Intuition, the Paranormal, and Bipolar - Any Connection?

Patient Expert

Last week, I opened up a can of worms only to find the elephant in the room. The topic was the connection between intuition and bipolar, which is sort of taboo outside our community. As Spirit Animal in a comment put it:

"It's difficult to talk to doctors or therapists about it because you're afraid they're going to think, 'yeah, she's losing her mind again.' That or they tell you that it's a false perception due to either your bipolar or borderline personality disorder... "

A few days later, in my Question of the Week, I turned up the heat by asking you about your uncanny experiences (either psychic or odds-beaters, however you saw it). Once again, it became pretty clear that these are the sort of things we don't discuss with our doctors. As Elizabeth replied:

"We're called nutjobs for recounting these experiences, and don't you dare mention them to your psychiatrist unless you want a stay in a psych ward complete with an ECT session or two."

Oddly enough, Elizabeth pointed out that two of the giants of psychiatry/psychology, Carl Jung and William James, gave such experiences a lot of credence. Jung's mother, who was depressed a good deal of the time, claimed to be visited by spirits during the night. In his memoir, Jung recounted seeing a luminous head, detached from the body, floating from her room.

Jung felt that the human psyche is "by nature religious," and spent much of his life investigating eastern and related philosophies, which influenced his take on personal healing - individuation - as the reconciliation of opposites, the yin with the yang.

Meanwhile, William James, in his classic "The Varieties of Religious Experience," felt that healthy-mindedness had a lot to do with "union with the divine" whereas depression was the sign of a "divided soul" that could be cured by a mystical experience.

None of this sat well with Freud, who described the Catholic faith as "the enemy" and who expressed his fear of psychiatry descending into a "black tide of mud of occultism."

Freud was understandably reacting to an age of superstition that for centuries had devalued science and had resulted in the inhumane treatment of individuals with mental illness (regarded as being justly punished by demons).

Jung and James, in the meantime, had serious misgivings about science as the new dogma, divorced from inner spiritual experience.

These days, science is bridging the gap, but it is not yet there. Investigations into creativity and intuition point to variations in the way the brain processes information. In either endeavor, the mind arrives at conclusions that cannot be explained as the product of rational and linear thinking.

One way of looking at it is that in the creative and/or intuitive mind, the brain may be inefficient at filtering out so-called irrelevant inputs. Strongly allied to this notion is the idea that creative/intuitive brains may be frighteningly efficient at connecting these so-called irrelevant inputs into something transcendentally relevant.

The temporal lobes and association cortices are two areas of the brain under investigation.

What needs to be noted is that science sees intuition and creativity as normal behavior writ large. As I heard Nancy Andreassen of the University of Iowa explain at a psychiatric conference, because we daily find ourselves dealing with novel situations, our brains are wired to be creative to a certain extent. For instance, when we have normal conversations, we are typically constructing sentences from scratch.

Conversely, too much inefficiency in our filtering and/or too much efficiency in making connections are hallmarks of an overwhelmed brain, unable to register reality. Not surprisingly, Dr Andreassen is a leading expert in schizophrenia. Likewise, manic episodes may be sign of too much of a good (or bad) thing.

Okay, but what about so-called psychic experiences? Is there any way of interpreting these as normal behavior writ large? What, for instance, are we to make of this from Spirit Animal?

"I even have the ability to 'sense' my close friends emotions when we're miles apart or haven't even spoken in a long time. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me if I'm psychic."

Or this from Elizabeth ...

"I was in a small group in my high school English class. The group was discussing the debate we were preparing, and I said, why are we going over this again? We said all this last small-group meeting. Nope. It was the first time we'd met in group. My classmates already thought I was weird, and I'd just confirmed it."

I, for one, accept the veracity of Spirit Animal's and Elizabeth's accounts. Weird stuff happens, and both take it in stride. But for some, psychic is a springboard to psychotic. As Moonmaiden notes: "When I have been psychotic I have thought I was having lots of paranormal experiences."

Roses4dean, on the other hand, has an entirely different take:

"My paranormal experiences started with shadow figures in my room and being physically touched and just knowing when a spirit presence was near by. I have too many to list here. These unexplained phenomena have led me in the search for more answers, I have been a paranormal investigator for the past 15 years ..."

Heightened reality vs breakdown in processing reality - where is the dividing line? Science is still struggling to find an answer. So are we.