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“Turn and face the strange”: A personal goodbye to David Bowie

“There is a well known cliché that you should never meet your heroes but if David Bowie or Paul McCartney fancy coming round to my house for dinner I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be lost for words”.

This was the last sentence I wrote in my blog on the psychology of being starstruck less than a month ago. I, like millions of others, was deeply shocked to learn of Bowie’s death from liver cancer earlier this week (January 10) two days after his 69th birthday.

I first remember hearing David Bowie on a 1975 edition of Top of the Pop(when the re-release of ‘Space Oddity’ reached No.1 in the British singles chart). Although I heard the occasional Bowie song over the next few years (‘Golden Years’, ‘Sound and Vision’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ being some of the songs I taped off the radio during the weekly chart rundown) it wasn’t until ‘Ashes To Ashes’ reached the UK No. 1 spot in the week of my 14th birthday (late August 1980) that I became a Bowie convert.

I still vividly remember buying my first Bowie album – a vinyl copy of his first greatest hits LP (Changesonebowie) on the same day that I bought the third album by The Police (Zenyatta Mondatta) and the latest issue of Smash Hits (that had Gary Numan on the cover with a free yellow flexidisc of the track ‘My Face’ by John Foxx). It was Saturday October 4th, 1980. Ever since that day I’ve been collecting David Bowie music and now have every single song that he has ever commercially released along with hundreds of bootlegs of unreleased songs and live recordings.

My collection of Bowie books is ever growing and I have dozens of Bowie DVDs (both his music and films in which he has appeared). In short, I’m a hardcore fan – and always will be. Like many other fans, I’ve spent all this week listening to his final studio LP (Blackstar) and poring over the lyrics knowing that he wrote all these songs knowing that he had terminal cancer. The first line of ‘Lazarus’ appears particularly poignant in this regard (Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now/Look up here, man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose”).

Anyone who’s been a regular reader of my blog will know that when I get a chance to mention how important he has been in my life, I do so (and do so in writing). I mentioned him in my articles on the psychology of musical preferences, on the psychology of a record-collecting completist, on record collecting as an addiction, and on the psychology of pandrogyny. I’ve also mentioned him (somewhat predictably) in my articles on the psychology of Iggy Pop, and the psychology of Lou Reed (two more of my musical heroes).

I’ve also been sneaking the titles of his songs into the titles of my blog articles ever since I started my blog including ‘Space Oddity’ (in my article on exophilia), ‘Holy Holy’ (in my article on Jerusalem Syndrome), ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (in my article on ‘cremainlining‘), ‘Under Pressure’ (in my article on inflatable rubber suit fetishism), and ‘Changes’ (in my article on transformation fetishes).

When I started writing this article I did wonder whether to do ‘the psychology of David Bowie’ but there is so much that I could potentially write about that it would take more than a 1000-word blog to do any justice to one of the most psychologically fascinating personalities of the last 50 years (Strange Fascination by David Buckley being one of the many good biographies written about him).

Trying to get at the underlying psychology of someone that changed personas (‘the chameleon of pop’) so many times during his career is a thankless task. However, his desire for fame started early and he was determined to do it any way he could whether it was by being a musician, a singer, an actor, a mime artist, an artist, or an entrepreneur (arguably he has been them all at one time or another). Being behind a mask or creating a persona (or “alternative egos” as Bowie called them) was something that got Bowie to where he wanted to be and I’m sure that with each new character he became, the personality grew out of it.

As an academic that studies addiction for a living, Bowie would be a perfect case study. Arguably it could be argued that he went from one addiction to another throughout his life, and based on what I have read in biographies a case could be made for Bowie being addicted (at one time or another) from cocaine and nicotine through to sex, work, and the Internet.

Bowie also had a personal interest in mental health and various mental disorders ran through his family (most notably his half-brother Terry Burns who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and committed suicide in January 1985 by jumping in front of a moving train. A number of his aunts were also prone to clinical depression and schizophrenia). Bowie first tackled his “sad [mental] inheritance” in ‘All The Madmen’ (on his 1971 The Man Who Sold The World LP) and was arguably at his most candid on the 1993 hit single ‘Jump They Say’ that dealt with is brother’s mental illness and suicide.

