At Senscapes, the art and science venture I co-founded, you can experience what it’s like to be in an altered state of consciousness. You sit, stand or lie down in an exhibition space, and we project light and immersive music, created from brain data of people in altered states, around you. At the same time, we play an audio recording from someone immersed in one of these experiences, such as those under the influence of psychedelic drugs. They might describe how they began to feel sensations of bodily warmth, of light becoming sharper and more brilliant, and then a sudden feeling of great meaning in things that had seemed so mundane before. In these exhibitions, our vision is to create immersive experiences so you can explore someone else’s personal, and often mysterious, inner world.
I have long been fascinated by altered states, which are usually defined as deviations in your waking conscious experience. These include meditation, psychedelic experiences and dreams – more extreme shifts than, say, a change in mood after a cup of coffee. As we’ll see, symptoms of psychiatric illness such as dissociation, panic and distressing hallucinations are also often considered altered states.
So far at Senscapes, we’ve focused on more positive and affirming altered states such as those enabled by psychedelic drugs. In collaboration with other scientists, such as the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research in London, we begin by taking electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain data of those in altered states. The data we use are essentially variations on a sine wave – a type of data that, when plotted, oscillates up and down like a smooth wave. This means that we can convert brain activity into an audio file using a bit of nifty code, and use this to craft the music and visuals that visitors see at our exhibitions.
We say that using real brain data helps a person travel ‘inside’ the mind of another, but this isn’t literally true – we’re using artistic licence for effect. The idea is that placing someone inside a cocoon of sound and light, with the knowledge that it’s been directly created from another’s brain, generates an entertaining experience that draws people in and helps them let their guard down. We create a space that can be filled with empathy and the feeling of connection with someone in a radically altered state of mind.
Of course, we’re not the first to try to simulate altered states. Altered states also encompass experiences that are common in mental illness – including panic attacks, the sense of detachment seen in dissociation and depersonalisation, and the temporary amnesia of a fugue state. In the 1950s, psychiatrists tried to simulate such symptoms. In particular, they tried to recreate hallucinations and delusions by taking psychedelics such as LSD and mescaline.
The psychiatrists hoped that the hallucination-filled, self-dissolving, hypnagogic states might help them increase their own empathy for their patients, and this experimentation led to some of the first biochemical models of psychosis. However, as our understanding has developed, these models became misguided. Psychosis is an experience characterised by paranoia, isolation and loneliness, whereas the vast majority of people find psychedelics – if taken with the right support – to be a positive experience.
People need a hook: something that gives them this feeling of safety as they venture into another’s world. This is exactly what art and entertainment can do
We therefore need an alternative means of recreating these ‘darker’ altered states. This isn’t just important for researchers; we also need to improve public understanding of what these symptoms are. This will ultimately reduce stigma and increase our empathy and compassion for those who are suffering. But how do we communicate distressing altered states in an accurate and accessible way?
One possibility, as with Senscapes, is to rely on art and entertainment. The film, book and game industries spend millions a year helping us step into another’s shoes, using compelling emotion, relationships and dilemmas to connect us with characters on screen and on the page. Every time we pick up a book, watch a film or play a computer game, we see ourselves in these characters or we gain a new perspective on an experience we didn’t yet have language for. If art and entertainment can do this so elegantly, then maybe this is a better way to paint a picture of psychiatric altered states.
The computer game Hellblade (2017) is an example of this working well. Game developers worked with neuroscientists, mental health professionals and those with lived experience of psychosis to give the protagonist, Senua, an authentic narrative borne out of real stories. The game is set in the early Middle Ages, and Senua – who has psychosis – is on a quest to save the soul of her dead lover after their village was attacked by Vikings. Despite the unusual setting, the game makes it easy for a 21st-century player to understand how distressing altered states can be. Senua must navigate her way through a hostile environment, full of threat and grief, while also trying to manage the extra difficulty of her sometimes distressing departures from reality. As a player, you’re often shocked and confused by the environment that’s constantly toying with you, never quite trusting what you see or hear. Importantly, the game’s approach cleverly seeds the experience of her symptoms within the body of entertainment – players are absorbed and challenged by the game and they let their guard down, creating space to step into Senua’s mind.
