Dr Traill Dowie: Philosophy, Trauma, Psychedelic Therapy and More

Today's episode is a little different because I had the pleasure of catching up with my guest in my own home studio and we did the interview face to face, which reminded me of what I believe we've all learned as a result of this pandemic. And that is, while we have access to online communication, nothing beats talking and looking at people's faces and examining body language and facial expressions and experiencing that connection with someone, which I had the pleasure of doing today.

My guest is Dr Traill Dowie who is the Chair of the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) Panel for Trauma Standards & Practice, he is also the Head of Faculty at Ikon Institute Australia, and is a practising psychotherapist, supervisor and public speaker.

He holds dual PhDs, receiving a PhD in Psychiatry from Monash University and a PhD in Philosophy from The University of Melbourne. He is also co-director of the Mind Medicine Institute, and I recently had the pleasure of talking to his co-director, integrative psychologist, Nigel Denning. So these two episodes really do dovetail with each other really well.

Dr Traill Dowie: Philosophy, Trauma, Psychedelic Therapy and More Introduction 

Well, today’s episode is a rather unusual one because I had the pleasure of catching up with my guest in my own home studio and we did the interview face to face and it reminded me of what I think we have all learnt through this pandemic. And that is, while it’s great that we have access to online communication, nothing quite compares to face to face meetings and talking and looking at people’s faces and checking body language and facial expressions and feeling that connection with someone which I certainly had the pleasure of today.

My guest today is Dr Traill Dowie. Now Trail is the Chair of the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) Panel for Trauma Standards and Practise. He’s also Head of the Faculty at Ikon Institute Australia and is a practising psychotherapist, supervisor and public speaker.

 Traill’s academic life and public lectures cover a broad range of interdisciplinary topics that relate to the human condition, and we discuss many of those today. Psychiatry, psychotherapy, trauma, lessons from indigenous cultures – now that’s a theme I’m really excited to be exploring this year. Anthropology, Health and Wellbeing and human optimisation.

Now, Traill holds two PhDs. Yes. Two. Receiving a PhD in Psychiatry from Monash University and a PhD in Philosophy from The University of Melbourne. He is also co-director of the Mind Medicine Institute, and I recently had the pleasure of talking to his co-director, integrative psychologist, Nigel Denning. So these two episodes really do dovetail with each other really well. Look, I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Dr Traill Dowie.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] Now, before I start, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which I am recording this podcast, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.

Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, today’s episode is a rather unusual one because I had the pleasure of catching up with my guest in my own home studio and we did the interview face to face and it reminded me of what I think we have all learnt through this pandemic. 

And that is, while it’s great that we have access to online communication, nothing quite compares to face to face meetings and talking and looking at people’s faces and checking body language and facial expressions and feeling that connection with someone which I certainly had the pleasure of today.

My guest today is Dr Traill Dowie. Now Trail is the Chair of the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) Panel for Trauma Standards and Practise. He’s also Head of the Faculty at Ikon Institute Australia and is a practising psychotherapist, supervisor and public speaker. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:20] Traill’s academic life and public lectures cover a broad range of interdisciplinary topics that relate to the human condition, and we discuss many of those today. Psychiatry, psychotherapy, trauma, lessons from indigenous cultures – now that’s a theme I’m really excited to be exploring this year. Anthropology, Health and Wellbeing and human optimisation. 

Now, Traill holds two PhDs. Yes. Two. Receiving a PhD in Psychiatry from Monash University and a PhD in Philosophy from The University of Melbourne. He is also co-director of the Mind Medicine Institute, and I recently had the pleasure of talking to his co-director, integrative psychologist, Nigel Denning. So these two episodes really do dovetail with each other really well. Look, I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Dr Traill Dowie. Welcome, Traill.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:02:23] Good to be here with you, mate. Thank you.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:25] Traill, you’ve got so many things going. You’ve been on a learning journey, well, we all are on our life, but you’ve really gone for it. You’ve actually got two PhDs. And if I had to pick two PhDs at this time, Psychiatry and Philosophy would be two very powerful ones to do. Can you share with us a little bit about your own journey?

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:02:48] Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those questions how you know, how far back do we go with all that? But I grew up pretty, you know, pretty difficult circumstances, I would say. My father died when I was young and we’re poor and all those things and I grew up in Darwin in Alice Springs, which were pretty rough places to grow up as well. And uh, yeah. After my father died I turned to books. 

So I started reading kind of philosophy seriously at about eleven. And that just naturally brought me across actually into psychoanalysis because they were next to each other in the bookstore and I didn’t know what was what. And so I started reading Freud, Ying and yang, and philosophy and all those things. 

And really those two interests have been the pathway of my intellectual journey, one that follows the path of the role of healing and psychological practise. And the other is to deal with, you know, deep thinking, clear thinking, you know, the practise of philosophy, etcetera, 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:03:53] World of psychology and psychiatry. How do you define that difference? I mean, it’s often it’s kind of a medical-based pharmaceutical approach, but it’s much more than that.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:04:05] Well, sure. Yeah, I mean, there are lots of distinctions in psychiatry, psychological medicine, psychology, psychotherapy, counselling, these are all intertwined kinds of ideas. I guess I would think about myself as a clinician, as a psychotherapist and as someone involved in the practise of psychotherapy. But you know, psychiatry is a medical specialisation. It’s today dominated by a biological-based intervention. So pharmacology. Now that hasn’t always been its history, but that’s certainly what is dominated by it. There is still psychotherapy training as part of your psychiatric training.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:04:41] So a friend of mine who’s just an absolutely terrific psychiatrist, therapist, philosopher. He runs the clinical training for the Royal College for Psychiatrists. And you know, he’s excellent. You can’t find anyone better than that. But most psychiatry is focussed on that, on pharmacological intervention.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:05:05] Psychology, they’re very focussed on a kind of evidence-based practise. It’s a kind of turn that they’re really big on in the science practitioner model. And so, you know, there’s a lot of dominance in there as well on biologicalism and also a kind of cognitiveism. And you know, I guess my view is that’s wonderful and everything has its place. But how does this all hang together? 

