It was Adam and the Ants song ‘Friends’ where I first heard the name of the British pop artist Allen Jones. The song was first officially released in 1981 as the B-side of ‘Ant Rap’ but earlier versions had been recorded for a 1978 John Peel session and during the sessions for the 1979 Dirk Wears White Sox album. The Dirk version was eventually released on the 1982 ‘Antmusic EP’ (and ended up being Adam and the Ants last single before Adam Ant went solo).
In two previous blogs, I have looked at both the psychology of Adam Ant and an in-depth look at all his songs about sexual fetishism and paraphilias (based on an academic article that I originally wrote for Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion). In one of those articles, I noted that Adam’s predisposition towards sex came not from musical influences but from figures in the 20th century art world. Adam Ant’s final year thesis was on sexual perversion and he was inspired by the iconographic images of Andy Warhol, the autoerotic paintings of Allen Jones, the neo-sadomasochistic fantasies of Hans Bellmer, and ‘sexpop’ travellers like Eduardo Paolozzi, Francis Bacon and Stanley Spencer. In 1977, Adam said:
“The S&M thing stems from (when) I was at College Art School, with John Ellis (of The Vibrators), and all the time I was at Art College I was very influenced by Allen Jones the artist. All my college work is pretty much like this, this is just a musical equivalent of what I was visually doing at college”
As a teenager I collected badges and the ones designed by Adam Ant were clearly indebted to Allen Jones’ interest in fetishism (you can check out the designs in more detail here). Others in the pop world noted this including Justine Frischmann of Elastica. In a Melody Maker article by Simon Reynolds, Frischmann noted that Adam Ant “epitomised the brilliantly elegant side of punk, using all that Allen Jones type imagery like that table which was a woman on all fours with a glass top on her back. All his paintings were developed from Fifties porn – lots of airbrushed women in black leather. The Antz used a lot of that imagery. On one level, it’s very titillating, but it’s also very pop. So we’re gonna make the next album S & M, with us all in black leather. Actually, I think Madonna‘s ruined that for everyone, ruined the concept of pervy sex forever”.
Jones (born in 1937 in Southampton, UK) is arguably Adam’s greatest single influence and has been cited by Adam in many early interviews. He is best known for his use of slick fetishistic and obsessive objects, often of a sexual character (legs, stockings, shoes, etc.) taken from pornographic and women’s fashion magazines (with rubber fetishism and BDSM themes being very prominent). He was an early and leading figure in the pop-art movement as part of the so-called “dynamic generation” at the Royal College of Art (along with David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Phillips, and Frank Bowing), and from where he was expelled in 1960 because of his controversial paintings. He was Britain’s ‘shock art’ bad boy decades before Damien Hirst. His early work was influenced by the Futurism school or art, and by reading the psychology of Freud and Jung, as well as the philosophy of Nietzsche. One of Adam’s songs ‘Ligotage’ (French for bondage) was directly inspired by his paintings. In the Wikipedia entry on Jones, he is quoted as saying:
“I wanted to kick over the traces of what was considered acceptable in art. I wanted to find a new language for representation… to get away from the idea that figurative art was romantic, that it wasn’t tough”.
It was in the late 1960s that Jones first started sculpting what art historian Marco Livingstone describes in his 1979 book Sheer Magic by Allen Jones as “life-size images of women as furniture with fetishist and sado-masochist overtones.” The three most (in)famous works (sharing as art curator Edith Devaney argued “a visual language”) were the erotic sculptures Hat Stand, Table and Chair made of fiberglass that featured busty mannequins dressed (or rather barely dressed) in patent leather. These works were met with both acclaim and disdain both in and outside of the art world with critics perceiving the sculptures as being misogynistic. Livingstone later went on to say “these works still carry a powerful emotive charge, ensnaring every viewer’s psychology and sexual outlook regardless of age, gender or experience”. One of the better descriptions of the three pieces was by Zoe Williams of The Guardian in an article provocatively entitled ‘Is Allen Jones’s sculpture the most sexist art ever?’:
“’Hat Stand’ is a mannequin in radial leather knickers and thigh-high boots. ‘Chair’ is the most famous of the three: a woman lies on her back, with her knees against her chest and a cushion on top of her. That’s the seat, her calves make the chair’s back. While all the clothes – black leather gloves, boots and a strap – reference bondage, she also looks dead, trussed up ready for some inept suburban disposal. ‘Table’, being topless, is more classically provocative. It would be pushing it to say the figure was adopting a more active shape, though: she’s on all fours, holding up a pane of glass with her back, her head looking down into a hand mirror. Yet the physics of the position make her look more like a doll than a corpse…Does Allen Jones’s art expose how female stereotypes are performed and maintained, by presenting us with overtly sexualised hyperboles, or is it just another part of the age-old tradition to objectify and sexualise women? The debate goes on… One thing is sure though, Jones’s work still provokes reactions”.
More infamy followed when the sculptures were referenced in one of cinema’s most controversial films of all time – A Clockwork Orange directed by Stanley Kubrick (in 1971). In a later interview, Jones recalled a telephone call from Kubrick. “[Kubrick said], ‘I’m a very famous film director, this will be seen all over the world and your name will be known.’ I held the phone away from my ear, I was just staggered anyone would say that. It showed an ego that dwarfed that of any artist I’ve known”. Because of this, Jones declined Kubrick’s offer but the director’s prop team made copies of his work. His BDSM designs were also a key feature of the 1975 film Maîtresse about a female dominatrix directed by Barbet Schroeder (and which also caused controversy because of its very graphic depictions of sado-masochism). Zoe Williams in her article for The Guardian goes as far to say: “Jones’s images have been so influential that almost no image of woman-as-object or woman-as-other-object can be created, even 40 years later, that doesn’t nod to them”.
In 2014, the Royal Academy of Arts hosted a retrospective of Jones’ work and Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph asserted: “you could argue that Jones’s work isn’t really about women; it’s about men and how they look at and think about women. Men use various strategies to neutralise or control desire. One is to fetishise the female body…[while] another is for the man to appropriate it”. The brief biography of Jones on the Artsation website also noted that: “Allen Jones was accused of being sexist and depicting women as undignified, mere willing objects of lust. Jones obviously never intended to show women in such a way, he wanted to question prohibitions and moral boundaries. ‘Nothing is as it seems’, the artist once said and also in this case one should not confuse the appearance of the object with its message. With his objects the artist carries trivialities like sexual connotations from advertising and show business into fine art to stylize and satirize them”.
