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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
NOTE: This article is taken from Forensic Psychology, pp. 160-169
Eyewitness testimony plays an important role within the criminal justice system and has, over the past four decades, emerged as a significant research area for psychologists and other social scientists. This chapter aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the key findings of an extensive literature on eyewitness identification performance, signposting both classic studies and emergent research strands. Taking the reader through the witnessing experience, from the initial encoding of the perpetrator to the final stage of delivering testimony in court, this chapter identifies the factors likely to lead to mistaken identifications. Theoretical implications and methodological difficulties associated with eyewitness research are also considered. In the second half of the chapter, the difficulties associated with identifications from closed-circuit television (CCTV) are examined and a full overview of the current UK guidelines for the conduct of identifications is provided.
Information obtained from eyewitnesses plays an important role in many forensic investigations. For instance, the positive identification of a suspect can provide major advances in an investigation (Coupe & Griffiths, 1996; Kebbell & Milne, 1998). Eyewitness testimony is also extremely influential in the courtroom where ‘few kinds of evidence are as compelling, or as damning, as eyewitness testimony’ (Overbeck, 2005, p.1895). Yet identifications are often disputed – and inaccurate. A review of DNA exoneration cases suggests that eyewitness errors have played some part in over 75 per cent of the convictions overturned by DNA testing in the United States (Innocence Project, 2007; see Scheck et al., 2000). That erroneous eyewitness testimony is a leading cause of wrongful convictions suggests that jurors fail to take into account factors which may have influenced or biased the eyewitness and led to a mistaken identification (Boyce et al., 2007; Huff et al., 1996).
In this chapter, we examine the performance of eyewitness and consider some of the key factors underpinning mistaken identifications.
Eyewitness Identification Performance: Experimental Research and the Real World
The scientific study of eyewitness identification, which emerged in a programmatic fashion during the 1970s, has mainly been conducted by cognitive or social psychologists and typically adopts a standard scientific experimental model. In the mock witness paradigm, volunteers and/or unsuspecting members of the public are exposed to a selected target (perpetrator) as part of a staged event (or simulated crime) and become eyewitnesses. As the events and target individuals are stipulated by the researcher, the nature of witness errors can be documented and systematic manipulations can be made to establish which recall and recognition errors are most likely under particular, forensically relevant conditions. Thus, the primary purpose of such experiments has been to establish cause-effect relations among variables (Wells & Quinlivan, 2008).
An important question for applied researchers and the legal fraternity concerns the extent to which the findings obtained in laboratory research can be generalised to the experience of actual witnesses. There are, of course, a number of important differences between the experience of (some) witnesses and unsuspecting participants in research. For instance, witnesses to ‘real’ crimes rarely receive a warning – or may not even be aware they have witnessed something important until after the event. A further concern frequently expressed by those in the legal system is that many of the ‘witnesses’ in such experiments are drawn from rather homogeneous samples of college students. In fact, many studies of eyewitness memory have included community-based samples (e.g. Gabbert et al., 2009; Lindsay et al., in press) while a significant body of research has examined the identification performance of different age groups, including young children (e.g. Pozzulo & Dempsey, 2006) and the elderly (e.g. Dodson & Krueger, 2006). Importantly, research consistently demonstrates that college-age students outperform other age populations. Thus, as noted by Wells and Quinlivan (2008), college-age participants may in fact underestimate the magnitude of eyewitness fallibility.
Witnesses to ‘real’ crime events may experience a higher level of emotional arousal, particularly if the witnessed incident involves weapons or violence and the witnesses feel threatened. For sound ethical reasons, researchers are typically not permitted to induce stress in experimental participants and are, therefore, unable to replicate violent crime scenarios in any meaningful way. Of course, it is also worth noting that the nature of the stress evoked in a controlled experimental setting may differ qualitatively from the stress associated with involvement in an actual criminal event. In brief, the effects of stress and enhanced emotion on memory are complicated, but the results of research conducted in ecologically sound settings suggest that memory is more likely to be impaired than enhanced in a stressful or arousing situation (e.g. Morgan et al., 2004; Valentine & Mesout, 2008).
Perhaps foremost on the minds of those reluctant to embrace scientific findings on eyewitness performance is the fact that the consequences of an identification decision diverge significantly when that decision is made in a laboratory as opposed to a police identification suite. It is difficult to demonstrate whether or not legal consequences have any actual bearing on witness identification accuracy. However, archival studies of actual witnesses to serious crimes indicate that witnesses taking part in identification parades, where they are presented with a suspect and a number of innocent ‘stand-ins’, select a foil (i.e. an innocent ‘stand-in’ or filler) up to 30 per cent on average (Slater, 1994; Wright & McDaid, 1996; Wright & Skagerberg, 2007). These archival data suggest that witnesses can be highly prone to error and do not necessarily become extremely cautious when faced with a high-stake identification decision (see Memon et al., 2003b).
Many factors may affect the accuracy of an eyewitness and the research literature examining these factors is extensive (Wells & Olson, 2003). A useful distinction between these factors was introduced by Wells (1978) who differentiated between estimator variables and system variables. System variables are factors which are (or could be) under the control of the criminal justice system, specifically identification test factors such as pre-lineup instructions, lineup composition, structure and presentation method. By contrast, estimator variables are not under control of the criminal justice system and, while these are factors which can be manipulated in research (such as exposure duration, age or race of witness, or presence of a weapon), they cannot be controlled in the actual witnessed incident. Therefore, the impact of such factors on witness accuracy has to be estimated, or taken into account, in a post-hoc manner.
Working systematically through the witnessing experience, from the encoding of the original incident to eyewitness testimony in court, this chapter examines several important estimator and system factors which have been shown to impair eyewitness identification accuracy. This is not intended to be an exhaustive review of all possible factors but rather a consideration of the more well-researched witness, perpetrator and contextual factors which provide some insight into subsequent witness identification behaviour and accuracy.
The Witnessed Event
Stable witness characteristics are not, on the whole, useful predictors of identification performance. Research examining factors such as gender, race or intelligence has not revealed any particularly robust effects indicating that members of some groups are better witnesses than others. Nor has research documented any strong relationship between eyewitness accuracy and personality factors. While a small number of studies have examined certain personality characteristics such as self-monitoring (Hosch & Platz, 1984) and trait anxiety (Shapiro & Penrod, 1986), ‘no strong theory relating personality to eyewitness identification has emerged’ (Wells & Olson, 2003, p.281).
However, the age of the witness has been consistently associated with identification accuracy, with findings for young children mapping onto the performance of older witnesses under certain test conditions. Specifically, when the originally encoded perpetrator is present in the lineup (a culprit present lineup), both young children and the elderly do not differ significantly from young adults in their ability to correctly identify the perpetrator. However, when the perpetrator is not present in the lineup (a culprit absent lineup), both young children and elderly witnesses are more likely than young adults to make a false identification of an innocent foil (see meta-analysis by Pozzulo & Lindsay, 1998). More recent research demonstrates that older eyewitnesses (e.g. 60 to 80 years) tend to make more false identifications than younger adults in both target present and target absent lineups (Memon et al., 2003a, 2002). No unifying theory has emerged to fully account for this finding across both age groups. For instance, it appears that young children’s identification performance is hampered by a ‘choosing problem’ (Brewer et al., 2005). Keast et al. (2007) also noted a marked overconfidence in children’s judgements relating to their identification decisions which suggests that children may be poor at monitoring their own memory, a conclusion consistent with the developmental literature (Howie & Roebers, 2007). The mechanisms underlying higher false identification rates for older witnesses are less well explored. Ageing is typically associated with reduced cognitive capacity (such as a decline in attentional resources, see Craik & Byrd, 1982; Salthouse 1982) and an increased reliance on a more ‘automatic’ feeling of familiarity rather than a more effortful recollection process (Jacoby, 1999; Mandler, 1980). Thus, it seems unlikely that the explanations for difficulties experienced by younger witnesses will also apply to older witnesses.
A more malleable witness factor at the time of encoding is blood alcohol level. If the witness has been drinking and is intoxicated, both encoding and storage may be impaired (Cutler & Penrod, 1995). In terms of identification performance, Dysart et al. (2002) found that participants with high blood alcohol readings were more likely to make a false identification when faced with a culprit absent identification task. While a number of explanations have been proposed to account for these findings, such as a tendency to focus on salient cues when intoxicated (alcohol myopia hypothesis), research on the performance of intoxicated witnesses is limited due to the associated methodological and ethical difficulties.
Stable factors (such as gender or age of the culprit) have little or no impact on witness ability to correctly identify the perpetrator. However, there are a number of well-documented factors that can serve to either impair or enhance recognition ability. For instance, distinctive faces are far more likely to be correctly identified than non-distinctive faces. Similarly, and perhaps due to their distinctiveness, attractive faces are also more easily identified than less attractive or more typical faces. The psychological mechanisms underlying these findings are relatively straightforward. When an encoded face is distinctive or atypical in some way, it will not only attract more attention and greater processing resources but the distinctive feature is also more likely to benefit from an enhanced representation in memory (Ryu & Chaudhuri, 2007; see Brewer et al., 2005 for an interesting examination of the role of distinctiveness).
Unsurprisingly, disguises usually have a negative impact on identification ability (Cutler et al., 1987; but see O’Rourke et al., 1989). Simple changes, such as covering the head, wearing glasses, growing facial hair or even altering hair style slightly, can significantly impair face recognition (Narby et al., 1996; Shapiro & Penrod, 1986). Furthermore, changes in appearance over time (such as ageing, changes in weight, etc.) also have a negative impact on identification performance. In one study, Read et al. (1990) found that photographs of a target face taken after a two-year delay were less likely to be recognised than photographs taken nearing the time of original encoding.
An extensive literature has documented the identification impairment that occurs when the perpetrator is from a different race or ethnic group to the witness. Research on own-race (also known as cross-race) bias typically demonstrates that witnesses are less accurate when attempting to identify a target from another race or ethnic group than when tasked with identifying a member of their own race (see meta-analysis by Meissner & Brigham, 2001). Specifically, research documents a higher correct identification rate from target present lineups and a lower false identification rate from target absent lineups when the witness and perpetrator are from the same race. This bias has been demonstrated in both laboratory and field studies (e.g. Wright et al., 2001) and has been observed across various combinations of ethnic groups (e.g. whites identifying blacks, blacks identifying whites, etc.). Work by Chiroro and Valentine (1995) exploring a basic contact hypothesis suggested that everyday interactions with people of different races may reduce the effect – but not consistently. Other evidence suggests that the quality rather than the quantity of cross-racial interactions may be more important in reducing own-race bias (Lavrakas et al., 1976). Interestingly, a similar pattern of results has been demonstrated for gender and age such that a match between witness and target age and gender can promote recognition accuracy (e.g. Wright & Sladden, 2003; Wright & Stroud, 2002). Taken together, these findings suggest a somewhat preferential processing mechanism for familiar stimuli. In this vein, McClelland and Chappell (1998) have argued that ownrace faces may benefit from more accurate and efficient processing due to their familiarity.
In any witnessed incident, there may be a number of situational factors which impinge on subsequent eyewitness performance. An important factor which has received surprisingly little attention from researchers is the nature of the exposure duration (i.e. the opportunity, or length of time, the witness had to observe the perpetrator). In their meta-analysis of face recognition studies, Shapiro and Penrod (1986) found the predicted linear relationship between exposure duration and hit rates (i.e. as the amount of time spent viewing the target increases so does the likelihood of a correct recognition decision). Only a handful of studies have systematically manipulated exposure duration in an eyewitness context. These studies have typically demonstrated the expected beneficial effect of longer exposure duration on subsequent identification accuracy (e.g. Memon et al., 2003a; Read, 1995). However, inconsistent choosing patterns in target absent conditions require further experimental examination. Similarly, relatively little research attention has been paid to the effect of distance on identification and the ability of eyewitnesses to correctly estimate distances from an incident or perpetrator. Obviously, a correct identification is somewhat unlikely if the witness was unable to see the perpetrator so research has tended to focus on identifying a useful ‘rule of thumb’ with respect to distance. For instance, Wagenaar and van der Schrier (1996) suggested that identification performance was optimal when the viewing distance was less than 15 metres from the target. However, recent work by Lindsay et al. (2008) reveals that the 15-metre rule may not be useful – or accurate – for two reasons. Firstly, if witnesses are unable to estimate distance reliably then they are unlikely to be able to report accurately whether they were less than 15 metres from the target. Secondly, it seems rather unlikely that all identifications made when the viewing distance was less than 15 metres will be correct – or vice versa. In Lindsay et al. (2008), over 1300 participants observed a target person at various distances, estimated the distance to the target, generated a description and attempted an identification of the target from either a target present or target absent lineup. Participants were poor at accurately estimating the distance between themselves and the target (particularly when required to make this estimate from memory). While the reliability of target descriptions was unimpaired up to distances of approximately 50 metres, a decline in identification performance occurred for both target present and target absent lineups as distance between the witness and target at encoding increased. Although this finding is broadly consistent with those of Wagenaar and van der Schrier (1996), Lindsay et al. (2008) did not observe any dramatic dropoff in identification accuracy at 15 metres, noting that many participants made correct identifications beyond this distance, suggesting that a 15-metre rule is not a particularly useful diagnostic for the courts.
