Saturday, 21 November 2009

‘Raped by Demons’ or ‘The Haunted Cheese Sandwich’

I’ve read my latest free copy of ‘City News’ – have you? It’s a fab free publication by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an international Pentacostal organisation of Brazilian origin.

Reading about other people’s problems to alleviate desperation at your own may not be the most morally sound pastime, but it’s a human constant. My eye was caught by this one:

"This may sound bizarre and unbelievable, but since a long-term relationship break up I have been getting feelings of something having sex with me. I can fell myself being pushed down and this thing on top of me ..."

The reply is as follows:

"I certainly do believe you and trust me when I say that you are not the only one that is going through this problem. Surprisingly, it’s quite common but people are often embarrassed to seek help for it and often, if they do seek help, they do so in the wrong places. The good news is that we have helped thousands of people overcome this problem. As it is a spiritual problem and not a physical one, it must be fought using spiritual weapons. I would like to invite you to participate in our Friday services for spiritual cleansing. You will receive strong prayers against all negativity and to break any curse. A pastor will be able to give you advice on what else you will need to be totally free from these attacks."

I first saw an article of this type by the UCKG in ‘City News’ Nov/Dec 2000:

“Some examples of Spiritual Attacks which include persistent dreams, sexual attacks, the feeling of being choked in dreams and the paralysing attack where one feels as if an overwhelming force comes over him and takes control of his whole body, except his mind. He can see what’s happening around him, but has no strength to react”

The Church again recommended attendance at its ‘Deliverance Services’.

Digging through history, it isn’t hard to find other examples of this phenomenon. Here are a few more:

“I sleep – for a while – two or three hours – then a dream – no – a nightmare seizes me in its grip, I know full well that I am lying down and that I am asleep... I sense it and I know it... and I am also aware that somebody is coming up to me, looking at me, running his fingers over me, climbing on to my bed, kneeling on my chest, taking me by the throat and squeezing... squeezing... with all its might, trying to strangle me. I struggle, but I am tied down by that dreadful feeling of helplessness which paralyzes us in our dreams. I want to cry out – but I can’t. I want to move – I can’t do it. I try, making terrible, strenuous efforts, gasping for breath, to turn on my side, to throw off this creature who is crushing me and choking me – but I can’t! Then, suddenly, I wake up, panic-stricken, covered in sweat. I light a candle. I am alone.”
Guy de Maupassant
'Le Horla' (1887)

“... a difficult respiration, a violent oppression on the breast, and a total privation of bodily motion ... In this agony they sigh, groan, utter indistinct sounds, and remain in the jaws of death, till, by the utmost efforts of nature, or some external assistance, they escape out of that dreadful, torpid state. As soon as they shake off that vast oppression, and are able to move the body, they are affected with strong Palpitation, great Anxiety, Langour, and Uneasiness”.
J Bond
‘An Essay on the Incubus, or Nightmare’ (1753)

“persons suffering an attack suffer an incapability of motion, a torpid sensation in their sleep, a sense of suffocation and oppression, as if from one pressing them down, with inability to cry out, or they utter inarticulate sounds. Some imagine often that they even hear the person who is going to press them down, that he offers lustful violence to them but flies when they attempt to grasp him with their fingers”
Paulus Aegineta
Physic in Roman Alexandria

“ … one passion is almost never absent – that of utter and incomprehensible dread … In every instance, there is a sense of oppression and helplessness … he [the victim – J] can hardly drag one limb after another … his blows are utterly ineffective”
R Macnish
'The Philosophy of Sleep' (1834)

“You are dreaming and you feel as if someone is holding you down. You can do nothing only cry out. People believe that you will die if you are not wakened” and “I remember waking up flat on my back. Paralyzed … Terrified beyond anything I’d ever experienced before … Sensation of pressure on my chest. The terror! The terror was both from being paralyzed and I knew there was something else in the room.”
Quoted by David Hufford
‘The Terror That Comes In The Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assaults’ (1982)

Even Jonathan Harker, seeing Dracula advance upon him says: “ … I would have screamed out, only that I was paralysed”.

