The following article has been reprinted from the PJSA. It is old and although checked for accuracy (using spelling in British English!) it is possible that reference numbers or other typographical errors have arisen. Nevertheless, as this paper reflects the pioneering work in the area of subjective anomalous experience in relation to clinical psychiatric frameworks, it may be of enormous importance to phenomenologists and researchers and it is reprinted here for academics.

Culture, Psychopathology and Psi: a Clinical Relationship

Parapsychological J. of S.A. 1982. of S.A. 1982, 3:1, 1-5


Vernon M. Neppe BA, MB, BCh, MMed (Psych), PhD (Med), DPM, FF Psych (SA)
Michael Ewart Smith MB, ChB, D, (Obst) RCOG, MFGP (SA)

Key Words

Parapsichiatry Magical thinking Metapsychiatry Magic Transcultural parapsychology Bewitchment Normality Psychopathology


Cultural acceptance and rejection of psychic abilities may contribute to the induction of psychopathologies. Magic, magical thinking, bewitchment, transcultural consistency and the limited differentiation of psi from psychosis are analyzed at neuropsychiatric levels.

An important area for exploration is the relationship of the cultural facets of psychiatric illness to parapsychology. The scope of such a relationship in it’s narrower sense involving the interaction of psychiatry with parapsychology (parapsichiatry) ) and in its broader framework involving interactions of psychiatry with all mysticism (metapsychiatry) is very broad. This paper highlights certain clinical transcultural problems in parapsichiatry.

It is necessary to distinguish the apparent normality of the paragnost from the perceived abnormality of the psychiatrically ill. Normality can be conceived, inter alia, along statistical, sociological and psychological frameworks. A practical conceptualization involves a functional definition with a sociocultural base: the normal person is able to cope adequately at intrapsychic, interpersonal, familial, occupational and leisure levels. Conversely, the psychiatrically ill person does not cope at at least one of these levels, often resulting in behavior perceived as abnormal within his culture. The paragnost generally functions within his community: he has no major problems with coping and is therefore perceived as 'normal'; the mentally ill person may or may not perceive himself as ill - if he does not (and this occurs frequently in the psychotic, who by

* (At that stage) Dept of Psychiatry, University of the Witwatersrand

Neppe, V.M. & Ewart Smith, M.


definition is out of touch with reality), his culture generally does.

Conversely, the paragnost may live in a culture which may not accept this claimed paranormal experiences. The authors believe this rejection may cause him to react an one of at least five fundamental ways. First he may deny such experiences and consciously or unconsciously suppress them; this may express itself in a variety of compensatory behavior. Second, he may become distressed because of his social rejection: this may interfere with his functioning and manifest with anxiety or other neurotic features. Third, he may find his idiosyncratic experiences difficult to handle. He may be uncertain as to whether his experiences are real or just a figment of his imagination: this may disturb his reality testing, as he has no way of comparison of his idiosyncratic experience. Consequently, psi experience could potentially precipitate psychosis - a Psychic Psychosis. Alternatively, the paragnost may reject the rejection by his culture and not deny his experiences, producing feelings of alienation. This may cause him to react in the fifth way: he may join a subculture which accepts him - to the broader culture this shift in group identity may be interpreted is not coping.

Other writers have similar impressions. Morris stresses how personal psi experience can variously produce fear of insanity because of not understanding one's subjective experiences, morbid preoccupation with psychic experiences, feelings of isolation, anxiety, physical symptoms and depressions. Young stresses the potential dysfunctionality that 'psychic' children may cause in their families - either because they because 'exhibits of special abilities, or because they are rejected and punished. Weiner stresses adverse psychological reactions to their initial psychic experiences5, and Bender, the potential for psychological dependence on such practices as automatic writing5. Bender uses the term 'mediumistic psychosis' for reality breaks'. Thus, secondary psychopathology theoretically can be the result of an individual's subjective paranormal experiences.

the opposite extreme is the acceptance in a culture of special powers. This phenomenon is, of course something which is extremely common in certain so-called preliterate cultures particularly where the 'diviners' and ‘indigenous healers’ (e.g.- the sangomas in South African Blacks in ) are

Parapsychological j of S.A. 1982, 3:1, 1-5


regarded as having the ability to apprehend information by other than the conventional, sensory means or to influence events without using the recognized physiological or physical mechanisms. For example, Tedder found that all thirty preliterate cultures reviewed, believed that such mechanisms (i.e. psi) could he used to cause evil, and Levy-Bruhi has pointed out that unnatural deaths in the primitive tribes were attributed to people who held grudges against the victim.