Another variable aspect of a criminal incident is the amount of stress or fear a witness may experience. Research inducing realistic levels of stress is, for obvious methodological and ethical reasons, difficult to conduct. However, in a field training scenario, Morgan et al. (2004) subjected soldiers to either a high- or low-stress interrogation in a mock prisoner of war camp over a 12-hour period. After a 24-hour delay, soldiers who had experienced a high-stress interrogation were significantly less likely to correctly identify their interrogator than those who had experienced the low-stress interrogation. A more recent study conducted on civilian participants in an arousing context (the London Dungeon) demonstrated that high-state anxiety was associated with fewer correct identifications of a target (Valentine & Mesout, 2008).
Other researchers have focused on the forensically relevant problem of witnesses to crimes involving weapons. Although some field research suggests that the emotional arousal associated with violent witnessing conditions may actually serve to benefit memory (e.g. Yuille & Cutshall, 1986; but see Wright, 2006), eyewitness experts have tended to favour the view that incidents involving the presence of a weapon will have a negative impact on eyewitness performance (Kassin et al., 2001). This phenomenon has become known as the weaponfocus effect (Loftus et al., 1987) and occurs when the presence of a weapon adversely affects subsequent eyewitness recall performance such that memory for details such as the perpetrator’s facial characteristics and clothing is impaired (e.g. Cutler et al., 1987; Hope & Wright, 2007; Loftus et al., 1987; Maas & Kohnken, 1989; Pickel et al., 2003; Steblay, 1992). One explanation is that increased arousal (or stress) due to the presence of a weapon reduces attentional capacity as increased attention is paid to the weapon while peripheral cues are ignored or filtered (Hope & Wright, 2007; Loftus, 1980; Macleod & Mathews, 1991). A meta-analytic review of the effects of stress on eyewitness memory by Deffenbacher et al. (2004) concluded that high levels of stress impair the accuracy of eyewitness recall and identification but that the detriment depends on the response mode elicited by the stress manipulation. The authors propose that some emotion manipulations generate an ‘orientating’ response while others generate a ‘defensive’ response (Deffenbacher, 1994; Deffenbacher et al., 2004; see also Klorman et al., 1977; Sokolov, 1963). Deffenbacher et al. (2004) argue that the orientating response leads to enhanced memory for ‘informative aspects’ of a scene but that the defensive response can lead to either enhanced memory or significant memory impairment depending on other cognitive and physiological factors.
Between the Witnessed Event and Identification Task
In the delay between an individual witnessing a crime and making an identification attempt, the witness’s memory is not only prone to decay, but it is also vulnerable to the influence of post-event information from numerous sources. Both delay and post-event information have been shown to compromise recall completeness and accuracy (see Anderson, 1983; Ayers & Reder, 1998; Ellis et al., 1980; Gabbert et al., 2003; Loftus et al., 1978; McCloskey & Zaragoza, 1985; Meissner, 2002; Tuckey & Brewer, 2003).
Delay systematically decreases the amount of information that can be recalled (Ebbinghaus, 1885; Kassin et al., 2001; Rubin & Wenzel, 1996; see also Tuckey & Brewer, 2003). Furthermore, a meta-analysis of 128 studies of face recognition suggests that there is a decline in the correct identification of previously seen faces after a delay (Shapiro & Penrod, 1986). Sporer (1992) found a decrease in correct identifications and an increase in false alarms over various intervals up to three weeks. Importantly, the field work by Valentine et al. (2003b) examining performance of real witnesses suggests that the greatest decline in performance occurs when the delay exceeds one week.
Research conducted by Elizabeth Loftus in the 1970s demonstrated the misinformation effect – a powerful phenomenon resulting in memory distortion (for a review see Loftus, 2005). In a now classic experiment, Loftus and Palmer (1974) presented participants a short film of a car accident and subsequently tested participant recall for details of the incident. Importantly, they found that simply changing one word in a question pertaining to the speed the car was travelling when the accident occurred resulted in significantly different estimates of speed. Specifically, participants asked to estimate what speed the car was travelling at when it contacted the other vehicle provided slower speed estimates (31.8 mph) than those asked to estimate the speed of the car when it smashed into the other vehicle (40.5 mph). Including the verb ‘smashed’ in the question also led to increased false reports of witnessing broken glass at the scene of the accident (no broken glass was ever shown). Several hundred experiments since have demonstrated the misinformation phenomenon, explored boundary conditions of the effect and served the development of theoretical explanations. More pertinent to eyewitness identification accuracy is an emerging body of work on the impact of co-witness influence on memory. In a recent survey 86 per cent of real eyewitnesses discussed their memory with a co-witness who was present at the witnessed event (Paterson & Kemp, 2006). Witnesses to an event may share the same experience but their individual recall of the event may differ for many reasons, including naturally occurring differences in attention paid to various details of the event, differences in spatial or temporal location at the scene or perceived differences in ability to recall those details (Gabbert et al., 2006).
Research amply demonstrates that the most likely outcome when two witnesses discuss their memories is that their accounts of the witnessed event become more similar and, hence, seemingly corroborative (Gabbert et al., 2004; Wright et al., 2000). A witness is also more likely to be influenced by a co-witness with whom they have a prior acquaintance, such as a friend or partner (Hope et al., 2008). However, very few studies have explored the impact of misleading information on subsequent identifications. A recent study conducted by Gabbert et al. (2007) which manipulated co-witness confidence and accuracy across both target present and target absent lineups found that participants were more likely than controls to reject the lineup incorrectly when they were aware that the co-witness had rejected the lineup. However, participants were no more likely than controls to identify the perpetrator correctly after seeing the co-witness make an accurate identification, and the pre-lineup confidence expressed by the confederate did not appear to influence the witness.
While unbiased lineup procedures may ensure that identification decisions themselves are unlikely to be shared with other witnesses, misinformation concerning descriptive details or pertaining to the general appearance of the target may have a negative impact on eyewitness accuracy, and this hypothesis is worthy of further experimental scrutiny.
Intermediate Recognition Tasks
In the course of an investigation, witnesses may be asked to search through a set of mugshots (usually photographs of potential suspects). Unsurprisingly, a number of studies have shown that previous exposure to the suspect increases the likelihood that the suspect will be identified in a subsequent lineup. In other words, repeated exposure to a suspect can increase mistaken identifications of an innocent suspect (Brigham & Cairns, 1988; Dysart et al., 2001; Gorenstein & Ellsworth, 1980; Memon et al., 2002).
In an investigation where no suspect has emerged, the police may work with a witness to produce a facial composite of the perpetrator. Previously, this composite might have been produced by a sketch artist but technological advances have led to the use of computerised systems for composite production (such as the E-Fit or Profit identification systems). While research demonstrates that the quality of composites is often rather poor, with little likeness to the appearance of the actual perpetrator (see Wells & Hasel, 2007, for a review), a more important question concerns the extent to which generating a composite might impair identification accuracy. In two studies, Wells et al. (2005) examined whether building a face composite had a negative effect on memory for the target face. Results indicated that building a composite resulted in significantly lower identifications for the original target face (Experiment 1), while a second experiment revealed that the results might be generalised to a standard witness paradigm (Experiment 2). In light of these results, Wells et al. (2005) suggest that where multiple witnesses are available ‘it might be possible to use one witness to build a composite and save the other witnesses for any later lineup identification attempts’ (p.155).
The Identification Task
In this section, we consider several important system variables which can have a significant impact on eyewitness identification performance. These variables are ultimately under the control of the criminal justice system and, to date, research has focused on demonstrating the identification errors resulting from poor practice in the production and administration of identification tests (i.e. lineups) while delivering recommendations for improved procedures.
Often witnesses assume that the suspect apprehended by the police and presented to them in the formal setting of a lineup must have a high probability of being the actual perpetrator. In other words, witnesses assume that they would not have been invited to make an identification if there was not a good reason for the police to believe the suspect was the actual perpetrator and their role is to make a positive identification (i.e. choose someone from the array). This bias may be further exacerbated if the witnesses are presented with the task in a misleading manner (i.e. ‘Take a good look at the lineup and see if you can identify the offender’). In fact, Memon et al. (2003a) found that over 90 per cent of mock witnesses indicated that they expected the perpetrator to be present in a lineup even under unbiased conditions. Therefore, it is extremely important that witnesses are informed that the person they saw ‘may or may not be present in the lineup’. Incorrect identifications from target absent lineups are significantly lower when witnesses are given this simple cautionary instruction (see meta-analyses by Steblay, 1997; Clark, 2005).
When a suspect disputes his involvement in an incident or claims an identification error, a lineup must be conducted. Here the police face a number of challenges as there are (at least) two important dilemmas with respect to lineup composition, namely, the number of lineup members (or foils) present in addition to the suspect, and how those foils are selected. The requisite number of lineup members is typically specified in law. For instance, in the UK a lineup must contain at least eight foils, while in the US lineups containing five (or more) foils are common. However, researchers have drawn a sharp distinction between the nominal size of a lineup (i.e. the number of people appearing in the lineup) and what has been described as the functional size of a lineup (Wells et al., 1979). Functional size refers to the number of plausible lineup members. If an eyewitness describes a perpetrator as a male, in his early twenties with long, dark hair, but then views a lineup in which two of the foils have short dark hair and one other foil is in his 40s, then the functional size of the lineup is reduced by three members, as these foils will be automatically discarded by the witness as they do not match the original description provided. The purpose of the lineup is to provide a fair identification task in which the suspect does not ‘stand out’ inappropriately from the other foils. Reducing the functional size of the lineup – particularly when the suspect is not the actual perpetrator – significantly increases the chance of a false identification (Lindsay & Wells, 1980; Tredoux, 2002). Thus, the selection of appropriate foils is critical for the production of a fair lineup and has been the focus of a good deal of debate. In the UK, police are required to select foils that resemble the suspect in what might be described as a ‘match to suspect’ strategy. In other words, foils are selected on the grounds that they match the appearance of the suspect (rather than the description of the perpetrator).
This strategy is problematic as research has documented that foils who do not coincide with a witness’s prior verbal description are likely to be disregarded, resulting in a biased lineup and an increased likelihood that an innocent suspect may be mistakenly identified (e.g. Clark & Tunnicliff, 2001). Thus, a ‘match to description’ strategy (i.e. where foils are selected based on their match to descriptions of the perpetrator provided by the witness) may be preferable (Luus & Wells, 1991). However, more recent research by Darling et al. (2008) did not identify any differences in either correct or incorrect identifications as a function of these lineup composition strategies. Clearly, further research is necessary to identify specifically how alterations to the composition of a lineup affect choosing behaviour.
Ideally, lineups should take place under double-blind administration where both the witness and lineup administrator are unaware of the identity of the suspect. Where the person conducting the lineup knows which lineup member is the suspect, there is a possibility that they will unintentionally transmit this knowledge to the witness (Harris & Rosenthal, 1985), resulting in increased rates of false identification (Phillips et al., 1999). More recently, Greathouse and Kovera (2008) noted that administrators displayed more biasing behaviours (such as inviting the witness to ‘take another look’, providing overt cues as to the identity of the suspect, and exerting greater pressure on witnesses to choose) during single-blind administration procedures (i.e. when they knew the identity of the suspect) than under double-blind procedures.
Lineup procedure: Comparing absolute and relative judgements
The lineup task has probably received greater research attention than any other topic relating to eyewitness testimony. In the traditional lineup (which may involve photographs or live participants, depending on the jurisdiction), the suspect and foils are presented simultaneously. Given witnesses tendency to assume that the perpetrator will be present in the lineup, the opportunity to examine all lineup members at once can lead witnesses to compare the lineup members with each other and select the lineup member who best matches their original memory. This has been described as a relative judgement strategy (Wells, 1984; Wells & Seelau, 1995). An alternative method of lineup presentation, known as the sequential lineup, was proposed by Lindsay and Wells (1985). Unlike the traditional simultaneous lineup where all lineup members are viewed at once, in the sequential lineup method each lineup member is presented sequentially, one member at a time. The witness is required to make an absolute identification decision for each lineup member (Is this the perpetrator you saw? Yes or No) prior to seeing the next person in the lineup. In the optimal version of the lineup, the witness does not know how many faces will be presented and the lineup terminates when a choice is made, with witnesses not permitted to see any further photos, review previously presented photos or change their identification decision. This lineup method promotes an absolute identification decision as, unlike the simultaneous lineup, witnesses cannot engage in relative comparisons between lineup members but instead have to compare the face presented with their memory for the perpetrator. Many studies have demonstrated that the sequential lineup method significantly reduces false identifications (see Steblay et al., 2001 for a metaanalysis) as a consequence of promoting a more conservative response criterion than the simultaneous lineup procedure (Meissner et al., 2005). However, a number of recent studies, while typically observing the predicted improvements in the false identification rate, have also noted a reduction in correct identifications under sequential procedures (Ebbesen & Flowe, 2002; Memon & Gabbert, 2003). Interestingly, in their metaanalysis, Clark et al. (2008) noted that only biased lineups produced the sequential lineup advantage with respect to false identifications. Further research is necessary to better understand the mechanisms driving choosing behaviour in order to develop accuracypromoting lineup formats.