And here’s a well-known pic by Henry Fuseli.

At this point, I should declare my competing interests: I get attacked by demons too. Or ‘sleep paralysis’, as we call it in the real world. It’s not that unusual, and there’s really no evidence that it’s caused by demons.

David Hufford (cited above), listed what he felt were the primary features of the experience, which were an impression of wakefulness coupled with immobility and a feeling of fear. In addition, he noted that a person’s actual setting was correctly perceived in contrast to a dream state where their surroundings could be distorted or false.

Common secondary features included the sleeping position – 90 percent of Hufford’s sample were supine. Pretty much every writer on the subject, to my knowledge, has also noted this aspect. He even found some evidence that a disproportionate number of attacks are suffered by people in traction, or people who were doing systematic relaxation training such as yoga.

Other secondary features include a feeling of pressure on the chest and a sensation of threatening intent or evil nature from a supernatural being. Sounds are also often heard, such as the sound of door or ‘footsteps’ – ‘whooshing’ or ‘shuffling’ noises.

Only slightly less frequent was the sensation that the victim would die: “The dread of suffocation, arising from the inability of inflating the lungs, is so great, that the person … generally imagines that he has very narrowly escaped death” Waller wrote in his “A Treatise on the Incubus, or Nightmare” of 1816. In some rare cases, victims reported an odour. There is also often a sexual element.

It’s easy to understand why people have historically regarded it as a supernatural affliction. “If you didn’t have the notion of ‘evil’, you’d have to invent after an encounter like that”, as one audience member put it at a lecture by Chris French on sleep paralysis at Goldsmiths on November 10th this year.

But more mundane causes have been sought since the time of Galen, who thought the affliction due to gastric disturbance – hence the old advice about not eating cheese before bed-time. It appeared as an explanation of nightmare as recently as 1902 in The Chambers Encyclopedia. The theory underwent a minor change at the turn of the twentieth century, when it was wondered if it was the circulation rather than the digestion which was so critically afflicted by sleeping supine, which in turn caused nightmares. Kant had even formulated the idea that nightmare (the word used in its traditional sense) was a beneficial process which alerted a sufferer to the circulatory distress of his heart.

King James in his Daemonologie of 1597 ascribed them to a “naturall sicknesse … a thicke fleume [phlegm – J], falling upon our breast into the heart, while we are sleeping” while others thought it nothing more than too deep a sleep. Freudian psychoanalyst Ernest Jones attributed nightmares down to mental conflict over repressed sexual desires.

In the modern age EEG technology has helped us to understand the different stages of sleep. Sleep paralysis, described broadly, is when your waking and sleeping functions mistime and collide: there is the normal paralysis of a sleeping body in the REM state (or you’d act your dreams out) but a conscious, rather than dreaming, mind; there is the depressed breathing rate of a sleeping body but panic at what may seem to be insufficient breath; there is the correct perception of your environment, but accompanied by dream phenomena such as dream hallucinations.

Sleep paralysis has been a major contributor to the folklore of fear. One day, when I’ve finished my book, you can read about Maras, Hags, Cauchemars, Civatateos and their kin (which probably includes aliens).