Bizarrely, perhaps one of Jones’ unforeseen legacies is that his work appears to have unwittingly spawned a new sexual paraphilia – namely forniphilia. As I noted in my previous article on forniphilia, it is a form of sexual objectification and is viewed by many as a form of sexual bondage as the human body is typically incorporated into the shape of a piece of furniture where the person has to stay still for extended periods of time. The difference between Jones’ art and forniphilia is that forniphilia involves real humans whereas Jones’ works of art uses ‘humans’ made of fibreglass. The term ‘forniphilia’ was allegedly coined by Jeff Gord, the man behind The House of Gord (“The Home of Ultra Bondage”). In The House of Gord, there are many types of furniture that women had been temporarily turned into. This included many different types of table, lamps, pedestals, various types of chair (office chair, rocking chair, etc.), footstools, ceiling decorations (including chandeliers), lawn sprinklers, and bird tables. If Jones’ art was the direct inspiration for Gord and his followers, I wouldn’t be surprised. But even if it wasn’t, Jones’ work will continue to live on and will continue to garner controversy and feminist critique.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ant, A. (2007). Stand and Deliver: The Autobiography. London: Pan.
Artsation (2015). Allen Jones – Biography. Located at: https://artsation.com/en/artists/allen-jones
Deurell, J. (2014). 10 key facts about Allen Jones. AnOther, November 10. Located at: http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/4103/10-key-facts-about-allen-jones
Dorment, R. (2014). Allen Jones, Royal Academy, review: ‘dangerous, perverse and brilliant’. Daily Telegraph, November 14. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/11220351/Allen-Jones-Royal-Academy-review-dangerous-perverse-and-brilliant.html
Gregory, H. (2014). Fetish, fantasy & “women as furniture”: The complicated legacy of Allen Jones. Artsy.net, December 3. Located at: https://www.artsy.net/article/editorial-fetish-fantasy-and-women-as-furniture-the
Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: Sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.
Guadagnini, W. (2004). Pop Art UK: British Pop Art 1956-1972. Milan: Silvana.
Levy, P. (2014). A Fetish for Art. Touring Pop artist Allen Jones’s London workspace. Wall Street Journal, November 14. Located at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303309504579185690844235078
Livingstone. M. (1979). Sheer Magic by Allen Jones. London: Thomas & Hudson.
Wikipedia (2013). Allen Jones (artist). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Jones_(artist)
Williams, Z. (2014). Is Allen Jones’s sculpture the most sexist art ever? The Guardian, November 10. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/10/allen-jones-sexist-art-royal-academy-review
(Note: A version of this article was first published in The Independent)
Supernatural games have been played for decades by children and adolescents all around the world. The most popular games – often played on Halloween – include holding séances and playing on a Ouija board to summon up the spirit world, playing hide-and-seek in the pitch black dark, ‘Bloody Mary’ (staring into a mirror, alone in the dark and saying “Bloody Mary” three times to summon up a ghoulish woman), and ‘Candy Man’ (again staring into a mirror and saying “Candy Man” five times to summon up the ghost of a black slave covered in blood and where thousands of bees emerge from his mouth).
The latest game that has done the rounds is the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’ (also known as ‘Charlie Pencil’ and ‘The Pencil Game’) and viewed by some as a rudimentary Ouija board. Both of my younger children saw the game on social media although neither has played it. The game is very simple to play and like ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Candy Man’ is played to invoke a spirit (this time a dead Mexican called Charlie). The game simply involves placing two pencils on a piece of blank paper in the shape of the cross with the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ written on either side of the pencils. Players say the phrase “Charlie, Charlie can we play?” in order to connect with the demon. Players then ask questions of the demon and the pencils move to indicate his answer.
There has been no academic research into the playing of supernatural games by children but there is anecdotal evidence that such games are popular. For instance, according to one news report in the Daily Mail, the sales of Ouija boards increased by 300% in December 2014 and are marketed for children and adolescents as they are sold in places like Toys R Us.
The obvious questions to ask is why our children like to play these scary games in the first place and is there is any harm that children can experience from playing such games? Although there has been no research on the playing of supernatural games there has been a little research on why we like watching scary supernatural films. Psychological research has shown that when it comes to the supernatural the three main reasons we watch supernatural horror films are for tension (generated by the suspense, mystery, terror, etc.), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second reason) unrealism (i.e., being so far removed from our day-to-day existence). However, the research that has been carried out tends to be on student populations rather than younger children and adolescents. The reasons why school-aged children may want to watch or engage in supernatural practices are likely to be far more mundane such as teenage bravado to try and impress others around them or as a ‘rites of passage’ activity (i.e., engaging in an activity that is normally done by adults and makes the child feel more grown-up).
Although I don’t subscribe to the theories forwarded by the psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung, he believed the liking for supernatural horror films tapped into our ‘primordial archetypes’ buried deep in our collective subconscious. However, as with almost all psychoanalytic theorizing, such notions are hard to scientifically test. Another psychoanalytic theory – although arguably dating back to Aristotle – is the notion of catharsis (i.e., that we watch and engage in frightening activities as a way of purging negative emotions and/or as a way to relieve pent-up frustrations).
When it comes to whether playing supernatural games are harmful for children, there are two schools of thought but there is no empirical evidence to support either position. There are those that emphatically claim that the playing of such games is not a dangerous activity. Opposed to this view are those (often religious) people that claim that using Ouija boards and playing supernatural games are dangerous. For instance, Father Stephen McCarthy, a Catholic priest claimed the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’ was a demonic activity. In an open letter to students he said:
“There is a dangerous game going around on social media which openly encourages impressionable young people to summon demons. I want to remind you all there is no such thing as ‘innocently playing with demons’. Please be sure to NOT participate and encourage others to avoid participation as well. The problem with opening yourself up to demonic activity is that it opens a window of possibilities which is not easily closed.”
As both a psychologist and a father of three adolescents, I have yet to see any evidence that the playing of such games does any psychological harm although it’s not an activity that I would actively encourage either. As a teenager and as a university student I playfully engaged in séances and at one party used a Ouija board and it never did me any harm. Some may even argue that such activities are ‘character building’. However, there may be children and adolescents of a more sensitive disposition where such games might have a more long-lasting negative detrimental effect. The truth of the matter is that we simply have no idea about what effects of playing games like the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’ have on the psyche or behaviour.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Hess, J.P. (2010). The psychology of scary movies. Filmmaker IQ. Located at: http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/the-psychology-of-scary-movies/
Hoekstra, S. J., Harris, R. J., & Helmick, A. L. (1999). Autobiographical memories about the experience of seeing frightening movies in childhood. Media Psychology, 1, 117-140.