Witness confidence is, perhaps, the most influential cue used by juries when evaluating the credibility and reliability of eyewitness testimony (Cutler et al., 1990; Lindsay et al., 1981). However, mistaken eyewitnesses can be overconfident (Shaw & McClure, 1996; Wells & Bradfield, 1999) and eyewitness confidence can be highly malleable in the period after making an identification (Luus & Wells, 1994a, 1994b; Wells & Bradfield, 1998). For instance, Wells and Bradfield (1998) found that witnesses who were given positive feedback (e.g. ‘Good, you identified the suspect’) reported higher confidence and better viewing conditions than those who received no feedback. Conversely, witnesses given negative feedback were less confident and reported worse witnessing conditions. The effects of feedback have also been shown to occur for both target present and target absent lineups (Bradfield et al., 2002), when there are long delays between identification and feedback (Wells et al., 2002), and even extend to witness willingness to testify (Wells & Bradfield, 1998, 1999). Post-identification effects may be reduced (but not eliminated) by means of warnings (e.g. Lampinen et al., 2007).
Is confidence ever related to accuracy?
Police, lawyers, judges and other legal practitioners, in addition to lay jurors, typically consider confidence as a useful indicator of likely eyewitness accuracy (Deffenbacher & Loftus, 1982; Noon & Hollin, 1987; Potter & Brewer, 1999). As we have seen, however, eyewitness confidence is malleable and susceptible to bias which can, in the worst-case scenario, produce highly confident mistaken identifications. But can witness confidence actually tell us anything useful about identification accuracy? Until recently, researchers have tended to take the view that confidence is not reliably associated with accuracy and, in particular, is not a reliable predictor of accuracy given low or non-significant confidence– accuracy correlations (e.g. Bothwell et al., 1987; Sporer et al., 1995; see also Kassin et al., 2001). However, in an extensive programme of research focusing on confidence and adapting alternative analyses, Brewer and his colleagues have challenged this conclusion (Brewer, 2006; Brewer & Wells, 2006; Weber & Brewer, 2004). Using a calibration approach, these authors have documented substantial confidence–accuracy relations for lineup choosers (i.e. witnesses who make positive identifications) across various stimuli materials (for extended discussion of this method and the relationship between confidence and accuracy, see Brewer, 2006; Brewer et al., 2005).
Identifications from CCTV
Intuitively, one might expect that identification performance might improve significantly when the ‘witness’, be that the original witness, a CCTV operator or police officer reviewing the evidence, has access to a video recording of the (alleged) target and, possibly, still photographs of the suspect. With video footage of the incident available, the task would no longer rely so heavily on memory (or prior familiarity with the perpetrator) and would simply require the witness to engage in an apparently simple matching task. However, the identification of individuals from CCTV footage is not necessarily a simple identification task and, like other identification tasks, is prone to error – even under optimal conditions.
There are two quite distinct circumstances where an attempt may be made to identify a face from a video image (Bruce et al., 1999). In the first situation, a spontaneous identification may be made by a member of the public (or perhaps, a CCTV operator or police officer) who claims that the target appearing in the CCTV image is personally known to them. In the second situation, the target appearing in the CCTV footage is compared to an apprehended suspect to establish whether, in fact, the suspect was recorded at the scene of the incident under investigation. Identification accuracy varies under these circumstances with respect to whether the face is previously known or previously unknown to the witness.
In one of the early studies on spontaneous identifications based on prior exposure, Logie et al. (1987) examined the ability of the general public to identify a live target in a town centre from a previously presented photograph. The photograph had been published in a local newspaper. Despite circulating details of the precise location of the target, the spontaneous detection (i.e. identification) rate for the general public was very low and this was coupled with a high false recognition rate (i.e. false identifications of other ‘innocent’ passers-by).
These low recognition rates in dynamic interactions where the target face is continually available to the witness have been documented elsewhere. In a field study, Kemp et al. (1997) examined whether credit cards bearing a photograph of the cardholder might serve to reduce credit card fraud. Including a photograph of the legal cardholder on a credit card (or indeed, other identity document) would seem to be a relatively foolproof method of ensuring that the card is used only by the person entitled to use it. In their study, shoppers presented a credit card bearing a photograph of themselves to pay for half the transactions while for other transactions they presented a card bearing the photograph of another individual. Experienced checkout cashiers were required to either accept or decline the card depending on their verification of the cardholder’s identity, and rate their confidence that the photograph appearing on the card was, in fact, that of the shopper. More than 50 per cent of the fraudulent cards were accepted by the cashiers – despite the fact that cashiers were aware that a study was under way and indicated that they both spent longer examining cards and had been more cautious than usual.
High error rates in the ability to match a target from CCTV footage have also been documented. Typically, it has been assumed that difficulties in identifying faces from video recordings are largely due to the frequently poor-quality nature of the recording and that were high-quality recordings available such difficulties would be reduced. While it is true that many CCTV images may be of poor quality for a number of technical reasons (such as unsuitable lighting conditions, intermittent image sampling, etc.), the assumption that this alone underpins low accuracy rates in face matching from CCTV has been challenged by research findings.
Bruce and her colleagues (1999) examined how well people were able to match faces extracted from a high quality video-recording against high-quality photographic images. The results revealed that overall accuracy was relatively poor (averaging only 70 per cent across trials) even under these optimal conditions. Performance was further degraded when the target expression or viewpoint was altered. Furthermore, the use of colour target images (as opposed to black-andwhite images) did not appear to lend any particular advantage (or disadvantage) to performance on the matching task. Thus, it would appear that our ability to identify an unfamiliar face – even in the presence of a reference image (such as a CCTV still or a photograph) is surprisingly error-prone (Davies & Thasen, 2000; Henderson et al., 2001).
In contrast, identification accuracy for known or familiar faces can be very accurate – even when the target images are of poor quality. To examine the impact of familiarity on face recognition, Burton et al. (1999) showed study participants surveillance video footage of a target who was known to some participants but not others. Results indicated a marked advantage for people who were personally familiar with the target – 73 per cent of the poor-quality image targets were recognised when they were familiar. In a series of studies exploring the role of familiarity, Bruce et al. (2001) found that participants were able to correctly verify (or reject) a familiar target with a high degree of accuracy (over 90 per cent) despite the use of poor-quality video images. When participants were unfamiliar with the targets, the accuracy rate was significantly lower (56 per cent). Subsequent experiments revealed that brief periods of exposure to the target do not necessarily generate sufficient familiarity to improve the recognition or matching of unfamiliar faces – unless some ‘deep’ or social processing has taken place (i.e. discussing the faces with another person).
Face recognition is of central importance to investigative police work (Scott-Brown & Cronin, 2007). CCTV has the benefit of providing investigators with a permanent record of an event and, importantly, who may have been involved in it. The availability of CCTV footage – and the speed at which it was analysed – facilitated the rapid identification of the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers from thousands of hours of recordings (Metropolitan Police, 2005). Furthermore, actual CCTV footage is generally considered powerful evidence in court (NACRO, 2002; Scott-Brown & Cronin, 2007; Thomas, 1993). However, relying on CCTV for the recognition and identification of suspects may foster a false sense of security and a potentially dangerous over-reliance on such evidence. We expect to be able to do this task with a high degree of accuracy. However, the research consistently demonstrates that people are poor at this task – even under optimal conditions.
Is eyewitness identification evidence reliable?
Experimental psychological research on eyewitness identification has flourished over the past 30 years, producing hundreds of articles and thousands of identification data-points. Given the size of the literature and the many different designs and research hypotheses deployed, it is often difficult to compare between studies and reach an overall conclusion with respect to our ability to identify correctly a previously seen individual. As Clark et al. (2008) note, correct identification rates often vary widely across experiments, for instance from as high as 80 per cent to as low as 8 per cent. To establish what the results of eyewitness experiments can tell us, Clark et al. (2008) conducted a meta-analysis of 94 comparisons between target present and target absent lineups. The most important conclusions to emerge from this analysis were as follows: 1. correct identifications (from target present lineups) and correct non-identifications (target absent lineups) were not correlated; 2. an identification of the suspect is diagnostic of the suspect’s guilt but the identification may be less informative if any of the identification procedures are in any way biased (such as lineup composition); and 3. non-identifications were diagnostic of the suspect’s innocence while ‘don’t know’ responses were, unsurprisingly, non-diagnostic with respect to guilt or innocence. Based on these and earlier analyses (e.g. Clark, 2005), Clark et al. (2008) suggest as a basic principle that ‘a suspect identification has greater probative value to the extent that it is based on the witness’s memory, and less probative value to the extent that it is due to lineup composition or an increase in the witness’s conformity, willingness, or desire to make an identification’ (p.211). Thus, when assessing the reliability and likely accuracy of an identification, legal practitioners and juries alike need to consider the extent to which these factors might have played a role in the identification process.
The Eyewitness in Court
The final stage of the eyewitness’s role within the legal process takes place in court. Courts in many jurisdictions acknowledge that there is a risk that eyewitness evidence may be unreliable and jurors are typically instructed to scrutinise the circumstances under which the witness encountered the suspect (Memon, 2008). For instance, in England and Wales trial judges are required to ‘protect against unsafe convictions in cases involving disputed identification’ (Roberts & Ormerod, 2008, p.74). The Turnbull guidelines (R v. Turnbull) stipulate that if a prosecution case is heavily based on eyewitness identification evidence, where the judge considers that evidence to be weak, of poor or questionable quality, the case must not proceed. When a case involving eyewitness identification evidence does proceed before a jury, the judge is required to provide both a general warning regarding the risks associated with eyewitness evidence and a more specific warning tailored to the nature of the potential weaknesses of the eyewitness evidence in that particular case.
The admissibility of expert testimony concerning eyewitness testimony remains a topic for some debate in legal circles (see Benton et al., 2006 for a review), In most adversarial systems, including North America and the UK, the judge decides whether expert testimony is admissible against certain criteria (Benton et al., 2006; Kovera et al., 2002; Read & Desmarais, in press). The one criterion common across most jurisdictions concerns the extent to which issues pertaining to eyewitness memory are considered to be a matter of juror common sense. In the UK this means that the jurors are usually expected to make a sound decision about the quality of eyewitness evidence unaided by testimony from an expert. The judicial conclusion that eyewitness memory is indeed a matter of common sense is one of the most frequently cited reasons for the rejection of eyewitness expert testimony (Benton et al., 2006; Leippe, 1995; Yarmey, 2001), and legal experts are often in agreement (e.g. Benton et al., 2006; Stuesser, 2005).
However, jurors are not particularly sensitive to potential eyewitness error – or responsive to judicial instructions on the matter (Kassin & Sommers, 1997). In fact, over a quarter of a century of research has demonstrated that lay understanding of eyewitness psychology is limited – and often mistaken (e.g. Benton et al., 2006; Brigham & WolfsKeil, 1983; Deffenbacher & Loftus, 1982; McConkey & Roche, 1989; Noon & Hollin, 1987; for a comprehensive review see Benton et al., 2006). Jurors tend to be unaware of the implications of biased procedures used by law enforcement, such as poorly constructed lineups, misleading feedback or biased instructions (Shaw et al., 1999). Potential jurors also find it difficult to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate witnesses (e.g. Lindsay et al., 1989, 1981). Even legal professionals are typically rather limited in their understanding of factors affecting eyewitness accuracy (Granhag et al., 2005; Wise & Safer, 2004). Furthermore, convictions which originally relied heavily on eyewitness testimony, but are now known to have been in error, illustrate quite clearly that jurors are often unable to either generate or apply the common sense expected of them by the courts.
Eyewitnesses serve an important function in the delivery of justice and can, under the right circumstances, correctly confirm the identity of a criminal. However, caution needs to be exercised with respect to identifications as the leading cause of mistaken convictions is erroneous eyewitness testimony. In particular, consideration must be paid to the conditions under which the witness encoded the perpetrator, the presence of any intervening misleading information, the nature and fairness of the identification procedures and whether the witness received feedback – unwittingly or otherwise.
Brewer, N., Weber, N. & Semmler, C. (2005). Eyewitness identification. In N. Brewer & K.D. Williams (Eds.) Psychology and law: An empirical perspective (pp.177–221). New York: Guilford Press.
An excellent and thoughtful overview of key issues in eyewitness research, Specifically, this chapter examines the various stages of the identification process that occur in the real world, from features of the event which may impede the witness to the impact of exposure to inaccurate post-event information and, finally, the identification task. Brewer and his colleagues also critically examine other factors which research suggests may be diagnostic of identification accuracy (e.g. confidence and latency). Throughout the chapter, the authors highlight several important methodological shortcomings which beset the extant research literature, such as underpowered experiments, a limited stimulus set and inadequate lineup conditions. Not only does this chapter provide a comprehensive review of the eyewitness literature and consider some of the problematic methodological issues faced by researchers but, importantly, it also focuses on the need to further develop our theoretical understanding of eyewitness identification behaviour.
