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Culture and Psychopathology

The Anthropology of Mental Illness

Georgi Onchev

The book sets itself the ambitious task of exploring the relationship between human culture and the phenomenon of mental illness, that which has embarrassed, fascinated, and challenged educated minds throughout the centuries. Various manifestations of this phenomenon are examined in specific cultural contexts, presented with notable competence, and illustrated with memorable descriptions of clinical cases. (…) The book and its author have many merits—the capacity to present a highly specialized subject in an intelligible, absorbing, and simultaneously profound manner; respectable erudition and academic self-discipline; and the notable skill of handling different domains of knowledge, among others. The most remarkable quality, however, is the author’s concern both for the reader—who is carefully led into quite unknown and still frightening territory—as well as for his protagonists, the mentally ill. All told, I believe that this book will be of interest not just to students of psychiatry, psychology, and anthropology, but also to a broader circle of readers who are excited by the wretched and admirable destiny of being human.

Haralan Alexandrov

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6 Mysticism and Psychopathology


God has no religion.

M. Gandhi

Religions, superstitions, and mystical knowledge have accompanied mankind since prehistory, when we acquired the unique ability to recognize our own experiences. Their appearance was probably connected to that of an awareness about mortality (Chapter 2). They are not simply an irrevocable part of culture, but something which arose simultaneously alongside it, shaping it too. Beliefs in the afterlife and miracles satisfy the primary human needs for explanation, meaning, and consolation—these are just as archaic as the biological imperatives of sex, hunger, thirst, survival, or acceptance.

In physical and mental illness, the role of religion and paranormality increases due to the limitations of the biomedical model’s neglecting the experiential aspect of illness.74, 84 Descartes called the human body a machine, and this attribute continues to influence the development of medicine even today.204 Following this logic is the notion that organs, like the components of a machine, can be repaired—with physicians acting as mechanics and technicians. Contemporary technological medicine does not differentiate the subjective illness experience from the objective picture, and, as it is preoccupied more with measurements than meaning, it doesn’t take patients’ beliefs very much into account either.84 The main reason behind the steadiness of magical beliefs during illness is that they add meaning to the experience of being ill. From the viewpoint of scientific medicine, this meaning is irrelevant, but for some people would be more acceptable than a casual genetic mutation or...

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