Oliver Sacks on Hallucinations (Indre Viskontas, 2013)

NOTE: The following is an interview taken from Skeptical Inquirer Volume 37.3, May/June 2013.


What causes the startling, unbidden perception of something that seems very real but has no material existence outside of our own minds? The “poet-laureate of medicine,” Oliver Sacks, takes us through the looking glass and into the fascinating world of hallucinations. Oliver Sacks, MD, is a physician, best-selling author, and professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. He is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985),An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), and The Mind’s Eye (2010). His book Awakenings (1973) inspired the 1990 Academy Award-nominated feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Sacks is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His newest book isHallucinations (2012).

Indre Viskontas, a PhD neuroscientist and a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow, interviewed Sacks for our Center for Inquiry’s Point of Inquiry podcast.


You have a new book out called Hallucinations, and some of our readers may have already come across an excerpt in the New Yorker called “Altered States,” in which you describe some of your own experiences with hallucinogenic drugs. But before we delve into that topic, please tell us what is it that distinguishes a hallucination from other fantastical mental experiences, such as waking dreams or imagination?

Well, hallucinations can occur in full consciousness, unlike dreams, and they are projected externally and appear to have a real and objective reality, unlike imagined objects and people. They are similar to percepts (objects of perception) except they are, as it were, forced percepts in which there’s nothing there to perceive. It’s as if the perceiving parts of the brain have been forcefully activated internally.

I was initially struck by the beginning of your book, where you talk about people who have hallucinations because one of their senses has an absence of stimulation. For example, Charles Bonnet Syndrome, where people who are blind experience visual hallucinations. Tell us a little more about what’s going on there.

Oliver Sacks

First, a lot of my work is done in an old-age home. I see a lot of people who have impaired vision or hearing even though they are intellectually quite intact. And a good proportion—I can’t say exactly but I would think close to a fifth of these people—develop hallucinations in the mode in which they are defective. So the blind and partially blind get purely visual hallucinations. Deaf people get auditory hallucinations, most commonly musical rather than verbal. People who’ve lost their sense of smell can get smell hallucinations.

One might say that people who have lost a limb get limb hallucinations. But I’m not quite sure whether phantom limbs belong in the same category with the others.

I open the book with a description of a patient whom I’ve been following for many years, who became very dear to me, and I was very sad when she died a few weeks ago, just short of her hundredth birthday. She was a remarkable old lady, strong and clear minded.

The nursing home phoned me saying she was apparently hallucinating and they didn’t know what was going on. When I went to see her, she was puzzled. She said, “I’ve been blind for five years. I see nothing. Why am I seeing things now?” I asked, “What sort of things?” She described scenes with animals, with people looking at her, with falling snow and a snow plow. Very vivid visual vignettes, maybe two or three minutes long, and then there would be another one.

I asked if they were like dreams, and she said, “No, they’re like film clips or maybe like going to the theater.” Interestingly, she could never recognize the people or places she hallucinated. And she felt that when they did their thing it was autonomously without any relation to her or to her own thoughts or feelings. This is rather characteristic of hallucinations in Charles Bonnet syndrome. Other hallucinations sometimes are charged with affects (emotions) or the sense of familiarity. But not the Charles Bonnet ones.

You mention that in the case of these visual hallucinations, they were of unfamiliar things. Whereas, I think you also mention that when people have musical hallucinations they are generally of familiar melodies or tunes or music they have heard before. Is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s a very striking difference. I’ve wondered whether it’s because music is an already constructed thing, whether one takes in whole pieces of music as opposed to visual things which may not be completed, unless of course, one is hallucinating a painting or photograph. It’s very much that what one sees has to be constructed like imagining an image. Whereas the musical ones are very much more like memories.

Do you know of any research in which people have looked at what’s going on in the brain during these hallucinations? Say, for example, in the visual hallucinations, there’s some other part of the brain that’s also active that’s doing the imagining or creating the scene.

Yes, well, there have been some very beautiful studies that have become possible with the advent of functional brain imaging, fMRI, and more recent forms of imaging, tensor imaging, that shows the white matter. If people were hallucinating faces, there tended to be abnormal activity in the so-called fusiform face area in the back of the right hemisphere in the inferotemporal cortex. If, on the other hand, they were hallucinating words or pseudo-words or letters, lexical hallucinations, then the visual word form area in the left hemisphere would be activated. And it looked very much that those systems of the brain involved in perceptual recognition generated hallucinations of that sort if they were being autonomously stimulated or released.

I think the studies of musical hallucinations have not sorted things out quite in this way because people hear [complete] pieces of music. What we find is a very widespread activation of all those parts of the brain, including cerebellum, basal ganglia, premotor cortex, and so forth that are activated when one listens to real music.

In these patients who are experiencing hallucinations in the absence of stimulation, and in particular, those healthy people you described who, after three days in a sensory deprivation chamber, began to hallucinate, it almost seems as though the hallucinations are a comfort rather than something they fear. Did you find that patients over time would learn to control either the content or the expression of their hallucinations?

Modern Isolation Tank

Usually no control, or very little control, was obtained. But there tended to be accommodation. Once people with Charles Bonnet are reassured that there is no psychiatric or neurological calamity and they’re not on anything hallucinogenic, they may then become quite accepting of the hallucinations. I quote one man who imagined his eyes saying, “We know blindness is no fun so we have concocted this small syndrome as a sort of coda to your sighted life. It’s not much, but it’s the best we can do.” I’m slightly misquoting him, but that’s essentially what he imagined his eyes saying. Charles Bonnet’s grandfather who, as it were, was the original subject, would often compare his hallucinations to spectacles in a theater, and would sometimes like to go in a dark room in the afternoon for a hallucinatory matinee.

I was struck along the same lines by a description of a patient you wrote about. Her name was Gertie C. I believe she was a Parkinsonian patient. Could you tell our readers her story?

Gertie was a patient who had had the sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, and a post-encephalitic syndrome which immobilized her for decades before she was put on L-dopa. She had all sorts of hallucinations, as do other patients on L-dopa. But it also become clear, when she got to know me and trust me (and I followed her for ten years or more) that she had had hallucinations long before she was put on L-dopa, mostly of a rather pastoral sort. She imagined lying in a meadow or floating in water. When she was put on L-dopa, her hallucinations became more social and more erotic, and apparently she got these quite under control so that she did not hallucinate until the evening. When it was time for her to hallucinate at 8:00 PM, she would say to her visitors, firmly but courteously, that she was expecting a gentleman visitor from out of town, and perhaps they could come another day. Her gentleman visitor, an apparition, would come through the window and brought her much comfort, both social and sexual. But she really seemed to have control of this. It never spread out of control, and it had this sort of humor that was engaging.