Valentine, T. & Heaton, P. (1999). An evaluation of the fairness of police lineups and video identifications. Applied CognitivePsychology, 13, S59–S72.
Valentine’s work evaluating the fairness of VIPER lineups makes an important contribution to our understanding of current UK identification procedures. In this initial study of video identifications, Valentine and Heaton compared the ‘fairness’ (in terms of non-biased lineup selections) of photo versus video identification stimuli. In a fair lineup the suspect should be chosen, by chance, by 11 per cent of the mock witnesses (i.e. each lineup member should have an equal chance of being selected if the actual perpetrator is not present and correctly identified). However, in this study, 25 per cent of mock witnesses selected the suspect from the photographs of live lineups while only 15 per cent of mock witnesses selected the suspect from video lineups. The authors concluded that the video lineups were fairer than the live lineups. Given that mistaken eyewitness identifications are a significant source of miscarriages of justice, Valentine and Heaton argue that the more widespread use of video identification may actually improve the reliability of identification evidence.
Weber, N. & Brewer, N. (2004). Confidence–accuracy calibration in absolute and relative face recognition judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 10, 156–172.
This paper introduces an important new conceptual and analytical approach to eyewitness confidence which continues to show promise in determining the likely diagnosticity of eyewitness identification decisions. Confidence–accuracy calibration was analysed for both absolute and relative face recognition judgements. The most interesting finding is that recognition judgements for ‘old’ (i.e. previously viewed) stimuli demonstrated a strong confidence–accuracy calibration. In other words, there was an association between accuracy and the level of confidence expressed. This finding suggests that there was a meaningful relationship between subjective and objective probabilities of judgement accuracy for previously seen items. However, for ‘new’ judgements there was little or no association between confidence and accuracy using the calibration approach. See also: Brewer, N. (2006). Uses and abuses of eyewitness identification confidence. Legal and CriminologicalPsychology, 11, 3–23.
Wells, G.L., Memon, A. & Penrod, S. (2006). Eyewitness evidence. Improving its probative value. Psychological Sciencein the Public Interest, 7, 45–75.
A thorough review of the eyewitness literature and its role within the legal system. In this article, both estimator and system variables are examined and, in particular, the authors focus on how procedures based on scientific research findings can be developed to improve the probative value of eyewitness evidence. Other important questions are addressed, including the frequently occurring tension in applied research between scientific rigour and external validity when moving from the laboratory to real-world contexts. Specifically, the authors consider issues of base rates, multi-collinearity, selection effects, subject populations and psychological realism and note how a combination of critical theory and field data can work together to improve the generalisability of eyewitness research.
Early Christian preachers such as Justin Martyr assimilated all of the pagan gods to ‘demons’ under the control of the Devil (Pagels 1988: 42). According to pagan cosmology, demons were not intrinsically evil, but they were biddable. The magical papyri of the last centuries BCE and first centuries CE reveal how people sought, through ritual incantations, to command demons to carry dreams to others. In one particular example, a man named Hermeias exhorts the demons to cause his unresponsive object of desire to lust for him, even when she is ‘drinking, working, conversing, sleeping, dreaming, having an orgasm in her dreams, until she is scourged by you and comes desiring me.1
Granted the prevailing association of demons with dreams in popular thought, Christians were counselled to distrust their sleeping visions as possibly satanic. Dreams thus came to be placed squarely on the negative side of a morally polarized universe. John Climacus, whose Ladder of divine ascent synthesized the ascetic tradition and became a handbook for monks, wrote: ‘Devils often take on the appearance of angels of light or martyrs and they appear to us in sleep and talk to us … And if we start to believe in the devils of our dreams, then we will be their playthings when we are also awake’ (Climacus, Ladder, 3).
Beginning with Tertullian, the Church Fathers held that dreams could come variously from God, the Devil or the Soul (Tertullian, On the soul, 47). This tripartite scheme was apparently adapted from pre-Christian philosophical traditions. A look at the third-century BCE Alexandrian physician Herophilus’ classification of dreams reveals that the erotic dream figured centrally in the transition from paganism to Christianity:
“Herophilus says that some dreams are inspired by a god and arise by necessity, while others are natural ones and arise when the soul forms for itself an image (eidolon) of what is to its own advantage and of what will happen next; and still others are mixed (synkra-matikoi) and arise spontaneously (ek tou automatou) according to the impact of the images, whenever we see what we wish, as happens in the case of those who in their sleep make love to the women they love.”2
The interesting part of this scheme is the third, or mixed category. In so far as people see what they inwardly desire in these dreams, they seem identical to enypnia – the physical state dreams discussed earlier.3 Yet, this identification cannot be correct, since Herophilus pointedly differentiates them from the category of dreams produced exclusively by the soul. Mixed dreams have an exogenous element; they result from outside forces – the impact of images on the sleeper. These images happen to coincide with internal desires.
Herophilus’ mixed dream, with its ready erotic exemplification, corresponded to the demonic dream in the Christian tripartite system (von Staden 1989: 310). Early ascetic theories of human nature and psychology reveal how monks understood demons to inspire erotic dreams. These accounts, presented by writers such as Evagrius and Cassian, possibly illuminate what Herophilus intended by the mixed dream. Certainly they take us deeper into the genesis of the erotic nightmare.
For Evagrius, who became a monk in Egypt around 382 CE, demons could manipulate an individual’s previously acquired, emotionally charged memories to excite the passions, and set sinful thoughts in train. Thus evil thoughts were simultaneously exogenous and endogenous; demons activated what was already there. Evagrius conceded that disturbing thoughts would inevitably occur, even in the course of monastic life – such thoughts were part of the human condition. Sin set in only if one mentally entertained a thought for too long. As he expressed it: ‘It is not up to us whether evil thoughts might trouble the soul or leave it in peace. What does depend on us is whether they linger or not, and whether they set the passions in motion or not’ (Praktikos, 6). The goal was inner stillness, which Evagrius referred to by the familiar Stoic term, apatheia (Guillaumont 1971: 98ff.).
Evagrius named eight primary demons, the model for what would become the ‘seven deadly sins’ in Western Christianity. Each of these demons normally attacked only one of the two vulnerable parts of the soul, the high-spirited or the sensual. Predictably, the demon of fornication (porneia) attacked the sensual part of the soul. According to Evagrius “it compels one to desire ‘remarkable’ bodies; it violently attacks those living in abstinence in order to cause them to quit, convinced they will amount to nothing. And, soiling the soul, it inclines it to ‘those acts’ [obscene acts]. It causes monks to speak and hear things, as if some object were visible and present” (Praktikos, 8).
As this passage shows, the battle with demons spilled over into the realm of dreams and (other) hallucinations where the power of the will to resist demons was weakest. Although demons could provoke erotic dreams and nightmares, these were normally two distinct types of dream (Praktikos, 21, 22, 54). The phenomenon of an erotic nightmare required a fusion of demonic domains that contravened the normal division. In such dreams the sensual part of the soul joined forces with the irascible to overwhelm the intellect. It was the opposite of Plato’s ideal scenario of self-mastery where the intellect and the high spirits co-operated to overpower the appetitive part. In Evagrius’ psychology the erotic nightmare was not excluded but rather given a powerful theorization. It was the exception that confirmed the rule.4 The erotic dream was a mixed dream then, not only because external demons aroused internal thoughts, but also because it simultaneously affected the two parts of the soul.
If dreams were, indeed, controllable, then anyone who experienced an erotic dream was potentially culpable. John Cassian excused nocturnal emissions if they occurred to someone with a full stomach (Cassian, Conferences, 12.2). In such cases they were a simple physical fact of the body, and he allowed that it was ‘natural’ for emissions to occur as often as every two months, although three times a year was a more acceptable frequency (Cassian, Institutions, 6.20; Conferences, 2.23).
The sinfulness of erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions continued to be a topic of debate in ascetic ‘anthropology’- as patristic theories of human nature and psychology are sometimes known – throughout the Middle Ages in both the Eastern and Western Churches (Elliott 1999; Fogen 1998). Excusable nocturnal emissions became sinful erotic dreams if one entertained them, allowed them to linger, and, most importantly, if one consented to them (Elliott 1999: 20). The way to fight the images and sensations of the mixed dream was to sever them with the knife of the will, withholding assent so that externally instigated images did not connect with bodily passions. Nocturnal emissions unaccompanied by visual imagery indicated spiritual progress (Evagrius, Praktikos, 55; Angelidi forthcoming).
From the Monastery to the World
The account developed to this point presents the views of learned texts representing the ideas and practices of elite, free men in antiquity and a narrow subsection of monks and high clerics in the early Christian period. Their practices of self-cultivation may not have been shared by very many of their contemporaries, but their influence on subsequent generations has been enormous. If the ancient Greek ethic of self-moderation was explicitly elitist, the Christian ethic became increasingly unified in conception and intended for all – men and women, young and old alike. I turn now to consider how the ascetically influenced Christian ethic of self diffused to the population at large and how the Christian laity was conditioned to view the erotic dream as dangerous and nightmarish.
In popular vocabulary the word incubus, as we saw, gave people a ready label for the erotic nightmare.5 In the wake of Augustine’s writings about concupiscence and original sin, the general term for demonic interference in a dream, ‘inlusio‘ (illusion), came to have automatically erotic overtones in succeeding generations (Elliott 1999: 20). Likewise, the term ‘phantasma‘, which Aristotle had used interchangeably with phantasia to mean a ‘mental perception, image, or representation’, came to mean a distorted – usually by demons – mental representation (Schmitt 1999: 278). If normal sensory perceptions were like water that flowed through a person, then memories could be likened to water that was stored and which remained clear. Phantasmata, on the other hand, were like stagnant water that had become cloudy, rank, and overgrown with algae.
How did these developments affect popular views of these matters? Certainly the laity were not expected to live up to the ascetic standards of the monks – this would have meant the extinction of Christian society – nor were they necessarily concerned by, or even able to comprehend, the high-flown arguments of theology. People in the world no doubt continued to have extra-marital sexual relations, dreams, erotic dreams, nocturnal emissions, and nightmares. But the Church did make attempts to regulate these phenomena. Early penitential books such as the Irish penitential of Cummean, composed in the seventh century after the model of Cassian’s rules for monks, represented one such effort. This penitential is notable for its comprehensive distinctions among erotic deeds and thoughts.
“He who merely desires in his mind to commit fornication, but is not able, shall do penance for one year … He who is willingly polluted during sleep, shall rise and sing nine psalms in order, kneeling … He who desires to sin during sleep, or is unintentionally polluted, fifteen psalms; he who sins but is not polluted, twenty-four” (Bieler 1963: 115;Asad 1993: 101).
The dissemination of prayer formulas comprised another area for ascetic influ-ence on the development of mainstream Christianity. The expanding practice of bedtime prayers is of particular interest here (Le Goff 1988: 225). Early in the fifth century CE, Prudentius composed a hymn before sleep that included the following lines: ‘If a man’s stains of guilty conduct are few and far between, him the clear and flashing light teaches secret things; but he who has polluted and befouled his heart with sins is the sport of many a fear and sees fright-ful visions’ (Daily round 6.49). And it concluded with the following exorcistic entreaty: ‘The cross drives out every sin; before the cross darkness flees away; consecrated with this sign, the spirit cannot be unquiet. Away, away with the monstrosities of rambling dreams! Away with the deceiver and his persistent guile!’ (Daily round 6.133).
Between the fifth and thirteenth centuries, the Church’s mode of eliciting and forgiving lay sins altered. Initially, there was the brutally demanding office of penance in which the penitent was excluded from the worshipping com-munity (Asad 1993: 100). This person’s sins and their on-going punishment were socially apparent. The practice of individual, private confession to a cleric gradually replaced penance until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), when it was made mandatory for all. Later, the Protestants identified compulsory confession to lascivious clerics as a practice that increased rather than decreased general sexual excitation. In the reformed Church confession would have no place. Each individual would be responsible for his or her own actions in the face of God. This was not an easy option, but rather the beginning of an in-worldly asceticism. In Weber’s famous formulation, asceticism ‘now … strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world’ (1991 [1904-5]: 154).
Just as the new order of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations got underway in the sixteenth century, so, too, did the witch-hunts. The judicial system became a means to contravene the new space of private conscience that the reformers had begun to stake out. Officials asserted greater power than ever to interrogate individuals about their inner thoughts, convictions, and fantasies. These witch trials frequently involved accusations that men and women attended sabbaths at which they had sex with the Devil. The witch-hunting manuals developed an elaborate picture of incubi that attacked women and succubi that copulated with men. According to the Malleus maleficarum (Kramer & Sprenger 1970 : 41 ff.), such erotic episodes occurred more frequently to women since they were more feeble, credulous, and less self-controlled than men.