The American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, you know, talked about the need to understand how the world hangs together, and I think any clinical practise really has to begin with a set of clarifications about that. Probably my favourite, you know, quote that I use all the time with my students is a quote by Gregory Bates, he said, “Most of the problems in the world are caused by the difference between how people think and how nature is.” Yeah. 

And so there’s a real requirement for us to think more deeply. I believe about how we orientate around these issues as clinicians, but as human beings more generally. I mean, climate change and all these things are caused by these faulty modes of thinking, knowing and a lot of what we do is contingent on a set of assumptions that we haven’t really examined

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:06:23] Well, you know, it’s interesting because I’ve described myself as a holistic health practitioner for almost 40 years, and it always elicits these kinds of crystals and laying on of hands. And I say, Well, actually, it’s not a new age philosophy. It just happens to be the way the body works, and it happens to be the way the planet works.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:06:41] That’s right.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:06:42] And the sooner we get our heads around that. But there’s been kind of a movement. I guess if we’re talking about philosophers, I think Descartes was probably responsible more than anyone for setting us on this mod.. I mean, that’s just my sort of… on this path of reductionism. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:06:59] Well, that’s an interesting point, though, Ron. Because Descartes gets a bad rap in this regard.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:07:06] Okay, good. I want to hear.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:07:07] Because Descartes didn’t say that the mind and body are separate. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:07:11] No.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:07:11] He said it is “as if.” And that little bit “as if” is the bit that it kind of got chopped off…

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:07:19] But I think he was trying to appease the church at the time too. Is that a big part of it?

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:07:22] Yeah, yeah, I mean, you know, any thinking done during that period is obviously, you know, highly influenced by those values. But I mean his attempts, you know, to think clearly about what we are and how we work. I mean, admirable and useful and all of those things. 

But you are right to say, Ron, that Caucasians split as it is sometimes referred to, is still haunting us today. It’s still problematic today. I mean, I talk to students all the time and I talk about minds and they like, but what about the body and like, hang on a second. When I say mind, what I mean is an embodied relational process, which is energetic and informatique in nature and form. OK. 

So as soon as I say mind, you can’t speak about the mind without talking about it being embodied, and you can’t talk about the mind without it being relational. That is to say, it’s involved in the work. It’s inactive in some sense, and that’s still very difficult for people with whom to really kind of wrestle with and to understand.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:08:27] And there’s a lot of conundrums that kind of get passed over, you know, like one of the things that I say that gets people kind of flared up sometimes is I say that you know, all healing practises are an act of persuasion. All of them occur within a certain kind of register of relationship, which is influential. 

And when you look at traditional healing practises where they don’t have, you know, pharmacology and blood tests in the same way, you know, to go on, what are they using? What they’re using our human minds. They’re using human consciousness and the ability to influence human consciousness to generate healing outcomes. And so, you know, in the West, we know all about placebo. All right. You can’t do a single study without a placebo. But what does it actually mean that there is such thing as a placebo?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:09:14] Well, what is the implication being harnessing this all the time?

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:09:17] Well, that’s right. Now in psychotherapy, we do that. We do that through what we call non-specific factors. Right. So it’s really clearly documented that non-specific or common factors are sometimes called are essential to the clinical outcome. In fact, the most they’re the most predictive dimensions of the therapeutic encounter. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:09:41] Mm-Hmm.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:09:42] So these are really, really important things. And we kind of we pass by that. And I think that’s one of the things from, you know, exploring and thinking about and really observing indigenous healing practises around the world. It’s always performative. It always has performativity to it. It is always done in a socialised context. Right.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:10:08] So much in this day and age is a very interesting one. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:10:10] Well, I mean, you think about our society, healing is really focussed on curing and it’s done in private and it’s done in isolation. And you know, it has all these themes to it. And so many, I mean, one of the big issues is, of course, the nature of the illness itself. In traditional societies, the illness in the individual is a manifestation of illness within the group. 

I mean, look at our society. I mean, do we really think for all that advancements that we’re not sick and or it’s not making people sick? Because I think that’s something that we kind of, you know, the famous sociologist had this wonderful term psychological ism and use that to say that any ailment within an individual’s life is a problem of the constitution, of their makeup, of their capacity, but any success was attributed to the culture.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:11:10] So, so one of the deep questions, you know, is really about what is the intersection between health and the health of a culture or a society that we live in. And even then, we have so much money and we have we are so affluent. 