But she was an old hand at hallucinating. It may be that some schizophrenic patients—she was not schizophrenic—may also get on comfortable terms in this sort of way with their hallucinations. Incidentally, I mentioned in my book another patient who had Parkinson’s disease (not post-encephalitic), and he was also prone to hallucinating visitors. But they never followed him out of the apartment. They were confined to his apartment, and he could get away from them, if he wished, by going outside.


About a year ago I cohosted a television show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which I had the opportunity to investigate claims of miracles across the U.S. Several of the episodes included people who reported having had visions of a religious sense. They would be very offended if I intimated at all that they might have been hallucinating. Is there a difference, at least in the medical field, between what people think of as a religious vision and a hallucination?

Well, there is certainly a difference in character. People are often rather quiet about ordinary hallucinations. But with religious experiences, they may become almost evangelical. There’s a book in front of me at this moment which has been much talked about and is on the cover of Newsweek. It’s called Proof of Heaven and subtitled, “A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife,” by a man called Eben Alexander.

He had a nasty bacterial meningitis. He was in a coma for several days. But when he came to, he described an enormously complex so-called near-death experience. These experiences are often rather stereotyped in quality. People may feel they’re in a dark corridor and moving towards some bright light. Feelings of bliss envelop them as they are drawn towards the light. They sense, in a way, that the light is the boundary between life and death. And they would then come back or “float back.” InMusicophilia, I described such a sequence with a subject, another surgeon as it happened, who had been struck by lightning.

And he had this sort of blissful moment and then he said, “Slam! I was back.” He was back because someone was doing CPR on his heart and his heart started beating again twenty or thirty seconds afterwards. So, his whole cosmic journey only occupied a matter of seconds. Dr. Alexander feels that his cortex was out of action while he was having his visions and therefore it must have been direct supernatural intervention. I think such a claim can’t be sustained and indeed, a few seconds of altered consciousness as one emerges from coma would be enough to give him such a state.

People in these states may insist on their reality and feel their lives are transformed. And, as you say, may get angry if one says it was a hallucination. Of course, hallucinations, being brain events in the absence of any sort of objective world around one, can’t be evidence of anything, much less proof of anything. Certainly the being in heaven hallucination may feel real at the time, but in retrospect, I think many people will almost regretfully say, well, it was a hallucination. It seemed intensely real but it can’t be.

But other people may stick with the feeling that they have been vouchsafed a glimpse of the afterlife or, indeed, they have had quite a long sojourn there. One knows that what one had imagined was not reality. But if it leaks into hallucination, it may [seem to] be. I don’t think hallucinations are evidence of reality any more than imaginings are.


I was struck by how you describe almost a continuum of belief in one’s own hallucinations. You have people who, for example, on one extreme, have Anton’s Syndrome in which they have damage to the occipital lobe and they’re blind cortically. But they deny their impairment—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. On the other extreme, you have people who immediately know that their hallucinations aren’t real and they’re skeptical of them. What is the difference between these two sets of people?

Anton’s Syndrome, which I only touch on briefly, does involve all sorts of misconnections from reality testing. But with complex temporal lobe hallucinations, which during surgery can be induced by stimulating the temporal lobe cortex in the right place, can produce what Dr. Penfield, a pioneering neurosurgeon, called “experiential hallucinations,” which seem intensely real. Although there may be a sort of doubling of consciousness, so the patient can say, “I know I am in Dr. Penfield’s operating room, but I am also at the corner of 25th and First Avenue in South Bend, Indiana.”

They might feel an intense sense of similarity in their investing somehow the present. I think one has to think in terms of various levels. These Charles Bonnet hallucinations are relatively low down in the ventral visual pathway. But by the time one comes to these temporal lobe hallucinations, one is finding co-activation of the amygdala and the hippocampal systems. This then may invest them, certainly, with a strong sense of emotion and familiarity. Also, to some extent, of [a sense of] reality.

You also describe—in the temporal lobe epilepsy patients—ecstatic hallucinations.

These so-called “ecstatic” hallucinations have been described for many years in the medical literature, and in the general literature. You have only to read Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of his own seizures—descriptions he also splits among many of his characters. He would suddenly be arrested and cry, “God exists! God exists!” He would feel that he was in heaven and that everything was unified and made sense. It could sometimes be followed by convulsions, but he said for five seconds of this state he would give his whole life.

In these ecstatic hallucinations, there is a sudden transport of joy and also a sense of being transported to heaven or into communication with God. These seem intensely real to people and very pleasurable. There was an interesting study a few years ago when there was an attempt to treat some patients with ecstatic seizures. A lot of them refused to take medication, and some of them even found ways of inducing their own seizures.

If a seizure is pleasant, usually there is spiking in the right temporal lobe at the same time as people are having their divine vision. They may be a bit out of touch with the sort of daily reality around them. But lives are being transformed by this.

One of my favorite case histories, which I quote in my book, is of a bus conductor in London who, as he was punching the tickets, suddenly felt that he was in heaven and told this to all of his passengers. He remained in a very elated state for three days. It sounds as if he was in an almost postictal mania. Then he continued on a more moderate level, deeply religious, until he had another bunch of seizures three years later—and he said that cleared his mind. Now he no longer believes in God and angels, in Christ, in an afterlife, or in heaven. Interestingly, the second conversion to atheism carried the same elated and revelatory quality as the first one to religion.

temporal lobe epilepsy patients—ecstatic hallucinations

I want to ask you about a personal experience of mine. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a full-blown hallucination, at least to my knowledge. But you might remember from the conversation we once had at dinner that I am a grapheme-color synesthete. For our readers who are unfamiliar with the term, it means that I see letters and numbers in color. Is this a hallucination?

No, I think that seeing letters and numbers in color or seeing music in color is really a constant physiological happening between two areas of the cortex, a letter-reading one and a color-constructing one. I think this sort of thing, which you can probably verify from your own experience, comes at an early age, and doesn’t change. I suppose one might call it an illusion, in that one sensation is invested with the qualities of another sensation. This can take very complex forms. There’s one professional musician who could taste different pitches—she tuned her violin by taste.

That’s amazing. For me it just feels so natural, yet I know, intellectually, that the appearance of the color doesn’t happen until my brain has somehow understood the symbolic meaning of a letter, for example.

That’s interesting. And if you’re given a sort of a nonsense string of letters, that doesn’t light up at all?

Well, the letters do. But it’s not until—say if I see two intersecting lines, it’s not until my brain decides whether it’s a T or an L that I see the color. If letters are occluded and I don’t know what the letter is, there is no color. It feels instantaneous to me that the color comes on in line with the meaning of the letter. In that way, I wondered if there wasn’t a part of my brain that is overlaying a hallucination. But I can see your point that it’s more of an illusion because it’s unchanging and it’s always present.

Probably if you spoke to another letter-synesthete, you would find that he or she had different colors from you.

Yes, in fact, I’ve been working with an illustrator on a graphic novel. Her name is M.G. Lord. She’s also a synesthete, and we have very heated arguments about what colors the letters should be.

