Jerusalem Syndrome: How to Psychoanalyze a MessiahS

What do you do when someone suddenly decides that they're the next messiah? Jerusalem Syndrome is a fairly well-known phenomenon. It happens when otherwise normal people suddenly become sure they're the chosen one — often while they're visiting Jerusalem. And there are actual specialists in this particular medical area. Find out how they treat the many Jesuses (Jesi?) they encounter.

Top image: More Good Foundation/Flickr.

In Jerusalem, it isn't terribly unusual to be approached by someone with a long beard and a beatific smile who claims to be your personal lord and savior. In fact, it happens about a hundred times a year, so often that some hostel owners know exactly who to contact when it does happen. Jerusalem is a host and a namesake to an unusual syndrome. People who come there, sometimes at moments of crisis in their lives, but other times as a relatively normal travel destination, become convinced that that they are being contacted by God. Some people believe that they are messengers for the messiah. Others, on the other hand, are convinced that they themselves are the second coming of Jesus.

This mindset starts out relatively small. People stand in the street and preach, or they pray for hours at a time without stopping. While these activities are strenuous for the person, and often aggravating for the people around them, they don't pose much of a threat. Things start getting more worrisome when the people hear the voice of God telling them to do things that are destructive. These destructive things are done, for the most part, only to the sufferer him or herself. There was one case of arson committed by someone with Jerusalem syndrome, but that was in the 1960s. Officials were concerned, as the year 2000 drew close, that misguided chosen ones might try to usher in the end of the world. The millennium passed with no danger from Jerusalem Syndrome sufferers, and only a slight uptick in the rate of the affliction. When the authorities get involved, it's to protect the person with the syndrome, not those around them. People in the grip of Jerusalem syndrome often stop bathing, preach or pray until they physically exhaust themselves, or fast for so long that they starve. When this happens, they are taken to one of several institutions set up to treat people with this syndrome. But how do you treat a messiah?

Not surprisingly, some of the treatments for this condition have turned out to be very bad ideas indeed. On isolated occasions, psychiatrists have tried outright telling the person that they aren't who they say they are — or even putting two of them together to see them yell at each other. Since then, more useful strategies have been found. Some people who come down with this syndrome have a previous history of mental illness, and treating that causes the syndrome to subside. Other times, mild tranquilizers or antipsychotics are given to the patient until they get the rest and mental stability they need.

More often though, the patient just needs some time away from Jerusalem. Some patients need a month of treatment away from the city in a hospital. Some need a week in treatment. And some cases simply need to be put on a plane home, where they can interact with their family. Once they are surrounded by their normal life, they'll naturally slip back into their normal mindset. Plenty of people revert to mental health, as if none of it had ever happened.

This gives us an understanding of why the condition is called Jerusalem syndrome. Religious mania can happen anywhere. The city itself does not cause delusions. Instead it constantly reinforces them. We get a glimpse of similar things in museums, clubs, and theme parks. Each of these places attempts to encourage a certain mindset in the people who visit. They are separated from their normal routine, and given all kinds of coordinated sensory cues - music, art, food, smells - that reinforce the desired mindset. The result is a person temporarily slipping into a different mode of being.

Jerusalem functions as one of these spaces writ large. It's an entire city with a history, architecture, and culture that reinforces religious experience, particularly for someone who doesn't live there and so doesn't have a safety net of normality. The city, and the significance of it, feeds the feelings of the would-be messiah every moment they're there. Take them out of that feedback loop, and put them back into a situation in which every cue they get tells them to behave normally again, and they behave normally. All they need is the right stimulus.

Via Wired, How Stuff Works, and Jewish Virtual Library.