These various developments continue the story of erotic dreams and self-control begun in antiquity, a contention that emerges more clearly if we closely consider the tenth-century Canon episcopi (Lea 1939: 38; Russell 1972: 292). This text urged priests to eradicate demonic sorcery from their parishes. It also alerted clerics that some women, ‘seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons (daemonumi llusionibuse t phantasmatibusse ductae), believe themselves, in the hours of night, to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans’ (Lea 1939: 178). In such cases, priests were instructed to teach that these beliefs were false delusions of the Devil. The Canon episcopi conceded that women did undergo demonic molestation but only ‘in their spirits’ (cum solus eius spiritus). The problem, from the Church’s point of view, was the exuberant folk credulity aroused by these tales, and the laity’s apparent inability to distinguish imagined from real experiences. Thus the Canon episcopi emphasized that:
“[w]hile the spirit alone endures this [demonic manipulation], the faithless mind thinks these things happen not in the spirit, but in the body. Who is there that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal vision, and sees much when sleeping that he has never seen when waking? Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit happen in the body …” (Lea 1939: 179).
Uncertainty over ‘the imaginal’6 thus lay at the centre of European witchcraft.
Renaissance theologians had to decide whether witches’ transformations, flights, and sabbaths were merely dreams, and if so, whether the individuals involved none the less merited prosecution for believing them. The issues begin to look very much like those posed by the desert Fathers. The difference between the first ascetics and the laity during the witch craze was that earlier a (male) individual had largely been left to monitor his own spiritual failures. Later (male) clerics decided this matter on behalf of (female) individuals. Torture and capital punishment replaced internally imposed humility and renewed ascetic effort as responses to erotic dreams.
The matter of the reality of witchcraft, and the responsibility for dream visions, was never uniformly decided throughout the main period of witch-hunting, that is, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Carlo Ginzburg (1983) reveals how the authorities resolutely ignored statements by Friulian villagers that they fought demons ‘in the spirit’, while their bodies were at home, asleep. The accused called themselves benandanti (good-doers) and imagined that their practices were fundamentally Christian. Under the duress of long interrogation, however, the benandanti changed their stories and confessed that they had consorted with demons ‘for real’.
The benandanti told mainly of fighting against malevolent forces in order to safeguard the community’s harvest, and it is possible that many ‘witches’ stories’ were, likewise, not particularly sexual. The inquiring authorities, however, assumed that witchcraft must involve sexual acts with the Devil and thus they pushed the stories in that direction through questioning. Judges showed a particular interest in the issue of whether the intercourse with the devil was voluntary or forced, frightening or pleasurable (Kramer & Sprenger 1970 : 114; Lancre 1982 : 200-1). Whether or not actual erotic nightmares or erotic dreams had occurred to the accused, there was a likelihood that erotic nightmare scenarios would occupy a conspicuous place in the final confession.
Freud once rhetorically asked, ‘Why are [the witches’] confessions under torture so like the communications made by my patients in psychic treatment?’ (Ginzburg 1990: 150; Roper 1994: 245). The answer would seem to lie in the shared conviction in the importance of an underlying libidinal impulse. This sexual Urszene could be uncovered through confession, although both psychoanalysts and inquisitors faced a besetting uncertainty as to whether these received confessions were truth or fantasy (Ginzburg 1990: 151).
In this section I have retrained attention on the persistent factor of dreams, particularly demonically distorted dreams (phantasmata), at the heart of the European witchcraft phenomenon. My contention is that dreams, erotic dreams, nightmares, and erotic nightmares all occasionally figured in witch-craft cases. The effect of the threatening manuals for prosecutors, and of the prosecutions themselves, was to funnel even innocuous dreams into an erotic nightmare formulation, thereby further defining and maximally diffusing a category of experience that first arose in the context of early Christian asceticism.
Greek magical papyri XVIIa; in Betz (1986: 253). For more on demons sending (erotic) dreams, see Eitrem (1991) and Faraone (1999).
Found in the first-century CE author, Aetius, Placita, 5.2.3; text and translation in von Staden (1989: 386).
Galen considered erotic dreams as textbook examples of the category of dreams that reflected an individual’s physical state: ‘men full of sperm will imagine that they are having sexual intercourse’ (On diagnosis from dreams, in Oberhelman 1983: 46).
‘The sin of accidie (boredom, despondency) – also known as the noonday demon – provides one example of a demonic thought that allied the irascible and sensuous parts of the soul and ‘suffocated the intellect’ (Evagrius, Praktikos, 36). Evagrius considered accidie ‘the heaviest of the demons’ (Praktikos, 12). I thank George Calofonos for his discussion of these ideas.
An indication of the currency of the term may be found in Augustine’s City of God, 15.23. 17 My use of this term perhaps differs somewhat from its use in Jungian circles and elsewhere (cf. Tedlock 1987: 3).
I use ‘imaginal’ to refer to a state of consciousness in which one has the impression that what one is witnessing is absolutely ‘real’ and independent of one’s mind, although one is, in fact, only imagining it. The term ‘imaginary’, by contrast, implies an awareness, even in the moment of imagining, that what one beholds is only a product of one’s imagination. Dreams, visions, hallucinations, and apparitions are, generally, experienced imaginally and then subsequently accounted for as imaginary.
NOTE: The following are excerpts taken from “Radioparagka” show—the Radio Station of the Church Greece. The show’s theme was “Obedience and Freedom” and it was broadcast on November 10, 2002. Fr. Constantine interviews Fr. Porphyrios, a monk from the Hilander Cell of St. Isaac the Syrian. Since the interview has a lot of repetitiveness and superfluous banter, this article has been condensed and contains only the pertinent information.
Since the turn of the century, a few Hagiorite monks have spoken out about the abuses that take place in various monasteries on Mount Athos. These individuals were from different monasteries, under different Gerondas, and yet tell the same story: authoritarianism, sick forms of obedience being imposed, individuals developing mental illnesses after years in these environments, compulsion of monastics to see psychiatrists and take psychiatric drugs, monastics attempting suicides and monastics committing suicide. This “authentic” Athonite monasticism has been prevalent since at least the 70s and these irregularities are now accepted as a normal part of the genuine 21st century monastic experience.
Fr. Constantine: Do sick forms of obedience exist?
Fr. Porphyrios: I will disillusion you, Fr. Constantine. Yes, only sick forms of obedience exist today. I’m talking about Mount Athos; I’m speaking purely about Athonite matters and I’ll be speaking from my own experience.
An Abbot yells at his monks, “You don’t listen to me! I lost 500,000 [dr.] on Coca Colas and 7 Up! You’re going to make me explode! Does my money grow on trees?”1 Contemporary Elders are tilling and organizing over Greece towards wild novices. And the finale of these relationships is authoritarianism, which reaches schizophrenia. The difference with the Great Anthony is that he said, “My child, in order to sit near me, certain conditions must be met and above all, love Christ.” Whereas what we seek today on Mount Athos, dozens of times, is what is said and sucked like candy from Athonite abbots who, as you know, 90% of them didn’t do one hour of obedience.
Fr. Constantine: They weren’t subordinates beforehand?
Fr. Porphyrios: Never! Only the elders who came from Joseph the Cave-dweller previously did obedience.2 All the others, from the office or Brussels, with their collars and their trousers, became abbots on Mount Athos. Forgive me, but this is the reality. But, exceptions exist. Nothing is 100% absolute. Even on gold we write 999.99.3 Understand? And so, St. Anthony said, “You must love Christ.” Do you know what contemporary elders say? “If you leave my side, you will go to hell my evil child. You will be lost!” Understand?
Once, I was at a monastery and a student came to stay for fifteen days. After fifteen days, they placed him as my assistant. I saw him with a new pair of shoes. Hm! He smelt like gun powder to me. I asked him, “Are you engaged, will you go, this and that.” He said, “I thought that I would stay here.” Today, he is a schizophrenic! And the monastery boasts 120-130 monks. I don’t know how many monks they have but 40 of them are taking psychiatric drugs out of obedience…bad obedience!
Fr. Constantine: Of course, when you say psychotropic drugs, there is a book written by a Grigoriatis monk who responds to such allegations. He mentions that psychotropic drugs are bought for Mount Athos. He also says that he buys them for the pilgrims that visit from abroad. Visitors come and say they need psychiatric drugs.” http://www.rel.gr/index.php?rpage=meletes&rpage2=showkeimeno.php&link_id=5
Fr. Porphyrios: Excuse me! I myself bought psychotropic drugs for 40 monks! Understand? I personally bought psychiatric medication for 40 monks when I went out of Mount Athos to run errands. I don’t know how many monks there are now who take psychiatric drugs.
I tread differently. I went asked someone once—one with no taste, from the bench, the university—and I asked him. We chatted a bit and he told me, “You will do this!” I said, “I cannot.” He replied, “You will do this, it is obedience!” I was coerced; the priest said it. Fr. Constantine, everyone has been trampled by disobedience. I was pressed by obedience. I did obedience and suffered AF [atrial fibrillation] and was put on a pacemaker.5
Fr. Constantine: This priest gave you that medical advice?
Fr. Porphyrios: No! He told me to do something that my conscience couldn’t allow me to do. I told him, “I cannot do that thing.”
Fr. Constantine: Was the obedience a sin?
Fr. Porphyrios: The obedience was a spiritual sin, not a carnal sin. My conscience would not allow it.
Fr. Constantine: You had the right not to do this obedience since it was a spiritual sin.
Fr. Porphyrios: Yes, of course. Also, this priest wasn’t my spiritual father. We chatted, I told him one issue. What else do you want me to tell you?
Fr. Constantine: Everything! You lived the events.
Fr. Porphyrios: A certain monk in a large monastery fell into some small offence. He was ashamed to tell the abbot and he told some transient, worldly spiritual father. All of Mount Athos to Daphne learned about it. And his geronda—the great and holy geronda—called him to the Assembly and told him, “Because you didn’t tell me this, for one year you will not receive a blessing and I will not give you my blessing.” Fr. Constantine, before the new elders, spiritual fathers, such as the ascetic Geronda Sofronius, came to the monastery every month to confess people. The old elders wisely decided that a spiritual father from another monastery could come every month so that we could say something that we couldn’t tell the abbot so as not to create a disagreement or discord. Understand? Today, this has been cut off. Now if you confess to someone other than the abbot, you’re excommunicated and expelled from the community.6
And I’ll tell you something else. I saw a “very pleasant” abbot beating a subordinate and I lost it! I got my stuff and left. The abbot told me, “Come here! Do you know what I’m doing? What Abba Dorotheos did!” Eh! I couldn’t bear it and told him, “Excuse me, Geronda, but as soon as you become St. Dorotheos and Abba Seridos, then you can hit children.”7 It broke my heart. Now this monk is in the wind. I went and he told me, “Porphyrios, I beg you to discharge me.” We both cried. This is obedience today, Fr. Constantine. But when we haven’t done obedience ourselves, how can we impose someone else to do obedience? Naturally, obedience is salvation!
I remember Geronda Gabriel told me the following, “Do you see that man? He came from Cambridge with a transistor in the armpit. And I said to him, ‘What did you come here to do?’ He replied, ‘I came here to be a monk.’ I asked him, ‘Do you know what it means to be a monk?’ I tell you to fall from the balcony and you fall.’ The man replied, ‘Be careful, Geronda. If you’re telling me a joke, you catch me by my feet because I will fall.’ Geronda Gabriel told me, ‘He is an angel.’
And Geronda Gabriel Dionysiatis placed someone as the supervisor and tells him after three-four sessions; the monk disagreed, ‘Geronda, I will resign.’ The Geronda asked, ‘Why, my child?’ ‘I cannot disagree with my Geronda.’ Geronda Gabriel told him, ‘Ah, pay attention. I placed you there for this reason. You will say your opinion in governing. You will do obedience in spiritual matters. Also, I want there to be a contrary voice.’
Today, whoever disagrees about the Hegumen council departs. And they’ve gathered all the idiots; those who never tread in the monastery, they are from outside and they’ve placed them, how do you say…
Fr. Constantine: This is sick. If there is no voice to be heard…
Fr. Porphyrios: No, no, no. Let me tell you something else—Speechless!—about an abbot who went to a new monastery that had an old brotherhood. ‘Oh well,’ he says, ‘are they dumb? Do they not have any other opinion than that from the Geronda?’ And Geronda Gabriel told Fr. Kallinikos, ‘You will stay, my child! Your objection is needed so we can find the right one.
Today, Fr. Constantine, the Geronda is the path (ο-δο) of salvation. And he is also our obstacle to arrive at Christ. ‘I am here (‘δω)!’ Understand? Things are tragic!
Geronda Christoforos, the new abbot of Grigoriou Monastery
Geronda George Kapsanis, former abbot of Grigoriou Monastery
When Geronda Ephraim of Arizona was the abbot of Filotheou Monastery, on the Feast Day of Pascha he would traditionally bless the monks to have a can of Coca Cola for trapeza. He carried this tradition over to St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, AZ. In some of Geronda Ephraim’s North American monasteries, the monastics have soda frequently throughout the year.