Nabokov discovered when he was a child that he was a synesthete. But he complained to his mother that the letters in the alphabet set were of the wrong color. She agreed with him. But when she said the colors they were to her, the two of them disagreed. In general, synesthetes don’t agree. This is especially striking for musical synesthetes. Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov both thought [their musical synesthesia] was something absolute. But when they met they found that they saw very different colors and couldn’t agree about anything.

I’d like to wrap up the interview with a more personal note from your own experiences. I was very much struck by one experience you described in which you had taken a hallucinogenic drug and you were waiting for a hallucination to appear. And then nothing happened. Can you describe that experience?


Yes, well, I was living then down on Venice Beach in the early 1960s, and there were a lot of drugs around. And people said to me, if you really want something striking take artane. Artane is a belladonna-like drug which is used in treating Parkinson’s. And they said just take twenty, you’ll still be in partial control. Anyhow, I took these tablets. At first I noticed nothing. I had a rather dry mouth, difficulty accommodating, my pupils were dilated. Nothing else. Then I heard a car door slam and footsteps, and I thought it was my friends Jim and Kathy. They often visited me on Sunday. I shouted “Come in!” and we chatted. I was in the kitchen.

There was a swinging door between the kitchen and the sitting room. I said, “How do you like your eggs done?” And we chatted in the four or five minutes while I prepared their ham and eggs. Then I walked out with the breakfast on a tray and . . . there was no one there. I was so shocked I almost dropped the tray. It hadn’t occurred to me for a moment that all this was hallucinated, at least that their part of the conversation was hallucinated. I thought I’d better watch myself. But this was followed by some even stranger things, including having a conversation with a spider. I think the spider was real enough; there weren’t any visual elements.

But then the spider said, “Hello.” And for some reason it didn’t surprise me any more than Alice was surprised by the White Rabbit. I said, “Hello yourself.” And we had a conversation. Actually, an abstract conversation about some points in analytic philosophy. Many years later, I mentioned this to a friend of mine, an entomologist, the philosophical spider with a voice like Bertrand Russell. He nodded his head and said, “Yes, I know the species.”

What is amazing is that you were expecting it. You were waiting for a hallucination.

Yes. Although I didn’t think it would take that form. I thought it would be all sorts of dramatic visual misperceptions and hallucinations as one may get with LSD or mescaline and those drugs. But this time it was purely auditory, and oddly humdrum although at the same time deeply absurd. I wonder what one would have thought had they seen me talking learnedly to a spider.

The curious case of encephalitis lethargica
The curious case of encephalitis lethargica

Indre Viskontas, a writer, neuroscientist, and opera singer, holds a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience and a master of music in vocal performance. Her scientific research explores the neural basis of memory and creativity; she has published more than thirty original peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. Viskontas is affiliated with the Memory and Aging Center at UC–San Francisco and is the associate editor of the journal Neurocase. She cohosted Miracle Detectives, a six-episode docuseries on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which she explored the scientific explanations of paranormal experiences. She also blogs regularly at http://www.indreviskontas.com.

The Truth about the Holy Mountain and its Monks (Dr Panagiotis Grigoriou, 2001)

NOTE: This article is taken from the Sunday Typos, June 10, 2001. It was written to refute Monk Michael’s accusations. Dr. Gregoriou is a Neurologist-Psychiatrist and director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital.1 In this article, Dr. Gregoriou validates Monk Michael’s claim that there are Hagiorite monks who have mental disorders, see psychiatrists, and take psychiatric drugs. http://www.psyche.gr/lgreekdiasyndpsyttheo.htm

Halkidiki General Hospital.

I was motivated to write this article when I read the Monk Michael Hatziantoniou’s interview with the journalist Peter Papavasileios (see the magazine “E” in the Sunday Eleftherotypia, April 22, 2001).

The reason I thought of myself to be a “substantive qualifier” is that I’ve practised psychiatry for 20 years. For the past 12 years, I’ve been the Director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital in whose jurisdiction Mount Athos falls in terms of health coverage.

With my position, I know very well the question under dispute (the use of psychiatric drugs on Mount Athos). Moreover, the fact that I have regularly visited Mount Athos since 1974 (I was then a graduate student at the Medical School of Athens University) permits me to know the people and things of the area quite well.

Ιατρικής Σχολής του Πανεπιστημίου Αθηνών
Medical School of Athens University

Firstly, why did the news use the pompous title with the exclamation that “They Take Psychiatric Drugs on Mount Athos?” For a prudent and impartial reader, it has the same “originality” as “They take antibiotics or antihypertensive or anti-rheumatic medications on Mount Athos.” Psychiatric drugs are also medications that relieve and help the people who need them. I don’t understand why particularly on Mount Athos the mentally ill should not take psychotropic drugs. Is it not a shame to be excluded from the therapeutic means of modern medical science?

Fr. Michael rents his garments: “I cannot bear this situation,” he says. He maintains that anyone can cure their mental symptoms with personal effort. Something that is heard daily amongst the ignorant: “Banish your anxiety, pull the sadness from your soul, throw it out,” etc. Similar views proceed either from ignorance or out of some unconscious fear against mental illness and psychotropic drugs. If such counsels were effective then the existence of our psychiatrists would probably have been unnecessary.


Another “scandalous revelation” Fr. Michael makes—that Hagiorites are visiting psychiatrists—pertains to the same spirit! But are we psychiatrists such defiled beings that all sensible and virtuous people must avoid us “so as not to be defiled?” The fact that Hagiorites visit psychiatrists constitutes an occasion of praise, not reproach. If they didn’t visit psychiatrists then they should be accused of medievalism and criminal omission.2


I stress here that the attitude of some religious people—even spiritual fathers—who claim that anyone who lives in God should never resort to psychiatrists or psychotropic drugs is, in every respect, incorrect.3 They believe that psychiatrists wrongly assume responsibilities that belong exclusively to God and the spiritual father. The Hagiorite monks, following the vibrant spiritual tradition, avoid such absolutes. They recognize the difference between mental and spiritual problems. Like all other diseases, they consider mental illnesses result from defects and the corruption of post-Fall man. They do not identify mental illnesses with outside demonic influences. The respect of the Hagiorites towards the proper use of its results is an example of wisdom and ampleness of spirit.

If I understood correctly, Fr. Michael implies amongst his contradictions that the way of life imposed upon the monks (militarization) is what causes psychiatric problems. He also insinuates that some Hagiorites (I wonder what percentage?) who regretted becoming monks were trapped in the system and because they were prevented from leaving the monastery occasionally they killed themselves or set themselves on fire.4 Then the abbots, in order to deter their escape from Mount Athos, issue them psychotropic drugs to bend their will and make them thoughtless, subservient zombies! Yet, Fr. Michael doesn’t complain that he had such a treatment when he decided to abandon his monastery. Contrary to what one not acquainted with such things might imagine, the way of life on the Holy Mountain is not disease producing but rather psychotherapeutic.