Meanwhile, if you have any weird experiences and can’t afford the bus fare to your local UCKG, take comfort from the fact that the attacks are a well-known, well-described phenomenon, are usually sporadic and will probably just go away. The following precautions are sensible, and probably all you’ll ever need:
  • Don’t sleep on your back – sew a cotton reel to the back of your pyjamas, nightdress or leather gimp suit. Folk tales and historical accounts overwhelmingly place the victim on their back when a position is mentioned
  • Try to sleep regular hours and not to get over-tired. Since sleep paralysis is associated with REM sleep colliding with wakefulness, it is more likely to occur when a person goes quickly into deep sleep - when they are exhausted
  • Don’t nap during the day while you’re going through a phase of SP. Although the majority of Hufford’s reported attacks took take place at night, the number during daytime naps was disproportionately large considering the fraction of total sleep hours they represented
  • Ask your sleeping partner to listen for laboured breathing
  • Try gently and calmly to move. Start by moving your eyeballs; they’re not paralysed during sleep. As soon as a person recovers their ability to move, the attack ends
  • Dr. Michael Persinger has worked on the possibility of a link between strong magnetic fields and certain types of brain activity. Try moving objects which produce strong magnetic fields, such as clock-radios, to a distance while you sleep
  • When the hideous hag/demon/alien/Cadbury’s Smash Robot (go on, laugh at my pain!) advances on you, to your best to feel love and acceptance. Sounds weird. It works. They turn into bunnies, kittens … lovely things. The fear is self-begetting and counter-productive
... which is why is bothers me profoundly that people who offer an intervention, do so by encouraging a belief in demons.

The UCKG’s publication is clear in several respects:

“it is a spiritual problem and not a physical one, it must be fought using spiritual weapons”, and the most appropriate service is for “spiritual cleansing” which can “break any curse”.

Although there is a disclaimer in tiny print on the back page that the spiritual advice is “a compliment to scientifically proven treatment you may be receiving”, it neglects to mention that more mundane explanations and interventions for sleep paralysis exist at all.

Perhaps they don’t know.

Well, they will by next week – I’ve written to them. I’ll keep you posted.

Hag created by Cesar Alonso
Demon from

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Westminster Skeptics in the Pub: Evidence-Based Policy or Policy-Based Evidence?

Professor David Nutt, Dr. Evan Harris MP, & Dr. Ben Goldacre
at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub

“This talk has been approved by the Home Office and so may be damaging to your health” started Professor David Nutt last night at a crowded Skeptics Westminster. For such a serious subject, the evening produced a lot of laughs with the Professor, his fellow guest Dr. Evan Harris MP and visitor Dr. Ben Goldacre.

Professor Nutt started by restating the basics of the area: there are different legal classes of drugs (medical etc) and whether their use was restricted. And that the original intent of restricting drug use was to reduce harm by having a system of relative based harm and appropriate penalties.

He spoke specifically about ecstasy and cannabis, reminding us that neither of them was harmless, but that we needed an empirical approach to measure precisely what harm they caused. Both substances seem to be good case studies of how political fervour can trump empirical evidence. Queen Victoria used cannabis for pain during childbirth, and “MDMA only got banned when people started having fun with it”.

Government implementation of drugs policy has changed significantly over the years. In what many people regard as an ideologically driven era, even the Thatcher government of the 80s was in fact more evidence based in this area: it implemented needle programs, for example.

In fact, prior to the issue of cannabis being reclassified, the advice of the ACMD had only been rejected once since 1971. But in modern times, we appear to have other motivators for policy. Two seemed particularly important.

The first is the undoubted power of the tabloid press.

The second is the attitude of the police, which appears to have changed since the ‘90s when they seemed interested in downgrading MDMA (E) and cannabis because of a lack of public disorder consequences. This has changed and it’s not entirely clear why.

In fact, there are other (than health) serious consequences to using drugs, and getting a criminal record is prime among them. Professor Nutt cited an Australian program where cannabis was decriminalised: it apparently improved users’ relationships with the police, made them more able to seek help for substance dependency and (perhaps most importantly of all) improved users’ employment prospects.

Dr. Evan Harris MP started his presentation deeply abashed:
“I never smoked pot. It’s embarrassing … I was never offered it. It wasn’t big in my chess club”

So clearly inexperienced, but with nerd credentials intact (chess?!), Dr Harris continued by describing himself as a “yappy dog around the ankles of, usually, health secretaries”. His forays into evidence-based health policy had started with questioning the two-week referral time for a possible cancer (apparently, the money spent this way doesn’t produce the best outcomes). Since then he has tackled emotive, polarising and tabloid-friendly subjects, such as drug-induced early-stage abortion and prostitution.