Our ability to connect and understand someone else fundamentally depends on whether or not we feel safe to do so. As a scientist who studies the social cognition of psychosis, this notion of safety has become a bit of an obsession of mine. Individuals with psychosis believe (often with good reason) that they are in a chronically uncertain, unsafe environment. To try and keep themselves safe from each day to the next, they pay a great deal of attention to those they think want to harm them – but this can stop them learning new information that might otherwise help them.
This vigilance is an important mechanism that we all possess for our own survival, but having to do this all the time can leave a person lonely, guarded and scared. This means that there is no space to open up to the minds of others. By the same token, if we’re to understand those with psychosis or other altered states, we must feel safe in order to explore their experience. This might seem paradoxical – to understand a feeling of chronic danger, we must ourselves feel safe – but I personally believe this is the key to immersing ourselves in the altered states of others.
The reality is that people often need a hook: something that gives them this feeling of safety as they venture into another’s world. This is exactly what art and entertainment can do. It’s what we’re trying to achieve with Senscapes, and what games such as Hellscape do so well. We must draw people into the story we want to tell safely and compellingly, giving them a life jacket to travel alongside those in distress – and we must communicate someone else’s personal world in a way that isn’t contrived.
As someone with one foot in art and one foot in science, I can see the power of both to bring us closer together. Immersive art and technology can teach us so much about the complexity, diversity and magnificent weirdness of being human – whether in moments of transcendence or in the depths of darkness. Exploring others’ altered states in a safe environment can change how we view ourselves, others and humanity in general. We have never had a clearer and better opportunity to do this.
What the new science of narcissism says about narcissists
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977). Photo by Getty Images
The term ‘narcissism’ has become a household word. We’ve seen this ‘me first’ mentality evolve on social media, and we use the word to describe celebrities, politicians and even some of our coworkers and friends. We commonly say that someone is ‘narcissistic’ to mean they’re selfish, manipulative or driven by ego.
But there’s a difference between everyday selfishness and real narcissism – and there’s a distinction between a normal personality trait and the harmful, rare personality disorder. As the research around narcissism has evolved in recent years, psychologists and psychiatrists have learned more about these differences. For instance, we tend to think of narcissists as brash, flashy people who take over a conversation, but new studies have shown that insecure narcissists exist as well. They’re still self-involved and self-focused but are more hidden from public view.
To avoid confusion, researchers now define narcissism in three different ways: narcissistic personality disorder; a grandiose personality trait; and a vulnerable personality trait. All three represent important aspects of narcissism, and the key is to understand how they’re different.
Let’s start with the most common understanding and move through the latest updates.
Narcissistic personality disorder
When people talk about narcissism in a formal sense, they tend to think about the diagnosable personality disorder – narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) – that indicates someone engages in severe, negative behaviours that affect their own and others’ lives. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-5), which psychologists and psychiatrists use to delineate between extreme personality disorders, narcissists express a pervasive pattern of self-importance. They have a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success or power, a need for admiration, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy, which often results in exploitative behaviour. Someone must meet the majority of the criteria to be diagnosed with the disorder and, in reality, few people have an extreme personality that can be considered ‘impairing’.
We’re not either Mother Teresa or someone with NPD. Most of us fall on a curve in between the two
The tricky part of the DSM-5 and personality disorders, of course, is that people don’t exist in two separate camps of normal or distinctly abnormal personality. Instead, people exhibit a range of personality traits, and certain levels can be classified as higher than average. Once narcissistic tendencies are both elevated and diagnosed as an impairment to life, then they can be included as an aspect of disordered behaviour.
Essentially, we’re not either Mother Teresa or someone with NPD. Most of us fall on a curve in between the two, exhibiting personalities that either have more narcissistic elements or fewer. For most people, narcissistic qualities aren’t considered damaging enough to be diagnosable. In fact, some narcissistic traits might even have positive aspects. With personality, there’s always a trade-off.
Today, researchers divide these personality traits into two major types – grandiose or vulnerable.
This is the type of narcissism that you usually think of first because it’s the type that psychologists studied first and is most commonly associated with the idea of narcissism. These are the charismatic people you’ve encountered while dating or electing politicians. They make interesting characters and have more friends on social media. You notice them more often because they want to be noticed.
Grandiose narcissists tend to exhibit big personalities that make them loud and proud. They’re bold, assertive and have high self-esteem. They dominate relationships with others, overestimate their abilities, and think highly of their appearance. To some extent, this isn’t always a bad thing – they’re confident, focused on achievement, and make strong leaders.