We have all these resources. When we look at mental health, when we look at all these kinds of things in Australia, obesity, we look at all these markers and metrics. It’s telling us that the way we’re occupying the world probably needs to be thought about in a deeper and more constructive way.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:11:44] I think it’s really interesting that you mentioned indigenous health, and I know you explore this a lot and I love the idea of lessons from the past. I think we have so much to learn from it. And I recently had the pleasure of talking to Tyson Yunkaporta.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:11:58] Great.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:11:58] And his wonderful book Sand Talk indigenous knowledge. Just beautiful. Does that? Yeah, beautiful boo. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:12:04] He is Monash, isn’t he?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:12:05] I think so. I think he is. He set up the Indigenous Knowledge Centre. Yeah, it’s terrific. And it is. And he talks, look, he talks about the four protocols of indigenous thinking being Respect Connect, Reflect, Direct. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:12:22] Hmm.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:12:22] And that we in the West from the time of the invasion, probably well before then we’ve gone exactly about it, the opposite way. This whole thing about connecting or being part of the greater good and that being a reflection of our illness is a really powerful message that we should, you know, from the indigenous.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:12:41] Well, I think this is one of the great messages indigenous wisdom has to offer us. But you know, there’s a certain hubris still around cultural dominance that allows us not to recognise there’s a problem. The essential features that I would say are the features of atomisation, reductionism, and individualisation vs. complexity, relationship and systemic engagement. 

I mean, those are the poles that we’re kind of traversing in that conversation there. And, you know, very, very important I think if we’re really trying to make things better, if we’re really trying to not just put Band-Aids on bullet wounds, so to speak. If we’re really trying to make improvements for, you know, the people in our society and the world as a whole, then this kind of task of healing becomes really important.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:13:41] And I like to distinguish for people that healing is not the same as curing. You know, there’s a sense in which what we do when we talk about these things is we start to talk about people and the world as a series of objects, of things. And I think my reading would be that that’s completely wrongheaded, that we are not things we have processes. And so what I mean by that is that we are not static fixed objects. 

We are a dynamic process and we really have to think in those terms if we’re if we’re engaged in this healing process because she curing kind of has this idea of the kind of returning to a kind of homeostatic position or being in a fixed position of health and health is not like that and systems don’t work like that and processes aren’t like that. It’s always dynamic.

It’s always moving. It’s always working outside of homeostasis. It’s always adjusting and moving and developing. And you know, this is where I think systems, systems theory has a lot to teach, you know, just the general person in how the world actually hangs together.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:14:59] Just let’s talk a little bit about Systems Theory. Give us Systems Theory 101.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:15:03] So Systems Theory is most famously developed by von Bertalanffy in the 1930s, but they actually had a progenitor, which is not very well known, which is Alexander Bogdanov, who was a Russian theorist. And his theory was essentially a structural theory that everything was about organisation and disorganisation in all the world, everything is about the organising properties and principles. 

And of course, when you think about this in relation to how we understand human beings and human minds makes a lot of sense, but it also makes sense on a social and political level. The notion is organisational.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:15:45] von Bertalanffy came along and he really used the mathematics of John von Neumann and really tried to develop mathematical proofs and explorations around this. And he developed a very strong theory. And this theory, of course, went on to influence cybernetics. And, you know, it’s had a massive effect on our society and our culture, the development of systems-based thinking. 

It’s, you know, everything from ecology to family systems therapy is all connected to this notion of a systemic organisation kind of got superseded, I guess, by someone like Warren Weaver’s kind of approach to complexity, where he’s saying systems theory is still too reductive. It’s too mechanicalistic because we’re still dealing with direct notions of probability.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:16:34] When you start to get into complexity, what starts to happen is we start escaping the capacity to, you know, predict in the same way, you know, so so by definition, we’re starting to talk about emergent processes and things that much more, much more how the world seems to actually be.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:16:52] Hmm.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:16:52] And so there’s that famous quote by Paul Bailey. What is it? “Everything that’s simple is wrong, and everything that’s complex is useless.” You know, and so it’s always a balance, Ron, like so this is that tension between reduction and reductionism.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:17:08] Mm-Hmm.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:17:09] Human beings can’t help but engage in reduction. Because we can’t necessarily hold the complexity of everything. But reductionism is different. Kind of idea when we start talking about reductionism is an essential value that the whole is can be understood by the parts. Yes. And the whole basis of systemic and complexity-based thinking is no. The hole is more than the sum of the passes you know, many of your listeners will be familiar with that idea. 

But that notion, you know deeply, you’re kind of problematic issue in philosophy is to ask, you know, are we getting truly novel events emerging or are we getting events that are actually merely just the constituents of the parts? And I would take what was called a radical immersion view, which is now I think you get something completely new. And I wouldn’t say that that’s philosophically popular within the philosophy of science, but that is certainly my view on that. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:18:13] Our education system is another one that has let us down. And you talk about critical thinking and collaboration and community. Talk to us about how you perceive the education system as a factor of what’s going on now.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:18:28] Well, I work as an educator and I have been for 20 years, been training psychotherapists for 20 years now and I’m Head of school and an organisation called the Ikon Institute. And you know, I’ve developed a pedagogical approach there, which is based on my, my personal experiences and my education, and also my experiences of being at very prestigious universities in the United States and watching what actually happens at the best places in the world is very different to what we see in, you know, classrooms in Australia. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:19:00] This all kind of begins, I think, in earnest in the 1980s when we see the corporatisation of universities. And it’s a real tragedy in some ways that we’ve lost the ability to understand the value of education for itself. 

And so, you know, always already now we get these kinds of comments, well, where’s the value in that? You know, where’s the utility in that? Where’s the money in that? There’s a great example of that, Ron, when the pandemic hit, actually. And I saw a survey in the newspaper asking whether or not artists should receive fee help, uhh not fee help, job keeper.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:19:47] Right? Yes, yes.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:19:48] And then you know what, a number of people were saying no. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:19:51] Yes.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:19:52] And then what they were doing is was sitting at home watching content produced by artists, listening to content produced by artists. Mm-Hmm. And so this kind of really kind of breakdown of the value of liberal arts, deep education, not not not the shallow education where people simply after a vocational experience, they want a piece of paper to then to go out and make money. But that’s very much the tone of education in Australia. 

