Experiential Psychopathology - Dr John Howells

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I - Experiential Psychopathology

Psychic Noci-Vectors


A “vector” is a force with direction.  “Noci” indicates its harmful, adverse, damaging, noxious nature.  “Psychic” displays that it arises from a psychic or emotive source.  The adverse effect of a psychic noci-vector on an organism is felt throughout that organism, both in its somatic and psychic parts; a psychic noxious event can as readily produce migraine as it can anxiety.

Here is an example of a powerful psychic noci-vector operating on an individual organism:  After intercourse a husband says to his wife, “I did not have an orgasm because I am saving it for someone else”.  One might expect a marked physical and psychic hurt reaction from the wife; she could be expected to be sick, angry, tearful, miserable.  A reverse vector, and a beneficial one, might be as follows:  A husband sitting on a settee says to his wife, “I think I shall always sit on this settee rather than on a chair, then I can always have you close to me”.  The wife might be expected to glow, physically and emotionally with pleasure.

Psychic noci-vectors can be actual or threatened.  The psyche has the endowed property of anticipation and can maintain itself in a state of anxiety while anticipating stress.  The psyche of the individual or the group also has the property of imagination and can thus set up internal stresses that can be damaging.

The essential nature of communication is as follows:  Organism A conveys a meaning to Organism B and this alters the relationship between them.  The meaning conveyed may have varying degrees of acceptance by B, depending on its degree of beneficiality; it may also convey varying degrees of harmfulness.  In psychopathology we are concerned with harmful communication.  What has been described is the simplest interaction.  Normally B reciprocates and a continuous process of communication is initiated which continues for varying periods.

In the above we have considered only two psychic organisms, A and B.  Interactions may be more complex.  A and B may be groups of people, e.g. families interacting with families.  Again, A and B may be psychic organisms within a number of organisms and a complex psychic pattern of communication occurs among all the protagonists – a transaction.  In this transaction the fortunes of A, or any other psychic organism, can fluctuate from moment to moment; at one instant a number of psychic sources collectively convey pleasant meanings, at another they band together to convey hurtful meanings.  The meanings may even be contradictory.

Communication, then, is a complex pattern of transactions.  Benevolent communication leads to harmonious functioning in the recipient.  Malevolent communication leads to malfunctioning in the recipient.  This applies to any organism – individual, family, society, or group within society.

The psychic part of the organism during its experience acquires attitudes, as explained previously.  An attitude, with its related beliefs, myths, interests and values, is to assume an opinion in relation to an object of thought, i.e. to endow an object with qualities.  These qualities can often be graded in opposites, e.g. love at one extreme and hate at the other.  It is also possible to make a scale of degree, e.g. much love, some love, neutral, some hate, much hate.  These attitudes or opinions dictate the meanings conveyed to other psychic objects.  At the receiving end they may be acceptable.  On the other hand they may be so unacceptable as to do considerable damage; in this event they constitute psychic noci-vectors.  An attitude cannot be separated from its context, e.g. in one setting an individual may feel strong hate towards one person, but convey love to another person in the same setting.  The term “vector” takes account of the attitude as a force and its directive quality.

In estimating the effect of a psychic noci-vector a number of factors have to be taken into account.  These will be briefly described.  They are concerned with source, meaning, conveyance, dynamic qualities, vulnerabi8lity, latent period and restitution factors.  The chapter will conclude with some illustrations of psychic noci-vectors.


Psychic noci-vectors must come from a psychic source – individual or group psyche.  An individual may be beset by forces from others within the family as individuals, or groups of individuals, and from individuals and groups within society.  A family can be beset by individuals within the family, or individuals or groups of people outside the family.  Society can be beset by individuals or families or groups of people within society.

As the family is the basic unit in society, it is of special importance.  It is the unit within which the founders of new basic units, families, are forged.  Psychic noci-vectors from the preceding families can do great damage to the functioning of the present family.  Again, psychic noci-vectors in the present family can do great damage to the epitome of itself which it sends forth into the future to found new families.  Within the family are the closest interactions, those that last longest, the most significant and intense, and those likely to be reinforced again and again through time.  A family can produce the most benevolent of vectors and at the same time the most malevolent.