Thic Duc
On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc shocked the world when he burned himself to death in public as a protest against the Vietnamese government, a gesture known as self-immolation.

The reference to famous boxes with mysterious contents is naive at the very least. The monasteries obtain their drugs from pharmacies, usually from Thessaloniki, because they don’t operate a pharmacy on Mount Athos. The medication orders for the needs of 80-100 people (with a large percentage of elderly) for a period of one or two months apparently have some volume and should be packed well in “boxes” to reach their destination safely. Usually, these boxes contain drugs of every kind and a portion of them are psychotropic drugs. Let he who doubts ask any pharmacy serving a population of 2,000 residents and let him learn what the current monthly consumption of psychotropic drugs is and a percentage of all drugs, but also an absolute number inserted in boxes and let him calculate their approximate volume. It should be taken into consideration that a significant portion of these drugs are consumed for the extraordinary needs of the numerous visitors as well as the hundreds of laymen who work on the Mountain.5


Mount Athos is also entitled to have its mentally ill. It would be very unnatural if they didn’t exist since the percentage of those in the adult population who exhibit mental disorders at any given time has been estimated at around 15% for residents in the Western hemisphere.

Besides, as we know, one does not require a bill of health to become a monk, nor is a monk expelled from his monastery when some serious illness appears.6 Mount Athos is not an unrealistic place, nor does it aspire to present an outward image of an “elite” community, like the “caste” of Eastern religions or Gnostics or whatever else. The Athonite State, Panagia’s Garden, is an open space, social and genuinely human; a struggling society journeying towards God. The sick have their place and even honour in such a community! Where else would the remaining healthy monks show their love, patience and ministry if not to those who are beside them even if they happen to be sick?

Caste system

I cannot tolerate that Fr. Michael—the author of the article—professes the popular unscientific opinions: “Don’t go to the crazy doctor, he will make you completely crazy and you will be stigmatized for life!” Or, “Don’t take psychiatric medicine, they’re narcotics, you’ll become dependent and you’ll be rendered a vegetable!” Such positions need no response, this would be futile.7

As a doctor, my ascertainment is that the mentally ill on Mount Athos are treated more correctly, more scientifically and more effectively than whatever in the outside world.8 The monastic family surround the suffering brother with much care, love and tolerance and spare neither expense nor labor to ensure the best possible treatment and aid.9 He is provided a treatment rarely seen in today’s society, with respect to mental illness, the suffering monk’s soul and his dignity—a treatment that preserves the patient’s self-esteem.10 It should be made clear that in no way is an incompetent person involved in the treatment process. They follow the indication on the medication from the specialist physician, which is prescribed under the responsibility of the rural clinic in Karyes. Also, the administration of drugs and the assessment of the patient’s clinical progress are not made by upstart monks. Most of the monasteries have at least one or more doctor-monks with extensive experience who have impressed me with their scientific competence and awareness.11 The long existing journey of mentally ill Athonite monks is many times better than those who have mental illnesses in the world, where human dignity is trivialized with confinement in psychiatric asylums or the taunts of their fellow villagers.12

The Town of Karye
The Town of Karyes

Fr. Michael’s inappropriate parallelism of Bedouin doped out on hashish and the Athonite monks is an unfortunate verbal exaggeration.13 It might have been worthwhile before the interview was published to have a psychiatrist (of a trusted newspaper) examine the text and question whether Fr. Michael’s allegations have any scientific standing. I am certain that he would have agreed with me that the anti-psychiatry opinions usually belong to uneducated people.14


Regarding Fr. Michael’s “showcase” allegation, Mount Athos does not claim to be a society of perfect men.15 Moreover, he stresses in the last paragraph of the interview (essentially negating everything previous): “The majority of monks are very nice guys! The love, they look at you with clean eyes. I speak for the majority because there are certainly a very small number of monks who have a pure heart…” If this is the case then what is with all the scandal-mongering throughout the rest of the interview? He did not clarify for us from the start of the interview that he was only speaking about a few exceptions! He allowed us to believe that this is the picture of Mount Athos in general. According to Fr. Michael, what is the real and representative showcase of Mount Athos? The 5-10 likeable mentally ill patients, 5-10 unruly monks and the one monk who set himself on fire? Do we not wrong the 2000 struggling monks who live imperceptibly with ascesis, a pure life and hard work, and are happy and normal?16

We were distressed in seeing the exceptions generalized. The error of one was aggrandized and expressed while the virtue of the many was hushed up. The Hagiorites know this and it is natural and imperative for them to take precautions. We accuse them of hypocrisy because they protect themselves? What family would voluntarily surrender the proclamation of their son or daughter’s deviation to public vilification and shaming? By protecting the reputation of the person who erred, as well as the family’s reputation, from the sneer of the voracious publicity, we hope to heal the wounds. Otherwise, “the last error becomes worse than the first.” Mount Athos is a community of true love where the erring sinners are neither ostracized nor pilloried or stoned.17 They are consoled and covered as suffering brothers and they are “economized” with sympathy and spiritual treatment so they are induced to “repentance and come to salvation.”

Elder Makarios

Fr. Michael’s interview saddened me. He light-heartedly accuses holy people—humble and obscure to the general public—but accomplished in the heart of whoever knew those who apparently “raised themselves as charismatic figures” to captivate souls! It is a shame for a monk to offer his brothers and fathers as victims to the Moloch of publicity in exchange for the silver pieces and the honorary title of “debunker” and “whistle-blower” who apparently tells everything out right. The monastic life starts out with promises of obedience, humility, and devotion to the brotherhood. Self-projection and self-complacency are not included in these promises. In searching for the deeper “why”, I would say that Fr. Michael’s position against the Holy Mountain, in a psychodynamic interpretation, serves as a personal apology.18

Finally, I want to reassure and cheer up those who were perhaps troubled by reading the publication of “E”. No! The Mountain is not a “concentration camp,” nor some “mental hospital” for dissidents.19 The Kassandres and those appearing as benevolent dirge singers have no place here!20 Mount Athos did not lose the “rota”, it is not sinking! The Holy Mountain continues to sail correctly as it has for centuries. For over a thousand years, the rowers stand vigilant night and day at their oar. The Captain—the Lady of the Mount—holds the steering wheel firmly and the compass firmly shows God’s Kingdom. It is not shipwrecked and it collects castaways!

The island of Amoulianni, off the northwest coast of Athos, was once said to be run like a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks.