Johnston, D.D. (1995). Adolescents’ motivations for viewing graphic horror. Human Communication Research, 21(4), 522-552.
O’Brien, L. (2013). The curious appeal of horror movies: Why do we like to feel scared? IGN, September 9. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2013/09/09/the-curious-appeal-of-horror-movies
Regular readers of my blog will know that when it comes to certain films and television shows (and their accompanying DVD box sets) I can be somewhat obsessive and fanatical (for instance see, my blog on my love of all things concerning Hannibal Lecter). I’m one of those individuals that will watch some films again and again looking for further insight and deeper meanings (such as Memento, The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, Inception, Shutter Island, Seven, and The Shining). One of the films I have watched many times is Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller Vanilla Sky (starring Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz), a remake of the Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).
One of the reason I like the film is that it prominently features the concept of lucid dreaming. I’d never heard of lucid dreaming until 1988. I was doing my PhD at the University of Exeter at the time and one of my best friends (Robert Rooksby) was doing his PhD on lucid dreaming. As the Wikipedia entry on lucid dreaming notes:
“A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. In relation to this phenomenon, Greek philosopher Aristotle observed: ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream’…The person most widely acknowledged as having coined the term is Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik (Willem) van Eeden…In a lucid dream, the dreamer has greater chances to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment…Lucid dreams can be realistic and vivid. It is shown that there are higher amounts of beta-1 frequency band (13–19 Hz) brain wave activity experienced by lucid dreamers, hence there is an increased amount of activity in the parietal lobes making lucid dreaming a conscious process”.
Much like the films of David Lynch (one of my favourite film directors), Vanilla Sky is a film forces you to think about what is going on and is one of those films that you can come to your own conclusions as to what it all means. As a psychologist, I love films that play with the mind and Vanilla Sky is one of those films, particularly as psychology in the form of dreams, subjective reality, and the unconscious lie at the heart of the film. The director Cameron Crowe added many obscure clues and hidden references throughout the film to help viewers further explain the film and to add more layers. There are dozens of dedicated websites that have compiled lists of theories, messages and/or hidden clues. In the film’s production notes, Crowe later admitted: “We constructed the movie, visually and story-wise, to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there”. That alone is enough of a hook to get me watching repeatedly.
Another aspect of the film that I love is the perfect use of music. Almost every lyric of every song used throughout the movie interweaves seamlessly between the actors, the in-scene narrative, and the developing story line. The songs are expertly chosen. This is no surprise given that Crowe was formerly a music journalist and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. Like me, Crowe is a huge fan of The Beatles, and referred to the “clues” in Vanilla Sky as his own version of the ‘Paul McCartney is Dead’ rumour that swept the world in 1969 (i.e., the notorious Beatles hoax when fans worldwide became convinced through song lyrics, sonic tricks, and album art that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a look-alike). As Crowe commented: “Divorcing it from whether Paul was really dead or not, that was a really great parlour game: searching for clues, the excitement of different layers, some of them chilling, some of them really funny. It was a great model for us [on Vanilla Sky]”. One of the homages to The Beatles in the film concerns their song Revolution 9. The film contains countless references to the number (or time) 9:09 (on Aames’ wristwatch, a child’s shirt, the prison chalkboard, and multiple references to cats who, has myth has it, have nine lives).
I’m assuming that anyone that has read this far has seen the film (but if you haven’t – spoiler alert – some of what I’m about to write will likely reduce the enjoyment of watching the film for the first time). The thrust of the plot is as follows:
“From a prison cell where he has been charged for murder, David Aames (Tom Cruise, in a prosthetic mask, tells his life story to court psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). In flashback, David [who is acrophobic with an irrational fear of heights] is shown to be the wealthy owner of a large publishing firm in New York City which he inherited from his father, leaving its regular duties to his father’s trusted associates. As David enjoys the bachelor lifestyle, he is introduced to Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz) by his best friend and author Brian Shelby [who is writing a book on Aames] at a party. David and Sofia spend a night together talking, and fall in love. When David’s former lover, Julianna “Julie” Gianni (Cameron Diaz) hears of Sofia, she attempts to kill herself and David in a car crash. Julie dies but David survives, his face grotesquely disfigured, leading him to wear a mask to hide the injuries. With no hope to use plastic surgery to repair the damage, David cannot come to grips with the idea of wearing the mask for the rest of his life. One night on a night out with Sofia…David gets hopelessly drunk, and [is left by Sophia] to wallow in the street outside” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky)
It is generally accepted that everything from this point in the film is a dream (although others say the whole film is a dream). Rather than live out the rest of his life in a disfigured state, Aames has his body cryogenically frozen by a company called Life Extension after attempting suicide. He lives the rest of his life as a lucid dream from the moment he was found on the pavement after his drunken night out (“under the ‘vanilla sky’ from a Monet painting”). However, during cryogenic sleep, the lucid dream goes horribly wrong and starts to incorporate elements from his subconscious. After 150 years in suspended sleep, the company that placed Aames into cryogenic suspension calls in ‘Tech Support’ and Aames is offered a choice to either be reinserted into a corrected lucid dream, or to wake up by taking a leap of faith – literally – from the top of a high roof (that forces him to challenge his fear of heights).
“Conquering his final fear, David jumps off the building, his life flashing before his eyes, and whites out immediately before hitting the ground. A female voice commands him to ‘open your eyes’ (a recurring theme in the movie), and the film ends with David opening his eyes” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky).
Many different websites examining the film claim there are five interpretations of the film’s ending (and this is supported by Crowe himself). The five interpretations (taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on the film) are:
- “Tech support is telling the truth: 150 years have passed since Aames killed himself and subsequent events form a lucid dream.
- The entire film is a dream, evidenced by the sticker on Aames’ car that reads “2/30/01” (February 30 does not occur in the Gregorian Calendar).
- The events following the crash form a dream that occurs while Aames is in a coma.
- The entire film is the plot of the book that Brian [Shelby, his best friend] is writing.
- The entire film after the crash is a hallucination caused by the drugs that were administered during Aames’ reconstructive surgery”.
(I’m most persuaded by the first interpretation). What I also love about the film is that Crowe added lots of little details that take a few viewings of the film before they are usually spotted. All of these help in both trying to interpret the film, as well as becoming a game where repeated watching becomes more rewarding. For instance:
- In the first scene in which Julianna appears, the tune ringing on her cell phone is Row Row Row Your Boat that features the lyric “life is but a dream”.