With prostitution, for example, the ‘demand for prostitution’ offence in which police target potential clients has been cited as a concern in the NHS (I’m afraid I didn’t catch the specific citation). There is good reason to suspect that legal measures which alienate the women and their profession further will increase their vulnerability.

Dr. Harris freely admits that governments have many, and often good, reasons for certain policies, ideology, public opinion and financial considerations among them. But when these are the real motivations, a government must admit to that, rather than attempting to dictate or discard scientific advice & evidence. Although there are notable exceptions (he cited Dr. Lynne Jones MP, Paul Flynn MP and Charles Clarke MP), he feels that this government doesn’t really understand evidence based policy: do they think a peer review is “A Baroness casting an eye across something”?

His reports of conversations with members of the government sounded frustratingly meandering and circular. And he was clearly appalled at the timing of Professor Nutt’s famous rebuke from Jacqui Smith, the then Home Secretary, which coincided with her expenses scandal. Anybody trying to knock herself off the front pages, by any chance?

As a member of the Science and Technology committee, it is to be hoped that Dr. Harris can help to make a change. Next week, a set of principles for the treatment of independent scientific advice will go to Lord Drayson for his consideration. See Sense About Science for more.

The evening was fascinating and funny: did you know that you are statistically more likely to suffer a reaction to peanuts than to MDMA? We were all tickled by the complaints of a Dutch cannabis researcher in the audience who complained bitterly that her subjects had scoffed all her biscuits. And Professor Nutt dispelled some of the softer attitudes to heroin use by reminding us that it is a potent respiratory depressor which causes many inadvertant deaths.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects was the role that the media, especially the tabloids have to play. Both speakers managed to convey a sense of how the government is driven by fear of the tabloids and it is, to a certain extent, understandable. Newspapers clearly have an idea of what they regard as a sexy subject, there being a massive weighting of fatality reports toward the narcotic ‘bete du jour’*.

One the other hand, surveys reveal that the public are often considerably more liberal than those ministers running scared of newspapers. So who buys the news and votes as they’re told? “Who is the constituency for stupid drug laws?”, as one audience member asked.

We were all stumped.

I think that last night’s proceedings managed principally to convey that science mangled to provide a justification for policy dishonours both government and science. As Evan Harris always says to Anne Widdecombe about sex education:

“Never more ignorance”

See also Revolutions & Drugs Policy

And Dave Cole at WSitP

* Alasdair J. M Forsyth ‘A Qualitative Exploration of Drug Fatality Reports in the Popular Press’

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Sins of the Mothers

In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Lancelot tells the Jewish convert to Christianity, Jessica, that there is no mercy for her in heaven as she is the daughter of two Jews. Her only hope is that her mother got her with another man. In Lancelot's worldview, Jessica’s actions in life clearly cannot eradicate her ancestry on one hand, nor her mother’s adultery on the other. She says:

“That were a kind of bastard hope indeed, so the sins of my mother should be visited upon me”

In June this year, the Court of Appeal found that the Jewish Free School in Brent had discriminated against a child on racial grounds. The school has an excellent Ofsted ranking, is constantly oversubscribed and is able, under the present rules, to pick and choose its pupils when there is a surplus of candidates. At the JFS, there always is.

The issue with ‘child M’ is that his father was born Jewish, but his mother is a convert. The Office of the Chief Rabbi does not recognise her conversion as valid, since the ritual was performed under Progressive, rather than Orthodox, auspices. Child M is an observant Jew, as are the members of his immediate family.

So it’s not the practice - it’s the paperwork.

Lord Pannick QC, for the school, which operates under Orthodox rules, argued that the discrimination was not ethnic: “… a faith school is entitled to adopt an oversubcription policy that gives priority to those children who are members of the religious faith as defined by the religious authority of the faith.” And the ‘religious authority of the faith’ here clearly likes to maintain a good degree of control over the validity of conversion rites.