The following is a pilgrim’s impression of his visit to Elder Joseph the Hesychast and his disciples in the 50s:
“Many times the Greeks have a weakness to make up stories, especially about people‘s alleged holiness, and as is often the case, once a story starts, it gets repeated and magnified and blown completely out of proportion. Others hear it and relate it in a different way, and it becomes another story, and soon someone has a reputation of being one of the greatest wonderworkers the Church has ever known.
“To some extent, this is what happened with this Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, and it‘s most definitely what happened to the other Fr. Ephraim, who took control of Philotheou Monastery, and who could not remain on the Holy Mountain, but resides in America. The three pilgrims came to Katounakia for a visit, and the meeting with Fr. Ephraim of Katounakia was quite eventless, other than the fact that Fr. Ephraim seemed like a reluctant prisoner, not one rejoicing in obedience. There was quiet talking, all in Greek, greetings and goodbyes.
“The outcome of this occasion was in stark contrast with the words of Fr. Ephraim in his book which recently appeared. Ironically, the book was named Obedience is Life: Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, and in this very book this alleged Elder Ephraim records that he later forced his elder to begin once again commemorating the Ecumenical Patriarch at a time when the Ecumenical Patriarch had openly espoused the heresy of Ecumenism. He thus recorded his own blatant disobedience in a book supposedly teaching obedience. The Elder Nikephoros, it is said, grieved very much that his disciple, Fr. Ephraim, had forced him to do something against his conscience. Three years before he died, however, the Elder Nikephoros returned to the church. http://www.archbishopgregory.info/chapter_06_first_visit_to_mount_athos.shtml
999.99 (five nines fine) The purest type of gold currently produced.
In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, it is taught that monastics lose their salvation if they leave the monastery–whether a novice, rassaphore, or great-schema. Unless, of course, they get a blessing. In 2000/2001 a monk from St. Nektarios Monastery was visiting St. Anthony’s once for an immigration appointment–when new monasteries were opened the immigrant monks who were transferred did not update their address and would travel back to Arizona when they had INS appointments. This monk did not want to return to St. Nektarios Monastery due to the angry and oppressive atmosphere that existed there at that time (as one of the Athonite Fathers said, “Do you want to destroy a monk’s spirituality? Send him to help establish a new monastery). Geronda Ephraim gave him a blessing to be a monk at St. Anthony’s but due to the fact that he didn’t first consult his Geronda [Joseph] and did it of his own volition, it was frowned upon by many of the other monastics in various monasteries. Some even believed that this act would greatly hinder his chances for salvation and that although Geronda Ephraim gave a “blessing,” he was actually doing obedience to this young monk, and the whole affair was really just an act of self-will not really covered by a blessing. In another case, a novice from Arizona received a blessing to go live at Filotheou Monastery on Mount Athos. Many of his brother monastics gossiped that in reality, Geronda didn’t actually bless it but rather this novice ceaselessly begged and harassed Geronda to allow him to go and in the end Geronda Ephraim did obedience to his will and “blessed” it. Later, rumors went around the monastery that he became deluded, was re-baptized at an old calendarist monastery, and was ordained a deacon. Afterwards, he left the monastic life and returned to the world. These stories are used as cautionary tales to scare young novices and remind them that if they don’t stay with their elder no matter what, and do absolute blind obedience, they will become deluded, leave, and lose their soul.
In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the only possible sin in obedience is disobedience; i.e. not obeying the command the elder has given. Both physical and spiritual obedience are expected, and it must be blind, without questioning, back-talk, murmuring, judging, etc. Thus, if the obedience is a “spiritual” sin (i.e. lying, perjury, falsifying records, gaslighting pilgrims to cover-up a scandal, etc.), the disciple is not sinning if he/she obeys the command. The Geronda or Gerondissa are responsible before God for the commands given (thus, if the order they give is a sin, it is their burden and sin). The disciple is only responsible before God for the obedience they did or did not do, regardless of whether it is a sin or breaking of the commandments. In doing obedience they have not sinned and will not have to give an account before God on why they broke His commandments. If they disobey the command, they will have to give an account for their disobedience, and possibly lose their salvation for this crime.
In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, a monastic does not have a blessing to confess to other spiritual fathers other than their own. I.e., a monk from Michigan wouldn’t ask the hieromonks in TX or NY if he could see them for confession. The only other person monastics can confess to other than their own spiritual father/mother in the monasteries is Geronda Ephraim in Arizona. A blessing is usually still required before this happens, though.
Geronda Ephraim uses the story of Akkakios a lot in his homilies to his monastics. This story is meant to encourage moanstics to endure everything their superiors put them through with patience and without murmuring. “The humble monk distinguished himself by his patient and unquestioning obedience to his Elder, a harsh and dissolute man. He forced his disciple to toil excessively, starved him with hunger, and beat him without mercy. Despite such treatment, St Acacius meekly endured the affliction and thanked God for everything. St Acacius died after suffering these torments for nine years. Five days after Acacius was buried, his Elder told another Elder about the death of his disciple. The second Elder did not believe that the young monk was dead. They went to the grave of Acacius and the second Elder called out: “Brother Acacius, are you dead?” From the grave a voice replied, “No, Father, how is it possible for an obedient man to die?” [St. Akakios is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on July 7th].
This is the kind of obedience required in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries. Similar to Abraham who didn’t question God when told to murder his son, Isaac, nor did he think twice about sacrificing him, so to should the disciple monk do everything Geronda asks without hesitation or a double mind.
NOTE: This article is taken from the Cypriot newspaper Phileleftheros (“Ο Φιλελευθερος”), December 24th, 2010. It is a response to an article published the week before in the same newspaper written by Monk Christodoulos. The former monk of Grigoriou claimed in that article that the monastery employed methods of controlling the monastics by compulsory use of psychiatric drugs or being referred to psychiatric asylums. In the following article, Grigoriou Monastery: The Sludge War is set in Motion, the Monastery attempts to rebut these accusations.http://anavaseis.blogspot.ca/2010/12/blog-post_6672.html
Dear Director of the Newspaper,
It is with amazement and wonder that we were informed of the newspaper article you published, “Cuckoo’s Nest”: Grigoriou Monastery on the Holy Mountain (18/12/2010), which consists of an interview given by the monk Christodoulos.
We do not expect that either you personally nor your partners have specialized knowledge of psychiatry to properly assess the content of his interview and to decide whether it is publishable. On the other hand, one would be expected to ask, to explore beforehand, if the maneuvers of the responsible were liable before lawmen, officers of Public Health, based on real events and mental states. It would take perhaps rudimentary care on your part to preserve the prestige of your newspaper since it is likely that your publication consists of slandering many honest people.
Regarding the contents of Monk Christodoulos’ interview, we want to you and the readers of your newspaper to know that you insulted our monastery with this publication by offensively describing it as a “Cuckoo’s Nest”. Also, you primarily and decisively insulted Monk Christodoulos himself by publicizing sensitive personal information, something he would not have wanted in a calm phase of his life. Our monastery has handled the issue if this afflicted brother with great caution and delicacy, whether he realizes it or not. Such matters are not treated in the way your partner journalist has chosen. Besides, our Monastery cannot speak publicly, out of courtesy and respect for the persons involved. This is due to our obligation to observe the Holy Canons requiring confidentiality of confession, but also because there is the Personal Data Protection Authority. For this reason, we do not now refute his accusations contained in your publications. We only disclose to your readers that issues relating to the Monk Christodoulos, are pending before the Greek Courts.
However, the most significant thing about your publication is that you created, or perhaps reinforced, the impression that the monasteries implement a control method by forcing monks to use psychiatric drugs or by referral to a mental hospital. This is a completely false impression. Only someone deliberately ill-natured or perverse could accept these things as true.
Perhaps without realizing it, you insult both Orthodox Monasticism and the Church with your publication. But this does not suit the traditional pious and philo-monastic people of Cyprus. In Cyprus, there are exceptional hierarchs, pious clergymen and laity spiritual brothers who can prove that the exercise of evangelical love governs contemporary Orthodox Monasticism.
As for the Holy Mountain, it suffices to quote from a letter-response by the eminent psychiatrist Dr. Panagiotis Grigoriou (Hospital Polygyros Chalkidiki) in the Athenian newspaper “Eleftherotypia”, in connection with a similar publication in 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).”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
Dr. Panagiotis Grigoriou, Neurologist-Psychiatrist and director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital.Polygyros May 26, 2001.
We hope that you understand how detrimental Vassos Vassiliou’s article is to both the monk Christodoulos and your local community. Because we believe you are motivated by feelings of truthfulness and impartiality, we ask that you please observe journalistic ethics and in compliance with the law, to publish this article in the same place of your newspaper and with the same elements as those of the controversial publication.
MONASTERY OF ST GREGORY THE HOLY MOUNTAIN: LETTER OF REGRET TO A BROTHER OF THE MONASTERY, FR. CHRISTODOULOS GRIGORIATIS
Meeting and taking council, the following signatories to this document, the prior of the Monastery of Saint Gregory Fr. George Kapsanis, Hieromonk Fr. Demetrios and Hieromonk Fr. Luke, fathers and brothers of the Monastery and the other members of elderly congregation of the monastery, the current chairman of the Abbot of the Holy Monastery, Fr. Christoforou, jointly decided and sign the things agreed below.
We renounce with abhorrence, aversion and regret our decision in 2003 to seek by Attorney the confinement (supposedly for “treatment”) of the monk and brother of our Monastery, Fr. Christodoulos Grigoriatis (according to the following despicable annexed document), at the Public Psychiatric Hospital of Thessaloniki. We accept with humility and contrition of heart that our decision was a product of medical error, with potential deception!!!
We recognize and accept unreservedly the diagnoses of two medical psychiatrists attached below (confirming the full mental health of Fr. Christodoulou, who does not need “treatment”). We accept these as the only valid diagnoses which cancel out every other misleading medical placement, or “diagnosis” on matters of the aforementioned brother, Fr. Christodoulos’ mental health.
After agreement and consensus, we recall and accept as invalid the decisions (Θ’-8.4.2010) made during the session of elderly congregation of the monastery, as well as the forced “Apolytirio” (Απολυτήριο) signed by the hieromonk Fr. Panaretos (as one not having such a responsibility), and the second issued “certificate” signed by the then Abbot of the monastery Fr. George Kapsanis. We recognize this second certificate as a product of backstage coercion and extortion (for the signature) by a particular monk and head of the monastery, who ministering then (as gerokomos) the constant attendance of the Abbot and Elder of the monastery Fr. George Kapsanis, thus situated in this detailed condition due to serious health problems!!!
We accept the following agreement and συνεναίσεως the following request of the monk and brother of our monastery, Fr. Christodoulos Grigoriatis, through the moral satisfaction and economical compensate accordingly, on the injury suffered by his unjust expulsion from the Holy Monastery of his repentance, with the symbolic sum of 100,000 Euros, deposited in his bank account within three hours of the signing of this, our repentance.
APPLICATION OF MONK CHRISTODOULOS, BROTHER OF THE HOLY MONASTERY OF ST. GREGORY, MT. ATHOS
I would like to request from the monastery of my repentance, as a small token of moral satisfaction and compensation of the damage I have suffered from my wrongful expulsion from the monastery, the symbolic sum of one hundred thousand 100,000 Euros—for my unpaid ministry of more than 20 years within the monastery, for my personal library that I handed over to the monastery upon my arrival in order to dedicate myself as a monk for the rest of my life there and for depositing money in a bank account of the Monastery from the sale of my property.
Given that my expulsion from the monastery was completely unfair, since there had not been and there is no final judgment against me—no conviction of ecclesiastical or civil court that implicate me in crimes in order to justify the decision (Θ’-8.4.2010) at the Session of elderly synaxis of the monastery on the issue against my mandatory apolytirion.
KATAΘΕΣΗ ΣΤΟΝ ΛΟΓΑΡΙΑΣΜΟ:
NATIONAL BANK OF GREECE
ΟΙ ΥΠΟΓΡΑΦΟΝΤΕΣ ΤΗΝ ΑΝΩΤΕΡΩ ΜΕΤΑΜΕΛΕΙΑΝ
Ο ΠΡΟΗΓΟΥΜΕΝΟΣ ΤΗΣ ΜΟΝΗΣ ΟΣΙΟΥ ΓΡΗΓΟΡΙΟΥ ΑΓ ΟΡΟΥΣ Π. ΓΕΩΡΓΙΟΣ ΚΑΨΑΝΗΣ
Ο ΙΕΡΟΜΟΝΑΧΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΙΑΤΡΟΣ ΤΗΣ ΑΥΤΗΣ ΜΟΝΗΣ Π. ΔΗΜΗΤΡΙΟΣ
Ο ΙΕΡΟΜΟΝΑΧΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΙΑΤΡΟΣ ΤΗΣ ΑΥΤΗΣ ΜΟΝΗΣ Π. ΛΟΥΚΑΣ
ΚΑΘΩΣ ΚΑΙ ΤΑ ΛΟΙΠΑ ΜΕΛΗ ΤΗΣ ΓΕΡΟΝΤΙΚΗΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΕΩΣ ΤΗΣ ΑΥΤΗΣ ΜΟΝΗΣ
NOTE: The following article is taken from the Cypriot newspaper “Phileleftheros” (Ό Φιλελεύθερος), December 18, 2010, p. 23. The article contains the accusations of a hieromonk who was ousted after 22 years of control methods via the administration of psychiatric drugs. http://www.zougla.gr/page.ashx?pid=80&aid=227195&cid=122
The monk, who “was expelled” from the Grigoriou monastery1 on Mount Athos 22 years after his admittance, denounces methods reminiscent of the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.2 According to his allegations, methods of controlling the monks were applied with the administration of psychiatric drugs. The complaints come from Father Christodoulos3 who also produced a movie clip which shows him tied with leg padlocks to a bed, in a room of the Thessaloniki Hospital, where he was brought for “treatment.”