  1. A google search of Dr. Grigoriou’s name in Greek only produces results in connection to this article. There is no photo, articles or a record of him anywhere in Greece other than in relation to this article. Other doctors with the same name do not have the same credentials as listed here. There is a Dr. Panagiotis Dimitrios Grigoriou in the UK, GMC # 7015533. His primary medical qualification is listed as Ptychio Iatrikes 2006 National Capodistrian University of Athens and he is obviously not the same person as the author of this article.
  2. According to the contemporary spiritual fathers of Greece, all neuroses stem from the guilt of unconfessed sins. The monastery is a hospital where the sick go to be healed. However, if daily confession and revelation of thoughts, combined with frequent Holy Communion and the Jesus Prayer isn’t helping the monk, will a psychiatrist be able to help the individual monk more than his own spiritual father? Hierotheos Vlachos writes, “Orthodoxy is mainly a therapeutic science and treatment. It differs clearly from other psychiatric methods, because it is not anthropocentric and because it does not do its work with human methods, but with the help and energy of divine grace, essentially through the synergy of divine and human volition… I know that the term `psychotherapy’ is almost modern and is used by many psychiatrists to indicate the method which they follow for curing neurotics. But since many psychiatrists do not know the Church’s teaching or do not wish to apply it, and since their anthropology is very different from the anthropology and soteriology of the Fathers, in using the term `psychotherapy’, I have not made use of their views. It would have been very easy at some points to set out their views, some of which agree with the teaching of the Fathers and others of which are in conflict with it, and to make the necessary comments, but I did not wish to do that. I thought that it would be better to follow the teaching of the Church through the Fathers without mingling them together. Therefore I have prefixed the word `Orthodox’ to the word `Psychotherapy’ (healing of the soul), to make the title “Orthodox Psychotherapy”. It could also have been formulated as “Orthodox Therapeutic Treatment”.(Orthodox Psychotherapy, Introduction)
  3. Most contemporary spiritual fathers are not against their spiritual children going to psychiatrists and, in certain cases, taking psychotropics. See http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/11/elder-epiphanios-theodoropoulos-on_11.html However, some spiritual fathers do not agree with monastics seeing psychiatrists or taking psychotropic drugs.
  4. It is amazing that Dr. Grigoriou, with all his experience, is unaware of the vast amount of research in his field on the subject of blind obedience, authoritarianism, cult-like mentalities, and the emotional and psychological abuse that exist in such oppressive atmospheres. Evidence shows that these things lead to neuroses, PTSD, and various other mental illnesses. Studies on the emotional and psychological effects of confinement and feeling trapped are also in abundance.
  5. Dr. Grigoriou does not clarify if these medications are administered to laymen by monastics that are licensed professionals, or if these professionals have up-to-date training.
  6. This statement is not true, at least for the monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. There are numerous stories in circulation about the numerous monastics Geronda Ephraim sent packing on Mount Athos. The reasons ranged from not doing obedience, causing to many scandals, becoming a danger to themselves or others, homosexual incidents, or just so deluded that something really bad could have happened if they were allowed to stay. Geronda Ephraim has also sent a number of novices home from Arizona for various issues. As for prerequisites, homosexuals are generally not allowed to become monks. Geronda Ephraim has said it’s like inviting the devil into your monastery, and without going into specifics, he has hinted at the damage such men have caused in monasteries on Mount Athos. Also, people with mental illnesses are gently discouraged from becoming monastics in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries and are usually told it would be better for them to remain and struggle in the world.
  7. Monk Michael did not say those things in his interview. Perhaps Dr. Grigoriou heard read them in some of his other writings?
  8. As a layman who visits the monasteries and witnesses the front stage behavior—without actually living in a monastery or being a monk and witnessing the back stage behavior—Dr. Grigoriou is not in a position to make such a catch all statement. Monastics who make statements like this usually have a PR agenda.
  9. Sick monks—either physically or mentally—have all had their own experiences of neglect from their brother monastics. One who has to stay in his cell may be forgotten and not have meals brought to him, or the person who tends to them may get caught up in another obedience and not show up to help, etc, in some cases remaining in a dirty diaper for a day or so before his monk-attendant comes to change his diaper and bathe him. A monastic suffering from some ailment may not be able to go to a doctor for a long period of time due to whatever circumstances, thus prolonging the suffering. At other times, the Geronda may say do patience and one has to endure. Again, one may have been given specific instructions for recovery and the Geronda will cut it short, saying it’s not necessary, you’re fine and you have to work, now go.
  10. Again, Dr. Grigoriou is trying to paint an unrealistic utopia experience for ailing monks. Fr. Makarios of St. Anthony’s Monastery, AZ is a perfect example of how this is not always true. After he received his head injury and remained in a somewhat vegetative state, it put a strain on the brotherhood. Some of the younger monks giggled and mocked some of his newly acquired idiosyncrasies, especially during the services when he would stand up abruptly and say insensible things or pass wind in church throughout the night. Initially, Geronda said, “What use is he now? He has the mind of a baby,” and wanted to send him home. However, he did not send him away because he felt obliged to keep him (Fr. Makarios’ father is a priest who helps out at Geronda Ephraim’s nunneries). Of course, there was economia given to him due to his mental incapacitation but not all his brother monks had patience and understanding towards him. The reality in a monastery is once you start losing your usefulness you are made to feel like a burden. Woe unto those who get old and have nothing to contribute to the monastery; even more so if they need to take other monastics from more useful jobs to help them in their daily routine.
  11. In many of the monasteries, the doctor monastics do not keep up-to-date with their training. Thus, many times one finds a doctor with an outdated degree. Of course, the basics don’t change much but would you trust going to a doctor who graduated from university in say 1990, never had a practice, and has not kept up-to-date on his training or the new breakthroughs in science and medicine nor had his license renewed?
  12. Again, this is a far stretch of a statement. A perfect example would be the monasteries here in North America where fat-shaming is quite common among the monastics. The following information is not written to center anyone out or further fat shame individuals, but to point out that these things happen in the monasteries just as they do in the world. Furthermore, there is a complex link between obesity and mental illness and fat shaming is a method of stigmatizing. In the beginning, Fr. Germanos was constantly the brunt of jokes and taunts about his weight (both to his face and behind his back). In the mid-90’s, when Fr. Germanos was visiting Archangels Monastery in Texas, Geronda Dositheos walked up to him and said, “Do you know what we use to do to fat kids in school?” and he bumped his stomach into Fr. Germanos’ stomach. Also in the mid-late 90s, while Fr. Germanos was looking for property in New York, Geronda Ephraim gave many homilies to the Fathers in Arizona. In a couple of homilies, he’d joke about Fr. Germanos with his cheeks puffed, arms outstretched indicating fat, and wobble his body back and forth. All the Fathers would break out in laughter at this display. Though Fr. Germanos was not present for these homilies, he’d hear his brothers laughing and mocking him years later when these cassettes were digitalized and all the monasteries were given the DVDs. Another time, Fr. Germanos had forgot to erase his data from the treadmill they bought for the monastery. Fr. Kassianos, Fr. Michael and Fr. Kosmas had to move it from the living room up to the attic to make room for pilgrims and read the data which included his weight. These monks then joked about it and revealed to the other fathers, including Geronda, how much Fr. Germanos weighed. As time went on, stress-eating and high dessert diets increased in the other monasteries and the other superiors and second-in-commands also started to increase in weight and size; many hitting the 300lb + mark. As the other monastics’ weights increased, the teasing of Fr. Germanos decreased. Once, when the subject of how much weight all the abbots have been gaining came up, Fr. Germanos said jokingly, “It’s because you all judged me.” Taunts and shaming exist in the monasteries and neither the physically deformed, the handicapped or mentally ill are spared. Of course, those who become offended are given this explanation, “We do it out of love, not malice.” But in what universe can this be considered monastic, let alone Christian conduct? Sarcasm, contempt and mockery are not indications of brotherly love nor the presence of the Holy Spirit.
  13. It’s not a far stretch. For example, when Fr. Gergory was a hieromonk at St. Anthony’s Monastery, he drank skullcap, St. John’s Wort, and various other nerve relaxant teas around the clock. And he walked around like he was zoned out and doped up. Other monastics that have a blessing for sleeping pills or herbal remedies to help them sleep also have similar demeanors. The monastics who have a blessing to take Lorazepam for anxiety attacks, panic or stress also have similar doped out demeanors. However, the monastics who take antihistamines with pseudoephedrine are a little more alert and tweaked out (though in some monasteries the use of allergy medicine with pseudoephedrine is no longer blessed. This is because some monastics were abusing the medicine and taking it even when they had no allergy symptoms).
  14. Dr. Grigoriou opens his article with his credentials, familiarity with Mount Athos and the fact that there are Hagiorite monks on psychotropic drugs. These things, he states, make him a “substantive qualifier” to address Monk Michael’s interview. Now, Dr. Grigoriou suggests any psychiatrist is quite capable of analyzing the subject. Someone in Dr. Grigoriou’s position must be aware that many Greek psychiatrists are atheists and have biases and predispositions against Christianity, especially the monastic life.
  15. The deeper issue is when the showcase and external image of a monastery become more important than the individual monastics. How often does the showcase image lead to harm (either of a monastic or a laymen)? To what lengths will a monastery go—lying, perjury, gaslighting, cover-ups—what illegal activities will it commit, to ensure that its image remains spotless? And how do these methods damage individuals?
  16. This is a classic example of monastic minimization of serious issues. Not to mention, Dr. Grigoriou is actually stigmatizing the mentally ill by indirectly calling them “abnormal,” when he states that the other monks are “happy and normal.”
  17. Ostracizing does occur in monasteries. This usually happens when a monastic is not doing obedience or toeing the line. Many times, the superior may instruct the members of the brotherhood to ignore this individual, do not talk to him/her, walk away if this individual tries talking to you, etc. Ostracizing also occurs when one is punished in the Lity or given only rusks or one piece of fruit for a meal while everyone else has a full meal. Ostracizing erring monastics is suggested as an instructional technique by St. Basil the Great, St. John of the Ladder and many other Church Fathers.
  18. This resembles a spiritual father’s reproach to his spiritual child; the wording is attempted to instill guilt. The author is playing the Judas card; a classic amongst the Elders. A similar tactic was used in the HOCNA circles when former monastics started revealing the homosexual abuses perpetrated by their Geronda, Fr. Panteleimon Metropoulos. Ad hominen and straw man attacks and arguments were used against the former monastics that were sexually abused and raped. Gaslighting and dismissing them as deluded liars and Judas traitors was a common tactic used. In the last century, similar methods were used in other Orthodox scandal stories against the accusers/ whistle-blowers. In many of these situations, it eventually came to light that the accused were guilty and they ended up in prison or defrocked.
  19. The island of Amoulianni, off the northwest coast of Athos, was once said to be run like a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks. (See Ralph H. Brewster, The 6,000 Beards of Athos, 1935, p. 26). Up to early 1900s, Ammouliani was a dependency of Vatopedi Monasteryof Mount Athos. In 1925, the island was given in the refugees’ families who had come from islands of Propontis (Marmaras Sea), after Asia Minor Disaster. The population of the island was developed quickly and today the island has over 500 residents. Nowadays Ammouliani is a touristic place with frequent transportation with the opposite coast.
  20. The Cassandra metaphor(variously labelled the Cassandra ‘syndrome’, ‘complex’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘predicament’, ‘dilemma’, or ‘curse’) occurs when valid warnings or concerns are dismissed or disbelieved. The Cassandra metaphor is applied by some psychologists to individuals who experience physical and emotional suffering as a result of distressing personal perceptions, and who are disbelieved when they attempt to share the cause of their suffering with others. In 1963, psychologist Melanie Klein provided an interpretation of Cassandra as representing the human moral conscience whose main task is to issue warnings. Cassandra as moral conscience, “predicts ill to come and warns that punishment will follow and grief arise.” Cassandra’s need to point out moral infringements and subsequent social consequences is driven by what Klein calls “the destructive influences of the cruel super-ego,” which is represented in the Greek myth by the god Apollo, Cassandra’s overlord and persecutor. Klein’s use of the metaphor centers on the moral nature of certain predictions, which tends to evoke in others “a refusal to believe what at the same time they know to be true, and expresses the universal tendency toward denial, [with] denial being a potent defence against persecutory anxiety and guilt.” (See Klein, M., Envy and Gratitude- And Other Works 1946–1963)
  • Filotheou Brotherhood late ca. 80s/early 90s [Geronda Paisios of Arizona, kneeling far right, Fr. Germanos of NY kneeling opposite]
    Filotheou Brotherhood late ca. 80s/early 90s [Geronda Paisios of Arizona, kneeling far right, Fr. Germanos of NY kneeling opposite]