What I focus on in the pedagogy that I put forward is what is called a transformative educational model, which is the idea that education should transform the person. And when I’m teaching this, I’ll take it back to, you know, the classical Greek ideas of, you know, and Phronesis. So phronesis is, you know, applied wisdom. It’s the skill of doing the work. It’s the actual ability to apply it. 

Parrhesia is fearless and frank speech, and that’s a hard thing to do in today’s society, given the whole development of work culture and those things. And then this Paideia. Paideia is the Greek word for education. Listeners might recognise it from the word encyclopaedia. You know. 

And Cornel West, my great mentor. He always raises these issues with me, and that’s where I’ve kind of picked him up from the courses. He says paideia is the maturation of one’s soul through death.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:21:25] Okay.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:21:26] And that’s what education really means. It means to give up what you think you are to become what you can be. Yeah. And it’s to come into contact with ideas and thoughts that radically change who you are and how you perceive the world. Cornel would often say to me, “Yeah, well, you know, all these people come to these classes only to discover that their whole worldview is built on pudding. Sweet, fluffy, and without substance.” And so deep education is the process of really unhousing people, really allowing them to take their own minds seriously.

I mean, this is one of the things that I said to my students, “Take your own mind seriously.” But the education experience for most people has beaten out of them, any belief that their mind is something that should be taken seriously. And so we have to take care of our own minds seriously. We have to engage with it. We have to think deeply and as I like to say, you going to catch on fire.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:22:24] I’ve heard you say that expression. Yeah. You know, catching on fire with education. I think, you know, when we’re talking about going out and knowing oneself, arguably there’s never been a more important time in human history to know yourself because the data knows us better than we know ourselves. We’re sitting ducks. The algorithms. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:22:44] The algorithms, the algorithms. Yeah. Yes. Now exactly. And this idea of, you know, really catching on fire, it’s something it’s really hard to explain from the outside because a lot of people haven’t experienced it. But there is a kind of vitality that comes out of the life of the mind. One of my favourite philosophers, Hannah Arendt, wrote a book called The Life of the Mind and this idea of you can be in a room by yourself reading a text, and it can be when you’re on fire like that, you can be so alive with it that it’s almost unbearable. 

You know, you just can’t. It’s too much. You know, there’s too much going on, too much stimulation, too much thinking, too like it’s almost you can almost be overwhelming at times and you juxtapose that against, you know, sitting at home and watching Netflix or, you know, the married TV shows or whatever it is that people watching.

There’s a real tension here between essentially providing people with a set of narcotics. Whether TV, sport, food, whatever it is. I guess it would take us said show me what you attend to and I’ll show you what kind of person you are.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:10] Hmm, hmm.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:24:11] So what do we attend to do and do we intend to self-interest? We attend to money. We attend to all these things. And I’m not saying those things are bad in all themselves, but when that’s all that you attend to? Hmm. Where do we end up?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:24] Yeah.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:24:24] And I think a lot of people through the pandemic have really started to wake up to the fact that there’s more to living. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is this. This is it. Yeah. You know, and if you’re going to spend, you know, 70% of your life working somewhere that makes you miserable and unhappy, you might need to rethink that. You might need to really think that maybe I’m better off being poor and happy.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:51] Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s been a big opportunity for people to reflect. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:24:55] One of the great resignations as they grow…

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:57] Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, people are realising how much their actual work costs them in terms of their lives. Yeah. Asking whether it’s worth it or not, I think another thing or another word that comes to my mind when I think of education in general in this pandemic in particular, is ignorance. Yeah, and it can either be a powerful force or a very scary one. Yeah, it’s been a scary one. How should we approach ignorance? Well, how do people approach ignorance?

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:25:29] Well, I mean, I think ignorance is highly problematic. There is, of course, the tension between knowing that you’re ignorant and believing that, you know, everything. I mean, this is one of the great tensions. One of the questions I ask people, for example, is when I encounter people who have strong and again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be critical of the health policy and social health policies that are rolled out. I’m not saying any of those things, and I think there are lots of problems in the way this has all been handled.

But one of the questions I ask people is, “What is it that a professor of virology knows that you don’t know? Is there anything that they know that you don’t know?” Hmm. Because there’s this interesting quality of, you know, you raise the question of ignorance. 

And I would flip that and I would ask the question of what constitutes the whys. Hmm. And one of the constitutive dimensions of wisdom pretty much is lots of definitions. But one of the constitutive dimensions universally is what they call epistemic humility.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:26:33] Yes, and that was a word I wanted to explore with you. Tell me those words. Tell me about that.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:26:38] Well, epistemic meaning being humble about what you know, being really kind of able to recognise that you don’t know everything, that there are other things to discover. There are other things to learn. And so having this position of epistemic humility means to go, well, look, you know, I’m not a virologist, I’m not a cardiologist, I’m none of those things now, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to wholesale and just agree and follow what I’m told, but I am going, to begin with, the starting point that this person knows something that I don’t know. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:27:14] Hmm.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:27:15] You know, this is an important point because when we live in a world where ignorance. It’s not only kind of dominant, but it’s almost privileged case, it’s almost privileged, like the work of thinking, the work of, I mean, you ask this question about universities before. I mean, it’s really interesting, isn’t it, that the whole currency of universities now is: publish or perish. 

