4 min readHow transpersonal theory is changing psychiatry

Transpersonal theory is changing the way we view human development. It is providing us proof that the human experience is universal. Our existence’s higher goal must be to reach levels of connectedness which goes beyond the personal identity.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, the dominant theories in psychology looked at the human being as a faulty machine.

In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, humans were seen as beings driven by impulses and primitive urges. Despite all the effort to live in a civilized society, Freud believed that many people lived in a state of miserable, unfulfilled, and conflicted existence.

Meanwhile, behaviorists like J.B. Watson and B.F. Skinner looked at human beings as oversized lab rats, with no real capacity for freedom. Behaviorists maintained that all exhibited behaviors of people are no more than reflexes to external stimuli. People responded based on their own motives, and the stimuli that controls their motives (can either be a reward or punishment).

In a way, both psychoanalysis and behaviorism dehumanized psychology, and have removed the understanding of the “self” as a primary goal of study. Based on classical psychology, humans have to behave a certain way. Failure to do so meant that something may have gone wrong in a person’s development. But transpersonal theory is about to change this.

In this 1999 article written by doctors Mark Kasprow and Bruce Scotton for the Journal of Psyhotherapy Practice and Research, they stress that humans undergo further development beyond the adult ego. Depending on how ready they are to the change, individuals may experience transcendental states (marked by states of high creativity, profound feelings of interconnectedness, wisdom and love) or psychosis (with symptoms of chaos, terror, and confusion. Kasprow believes that it is important for psychiatrists to see the difference between these two, in order to provide the right therapy.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of transpersonal theory to psychiatry  is that it hopes to change the notion that people who do not behave based on society’s expectations are “defective” or “damaged”. 

Accounts of transpersonal experience, more commonly filed under the category “spiritual experiences”, abound in various cultures. The similarity in the accounts, despite the differences in culture, shows that this experience is universal, and is a state that must be achieved by all human beings.

Moreover, transpersonal theory shows that even disruptive behavior like psychosis is not a symptom of developmental damage. Instead, Kasprow and Scotton believes that it is a necessary state. Internal chaos enables individuals to strengthen their ego, in preparation for the transpersonal experience. The role of the psychiatrist in this case is not to suppress experiences that might lead to psychosis, but rather, to guide the individual in the journey. Sometimes, the psychiatrist may help the individual process the material that comes out of therapy, other times, the psychiatrist must only remain witness to the process.

Aside from looking at the implications of transpersonal theory to psychiatry, Kasprow and Scotton also summarizes the various transpersonal theories according to William James, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and Ken Wilber. If you need an introduction to transpersonal theory, make sure to read the attached article.

Implications for AI

The entry of transpersonal theory in psychiatry marks  the change in the way we view people, their behavior, and their development. No longer are humans prisoner of their physical and emotional impulses, and the way their parents raised them. With transpersonal psychiatry, human life is no longer deterministic, and human development is given a more profound meaning.

But many of the ideas of transpersonal theory is not unique to this field. For one, interconnectedness is found in many other fields: within the human body [see What Is The Importance Of The Gut-Brain Axis?], within nature [Morphic Fields, Animals, and Humans], and even within the entire universe [Human Life And Its Connection To All Of The Universe’s Creation]. Second, the acceptance of the idea that an individual must undergo a process of purification, the internal chaos, reflects the process that permeates all of life [see initial article on dissipative structures, Who Is Ilya Prigogine?]. Only when chaos is allowed to flourish will new forms arise.

One can then see that there is a pattern to our existence, and that this pattern permeates the entire universe. If we look at illnesses, trauma, breakdown in social order as a necessary step towards the creation of a new, and greater form, then we can begin to see the purpose of each occurrence. This is the context we must work from whenever we think of AI development.

To what end will human-like machines be for? What important developmental stage will humanity miss if it chooses to remove the challenges that plagues its physical existence? What higher intelligence or structure will be created by a machine that has no capacity for transcendental states?

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