- At his birthday party, Aames is asked how it’s going to which he responds “Livin’ the dream, baby…livin’ the dream”.
- At the same party, Aames’ best friend Brian Shelby comes into the second apartment wears a t-shirt with the words “fantasy” in sparkly sequins.
- In one of the prison scenes, the word ‘DREAM’ is spelt out backwards on a chalkboard.
- In the prison cell, the book, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (by Carl Jung) is on the table while Aames is talking to his psychiatrist Dr. McCabe. The book concerns Jung’s personal dreams and how they helped uncover his “shadow” and removed his persona (his ‘mask’). In fact one critique of the film by Carlo Cavagna described the whole film as “overtly Jungian”. More specifically, he asserted that Vanilla Sky is “fundamentally about the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, and practically a primer on the most fundamental concepts found in any Jungian glossary…For Jung, the unconscious includes desires repressed by our education and socialization, but there is more ‘psychic material that lies below the threshold of consciousness’. The unconscious is the foundation on which the conscious mind is based”.
- On Aames’ prison uniform the name tag says “Frozen Guy”.
- His patient number on his Life Extension cryogenic tank says “PL515NT 4R51MS” (which if the numbers are replaced with their corresponding letters of the alphabet, it almost spells “Pleasant Dreams”).
- As Aames is getting his prison photograph taken, the slate spells ‘When did the dream become a nightmare?’ (in simple code).
- Sofia calls Aames a “pleasure delayer” twice in the film (but says it so subtly that it’s hard to hear properly).
- When Aames and Sophia are lying in bed after making love, Sophia asks “Is this is a dream?” and Aames replied “absolutely”.
- At one point in the film, Dr. McCabe tells Aames that he’d had a nightmare the day before. Aames replies that “It’s all a nightmare”.
I said earlier in the article that I thought the songs were perfectly chosen. Many fans of the film have noted that the lyrics repeatedly appear to match the emotion of the scene where it is played. As the Uncool website notes:
“For example, the song that plays over David leaving Sophia’s in the morning is Jeff Buckley’s, ‘Last Goodbye’…that morning was there last one true goodbye. Yes, they see each other after this, but after the car wreck when both of their lives are forever changed. ‘Last Goodbye’ also contains the lyrics: ‘Kiss me, please kiss me, but kiss me out of desire, babe not consolation’ which follows David’s plight rather well (as the next time he sees her is after the accident and he wants her affections but not sympathy for his disfigurement)…Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ album (featured in the closing montage) also has some lyrical significance. One of the best lines from the song ‘The River’ is: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Also, two R.E.M. songs are featured. Don’t forget what R.E.M. stands for. Rapid eye movement. As in a state of sleep. It’s when you dream”.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that I simply love the level of detail that went into making the film. I am not a great fan of psychodynamic (psychoanalytic) interpretation, but in Vanilla Sky, the mask that Aames wore became his ‘persona’ and the term was used by Carl Jung to describe the face that we as individuals present to society and (in some cases) to ourselves. Carlo Cavagna argues that:
“[Aames] attraction to [Sophie] is irresistible because she is his anima, his archetypal dream lover, the personification of the feminine nature in his own unconscious. Jung posited that all men carry an ideal image of woman in their heads and unconsciously project that image onto “the person of the beloved…David’s disfigured face, which he sometimes hides with his mask, represents his shadow. For Jung, the shadow is the inferior part of the personality, the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements that, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous “splinter personality” in the unconscious. Despite the negative connotations of the word ‘shadow’, Jung meant it to encompass all those qualities that are suppressed, both positive and negative. ‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly’… [Aames] reality is subjective, and his shadow is breaking through into consciousness. This is the source of the film’s main conflict. In discussing dream therapy and the difficulty of processing and assimilating the unconscious, Jung wrote that several negative outcomes are possible – eccentricity, infantilism, paranoia, schizophrenia, or regression (the restoration of the persona). The revelation and assimilation of David’s unconscious is essentially the story of Vanilla Sky”.
Although there are many critics who hated the film, I love it on many different levels (including the underlying psychology).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Cavagna, C. (2001, December). Vanilla Sky. Located at: http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/v/vanillasky.htm
Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage.
Kummer, R. (2010). “What is happiness to you?” Vanilla Sky (2001) Film Analysis. Located at: http://rkummer.hubpages.com/hub/What-is-happiness-to-you-Vanilla-Sky-2001-Film-Analysis
Rooksby, R. and Terwee, Sybe J.S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 18–28. Located at: http://www.sawka.com/spiritwatch/freudvan.htm
Turner, R. (2014). Vanilla Sky movie review: Beyond lucid dreams. Located at: http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/vanilla-sky-review.html
The Uncool (2015). Vanilla Sky secrets. Located at: http://www.theuncool.com/films/vanilla-sky/vanilla-sky-secrets
Wikipedia (2015). Vanilla Sky. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Vanilla_Sky
Every couple of months I get calls from the media asking me to comment on what some particular aspect or preference of human behaviour says about someone’s personality and/or demeanour. Most recently, I appeared on my local radio station (BBC Radio Nottingham) being interviewed about men’s and women’s favourite animals. The ‘hook’ of the story was a survey carried out by the polling organization YouGov on 190,000 people. The story appeared in the Daily Telegraph with the headline ‘Men identify with lobsters, women with miniature pigs’:
“Asked to pick the most stereotypically ‘manly’ of animals, we might opt for a shark, bear or bull. But a new poll by YouGov has found that lobsters may be the manliest animal of them all. The survey of 190,000 people asked respondents to name their favourite animal. The results were then broken down along gender lines. The animal which was most favoured by men compared to women was the lobster, followed by the alligator and stickleback fish. Meanwhile, miniature pigs, cats and ponies were disproportionately favoured by women. Completing the ‘masculine’ top ten were sharks, eagles, octopuses, ants, narwhals, scorpions and spiders. The next most ‘feminine’ animals were donkeys, chinchillas, pandas, rabbits, guinea pigs, zebras and – perhaps the most bizarre feature of this already bizarre survey – African pygmy hedgehogs. ‘In general, men are more likely to have sympathy for heroic, aggressive or creepy animals while women are more likely to prefer the cute, beautiful and exotic types,’ a researcher from YouGov wrote. He also noted that there were no mammals in the most typically male animals, while every animal in the women’s top 20 was a mammal, apart from the penguin and butterfly. The results were deemed ‘statistically significant’, with the full breakdown of preferred animals by gender available here”.