You know, people producing small, highly specialised journal articles that get published and read by, you know, a handful of people. Rather than what I would call attention to what is wise. And for me, this is one of those tensions in philosophy between professional philosophy and the historical practise of philosophy. And I think that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. And I think that you can have a lot of knowledge and still be unwise.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:28:18] And so for me, I think this pursuit of wisdom, whatever that looks like for an individual is really important. But to do that, you know, it requires a certain state of self-reflection and it requires certain thinking tools. And unfortunately, most of our society has had those thinking tools eroded. I’ll tell you right now, I’ve been teaching for 20 years. People read less today than they ever have at any time. 

By getting students to read is very, very hard. And the volume of reading as well, like what’s expected as a volume of reading today is, I mean, I constantly get in trouble with this with our quality assurance team. And I can’t because I’m like, “Well, they should be able to read this book in a week, shouldn’t they?”.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:29:07] “No, Traill.. it’s going to be, you know, 50 pages.” But this is full-time study. What do they do, you know? So this is a really poor incentive that we keep following and the consequences of what we’re reaping. And if you think about our current society where there’s so much focus, I think on people’s rights. Yes, but very little focus on their responsibilities and rights and responsibilities are fused. 

There are no rights without responsibilities. And so what are our responsibilities as citizens? What is our responsibility as individuals within a broader network of relationships? Those questions don’t really get addressed systematically.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:29:53] I mean, we’ve come this age in the last, certainly the last 20, 30 years, the age of the individual. You know, it’s delivered some good things individual rights, rights, you know, domestic violence, sexual rights, sexual free, no child, the rights of the child and all that sort of individual rights. But it’s kind of become an obsession.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:30:13] Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, this kind of, you know, I guess you’re referring to a kind of a social and cultural preciousness as well that’s kind of been developed. I often reflect upon that. You know, there’s probably never been a time where we’ve been allowed to be so sensitised to trauma to, you know, negative psychological violence like you can only do that in a really privileged world. 

And there’s this explosion of all that. Some of it is very misguided. I mean, some of it doesn’t even make sense within, I saw the doctrines which are being put forward. But you know, we can say that the general project of freedom and liberation is a good one.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:31:01] I mean, I don’t think any reasonable citizen would say that people who are black, brown, yellow shouldn’t be treated as ordinary human beings in a society like Australia. I mean, I feel like that should now be a given. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that it wasn’t a given, and the legacy of that is still being felt. And that’s not to diminish that at all. But it is. 

There’s a certain popularity, I think, and a certain cultural and social currency in attitudes of victimisation. Mm-Hmm. You know, you got to be careful saying that even in a public forum like this, yes, it can be risky. And you know, again, I don’t mean that to be derogatory. I mean that to say that. what I’ve been saying it’s necessarily bad. But if we continue to do it forever, where does it lead us?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:31:55] Yeah, I think your point that it comes with responsibility and that responsibility is to the bigger picture is a really valid one. But it also leads to this whole idea of trauma.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:32:08] Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:32:08] Because, you know, I had recently had the pleasure of talking to Admiral Chris Barrie. You know, following on from that psychedelic summit was fabulous. I mean, on my desk here, I’ve got the name of all the people that I want to invite. And there were some brilliant speakers, but what surprised me was Chris Barrie’s presence there. And then I thought, Okay, servicemen, our post-traumatic stress and all that. 

But he made the point that trauma, and post-traumatic stress affects every Australian. A big statement. And I said “Gee, Chris.” And he said, “Well, either they did experience the trauma or you’re living with someone who has experienced the trauma and that is affecting you. And trauma is such a personal thing. Mine isn’t more traumatic than yours. Mine is my trauma and effect.” So talk to us a bit about trauma.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:32:56] Yeah. Great. Great. Great. Great question. I…

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:33:01] …in this age of the individual. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:33:02] Yeah. Well, I want to be kind with more clarifying definitionally about it. First of all, so I think that often suffering gets described as trauma. I think grief gets described as trauma. Those are different categories of human experience.

Trauma is a very particular category of human experience, I think, and depends on how you’d like to articulate that. But let us say that traumatic experiences and experience which is too sharp, too violent to be experienced. But as I say, it’s an experience-able experience. As a whole bunch of psychophysiological responses that happen in all of that, there are certain phenomena or characteristics of it.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:33:45] Most notably for me, is the disruption of temporality in time. So if you’re really trying to understand the life where the lived experience of a traumatised person, the essential feature, I mean, there’s a number of them. But I think the most important is time. It’s that the traumatised person who is not in the present time orientated toward a future. 

What they are is trapped in a loop of the past. There’s a sense of being unable to escape. And when you talk to, you know, veterans or traumatised persons is often this quality. And so trauma sits outside of time, sits outside of direct experience.

And so the treatment of trauma always involves turning trauma into suffering. It always involves taking an unexperience-able experience and experiencing it in small, digestible amounts. And whether you do that from the bottom up or you do that from the top down or the inside out or the outside in or whatever way you want to do it, that’s fine. 

But really, what it is is it’s a chance to work that unclaimed experience through and this is what we do in psychotherapy where we’re specialising in treating trauma victims. There’s a lot of difference in trauma. And so one of the things that I’m very interested in is that often we try and say that the soldier is the same as the molestation victim, who’s the same as the fire or flood victim. They all get kind of it’s all the same. It’s all trauma.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:35:24] And what I would say is, no, they’re actually all categorically different experiences. They all have a different quality to them. When you work with soldiers, for example, you know, a big part of what traumatises them is not just what they saw, but what they did. And so they sustained a moral injury. You know, we’ve sent young men off to kill people, which is a counter social activity. They have to overcome their natural biological instinct, not to harm each other. 

There’s a famous book written by David Grossman called On Killing. He was the dean at West Point. Mm-Hmm. And he says one of the most difficult things in training soldiers is loosening their capacity to kill. Right. And so what they did, you know, this exploration into essentially trying to create an on and off switch for a sociopath. 