All psychic organisms possess the capacity of imagination.  New thoughts can be generated out of the raw material of the psyche.  These thoughts need not be expressed, but they can be altered according to immediate experience.  There is a capacity to anticipate attack, even to exaggerate or diminish the force of probably attack, and to visualise its results.  Thus people as individuals, or as groups, are prone to worry.  Such thoughts can become psychic noci-vectors themselves.  Thus there is attack from within – intra-psychic trauma.  A possible setback is assumed to happen although it may never happen.  It may be exaggerated.  The event may show that it could not have happened, or was not as disastrous as expected.  People “worry before it happens” or “jump their fences before they come to them”.  People or groups made insecure by previous experience are especially prone to anticipate stress.  Thus, this state of anticipatory anxiety is to some extent manufactured.  Others are in an expectant state, a state of tension, because of the anticipation of real stress.


The effect of a communication is dependent on the meaning conveyed.  The recipient interprets from the message the attitude of the other party on the point at issue.  The attitude may be for or against him and vary greatly in its quality.  The meaning may be open or overt, e.g. fear of being dropped or a threat of aggression; or hidden and covert, e.g. a husband becomes greatly anxious when his wife is giving birth because of the loss of his mother during his sister’s birth.  The recipient may even be unaware of the source of anxiety.  It may be simple or subtle and in the latter event take on the character of a hint, innuendo, implication, insinuation or intimation.  Again, some vectors of low threshold value may not reach the awareness of the recipient – subliminal trauma.  The message cannot be separated from its context, e.g. in one situation an exclamation conveys joy and in another alarm.  The same word or act may be interpreted as friendly by one person, while another person in the same setting sees it as hostile; the interpretation depends upon the meaning to that person or group and this is dependent on a host of factors such as previous experience, vulnerability, age, etc.

Meanings can be conveyed to others by the absence of action, e.g. not to send a birthday card to one’s child may be as significant as to have done something hurtful.  Again, parents may not tell their children that sex is taboo, but the absence of discussion conveys the same meaning.  Dylan Thomas relates in “Under Milk Wood” how the prostitute passes the women gabbling at the village pump and how she senses their hostility “by the noise of the hush”.  These negative noci-vectors may escape the on-looker.  What is inappropriately not said is as vital as what is said.

Some physical vectors, though immense in power, may have little effect on individuals or groups.  Physical or material lack have no effect unless they injure the psychic worth of the person, e.g. economic status may be important because the grandparents demand it and without it the image of self suffers, or because it leads to psychic stress, e.g. poverty may mean continual personal degradation, disturbing neighbours, etc.  Physical hazards may even be advantageous to the psyche; external hazards such as earthquakes, floods, forced migration, persecution, war, may have the result of bringing people together so that the quality of communication actually improves.

Psychic noci-vectors may be contradictory, i.e. the same psychic source may emit simultaneously two or more messages with conflicting meanings.  Or the conflicting, or different, messages may come from a number of sources.  The organism, as will be seen later, can cope with such contradictions up to its own capacity.


Psychic noci-vectors are communicated, as with any vector, through the five senses.  The commonest avenue is through speech.  Verbal symbols have meaning which is conveyed to others in this economical fashion.  But non-verbal communication can be equally compelling.  Sometimes a composite message is conveyed by an amalgam of the five senses, or by combined verbal and non-verbal behaviour.  Very subtle messages can be conveyed in this fashion.  Within a family, economy of expression takes place over time and much can be conveyed by grunts, mannerisms, affectation of speech, gesture, etc.; these meanings may not be apparent to those outside the family circle until they become attuned to them.  Fortunately, most people and families talk about the same things in the same way.

Dynamic Qualities

A noci-vector can have varying degrees of strength or intensity.  Effect depends on a number of factors, but given a certain degree of vulnerability or sensitivity in the recipient, the greater the strength of the vector, the greater the effect.  The use of strength is sometimes calculated by the sender so as to produce a wanted degree of effect.  Often the vector is not under control and no calculation made of the probable effect, indeed there may be surprise at the effect created.