Of course, problems occur when their personality traits negatively affect others, and it’s often magnified when they have power and a megaphone. When grandiose narcissists feel empowered to achieve their goals with no impediment, they might do this at the expense of others. Simply put, they seek status, sex and ‘stuff’ – or leadership roles with lofty titles, trophy spouses and brand-name bling. They love themselves, and they want others to see how great they are, too. Everything and everyone around them serves as an ego boost.
In reality, small traces of grandiose traits can be positive, and our society backs this up. We praise self-esteem, confidence and outgoing personalities. We operate organisations and our political system in a way that encourages leaders to step up, rewarding attractive, articulate speakers with followers and influence. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does magnify the value of these personality traits among us.
Think of Tony Stark as Iron Man in the Marvel universe. He’s brilliant, rich, attractive and powerful. He creates innovative products and helps society. At the same time, he’s stubborn, thinks highly of himself and hates to compromise. There are trade-offs with grandiose narcissism.
On the other hand, vulnerable narcissism includes those with more fragile egos. Instead of trying to project it, they want to protect it. These are the hypersensitive people you’ve encountered at work or in social settings who are defensive, vindictive and avoidant when interacting with others. We don’t think of them as often when discussing narcissism because they’re more hidden or ‘covert’.
Vulnerable narcissists tend to be emotionally susceptible, which comes out more often in therapy than the grandiose traits. They’re easily hurt and more likely to be passive aggressive about concerns than their grandiose counterparts. This is the subtle side of narcissism that psychologists and psychiatrists have come to understand more in research studies in recent years. They’ve found that vulnerable narcissists tend to show more neuroticism in their motives and behaviours.
Think about Woody Allen’s characters. They often carry insecurity, self-doubt and deep pain. They’re reserved but also fragile and thin-skinned
The issue with this type of narcissism is that people often keep their ego threats, or perceived slights from others, to themselves. They might marinate on interactions with others in their mind and build up resentment about how they’ve been unfairly treated or taken for granted, but they don’t confront it. Ultimately, vulnerable narcissism is painful for the individual but not as damaging to society.
Unfortunately, unchecked vulnerable traits can hurt loved ones, too. This type of narcissism can cause neediness and emotionally draining relationships. Unlike grandiose narcissism, which seems exciting and interesting at first and fades over time, vulnerable narcissism is unappealing from the start and creates strained, exhausting interactions with others.
Think about many of Woody Allen’s characters. They often carry insecurity, self-doubt and deep pain. They’re reserved but also fragile and thin-skinned. Although it’s normal – and necessary – to acknowledge wounding and setbacks in life, it’s equally important that these moments don’t define a self-focused ego. Again, trade-offs abound.
So what does all this mean? Psychologists and psychiatrists have put effort into researching and understanding these different aspects of narcissism for the past decade, but why does it matter, and what do we do about it? In a clinical setting, of course, professionals focus on the distinctions to figure out better ways to target therapy and treatment.
At the same time, we can use this new understanding of narcissism to respond to these personality traits in others – and in ourselves. We’re a society obsessed with ‘becoming a better person’, and this gives us a lens to better understand our behaviours and how we can change them, if we wish.
Those who notice grandiose tendencies in their own personality could focus on reducing their antagonistic, selfish and callous behaviours. Empathy and gratitude can go a long way in helping grandiose narcissists use their charming personalities and motivation towards status, sex and ‘stuff’ to help others and benefit society. On the other hand, those who recognise more vulnerable tendencies in themselves could focus on reducing their anxiety and neurotic behaviours. Clear communication and boundaries can help vulnerable narcissists to speak up and express their concerns in a confident, measured way.
To be clear, the purpose isn’t to fix people or force them to fit a certain mould. The value comes in recognising the different ways that narcissistic traits manifest and the trade-offs that can occur on a spectrum of personality. No matter where we fall, we can recognise these characteristics in ourselves, highlighting the benefits and working on the negative aspects that harm our relationships and society.
Researchers are diving deeper right now. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has shifted the way we interact with others, will likely enhance our understanding of how narcissistic motives operate in remote work situations and distanced relationships. Psychologists are developing new models for the light and dark aspects of ego and how narcissism operates in leadership roles, new social media platforms such as TikTok and in alternative reality settings such as video games, roleplaying groups and virtual reality. In the next decade, we’ll know even more about the nuances of narcissism – and how to avoid its darts while gaining from its strengths.