The DJ that interviewed me hadn’t realised that the poll wasn’t about male and female ‘top 10’ favourite animals but was actually about the top differences between men and women’s favourite animals. Although the interview was enjoyable it had no scientific value whatsoever – so why did I do it? Well, I think the main reason was to please my university’s Press Office, but also in the back of my mind was a little exercise that one of my psychology lecturers made us do in a tutorial 30 years ago.
We were asked to name our three favourite animals and then to write three adjectives to describe the animals we had chosen. I chose the coelacanth* (rare, long-living, unchanging), the South American condor (high-flying, distinctive, endangered), and the duck-billed platypus (unique, nature-defying, electro-sensitive) – thankfully I was able to check my 1985 diary to check what adjectives I had used all those years ago. We were then told by our lecturer that: (i) our first choice represented how we think we are, (ii) the second choice represented how we think other people perceive us, and (iii) the third represented how we really are. Given that I am sharing it here, gives you an indication that I wasn’t overly unhappy with the outcome (and I’d like to think there is some truth in the insight given the adjectives I chose at the time – but that’s more to do with wishful thinking than science).
At best, these kinds of ‘personality insights’ are little more than pop psychology (although arguably fun to do). Arguably the most well-known ‘animal personality test’ can be found in Roy Feinson’s 1998 book The Animal In You: Discover Your Animal Type and Unlock the Secrets of Your Personality (and you can also check out the Animal In You website). According to the website:
“Are you a wolf, rugged and misunderstood, or more like the introspective mole? Take the Animal In You personality test and find out! To identify the animal that best matches you simply answer the questions as honestly as you can. For even more accurate results, you might want to get ratings from people that know you well or have them take the test for you! This test is based on the best selling book The Animal in You by Roy Feinson, which explores how biological and social pressure conspire to form our personalities. If you find it to be uncannily accurate, it’s due to the test’s sophisticated algorithms. When you’ve entered your personal data, the test will build a mathematical model that corresponds to your unique personality, match it to our database of animal profiles and choose the ones closest to you. Though you may have one or two other possible results, remember that each person properly matches only one animal personality”.
I have to admit that I have not personally taken the test myself, but I don’t see that much difference between this type of test and those that you find in astrology books. I have a little more faith in the Myers-Briggs Test (MBT; developed by Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers) that is not a test of animal personality per se but has been extrapolated into animal personality types. The MBT draws on the theories of Carl Jung who theorized that there are four principal psychological functions by which humans experience the world: sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking. In the MBT, these dichotomies (as outlined by the online article ‘What’s your animal personality type?’) are:
- Worldview: Extroversion (E) or Introversion (I) - i.e. would you rather play with your pals or hang out at home with a book?
- Information: Sensing (S) or Intuition (N) - i.e. when taking in something new, do you prefer to take it simply, at face value or interpret / add meaning based on your gut?
- Decisions: Thinking (T) or Feeling (F) – i.e. when making up your mind about something, do you primarily rely on logic and structure, or do you gravitate towards emotion and empathy?
- Structure: Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) – i.e. would you rather things in your life to be decided and set, or do you like to stay open to whatever options might come along?
Based on your scores on these four dimensions, your personality can (supposedly) be mapped onto one of the following animals: owl (INTP; ‘wise and clam’), fox (ESTP; ‘subtle and opportunistic’), sloth (ISFP; ‘harmless and sensitive’), lion (ENTJ; ‘king of the jungle’), deer (ISFJ; ‘territorial and protective’), octopus (INTJ; ‘solitary hunter’), cat (ISTP; ‘secret and unpredictable’), otter (ESFP; ‘fun and entertaining’), wolf (INFJ; ‘rare and fascinating’), dolphin (ENFP; ‘spontaneous and creative’), honey bee (ESTJ; ‘strict and aggressive’), beaver (ISTJ; ‘slow but tough’), dog (ENFJ; ‘loyal and affectionate’), meerkat (INFP; ‘free spirited and kind’), parrot (ENTP; ‘charming and clever’), and elephant (ESFJ; ‘gentle and caring’). Finally, if you are interested in taking the test, you can do so here.
*The Wikipedia entry on coelacanths note they “constitute a now rare order of fish…They follow the oldest known living lineage of Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish and tetrapods), which means they are more closely related to lungfish, reptiles, and mammals, than to the common ray-finned fishes…Since there are only two species of coelacanth and both are threatened, it is the most endangered order of animals in the world. The West Indian Ocean coelacanth is a critically endangered species. Coelacanths were thought to have undergone extinction 66 million years ago…The first recorded coelacanth fossil, found in Australia, was of a jaw that dated back 360 million years…The fossil record is unique because coelacanth fossils were found 100 years before the first live specimen was identified. In 1938, Courtenay-Latimer rediscovered the first live specimen…caught off the coast of East London, South Africa. In 1997, a marine biologist on honeymoon discovered the second live species…in an Indonesian market”.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Barton, S.A. (2012). What’s your animal personality type? BuzzFeed, June 20. Located at: http://www.buzzfeed.com/summeranne/whats-your-animal-personality-type#.wtJJblrrQ
Dahlgreen, W. (2015). Lobsters for men, miniature pigs for women. YouGov UK, March 1. Located at: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/03/01/animals-gender/
Feinson, R. (1998). The Animal In You: Discover Your Animal Type and Unlock the Secrets of Your Personality. London: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Healthy Living Editors (2012). What animal matches your personality? Care2.com, October 21. Located at: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/whats-your-animal-personality.html
Merz, T. (2015). Men identify with lobsters, women with miniature pigs. Daily Telegraph, March 2. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/relationships/11444854/Men-identify-with-lobsters-women-with-miniature-pigs.html
Wikipedia (2015). Coelacanth. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coelacanth
Wikipedia (2015). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers–Briggs_Type_Indicator
Because I am both a psychologist and self-confessed music obsessive, one of the questions I am often asked by my friends is ‘Who is the most psychologically influenced band?’ Based on my own musical tastes, I would have to say Tears for Fears (one of many bands named after something psychological – other contenders based on name alone include Pavlov’s Dog, Therapy?, Primal Scream, Madness, and The Mindbenders, to name a few).
Tears For Fears (TFF) were one of my favourite bands as a teenager and (if my memory serves me) I saw them support The Thompson Twins just as their third single (‘Mad World’) became their first British hit single. TFF were formed in 1981 by Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith after they left the Bath-based band Graduate (mostly remembered for their single ‘Elvis Should Play Ska’ from their debut – and only – LP Acting My Age). They briefly called the band ‘History of Headaches’ but eventually settled on TFF.