Fr. Christodoulos maintains he was of sound mind. He cites the opinion of Cypriot psychiatrist, Yiangou Mikelidis,4 who states that he examined Father Christodoulos and “he is not suffering from any serious mental illness and has no need of treatment.”
“The monk’s so-called mental illness reacheded,” as he says, “up to the Prefect of Thessaloniki whose testimony was invoked to register a complaint against the Abbot of Gregoriou5 Monastery for slanderous libel. Furthermore, he accuses the monastery’s administration of not returning money that he secured from the sale of his own real estate. Father Christodoulos was not the “typical” type of monk since he sought the Abbot’s resignation, he went on a hunger strike twice and while he was not as obedient, he remained an administrator of the monastery.
When they gave him a certificate of discharge and he refused to leave the monastery, the Monastery’s administration called up policemen from Karyes who accompanied him off the Holy Mountain. They transferred the monk’s belongings to Karyes; these numbered 47 boxes with various personal items and were not delivered to him upon his expulsion.
“They tried to make me crazy”
Fr. Christodoulos (Nicholas Diamantopoulos in the world) spoke to “Φ” about everything he claims happened in Grigoriou Monastery:6
“I joined the Grigoriou Monastery in 1987 at age 30. In 2003 I did a hunger strike demanding the resignation of the Abbot because he could not exercise his duties completely. The Abbot gave me a handwritten letter in which he resigned and asked me to pass it to the elderly congregation (a copy was given to the “Φ”).
“I raised the issue of resignation before the elderly assembly (composed of seven monks) but I was told they did not accept it. I returned to the Abbot and asked to be heard by the whole fraternity consisting of about 70 monks. I developed my position before them and they thereupon prepared a document calling the Public Prosecutor of Thessaloniki to lock me in a mental hospital. With the mobilization of the police, they lead me the mental hospital. The psychiatrist chanced to be a fellow student of the Monastery’s doctor; the one who sent me to the psychiatric hospital. I mentioned to the psychiatrist that I have differences with the Monastery’s administration. I explained that this administration wants to use him to make me out as crazy.
“I called my brother from a phone booth and explained that they wanted to declare me insane. So until he came, they tied me to a bed with the help of security guard. They used straps and padlock. When my two brothers came to ask me what happened, they were paid no attention to. When they saw me tied up, they made a clip with a camera and warned those responsible at the hospital they would be given to the public if they continued to have me bound. My brothers said they would take me to another psychiatrist who is not influenced by the monastery. It took three days of contacts and interventions to allow me to leave.
“I went to another psychiatrist who, after a month of visits, advised that I am suffering from mixed personality disorder which has nothing to do with mental illness or any other serious illness. The doctor told me that I can go to the monastery with no problem. I returned to the monastery where they accepted me. (Last May I went to a psychiatrist, Giagkos Mikellides, who after examining me, opined in writing that I do not suffer from any serious mental illness and have no need of treatment. A copy of the advice was made available to “Φ”).
“In 2004 a priest-monk threatened me, saying they would expel me from the monastery. I started a hunger strike and sought the Abbot’s resignation. An assembly occurred, minus the Abbot who was then outside Mount Athos and I was told that either they would deport me from Mount Athos or I would go to a psychiatrist in Patras.
“I told them that I accept going to a psychiatrist. I went off to my hometown in Peloponnese without seeing a psychiatrist. When I returned a week later, the Abbot didn’t say anything to me nor ask me what happened with the psychiatrist. This means that two powers co-exist in the monastery. On the one hand, the Abbot and on the other an elderly congregation that insists on making me a mental patient.
“The elderly congregation has a problem because when I go out with permission, I travel abroad instead of only in Greece. With the “indiscipline” I require small chastisements for my “indiscipline” such as refraining from chanting, etc.
“In 2006 they changed the exit certificate and restricted my travels to only in Greece. On one occasion the Abbot obliged me to give him 500 prayer ropes, which I made, to enable me to go on a pilgrimage to the Patriarchate. Since then, when I go out with permission, I travel abroad without the blessing of the Abbot.
“This year in March I went to the abbot and asked him to convene the fraternity and invite anyone who has something against me to say it before all. He threatened me with a curse (that he would curse me) because I ask things beyond obedience. When he threatened me with a curse, I wrote a curse. I noted that if I am right then the curse is to fall upon the head of the Abbot; if not, then the curse would fall to mine.7 After that, I came to Cyprus where I spent Pascha and when I returned I was called to the synaxis and they asked me for an explanation about my behavior.
“I told them that I cannot respect them to the depth they want; when in 2003 they tried to make me crazy.
“Afterwards, they gave me a certificate for insult and contempt towards the Abbot, but I returned it because it did not have his signature.
“They insisted that I leave. I didn’t leave and they brought the police in and they escorted me to Karyes.
“The Abbot told the Prefect of Thessaloniki, Mr. Psomiadi, that I’m a mental patient. Then I registered a lawsuit against the Abbot for slander which is pending before the Court.8
To this day, Fr. Christodoulos still speaks out and references the injustices he suffered while living as a monk at Grigoriou Monastery. Here is a recent example, dated January 15, 2016:
“Many who know the details of my monastic life urge me to write an autobiography. If I decide to do such a “crazy thing”, the dead will roll in their graves, as well as the bones of those who are alive—the guileful, treacherous rassaphore monks of Grigoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos who through plots and intrigues that even the Italian Kamora would envy, continually tried to shut my mouth, slander me, humiliate me, ridicule me with processes that reach beyond the limits of a murder attempt at my expense.”
“I have evidence and documents stored electronically that would overturn the thrones of Churches (and not just sovereigns) if I were to publish them!!!”
Grigoriou Monastery (Greek: Γρηγορίου) is situated on the southwest side of the Athos Peninsula in northern Greece, between the monasteries of Dionysiou and Simonopetra. Grigoriou originally was dedicated to the St. Nicholas but later was renamed in honor of its founder, Gregory. It is ranked seventeenth in the hierarchical order of the twenty monasteries located on the Mount Athos peninsula. Grigoriou is reputed to be one of the most well-organized and strict coenobitic monasteries on the Mount Athos peninsula.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1975 American drama film directed by Miloš Forman, based on the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. Now considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is No. 33 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list. In 1993, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
A blog exists under the name of Χριστόδουλος Μοναχός Γρηγοριάτης—though there is no validation that the Monk Christodoulos actually wrote the posts contained therein (especially since he continues to make comments about the monastery to this day). Notably, to this day, he still speaks out about his experiences at Grigoriou Monastery. A month after Abbot George’s resignation, the following retraction was posted on this blog, “My esteemed Geronda, beloved fathers and brothers, please consider everything I posted on this blog as invalid. I recall all of my posts and have deleted them! I seek forgiveness from all of you, hoping that I will obtain favorable treatment. Pray for my salvation as I too! My Metanoia [repentance or prostration] to all of you! Monk Christodoulos. http://monaxoschristodoulos.blogspot.com/2014/03/blog-post.html
Archimandrite George Kapsanis resigned from his abbacy in February 2014 for reasons unknown. He died on the day of Pentecost later that year (June 8, 2014).
In April 2014, a blog existing under the name of “Monk Christodoulos Grigoriatis”, posted “My Second Sorry to Grigoriou Monastery.” This “Epistle of Repentance to Geronda George Kapsanis and the Holy Monastery of Grigoriou, Mount Athos” sounds more like a PR campaign contrived by the monastery. To this day, when talking about his experiences at Grigoriou Monastery, Christodoulos speaks quite differently than the content found in this epistle. Here is the epistle in its entirety:
My esteemed Geronda,
Since April 2010, I have written and published on the internet or notifications by means of mass media (television, radio, newspapers) that gave me step of speech, ungrounded, obscene and other charges against you and against the brothers of the Monastery.
I recognize fully that both you and the brothers of the monastery are persons above reproach in every respect and that my accusations were untrue. But now I am fully aware of the truth and repent for what they did. I confess that I caused you great grief and psychic pain, but also scandalized many people who did not know the ethos of Grigoriou Monastery. I publicly apologize for this, both to you and the brothers of the monastery and the people I scandalized.
As a minimum indication of my practical repentance, I’ve already deleted my website that I maintained with the unjust and false accusations which I address to you and the brothers of the monastery, and I have posted two letters of apology online (this and the preceding that I have sent).
I hope that in this way I can restore, albeit slightly, the harm I caused you.
Because I am monk and I look forward to my salvation, I put my metanoia [repentance or prostration] and ask for your blessing.
I wish you a good and blessed Pascha in love of the Lord!
My repentance towards my former monastery Fr. George Kapsanis, Elder Fr. Christopher, the Fathers of the Holy Assembly and all the fathers of the monastery. Evlogeite your blessing!!
Geronda Ephraim teaches that cursing clergymen never works and it always falls back on the curser seven-fold. However, a curse by a clergyman always sticks due to the grace of ordination. In this case, both participants are ordained priests; thus, the curse by whichever hieromonk is in the right would have stuck.
There does not seem to be any information about these proceedings available on the web.
Psychiatric drugs are not antibiotics. Do not confuse mucus with marmalades.
Our interview on April 22, 2001 dealt with many of the problems that occur on Mount Athos and even more mobilized against us. As they told me on my recent trip to the Mt. Athos, the Holy Community of Mount Athos, as well as the Church of Greece, has exercised more pressure to censure and refute me. There is even a decision made by the Holy Community to not sell my books in any of the stores in Daphne and Karyes.1
A neurologist-psychiatrist named Panos Grigoriou—Director of the Psychiatric Department of the general Hospital in Halkidiki—was one of those that mobilized against us. Firstly, the likeable psychiatrist with his epistle in the Sunday Typos 10/06/2001 is surprised because I consider psychiatric drugs an indication of morbidity and failure on Mount Athos. He states, “We take psychiatric drugs just as we take antibiotics, anti-hypersensitive or anti-rheumatic medicine.”
The above mentality of the psychiatrist is representative of a new generation of Christians—and monks in particular—that now consider psychiatric drugs as a natural fact of daily life. The conversation we had with a doctor-novice at Grigoriou Monastery at the Monastery of the Holy Forerunner in Dimitsana (Summer 2001), is indicative of this entire spirit. This novice-doctor made a special trip to meet me there.
Novice-Doctor: “Why does it surprise you, Fr. Michael, that monks take psychiatric drugs? Are they not people, too? For example, I arranged the pharmacy of our monastery and indeed I saw boxes with psychiatric drugs but they are used very little. Then I asked the Elder if we could make a special area for the psychotropic medicine and that space was made. I assure you that the monks taking psychiatric drugs continue their lives at the same rate without affecting their spiritual life in the least. Do you know such and such a priest?”
Monk Michael: “Yes, I’ve known him since 1975.”
Novice-Doctor: “Heh, I put him on medication when I arranged the pharmacy.”
Monk Michael: “You mean psychiatric drugs?”
Novice-Doctor: “Yes, I mean psychiatric drugs. But I assure you that he continues to be the same sweet, gentle, humble person as before. And those who confess him confirm this and they assure me that he gives rest to those close to him. So, what is your problem?”
I was startled!
Monk Michael: “Oh well, have you not yet understood as a doctor that healthy is quite different than sick? People take drugs when they lose their health and, in this case, mental health and balance, to support and continue their life. It is surprising that you say this is the same thing. Afterwards, you say that hundreds of boxes of psychiatric drugs inside the monastery and then assure us that they are rarely used. For me, the question isn’t how often are they used but rather what business does psychotropic drugs have in a monastery? What was the reasoning to purchase them? Under what pressing need did they fill their pharmacy with these drugs?
“Understand how ‘psychiatric drugs for Mount Athos’ sounds to my ears—it’s almost like telling me that you arranged contraceptives in the pharmacy. It’s about the same absurdity. So tell me about how this priest went to psychiatric drugs after 25 years [in the monastery]?”
Novice-Doctor: “Yes, but he remains the same as he always was.”
Conclusion: “No, my beloved psychiatrist, psychotropic drugs are neither antibiotics nor anti-rheumatic. Getting physically sick and probably restoring health once again is different than breaking down and your little soul becoming sick—a sickness that frequently the remainder of your life does not suffice to restore it.”
