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Psychosis and Posession

Doug Berger, M.D.

Skeptical Inquirer, 13:1, 92; 1988.

I enjoyed "Neuropathology and the Legacy of Spiritual Posession" by Barry Beyerstein (Spring 1988). He left out, however, the most common cause for one to seem possessed, namely, a psychotic illness.

The most common causes are schizophrenia and manic-depression (now called bipolar disorder). Organic causes (i.e.-stroke, brain tumor) can also produce psychoses. The incidence for schizophrenia is 1 percent in the general population and a little higher for bipolar disorder.

Thousands of people in every state have these conditions. One may have a delusional belief that the devil is in one's body, that one has magical powers, or that one is God. This is often associated with disturbances in the stream of logical thought, auditory and/or visual hallucinations (i.e., hearing God's voice or seeing God or other "creatures"), flat affect, and experiencing the ability to mind-read, broadcast thoughts to others, receive special messages from the TV, etc.

I work in a busy psychiatric emergency room and usually (almost always) a patient presenting a "possessed" state has schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. these illnesses are so common and so bizarre that it would be easy for one not educated to their nature to assume the patient was spiritually possessed. (Surprisingly, some people who work with these patients still maintain that spirits or the devil are ressponsible for changes in their neurotransmitters.)

Beyerstein's article is interesting. We have a saying in medicine: "If you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras." When I hear the police are bringing in a patient whose family thinks he is posessed, I think psychosis. I examine the patient to rule-out an organic condition.

Doug Berger, M.D.

Dept. of Psychiatry

New York Medical College

Valhalla, N.Y.