Like John Lennon, I’ve always found Bowie’s views on almost anything of interest and he was clearly well read and articulate. He described himself as spiritual and recent stories over the last few days have claimed he almost became a Buddhist monk. Whether that’s true is debatable but he was certainly interested in Buddhism and its tenets. Now that I am carrying out research into mindfulness with two friends and colleagues who are also Buddhist monks (Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon), I have begun to read more on the topic. One of the things that Buddhism claims is that identity isn’t fixed and nowhere is that more true than in the case of David Bowie. Perhaps the chorus one of his greatest songs – ‘Changes’ from his 1971 Hunky Dory LP says it all:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/Turn and face the strange/Ch-ch-changes/Don’t want to be a richer man/Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/Turn and face the strange/Ch-ch-changes/Just gonna have to be a different man/Time may change me/But I can’t trace time”

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cann, K. (2010). Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974). Adelita.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Hewitt, P. (2013). David Bowie Album By Album. London: Carlton Books Ltd.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

Wholly holy: A beginner’s guide to Jerusalem syndrome

In a previous blog I examined Stendhal Syndrome where some people when exposed to the concentrated works of art, experience a wide range of symptoms including physical and emotional anxiety (rapid heart rate and intense dizziness, that often results in panic attacks and/or fainting), feelings of confusion and disorientation, nausea, dissociative episodes, temporary amnesia, paranoia, and – in extreme cases – hallucinations and temporary ‘madness’. While researching that article, I also came across another condition that would appear to be related to Stendhal Syndrome, namely ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ – a condition that I have some empathy with.

One of the things I love about my job is all the wonderful places I have been able to travel to and visit as part of my work. Back in 2010, I did some consultancy on social responsibility practices for the online gambling company 888 and was flown to Tel Aviv to speak to various departments about my work. Once my talks and meeting were over, I experienced one of the best days of my life when I given a personal guide around the whole of Jerusalem. I am not religious but I found myself totally overcome with emotion as I visited one tourist attraction after another.

I say all this by way of introduction to what has been reported in the psychological literature as the aforementioned ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ where visitors to the holy city are totally overcome by the weight of its history. The condition was first described (perhaps unsurprisingly) by an Israeli psychiatrist – Haim Herman – in the 1930s. However, psychiatrists did not begin keeping comprehensive clinical and statistical information on these cases until the late 1970s. One of the most infamous cases often cited in relation to Jerusalem Syndrome occurred in 1969, when a male Australian tourist (Denis Michael Rohan) set alight the al-Asqa Mosque following an overwhelming feeling of divine mission.

In 1999, Dr. Eliezer Witzum and Dr. Moshe Kalian wrote the first paper on Jerusalem Syndrome in an issue of the Israelian Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences. The condition became more widely known in 2000, when Dr. Yair Bar-El and colleagues published a paper in it in the British Journal of Psychiatry (BJP). Since 1980, Dr. Bar-El and his colleagues reported that Jerusalem’s psychiatric services had encountered over 1000 tourists with Jerusalem Syndrome (approximately 100 a year and overwhelmingly evangelical Christians). All cases were sent to one central facility (the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre [KSMHC]) for psychological counselling, psychiatric intervention, and/or admission to hospital. Between 1980 and 1993 approximately 1200 tourists with severe, Jerusalem-generated mental problems were referred to the KSMHC (with 470 being admitted to hospital). Based on those requiring treatment, the 2000 BJP paper outlined what the authors believed were the three main categories of the syndrome.

  • Type I: Comprises individuals that have already been diagnosed as having a psychosis (e.g., schizophrenia, bipolar illness) prior to visiting Israel. They usually travel alone and come to Israel for psychiatric religious ideation.
  • Type II: Comprises individuals with mental disorders (e.g., personality disorders, obsessions) but don’t have a clear mental illness and whose strange thoughts would not be classified as delusional or psychotic. They usually travel in groups (but sometimes alone) and come to Israel for curiosity reasons.
  • Type III: Comprises individuals that have no previous history of mental illness, but who become victim to a psychotic episode while in Israel (particularly Jerusalem). Type III individuals are said to recover spontaneously, and enjoy normality on their return to their home country. They usually travel with friends or family (often as part of an organized tour) and come to Israel as regular tourists (and have a religious home background).