Psychogenes & Cultural Evolution (Joseph Giovannoli, 2000)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions, pp. 181-205

Biology of belief

Cultures do not spontaneously self-assemble. They evolve through the efforts of generations to create the complex of coherent commerce, communications, and institutions for which each society is known. Each new generation must be educated to receive the culture and to pass it on. It can be lost if just one generation fails to sustain it. So too, reversals of fortune may damage or destroy it. The sustaining bounty of Nature can change with weather or with a more abrupt natural disaster. Harbors can choke with silt. Natural resources can be depleted or squandered. Trade routes can change, leaving prosperous civilizations to wither. New technology in the hands of competitors can lead to economic or military ruin. Institutions essential to social organization may evolve to serve themselves instead of society. The failure or corruption of religious, social, political, or economic leadership can lead to social decay, class conflict, disunity, or destructive wars. Whether written or oral, symbolic or explicit, the essence of any society can be found in its psychogenes. Japanese psychologist Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto observed that “[L]argely unspoken, collective assumptions about appropriate social behavior vary greatly from one country or geographic to another…”1 While Westerners value personal independence, Easterners value social interdependence. A few relevant Western psychogenes emphasize individuality, independence, and personal achievement. Counterpart Japanese psychogenes subordinate individuality to an interconnected social web and stress sensitivity to the expectations of others concerning right and wrong behavior. Shinobu Kitayama thinks that