TFF’s name was inspired by primal therapy (as was the band Primal Scream). Even from a young age I was well aware of primal therapy as I was – and still am – a massive fan of The Beatles and John Lennon. Lennon underwent primal therapy in 1970 with its’ developer (US psychotherapist Dr. Arthur Janov). In fact, one of the reasons I chose to study psychology at university was because I had read Janov’s first book (The Primal Scream) just because of my love of Lennon’s work. As the Wikipedia entry on primal therapy notes:
“Primal therapy is a trauma-based psychotherapy trauma-based created by Arthur Janov, who argues that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma. Janov argues that repressed pain can be sequentially brought to conscious awareness and resolved through re-experiencing the incident and fully expressing the resulting pain during therapy. Primal therapy was developed as a means of eliciting the repressed pain; the term Pain is capitalized in discussions of primal therapy when referring to any repressed emotional distress and its purported long-lasting psychological effects. Janov criticizes the talking therapies as they deal primarily with the cerebral cortex and higher-reasoning areas and do not access the source of Pain within the more basic parts of the central nervous system. Primal therapy is used to re-experience childhood pain – i.e., felt rather than conceptual memories – in an attempt to resolve the pain through complete processing and integration, becoming ‘real’. An intended objective of the therapy is to lessen or eliminate the hold early trauma exerts on adult life”.
The Primal Scream book recounts the primal therapy experiences that Janov had with 63 clients during a year-and-a-half period in the late 1960s (and who he claimed were all successfully ‘cured’ using his newly developed therapy). Unlike John Lennon, TFF never underwent primal therapy themselves (but read Janov’s work). It was actually Dr. Janov’s 1980 book Prisoners of Pain (Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering) where he claimed “tears as a replacement for fears” (and hence the band’s chosen name). In a 2004 television interview, both Smith and Orzabal said they were disillusioned when they met Janov in the mid-1980s (claiming Janov had become quite “Hollywood” and asking TFF to write a musical based on his work).
Both Smith and Orzabal claimed to have had unhappy childhoods that led them to the work of Dr. Janov (they were too poor – unlike Lennon – to actually have primal therapy and described having such therapy as “an aspiration”). Most of their songs directly or indirectly referenced primal therapy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the whole of their first album The Hurting was a concept LP. Orzabal claimed that “writing the title track was a strange piece of psychic osmosis…I had an acoustic guitar in my hand at the time and played [Curt] what he was describing: that’s how ‘The Hurting’ was written, and we knew for a long time it was the right name for our first album”.
A quick look at the album’s song titles shows how influenced they had been by primal therapy (such as the title track, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Mad World’, Ideas As Opiates’, ‘Watch Me Bleed’, ‘Memories Fade’, ‘Start Of The Breakdown’, ‘Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love’, and ‘Change’). As Paul Sinclair notes in his sleeve notes for the latest box-set reissue:
“Like all great art, ‘The Hurting’ connects. The emotion grabs hold of your heart and gives it a squeeze. The Primal Therapy and Janov influence provide a satisfying consistency, and the band are comfortable in using the ‘C’ word [concept] in reference to ‘The Hurting’…[Orzabal adds] It’s a very consistent album with its own personality. There’s a strong message running through it and some of the song titles were taken from Janov’s writing”.
A number of commentators (including Sinclair) have made the observation that the whole album is about the transition between childhood and adulthood. Maybe that’s why I bought it as a teenager. In contrast to lyrics in The Smiths’ ‘Panic’ (“It says nothing to me about my life”), The Hurting “said something to me about my life”. Sinclair also notes:
“Deep analysis of the songs and navel gazing is not a condition of entry. The genius of ‘The Hurting’ is that on one level, it is just an album of great, melodic, hook-filled pop songs…In the end. ‘The Hurting’ was the album that the band needed to make. There was never going to be an alternative debut. The basic idea behind Janov’s Primal Therapy – the impact that the trauma of childhood had on your character as an adult – was the blood running through the veins of the record”.
Of course, TFF haven’t been the only band to have songs and/or an album influenced by psychologists and/or psychological theory (and of course Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were both on the cover of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Arguably the most well known LP inspired by Dr. Janov’s therapy was John Lennon’s first ‘proper’ 1970 solo LP (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band). Other artists have had direct inspiration from Freud (Freudiana by the Alan Parsons Project, the song ‘Psychotherapy’ by Melanie), Jung (Synchronicity by The Police) and Wilhelm Reich (Kate Bush’s single ‘Cloudbusting’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Birdland’). However, I would still contend that TFF were more psychologically influenced as primal therapy was their life philosophy (at least for a number of years).
Most people would probably argue that it was only The Hurting LP that was influenced by Dr. Janov but their later singles off their second LP Songs From The Big Chair are arguably primal therapy-related including ‘Mother’s Talk’ and ‘Shout’ (“Shout, shout, let it all out” could be the mission statement of primal therapy). However, Roland Orzabal claimed that neither were rooted in primal therapy:
“A lot of people think that ‘Shout’ is just another song about primal scream theory continuing the themes of the first album. It is actually more concerned with political protest. It came out in 1984 when a lot of people were still worried about the aftermath of The Cold War and it was basically an encouragement to protest…The song [Mothers Talk] stems from two ideas. One is something that mothers say to their children about pulling faces. They say the child will stay like that when the wind changes. The other idea is inspired by the anti-nuclear cartoon book ‘When The Wind Blows‘ by Raymond Briggs”.
However, ‘The Big Chair’ (B-side to ‘Shout’ and the inspiration for the title of the band’s second LP Songs From The Big Chair) has undeniable psychological roots. The song was inspired by the 1976 film Sybil (based on the 1973 non-fiction book by of the same name by Flora Rheta Schreiber). Sybil is about US psychiatric patient Sybil Dorsett (actually a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason) who was treated for multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder) by her psychoanalyst (Dr. Cornelia Wilbur). ‘The Big Chair’ was in the therapist’s office where Sybil was treated and where she felt safest when talking about her traumatic childhood. Other songs hidden away on TFF B-sides cover aspects of traumatic psychology (‘My Life In The Suicide Ranks’) as well as ‘anti-science’ songs (‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ and ‘Déjà Vu & The Sins of Science’). However, like Christian historian Nathan Albright, I too believe the second LP and later 1986 single ‘Laid So Low’ are psychologically-based:
“Nor did the interest in psychology stop [with ‘The Hurting’]. Tears For Fears’ second album, “Songs From The Big Chair,” are a self-aware “multiple personality” exploration, a conceptual connection that is often forgotten because the hit singles from the album were so successful…Clearly, the musings about power and anger and memory that inform the work of Tears For Fears, the melancholy underpinnings of songs like ‘Watch Me Bleed’ and ‘Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)’ are fairly easy to recognize, and draw greater meaning the more one knows about the band and its personal histories”.
