I've been neglecting this blog terribly, but for a good reason: I just finished my first month in a new job. I'm now a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a think-tank in Menlo Park. I'm writing about RFID, pervasive computing, Big Data, and lots of the kinds of things I've written about through most of my career as a futurist.
I was also a bit exhausted with the subject, having spent a year working flat-out on the book, and had the sense that it would be good to have a little break from the subject while Little, Brown started to do their thing with the manuscript. (One of the odd things about a book is that the closer it gets to the bookshelves, the less the author actually has to do with it.) But I'm now starting to work on some new projects in this space, and am going to return to documenting those efforts.
I don't usually read Details-- the fact that three of the articles on its current 10 "Most Viewed" list have the word "Style," and one has the word "Colin Farrell," means that its interests and mine don't overlap a lot-- but this article on "India Syndrome" interested me:
the fervent young enthusiast of yoga, meditation, and Eastern thought who becomes lost—or worse—on a journey of spiritual self-discovery…. This quest to become superhuman—along with culture shock, emotional isolation, illicit drugs, and the physical toll of hard-core meditation—can cause Western seekers to lose their bearings…. Most recover, but some become permanently delusional. A few vanish or even turn up dead.
This psychosis has a name: India syndrome. In 2000, the French psychiatrist Régis Airault wrote the definitive book on the phenomenon, Fous de l'Inde, which means "crazy about India." It relates his experiences as the staff psychiatrist for the French consulate in Mumbai, where he treated scores of his countrymen whose spiritual journeys had taken tragic turns. "There is a cultural fantasy at play," he explains. "[India syndrome] hits people from developed Western countries who are looking for a cultural space that is pure and exotic, where real values have been preserved. It's as if we're trying to go back in time."
It turns out that the phenomenon of place-specific psychoses, inspired by travel, cultural dislocation, and alienness, is pretty well-known among psychologists. Indeed, it was first described in the West among travelers to Italy. Given the ecstatic reactions among some Northern European travelers to the light and art they encountered in Italy and Greece, it's not hard to imagine some experiencing a kind of sensory and cognitive overload that felt overwhelming.
Unfamiliar environments have long been known to bring on episodes of short-term delirium. In 1817, the French writer Stendhal described being physically overcome by the experience of viewing Florentine art; a century and a half later, the psychiatrist Graziella Magherini coined the term Stendhal syndrome (also called Florence syndrome) after treating patients who'd become dizzy and confused, even hallucinating or fainting, while visiting the Italian city.
Neither Stendhal syndrome nor India syndrome is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, the bible of psychological illnesses, but 25 "culture-bound syndromes" are.
The other part that really struck me was its discussion of the downsides of intensive meditation, particularly in an alien place:
The principle behind nearly every form of meditation is that by focusing on breathing over an extended period of time, a person can quiet his mind and uncover hidden elements of experience. This is generally regarded as a good thing. These techniques have become so mainstream that most bookstores carry meditation manuals in the self-help section….
Less discussed are the disorienting and damaging side effects of meditation. Neophytes have reported seeing walls move or rooms change color. The introspective state that is one of the goals of meditation can induce feelings of paranoia and terror. According to Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist at Brown University who studies the effects of meditation on the brain, practitioners can perceive small sounds as cacophonies and lose the sense that they are in control of their own actions. Britton has claimed that this experience, which some refer to as the "dark night," has caused numerous people to wind up on psych wards under suicide watch. Guided visualizations... are "designed to completely psychologically rearrange you," says Paul Hackett, a lecturer in classical Tibetan at Columbia University. In a foreign setting, that kind of experience can be even more traumatizing, especially when you take into account the way some Westerners in India tend to snack at the country's spiritual smorgasbord—a little Ashtanga yoga here, some Vipassana meditation there. "People are mixing and matching religious systems like Legos," Hackett says. "It is no surprise that people go insane."
This reminds me of the work of early LSD researchers who emphasized the importance of "set and setting" in avoiding bad experiences.
Britton, by the way, was interviewed on Buddhist Geeks about her work on "the dark side of dharma." It's really fascinating work.