I mean, I want to be able to put them out there in the environment and they’re not constrained by all that biology and all this social kind of tendencies to not harm other human beings. So we develop all these strategies. There are formulas as grotesque as this is, there are formulas.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:36:36] The type of weapons used, distance from the person, all those things to try and allow that person to murder other living human beings. And we, of course, make the other human beings, other. They’re not humans, they’re not dads, they’re not mums, they’re not people, we give them some derogatory terms and we treat them as such.

You know, those people come home. Yeah, like they may have experienced terrible things happening to them. They may have seen terrible things happen to their comrades, but also they have to wrestle with what they’ve done. That’s something that is very different to, you know, a victim of a bushfire. 

So there are quantifiably differences in the notions of trauma. I think the other distinction is between what we might call clinical and subclinical presentations of manifestations of it. So PTSD is very well known, but it’s not the only form that trauma takes.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:37:34] You can have traumas of emission, you know, things that happen to you in your small child that you didn’t get what you needed. That can cause a traumatic effect. You can have historical and trans historical traumas. 

I mean, here I’m thinking about the works of Agnes Heller, a famous Budapest School philosopher, and she spoke about trans historical trauma as trauma’s that not intergenerational trauma as it’s often used, but trans historical traumas, things like the Holocaust or the Shoah, things like these in like the Atlantic slave trade that doesn’t matter who you are, it actually the fact that the Holocaust was possible influences you and I.

It influences us. It influences our perception. Think about how we’re feeling at the moment about Putin. You know, here we’ve had a period where war by invasion has not been a staple point of our globe for a while. A lot of civil wars. But just invading and taking a place over there, that’s kind of breaking the rules now. We thought we’d move past that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:38:42] Yeah.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:38:42] You notice the alarm that’s going on with the people are super alarmed about it. But why are we alarmed? And this is part of history is the last time this happened in Europe. It cost millions and millions of lives. It resulted in the generation of nuclear weapons, which have the potentiation to eradicate life on Earth. Oh, so there’s this response. So I think this idea of trauma is a powerful one. It’s an important one. 

It often gets kind of bandied about, I think, in ways that actually diminish what it actually means. You know, people like, I miss my bus, it was so traumatising. You know, it’s inconvenient, you might have suffered. You might have been stressed, but it’s not the same. And I think that distinction is important in terms of its ubiquitousness of it. I think it is highly present. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:39:37] It’s highly present because as a species, you know, Walter Benjamin said history is the wreckage of blood and bodies and that’s what history is. The angel of history is around blood and bodies. That’s human life, pestilence, war, famine, and death. You know, this is what we have gone through as a species. And pretty much the last 70 years is really the only time in human history where we haven’t had large portions of people shipped off to die. Hmm. 

And you know, like, there’s been wars. Yeah. But we haven’t had that kind of quality. And I think one of the consequences is it’s allowed people to feel safe enough to actually begin to feel what all of human history is transferred. When we’re doing trauma work, we say what is not transformed is transferred. And so when you think about what’s been transferred through human life, through human experience, all you know is where your grandparents are from or what did they go through?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:40:50] Well, they were part of that Holocaust. And I know you talk about trauma being transferred. I mean, I know that at the age of 10, I would sit in my public school in… with the year for three, and I would wonder who would be with me and who would be against me if push came to show. And that’s not the thought of a normal nine or 10-year-old? 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:41:11] No. And that’s one of that’s a great example of this transhistorical thing like it moves through time and then you have the intergenerational bit, which is it’s it’s actually transferred directly into you. Hmm. And so I think we’re in this incredible moment of sensitisation to these problems. And I think that if we wise and sensible about that, we can find a way through. What I’m noticing is with this attempt to sensitise to it. You know, and I think it’s that sensitisation which has given rise to kind of the whole kind of woke space. I think if we’re if we’re not careful, though, what it does is it creates an Abreaction. And you see this, this is happening a lot.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:41:55] Creates a…?

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:41:57] Abreaction.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:41:57] Abreaction.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:41:59] A counter-reaction that’s in this right, is that there’s a whole bunch of people who become more solidified in not wanting to be like that. So rather than being sensitised to these problems, what we find is the rise of a kind of hardness in how we want to treat each other. 

And you see this politically, socially and all those types of things, you see this rise and that kind of polarisation is always dangerous. I think when we have polarisation in the way that we’re currently experiencing it, I don’t think it’s a good recipe for a long term, stable society. And you know, there’s a lot of poor incentives that are driving that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:42:44] Yeah. Which brings us back to the response to this pandemic. You mentioned bad data relating to bad decisions. But when that bad data is you know, like broadcast. 

Yeah, to inform the masses, the social psychology and I’ve even heard it described as mass psychosis, which emerges from that when you hear something like that, given your psychotherapy and psychology, psychiatry, philosophy background, when someone says, I think the population is suffering from a mass psychosis, or maybe that’s too strong a word that’s too strong, too strong a word. But it’s certainly fear and isolation and simple solutions. Yeah, sure. What’s your response to that?

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:43:29] Well, I mean, I think it’s interesting because there’s also a supposition here, which I think doesn’t get expressed enough, which you know as well. I’m all in favour of the sensitisation and the gentleness of our species. There’s also a sense in which the values of what we’re able to endure. I mean, it’s been really interesting watching the response to this. 