This cultural perspective appears in various forms throughout East Asia. Its adherents tend to write off the European-American pursuit of self-esteem as an immature disregard for the relationships that nurture self-identify…2

Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto
Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto

Although psychogenetic evolution is faster than biological evolution, it often takes a number of generations to observe fundamental psychogenetic change. From about 750 BCE to 1600 CE, Italian beliefs experienced many fundamental changes as Italy evolved from a republic phase to an empire phase starting with Julius Caesar, then through decline to Christian domination in the Dark and Middle ages, and then to the Renaissance and the beginnings of modern philosophy and science. We will consider the psychogenetic influences that gave rise to the Roman state, the consequences of conquering Greece and assimilating its culture, the psychogenetic influence of the rise of Christianity, and the influence of Greco-Roman beliefs on Italian psychogenes during the Renaissance.

roman virtues

Early Roman Psychogenes

In about 753 BCE, Rome began as a small town in central Italy about 20 miles from the sea. Although it may have begun as an Etruscan town, it is said that Latins used it as a defense against Etruscan expansion. Its origins are not clear. Eugene Weber of the University of California at Berkeley described early Roman core beliefs as follows:

The virtues the Romans admired were all related to discipline and self-discipline. They believed in “Pietas”—respect for established authority and tradition. They believed in “Fides”—being true to your responsibilities; in “Religio”—the common belief[s] that bind men together; and above all in “Gravitas”—the sober seriousness that marks a real man. Even the word “Virtus” means manliness…True virtue subordinates the person to the city, the individual to the state…The Romans were a conservative people and so they wanted strong leaders, but not too strong.3

Armed with Pietas, Fides, Religio, and Gravitas they encountered the world, and more by evolution than design, they conquered it. In the process, Roman practices changed the agriculture, settlement patterns, and interregional economics of conquered lands. Formerly independent regions conformed to the Roman model. Large farming estates replaced smaller farmsteads. Roman economic and military considerations dislocated populations and altered traditions, as selected cities became bureaucratic and commercial centers. As new administrative centers and trade routes brought some old cities into the republic, other cities withered. Change created wealth for some and new tax burdens for others. As with assimilation at other times in human history, old boundaries, beliefs, traditions, and cultural identities were transformed.4

The full article can be read here:

Pareidolia: Seeing Faces in Unusual Places (Kim Ann Zimmermann)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Live Science, December 11, 2012:

To some observers, it looked like an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich. But to the Miami woman who put it up for sale on eBay, and to some people who viewed it, there was an image of the Virgin Mary seared on this seemingly run-of-the-mill snack.

The psychological phenomenon that causes some people to see or hear a vague or random image or sound as something significant is known as pareidolia (par-i-DOH-lee-a).

The word is derived from the Greek words para, meaning something faulty, wrong, instead of, and the noun eidōlon, meaning image, form or shape. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, which is a more generalized term for seeing patterns in random data.

The Curious Case of Potato Pareidola

Some common examples are seeing a likeness of Jesus in the clouds or an image of a man on the surface of the moon.

Famous examples of pareidolia

A prime example of pareidolia and its connection to religious images is the Shroud of Turin, a cloth bearing the image of a man — which some believe to be Jesus — who appears to have suffered trauma consistent with crucifixion. The negative image was first observed in 1898, on the reverse photographic plate of amateur photographer Secondo Pia, who was allowed to photograph it while it was being exhibited in the Turin Cathedral.

Some visitors to St. Mary’s in Rathkaele, Ireland, say a tree stump outside of the church bears a silhouette of the Virgin Mary.

Many say this stump in Rathkaele, Ireland, resembles the Virgin Mary.
Many say this stump in Rathkaele, Ireland, resembles the Virgin Mary.

Damage to the Pedra da Gávea, an enormous rock outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, created an impression that many interpret as a human face.

Many people thought images taken in 1976 by the Viking 1 mission showed a face on Mars that could have been the remnants of an ancient civilization.

In September 1969, conspiracy theorists claimed some Beatles records contained clues to Paul McCartney’s supposed death. Many heard the words “Paul is dead,” when the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” was played backwards, a process known as backmasking. This is a common urban legend often repeated to this day.

In 1977, the appearance of Jesus Christ on a flour tortilla set the international standard for miracle sightings. It happened in the small town of Lake Arthur, New Mexico, 40 minutes south of Roswell.

Diane Duyser of Miami sold a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich, which she said bore the image of Jesus, for $28,000 on eBay in 2004.

In 2004, Steve Cragg, youth director at Memorial Drive United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, discovered a Cheeto that looked like Jesus.

Donna Lee of Toledo, Ohio, saw an image of Jesus on a pierogi she was preparing on Palm Sunday in 2005.

In 2007 in Singapore, a callus on a tree resembled a monkey, leading believers to pay homage to the “Monkey god.”

A cinnamon bun bearing a likeness of Mother Teresa was first discovered at the Bongo Java Café in Belmont, Tenn. It was on display for about 10 years, until it was stolen on Christmas day in 2007.

An example of pareidolia: a cinnamon bun with the likeness of Mother Teresa.
An example of pareidolia: a cinnamon bun with the likeness of Mother Teresa.

In 2012, many people made a pilgrimage to a tree at 60th Street and Bergenline Avenue in West New York, N.J., to see a scar on the tree that some believed looked like the image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe depiction of the Virgin Mary.

Why pareidolia happens

There are a number of theories as to the cause of this phenomenon. Experts say pareidolia provides a psychological determination for many delusions that involve the senses. They believe pareidolia could be behind numerous sightings of UFOs, Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster and the hearing of disturbing messages on records when they are played backwards.

Pareidolia often has religious overtones. A study in Finland found that people who are religious or believe strongly in the supernatural are more likely to see faces in lifeless objects and landscapes.

Carl Sagan, the American cosmologist and author, made the case that pareidolia was a survival tool. In his 1995 book, “The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark,” he argued that this ability to recognize faces from a distance or in poor visibility was an important survival technique. While this instinct enables humans to instantly judge whether an oncoming person is a friend or foe, Sagan noted that it could result in some misinterpretation of random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote about pareidolia as an artistic device. “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills,” he wrote in a passage in one of his extensive notebooks.

Sometimes artists use this phenomenon to their advantage by embedding hidden images in their work. Observers often view other objects in Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, for example.

In 1971, the Latvian writer and intellectual Konstantīns Raudive detailed what he believed was the discovery of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP). EVP has been described as “auditory pareidolia.” The allegations of hidden messages in popular music have also been described as auditory pareidolia.

The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia in an attempt to gain insight into a person’s mental state. Since the cards have been designed without any specific image in mind, this is an example of “directed pareidolia.”

The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia in an attempt to gain insight into a person's mental state.
The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia in an attempt to gain insight into a person’s mental state.