As the years have passed, TFF’s songs have been less psychological but we are a product of our pasts and I would argue that the band’s output is still likely to be shaped by both their conscious and unconscious ideology. Smith was recently interviewed and he admitted that he still had an interest in various psychologies but that he no longer believed in primal therapy:
“Primal theory blames everything on your parents. So that teenage angst we were going through at the time. Since then, I think I’ve moved on to various different psychologies, but it’s something we’re both interested in. Since then, certainly, I’m not a huge believer in primal theory anymore, but I think that comes from having children”.
Maybe their most recent album (Everybody Loves A Happy Ending) has at last brought the band’s traumatic past to rest. Maybe the music itself became a kind of psychological therapy. As Nathan Albright concluded:
“The fact that [Tears For Fears] have a popular and critically acclaimed body of musical work is itself remarkable, but the fact that their work is heavily influenced by psychology, serving as therapy, serves as an inspiration. Rather than self-medication through drugs or alcohol, the two chose music as therapy, turning their lives into the inspiration for hauntingly beautiful songs in their debut concept album, ‘The Hurting’…And that is the most powerful legacy of Tears For Fears, in providing a way for both commercial viability as well as personal therapy. Many creative people [use] creativity as a way to wrestle with our own demons, and the fact that Tears For Fears were able to do it openly and honestly and sincerely, and successfully gives hope to the rest of us who have chosen to deal with our issues in the light, rather than engaging in false pretense”.
Albright, N. (2012). Suffer the children: Tears For Fears and musical therapy. Edge Induced Cohesion, May 2. Located at: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/suffer-the-children-tears-for-fears-and-musical-therapy/
Comaretta, L. (2014). Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith: Back in The Big Chair. Consequence of Sound, November 6. Located at: http://consequenceofsound.net/2014/11/tears-for-fears-curt-smith-back-in-the-big-chair/
Janov, A. (1970). The Primal Scream. New York: Dell Books.
Janov A (1977). Towards a new consciousness. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 21, 333–339.
Janov, A. (1980). Prisoners of Pain: Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering. New York: Anchor Books.
Sinclair, P. (2013). Tears For Fears: The Hurting. (Booklet in the Deluxe Reissue of ‘The Hurting’).
Wikipedia (2015). Arthur Janov. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Janov
Wikipedia (2015). Primal therapy. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_therapy
Wikipedia (2015). Tears For Fears. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tears_for_Fears
In 1964, the comic actor Peter Sellers had a series of eight rapid heart attacks after which his heart stopped beating and he was pronounced clinically dead. Thankfully, the doctor successfully brought Sellers back from the brink of death by vigorous heart massage. However, what is not so well known was that Sellers said that while all this was happening, he rose out of his body, and reached for a hand in a bright, loving light. As a result of his experience, Sellers claimed that he had lost his fear of death, had become more introspective, and had found tranquility in yoga. However, he still felt “lost” and would spend many discussions with the Reverend John Hester trying to “reconcile the world of plenty he inhabited with the emptiness of soul that oppressed him”.
Twenty years earlier, in 1944, the world-renowned psychiatrist and analytical therapist Carl Jung also had a near death experience. During a heart attack, Jung claimed to have envisioned the earth from over a 1000 miles in space. He claimed that he could see the Arabian deserts and the Himalayas. Hurtling towards him was a meteorite in the shape of a Hindu temple that was surrounded by a wreath of flashing bright lights. Jung felt the temple held the answers to all life’s most important questions. Before he could enter the temple, a spirit who was to die in his place called him back to earth.
The cases of Peter Sellers and Carl Jung may seem very strange but they are not untypical examples of a near death experience (NDE). NDEs are fairly widespread and the scientific study of them has been a growing research area over the last three decades. It has been claimed that with the increased amount of medical technology such as resuscitation techniques, that the number of people experiencing NDEs is on the increase (also check out my previous blog on Lazarus Syndrome – people that have seemingly come back to life after being pronounced dead).
The medic and philosopher, Raymond Moody, coined the term “near death experience” and says that one of the most asked questions that we as humans ask is “What happens when people die?” Do we simply cease to live or do we go onto something else leaving our mortal remains behind? Without getting into heavy philosophical and theological debates, it is clear that research into NDEs can perhaps help us to understand more about our own mortality and what happens when we die.
There are very few reports on how widespread NDEs are. In 1982, a survey by the pollster George Gallup Jr. reported that 15% of all Americans (23 million people) had experienced a “close brush with death” and that about 8 million had an NDE (about one in twenty people). A 1990 survey by Gallup reinforced his original findings with 12% of people reporting that they had been on the verge of death or had a close call involving an unusual experience.
There has been a lot of research into whether particular types of people are more susceptible to NDEs. Unfortunately, very few consistent findings have been found. It seems that almost anyone can experience NDEs. In fact, it has been reported that factors such as age, social class, race, and marital status have little (if any) influence on NDEs. Other factors that have been found to have little influence on NDEs include religious belief, prior knowledge of NDEs, and whether or not the person has a terminal illness.
However, research appears to suggest that the type of death may influence the type of NDE. For instance, those involved in car accidents and other ‘sudden’ events tend to report more cognitive experiences such as a ‘life review’ where the person’s life flashes before their eyes. One factor that may make a person more likely to experience NDEs is a history of abuse or trauma. The psychologist Kenneth Ring (University of Connecticut) says that these individuals are more likely to dissociate from a painful reality and tune into other realities to feel safe. The Seattle-based pediatrician Melvin Morse has even reported an in-depth study of children showing that they too can experience NDEs in his 1990 book Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near Death Experiences of Children.
The original pioneering academic study of NDEs has been attributed to the American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the influential book On Death and Dying in 1969. In her book, she recorded many accounts of NDEs and “out of body travel” from her terminally ill patients and formulated the five classic stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). She also reported that her patients often spoke to people who had preceded them in death, and that after death most of their faces became very peaceful.