I think this tortured issue is difficult, and even distasteful, to a modern, liberal mind for a few reasons. They revolve around the issue of identity in a modern context.

Firstly, there is the ethnic element – and there undoubtedly is one. Dinah Rose QC, representing child M, has pointed out that the JFS would accept a child of ethnically Jewish atheists but exclude others with non-Jewish mothers even when they were “Jewish by belief and practice”. And it occurs to me that as the OCR normally holds Jewishness to be matrilineal, this problem would presumably not arise with an ‘improperly’ converted father; his ethnicity would be irrelevant in relation to his child’s religious identity. So there are gender equality issues too.

Secondly, I think it jars with the modern trend to individuality, the permission to ‘self-declare’. We would resist being told which football team to support, which way to vote and which clothes to wear. We create our identities by our choices and we expect to be able to choose our religion: “Jesus is my saviour”, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”; it’s unusual, in a modern context, to be excluded from a group after that.

There is an historical tradition of religions as guilds – protected organisations where you were ‘admitted’ rather than where you ‘joined’. Initiation into the Mithraic Mysteries was influenced by your class and profession (and certainly by your gender). Entering a medieval religious house was also encumbered, as you usually needed to bring money with you. Perhaps it’s a sign of demand that a group can afford to be so picky. It isn't a particularly modern model.

Thirdly, there is a modern sense that as an individual, you should pay the price of your own mistakes and benefit from the bounty of your own successes. We aren’t supposed to inherit sins or privilege. Horace’s "For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer" is often sadly true - babies are born with defects from alcoholic mothers, for example. But in a modern context it’s an sometimes admission of regrettable causality, not a mission statement.

For example, there is a class of indentured labourers in modern Pakistan called the haari who have been likened, even by organisations as august as the UN, to slaves. They are landless peasants with debts to pay before they gain their liberty, but these debts are not self-incurred. When a child of a few months has a debt that will take years to pay off, we have a sense that he is a different case than a man who has just blown the equity on his house in a poker game.

The Appeal Court in June appears to have judged that the tradition matrilineal test of Jewishness was by definition discriminatory: whether “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist” this “makes it no less and no more unlawful.” “The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act”.

It pointed out that: “If for theological reasons a fully subscribed Christian faith school refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practising Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin, it is hard to see what answer there could be to a claim for race discrimination.”

The issue has certainly created a great deal of discussion within the Jewish community and there are probably significant splits of opinion between different groups, not least between the liberal and orthodox.

The school went to the Supreme Court to ‘appeal against the appeal’* at the end of last month. We await the final outcome.

But for me, the point of the matter is that in our own times, we expect a person to be defined by their practice rather than their provenance. It seems that the fact of this court action has achieved this in some measure, as the JFS’s new admissions policy gives weight to charitable works and attending the synagogue.

Personally, I support the BHA’s call to phase out religious schools “unless they too can be persuaded to become inclusive and accommodating institutions”. Where tax-payers' money is involved, it seems only fair.

(Jack of Kent – if there’s a proper term for this, do let me know!)

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Revolutions & Drugs Policy

The idea that the sun revolves around the earth went unquestioned for along time, supported, as it was, by an unassailable authority - scripture. The relevant passages (King James) are:

“the world is stablished, that it cannot be moved”
psalm 93:1
“the world shall be established that it shall not be moved”
psalm 96:10
the Lord … “who laid the foundations of the earth that it should not be removed for ever”
psalm 104:5
“the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved”
1 Chronicles 16:30

Heliocentrism – the new idea that the earth revolves around the sun – was probably considered in Classical times, but the credit for its reintroduction in the early modern era goes to a German/Polish cleric and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. Although he had worked on his theories & calculations for around thirty years, his ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’ (‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’) was only widely published in 1543, shortly before his death.

The book attra
cted a little controversy: not much and not immediately. In fact, it was dedicated to Pope Paul III. It was another sixtyish years before the book was ‘suspended’ in 1616.

