The Double Bind

Gregory Bateson’s idea about double binds began with the work he, Don Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland ( the “Palo Alto” group) did from 1952 to 1954, and published as an essay, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” (p.201) in Bateson’s “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” (1972). His later thinking about the notion of double binds went well beyond the early research focus on family relations with schizophrenic patients. For the purposes of this blog, I will comment only on the application of the double bind theory to the family dynamics of schizophrenic patients as represented in the original Palo Alto group research and a follow-up paper given by Bateson in 1969 at a Symposium on the Double Bind and included as an essay, “Double Bind 1969″(p.271) in “Steps”.

An example from the original research, which has been most often cited, and which best describes the double bind conflict for a schizophrenic patient is given on page 217 in “Steps”:

“An analysis of an incident occurring between a schizophrenic patient and his mother illustrates the double bind situation. A young man who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, ‘don’t you love me anymore?’. He then blushed, and she said. ‘Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings.’ The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes more and following her departure he assaulted an aide and was put in the tubs.”

This example illustrates the bind that the patient has been put into by his mother’s contradictory messages. She both invites his emotional expression and rejects it. He is caught and does not have an obvious way out of the conflict. Bateson and the rest of the Palo Alto group found similar conflicting messages among other families of schizophrenic patients and their research helped inform the family therapy and family systems movement about communications within families which may be a contributory cause of mental illness.

While we still know very little about schizophrenia and its possible causes, there was far less known in the 1950s/1960s. We need to keep this in mind when judging the assumptions made from the research findings of the Palo Alto group. One assumption Bateson and others made was that the dynamic of the double bind could almost by itself ( though they did acknowledge possible genetic and bio-chemical influences) set up the conditions for a schizophrenic break. We now know there are some genetic and biochemical components to any schizophrenic syndrome. I believe that most psychiatrists do not acknowledge the possibility that double bind conflicts could also contribute to schizophrenic episodes. Double bind conflicts can also contribute to other mental and emotional disturbances and family therapists know this. It is likely that schizophrenia is caused by some aspects of social-interpersonal dynamics along with genetic tendencies. The posts I made on the memoirs of Esme Weijun Wang and Elyn Saks would support this point. Both women have managed their schizophrenia with a combination of anti-psychotic medications and psychotherapy. Another assumption made by Bateson and others was that the essential conflict in a double bind familial situation was between a mother and her son or daughter. This was also part of a period of blaming the mother for all sorts of deficiencies and illnesses. Leo Kanner’s notion of the “refrigerator mother” which implied that a cold and rigid mother may have caused children to become autistic was part of this period. Kanner asserted this in a 1949 paper, “Problems of Nosology and Psychodynamics of Early Infantile Autism” and Bruno Bettelheim, an influential child psychiatrist, later reinforced this idea in his 1967 book, “The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autisim and the Birth of the Self”. By 1969, however, the refrigerator mother notion was already being discredited. Kanner, himself, stated at a conference at the National Society for Autistic Children, that the condition of autism was innate.

Mary Catherine Bateson, Gregory’s daughter, has a chapter, “The Double Bind: Pathology and Creativity” in “Cybernetics and Human Knowing”, Volume 12, No. 1-2, 2005, in which she explains how the double bind theory goes beyond the focus on pathology that marked the original research with schizophrenics, but she also comments on Gregory’s original insights about the “language” of schizophrenics:

“I can remember listening with Gregory to tapes of ‘schizophrenic word salad’ as he commented that there was a structure to this seemingly chaotic rant. Not to put too fine a point on it, he said, ‘there’s a method in his madness’. Gregory came to the conclusion that at the root of schizophrenia there was a logical incoherence, a disruption in thought and communication, that could be seen as either caused or exacerbated by patterns of relationship in the families of schizophrenics. These patterns were referred to as the double bind.” (p.12)

Whether family dynamics or other external influences play a role in the etiology of schizophrenia or not, the double bind theory has influenced family therapists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists to some extent until the present. And while we are currently in a biomedical period, it may be worth considering how family dynamics may contribute to various mental and emotional issues.