There are several parapsichiatric issues relating to this.

Firstly, the methods used by the ' indigenous healer' involve a great deal of superficially irrelevant ritual. Such rituals usually involve carrying out complex sequences of actions. This may, in fact, be regarded as the non-psi ("magic") components that may create a special environment or altered state of consciousness conducive to the occurrence of that allegedly elusive phenomenon, psi.

Secondly, the ‘magical thinking’; that allows members of such 'primitive’ tribes to regard extrasensorimotor phenomena as normal , is perceived as an example of possible schizophrenic though disorder by the official diagnostic system of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). While ‘magical thinking’ (e.g. telepathy, clairvoyance) can certainly be symptomatic of psychosis, and is particularly common in schizophrenia , there is a need for psychiatrists to be aware of the of the background of their patients. In this regard, the APA itself recognizes that 'magical thinking' can be normal in primitive cultures.

Thirdly, the belief in external agencies, such as the sangoma or black magic, being able to induce certain occurrences, makes essential the perception of bewitchment within these cultures as normal and not a delusion, per se. Similarly, the ego-defence mechanism of projection in which defective behavior or thinking within oneself is attributed to external agencies, indigenous in the primitive culture.

Fourthly, Eisenbud stresses the remarkable consistency of specific facets of the belief in psi phenomena in the preliterate culture. He emphasizes that with the advance of Westernized scientific endeavour such phenomena have been rejected and ridiculed as the defective beliefs of the 'primitives’.

Neppe, V.M. & Ewart Smith, M.


One wonders whether scientific advance has not rejected basically intuitive truths which parapsychological research is now beginning to validate scientifically If this is so, it raises the possibility that some psychiatric illness may be 'precipitated' by external agencies as believed by the primitives'. Such precipitation may be via two mechanisms: their belief that they have been bewitched may affect the behavior of the patient, producing ostensible psychopathology, such as schizophreniform illness, hysterical dissociation or conversion; alternatively the "telepathic infection' or pychokinetic biological influence could be claimed to directly manipulate the victim's behavior.

Finally. primitive cultures may accept as 'psychic' people who exhibit the biochemical and clinical abnormalities of the psychotic or of the epileptic. This is so, because their aberrant pattern of behavior may be perceived as part of the magical ritual of inducing psi; and their delusional thinking and hallucinatory perceptions may be interpreted as paranormal knowledge. In our experience of the indigenous Black South African peoples, this kind of patient is not infrequently admitted to psychiatric wards: the onset of a psychotic illness in this culture is frequently associated with the 'awakening' by the patient that he must become a sangomas. In a rather different way, indigenous Black Africans training to be 'sangomas are frequently required to eat a 'concoction' which is apparently hallucinogenic: consequently such people sometimes require psychiatric treatment for acute organic brain syndromes due to hallucinogen intoxication. Yet the practice persists, possibly because of the culturally perceived 'mind expansion' after taking such a concoction.

In both these illnesses - onset of a psychosis and acute intoxication - the reason for referral is invariably disruptive behavior within their community13. In this way. their culture recognizes the abnormality. Thus, even when their belief system is not alien, and they are regarded within their culture as genuine indigenous healers, their culture will still recognize departure from normal behavior. By so doing, they will impose their normative values. This paradox can almost certainly be extrapolated to western cultures: when claimed paranormal experiences do not cause disruption, they are tolerated at least, by the subculture; however; the presence of such experiences in a person who is manifesting disruptive behavior will not protect him from his culture perceiving that he requires treatment.

Parapsychological J. of S.A. 1982, 3l 1-5


The content of unusual subjective experiences themselves should not be perceived as necessarily symptomatic of psychosis. A diagnosis of psychosis should be based on the form of the underlying psychopathology being present.

This paper has examined several direct implications of transcultural parapsychology in relation to psychopathology. The 'normality' of the paragnost is the rule, but be, like everyone else should be perceived within the holistic context of functionality and behavior.


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  11. Greyson B. 'Telepathy in mental illness: deluge or delusion?' J. Nerv. Ment. Dis. 1977, 165:3, 184-199.
  12. Eisenbud, 3. Paranormal Foreknowledge. New York: Human Sciences Press. 1932, pp 218-230.
  13. Neppe V.M. and Kramers M.J. 'A Study of Black Persons Admitted to a South African Mental Hospital'. Chapter in Freed E.D. (Editor). Some aspects of Psychiatry in the blacks of South Africa. In process

Neppe, V.M.


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