MEET THE FOUNDERS:
AL POWERS & BRITTANY QUAGAN
My name is Al Powers, and I’m a psychiatrist and neuroscientist. I am passionate about understanding human experience and building bridges to help us empathize with each other’s experiences. The way I choose to build these bridges is by viewing experiences like hearing or seeing things other people don’t as on the same spectrum with everyday perceptual experiences. By understanding perception, I think we can begin to help normalize experiences and begin to decrease the stigma and dysfunction they sometimes carry.
I first knew I was passionate about perception when I was an undergraduate student here at Yale. I fell in love with behavioral studies as a window into the mind and the brain, working with Dr. Laurie Santos to characterize the contribution of language to object recognition by just looking at the behavior of capuchin monkeys.
The following year, I began the M.D. / Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. My graduate school work was completed in Dr. Mark Wallace’s laboratory, where I studied multisensory integration, or the process by which the brain combines information from the different senses into a meaningful representation of the world around us. In particular, I focused upon the ability of this system to change with perceptual learning. I found that audiovisual integration is capable of far more flexibility than was previously thought, and that the changes in behavior accompanying that flexibility are accompanied by robust brain network changes. Together these findings carry implications for treatment approaches for disorders in which these processes may be abnormal.
After completing the Ph.D. phase of my training, I returned to medical school. Because I had spent three years studying the brain, I had assumed I would be most interested in neurology or neurosurgery when I did his clinical rotations. However, I immediately fell in love with psychiatry when I rotated through the Psychosis unit at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. It was difficult to face the degree of suffering I saw there, but I wanted more than anything else to help develop new ideas and approaches to help alleviate that suffering. I decided to specialize in psychiatry while focusing on doing cutting-edge neuroscience to help find new treatments for distressing experiences. I matched to my first choice, Yale-New Haven Hospital, where I started training in the Yale Psychiatry Residency’s Neuroscience Research Training Program.
Back at Yale, I began work with Dr. Philip Corlett, then a junior faculty member whose work focused on computational models of delusion formation. Utilizing my background in psychophysics and sensory neuroscience, and Dr. Corlett’s background in predictive coding, we devised a study to test a predictive-coding model of hallucinations. The work that resulted, published in Schizophrenia Bulletin and Science in 2017, is the first evidence for a computational model of voice-hearing. While completing this work, I also completed my psychiatric training, spending most of my outpatient time at the cutting-edge Specialized Treatment Early in Psychosis (STEP) Clinic, where I learned team-based care for first-episode psychosis and gained a passion for working with people distressed by these experiences.
I joined the faculty at the Yale Department of Psychiatry on July 1, 2018 as an Assistant Professor. My work, funded by a K23 Career Development Award from the NIMH and a Career Award for Medical Scientists from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund, focuses on applying the computational tools we have developed toward early detection and novel treatment development in psychosis. My clinical work is focused upon treatment of patients experiencing the very first signs of psychosis, as Medical Director of the Yale PRIME Psychosis Prodrome Research Clinic.
My name is Brittany Quagan and I am a psychic/medium.
My personal experience with hearing voices began when I was about 15 years old. I personally see these voices as Spirit Guides. Along with the voices of Spirit came an influx of distressing experiences such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, health paranoia, and suicidality. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know what I was hearing. And because I was so distressed by the experiences, I self-medicated with substances and alcohol because in those moments, the voices and the other uncomfortable sensations and thoughts would quiet down. There were periods of time I couldn’t leave my home, petrified of what I would hear or feel if I did. My sanctuary was the only place I felt safe—or, at the very least—safer. My relationships suffered, I had to drop out of college my first year, and every day I spiraled into what I felt at the time was a never-ending abyss. This continued until I was about 21 years old.
At the time, I was working in a corporate environment. It was during that time that I was approached by a woman on my team who pulled me to the side and told me that what I was experiencing was not something that needed to be diagnosed or “fixed” by medication(s) or the system. She was spiritual and self-identified as a psychic/medium: someone who could hear, sense, and see things that most others around us cannot. She invited me to explore the world of spirituality, energy, and healing in a holistic/natural way – all rooted in compassion and understanding the self. That woman changed my life. Her support, the support system I grew through accompanying her to groups, along with the processes I learned along the way (such as mindfulness, meditation, and boundaries) helped me to not only cope with my experiences, but control them. It was at that point I was determined to help as many people as I could who may be experiencing the same things as I did. I wanted to engage the world of mental health and help make changes in the system so that those who didn’t need psychiatric care in the traditional sense could receive treatment that was compassionate, that was person-centered, that didn’t label them with a stigmatizing diagnosis.
We have this common misconception that someone who hears voices must hear all negative things, and that they must be mentally ill; but the reality is that you can hear voices and not have a diagnosis. And the voices I heard, and still hear, are not negative – nor did they start negative. But the experiences alone, despite the voices being positive and uplifting, were debilitating for me at the time. And that is what I set out to help people with – not just hearing voices, whether it’s Spirit or not, but the actual coping with experiences that we have, because we ALL experience things differently.
Today, 11 years later, I’m still a psychic/medium, but I’m also a therapist at the PRIME Clinic, Al's lab manager, and the owner of a healing and spiritual development center. My schooling and work with others with lived experience (not just auditory, but visual and uncomfortable tactile experiences) brought me to take part in a study at Yale about 3 years ago as a participant. They were interested in my experiences and how it was that I was able to overcome the distressing voices and sensations I once had. Through the study, I developed a partnership with Al and needed to be part of what was to come. This was my moment to help make that shift that needed to be made in the world of mental health – and his beliefs and worldview were right in line with mine.
Now, I work alongside Al as co-director of the SPIRIT Alliance, a consortium of psychic/mediums, spiritual communities, therapists, neuroscientists, and people with mental illness to work as a team to understand these perceptual experiences and to create better, more person-centered treatments through the COPE Project.
We believe that the standard process of care for those with lived experience with voices, visions, and feelings can be changed. But we need your help to examine and demonstrate just how effective our processes are and how they work. It’s not just about the perceptual experiences we have and where they come from (Spirit or elsewhere), but the adaptive techniques we use to work with that energy.
As of March 2019, we have met with dozens of people with lived experience who personally identify as psychic/mediums. We have listened to their narratives, their stories, and their processes, to begin to understand and give voice to their experience. We would love to connect to more!
But we need your help. We understand that there is a huge stigma around the world of psychiatry, that people who have experiences such as ours have been labeled. We have consistently had to fight the notion that we are actually severely mentally ill because our experiences are atypical. But we are not here to do that to you. We are not here to label you. We are not here to diagnose you. We are not here to medicate you – nor is this study looking to do anything with medication. We are not here to disprove Spirit, nor to prove Spirit exists. We are here to learn about the healing process, the steps we take to hone our skills and accomplish what we want to in life.
I strongly feel that, in working together, we can truly make the change that is needed in the world of mental health and help so many along the way.