "soul." Also, how it has influenced a mechanistic image of man/consciousness that is devoid of the soul. Or, can it help us reconnect with the soul? If nothing else, maybe not through its structure and functions (and the metaphor they impose), but through the ease and capability to spread and share information. Then again, what about new technologies/techniques like Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation)? Can they, like psychedelics, help stimulate a mystical experience? Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff might make for a more than capable speaker here. Would recommend checking out his book Present Shock to get an idea of what he has to offer.

  • It seems to me the current spate of psychedelic therapy research studies are pointing to some sort of spiritual/soul healing as not only a reality, but as crucial and necessary for the overall healing/growth process. There are numerous examples and accounts to be found (ranging from end-of-life/terminal illness anxiety to PTSD sufferers), but here is one particular article from Aeon Magazine that was just posted last week:

    How psychedelics are helping cancer patients fight off despair

    Choice quotes:

    - About an hour later, as the drug began to take effect, the blackness inside his head turned into an onrushing cascade of white dots that swiftly morphed into a kaleidoscope of geometric patterns – gears, stars, triangles, trapezoids – in all the colours of the rainbow. He started to hear an insistent voice in his head, telling him over and over: ‘I’m going to show you what I can do.’ Fernandez slowly suspended his skepticism and reluctantly surrendered to the experience. What he perceived to be his spirit guide took him on a Marley’s ghost-style journey, with stops at his own funeral, a hellish place littered with skulls that smelled of death where he was in excruciating pain. Once his agony reached an almost unbearable crescendo, his spirit guide catapulted him through hundreds of light years of space, allowing him to escape the pain. ‘I went into this mystical state, and this intense visual palate took over my mind,’ Fernandez said.

    - ‘For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving,’ he said. ‘Something inside me snapped and I experienced a profound psychic shift that made me realise all my anxieties, defences and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.’

    - When Gina Baker (not her real name) underwent a psilocybin session, like Nick Fernandez, at NYU in October 2012, she was riddled with constant worries that her ovarian cancer would return. The anxiety, along with her tough childhood, had caused her to lose control of her emotional eating, but during her psychedelic session, she was able to get past both. ‘I spent my entire life feeling like an outsider and that the world was a hostile place,’ said the 67-year-old Brooklyn native. ‘But under the influence of the drug, I saw my fear as a big black mass and I felt like I was going to be eaten alive. And then suddenly, the fear just disappeared and I felt enveloped in intense love, more deep and profound than I have ever felt, and not just for my family and dear friends but I felt at one with the universe. It was a moment of complete peace and lack of self consciousness.’

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