Three Christs

In the 1950s, three delusional Messiahs were gathered to live together in the same mental hospital. This is one of the most remarkable experiments in the history of psychology and I’ve written about it in an article for Slate.

I’ve had this tale told to me many times, but in a hazy way almost like a myth. I’ve been asked it as a question (“what would happen if three delusional Christs met each other?”) other times it appears as a trite abbreviate anecdote (“did you hear about the three delusional Christs? One decided he was the Father, the other the Son and the other the Holy Ghost!”).

It was, however, a genuine experiment, carried out by psychologist Milton Rokeach in the 1950s, and written up in the sadly out-of-print book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

As Rokeach realised years later, the whole setup was entirely unethical and thankfully we have moved beyond manipulating patients’ lives for academic curiosity, but it remains a fascinating chapter in psychiatric history and I tried to capture the essence of it in the Slate piece.

These tales are surprising because delusions, in the medical sense, are not simply a case of being mistaken. They are considered to be pathological beliefs, reflecting a warped or broken understanding that is not, by definition, amenable to being reshaped by reality. One of most striking examples is the Cotard delusion, under which a patient believes she is dead; surely there can be no clearer demonstration that simple and constant contradiction offers no lasting remedy. Rokeach, aware of this, did not expect a miraculous cure. Instead, he was drawing a parallel between the baseless nature of delusion and the flimsy foundations we use to construct our own identities. If tomorrow everyone treats me as if I have an electronic device in my head, there are ways and means I could use to demonstrate they are wrong and establish the facts of the matter‚Äîa visit to the hospital perhaps. But what if everyone treats me as if my core self were fundamentally different than I believed it to be? Let’s say they thought I was an undercover agent‚Äîwhat could I show them to prove otherwise? From my perspective, the best evidence is the strength of my conviction. My belief is my identity.

Link to Slate article ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’.

One Comment

  1. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    If a person can not escape a room are they a patient or prisoner?
    When everyone ignores the coercion of the patient by psychiatry and psychiatric drugs, you ignore reality, which is insane.
    Psychiatry complains of lack of insight in the person-prisoner and then gives-forces chemicals that prevent intelligence-insight from possibly occuring in the physical working of the brain.
    Looking for God doctor? As only a miracle from God could prevent chemical reactions from happening in the patients brain when neuroleptics are introduced.
    I say the doctor is playing as a God, and as a patient, forced worship does not work.


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