The One Emotion That Really Hurts Your Brain: New research reveals the fearsome impact of humiliation (Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D)

Being told you’re wrong when you’re wrong may make you a more knowledgeable person, but not necessarily a happier one. Even if you’re not the kind of person who needs to have the last word in a debate, you may still feel a sting when someone else points out your errors. The pain can be particularly sharp if you’ve got an audience—reminding you perhaps of stumbling over a new word while reading aloud to your fellow third graders, being shown to be incorrect when others are in earshot can make you feel embarrassed and humiliated.

Even some of our closest friends and loved ones can be brutal and insensitive when faced with our errors. They gleefully point out your mistake in pronouncing a difficult word (bringing back those childhood memories) or shout, “I told you so!” to anyone within earshot. Depending on the thickness of your skin, you may dismiss the entire episode, but it’s more likely you’ll retreat sulkily into the corner, wishing you could just disappear altogether. Culture also plays a role in determining people’s responses to humiliation: In some societies, saving face is valued above all else, and to be proven wrong constitutes a significant violation.

A popular phrase among the Gerondas and Gerondissas for their subordinates.
A popular phrase among the Gerondas and Gerondissas for their subordinates.

Bottom of Form

Being told you’re wrong doesn’t have to involve humiliation. Your kinder and gentler friends and family will point out a mistake tactfully, perhaps in a private moment when no one else is nearby. If you’ve put the forks on the right instead of the left of the plate while setting the table, a genteel older relative may take you aside and correct you quietly, or may just make the swap for you when you’re out of the room. If the mistake is one that could create problems for you down the road, this person might instruct you in the right way to handle the situation to prevent you from subsequent embarrassment.

So being corrected doesn’t always have to mean you’re humiliated. However, if you’re being corrected in a way that causes you to feel shame, it’s unlikely that you’ll feel that good about yourself, regardless of your cultural background. Taken to the extreme, instilling humiliation in a victim is a basic tactic of torturers, prison guards, and certain kinds of domestic abusers. Even in the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, when the “guards” were ordinary college students, humiliation became a part of the drill. Similarly, from the playground to the workplace, bullies seem to revel in the opportunity to humiliate targets, particularly when there’s an audience to impress.

Humiliation is defined as the emotion you feel when your status is lowered in front of others. You may feel annoyed with yourself when you make a mistake or fail to know an answer, but unless others are around to witness it, that’s all you’ll feel. You generally need someone else on hand in order to feel humiliated by mistakes.

Superiors hurl many of these insults at their monastics to "help them be more humble'' and ''out of love.''
Superiors hurl many of these insults at their monastics to “help them be more humble” and ”out of love.”

As you may recognize from your own experience, then, humiliation is a highly negative emotional state. Surprisingly, it’s one that is studied relatively infrequently in the field of psychology. Other negative emotions—anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear—are more likely to be the subject of lab investigations, perhaps because addressing them has such obvious practical implications: Anger is bad for your health; anxiety can impair your performance; jealousy can lead to relationship conflict; fear can set the stage for developing a phobia. Humiliation is unpleasant, but at least on the surface, may not seem to have as many consequences.

However, given the central role of humiliation in victimization, it seems worthwhile to investigate its potential effects.

Psychologists Marte Otten and Kai Jonas of the University of Amsterdam decided to peer into the brains of participants while they were exposed to various emotion-inducing scenarios. They compared the electroencephalograms (EEGs) of participants who were led to feel angry, happy, or humiliated. The humiliation scenario took the following form: “You see your internet date at the arranged location. Your date takes one look at you, turns around, and quickly walks away.” I think we can all agree that this scenario is one that could make you feel humiliated.


Otten and Jonas were able to measure their participants’ responses in terms of whether their brains registered a negative affect and how intense this affect was. Comparing the three conditions, they concluded that the participants’ responses to humiliation were both more negative than to anger, and more intense than to happiness.

From this pioneering study, we can see that your brain doesn’t like being humiliated. You not only feel badly, but the degree to which your brain is activated is more pronounced than with other emotion-inducing conditions.

It’s perhaps expected that being brought down in status in front of others will cause you to feel badly. But if you’re the one causing the humiliation, you’re exacting far more hurt than you may realize. If that’s the goal you’re hoping to achieve, your method is working. However, if you think you’re “helping” friends or family members by pointing out their mistakes or in some other way bringing them down a notch, you’re probably wrong. There are kinder and gentler ways to impart corrective messages to those we care about, want to teach, or otherwise want to help. Making sure your criticism or teaching is presented in a way that preserves the other person’s self-respect is the most basic way to avoid causing humiliation.

Atmosphere in the monastery can resemble abusive households when tensions increase...
Atmosphere in the monastery can resemble abusive households when tensions increase…

Turning the tables, how can you manage your own feelings of humiliation when someone else proves you wrong? Elsewhere, I’ve discussed how to handle criticism. Dealing with humiliation is similar, but because it is an emotional state, it is particularly important for you to manage your negative feelings.

As with all emotions, handling humiliation depends on how you construe the situation. According to cognitive theories of emotion, the way you feel is a direct function of the way you think. Hamlet said it best: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” If your skin isn’t that thick, and you hate being shown wrong in front of others, you might benefit from taking a look at the thoughts you feel while in the situation. If humiliation is an emotion that follows from feeling loss of status, perhaps you should redefine the situation to de-emphasize the status piece of the equation.

It’s possible that a friend, loved one, or teacher just wants to help prevent you from making the same mistake again, and so the slight in status is only an imagined one. Redefining the situation to deemphasize the loss of status will ease the pain considerably. However, even if the other person or people have more ominous motives, you can still benefit. By not allowing yourself to feel a loss of dignity, self-respect, or position, you’ll be detracting from their pleasure in watching you squirm. It’s possible that, like the learning process of extinction, their aversive behaviors will eventually diminish.

In either case, if you feel justifiably aggrieved, there are ways you can seek recourse: If it’s an innocent misunderstanding between friends, take a page from the kinder-and-gentler playbook and speak to the person privately, with just the two of you present. If your rights are truly being violated, though, you may need to take the problem to others who can help rectify the situation.

Humiliation comes in a variety of forms, from being rejected to being publicly shamed for a mistake you made. By understanding its connection to your brain’s reactions, you can better cope with, and perhaps avoid, this negative emotion’s intense pain.

Also see Humiliation: Its Nature and Consequences


This cycle of abuse is quite common in the monastery when temptations and tensions increase.
This cycle of abuse is quite common in the monastery when temptations and tensions increase.

Also see Humiliation: Assessing the Impact of Derision, Degradation and Abasement.


Otten, M., & Jonas, K. J. (2014). Humiliation as an intense emotional experience: Evidence from the electro-encephalogram. Social Neuroscience, 9(1), 23-35. doi:10.1080/17470919.2013.855660