The authors reported that the third type was the most was “perhaps the most fascinating” because it included individuals with no prior history of mental illness and whose symptoms were context-specific and recover spontaneously with little psychological intervention. Therefore, the authors noted that Type III Jerusalem Syndrome is not associated with other psychopathologies, and is this is a “pure” or “unconfounded” form of the syndrome. Of the 1200 or so cases, only 42 were classified as Type III.

Despite the many reported case of Jerusalem Syndrome, in subsequent responses to the BJP paper, Kalian and Witzum then disputed its existence and claimed it is just a variant of schizophrenic illness. They wrote in a letter that:

Our accumulated data indicate that Jerusalem should not be regarded as a pathogenic factor, because the morbid ideation of the affected travelers started elsewhere. Jerusalem syndrome should be viewed as an aggravation of a chronic mental illness and not a transient psychotic episode. The eccentric conduct and bizarre behavior of these colorful but mainly psychotic travelers become dramatically overt once they reach the Holy City – a geographical locus containing the axis mundi of their religious beliefs”.

The authors of the original paper then responded with yet another letter and pointed out that:

“Our initial account of Jerusalem syndrome clearly distinguished between patients with Jerusalem syndrome who also have a history of psychotic illness – Jerusalem syndrome superimposed on a previous psychotic illness – and those with no previous psychopathology, whom we referred to as having the discrete form of the syndrome. In either case, the symptoms of the syndrome appear on arrival in Jerusalem and exposure to the holy places”.

There have been a number of explanations as to why Jerusalem Syndrome occurs. Some authors suggest that mental state changes can occur as a result of a significant change in routine and circumstances  (e.g., culture clash, geographical isolation, unfamiliar surroundings, proximity to strangers and/or foreigners). These factors compounded with the religious significance to many different faiths (Christians, Jews and Muslims), may be the stimuli that to trigger acute psychotic episodes. Such ‘spiritual’ travel may represent a modern-day version of a pilgrimage. There are of course limitations of the work by Bar-El and colleagues that the authors duly acknowledge including the fact that the study (i) was based on a phenomenological description and was not a research study, (jj) lacked follow-up information, and (iii) did not taken into account changes in circumstances associated with the expected influx of tourists in the millennial year.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bar-El, Y., Durst, R., Katz, G., Zislin, J., Strauss, Z. & Knobler, H.Y. (2000) Jerusalem syndrome. British Journal of Psychiatry, 176, 86-90.

Bar-El, Y., Kalian, M. & Eisenberg, B. (1991) Tourists and psychiatric hospitalization with reference to ethical aspects concerning management and treatment. Psychiatry, 10, 487 -492.

Bar-El, I., Witztum, E., Kalian, M., et al (1991) Psychiatric hospitalization of tourists in Jerusalem. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 32, 238 -244.

Fastovsky N, Teitelbaum A, Zislin J, et al (2000). The Jerusalem syndrome. Psychiatric Services, 5, 1052.

Gordon, H., Kingham, M. & Goodwin, T. (2004). Air travel by passengers with mental disorder. The Psychiatrist, 28, 295-297.

Halim, N. (2009). Mad tourists: The “vectors” and meanings of city-syndromes. In K. White (Ed.), Configuring Madness. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press.

Kalian, M. & Witzum, E. (2000) Comments on Jerusalem syndrome. British Journal of Psychiatry, 176, 492.

Kalian M. & Witzum, E. (2002) Jerusalem syndrome as reflected in the pilgrimage and biographies of four extraordinary women from the 14th century to the end of the second millennium. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 5, 1-16.

Monden, C. (2005). Development of psychopathology in international tourists. In van Tilburg, M. & Vingerhoets, A. (Eds.), Psychological Aspects of Geographical Moves: Homesickness and Acculturation Stress (pp. 213-226). Amsterdam: Amsterdam Academic Archive.

Witztum, E., & Kalian, M. (1999). The “Jerusalem syndrome” – fantasy and reality. A survey of accounts from the 19th century to the end of the second millennium. Israelian Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 36, 260-271.