The Venus Flytrap: The Premonitions Bureau

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In 1967, John Barker (a psychiatrist drawn to the occult), a science journalist and a newspaper editor set up what they called The Premonitions Bureau in the UK. The Bureau logged data from people who reported on dreams, physical sensations and other portents which accompanied a sense of knowing (always, notably, of calamity to come). Rather than relegate these findings as symptoms of psychosis that required treatment, the Bureau hoped to understand the phenomenon, and perhaps to use it to prevent disasters. Two of the most accurate percipients, who had between them predicted a plane crash, a major landslide and a shipwreck, among other tragedies, also both repeatedly shared warnings with Barker that his life was in danger. He died of a sudden illness soon after.

Reading a lengthy article on these events, I found myself interested only in two things: Barker’s work in reforming mental health facilities in the UK, and the fact that the Bureau was set up in a field that typically views the paranormal with not just suspicion but condescension.

As for visions, precognition, multisensory awareness? Neither new, nor restricted only to a gifted or cursed few (a vital distinction that redistributes power; important especially in our context with its fraudulent masters). What’s interesting is that Barker sought to reframe them in modern Western psychology, a project which held potential in decolonising the field.

The view that anything that cannot be explained by rationalism (or in shorthand, “science”) is non-existent, or that everything can be explained by the same, is deeply problematic. Those who expand and decolonise healing practices incorporate the work of shamans, doulas and many other therapists into the fold. The metaphysical has a place here, and the Cartesian mind-body divide is refuted. Do vaccines work? Yes. Does acupuncture work? Yes.

The derision of indigenous knowledges exists in many fields. Medicine, for example: many allopathic practitioners, even here in India where systems like Siddha, Unani and Ayurveda exist, tell patients to engage with “alternative” therapies at their own risk. The vocabulary itself reveals the problem – alternative to what? Queerness used to be described that way too, as an “alternative lifestyle”. Alternative, basically, to what’s acceptable.

Decolonising mental and physical health practices is not the replacement of systems (which is erasure, and counterproductive), but concurrent appreciation. The idea is not that any one is inherently better than another, but that they co-exist. And that the correct balance is deeply subjective, varying from person to person, ailment to ailment and situation to situation. Someone I know corrected a common illness we both have using only yoga; I on the other hand prefer to pop a daily pill, and probably will for the rest of my life. But I chose to treat another condition with herbal medicine alone (it worked), instead of a three-month allopathic course I didn’t want the side-effects of. The point is not to privilege one system or another, but to recognise them all as valuable. And human knowledge, both learned and intuitive, as vast. Capitalist pharmaceuticals, flawed education systems and internalised colonialism keep us from tapping into – and healing through – more ways that can quite beautifully be reconciled.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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