In a strange manner, both Dr. Panos Grigoriou and Makis Triantaphullopoulos expressed precisely the same question with the same words: “If some people have a need why shouldn’t they take psychiatric drugs?”
This is a misleading question. Firstly, let’s make a clarification: When the monks entered the brotherhood, did they take psychiatric drugs or not? If they didn’t take them when they entered and started taking them in the monastery after 10-15 years of the monastic life, then it’s time some prosecutor to investigate the situation and pull the ears of some abbots. In the latter case, it is unacceptable if the individual was already mentally ill when he entered the monastery because a mentally ill person is never allowed to join the monastic brotherhood. You treat him kindly, you support him, you share his pain, help him as much as you can, but you don’t enroll him. There are two reasons for not enlisting a mentally ill individual into a monastic brotherhood.
Because you cannot recruit some young man for an uphill struggle—indeed even for the rest of his life—if he doesn’t have the necessary presuppositions to withstand the pressure and deprivation to make ends meet. The most basic presupposition for one entering a monastery is mental health and balance.
The experience of the Athonite life knows that a mentally ill individual with a strong character can topple an entire brotherhood. Mental illness hides an indomitable ego that becomes uncontrolled and destructive when it finds room to be developed. This is expressed with an unbridled stubbornness, lack of cooperation, fixed ideas, tantrums, complexes, etc. Due to all these things, the mentally ill patient cannot join the monastic brotherhood.
Dr. Panos writes: “Fr. Michael implies that the way of life imposed upon the monks (militarization) is what causes psychiatric problems.” It is not restricted to that. There are many things that smash the soul of a monk.
The false sanctities of their Elder.2
Their “miracles” and “visions” that serve obvious purposes, such as absolute obedience and submission.3
Dispute by the abbots of every healthy reflection and privation of the possibility of dialogue from the simple monk. It suffices to say that three Hagiorite Hegoumens have said to their brotherhoods: “For you, I am your God.”4
In the “neptic” monastery,5 the Geronda announced that he would travel again to America. A monastic thought: “Doesn’t it seem like our Geronda goes out into the world a lot? Why can’t we also travel?” That evening he confessed his logismoi (Geronda had imposed daily confession/revelation of thoughts); the monk told the Geronda his thoughts. The next morning, as the fathers exited the church to go to the dining-hall the monk was kneeling at the door and cried with a lamentable tone:
“Fathers and Brothers, forgive me, the sinner, because the devil deluded me and I judged my Geronda!”6
This happened recently.
But the cultivation in monasticism and turning their monastic interest exclusively to utopian goals, such as lights, visions, charismas, sanctimoniousness, foresight, etc., under its presupposition of absolute obedience to the ruling Abbot. According to them one “no” destroys and negates not only the existing spiritual edifice that they built with so much pain and toil, but also erases and excludes any future spiritual success—it also has tragic consequences.7
These theories replaced the mindset we found when we went to the Holy Mountain: the teaching of repentance and the awareness of our sinfulness as a presupposition of spiritual development and progress.
All these things, amongst many others, cause the complete suppression of personality and suppress any personal expression and healthy manifestation. Over time, these things consistently drive one to mental fatigue, melancholy, disillusionment and slowly to psychiatric drugs. As for the militarization and total subjugation of the contemporary neo-Hagiorite Abbots, it suffices us to mention what occurred at the recent biannual Synaxis of the Holy Mountain [These gatherings take place twice a year consisting of 20 abbots and 20 representatives of the monasteries in Karyes].
A monk left his monastery (Xenophontos) and sought a cell in another monastery. His Abbot, Alexios, intervened and persuaded the other monastery not to give him a cell. When the monk addressed two other monasteries, the Abbot chased him out of there. I asked the monk who told me about the incident, “Why did your Abbot do this?” He answered, “He wanted me to be discouraged as a monk and throw off my rassa. And thus he could justify this to the brotherhood, ‘Here was the one left; a humiliated failure.’”
At this biannual Assembly, Abbot Alexios proposed to the other abbots to make a decision: when a monk leaves a monastery, no other Athonite monastery should accept him. Then Parthenius, Abbot of St. Paul Monastery, stood up and told him:
“Are you not ashamed at what you’re saying? For the child to leave from his monastery means that he is not at rest and fatigued there. He has all the right to look somewhere else, within Mount Athos, to find rest. We already made the decision earlier and we did not give dismissal to monks who wanted to leave Mount Athos. If we deprive them of the ability to another monastery on Athos, then the children facing this dead end we thrush upon them might throw of their robes and go to the world to be married. Is this where you ultimately want to lead them?”8
And the monk who narrated this story concluded, “The good-natured Hagiorite Abbot [Parthenius] could not imagine that our Geronda (Alexios) wanted to push things there.”
But Geronda Parthenius of St. Paul Monastery is the exception in the neo-Hagiorite Abbots as he is of the old and genuine Athonite guard. Concerning the above, Geronda Parthenius, we say unto you: “May your memory be eternal, may your memory be eternal, may your memory be eternal.”
The sympathetic psychiatrist writes: “It is to their praise that the prudent and virtuous monks visit the psychiatrist.” This premise is unprecedented in monastic history because it is particularly absurd. The virtuous monk is presumed to be healthy because as long as virtue is a supernatural event, he will have some supernatural elements in his life. However, the restoration of mental health precedes every trace of spiritual phenomenon and virtue.
It costs him that we consider psychiatrists unnecessary for monks. I would like to say that if there are healthy and normal clergy in the Orthodox Church, then the collaboration with a psychiatrist would be superfluous not only for monks but for every conscious Christian and even every rational Greek. The psychiatrist tries to persuade us that he contributes to restoring the patient’s mental/spiritual health. I myself believe more in what Geronda Porphyrios told me:
“It is humanly impossible for the mentally/spiritually suffering to be helped except only through the Holy Spirit. He who created the human heart is the only one who is able to replace a part when it becomes sick.”9
Namely, the Geronda wanted to say that the boat of everyday life can overturn on someone and result in mental illness, whether with a careless life or through inheritance or by tragic events. From there on, let him look for the miracle in his life because only the intervention of some saint or God’s grace, through our repentance and contrition of heart, may bring healing and health. As long as Elders like Geronda Porphyrios, Geronda Paisios and others exist, psychiatrists are unnecessary for monks or any believer who has associated with them and derived strength from the life-giving power of their heart to continue their life normally without psychiatrists. But now that they have completely missed these healthy and life-giving spiritual personalities and they’ve been replaced by monkeys [also can mean mimics or cunning, malicious fellows], they have discovered that psychiatric centers are useful for monks!10
But psychiatric drugs—useful for the psychiatrist Panos and an honor for the virtuous monks who take them—are soul-destroying because they don’t only suppress mental anomalies and disorders, they also bind every instinctive potential movement of the heart towards its Creator. Therefore, psychiatric drugs exclude the main source of healing, which is the cultivation of relations with God.
The entire article attempts to make prose of the problem and annihilate it with enviable maneuver and excessive art. This whole effort seems funny to me and reminds me of General Mardonius’ speech to King Xerxes after the naval battle of Salamis.11 When Xerxes looked abject and shocked at the debris of hundreds of Persian ships, Mardonius undertook to console him:
“My King, do not be saddened about planks and beams. Did we come to Greece for timber? The mainland army remains integral. My King, don’t allow your heart to be depressed over some broken planks!”
Etc…etc…Panos writes lots of similar things.
The fact that you can prose such tragic events and debase them like Mardonius as well as distort them with such force means that you need a psychiatrist—to at least restore your judgment and say things as they are and as they appear to the rest of the world. You see, I also find some useful roles for psychiatrists.
You address yourself to the Greek people, reassuring them: “Nothing serious and ugly happens on Mount Athos, you can be certain.”
You and those you represent can convince and manipulate the Greeks because they are a species in decline and one does whatever he wants, especially the Hagiorites. But now we’ve entered the European Union where there are civilized societies with sensitivities and human rights. And the time will come when they learn about what is happening on Mount Athos. They will expose you and all of Orthodoxy will be vilified along with you. If you cannot tolerate a debate or criticism by a monk with comprehension and, I can assure you, with a genuine interest, then you will be ridiculed mercilessly by others for your antics. This is a spiritual law and it will be fully applied to you. Your special privileges and whims are recognized and imposed on the decayed Helladic society and Church. Not to God, however, Who requires sincerity, openness, honesty, courage and especially modesty and humility from those associated with Him; namely they don’t have a high opinion of themselves.
This kind of censorship is used by the monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. Books by authors who have criticized the person of Geronda Ephraim or his methodologies (i.e.; requiring absolute blind obedience, authoritarianism, etc.) are usually not sold in the bookstores. For a number of years, St. Anthony’s Monastery, and a few of Geronda Ephraim’s other monasteries, boycotted Geronda Porphyrios and Geronda Paisios’ books “because of all the difficulties they gave Geronda Ephraim in Greece and all their criticisms of him.” However, as more books were translated into English and demands for orders increased, the boycott was slackened. Now that both Elders are officially canonized as saints in the Orthodox Church, the earlier stories about their criticisms are no longer talked about and have been swept under the carpet as if they never existed.
Before one enters a monastery under Geronda Ephraim, no doubt they’ve been inundated with many stories of the elder’s miracles and visions both by lay and monastic disciples. These stories are reinforced during the novitiate by the superior and other monastics.
Geronda Ephraim’s homilies to his monastics, as well as the private conversations he has with them, are full of self-promotion and narrations of his visions and “special powers”, combined with a feigned humility and self-reproach as the worst sinner in the world. Examples are: entering the divine darkness, seeing the face of God, communicating personally with the Father, seeing the actual event of Christ’s birth, physical alterations with demons, having the Archangels Michael and Gabriel as personal bodyguards, bi-locating to various places around the world without his body—such as during a homily in St. Anthony’s dining hall to Montreal pilgrims where he revealed to them that he left twice while talking to them to check up on his monasteries and they didn’t even realize that he had left. These stories which are used to validate Geronda Ephraim has a living saint are also used as leverage to make monks comply in obedience, even when the obedience breaks the commandments, so as not to sadden the Elder and separate oneself from God. As one of his disciple Gerondas once said to his monks, “Your obedience or disobedience goes through me, to Geronda Ephraim, and then to God.”
Some Gerondas have gone so far as to warn their monastics that saying no or refusing an obedience makes one susceptible to delusion and even demon possession. Any form of “rebuttal” or “back talk” is automatically categorized as demonic and evil. Geronda Ephraim has stated, “The mouth of the elder is the mouth of Christ. If your elder speaks, God speaks.”
Monk Michael is referring to Filotheou Monastery.
This form of punishment is called “being put in the Lity” and can be found in The Ladder of Divine Ascent (7th).
Geronda Ephraim teaches his monastics, “On Judgment Day, Christ will ask you only one question: ‘Did you do obedience?’ If the answer is yes, you go to eternal life. If the answer is no, you go to eternal damnation.”
Despite the fact that many monastic saints (and non-canonized fathers) in the history of Orthodoxy did not remain in their monasteries until death—and many times they lived in many different monasteries—Geronda Ephraim is very strict about his monastics staying in their monastery until death, or until their elder dies. If, for some reason, he allows a monastic to go to another monastery, it always has to be a monastery within his own family. Geronda Ephraim also teaches that it’s almost impossible to find salvation of a monk leaves his monastery (whether he has made the vows for the great schema or a rassaphore).
Geronda Porphyrios once decided to attend some classes on psychiatry at the university. However, his response, though not totally negative, was not particularly encouraging. He acknowledged that “they tried to do something, but what can they do? Psychiatrists and psychologists are like a blind man who tries to understand the things around him by touch. The soul is very deep and only God really knows it” (Yiannitsiotis 200:186). Yiannitsiotis relates that at another time the Elder said, “I don’t want psychiatry, but I love psychiatrists.”… [He] understood that anything spiritual concerning the human condition is not going to be unveiled in psychiatry. The assumptions of materialism, which are part of this discipline, limit the reaches of physical medicine or even psychology. If psychiatry claims to understand the entirety of the human psychological condition, if it rests upon a reductive biological view of consciousness and the human condition, then those claims are counter to an Orthodox perception of the person. One can accept the behavioral sciences without accepting all of their metaphysics. Yiannitsiotis alludes to a remark he heard by a Christian psychiatrist spoken during a conference that may be a kind of summary of this topic: “As a psychiatrist I am not a healer of the human soul, but of the nervous system” (Ibid., 2001: 192). [Professor Daniel Buxhoeveden, Science and the Eastern Orthodox Church, 2013, pp. 15-16].
It is notable that many of the contemporary monastics and spiritual fathers from Greece who knew and revered St. Porphyrios and St. Paisios when they were alive do not hold a high opinion for Elder Joseph the Hesychast and his disciples. This is because the two saints disagreed with many of their methods and teachings, primarily the demand of absolute, blind obediene and authoritarianism. These two saints’ teachings about sick and disturbed forms of obedience are references to Geronda Ephraim’s fronima and teachings.
Mardonius was a leading Persian military commander during the Persian Wars with Greece in the early 5th century BC who died at the Battle of Platea.