In 1975, the first book to bring NDEs to mass public attention was Life After Life, a study of 150 cases written by Raymond Moody, and in 1988 wrote the follow-up best seller, The Light Beyond. In 1980, further research by the psychologist Kenneth Ring published in his book Life At Death concluded that NDEs consist of up to five stages. Based on an in-depth study of 102 cases, Ring reported that most people who have NDEs will experience the first stage but that very few reach the final one. His stages included peace (60%), body separation (37%), entering the darkness (23%), seeing the Light 16%), and entering the Light (10%). As with most areas, there are other typologies of NDEs that have been developed. For instance, the psychiatrist Bruce Greyson (University of Virginia) claimed that NDEs consisted of four different types – cognitive, affective, paranormal, and transcendental.
- Cognitive: These experiences involve thought process alterations, such as time shifts, life review and sudden understanding. These tend to occur with unexpected brushes with death rather than anticipated ones such as those with a terminal illness.
- Affective: These experiences involve peace, joy, painlessness, cosmic unity and encounters with a loving being of Light.
- Paranormal: These experiences involve out-of-body travel, precognitive visions, extra-sensory perception, and hyper-acute physical senses.
- Transcendental: These involve travel to an unearthly realm, encounters with a mystical being, visible spirits of deceased or religious figures, and a final point of no return.
It is also clear that not all NDEs are positive. Although most of the case studies reported by Raymond Moody were uplifting, a small proportion of the Gallup poll (about 1%) described their NDEs as “hell” or “tormenting”. As a result of more recent research, Bruce Greyson, and Nancy Bush refined the typology to include those who experienced more negative effects. As a result, it has been reported that there are three fundamentally different types of distressing NDEs: (i) prototypical NDEs with a tunnel and a bright Light, but experienced as terrifying, (ii) NDEs that had a sense of non-existence, eternal void or absurdity, and (iii) NDEs which features classical hellish imagery of tormenting demons and agonizing pain.
Thankfully, most people who have NDEs appear to have positive after-effects as a result of their experience. In his research, Kenneth Ring reports that survivors typically feel a heightened appreciation of life, a sense of personal renewal and a search for purpose, increased confidence, compassion, empathy, tolerance and understanding. At the core of most of these experiences is some kind of spiritual reawakening – although this is not necessarily religious. Life comes to be viewed as a precious gift. Scientific research also indicates that those who have NDEs show significant increases in psychic experiences. In fact, the more a person has, the more psychic experiences they have. Such experiences include precognitive awareness of incoming phone calls, and middle-of-the-night visits by recently deceased loved ones. Recent research suggests that transcendental near-death experiences show some cross-cultural variation that suggests they may be influenced by societal beliefs.
Some scientists are adamant that NDEs can wholly be explained by biological phenomena. For instance, the neurologist Ernst Rodin claims that a lack of oxygen supply to the brain (known as cerebral anoxia) causes delusions and hallucinations, and is a possible cause of NDEs. The London-based psychiatrist Karl Jansen and his colleague the endocrinologist Daniel Carr maintain that the body’s own morphine like substances (endorphins) increase before death and produce the feelings of calm and peacefulness reported by many who undergo NDEs. The neurologist Michael Persinger argues that temporal lobe brain activity and instability above the right ear is responsible for the deep meaningfulness, early memories and out-of-body experiences. The psychologist Susan Blackmore adds to this theory and argues that instability of the temporal lobe is also responsible for paranormal and mystical experiences. She also claims that the “Light at the end of the dark tunnel” experiences are optical illusions created by the effects of anoxia and drugs in which random light spots radiate from the centre of a dark internal visual field (also known as cortical disinhibition). Blackmore also believes that out-of-body experiences are drug-induced illusions as these are common experiences for people who use the drug ketamine recreationally. However, nearly all of these theories are at best only part explanations as none of them can fully explain all NDE accounts.
There are many psychological theories that have been forwarded as an explanation for NDEs. These range from historically based Freudian and Jungian theories through to more contemporary cognitive explanations. An early psychiatric explanation claimed that NDEs were linked with theories of depersonalization that “defend” the nervous system from the mental disorganization during the death crisis. Other psychologists claimed that depersonalization produces an altered passage of time, vivid and accelerated thoughts, a sense of detachment, unreality, automatic movements, and revival of memories. Some psychiatrists such as Ronald Siegal claim that NDEs are simply hallucinations (albeit very ordered ones) whereas some psychoanalysts claim that NDEs are a denial of death – a hallucinatory wish fulfillment defending the ego from its impending annihilation.
Other psychoanalysts claim that ‘birth trauma’ is the root of all neuroses and therefore explain NDEs as a regression to infantile object relations with the dark tunnel as the mother’s birth canal and the bright light as the mother’s radiant face. The famous cosmologist Carl Sagan saw some merit in this idea and proposed that people who have NDEs are reliving their descent down the birth canal. However, this has not been without its critics. On the technical side, it has been argued that infants descending down the birth canal not only have their eyes closed but their brains are too underdeveloped to allow memories of birth. The psychologist Susan Blackmore has also pointed out that that those born by Caesarian section are equally as likely as those born naturally to have NDEs that feature tunnels and out-of-body experiences! A theory by the psychologist Susan Blackwell claims that the human mind creates various mental models of reality based on its experiences, and the most stable one wins out as the favoured version. She claims that NDEs occur when the mind is in crisis and makes up models of reality such as out-of-body experiences, imagining the mind to be floating up above the body.
Whatever the explanation for NDEs, study of them from them is clearly an interesting area for both academics and the public alike. Whether the explanations are biologically, psychologically, or spiritually defined, it will not stop the growth of scientific research in this fascinating area.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Athappilly, G.K., Greyson, B. & Stevenson, I. (2006). Do Prevailing Societal Models Influence Reports of Near-Death Experiences? A Comparison of Accounts Reported Before and After 1975.Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194, 218-224.
Belanti, J., Perera, M. & Jagadheesan, K. (2008). Phenomenology of near-death experiences: A cross-cultural perspective. Transcultural Psychiatry, 45, 121–133.
Blackmore, S. (1996). Near death experiences. Journal of Royal Society of Medicine, 89, 73-76
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death And Dying. New York: MacMillan
Moody, R. (1975). Life After Life. New York: Bantam/Mocking bird.
Moody, R. (1988). The Light Beyond. New York: Bantam/Mocking bird.
Morse, M. & Perry, P.J (1991). Closer To The Light: Learning From The Near-Death Experiences Of Children. London: G.K. Hall.
Ring, K. (1980). Life At Death. New York: William Morrow Co.