So who threw the frog among the gherkins? One of Copernicus’ champions, an astronomer and philosopher named Galileo, was instructed by the Inquisition not to
hold or broadcast his heliocentric ideas, a request with which he initially complied. When finally invited to publish and comparison between the two models, his work became grounds for his trial for heresy in 1633. He was found guilty and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Which leaves us with a conundrum: why did it take so long for the Church to get its hair-underwear so contorted in its pious crevices? If the issue really was heresy, surely this would have been clear immediately, and actionable upon first appearance?

Galileo’s personality has been cited as a factor, and it’s a valid point. He had explicitly been invited to publish a comparison of the two celestial models, but seems to have made his own viewpoint clear in rather insulting terms. Perhaps he was attempting to trade on his good relationship with Pope Urban VIII, a bond which dissolved under such provocation. Or perhaps he was just a passive-aggressive pillock with autistic-spectrum levels of social intuition.

But I think there may be another factor – timing.

The idea of heliocentrism took a while to gather both a momentum and a backlash. This period co-incided roughly with the Counter-Reformation (reckoned to have started with the Council of Trent: started 1545) and the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). During this vulnerable period, the Catholic Church protected its magisterium even more vigorously than before. An edifice on the back foot was engaged upon a propaganda war.

It took ‘til 1835 for Copernicus’ and Galileo’s books to be dropped from the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. The episode is seen today as an attempt to use blunt political force to suppress empirical and scientific evidence, to hold the world back in favour of received opinion and pre-determined knowledge. The ‘wisdom’ came before the evidence; the cart was put before the horse.

The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has sacked Professor David Nutt as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In July, Professor Nutt gave a lecture on the assessment of drug harms. This included a drug-harm scale with nine parameters which are:
  • Physical harm (acute, chronic and intravenous)
  • Dependency (intensity of pleasure, psychological dependence, physical dependence)
  • Social harms (intoxication, other social harms and health-care costs).
In this lecture, the Home Secretary claimed, Professor Nutt had crossed the line from science to policy.

But since the contents of Professor Nutt’s lecture could probably have been anticipated since 2007 when his ‘Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harms of Drugs of Potential Misuse’ was published in the Lancet, the Home Secretary’s outrage now is harder to understand.

The controversial aspects of Professor Nutt’s approach seem to be:
  • The inclusion of legal drugs, specifically alcohol and nicotine/smoking, with the illegal ones in the scale. Indeed, the placing of alcohol and smoking shows them to be more potent dangers than their availability would suggest.
  • Disagreeing with the reclassification of cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug
  • Applying statistical comparisons to drug use which illustrates their danger in comparison to other leisure activities. Jacqui Smith was famously upset that he compared horse-riding and ecstasy use.
Alan Johnson has defended his action, saying: “He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy”.

But on what is that policy based if not evidence?

Especially when the sole justification for restriction of certain substances is that they cause harm.

Professor Nutt’s sacking has been followed by the resignation of other highly-qualified scientific advisors on the ACMD. Not surprising really: if your academic integrity (therefore reputation and career) must be sacrificed to tow the governmental line, then there will be fewer capable and qualified experts on the payroll.

It’s all the more of a paradox that Professor Nutt has been fired by a government which legislated to allow 24 hour drinking hours. The view of the ACMD’s former chair on alcohol use in general? ‘I believe that dealing with the harms of alcohol is probably the biggest challenge that we have in relation to drug harms today’.

But then the present government changed the licensing laws several years ago in a very different political climate. It is now an edifice on the back foot, engaged upon a propaganda war. Perhaps in the future, we’ll regard Professor Nutt’s dismissal as an attempt to use blunt political force to suppress empirical and scientific evidence, to hold the world back in favour of received opinion and pre-determined knowledge, to put the ‘wisdom’ before the evidence, the cart before the horse.

That’s the marvellous thing about history - it’s all about the present.

Jourdemayne would like to thank one of her familiars for the inspiration for this blog.