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JAMA Revisited
March 24/31, 2020

Spirits and the Medical Mind

JAMA. 2020;323(12):1196. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.13367

Originally Published March 27, 1920 | JAMA. 1920;74(13):890- 891.

The linguistic devices by which we distinguish between a specialist in the laws of the behavior of matter, one who deals with the functions of the body, and still another who ministers to the body diseased, indicate that for human ends we must divide what in nature is joined. We call the one man a physicist, the second a physiologist, the third a physician. The names, like the pursuits, all begin alike, for they are but phases of a common nature. So when any doctrines come forward that threaten to overturn the common foundation of science, physicist, physiologist and physician are equally concerned, and with them in these days the psychologist, who shares somewhat of the habit of mind of all three. But so far as the psychologist has a special warrant to consider belief in spirit-agency or in telepathic or other unrecognized forces, he approaches the matter with the clinical sense congenial to the medical mind.

In this mood he is far more interested in noting why people believe in the revelations of mediums, and flock eagerly to listen to tales and to theories that support their inclinations, than he is in any patient analysis of the evidence to see what it really shows. In the larger aspect this is an anthropological interest, for we know that men in all stages of development have been believers in spirit-agency and have brought forward evidence and theory to hold together their beliefs. We know that this ancient world of folk-belief, of superstition, of readiness to think of things in occult terms, survives in all ultimate issues of human existence.…people always want health, and will go through amazing procedures to secure it, swallowing potions and theories with equal appetite. One could write a history of the human mind in terms of the cures that people underwent and the reasons offered for the cult....

But all this is relevant mainly because the type of mind inclining to such cults has in pronounced cases a clinical interest....In brief, the will to believe in the supernatural, now so conspicuously resurrected, is a symptom of the stresses and strains to which the minds of men have been put in recent years….

Since all movements take their impress from their leaders, we are particularly concerned with the diagnosis of the spokesmen of the cult. Several hundred years ago, the common or even the educated man who had some real belief in witchcraft or in the journeys of witches through space on brooms, would have been normal enough; but today we should find such belief a ground for mental examination. We should assume that a mind adjusted to the thought-habits of today would have set up a resistance to any such beliefs—assuming any trend toward them—so completely adequate as to reject them without effort. Education is the vaccination that confers immunity; but it does not always take. We are then properly amazed that a mind of superior training, especially in scientific discipline, should subscribe to beliefs on evidence that it is difficult to conceive as convincing to any but a prejudiced will to believe.…That a peculiarly imaginative man of letters like Maeterlinck should find in the occult an additional outlet for his fancies is not strange; that he should accept square-root-extracting horses as genuine, as men of former days accepted the unicorn as a plausible equine specimen, may indicate a lamentable failing in logic, but nothing more serious clinically. That Dr. Conan Doyle, though he has long left the medical field for more interesting adventures, should be caught in the same web is in a measure surprising. Yet the conclusion that science does confer an immunity to such tendencies to believe personally engaging conclusions and blind oneself to the irrelevance of the evidence, is not really shaken. The very surprise is a token of the exceptional character of the association of physics or medicine with spirits. For here, too, there is dissociation with a wall rather than a cleft between; the physicist and the physician, though they keep house in the same tenement of clay with the believer in spirits, are not cooperative, though the one borrows utensils and recipes from the other.

In the dissemination of such views, the medical mind has alike an interest and a responsibility. The real illumination of these intricate and elusive relations lies in their clinical aspect; for the clinical sense is a cultivated variety of prospecting among human expressions, and diagnosis is merely an expert form of “sizing up” the sorts and conditions of men that impart variety to an otherwise dull existence....In considering the sources and significance of the revival of belief in spirits and the increased tendency to credit varieties of belief and indulge in conclusions reminiscent of earlier stages of mental growth, the medical mind contributes not only an interest associated with its responsibility, but also something in the way of a map to plot the phenomena in an intelligible system.

Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.
Editor’s Note: JAMA Revisited is transcribed verbatim from articles published previously, unless otherwise noted.
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