I mean, I’m not trying to diminishing how harrowing it’s been for many people to be isolated. I know that it has been, you know, I’ve been at the coalface of that. It’s I understand that. But it’s also something interesting about the resources that people have. And you know, you talked about the data, but I often think the thinking tools are the missing bit, the way in which we make sense of these things. I mean, I just… 

So I said, I’ve got a serious heart condition. My doctor didn’t want me to have the initial vaccines. I’m like, No worries. Like, I want you to have the protein vaccine when it’s here. So yeah, I’ve been in isolation for nine months now. You know, I only got out of isolation a week ago. Yeah, you know, got my vaccines and whatnot.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:44:36] And so this was the Novavax, which is the old fashioned.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:44:39] That’s right. That’s right. And so they gave me that. And, you know, it’s like, OK, you can go back into the world now. And I wouldn’t say that nine months in isolation is very easy to do. All right. You know, but you know, I can work from home. I’ve got food, shelter, clothing, you know, like, I’m like…

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:45:01] So you might have been suffering a bit, but you weren’t traumatised. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:45:04] Exactly, exactly. And I don’t mean that to be pejorative for I’m not saying that people who did find a break should feel like I’m having a garland because I’m absolutely not. What I’m saying, though, is that the thing that makes the difference for me is being able to think and write and read and use the things that are at my disposal in that environment. 

And I think that that’s often what’s missing is that a lot of us don’t have well-developed practises for living, and I often talk about this. What is a practise? Practise is a non-trivial task performed over time with the intention. That’s what it practises. And so what are people using in these moments to cope to manage, you know, like where the practise takes place?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:45:45] Oh, Traill, I would argue that you have the perfect preparation. You’ve had the perfect preparation for nine months of isolation. Yeah. What you’ve done, you know your philosophy. You obviously been interested in philosophy and psychiatry and psychotherapy. 

And if that happened to me, which it happened for a few months in time and I thought, “Wow, this is great, I can actually slow down and think and all that.” But a lot of people aren’t in that… We weren’t in that privilege, you know, that kind of assumption that everybody’s going to have a laptop and everybody is at a desk to see that because everybody will…

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:46:19] No, exactly.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:46:20] So I think we, you more than me probably, even probably looked at it like, “Wow, this is like a passionate retreat.”

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:46:26] Exactly. And that’s why I’m not. I just want to be clear I’m not, as a criticism to people who did find it hard nine months. But there’s a kind of quality here about what are we prepared for as people? You know, what are we actually prepared to cope with? What are our thinking tools? What are we actually given to make sense of? 

And I think a lot of people’s lives are so incredibly harried and busy that the chance to actually even ask that question is very, very hard to create. And I think that’s.

Not a complete accident, either. You know, I think our society has sped up. I think there are involvement and involvement with certain technologies, I think, is really problematic and hasn’t been thought through at all. I mean, the effect of social media on mental health for young girls, in particular, is just like when you look at the research and the data on the effects of social media on young girls, it’s hard to imagine how we allow people to, you know, to hear Jonathan Haidt. He’s obviously written a lot about this, The Coddling of the American Mind

Yeah. He’s written a lot about this. And it’s so interesting as well, isn’t it, that the only people who are raising these kinds of stringent criticisms of this space are kind of white male conservative thinkers? You know, and that’s part of the challenge. And then I think about someone like Cornel West, you know, who’s just, you know, in my mind, one of the most important thinkers around…

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:47:59] And still going strong?

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:48:00] Yes. He’s still is. One of the most important thinkers on race and culture. I mean, I know that he’s got a very nuanced reading of this and he’s got these kinds of deep, traditional, kind of intellectual approaches. But everything’s kind of categorised for him through the Christian kind of lens of love.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:48:24] Mm hmm.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:48:25] And if I was to really kind of think about what are we starting to miss as a culture and where are we really missing with each other? It’s really the fraternal bonds. It’s really like that idea of actually loving and connecting with our fellow citizens. Instead of that, we’re often in opposition to we’re often trying to find out what I did wrong. We’re often trying to jump on them and crucify them and point the finger. And there’s a real lack, I think, of generosity and kindness and compassion and love.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:48:58] You talked about trauma being trapped, people in trauma being trapped, and because I think part of the mechanism there is really about unlocking that trap making a connection. Tell us about the default mode network a little bit more. I mean, people may have heard about it. Let’s pretend that I haven’t. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:49:16] Well, yeah, I mean, I’m certainly not in neuroscientists, but then the general premise is that you know, people want to look this up. Carhart-Harris is the guru in this area.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:49:27] Robin Carhart-Harris?

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:49:28] Yeah, Harris Yes. Yeah. But it’s this. It’s this perception network that basically is what we had. It’s the way our minds and minds, I shouldn’t say minds, it’s why our brains orientate perceptually to the world and if you think about perception, a lot of people like to believe that what they’re seeing is what is actually their. 

Most of what we know from neuroscience now is that a lot of the world is actually put together by expectation, right? And everybody has this basic orientation. So if you’re not doing anything, particularly just sitting there, just being in the world, that’s the default mode network. It’s this thing which, you know, activates and it takes place. And it’s this, you know this. It’s the largest neural network and it has this kind of effect.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:50:16] When you take a psychedelic, it disrupts that. So that basic view of the world gets changed. It gets disrupted, it gets broken up. And so the world that you see and this is why I much prefer to talk in a kind of phenomenal language in terms of experience, the world you occupy changes. Wittgenstein famously said a depressed man lives in a depressed world.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:50:38] Mm hmm. OK. Hmm. And so there’s this relationship between the world that we occupy, the world we experience. You know, it confirms itself to us every day. So, you know, if you look at things like luck or any of these kinds of things, what the research shows is these are all expectation effects. You know, people who feel lucky say yes to more things, which makes them more lucky. You know, like these kinds of… 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:51:09] Yeah, or you having a great day and you walk out and everybody looks so beautiful. Right, exactly. It’s that kind of perception or the opposite is true. 