Insider: Barbara O’Brien

There are two themes from Perceval’s Narrative which I wish to explore: Bateson’s idea of the double bind (to be discussed in my next post) and the unusual circumstance of an apparent “spontaneous recovery” from schizophrenia, which I will discuss here. Barbara O’Brien’s “Operators and Things”(1976) is the most vivid account of a schizophrenic journey during her six months riding on Greyhound buses across the U.S. while being controlled by “Operators” – her hallucinated voices. O’Brien explains what she knows about schizophrenia (in 1958 when the book was first published) in the opening section of her book. She then explains how she developed schizophrenia and how the operators first came to her:

“I developed schizophrenia abruptly, in the way which is now considered most fortunate for an optimistic prognosis. I awoke one morning, during a time of great personal tension and self conflict, to find three grey and somewhat wispy figures standing at my bedside. I was, as might be imagined, completely taken up by them. Within a few minutes they had banished my own sordid problem from my mind and replaced it with another and more intriguing one. They were not Men From Mars, but the Operators, a group in some ways stranger than Martians could be. I listed to what the Operators had to say, weighed the facts which they presented to me , and decided that there was wisdom in following their directions. I packed some clothes and mounted a Greyhound bus, as they directed, and followed them. Riding off in the bus, I left safely behind me a mess of reality with which I was totally incapable of coping.” (p.9-10)

O’Brien narrates the specific personalities and characters of each of her Operators along her six -month long Greyhound schizophrenic journey. At one point she queries Hinton, one of her chief Operators, about the relationship between Operators and Things:

” Hinton sighed. ‘Things. Yes, of course. think of the word with a capital initial, if you like. It may help your ego a bit. All people like you are Things to us – Things whose minds can be read and whose thoughts can be initiated and whose actions canoe motivated. Does that surprise you? It goes on all the time. There is some, but far less, free will than you imagine. A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind. Actually, you have more free will at this moment than most of your kind ever have.'” (p.39)

Another Operator, Bert, explains, “the one great difference between an Operator and a thing is the construction and ability of the mind. Operators are born with special brain cells known as the battlement. With these cells, and Operator can extend and probe into the mind of a Thing. He can tap the thing’s mind and discover what is going on there, and even feed thoughts to the Thing’s mind in order to motivate it. The mental difference is one of ability, not one of quality. Operators, like things, may be stupid or intelligent. But that one difference permits the Operators to rule the Things.” (p.42).

O’Brien was “directed” or “guided” by Operators to buy Greyhound bus tickets to various cities and towns, to seek treatment for some ailments, and to continue to maintain her daily life for six months on the road. She wrote “Operators andThings” three years after she stopped having the hallucinations and delusions, which she has discussed as products of her her unconscious mind – Operators are the unconscious and Things are the conscious. She reflects on her “spontaneous recovery”:

“If I were having a slow time tracking down the cause of my schizophrenia, it was clear that once I had unconsciously understood the cause very well. I could cite a spontaneous recovery after six months of continuous hallucinations and delusions, a certificate of sorts, proof that my mind had found the road out of insanity, a feat that is never accidental. If the guideposts that remained in my memory appeared very often to be too much mumbo-jumbo, it seemed at least possible that the appearance of mumbo-jumbo existed because I could not read the strange language. According the the psychoanalyst who treated me, spontaneous recoveries are rare and weird events in advanced schizophrenia and when they occur they present mysterious spectacle- that of a mind walking out of a fourth dimension into which it had been propelled. No matter how many times I went over the story the Operators and told myself that it represented only well-organized fantasy without guidance or planning, the clear indications of guidance and planning persisted in standing out.” (p.145)

Both O’Brien and Perceval claimed to have recovered “spontaneously” from their schizophrenia, though both had spent time in mental hospitals. They both are critical of mental hospital treatments and the psychotherapists or psychoanalysts who worked with them. Approaches to treating psychotic conditions were obviously quite different for Perceval in the 19th century and O’Brien in the 1950s, and they would be considerably different now from what they were for O’Brien. Still, there is no known “cure” for schizophrenia and from current accounts by insiders, such as Elyn Saks and Esme Weijun Wang, there are not likely any single approaches , medications, or other treatments which seem to be effective for all cases.