Communications may occur once or be repeated a number of times.  The latter probably brings a considerable accumulation of effect.  Once a vulnerability has been established, repetition of the same psychic noci-vector brings increasing damage; repetition even after the gap of years can still bring a response.

The number of psychic noci-vectors must be taken into account.  There is probably a limit to the number of sources to which an organism can pay simultaneous attention; knowledge about this is least exact with respect to families and social groups.  It seems that an individual can only pay attention to five or six other people at one time.  Groups over about seven in number begin to fragment – this happens also to large families.  Thus, an individual can be traumatised by up to seven noxious agents but beyond that number he has difficulty in conceptualising individuals as individuals.  Another related limiting factor is that of span of attention; it is difficult to pay attention for long periods of time without reaching a point of exhaustion.

The programme of attack and reaction may pass through a sequence.  It may escalate to the point of exhaustion on either side, or until another factor intervenes.  A husband reacts to being ignored by aggression; the wife reacts to aggression by withdrawal; wife is upset and ignores husband; he becomes hostile; wife withdraws; husband’s hostility increases and wife withdraws further; as the situation escalates, a point is reached when wife looks like a rejected, deprived child; a new factor now appears – the husband identifies himself with this deprived child, the child he was long ago; his hostility turns to tenderness and the vicious circle is broken.

The psychic noci-vector may operate over a short or long period of time.  Time is an element that has tended to be underestimated.  In the past much attention has been given in psychopathology to the nuclear incident – one devastating incident at one moment in time.  Significance has to be given not only to the acute stress, but also to a long-drawn-out sustained stress.  To the former there is considerable, but not complex, capacity to adjust; all the adjustment mechanisms are urgently brought into action.  But for the latter the capacity to adjust is much less, for the threshold of coping may not be reached, and the adjustment may not take place.  Time, therefore, is a significant factor and the experience may be stamped into the psychic organism, making eradication difficult.

To pinpoint the momentin time when a psychic noci-vector was operating may be of great value in diagnosis for it may supply a clue as to the nature of the psychic noci-vector, e.g. abdominal pain at breakfast on each school morning, and never at weekends or in the holiday period, implies a relationship between school and the abdominal pain.  The more obvious the indicator, usually the easier it is to make the association.


Vulnerability is general or specific.  Some situations would cause trauma to most people – e.g. a new, unfamiliar situation.  It can also be specific due to a number of reasons.  There may be a constitutional weakness, e.g. of intelligence, that might make understanding difficult.  Again, the sender of the message may have special significance to the recipient and this would make the latter vulnerable.  Or, the recipient may have developed over time a susceptibility to that type of stress; in the case of a family member this may be dependent on experience in his preceding family, which not only subjected him to that experience but did not allow the appropriate coping mechanism to develop.  Time may have reinforced a vulnerability.  For example, a child’s lack of social confidence springs from the family’s inability to encourage him in his first social situations; the family then encourages him to avoid social situations; it reinforces his anxiety over the years; thus lack of social confidence is maintained and he is now vulnerable to the stress of social exposure.

Age of the recipient is a factor that influences the effect of a psychic noci-vector because it influences the capacity to give meaning.

A young child has a brief memory span; it is not clear how much can be retained in the first few months.  This may be a biological protection to see the child through the trauma of birth.  Later, as the cerebral centres develop, the capacity for memory increases.  Thus after about the age of two the sensitivity to psychic noci-vectors increases.  There is evidence that early memories can have far-reaching effect on behaviour, e.g. aversions to types of food laid down in the early years last a lifetime.  Early experiences that dictate early reactions may influence later behaviour because, at an early age, they are the raw material of behaviour for that person.  However, the young are also protected, especially in the early months.  A child’s intelligence grows only with the years and a child does not develop the capacity for abstract thinking until about eight to ten years; thus the more subtle attacks on him may not have meaning.  The child has the quality of “innocence” too, i.e. he can react in an open unbiased way, if allowed to do so, as he has yet no inbuilt prejudices.  It is a calamitous mistake to assume that the child’s mind behaves and reacts like the adult’s mind.  This is an important area, capable of elucidation by careful experiment; it is no longer necessary to rely on speculation in this field, which has benefited greatly from the work of developmental psychologists.