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:51:17] Exactly, exactly. And so what we’re talking about here is reshaping the perceptual and experiential register of the lifeworld. And so everybody produces this lived world. You know, there’s still this tendency to want to see the world as out there as factual what we might call naive realism. And, you know, I can’t imagine that there’d be too many, um, quantum physicists that would believe in, you know, naive realism. It’s not really like that. 

I think a better way to thinking about it is that the world emerges from us. And so we are in reciprocity with the world. And you know, one of my favourite philosophers is Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French philosopher, and he talks a lot about this notion of the reciprocity of the world. 

We are the world and the world is us, right, we are a part of this and this is now there’s a very powerful move in cognitive science towards something called inactivism. Which is this idea that the world and the mind are this co-created co-related field?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:52:27] Hmm.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:52:27] Makes perfect sense. But you know, so really what we’re doing is we’re reshaping that. We’ve got an opportunity to actually create profound change at the level of perceptual experience. And so, you know, when that happens it changes people and the people do not value experience enough in this space like this is the thing that I’m really I’ve got a pet peeve about is there’s still a tendency to be like, “Oh, it’s doing this to this part of the brain and it’s doing that.” I’m like, “That’s all great.” But actually, what matters is the experience and the quality of the experience.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:53:10] Now listen, we’ve had such a great chat and it’s been terrific. We could talk all afternoon and maybe we will, but I want to take you… I wanted to ask you one last question, and this is taking a step back from your role as a teacher and a lecturer and a psychotherapist because we’re all on a health journey together in this modern world. What do you think the biggest challenge is for us as individuals on that journey?

The Biggest Health Challenge

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:53:32] On health? I mean, oh my goodness. I mean… Look, I would say probably the number one thing from my perspective would be stress. Stress is obviously the… We live in a highly stressful environment. We’ve got a very antiquated nervous system that’s designed to respond to sabertooth tigers and being invaded by the next, you know, tribe over that, we apply to work deadlines and picking the kids up from school and all those things. 

So I think the management of stress and dealing with stress in the current environment is critical. You know, I’m certainly not a bastion for optimal health. You know, I’ve had some very serious health problems. And you know, what I can probably share is, I guess, what I’ve learnt about that over the time is the need to really listen to your body to really, really listen to the cues that you’re getting and also to pursue what works for you. 

You know, like I got, you know, like many of my friends, you know, just absolute true believers in homeopathic, right? I’m like, “Oh, I can’t understand how it’s possible that it could do anything other than be a placebo. But if it works for you? Do it.”

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:54:52] I’ve heard that’s a very powerful tool placebo.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:54:54] Well, whatever, whatever works for you, you do it. But what I would also say is you have to recognise the limitations of the model that you’re being in constant with which is not a model of health, right? We don’t have models of health. We use the term health care. But it’s not actually health care. It’s sick care that we have. And you know, look, I have both been killed by a doctor and saved by a doctor. I have mixed feelings about it. OK. 

But you know, if you’ve got a broken leg or you’ve got, you know, a really serious brain tumour or something like go and get conventional treatment for sure. But I always think of that analogy in Chinese medicine. I can remember where this might be. I don’t know what book it’s in. Maybe Yellow Emperor something and there are the brothers and this brother wins this prise from the emperor.

And he’s like, “Well, but I’m not the great doctor.” He’s like, “Well, but all your patients get better.” He goes, “Yeah, but my other brother, none of his patients get sick.” That’s the doctor you want, right? And so what I would say is a proactive approach to health care is probably the thing. I mean, I’m a bit like this to myself. I don’t really go follow things up unless I feel like there’s something wrong.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:56:23] Mm-Hmm.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:56:24] But really getting into it habit of taking care of yourself and preventively, I think is actually the best advice, I think. I mean, you know, getting Chinese medicine every week, for example, with me makes a huge difference to my heart function like, you know, the epistemological system of description, OK? Makes no sense to my cardiologist. But the truth is, I haven’t been in hospital for this amount of time and I’ve been doing this and it seems to be working and I feel better about it.

So I would say decrease your stress and focus on pre-emptive health care, not just when things are broken, when things are broken, it’s hard to fix. And the other thing I would say about that is to view your health as a total long process of living, which is that we’re in a totalised system and you can’t be healthy at the expense of the environment you’re in, or the people around you like these are a unified field. And if you start treating health and wellness in that regard, I think it starts to look really different for a lot of people pretty quickly.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:57:41] Traill, what a great note to finish on, and I’ve just so enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr Traill Dowie: [00:57:47] It’s my absolute pleasure. I wish I’d got to talk to you more about what you were doing and hear. I’m very interested, but it’s lovely. Hopefully, I’ll come back sometime.


Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:57:57] Well, that was quite a far-ranging conversation, and as I said at the beginning of the episode if you need a reminder of the difference between meeting people face to face and talking to them online, today’s episode was an example of that. 

I just lost track of time. I got totally absorbed in our conversation, could have actually gone on and talked for hours with Traill. I thought it was really interesting. I hope you did, too. We’ll have links to his website. 

Also, the Mind Medicine Institute, some information there and Mind Medicine Australia, which is promoting the use of psychedelic therapies, which, as you’ve heard from both Traill and his co-director at the Mine Medicine Institute, Nigel Denning, have great potential. Now I will reflect on this episode in this week’s Healthy Bite, but I hope you enjoyed that episode as much as I did. Until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.



This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.