In the senium, again, the results of age may need to be taken into account; the memory span decreases, intelligence wanes and abstract thinking becomes more difficult.  Recent events, in particular, are quickly forgotten.  But the sway of inbuilt prejudices is great.

Latent Period

A psychic noci-vector may appear to have had no effect because there is a latent period between the action and its result.  This may be due to a number of reasons: (i) There is a state of shock – it can be seen in bereavement, for instance.  (ii)  The event may call for immediate action and thus attention is given to this and there is not time to work out the meaning of the event.  Later, when the emergency is over, the meaning of the event becomes apparent and its effect shows itself.  (iii)  When the effect is somatic, it may take the organ concerned time to show evident signs of damage, e.g. a woman quarrels with the neighbour, but the swelling in her neck, due to the reaction of her thyroid gland, is only apparent many days later.  Thus, the connection between the stress and its effect may be lost.  To be able to tie the indicators of stress to an event is of great value diagnostically.

Restitution Factors

Psychic noci-vectors may be counteracted by chance restitution factors.  For instance, a foreman becomes antagonistic to a man at his work.  The man reacts by anxiety, yet he cannot take the obvious step of finding alternative employment.  His anxiety increases.  He becomes ill.  He loses his job because of his absences.  He now has to take another job and does so with marked improvement in himself.  Thus chance operates to counteract noci-vectors.  Examples of restitution factors include – marriage to a compatible partner, death of hurtful parents, loss of harmful husband, a new teacher, change of neighbours, a pleasant playmate, etc.  One of the aims of vector therapy is to systematise the deployment of restitution factors, which are then not left to chance.


Some psychic noci-vectors may be shared by a number of people – there are hazards common to all – e.g. failure to have children; undertaking a pioneer role with consequent colleague and social antagonism; children leaving home with consequent adjustments; death of a spouse or child or relative; denial of intercourse because of physical defects; separation due to war service; relating own experiences as a child to the nurturing of one’s own children; illegitimate births; loneliness of old age; hospitalisation of spouse or child; problems of accepting new developmental roles; cultural clashes, etc.  All these are common hazards, and ability to cope does not appear to be due so much to the strength of the stress as to having developed a right attitude in the past – usually in the preceding family.  A sign of good psychic health is the capacity to adjust to life’s inevitable hazards.

A few of an infinite number of examples of psychic harmful interactions would be:

Intra-psychic   Guilt at illegitimate birth of a child; fear of pregnancy
Spouse-spouse Retirement of and therefore prolonged contact with a disliked spouse; intervention of a third party in marriage; disparagement by spouse.
Parent-child Rejection and lack of love; blame for any lack of achievement; depreciation of child’s worth.
Sibling-sibling  Birth of an unwanted rival; rivalry for parental affection.
Group conflict  Mother and sisters accept a new child; father and brothers reject it.
Family-society  Employer using his position to make sexual advances; working under a father who is antagonistic; angry teacher; teasing by schoolmates; critical neighbour.

Attitudes are conveyed in ordinary but often devastating phrases, such as : “Don’t do that”; “Go to bed, for heaven’s sake”; “Take that”; “You were wrong there”; “You won’t go to heaven”; “God doesn’t like that”; “If you don’t do this, then . . . “; “You don’t like me”; “I hate you”; “At one time you were so good”; “You are 100% selfish”; “Keep quiet or else”; “If you do that, you will upset your mother”; “Don’t ask any questions but do as you are told”; to a plump girl – “You must be attending slimming classes”; to any middle-aged woman – “Your children must be quite grown up”; to anyone – “It is all your fault”; to a wife – “Other people’s homes are tidy”; “Your are ugly”; “I won’t have a child by you”; “to a husband – “I once had a smart husband”; “Everyone gets promotion but you”; “You behave like your mother”; “Go to hell”; “Don’t touch me”.

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